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Four Poems by Julia Nunnally Duncan

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on July 26, 2017 at 6:45 am

Julia Nunnally Duncan is an award-winning poet, novelist, short story writer and essay writer who has authored nine books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her works often reflect upon people and events from the past, and she draws inspiration from her Western North Carolina upbringing. She holds an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College and lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter.

The following poems come from Julia Nunnally Duncan’s latest book, A Part of Me, published by Red Dirt Press.

Note:  Julia Nunnally Duncan will read poetry from her latest book, A Part of Me, at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe in the Poetrio event, 3:00 p.m. on August 6, 2017, Sunday. Address: 55 Hayward Street, Asheville, NC. For more information contact Malaprop’s at: 828-254-6734.

Click here to purchase on Amazon

His Song

He sat at the back of the classroom
during the weeks of our course
and remained quiet,
a student older than the rest.
He put forth his best effort
at grammar exercises and essay writing—
the Composition and Rhetoric assignments
that must have seemed unfair
to a man whose life work would be
to install and repair electrical systems.
Yet he was eager to learn,
occasionally staying after class
to ask if he was on the right track.
And when for his process speech
he came in with a guitar
and pulled up a stool,
I feared it would be hard
for him to speak in front of the group.
But after a few words about how to string
and tune a guitar,
he began to sing a country ballad
with lyrics so romantic and a voice so tender
that I blushed.
When he finished his song,
the class was hushed for a moment
and then burst into applause.
All I could whisper was beautiful
and ask, “Where did you learn to sing that way?”
He didn’t say anything,
and his eyes didn’t meet mine.
His face down, he went quickly to his seat
to reclaim his humble place
at the back of the room.
That was years ago,
and though now I don’t recall his name,
that day and his song
will stay in my memory.

 

December Evening

I was young and a little afraid
of the residents at the nursing home
who sat in the dining hall,
awaiting the Christmas treats my church had brought.
A white-haired lady growled, “I don’t want no cake!”
but devoured a hefty piece and would have eaten more
if not for the staff who feared it would make her sick.
They all ate quickly,
then gathered in the common room
where an upright piano stood beside the decorated tree.
I played Christmas carols and familiar melodies—
“Away in a Manger” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
A man stooped over me and crooned perfect lyrics
while others in their pajamas made up words as they went.
And so we spent time sharing food, and gifts, and song,
my fear of them gone,
that December evening forty years ago.

 

Paul’s Prayers

Often the preacher asked my uncle Paul
to lead us in prayer,
and our Baptist congregation grew still.
But when Paul’s baritone voice filled the sanctuary,
those compelled by the Spirit exclaimed Amen.
Paul proclaimed our gratitude for God’s blessings
and begged protection for our boys in foreign fields,
the Vietnam War having spilled the blood
of some from our community.
Two decades before,
Paul had been a young man
serving in North Africa in another war
that mangled his shoulder with shrapnel.
For weeks he lay in a VA hospital
and then fell back into his dissolute life.
But one day he found salvation
and thus began to pray for himself
and for all the rest of us.
Paul knew how to do it well.

 

President Ulysses S. Grant Three Days Before
Death From Throat Cancer July 20, 1885

Maybe because he was a skilled horseman
or that he loved his wife Julia so dearly
or that his last name was the same
as that of my great-great grandfather Samuel Bruce Grant
who also fought in the Civil War,
though on the opposing side—
maybe these are reasons why
I have looked at Ulysses S. Grant
not as an enemy of my Southern ancestors,
but as possible distant kin.
In the photograph
he sits in a rocking chair
on the front porch of his country home,
and he is surrounded by family.
His shoulders are draped in a shawl,
his face looks pale and gaunt,
and his beard has grown gray;
but his shiny top hat
seems a fashionable affront to the disease
that will soon take him away.
While the young girls in the picture look bored,
the women smile lightly,
as if to add an impression of gaiety to the scene.
But it is in Grant’s face—
his weary expression—
that I glean the truth.

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The Circuitous Path of Papa and Ezra

In Arts & Letters, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Politics, Western Civilization, Writing on May 24, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The American Conservative.

Ernest Hemingway, fresh off his marriage to Hadley Richardson, his first wife, arrived in Paris in 1921. Paris was a playground for writers and artists, offering respite from the radical politics spreading across Europe. Sherwood Anderson supplied Hemingway with a letter of introduction to Ezra Pound. The two litterateurs met at Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and struck up a friendship that would shape the world of letters.

They frolicked the streets of Paris as bohemians, joined by rambunctious and disillusioned painters, aesthetes, druggies, and drinkers. They smoked opium, inhabited salons, and delighted in casual soirées, fine champagnes, expensive caviars, and robust conversations about art, literature, and the avant-garde. Pound was, through 1923, exuberant, having fallen for Olga Rudge, his soon-to-be mistress, a young concert violinist with firm breasts, shapely curves, midnight hair, and long eyebrows and eyelashes. She exuded a kind of mystical sensuality unique among eccentric highbrow musicians; Pound found her irresistible.

