PHIL CAMPBELL, WRITER
While I ponder the essay I’m writing, with no end in sight at the moment, I’m led to Franz Wright’s poetry by a friend. I don’t know how much religion is in Wright’s entire ouerve, but the book my wife got out of the library for me was God’s Silence, and religion is certainly implicit in that collection.
I was struck by the simplicity of his ideas made profound. I no longer consider much of a believer, but my Catholic education still drew me to many of these small, exquisite poems.
Q: Religion seems to be central to your writing. Can you say a few words about how religion has affected your life and your view of the world?
My religious faith is very real and literal, almost to a childlike degree—though with my ancient skepticism and dread of abandonment thrown in—and I can only say it has made it possible for me to go on living. I would not have been able to go on living otherwise.
But if they were condemned to suffer
this unending torment, sooner or later
wouldn’t they become the holy?
While they were considering whether to stone her—
and why not – he knelt
and with his fingers wrote
something in the dust. We are
as you know made from
dust, and the unknown
was therefore, and is
and forever will be
written in our flesh
in gray folds of
archê ên ho logos:
I have to go on an hiatus of sorts. This blogging-tweeting work is becoming a real chore. It’s keeping me from pursuing more ambitious projects.
I didn’t mean for this to happen. When everything’s going well I can maintain it all, or at least I think I can. I’ve enjoyed the scrounging I’ve had to do to write blog posts for The Huffington Post, as well as the poetry I’ve written out on this site. And I was getting increasingly confident about a long feature story to pitch to James Marcus at Harper’s. But lately I’ve been consumed with a new essay that has been forming in my head, that I’ve decided that the only real way to get it done is to devote all of my free time to it.
The essay itself is really important, to me at any rate. The summary pitch is, “A Northern writer is forced to confront the death of his daughter while producing a film in the South. A story of grief, loss, and America’s vast cultural divide.”
I have to say both sentences, exactly as proposed, because I am not looking forward to explaining it any other way:
Q: What’s your essay about, Phil?
A: Er, it’s about how Mungo’s twin sister died a week before he was born, and it’s about, um ,Phil Campbell, Alabama? I guess you could say it’s a pretty personal essay…?
Cue the uncomfortable silence.
I don’t think the essay going to make any sense until I’ve written it. I don’t think it’ll make sense to try to explain to people who aren’t writers. I started writing this not for the emotional content of the story — though it has plenty of that — but because of the shape that I saw in that emotion. This is perhaps only something another writer would understand, but the shape came to me for this essay when filmmaker Andrew Reed and I got into an argument about a solitary sentence that was in the I’m with Phil documentary (that sentence is no longer in the film; I won’t say what the sentence was).
Moreover, everything is tied together by the fact that I was reading Flannery O’Connor in the hospital room while my wife Emily and I awaited the fate of our twin son, after our daughter had already died in utero.
Flannery O’Connor, Catholicism, grace, loss, Alabama, Memphis, the afterlife, my family…are you starting to get the picture? Maybe, maybe not. Nonetheless I feel compelled to write it all out. A friend of mine in publishing, after explaining what I already understood the essay to be, told me that I “must” write this. I agree. It has to come out.
As they say, YOLO. Why write stories that you know others can already write? Why write if it’s not a real, new, serious challenge? Why “build an audience” and “sell yourself as a brand” if in the end you’re just like everyone else? But what the hell do I know, anyway. I can’t name any boy bands, can’t name any Taylor Swift songs, can’t tell the Olsen twins apart, and I only heard about the viral meme “Harlem Shake” when the meme’s backlash was entering the counter-backlash phase.
I’ll still be on this blog, just less so. In some ways it’ll be like I never left:
I’ll be here for the stuff I have to promote I’m with Phil. I’ll still be working with Andrew Reed to produce the documentary in the first place
I’ll still be on Twitter sending out (the occasional) articles I think are interesting.
I’ll still be out there trying to get my novel Memphis Del Mar published.
(Wow! So many caveats! Am I going away at all, really? I hope so!)
…But the more essay-istic writing I wanted to put into the site about writing, poetry, art and politics will be sporadic at best.
You know where to find me.
I saw a Stephen Dunn poem this morning, and I thought I’d write it out, then share it. I enjoyed it; it seems to represent my current mood. I stumbled over the word “collusion,” though. Somehow that word trips me up.
Rubbing, by Stephen Dunn
“Anything that you rub long enough
- Jim Opinsky
I once saw a painter smear black paint
on a bad blue sky,
then rub it in until that lie of hers
was gone. I’ve seen men polish cars
so hard they’ve given off light.
As a child I kept a stone in my pocket,
thumb and forefinger in collusion
with water and wind,
caressing it day and night.
I’ve begun a few things with an eraser,
waiting for friction’s spark.
I’ve learned that sometimes severe
can lead to truer, even true.
But few things human can stand
to be rubbed for too long – I know this
and can’t stop. If beauty comes
it comes startled, hiding scars,
out of what barely can be endured.
I love Frederick Seidel for his occasional foul-mouthed poetry, as well as his unaffected lack of sentimentality. I caught up with him late, through his collected poems, which you can buy here.
I liked the poem “Puberty” for its rich realism and its abrupt, cold ending. I think when you’re at all aware of how people digest and comment on writing these days, it takes a certain kind of bravery to not give people what they (say they) want. Seidel is old school; he has no problem not giving people what they say they want.
“She feels / her own emptiness but oddly / It feels like love / When you have no insight at all / Except that you are good.”
My previous comments on why I steal poetry are here. If Seidel asks me to take the poem down, of course I will.
I see a first baseman’s mitt identical to mine
On the right hand of the best who ever lived.
The dark deep claw of leather
Called a trapper hungrily flaps shut and open
While Stan Musial stands there glowing and magnified
In Sportsman’s Park on the red dirt behind the bag,
A crab whose right claw is huge,
Costumed legs apart and knees slightly bent,
Springy on spikes, a grown man on springs,
Source of light with wings
(And when he is at bat, one of the beautiful swings).
The pitcher goes into the windup and rears back with desire.
Stan the Man pounds our glove
Broken in with neat’s-foot oil.
We get a runner caught in a rundown between first and second.
I can’t get the ball back out of the pocket.
To throw to the pitcher covering second in time.
Then fifty years pass.
Nothing is next.
My head’s still spinning from this story, and I’m barely (if that) connected to any of it. Those at the center of this art world controversy have got to be feeling something more akin to a horse-kick to the stomach.
Are you familiar with the work of Charles Krafft? An artist from the Pacific Northwest, Krafft takes human remains — cremains — and turns them into a kind of porcelain art. For two decades or more Krafft has managed to be a living legend in Seattle and an iconoclast bad boy who mocked the art world even as he profited from it.
Among Krafft’s work is “Disasterware,” a series of ceramic plates that derided the sort of sentimental plates your taste-deficient grandmother might display on the walls of her kitchen. Instead of pastoral scenes and calm vistas, “Disasterware” included imagery of Nazis and other violent, disturbing images.
In another series, “Forgiveness,” Krafft made replica soap and perfume bottles inlaid with Nazi swastikas.
The idea driving this kind of art, it was agreed, was that Krafft was a provocateur taking on some of the most difficult themes in art — death, violence, Nazis, and the Holocaust — with a sly, shifting lens of irony, scorn, and humor. This is all well and good in a post-modern way, but to make this kind of art has always meant that Krafft’s acceptance as an artist rested on the belief that he held personal political views that were generally in line with the rest of the art world, i.e. anti-fascist and liberally tolerant. No one ever considered the possibility that Krafft’s more controversial works of art were in any way, well, sincere.
That all changed this week when Jen Graves, a staff writer at The Stranger in Seattle, revealed Krafft’s awful secret: He is an admitted White Nationalist and a Holocaust denier:
You can read the rest of the story here.
Krafft’s art reprinted without permission, though I would (very reluctantly in this case) take it down if requested.
