Friday, January 21, 2005

American literature is the woman in the courtroom who, finding herself undefended on a charge, asked, "Isn't anybody on my side?" It's also the phrase I used that was once used in court by a kid who, on being sentenced to death, said, "I knew I'd never get to twenty-one anyhow"... American literature is a seventeen-year-old kid picked up on a double murder charge, two killings in a boat, in a ship off Miami, who said he was very glad it happened, he had absolutely no regrets, his only fear was that he might not get the electric chair. he had no vidnictiveness toward those two people he killed. He said they were pretty good about it. They didn't know, they had no idea, that he was going to come up with a knife. He had, in fact, a little bit of admiration for their coolness. One of them, finding himself stabbed, said, "Why?" He said, "I couldn't tell them why." But I know he's been trying to get out of it since he was six years old. This is an honors student, you understand, this is a bright boy from a respectable home. He never remembers a time when he wasn't fully convinced that death was better than life. And now he was very contented, his only worry being that he might not get the electric chair. He's afraid of that. That's the only fear he has, that he might have to continue to live. I think that's American literature.
-- Nelson Algren, from "Conversations with Nelson Algren," 1963

He stood at the center of the bridge and it was freezing cold. He raised his eyes to heaven. He thought, you bastard, you motherfucking bastard. Ain't I your baby too? He began to cry. Something in Rufus which could not break shook him like a rag doll and splashed salt water all over his face and filled his throat and his nostrils with anguish. He knew the pain would never stop. He could never go down to the city again. He dropped his head as though someone had struck him and looked down at the water. It was cold and the water would be cold.
-- James Baldwin, "Another Country," 1960

But Dona Clara stood in the door as the Abbess talked to them, the lamp placed on the floor beside her. Madre Maria stood with her back against a post; the sick lay in rows gazing at the ceiling and trying to hold their breaths. She talked that night of all those out here in the dark (she was thinking of Esteban alone, she was thinking of Pepita alone) who had no one to turn to, for whom the world perhaps was more than difficult, without meaning. And those who lay in their beds there felt that they were within a wall that the Abbess had built for them; within all was light and warmth, and without was darkness they would not exchange even for a relief from pain and from dying.
-- Thornton Wilder, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," 1927

There were some presents -- some silly, some not. Israel Edel gave me a rubber ice-cream cone with a squeaker in it -- a plaything for my little dog, who is a female Lhasa Apso, a golden dustmop without a handle... I have never bred her but now, according to my veterinarian, Dr. Howard Padwee, she is experiencing a false pregnancy and believes the rubber ice-cream cone to be a puppy. She hides it in closets. She carries it up and down the stairs of my duplex. She is even secreting milk for it. She is getting shots to make her stop doing that.

I observe how profoundly serious Nature has made her about a rubber ice-cream cone -- brown rubber cone, pink rubber ice-cream. I have to wonder what equally ridiculous commitments to bits of trash I myself have made. Not that it matters at all. We are all here for no purpose, unless we can invent one. Of that I am sure. The human condition in an exploding universe would not have been altered one iota if, rather than live as I have, I had done nothing but carry a rubber ice-cream cone from closet to closet for sixty years.
-- Kurt Vonnegut, "Jailbird," 1979

"I'm not jealous of young people," [Miyazaki] said. "They're not really free." I asked him what he meant. "They're raised on virtual reality. And it's not like it's any better in the countryside. You go to the country and kids spend more time staring at DVDs than kids do in the city... the best thing would be for virtual reality just to disappear. I realize with our animation we are creating virtual things, too. I keep telling my crew, 'Don't watch animation! You're surrounded by enough virtual things already.'"
-- "The Auteur of Anime," Margaret Talbot, about Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki; The New Yorker, Jan 17, 2005
This is not to correlate the President's words to those of the writers quoted here; far from it.

This is to remind us, by way of comparison, that Thursday's grandiloquent speech reflects a notion of the world and of human experience that is, for all its pretended expansiveness, pinched and petty.

Lincoln's Second Inaugural rose to poetry because its vision was poetic. It was not made so by meter and rhetorical flourishes; those followed naturally upon the ideas. To engineer grand phrases in the service of public relations, as was done for yesterday's address, is not poetry. It is not even prose. It is propaganda writ large and in a florid hand, with an eye toward talking points and polling data, to move the speechwriters and columnists whose job is to make much of it.

Freedom, dignity, honor, integrity, tolerance, and faith are not just words to be planted in a speech, cushioned by classy modifiers and buttressed by vague historical allusions. They are parts of our lives. If our President's use of them does not reflect the experience we have of these things -- if the acts and examples of his Administration are merely festooned with, not embodied by them -- then they amount to nothing more than (to use the words of another poet) sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.

Sounding brass and tinkling cymbals are the soundtrack of our age. The President's advance men tell us they expect to occupy our culture with manpower and money. They seem to have no idea that culture is made not by force but by its opposite. They seem to think that the whispers of muses are secret messages between their enemies and, on the evidence of today's speech, they hope to replace them with carefully crafted concrete blocks of elevated language. Hundreds of years of human experience might have told them that this is a waste of manpower and money, but manpower and money are all they know, so they will probably keep churning out this high-style humbug and hoping that the swoons of the commentariat will convince us that it bears some meaningful relation to our lives.

Let them. There have always been plenty of crappy songs and slogans out there, and they can please us in our idle hours. But in the last ditch -- which we appear to be approaching rapidly -- if your senses aren't fatally deadened (and that happens more rarely than you might expect) you'll be able to distinguish, as surely as you can distinguish the difference between shit and shinola, the difference between the real and the fake.

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