Pound was known for his loyalty to friends. Although he had many companions besides Hemingway—among them William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Robert McAlmon, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Pablo Picasso, Wyndham Lewis, T.E. Hulme, William Carlos Williams, Walter Morse Rummel, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Cocteau, and Malcolm Cowley—Hemingway arguably did more than the others to reciprocate Pound’s favors, at least during the Paris years when he promoted Pound as Pound promoted others.

Pound was aware of Hemingway’s talent for publicity: he and Hemingway had combined their genius to promote Eliot’s The Waste Land. Hemingway introduced Pound to William Bird, an American reporter who arranged to publish an autobiographical piece about Pound’s childhood. Bird was instrumental to the eventual publication of Pound’s A Draft of XVI Cantos. Pound, for his part, secured for Hemingway a position as assistant editor of The Transatlantic Review. Their relationship matured into something symbiotic and mutually beneficial.

Pound edited Hemingway’s work, stripping his prose of excessive adjectives. Hemingway remarked that Pound had taught him “to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations.” Unlike, say, Conrad Aiken or Robert Frost, who resisted Pound’s editing, Hemingway acquiesced to Pound’s revisions. In exchange, Hemingway taught Pound how to box. He acknowledged that the scraggly Pound had “developed a terrific wallop” and had “come along to beat the hell wit the gloves.” Hemingway worried that “I will get careless and [Pound] will knock me for a row of latrines.” He even treated Pound to a night at the prizefights to brighten Pound’s spirits as Pound battled various illnesses.

Pound, however, grew disillusioned with Paris, where his friends were gravitating toward socialism and communism. Paris, he decided, was not good for his waning health. Hemingway himself had been in and out of Paris, settling for a short time in Toronto. In 1923, accompanied by their wives, Pound and Hemingway undertook a walking tour of Italy. The fond memories of this rejuvenating getaway inspired Pound to return to Italy with his wife Dorothy Shakespear in 1924. They relocated, in 1925, to a picturesque hotel in Rapallo, a beautiful sea town in the province of Genoa, on the bright blue Tigullio Gulf.

Pound found the weather in Rapallo to be soothing and agreeable. It was Hemingway who had first recommended this scenic spot, having visited Sir Max Beerbohm there years before. Hemingway’s tales of the sunshine, swimming, tennis, and other outdoor activity in Rapallo appealed to Pound, who fancied himself an athlete. The fact that his mistress Olga frequented Italy—where her father owned a house—made Rapallo all the more desirable, as did Dorothy’s seeming willingness to share her husband with his lover.

The friendship remained intact as Pound settled into Rapallo. About to vacate Europe for Key West, Hemingway dashed off a missive to Pound that began “Dear Duce” and then boasted about how Papa, as people had begun to call Hemingway, was “going to know everything about fucking and fighting and eating and drinking and begging and stealing and living and dying.” Gradually, though, the Pound-Papa gulf widened.

The move to Italy also effectively terminated Pound’s glory years in Paris, about which Hemingway wrote affectionately:

So far we have Pound the major poet devoting, say, one fifth of his time to poetry. With the rest of his time he tries to advance the fortunes, both material and artistic, of his friends. He defends them when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail. He loans them money. He sells their pictures. He arranges concerts for them. He writes articles about them. He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying and he witnesses their wills. He advances them hospital expenses and persuades them from suicide. And in the end a few of them refrain from knifing him at the first opportunity.

This last line is both teasing and fitting because there was, in fact, at least one assailant in Paris who didn’t refrain: a man who attempted to stab Pound at a dinner party hosted by the surrealists.

Hemingway guessed that Pound might stay in Italy “sometime” even if he took “no interest in Italian politics.” Hemingway was right about Pound’s love for Rapallo but wrong about his political affinities. More than anything else, Italian politics—and the rise of fascism—damaged Hemingway’s regard for Pound, who became a zealous supporter of Mussolini and a reckless trafficker in conspiracy theories.

Hemingway grumbled that if Pound “actually and honest to God … admire[d] and respect[ed] … [Mussolini] and his works [then] all I can say is SHIT.” Hemingway, true to character, remained manfully playful, stating, “I will take practical steps by denouncing you here in Paris as a dangerous anti-fascist and we can amuse one another by counting the hours before you get beaten up in spite of your probity—which in such a fine country as it must be would undoubtedly save you.” Such slight criticisms may have been colored with a lighthearted tone, but the disapproval was plain.

When Hemingway and Guy Hickock visited Pound in northern Italy in 1927, Pound was living in self-imposed exile. Hemingway had recently converted to Catholicism and was enjoying renewed fame after the publication of The Sun Also Rises. He divorced and remarried that year, offering Hadley a portion of the profit from The Sun Also Rises as part of their divorce. Pound, meanwhile, was immersing himself in political theories that likely baffled Hemingway as much as they angered him.