A little Seamus Heaney for the day. I liked this one mostly for the sentinment rather than the execution. I think Heaney could have worked harder on the second line in the second stanza. “cut off their nose to spite their face” is a little worn, as phrases go.
High-riding kites appear to range quite freely
Though reined by strings, strict and invisible.
The pigeon that deserts you suddenly
Is heading home, instinctively faithful.
Loves with barrages of hot insult
Often cut off their nose to spite their face,
Endure a hopeless day, declare their guilt,
Re-enter the native port of their embrace.
Blinding in Paris, for his party-piece
Joyce named the shops along O’Connell Street
And on Iona Colmcille sought ease
by wearing Irish mould next to his feet.
My latest Huffington Post blog post has been published. It’s about Bradley Manning. I was pleased to be able to endorse in the post the art of Lance Wakeling, who’s looking for some Kickstarter funding.
Bradley Manning has been on my mind a lot lately, but not intentionally. His face is painted as a mural on the wall of a brick building next to a deli in my neighborhood in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s graffiti, and I see it every day because it’s located along the bus route I take home after picking up my kid from his after-school program. Manning’s face glows a ghostly white through the wintry gloom, a spectral reminder of him and the controversy he’s stirred.
During daylight hours you can see the mural more clearly; above Manning’s smiling face is the most daring word anybody could have tagged in association with him: HERO.
The mural is simple and carelessly done, but it always holds the power to jar me out of my post-work stupor. The most jarring thing about it is that it exists at all. As the soldier who is in prison for allegedly leaking classified material to Wikileaks, Manning is controversial, which makes any public art about him, in this society at least, almost proportionally controversial. Politically charged art that’s left out in public tends not to last long. Eventually someone comes along and complains about it and rouses a genuine neighborhood outcry, or someone else becomes livid and permanently defaces it, or someone else calls the media, and the ensuing outcry, whether manufactured or real, causes the owner of the art to reluctantly have it removed to avoid all the hassle. End of story.
Not so here. I never hear my neighbors discuss it, and the media hasn’t noticed the mural — search queries in the major New York papers yield nothing. Some have posted photos of it on Twitter, but it never went viral. Someone did once scrawl the word “traitor” across Manning’s chest, but that was cleaned off, and in short order the mural was restored to its original state.
“Hero.” Is Bradley Manning a hero? I don’t know. I haven’t made up my mind yet. And, strange as it sounds, when I started thinking about Manning on those bus rides, I realized that I wasn’t interested in my own opinion. I wanted to see what other people were saying. It’s a very odd thing, to see a hero on the wall of a building, but to know that that “hero” is in a prison kept by one’s own government. How did others feel, and how were they expressing their feelings?
The rest of the post is here:
Perhaps I feel compelled to write this because I’ve picked up a few Twitter followers since I started posting poetry. So let me be clear: I do not quite feel comfortable yet blogging about poetry as an art form, I only feel comfortable copying it.
Blogging is something I just started doing, and I’m doing at high speeds, and poetry, for all its brevity (most of the time) demands more time than that. Poetry demands its own space and time for comprehension and clarity. Good poetry, at any rate. I don’t often have enough time in the day to slow down and give such measured opinions.
I’m coming into an appreciation for poetry late in life, and underneath all my casual amiability I’m probably still a fidgety, insecure, self-promoting ass, and I wouldn’t want to give an opinion about an art form that I’m still getting to know. Wouldn’t want to get it wrong, you know — I might look bad!
This part of my website is the experimental part, for me. If I see a poem I like, I transcribe it. Just to see how it flows under my fingertips. Just to feel and see the words unfold by my own hand, to help me better decide if the words are well-chosen, if the poetry has merit beyond an initial reading. I try to revisit the poems I’ve transcribed, though not always to blog about them.
Perhaps after I’m doing producing the “I’m with Phil” documentary, or when I have run out of longer-form essay or novel ideas, or when my kid is a little older, I will attempt to write a little myself. Not yet.
When I was in college, one of my journalism professors told me during a mid-quarter review, “Read some poetry.” I’m not sure how many of my fellow students got this kind of critique from this professor, but in that moment, my response was slow-witted and dull. Poetry?! I didn’t know why, but the comment stung. It stung because an unconscious level I knew it to be a true, telling remark. But in those heady college days, of fast-breaking deadlines and the race to collect as many newspaper bylines as possible, I was speechless. But I’m going to be the next Bob Woodward! And that was true, sort of. Like Woodward, I understood dry facts, but not the best ways to express them (unlike Woodward, I have yet to bring down a President).
Poetry didn’t have meaning for me until I turned thirty. I actually remember when it happened. Not that I fully articulated to myself or anyone else, but I remember thinking, in the way that one actually “thinks,” What to do now? I’m thirty. I’m newly married. I need to challenge myself in new ways. Maybe poetry? If had any brains, I would have said to myself, Maybe I should make my first million? But instead I turned inward, toward some crippled attempt at greater self-knowledge, instead of turning toward anything remotely profitable. I picked up “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I had read it as a high school student and remember being unmoved by it. It was like all poetry at the time — I read it, I struggled to say something “just smart enough” to “know” it, and then to move on to the next lesson, unphased by any of it.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. “The Love Song,” for all its surface simplicity, is for grown-ups, people who’ve experienced life a little. Nevertheless, upon re-reading that Eliot poem as thirty-year-old, something did move. Not only did I understand the poem, I felt a weird connection to my younger self again, to that pushy, strange, gawky lad who tried so hard to impress teachers but who in reality only made snail-like, apathetic progress toward understanding anything that actually qualified as complicated or deep. Re-reading “The Love Song” was one of those minor, wonderful epiphanies that can lead to broader, deeper changes about oneself.
I’m now forty, and while I can say I rediscovered poetry a decade ago, I’m still getting to know it. Lately my reading of it has picked up in volume and intensity. Perhaps having this blog helps with that. A motivation of sorts, though writing about poetry is hardly going to drive up my viewer impressions on this blog…once again I choose the unprofitable path!
Blogging takes time, and I’m out of time. I transcribed a David Ferry poem. I bought Bewilderment after reading this glowing review of him in The New Yorker. The writer admits to being friends with Ferry, and so admits to enormous bias, but that doesn’t stop him pouring on some of the most lush praise possible. I’m still working my way through Bewilderment, but I do like what I have read.
As always: This poem is reprinted with admiration but without permission. If Mr. Ferry or anyone representing him or his publisher contacts me and asks me to take this down, of course I will.
There is a passage in the Mozart K.
511 Rondo in A Minor.
Measures 98 through 101,
And focused on measure 100, where there are
At least four different melodies, or fragments
Of melodies, together and apart,
Resolving themselves, or unresolving themselves
With enigmatic sweetness, or melancholy;
Or distant memories of victories,
Personal, royal, or mythic over demons;
Or sophisticated talking about ideas;
Or moments of social or sexual concord; or
Of parting through with mutual regret;
Or differences and likenesses and natures;
It was what you said last night, whoever you are,
That told me what your nature is, and didn’t;
It was the way that you said the things you said;
Grammar and syntax, agents of our fate;
Allusions to disappointments, as also to
An unexpected gift somebody gave
To someone there in the room behind the music;
Or somebody else working out a problem
At a table under the glowing light of a lamp;
Or the moment when the disease has finally
Proceeded to its foregone working through,
Leaving behind it nothing but the question
Of whether there’s a heaven to sing about.
The clarity and poise of the arrangement,
The confidence in the very writing of it,
Fosters the erroneous impression that
There’s all the truth there is, in the little nexus,
Encapsulated here in narratives
Diminutive in form; perfectly told,
As far as they are willing to be told
According to the dictionary, “resolve”
Derives from “solve” and “solve” derives from the Latin
“Solvere” that means “untie,” and “re-“
Is an intensifier, meaning “again,”
And so, again, again, and again, what’s tied
Must be untied again, and again, and again;
Or else it’s like what happens inside a lock,
The cylinders moving back and forth as the lock
Is locked, unlocked, and locked, over and over.