Shortly after the stock-market crash in 1929 and the onset of a worldwide economic crisis, Pound took to writing in Italian. Mussolini’s March on Rome had occurred seven years earlier, and since then he had assumed dictatorial control of Italy, suppressed opposition parties, and built a police state. Pound was enthralled. He met Mussolini in 1933, peddling strange monetary schemes to the fascist leader.

In 1933 Pound and Hemingway exchanged letters that highlighted their diverging attitudes toward Mussolini, fascism, and government. Pound, who’d embraced wild and polemical speculations about the economic theories of the American Founders—Jefferson in particular—began to decry capitalism and taxation while celebrating fiat currency and a convoluted system of state central planning. “Since when are you an economist, pal?” Hemingway mocked. “The last I knew you you were a fuckin’ bassoon player.” Hemingway offered Pound some money, sensing that money was needed, but Pound declined it.

Pound was now enamored with Il Duce; Hemingway was furious. Hemingway hated government, he told Pound, and preferred organized anarchism and masculine sport to statist ideology. Hemingway saw through Pound’s charlatanic flourishes and economic fallacies and accused Pound, quite rightly, of lacking clarity. Yet Pound’s admiration for Hemingway’s work did not diminish, and Pound, ever devoted, included Hemingway in an anthology that he was then editing.

Possibly the last time Pound and Hemingway saw each other, they were having dinner with Joyce on a warm summer night in Paris. Pound allegedly bloviated about economics and the decline of art and European civilization, and Hemingway and Joyce feared that Pound had gone mad. The date and details of the dinner are a matter of debate, as is the veracity of any account of that evening. But one thing is certain: Hemingway was frustrated with Pound’s embrace of Italian fascism. By the time Pound voiced support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, putting him once again at odds with Hemingway, their once thriving friendship had deteriorated beyond repair.

The falling out was no secret, and other writers took sides. William Carlos Williams wrote to Pound in 1938, saying, “It is you, not Hemingway, in this case who is playing directly into the hands of the International Bankers.” Hemingway conveyed his concerns about Pound to their friend Archibald MacLeish:

Thanks for sending the stats of Ezra’s rantings. He is obviously crazy. I think you might prove he was crazy as far back as the latter Cantos. He deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves most is ridicule. He should not be hanged and he should not be made a martyr of. He has a long history of generosity and unselfish aid to other artists and he is one of the greatest living poets. It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warpeing [sic] and twisting and decay of his mind and his judgement [sic] should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a completely unpopular but an absolutely necessary thing to do. I have had no correspondence with him for ten years and the last time I saw him was in 1933 when Joyce asked me to come to make it easier haveing [sic] Ezra at his house. Ezra was moderately whacky then. The broadcasts are absolutely balmy. I wish we could talk the whole damned thing over. But you can count on me for anything an honest man should do.

Hemingway was referring to Pound’s notoriety as a propagandist for radio and newspaper during the Second World War.  When he received transcripts of Pound’s radio broadcasts, he surmised that Pound was “obviously crazy” for espousing such “vile, absolutely idiotic drivel.” Pound was a “crazy … and harmless traitor,” Hemingway concluded, and an “idiot” with a “distracted mind” who “ought to go to the loony bin.” And that’s precisely where Pound ended up: He was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, in 1945.

Pound’s friends put their reputations at stake to help him. MacLeish, expressing both love and admonition, dashed off these words in a missive to Pound:

… your information is all second-hand and distorted. You saw nothing with your own eyes. And what you did see—Fascism and Nazism—you didn’t understand: you thought Musso belonged in Jefferson’s tradition and God knows where you thought Hitler belonged. I think your views of the history of our time are just about as wrong as views can be. But I won’t sit by and see you held in confinement because of your views. Which is what is really happening now. I am doing what I am doing partly because I revere you as a poet and partly because I love this Republic and can’t be quiet when it violates its own convictions.

MacLeish helped to orchestrate Pound’s release from St. Elizabeth’s, drafting a letter to the government on Pound’s behalf that included Hemingway’s signature, along with those of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. A year later Hemingway provided a statement of support for Pound to be used in a court hearing regarding the dismissal of an indictment against Pound.

Hemingway, who was now living in Cuba, did little else to help Pound. More for practical reasons than personal conviction, Hemingway, who was himself targeted by the American government, refused to sign a petition of amnesty for Pound. The petition had been Olga’s idea, and Hemingway didn’t believe the American people would rally behind the desperate pleas of an adulterous lover. Hemingway never visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, but he did tell Pound, via Dorothy, that he had read and enjoyed The Pisan Cantos. And when he won the Nobel Prize in 1954, Hemingway announced that the year was good for releasing poets, a not-so-slight reference to his old friend.

Hemingway awoke on the morning of July 2, 1961, put a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun to his head, and, alone in the foyer of his home, blew his brains out. He was 61. Pound’s friends and family didn’t tell him about Hemingway’s death, but a careless nurse did, and Pound reacted hysterically. The older of the two, Pound, at 72, was free from St. Elizabeth’s, where he’d spent 12 solemn years. He had returned to his beloved Italy to finish out his long and full life. In the autumn of 1972, he died peacefully in his sleep in Venice, the day after his birthday, which he’d spent in the company of friends.

Dysfunction Always Travels

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on April 5, 2017 at 6:45 am

John S. Maguire is a Telecommunications and FM Broadcast consultant living in Oklahoma City. He obtained a degree in English from Texas Christian University and at 53 years old went back to graduate school and obtained a Master in Fine Arts from Oklahoma City University. 

I didn’t sleep much the night before and awoke early to get ready. It was the first day of spring break of my first year in high school and it had been decided long ago that we would, as a family, drive to South Padre Island, Texas, one of the great southwest meccas of spring breakers, young and old. Specifically, everyone in my high school went to “Padre” for spring break. While I had been there before, this would be my first time as a high schooler and thus was particularly noteworthy, based on what was happening to the girls in my class. Their bodies had seemed to get slimmer, their legs got longer and some more important areas of their bodies were growing faster than I could keep track of. Daydreams of these girls and their new bodies shoehorned into tiny bikinis clouded my night and consumed my days as the date of our departure neared. Now that day was finally here and to say I woke up excited is not to fully explain what was going on in my body.

I hadn’t seen my father before I went to bed the night before and made the assumption that he was out drinking and would be slow to get up to pack the Ford Country Squire Wagon for the long 14-hour drive. I was wrong. He was up early, just after me, and when he saw me awake he yelled at me to come help him. I knew what he was calling me for. As with every other trip we had taken by car, I had to gather up all the bags that were packed the night before. I was one of the men in the house and that was what was expected of me.

As I gathered the suitcases, I pondered a question that has been asked since the first time man moved from place to place: Why do women pack so much more than men? I carried one suitcase after another out to the driveway as I saw my father mixing a screwdriver in the kitchen. He knew that it would take me fifteen minutes or so to get all of them out by the car, so he had time for a little hair of the dog. I reported back to him when I had them all ready for the pack and he swallowed the last bit of his drink, smiled and said: “Orange Juice, great way to start the day.” We both laughed as he led me outside to help him get the bags on the roof of the car. I handed each bag up to him as he placed them like puzzle pieces within the confines of the luggage rack. Sober, drunk or hungover, my father took great pride in packing the car. When he had completed packing for some trip or another he would always get down from the roof of the car to admire his work. It was, in fact, amazing that he could fit that much in that small of a space and have it be so well organized. The load on the car could not have been stacked better by the Egyptian pyramid builders.

“Who else could pack a car like that?” he stated proudly.

Next came the ropes.

“Son, go in the garage and get those tie downs,” my father told me.

We would be traveling on the highway and I was sure at speeds much higher than the limit of the law and possibly of the car itself, so the bags needed, no matter how perfectly they were packed, to be tied down.

I was there and back in seconds, wanting the praise of my father, but he was too busy mixing another screwdriver to get him through the tie-down process to come. After a quick chug of his drink he came back out and first tied one end of the rope to the front of the luggage rack and then, with my help, began to loop the rope though the railings from side to side until the rope was at the back end. He looped the rope twice around the back of the rack.

“Let’s leave the tie down loose for now as the girls might have some more to pack,” he said.

More to pack? More to pack? Were we going to tie granny’s rocking chair down so she could sit on the roof on the way to “swimming pools and movie stars”? The car already looked as if we were fleeing the dust bowl, but he was probably right.

He scurried back into the house for his third screwdriver. It was only 7:30 am. I followed him in and went to watch TV, as I knew, from experience, that it would be some time before the family girls would be ready. After about thirty minutes of TV time, I heard the rest of my family stirring and got up in anticipation of finally beginning our fourteen-hour pilgrimage to Padre Island for a week of sun, sand, and bikinis. In reality, it took another thirty minutes to get everything ready and in the car but finally we were driving out of our driveway, on the side roads and eventually onto I-35 toward the border of Oklahoma and Texas.

Once on the highway, my father handed me his prized doctor’s bag that held his whiskey, vodka, mixes, and glasses, asking me to pour him a small Chivas. I had been the “Keeper of the Bag” for a couple of years so I knew exactly what he wanted. A double shot of Chivas Regal scotch. He was ready to cover some ground and needed to get primed. I poured the drink and handed it up to him just as he accelerated far beyond the legal speed limit, finally feeling like himself again after the long night before.