– David Ferry
The Pulitzer-Prize winning historian had some things to say about the South in the NYRB blog that I felt needed quoting:
“No part of the country will suffer the effects of global warming earlier or with more devastation than the South, yet its politicians resist measures to curb carbon emissions and deny the very existence of climate change—sending it to the dungeon with evolution and biblical errancy. One doesn’t need much imagination to see the South with lowered or swollen waters in its rivers and ports, raging kudzu, swarming mosquitoes, and record-breaking high temperatures, still telling itself that global-warming talk is just a liberal conspiracy. But it just digs deeper in denial. The South has decided to be defeated and dumb.”
The whole blog post is here. I quote it because I am still working on selling Memphis Del Mar, a global-warming comedy about the South, and the parallels between my novel’s plots and themes and Wills’ thoughts are eerie. I’ve been thinking about this and writing about it for 6-7 years. Now all I gotta do is sell the book!
SUNDAY NIGHT: Some downtime tonight after a hard, ridiculous day of assembling an Ikea loft bed for my son. I would in fact declare the entire day a ludicrous waste of time but I can’t remember ever seeing Mungo so thrilled to receive anything, and this is a child whose usual greeting comes in the form of, “What did you get me today?” He was actively seeking out ways to thank me and show his appreciation for taking the time to get him this new, wonderful bed. That kind of response would melt anyone’s heart.
Some downtime…I should be delving into some very specific reading/research for an essay I want to write, but I can’t. The soul of the essay is extremely personal — an excuse to meander onto a plethora of other topics, yes, but the meat of it (as in the center, the plot and the arc, the…the excuse) of it is so personal I am only able at this point to explain it to trusted friends. I feel like I’m just falling into cliches at this hour of night, but I really am mentally girding myself to write it. And when I finish the research, it follows that I must write and finish the essay. But if I never finish the research…
…I should have liked to get instead the books I had ordered online in the mail today. Those books are to inform my opinion for a pair of political/cultural essays I want to write for The Huffington Post. But I didn’t get those books yet so I guess I will have to wait, and I will have to obsess over this personal essay that knocks around in my brain like a marble on a warped hardwood floor.
So with Downton Abbey in the background — my wife is watching it, though I don’t know why as she’s already googled around to find out what happens this season – I began grazing on the intellectual ideas of others. First online, with this video interview with philosophy professor Daniel C. Dennett about the “normal well-tempered mind” on The Edge website, and then some poetry books we had.
Having won the National Book Award, Terrance Hayes isn’t new, at least not to other readers of poetry, but he is to me. I was pleased to find him on our bookshelves.
Among the poems in Lighthead, “Mystic Bounce” caught my eye for its ending. Not expected at all. Hayes is clearly a talented poet. I like his diction, his line breaks, and many of his chosen topics, but for some reason when I got to the end of this particular poem I felt a bit slapped around. Damn, that’s cold! I thought at first. And I skipped around and read some of of the other poems and then came back to “Mystic Bounce.” No, I decided. It wasn’t cold. It was honest. A tough honesty, but that’s what makes it worth thinking about and reflecting upon.
I should note that I did not get Mr. Hayes’ permission to publish this poem here, so if he emails me and asks me to take it down, I will do so respectfully and immediately. But I do hope that, if he sees this, he views it as an homage from a new admirer, as well as (perhaps) a way to evangelize about poetry in general (especially if I’m telling you to buy his book Lighthead HERE, his other books HERE).
OK. I’ve rambled enough. Here is the poem. Now that I’m done, I think I’ll edit that Q&A with the next Phil Campbell in the queue, Texas Phil. Will post it in a day or so…
Even if you love the racket of ascension,
you must know how the power moves you.
And at this pitch, who has time for meditation?
The sea walled in by buildings. I do miss
the quiet. Don’t you? When I said, “Fuck the deer
antlered and hithered in fur,” it was because
I had seen the faces of presidents balled into a fist.
If I were in charge, I would know how to fix
the world: free health care or free physicals,
and an abiding love for the abstract.
When I said, “All of history is saved by us,”
it was because I scorned the emancipated sky.
Does the anthem choke you up? When I asked
God if anyone born to slaves would die
a slave, He said, “Sure as a rock descending
a hillside.” That’s why I’m not a Christian.
MONDAY MORNING: A new day, and a holiday at that. I have the full day before me to fritter away if I’m not careful. I’m still no more excited about approaching that essay than I was yesterday, though I know it must be written.
My mind returns to Hayes’ poem. How well does it work, as whole? Having taken the time to write out that poem, and having felt the line breaks in a different way than reading them, I’m not sure how I will feel about “Mystic Bounce” over time. I may write another post later about this. The one thing I do love about poetry is how one can return to it more easily than the longer forms of writing; but I am just a voyeur of poetry, having no formal training in it, so don’t expect any huge revelations soon.
I had lunch with Sam Lipsyte yesterday to talk about writing and writers and – sigh — my as-yet-unpublished novel Memphis Del Mar. Sam is not only a brilliant writer, he’s a professor of the creative writing program at Columbia University (He’s also got a book of short stories coming out in March; you can pre-order The Fun Parts: Stories here). I was inspired by Sam some years ago because his hilarious book Home Land, amazingly, just couldn’t find a publisher in the United States. Instead of giving up, Sam found a book deal in the UK, where the book met with such success that the publishing industry in New York was forced to take notice and give him a deal on this side of the Atlantic.
While I’m at it, I also had lunch a week or so ago with my editor Carl Bromley at Nation Books. Carl was the first person in the industry to see the value in Zioncheck For President (linked here with original cover!), long before Hollywood director Stephen Gyllenhaal turned it into Grassroots. A very funny British guy with an eccentric set of interests (Bollywood, Caravaggio, English football), Carl is a pretty fine writer himself and is working to get his own debut novel published. I read an early draft and cannot wait to see the finished results of all his efforts.
In any case, both lunches were lovely and I got some wise, practical advice from both Sam and Carl. My morale was boosted if nothing else. It still feel like the publishing industry is a horrible, pustulence-filled cesspool where more and more are fighting over tinier and tinier scraps of advances and H-List fame, but I’ve got no complaints about anyone in particular in the industry, and anyway my goal in life is not to care about any of that. My goal in life is to tell good stories. I will do everything within my power to promote the books I write (only so that I might be able to tell more good stories to more people), but thinking too deeply about anything related to the process of publishing is an anxiety-inducing waste of time.
It’s a tough few months ahead because I still have to help produce Andrew Reed’s documentary I’m with Phil, which is reaching a critical point in its life as a film (Andrew is nearing completion of his final cut). I’m going to be very, very busy. But I feel invigorated by everything that’s been happening lately, and I am looking forward to what lies ahead.
I’m pretty pleased with the response to The Huffington Post blog that I wrote yesterday. It was a fun post to write and it summarized a lot of my thinking on the nature of this country’s so-called culture war. Plus, there were a lot of thoughtful comments (and a couple nutty ones), and it received good placement inside the media section of the website. But I think the main reason I’m pleased is that I have a very difficult time coming up with posts to write for HuffPost. It’s not that I don’t agree with a lot of the stuff that runs on HuffPost, or that I am not given the freedom to disagree, it’s just that my personal writing style isn’t very polemical, and it’s pretty clear that the most popular bloggers there have a knack for screeds and sharply toned ideological commentary. Me, I prefer exploring an idea rather than shoving it around.
I don’t at all mean that to be a criticism of HuffPost; it just means that I have to challenge myself to find ways in which my more oblique storytelling writing style fits Arianna Huffington’s mission of covering left-of-center issues. Come to think of it, I have a hard time fitting my style into any single periodical’s style; that’s why I prefer blogging and writing my own stuff on my own time. Anyway, this time around, my idea worked, the blog post was posted, and people seem to be reading it. So, well, awesome.