First hour. First Scotch. At this pace it would not only be a long day, but night as well. I wasn’t concerned about our safety, as I had been mixing drinks for a while and had always arrived home safely. I assumed that he would not need a drink for a while so I dozed off to sleep, hoping that would make me stop thinking about the buxom bodies that would be wearing bikinis. Other than packing the car and mixing drinks, all I could think about was bikinis. It was hard to sit still in the cramped wagon, particularly as I had to shift positions regularly.

About an hour later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something fly by the back window. I focused on what it was as it slid down the highway and finally came into view. It was a suitcase moving as fast north as we were south. In fact, it looked familiar.

“It couldn’t be,” I thought.

It was.

It was one of my mother’s suitcases and the cars behind us were dodging it as if they were playing some weird game of bumper cars. The last car didn’t quite make its swerve fast enough and clipped the suitcase, causing it to open—well, more correctly, to explode, as clothes flew through the air. Some of my mother’s clothes landed on that car’s windshield and blocked the view of its driver for a moment. I saw him reach out his driver’s window, grab the clothes and pull them inside.

I was panicked. Should I say something or act as if I were asleep? In our family, “kill the messenger” was a sport and I didn’t want to be sacrificed. I quickly put my head down and pretended to sleep. Safety first, I decided. Unfortunately, I hadn’t closed my eyes longer than ten seconds when I heard a loud squeal from my part of the car. I guessed that my sister had seen the bag, so I acted as though I were just then waking up and asked her what was going on.

“All of our bags are falling off the roof!” she screamed.

I looked back and feigned surprise as I saw bag after bag fly off the roof and onto the highway. Some exploded on contact; others were hit by oncoming cars and exploded. Clothes of every sort formed a huge cloud on the highway. As my father looked in the rear view mirror he spilled his drink.

“Son of a bitch!” he screamed more at his crotch being covered in scotch than at the luggage flying off the roof. “What in the fuck is going on?” I continued to stare as each bag hit the highway. I was sure this would be the cause of a huge pile up, but the cars successfully negotiated the flying debris with little trouble.

When my father finally pulled over to the side of the road to assess the situation my mother was screaming, crying and shouting.

“My clothes are all over the side of the road!” she shouted, between her sobs and screams.

Somewhere, somehow, my father was always able to tune my mother out, that is until he wasn’t able to and then took matters into his own hands, literally. My father got out of the car, looked down the highway to see the bags and looked up at the roof of the car to see a tie-down rope flying loosely in the wind.

“God damn it, John!” he screamed. “You didn’t tie the rope tight enough and it came loose.” At that moment everyone stared at me. If they could produce fire from their eyes I would have been incinerated. My brain went into overtime as I searched my memory for what had happened when we were packing the luggage on the car. Then it came to me. My father had not tied the rope off since he didn’t know if everything was packed yet. Happy that I had figured it out and it wasn’t my fault, I hadn’t considered that my father didn’t want it to be his fault either. I jumped out of the car to explain.

“Dad, remember when we were packing and you just looped the rope around the back rack to see if there was anything else that needed to go on the roof?” I asked.

“What? Don’t blame this on me, you son of a bitch,” he said as his left hand drew back, came forward, and hit me in the face. I fell on the ground as my cheek stung as though it had been burned in the sun for hours. I had become numb to the strikes but this time I wasn’t at fault. I knew I was right, but to go on would mean that this would get worse. I was so angry but couldn’t express it. All this emotion had to get out somehow so I started crying. That is how I dealt with my anger from that moment on. My father seemed to never hit me when I cried and it didn’t take me long to figure out the pattern.

“Now you get started down the highway picking up all the clothes you can find and bring them here. I’ll get the suitcases back to the car so you can repack everything,” he said. “Stop crying and get up and get moving.”

I got up slowly and started walking down the shoulder of the highway as cars whooshed by me at breakneck speed, some drivers honking and laughing as they saw the clothes and the suitcases. This was going to be embarrassing since I had to retrieve clothes belonging to my older and younger sister, as well as my mother. I was right to be concerned. The first piece of clothing I approached was one of my mother’s bras. I stared at it for a moment and wasn’t really sure how I felt about it. I knew then that this would be the first bra that I touched. Why did it have to be my mother’s? I grabbed it dutifully and went to the next. It seemed as though I were a magnet for undergarments; I soon had a handful of bras, panties and assorted underthings. I started back to the car with my first load and as I got close enough to the car for my sisters to see what I was carrying, they both screamed, ran at me, knocking me down and grabbing their panties and bras, leaving me with only my mother’s undergarments to place in the suitcase. If I wasn’t humiliated by then I certainly was now. I turned quickly to go back for more and saw that both sisters were on their way down the highway to get their own clothes so as not to risk my seeing their unmentionables. Fine with me. I would stick to the clothes and leave the rest for them.