In other news, yesterday I bought a badass pair of insanely plaid golf pants. Check them out (I keep trying to make the pic bigger, but fail). Can’t wait to wear them around the neighborhood, though of course where I live in Brooklyn I’ll probably do more blending in than standing out:
Here’s my latest blog post for the Huffington Post. I really enjoyed writing this one.
TAKING THE ARGUMENT TO THEM
I was having drinks at a corner pub in Brooklyn one night years ago when I fell into talking with a couple affable older blokes from Ireland. I don’t remember how the conversation evolved, but it started out friendly enough, in the way that three strangers drinking in a pub work together to find a pleasant common ground.
Then the conversation turned to politics. From Iraq to Afghanistan, we worked our way back in time until we found our way, inevitably, in retrospect, to America’s modern origin story: September 11. One of these drinking companions, who had seemed so rational up until that point, abruptly insisted that 9/11 had been an inside job engineered by President Bush so that a war could be declared over oil in the Middle East. When I tried to question the man, presenting what I thought were facts and reasoned arguments, he serenely shrugged, grinned, and said, “How’d they do it? Black ops.”
Black ops. Suffice it to say the conversation stuttered to a halt.
Black ops! The comment still leaves me dumbfounded, but laughing. What an amazing shorthand for the refusal to let go of a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory, all wrapped up in the inscrutably placid smile of someone who believes in his own malarkey. It’s the kind of story that makes people nod their heads sagely and remark, “People are morons. That’s why I never bother with arguments anymore.”
And yet… years later, I find myself engaging with more people like that. They are conversations I actually seek out. Whenever I hear someone spout a conspiracy theory, I’m pestering them for facts, for proof. You might call my odd “project” of mine — a funny impulse, really — a total waste of time, but I disagree. By pursuing conversations with people about urban legends, conspiracy theories, and the nuttier political and social myths that pervade our culture, I’ve learned something about people: Our media-fueled “culture war” is in many ways an illusion, and most people actually aren’t as crazy as Mr. Black Ops.
You can read the rest of the blog post here.
I had never read this DH Lawrence poem before. I’m really taken in by it. There’s a brilliance to the poem’s description of the snake (“And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of / the stone trough.”) and the man’s ambivalence toward it. I keep re-reading it to try to unlock its secrets.
- by DH Lawrence
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before
He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.
He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.
He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.
And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate:
There’s an article in The Daily Beast that caught my eye today. The headline:
Sovereign Citizens Are a Sometimes Violent Fringe Group Rejecting All Government
The subhead goes on: Meet the Sovereigns, a radical right group that rejects all forms of government, embraces God as the only authority, and clogs the courts with reams of nonsensical paperwork…
This comes four years after the Department of Homeland Security wrote the following paragraph:
Rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues. The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.
The more violent elements of the Tea Party, the guy who killed himself by flying a plane into the IRS building in Texas (“Leaving behind a rant against the government, big business and particularly the tax system,”), the record-breaking sales in guns after Obama was elected (then re-elected)…and since the Sandy Hook massacre, in which twenty children and six adults were brutally murdered, a certain and familiar paranoid rhetoric has only spiked among gun advocates about how we (all non gun owners) are just out to take away the guns of people who own guns.
It’s hard at this point to really understand how bad the situation is, how dangerous the right-wing has become to the rest of us. One thing I do know, the “sovereign citizen” idea brings us full circle. During the Vietnam War (and quite possibly at conscientious objectors in previous wars), people used to taunt members of the left with the phrase, “America, Love it or leave it.” I think I always kind of laughed at that notion (with the exception of one solitary, solipsistic, narcissistic leftist I know who ended up moving to Mexico City), but under these circumstances I find myself repeating it as a concluding sentence: If you don’t love the country, move. The rest of us work too hard to pay our taxes, play by the rules, and try to see change happen by voting and through all the other grindingly slow tactics at our disposal in this great democracy.
I had no idea what I was going to conclude when I started writing this post — originally I was only going to express my bewilderment at this latest update in the annals of fringe politic nuttery — but I feel oddly refreshed by having written it.
“It hardly needs pointing out at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low, so low that the words ‘I never read novels’ which even a dozen years ago were uttered with a hint of apology are now always uttered in a tone of conscious pride….this means that if you write novels you automatically command a less intelligent public than you would command if you had chosen some other form…at present, if you care about novels and still more if you write them, the outlook is depressing in the extreme…Intelligent people avoid novels almost instinctively; as a result, established novelists go to pieces and beginners who have ‘something to say’ urn in preference to almost any other form. The degeneration that must follow is obvious.”
“Look for instance at almost any fourpenny novelettes that you see piled up on any cheap stationer’s counter. These things are the decadent off-spring of the novel, bearing the same relation to ‘Manon Lescaut’ and ‘David Copperfield’ as the lap-dog bears to the wolf.”
“Various people have prophesied that the novel is doomed to disappear, for reasons which would take too long to set forth but for which are fairly obvious. It is much likelier, if the best literary brains cannot be induced to return to it, to survive in some perfunctory, despised , and hopelessly degenerate form, like modern tombstones, or the Punch and Judy show.”
George Orwell, writing in November of 1936. Buy his collection of essays here.
My wife turned me on to Dean Young’s poetry by first sending me a link to a Q&A in Bomblog that has obsessed her for the past few weeks. It’s one of those Q&A’s that do stay with you, I agree. Here’s one of the more tantalizing answers from Young:
“…we have to recognize that discontinuity is a value judgment and carries with it a stigma connoting scattered, unfocused, pointless. But I have to insist that the notions of continuity that are behind that accusation of discontinuity are highly suspect and result not from any particularly keen or creative insight into either the nature of the world or art but are often the result of many rulers slapping many hands, the outcome of growing far too accustomed to being in harness. Continuity as usually represented is a bamboozle, consistency the triumph of insects. Everything we know about energy, about our thought and physiology, tells us we throb, our vision is a patchwork between the blackouts of blinks, our life and livelihood a pulse. It seems, according to physicists, that matter itself is either here or there, never in between, even the rock we smash against is an actuality composed of probabilities, everything is made of gaps and all our joys and injuries, all our philosophies and poems are synaptic. Jumps between here and there, metaphors afoot. A straight line, a linear progression, is a fiction and not even a very convincing one. There is no such thing as discontinuity because there is nothing that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t vibrate in this web of connection. Now is always unprecedented and sudden.”
I’ll admit that I had never read or heard of Young before. My knowledge of working poets is spotty at best, so I’m not surprised, or (very) embarrassed, to see that he’s been quite prolific, and that I have a lot of catching up to do. In any case, my wife already had Young’s latest book, Bender, and so I checked it out as soon as she put it down. I was taken by the seeming nonsensical nature of the poems. They skirt the edges of John Ashbery, but unlike Ashbery they don’t leave you stranded on some island surrounded by abstract, idle Seussian wonderings. Young always manages to rein it in with a strict, admirable control. And his philosophy comes through each poem. You can get a hint of it in another one of his answers, when he addressed the idea of fear:
“I fear transitions mostly, I suppose. Loading the car for a long car trip, changing jobs, the first week of classes, new shoes—and that may be why transitions are so important to me in my work. I often create situations in poems where the transitions are vital even if I often believe that transitions are unnecessary and false. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like staring at waves because they each know how to make that transition between their crash and their withdraw with unquestionable grace. My life has not been ruled by fear and neither has my work. That sounds like a grand statement, but it isn’t. I think the opposite is far more inflated. We walk by abysses lined with cactus everyday—so what? Fear certainly has its gusts. I fear the mass extinction we are in the middle of; I fear my own physical demise and that of those I love. But it does seem pointless to fear the inevitable, doesn’t it? A waste of energy? Maybe I fear most wasting life but, oddly, writing poems—trying to write poems—is something I’ve always felt certain is not a waste of time.”
All of this makes Young one of my new faves. Check out one of his poems from Bender.
RED GLOVE THROWN IN ROSEBUSH
– Dean Young
If our bodies weren’t so beautiful.
Even rabbits are made of firecrackers
so tiny they tickle your hand.
If only the infirmities,
blocked neural pathways, leg braces
and bandages didn’t make all these bodies
look like they’re dancing.
Breathing will destroy us, hearts
like ninja stars stuck into the sternums
of granite caesars. Should I worry
people have stopped saying how skinny
and pale I am? Paul may destroy the kitchen
but he’s the best cook I know.
Seared tuna, pesto risotto – where
did he get those tomatoes? –what a war
must be fought for simplicity!
Even the alligator, flipped over,
is soft as an eyelid. Hans, the trapezist,
got everyone high on New Year’s Eve
with a single joint, the girl he was with
a sequin it was impossible not to want
to try to catch without a net.
Across the bay, fireworks punched
luminous bruises in the fog.
If only my body wasn’t borrowed from dust!
I hope I am not asked to take this poem down (though of course I would if asked, quite quickly). Meantime, you can buy Bender: New and Selected Poems, here.
Hardcore luxury? What does that even mean?
That is no ordinary real-estate pitch, I think as I walk. But is it ingeniously effective, or as nonsensically awful as I believe it to be?
Here is the story: Every evening when I head into Williamsburg in Brooklyn to pick up my kid from his after-school program, I walk past this one very confounding advertisement. It’s inset, triptych-style, across three window panes in the ground floor of an expensive new condo building along the East River. One of those luxury condos boasting gorgeous views of Manhattan that I will never be able to afford. The implicit messages of the ad for The Edge condominiums always hit me in a strange, contradictory jumble: relaxation, family, children, material comfort, sex and – huh-wah? — adultery?
Every evening I walk past this ad, and every evening I stare at it. And every evening I wonder just what the hell it means, what coded language I am missing.
I took a photo of it. From left to right, let’s review it. First, we have the man. He’s thirtyish, though the dark sunglasses over his eyes deliberately blur his age. The man is simply dressed in a white t-shirt and a pair of gray shorts. Take these basic elements — a still-young man in Williamsburg, with shaded eyes and casual attire — and we have some clear marketing symbology: He is our Hipster Everyman, with emphasis on the masculine gender.
He is you, assuming that you are a young male hipster with the significant means to buy a condo here.
To the viewer’s right, in the middle window pane, are two children. They are smiling. They are vaguely ethnic. Given how they are happily seated on the man’s lap, we infer that they are the man’s children. Advertisers don’t put children on a man’s lap unless they are his kids or grandkids, or unless the man is Santa. They just don’t. A moment may need to be invested to realize that the man is the father of inter-racial children, which is unusual for advertisers but shouldn’t be too strange, this being Brooklyn in the Obama era.
So far, so good. An average (albeit rich) man with kids, for an ad selling luxury condo space in Brooklyn. Message processed.
Then we get to the last window pane, to the right of the children. And this is where it gets weird.
A woman is standing in a one-piece bathing suit. She is not touching the children or the man. Her eyes are decidedly not warm in a familial way but rather warm in a smoldering, come-hither, hottie-hot way. Her bathing suit suddenly alerts us to the fact that everyone in the picture is relaxing by the pool, assumably inside this posh condo building.
I won’t lie. I always see the woman first when I see the ad. What straight guy doesn’t? I described her last because she is what is both most prominent and disruptive about the ad. Because by the basic laws of advertising imagery she is not related to the man or the children. Her body is too perfect for anyone to honestly believe that she could possibly be the mother of these two children, and anyway they aren’t a family because they aren’t embracing in the usual clichéd way that ad families embrace.
And that’s where my brain gets stuck. The man and his kids belong in one ad, selling real estate through the theme of family and relaxed comfort, and the woman belongs in her own ad, selling real estate through sex — on her own or accompanied by a male model from a Calvin-Klein ad; you know, one of those scantily clad, androgynous men whose fish-dead eyes somehow tell us that his life isn’t complicated by a kindergartner’s screaming fits before bedtime.
I keep walking. Did I mention that she is hot? Because that’s important. And she is not married to the man. That’s important, too. She must be in #703, and he and his family just down the hall in #705. And they keep running into each other by the pool…
Kids, go swim by yourselves for a little while, huh? I’m going to talk to our neighbor Ms. Burton over here. No, I don’t know why your mother doesn’t like her. She’s an incredibly nice lady…
Don’t think I’m over-reacting. The words next to the ad say, “Welcome to Hardcore Luxury.” Hardcore luxury. What is that? I don’t even know how to crack a joke about that. The East River isn’t the Pacific Ocean, Williamsburg isn’t Santa Cruz, and few people speak like inarticulate surfers around here. Hardcore to me typically means something besides “extreme, dude.” It suggests secret browser windows and videos you never let your kids watch.
I’ve left the ad behind, but I have nothing else to think about on my walk. I am alone on this empty street. Wait. What if I’m just viewing this from a man’s bias? What if they’re trying to sell their condos to the woman instead? Maybe the ad is targeting women the way a Cosmo magazine cover targets women. Kids, a man, and a rocking bod – ladies, you can have it all!
That’s interesting. The woman is the stronger breadwinner, the man a good father but a woefully underpaid freelance graphic designer who cooks a brilliant garbanzo bean soup. That’s the trend, right? That’s what all the stories at The Atlantic say, at any rate. If that’s the case, then perhaps the kids are adopted, because I still can’t believe that any of them are related. But that’s fine. For a two-million-dollar penthouse, the children may already be Facebook friends with Madonna’s kids.
As for “hardcore…” is that a yoga term? Pilates? I don’t do those things. I get my exercise walking.
I pick up my pace. Maybe there’s something else that fuels my desire to unpack the meaning of this ad: resentment. I can’t afford to buy a condo there. Maybe the advertising language confounds me because the people this ad appeals to speak another language entirely.
But why would I want to live there, even if I had the money? The building’s allure for its customers lies in the way it brings all these “hardcore” amenities right to you, or at least the floor right below you. You don’t have to leave the building for anything, because they have a gym, a pool, a spa, a spacious terrace, and a children’s playroom. They offer yoga classes, communal dining, and projection screens with deep cushion seats. In another era and part of America this would be a suburban gated community. So they’ve added some racial diversity, so what? It’s still a kind of self-selected class segregation. The fact that it’s in Brooklyn only fosters a different kind of hypocrisy.
That’s not how I want to perceive my city, and it’s not how I want to raise my son. I still believe in the city as a place of spontaneous encounters rather than pre-fabricated experiences. If you live in the city, live in the city. Get outside. Get to know the names of the Arab bodega owners and the Polish mail carrier and the weird guy on the corner who lives alone, smokes too much pot and takes his ratty little dog out for walks in the middle of the night. And recognize that the way you live in the city affects the city and not just you. If we all treat New York as a thing to be kept at arm’s length, with grand views inside self-contained palaces, we all become alienated from each other.
I have reached Ms. J’s Gymnastics and Dance, where my son Mungo runs around for a couple hours after school every day. It is late November and the wind along Kent Avenue is bitter and unforgiving. It’s getting too cold to walk along the East River to get here; tomorrow I will take a different route. I’ll walk down Bedford Avenue, the bustling heart of hip, self-conscious Williamsburg. I’m looking forward to it, because I don’t need to look at those condos or that ad again. They leave me feeling colder than the weather itself.
Should this photo showing a man about to die on a subway track in New York have been published (on the cover, no less!) of The New York Post?
There’s already been a backlash against the photo. Disgusting, many have tweeted. So here comes The Daily Beast with a counter-intuitive argument: You shouldn’t be appalled because you’ve seen horrific photos published in the media before. They even published a photo gallery of said horrific photos for emphasis, a visual aide of awful things that we’ve seen in the past.