As I arrived with my second load consisting mostly of my and my father’s clothes, I noticed my father sitting in the front seat of the wagon, car started and air conditioner on. He was pouring a drink, and I was pissed. All of this was his fault and yet I had to take the blame, risk my life on the shoulder of the highway and pick up clothes. I stared at him for a minute and then realized that I didn’t want another backhand so I turned to retrieve more clothes. After a couple of hours or so, and two drinks, we had finished collecting the clothes that could be found and had packed them back into their suitcases. My father stumbled out of the air-conditioned car, onto the hood, and up to the roof. I handed him up the bags and when I finished he tied them off.

“Get away from here, boy. You fucked it up last time. I’ll do it right this time,” he said just loud enough for everyone to hear. “Go sit in the car with the girls.” I did as I was told and wedged myself into the back vinyl seat. It was midday and getting hot so the vinyl had heated up and burned as I sat. My father got back in the car, mixed another drink on his own, not allowing me to mix it for him, put the car in drive, and we were on the road again. I lay my head down, pissed that I was blamed for something I didn’t do and tried with everything I had to remember the bikinis I had imagined on the beach and in the hotels and, well, just about everywhere, but all that kept coming to mind was the sight of my mom’s bra and me carrying it up the highway.

 

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Paul Goldstein About His Latest Novel, “Legal Asylum”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Law, Law School, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Teaching, The Academy, Writing on March 1, 2017 at 6:45 am

Paul Goldstein is an expert on intellectual property law and the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is the author of an influential four-volume treatise on U.S. copyright law and a one-volume treatise on international property. He has also authored ten books including five novels. Some of his other works include Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, a widely acclaimed book on the history and future of copyright, and Intellectual Property: The Tough New Realities That Could Make or Break Your Business. Havana Requiem, his third novel, won the 2013 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Paul Goldstein

Paul Goldstein

AM:  Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What has been your colleagues’ reaction to this satire? 

PG:  My colleagues are, by and large, a sturdy and good-natured lot, and most of the reactions I’ve received have been very positive. Several have told me that they actually found themselves laughing out loud while reading the book. Still, there are a couple of colleagues who I know have read the book, but who seem curiously silent, and avoid my glance in the hallways. Who knows what they’re thinking!

AM:  Were you afraid your colleagues might push back against the novel, seeing themselves in the characters?  

PG:  I decided at the outset not to make Legal Asylum a roman a clef—a genre that I find cowardly and mean-spirited, and that I put in the same category as practical jokes. At the same time, there are certainly recognizable types of legal academics in the book, and it’s been a good deal of fun talking with colleagues about which group they put themselves in—Poets, Quants or Bog Dwellers.

AM:  In an interview with Jon Malysiak, the director of Ankerwycke Books, you stated that you’d spent 50 years thinking about the absurd and eccentric features of legal education. What are some of these?

PG:  One absurdity of course is the grim-faced crusade of law school deans to secure for their institutions a higher and still higher slot in the US News law school rankings, or at least not to slip from their present perch. That’s the question that drives the story: Can a law school make it into the US News Top Five and lose its ABA accreditation, all in the same year? Another absurdity highlighted in Legal Asylum is that, where in other university departments academic advancement, including tenure, turns on publication in peer-reviewed journals, American law schools commit the credentialing function to second-year law students who run the law reviews.

AM:  Your book is funny.  Why is humor a powerful mode of critique?

PG:  I’m glad you found the book funny! As to why humor is such a powerful mode of critique, it is because, for humor to work, it has to surprise the reader. Wait…she said that! He did what! And it’s that surprise, that unexpected twist, that turns the reader’s angle of view a fraction of a degree—or if it’s a belly laugh, maybe a full degree—so that the subject of the lampoon suddenly appears in a different light. To discover, for example, that the emperor is wearing no clothes, is not only funny, but it’s also a powerful critique of a certain kind of political leader.

AM:  You’ve called your protagonist, Dean Elspeth Flowers, a hero.  Why?

PG:  For a literary hero to be at all interesting, she or he needs to be flawed—the deeper the flaw the better—because it is only character defects like pride, willfulness and grandiosity that will get the hero in trouble, and without trouble, what kind of story do you have? Several readers of Legal Asylum have told me how shocked they were to discover that, by the end of the book, they were truly rooting for Elspeth.

AM:  Is there anything good about the obsession with law-school rankings and the so-called “arms race” between law schools?

PG:  I’m sure there are some beneficiaries of the law school rankings game. The companies that publish all those glossy brochures touting law school achievements to prospective respondents in the US News polls certainly come out ahead. So do the airlines that fly admitted students to the law schools that are recruiting them like prized football prospects. And of course there’s US News itself, for which rankings must be a rare profit center in a bleak economic landscape for news media.

AM:  It’s interesting that the American Bar Association doesn’t dodge satire in the book, yet the ABA—or a division of it—published the book.