I went through the photo gallery slowly and carefully. You can look at it yourself, here. Dead U.S. soldiers in wartime, 1943. The infamous photo of the murder of a Viet Cong officer, 1968. RFK in a pool of his own assassinated blood, the Kent State shootings, the falling bodies of the Twin Towers, 2001.
Seriously? This is an argument for The New York Post’s latest abomination? This was either a very cynical or a very stupid way to argue that the media has a right to show us “provocative” images.
With the exception of two photos of questionable taste in The National Enquirer, of Elvis and of Whitney Houston in their caskets, the photos presented by The Daily Beast all involved historic world events. But these photos were rightfully published because readers shouldn’t be shielded from the bad things that happen around us. The only argument you could possibly make against the publication of those photos would involve your own squeamishness. As quoted in the Beast of the 9-11 falling bodies picture: “Despite the outrage, New York Daily News photo director Eric Meskauskas explained why he ran it on a full page in the paper: ‘This isn’t high school. It’s the real world and we shouldn’t shield our readers from it.’ ”
Amen. This isn’t high school. We’re grown ups, and those historic provocative photos had news value, meaning they educated us about something in a way that the text alone could not. They educated us in a democracy, so that we might have informed opinions about the real world.
And we could see real-world consequences to the publication of those photos. Those terrorists did this to us? Let’s get ‘em! Wait, what’s that picture of Abu Ghraib? Maybe we’ve gone too far!
Which brings us back to “DOOMED.” The death of one man on a subway platform is sad. It’s tragic. It’s heart-breaking. It’s also something that educates no one beyond the event itself. It’s not as if The Post is trying to turn this into a larger issue beyond the man’s death. They’re not going to now try to force the city to address issues involving dangerous, mentally ill homeless people who pose a threat on subway platforms (the man, you see, was pushed). There will be no crusade for greater safety precautions on the subway, not that it’s clear that greater safety precautions are truly necessary. Tomorrow is another day, another news cycle. Next.
We are shown the picture of the man who is about to die because The Post wants us to be horrified for a few moments in our busy day, and that is all. In the hands of this newspaper the poor man who died becomes an object for us to look at, not a real person to empathize with or feel for. How awful! Thank God I’m not that poor bastard, we tell ourselves.
My original reaction to The Post’s picture was outrage. The Daily Beast’s weak attempt to respond to it only reinforces the original outrage. In fact I’m so outraged I don’t even know a good way to finish this post, so I’ll just end it here.
“Orwell is wrongfully thought of as the great neutral reporter, immune to the fever of judgment – the cool camera, the unbiased eyeball. He was attacked by Edward Said for propagating “the eye-witness, seemingly opinion-less politics” of Western journalism: “When on the rampage, you show African and Asiatic mobs rampaging: An obviously disturbing scene presented by an obviously unconcerned reporter who is beyond Left piety or right-wing cant,” wrote Said. I think that almost the opposite is true. Orwell may seem cool, but he does not flinch from violence and poverty and distress, but looks harder at it…he seems to think about it coolly only to watch it hotly.”
Wood’s analytical skills are in full force in this essay on Orwell, whose contradictions are as real and as human as anyone’s. It was a real relief to read this essay, because Orwell has been hoisted too high on a pedestal. Time and cliches have obscured his legacy.
Highly recommend Wood’s The Fun Stuff. Can’t wait to read the other essays, quite a few of which I missed when they were first published.
My latest Huffington Post blog came out the other day. I didn’t get around to posting it here because I’ve been so busy. But here is the initial text, to get you going:
A couple months ago I blogged about my brother-in-law, a swing voter. Given the tightness of the election this year, and given the fact that he is the only genuine swing voter that I know, this is a subject I have not been able to put down.
As I described him before, my brother-in-law is an increasingly rare specimen in these polarized times. The culture war doesn’t register with him. Whole swaths of issues concerning race, class, and gender, at least as they relate to his political decisions, do not concern him. Of center-right sensibilities, he clearly wants a strong military and a strong American economy, but he isn’t too concerned which political party assumes responsibility for those tasks.
Moreover, my brother-in-law — who doesn’t want to be named because he generally doesn’t like arguing about politics — often decides how he will vote late in the race, after the debates are over. He votes with his gut, which has told him since 1984 to vote Republican four times and Democrat three times.
So. Who is he voting for?
Before I get to that, let me remind readers of the other reason my brother-in-law is unique. He has voted “correctly” for the winning President seven out of seven times since 1984. Put an asterisk by his 2000 vote if you want, but Dubya did win the White House, and that’s who he voted for, once in 2000 and again in 2004.
It was after that seventh correct Presidential pick in 2004 that I began to see my brother-in-law as something more than a swing voter. From the kingdom of conventional wisdom, here is his take on the 2004 election: “We were at war,” he said, “and I felt that Bush/Cheney would do a better job than Kerry in carrying out the war.” Like it or not, that’s what a lot of others said about 2004 when they voted Bush.
My brother-in-law’s opinions are the stuff of a one-man focus group. But more than that: His correct picks make him an electoral seer. Or at least something akin to that octopus that picked all the winners of the World Cup matches a couple years ago.
You can read the full blog post here. I wouldn’t take the comments very seriously if I were you. Some of these people are taking it at utter face value the suggestion in the blog post that the only piece of data I’m relying on this year is my brother-in-law, this single swing voter. Not true! I also consulted my Polish astrologer and, oh yeah, have been reading obsessively about politics and the latest polls daily ever since this race started more than a year ago.
At home all this past week, on “staycation.” I’ve Been working on bureaucratic issues related to the I’m with Phil documentary, I’ve been tweaking my novel while I wait for feedback from writer-peer-friends of mine, and I’ve been doing some errands that I haven’t been able to get done otherwise. But I’m not so sure I’ve been relaxing.
Next up, I’m going to read this interview by James Fallows with time-management expert David Allen. Or maybe I’ll just go rent the last Batman movie (haven’t seen it yet), and chill out on the couch the rest of the afternoon. Because it’s back to the day job on Monday.
The other morning while struggling to wake up for another work day I heard the most horrible wailing sound. It was coming from outside. “Why?! Why?!” The voice, a woman’s, was plaintive and horrified, and disturbed the morning air in a way few other things can. I went from groggy to adrenalized, a fight-or-flight kind of adrenalized, in the span of a few moments. It wasn’t hard to imagine a woman standing in her kitchen looking over the dead body of a loved husband or child.
I looked out the window, down into the backyards below us. Our Brooklyn apartment is surrounded by other apartments of similar height and of loosely similar styles. Everything is rough, bricked, and three stories tall, and given their close proximity, they form tight little grassy squares that, in Brooklyn, make for modest garden oases from the rest of the noisy, rambunctious world. Nobody was outside. The manicured garden below us that my landlord owns was empty, and the other yards were also deserted. Scanning slowly upward, toward eye level on our third-floor walk-up, I didn’t see anyone, and nothing looked suspicious or out of place. The surrounding balconies were empty, and nobody could be seen moving about inside any of the other apartments. With the exception of a pigeon on a utility pole, there was no sign of life outside.
Except for those brutal cries. My wife didn’t hear them at first. She assumed I was hearing the sound of children yelling, as a new family had moved into a refurbished apartment a few doors down.
Then she heard it. By this time the woman’s cries had changed. They were long wails and moans, and they came sporadically, as if she were pausing to take very long, deep breaths. It was very disconcerting, especially on a weekday, when the only thing you want among your list of concerns is a rationed list of life’s most quotidian things: clothes, toothpaste, keys, and subway Metrocard.
“That sounds awful.” It was all she could think to say.
Was the woman in trouble? Had the danger passed, and she was only reacting to something that had already happened? Or were we bearing witness on the auditory level to something far more sinister: a psychotic breakdown, for which genuine assistance is impossible without a medical degree in clinical psychiatry?