PG:  I have a wonderful and brave editor at Ankerwycke, and he didn’t once bat an eye at the parts of the story that poke fun at the A.B.A accreditation process.

AM:  Did you ever consider writing about lower-ranked law schools, or did you, a Stanford law professor, write from the perspective you knew—from a top-ranked law school?  I’m thinking now of Charlotte Law School and the troubles it’s been facing in light of the Department of Education’s decision to revoke federal funding there. It seems to me that law professors and administrators at these schools, who are in crisis mode, may not be in the mood for humor about legal education. 

PG:  My first law teaching job was at a state law school and, although this was long before the rankings game got underway, I can say that, like countless other schools today—state and private—that haven’t made it into the top tiers, it was preparing its students for the practice of law as effectively as any law school in the country. Are there law schools that shouldn’t be in business today? I expect that there are, and that has nothing to do with the US News hierarchy. But other schools have a legitimate grievance against rankings that pretend that their fine-grained hierarchical distinctions convey any useful information.

AM:  Why the noun “asylum” in the title of the book?  It’s provocative and suggestive.

PG:  I like book titles that are at once evocative and descriptive. It’s hard to beat Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, for example.  There is of course an asylum for the criminally insane that figures in the plot of Legal Asylum, but the book’s title also aims to evoke the sheltered craziness that passes for legal education at the state law school where the story takes place.

AM:  Thanks again for the interview.  Any closing comments about how readers can find your work?

PG:  It was a pleasure. Readers can buy the book at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Shop ABA.

Cornel West and Robert P. George Discuss the Liberal Arts

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Ethics, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 4, 2017 at 6:45 am

Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Robert P. George discussed the purpose of a liberal arts education at a forum of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, November 30, 2016.  AEI Visiting Fellow Ramesh Ponnuru moderated the discussion, which appears in the video below.

Five Poems by Selma Mann

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on December 21, 2016 at 6:45 am

selma-mann

Selma Mann’s first book of poetry, Mourning Cloak, was published in 2013. She has poems forthcoming in Conclave, Red Dirt Forum and elsewhere. Her second book, Whimsical Warrior, will be released in spring 2017. An attorney by trade, her practice areas include land use and ethics. She reinvented herself as a poet in 2011 following a devastating series of losses. She resides in Newport Beach, California.

 

Alumna

I visited the large firm
where, as a fledging attorney,
I felt mercilessly forced
into the shape of a litigator,
a mold alien to my spirit.
I suspect my muse
miraculously maintained
my core,
guarding it,
until I could transform
to the person within,
urging me to seize
grief and enchantment,
as she patiently imparted
the language of the spirit,
enabling the alchemy
that translates my life
to poems.

 

Once upon a time

During my life as an attorney,
particularly as an ill-suited litigator,
which is not a sartorial comment,
I was repeatedly encouraged
to consider possibilities,
specters of catastrophic expectations,
labeling it risk assessment.
My outlook dwelled, quite comfortably,
in a community of like-minded colleagues and friends.
The process got a start in law school,
Socratic method sharpening analysis,
substituting questioning for assumptions,
even as it inexorably set aside my spirit,
any suggestion of miracles and magic.
Objective was to prepare for the bar exam,
tortuous final test,
orgy of ceremonial competition,
feeding frenzy of memory, analysis,
exhaustion and fear.

I innocently believed spending my day
pondering imaginary outcomes
didn’t leave a permanent imprint on my soul,
until my soulmate died.
Vulnerable and bereft, I surrendered to grief.
Fear insinuated itself among my thoughts
painstakingly disguising itself as logic and prudence
constricting me until I could hear only its hiss,
proclaiming omnipresence and reality,
as it barricaded connection and light,
assailed by visions of my own illness and mortality,
or, far worse, of those I love,
oppressed by weight of a future alone.

I wallowed in that tiny cell,
my world grew smaller,
until my muse illuminated a path
away from outcomes and the past,
grounded in the moment,
the journey within.
A floodgate of other memories poured over me
allowing my spirit to heal,
recalling life once upon a time,
when I was gifted with the magic of a soulmate.
The astounding privilege of raising two daughters,
time communing with second graders
teaching them to read, spell and compute,
even as they demonstrated more important lessons,
mastery over joy,
living in the present,
uncanny abilities to share their lives fully,
though our time together was defined to end,
nourishing my muse to survive her hibernation.

 

Moving on

It’s almost eight years
since the nightmare night
I came upon your lifeless body.
I’ve lived a separate lifetime
since that time,
changes building upon each other,
I learn to say “no”
to unwanted relationships,
swallowing guilt
for hurt feelings,
reluctant, against my will,
turn away from my career
as an attorney,
tripping over a calling as a poet,
unexpected passion in my path,
publishing a book,
seeing my poem/children fly
in lives of their own.
I notice men noticing me,
reminding myself that I get to choose,
suddenly aware of loneliness
lurking in my solitude,
feeling disloyal to you,
as possibilities of companionship
bring equal measures
of excitement
and disquiet.