Hitchcock’s Rear Window got it right in that in the city we really don’t know our neighbors, and so virtually anything and everything you can imagine happening probably is happening just a few doors down from you. It got it wrong in that L.B. Jeffries was able to follow all the action with nothing more than some patience (boredom, really) and a pair of binoculars. We never learned why that woman was screaming, whether or not she is — or will be — OK. Most likely we never will know.
I walked into the Gap at Astor Place during my lunch break and was surprised to see this t-shirt hanging pristinely on a clothes rack near the entrance. As you can see, “Manifest Destiny” is emblazoned on its front, as bold as any Nike logo.
Manifest Destiny? The 19th century philosophy that kick-started our national expansion beyond the Mississippi River? The original instigating principle of American exceptionalism? The concept that helped our country crush the Native Americans and help expand slavery into Texas?
What an odd thing to put on a t-shirt. I could think of a million other things to put on a shirt, a thousand things from the 19th century alone. Romanticism, anyone? Transcendentalism, anyone? They put Walt Whitman in a Levi’s commercial…When will this hundred-plus-year-old fashion nostalgia end? What new twists will our understanding of our expansionist past undergo before marketers find some new era to exploit? The 18th century has already been kicked around enough, thanks to 1776. I’d really like to see someone find a way to profit off the Trail of Tears, just to see if it’s possible.
I don’t mean to make this an attack on t-shirt marketers, who aren’t expected to be the most contemplative people in society, but the shirt does raise a bunch of questions. Who would buy this shirt? Do the hipsters of Manhattan and other liberal areas understand the history that underlies this saying? And why would designer Mark McNairy play with that singular phrase, what was his motivation? A lot of people on the left have associated Manifest Destiny with a kind of racist jingoism, and few on the right have bothered to take the time to defend the idea, preferring to let America’s triumphant history speak for itself (hey, we won, didn’t we?). I would have thought the idea kind of toxic, when it’s considered at all, but apparently not.
Manifest Destiny has nothing to do with the usual trove of easy themes that motivate marketers, like self-esteem and self-aggrandizement. Which is why it’s so baffling.
Perhaps McNairy knew exactly what he was doing, and is trying to redefine the term, so that we all have our own “inner country” to fill out? I wasn’t able to find an interview online of McNairy explaining the shirt, but if I had to come up with a bullshit P.R. reason to explain such a decision, that would be it. If so, it’s a good thing Manifest Destiny stopped at the continental US, with only a few exceptions. Otherwise McNairy’s inner-country expansionism — yes, I’m just going to attribute a specific motive to him. For the sake of a cheap joke — would imply Americans are inevitably meant to get fat. It’s curious because I didn’t see any XXL sizes for the shirt.
I have no real conclusion for this post. I’d have to hear what the Gap actually said about their decision sell this shirt, learn something about what McNairy thought when he designed it. I doubt we’ll ever get that kind of insight. Most likely this is a seasonal thing, and will be off the racks by late November. But perhaps this incident underscores something we’ve been seeing a lot of lately, or at least these past four years. This may be no different than the dislocation of other words from their original meaning and using them randomly in regular discourse. Can the average American actually define socialism as it was originally articulated? Doubtful.
In any case, I promise to be on the lookout for any other incongruent marketing slogans like Manifest Destiny. I still have to get back to the Gap later today. I may not like their shirts, but their pants suit me just fine. And some of them are on sale.
My favorite critic along with Garry Wills, that is…
I’m psyched to order the next collection of essays by Daniel Mendelsohn, currently my favorite critic working today.
From the NYRB: “Mendelsohn’s essays, at their best, describe a book or writer with exact, passionate, and generous attention to detail and structure, and they do so as a “subjective testimony,” a personal and, in words he uses often, “moral” and “ethical” commitment to see and understand the unique subjective reality of the book or writer he describes.”
Further down in the review is a seductive but incomplete summation of Mendelsohn’s worldview:
“A myth, as Mendelsohn uses the word, is not an exotic origin legend, or a way of celebrating a local or historical culture, or merely a story about gods and heroes. A myth describes inevitable events, not inevitable and involuntary events like the cycle of the seasons, but the inevitable consequences of voluntary choices. It is a “moral vision” that illuminates choices that anyone can make at any time in any culture…
“When Mendelsohn refers to a modern writer’s “Greek morality” he means “his eagerness to acknowledge his responsibility for actions.” This is a very different meaning of “Greek” from either the serenely Apollonian or irrationally Dionysiac senses of the word common in the past two centuries, but Mendelsohn uses it with an authority earned by a lifetime of classical learning.
“The Greek dramatists and historians were the first to understand the structure, moral quality of myth, but others who understand myth in the same way are no more copying the Greeks than a mathematician who uses calculus imitates the northern Europeans who discovered it. Mendelsohn praises The Sopranos and The Wire for their “almost Aeschylean moral texture,” and values one episode — only one — of Mad Men for its “elegantly Sophoclean geometry.” “
Mendelsohn’s slightly hyperbolic but very entertaining assault on Mad Men as overly stylized, pretentious television that didn’t think its plot lines through was exactly what I needed to clarify my own thinking on that show, as well as some of my own thinking on what makes valuable narrative and what makes half-baked storytelling. I did not make a lot of friends the day I posted that article on Facebook.
It’s been almost a month since I posted anything, and I suppose I should feel guilty about it –only 29 Twitter followers! OMG! I’m so irrelevant! — but I’ve been trying very hard to be productive in the offline world, and have succeeded to some extent, so instead of feeling bad for not feeding the Internet beast I’ll count the things I did get done.
A tighter, more dramatic draft of my novel Memphis Del Mar has been sent to peer-friends for another review. I’ve seen another cut of the documentary I’m with Phil and am totally stoked about that project all over again. I gave a well-received lecture about politics and Hollywood at my friend Jim Hanas’ Adult Education series at Housing Works. And on the domestic front I got my kid enrolled in a bilingual kindergarten program in Williamsburg — well, the wife did that, but I helped — and I’m now on a new weekday schedule of picking him up from his after-school program.
I also took a business trip (for my day job at AOL) to Toronto, and had a brief but mad, crack-like obsession for the Presidential election polls.
I do berate myself a little for one thing. Following the release of Grassroots I realized that I had persuaded myself — subconsciously, as it turns out, as it was manifested in a brief, horrific case of insomnia — that magical things would happen to me. Instant fame. Tons of people friending me on Facebook and checking out my Twitter feed. A million interview requests. None of that happened, of course, and I’m left to keep doing what I’ve always been doing: Working on my writing, plugging away at projects like I’m with Phil, doing my day job, and in general enjoying my life with friends and family.
Having gone so long without posting, there’s a lot for me now to post. For now, I’ll leave you with the YouTube clip of my reading at The Strand last July. It’s funny: I just didn’t think to post this earlier.
So. More in a bit. I do hope to get into a routine with this website, but there are times when other things must take precedent.
I’m honored to be invited by my old Memphis friend Jim Hanas to speak at the Adult Education Lecture series, held regularly at Housing Works in Manhattan.
The series has been running for several years now, with Hanas in charge of programming since 2008. Thanks to a clear, consistently idiosyncratic mission statement, the series gets some very quirky, interesting speakers. It’s always entertaining. The fact that it’s now being held at Housing Works only underscores the series’ cred.
My own presentation is described thusly:
PHIL CAMPBELL, “Strange Bedfellows”
Every four years, Hollywood churns out one to three films about politics. Campbell examines how well Hollywood director Stephen Gyllenhaal portrayed local American politics in his film Grassroots, which was adapted from Campbell’s memoir of the same name.
Even though I dread the idea of being tagged as a “political writer,” the political issues in Grassroots really did seem to offer the richest vein for conversation, so that’s what I proposed, and that’s what was accepted.
Hope people can make it out. Full details of the Sept. 5 evening is here.
Well, now I understand why I’ll never be rich. Enlightened, possibly — hopefully, with more work — but never, ever rich.
I started out blogging about how I craved, have craved, the illustrated, shi-shi book of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. The six-volume, lavishly illustrated book is going for over $500 on Amazon. I’ve been saving up some random gift certificates to make the purchase, so my wallet would never be directly affected.
But that book reminded me of another book I wanted, the Folio’s color-coded, shi-shi version of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. That’s being sold at the Folio site for nearly $400.
There were a bunch of articles written about the book when it first came out. This is an excerpt from the New York Daily News:
This greatest of Faulkner’s novels takes stream-of-consciousness and time shifts to unprecedented levels, having challenged generations of readers. Its ever-shifting time signatures make difficult the task of discerning a linear chronicle to the history of the Compson family.
Acutely aware of what he had done, Faulkner initially wanted the different time-levels in the first section (which focuses on the man-child Benjy) to be color-coded. But given the publishing industry’s limits, he had to settle for italics.
No more. Now you can read the novel exactly as Faulkner intended.
Commissioning Editor of The Folio Society, Neil Titman, explained that the idea for the innovative edition came from a Folio Society member, Leopold Green.
“He told us of Faulkner’s exchange with his agents and his wish for the opening section of ‘The Sound and the Fury’ to be published in different colors,” Titman told Page Views in a phone conversation.
The different colors are representative of the various chronological layers in Faulkner’s narrative, which tells of the Compson family’s decline from antebellum prominence.
So what happens? I was on my way to writing a thoughtful post about both these things, with commentary on what made them not-middlebrow, these things which I can’t afford but nevertheless coveted…and then I read that Folio was only printing 1,400 copies of the Faulkner, and that more than 1,000 had already been sold, and I impulsively grabbed my credit card and bought the Faulkner.
So, rich, no. Enlightened, perhaps another day. After I’ve paid off my credit card and have read the Faulkner. Certainly not now, as this post contains none of the insight I was hoping to suss out today.
The below text is from a Huffington Post blog I just posted. You can read it at HuffPo here.
Grassroots, the entertaining film about politics — yes, it’s possible — is coming to New York this Friday. The day before it arrives, I’ll be at The Strand here in New York, reading from my book Grassroots before sitting down with director Stephen Gyllenhaal and producer Peggy Rajski to talk about how they adapted the book to film. One topic that I am sure will come up will be how they portrayed me. It should be pretty interesting, especially because Gyllenhaal wants people to think I was a lot better at politics than I really was.
It’s a nice thought. A more realistic answer is that some people are just not cut out for politics. Some of us just don’t have the mindset for it. Here’s a story about a car accident to illustrate my point.
I was lost in steamy Philadelphia looking for Please Touch, a popular children’s museum, with my son in the back seat. We were driving through downtown and I didn’t have the faintest clue where we were or where the museum was. I didn’t have GPS in my rental and my son is too young to be consulting a map and giving instructions from his booster seat.
So as I grew increasingly irritated with Philadelphia’s unfamiliar streets, I consulted my smartphone’s mapping program. I put the phone on my lap and kept checking street names against the phone’s tiny, digital lines, which didn’t always conform to the road before us. And I started getting sloppy with my driving.
Until, that is, I hit someone. With my car.
I was taking a left onto a major road (whatever its name was; does it matter?), and as I looked up I saw a man’s body roll off the right side of my hood. The thump against the car was a distinct smack of flesh against metal. The thump against the pavement was more muted. The man’s grimace and shout registered later, somehow.
Horrified, I stopped. A crushing fear and guilt overwhelmed me, and I got out to see if my victim was OK. The man shouted and cursed and staggered and clutched his knee. He picked up his cell phone and called 911. He screamed for an ambulance.
Good Lord. What happens now? Was he OK? The man ignored me. The guy had the right of way. What’s the penalty for causing injury like this? I didn’t even know if it was civil or criminal. It wasn’t hit-and-run, at least, it was a hit-but-pulled-over.
I looked inside the car at my son in his booster seat. Don’t ever hit people with your car, son.Another Teaching Moment, coming up!
Finally, the man hobbled over to me. He favored one leg over the other. I confessed to him that I hadn’t been paying attention because I had been looking at my phone.
A middle-aged man with a high voice and piercing, calculating eyes, he looked at me for several seconds. Then he demanded money. “How much do you have on you?” he said icily. Gone was any talk of an ambulance. He wanted forty-eight dollars. How he calculated that amount I have no idea.
I reached into my pocket, confused. Adrenaline was fueling us both. I gave him what I had, thirty-four dollars in smudgy ones and tens, not quite what he had wanted. He snatched the money and left. Still staring, I watched him trudge off, behind an old warehouse of some sort.
I rewound the entire scene in my mind. Things didn’t add up. I had been driving pretty slowly. Was he even injured at all? Maybe he was. Had he played up his injury? Maybe, maybe not. Is it possible that he jumped onto the hood of the car, for theatrics? Yes. Would that have made me blameless? No.
I liked it better when I just felt guilty. That’s a purer emotion, at least, and it’s always easier when you know exactly whom to blame. I was left instead with a mixture of guilt, anger, and adrenaline.
I find it impossible to tell that story in any way but the way I just told it. I honestly don’t know what happened in that Philadelphia intersection. I have to tell it like I just told it, with just the right amount of human detail and ambivalence, my mistakes included, but also the shift in storyline when the man suddenly demands cash. That’s the mark of a writer.
It’s also why, in the final analysis, I am no good at politics. During my one actual local campaign experience — which resulted in the book and film Grassroots – I made many basic mistakes about the mechanics of running a political campaign. That’s not the point; with practice, I could learn those. The point is the underlying way politicians and their campaign managers shape narratives. In politics, you have to tailor all your stories, all of them, in ways that make you look good.
An accident story like the one I just told doesn’t make anybody look good.
We all deal in a little narrative jiujitsu to give meaning to life and to explain the things that happen to us, but politicians are the ones who are constantly talking as if they’re on a job interview, even after they’re in office, because, well, they want to get re-elected, don’t they? That includes the politicians who go into politics in an honest attempt to try to improve people’s lives through their public service.
And the bad politicians… well, the bad ones would have driven off without stopping, wouldn’t they?
Just one more quick note before I head to bed: I have a reading at The Strand here in New York on July 12th.
Details not completely decided yet, but here are the basics, as I posted on a Facebook events page:
The year 2001 started for writer Phil Campbell when he got fired at The Stranger. With nothing else to do, Phil impetuously jumped into the political campaign for his friend Grant Cogswell — a campaign which lost. After that Phil wrote a book about the experience. And the book got published.
Then the book was optioned for a film deal. And the movie got made under the name Grassroots, with Jason Biggs playing Phil. And then, this year, Grassroots got a distribution deal, starting with a big premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival.
Now Grassroots is coming to New York — opening day is July 13th! So join Phil as he dusts off an old copy of his book to read and talk about it.
This event is still evolving, but at some point in the evening Phil will read from his memoir. And at some point Hollywood director Stephen Gyllenhaall will show clips from Grassroots. And then maybe both Phil and Stephen will talk about both the book and the film, as well as the broader issues of adapting books to film.
We may have a moderator. We may not. But audience participation is welcome.
In keeping with Phil’s weird life, expect anything. A celebrity from Grassroots may even show up to join the conversation. Or maybe not. So much is evolving.
Phil Campbell is a award-winning, former alt-weekly journalist. His writing has been praised by Sam Lipsyte (The Ask), Victor LaValle (Big Machine), critic Maud Newton, and Harper’s editor James Marcus (Amazonia). He is at work on a second book, a novel, and is currently producing a documentary, I’m With Phil, about an international relief effort of Phil Campbells around the world for the tornado-stricken town of Phil Campbell, Alabama. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Stephen Gyllenhaal is a veteran director of TV and film. He has worked with everyone from Halle Berry (Losing Isaiah) to Billy Bob Thornton (Homegrown) to Jason Biggs and Cedric the Entertainer (Grassroots).