 

Domesticated Monarchs

During my prior attorney-life,
I would not have believed,
however briefly,
in a domesticated butterfly.
Yet a magical Monarch
emerged from its chrysalis
as Donovan and I
watched, whispering,
inches away.
We carried the planter
to the garden,
on a mission of liberation,
but she remained in place
for several days,
undisturbed by our proximity,
as we hovered over her,
hoping she could fly.
The Monarch didn’t leave
until the anniversary
of the day my Love and I
were wed.
Little wonder I feel
a profound connection
to butterflies.
From time to time,
a Monarch in the garden
gracefully flutters to eye level
and remains, unperturbed,
as I stand transfixed,
within arms’ reach.
Could this be a descendant,
of the magical Monarch,
basking in my love and admiration,
feeling secure
in the safety of my garden,
predisposed to trust?

 

Arlington

Lives cut short
by war,
defending freedom
others’ greed for power,
gratitude mixed with tears
anger
sadness,
prayers for peace
echo,
whispers of wisdom
among leaves,
perfect order
blanketing chaos.

Terry Eagleton on the Death of Criticism

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on December 14, 2016 at 6:45 am

The following lecture by Terry Eagleton was delivered at the University of California Berkeley in 2010.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Research & Writing, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Supreme Court, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 7, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

My latest book, scheduled for release next week through Bucknell University Press, is about United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The book continues my work at the intersection of law and the humanities and should interest scholars of literary theory, American literature, jurisprudence, and pragmatism.

I argue in the book that Holmes helps us see the law through an Emersonian lens by the way in which he wrote his judicial dissents. Holmes’s literary style mimics and enacts two characteristics of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought: “superfluity” and the “poetics of transition,” concepts ascribed to Emerson and developed by literary critic Richard Poirier. Using this aesthetic style borrowed from Emerson and carried out by later pragmatists, Holmes not only made it more likely that his dissents would remain alive for future judges or justices (because how they were written was itself memorable, whatever the value of their content), but also shaped our understanding of dissents and, in this, our understanding of law. By opening constitutional precedent to potential change, Holmes’s dissents made room for future thought, moving our understanding of legal concepts in a more pragmatic direction and away from formalistic understandings of law. Included in this new understanding is the idea that the “canon” of judicial cases involves oppositional positions that must be sustained if the law is to serve pragmatic purposes. This process of precedent-making in a common-law system resembles the construction of the literary canon as it is conceived by Harold Bloom and Richard Posner.

The book is available for purchase here:

Click here to purchase

Review of “The Final Days of Great American Shopping,” by Gilbert Allen

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Short Story, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, Writing on November 30, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

With so many journals and genres available today, the dependable reviewer has a duty to warn off the noble optimists and advise the faint-hearted when a book is not for them.  Obligation thus requires that I caution readers:  Gilbert Allen’s The Final Days of Great American Shopping, a collection of short stories, is intelligent, nuanced, poignant, and distressing—and hence not for everyone.

If you’ve read more than one Nicholas Sparks novel this year, this book isn’t for you.  If you think Oprah is a guardian of culture, this book isn’t for you.  If you believe Fox News and CNN are edifying, this book isn’t for you.  If you think David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, and Sidney Blumenthal are men of letters, this book isn’t for you.  If you prefer Dr. Phil to Jung and Freud, this book isn’t for you.  If Joel Osteen inspires you in a way that Augustine and Aquinas cannot, this book isn’t for you.  If, in fact, any of the aforesaid are true of your case, you might just be the unwitting target of Allen’s satire.

Having dispensed with the stereotypes and requisite preamble, I own that this is, in some respects, a personal review.  Allen was my professor at Furman University and a man I continue to admire.  He cannot be blamed for the way I turned out, and certainly not for my politics.  But he is partially responsible for my love of poetry and aesthetics.

Allen, I recall, loved cats, as well as his isolated, sylvan home in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, which is far from his native Long Island, both culturally and geographically.  His spoken diction was always precise, as was the pencil-thin mustache that grayed above his lips.  Tall and skinny, with belts so long they could’ve wrapped around him twice, he spoke softly and carried a big pen.

He commits poems to memory.  I once heard him recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” to the tune of La cumparsita, a curious performance he allegedly repeats using other poems and tangos.  Ancient or modern, free verse or rhyming, short or long, poetry is his lifework, calling, and passion.  So, I suspect, he suffers, as honorable poets are wont to do.  His suffering will surely escalate as he decides how to mass-market this latest book—his first one in prose—that’s critical of mass-marketing.

The book depicts a self-indulgent American suburbia starved for money and materialism, where people try to purchase happiness and other forms of fleeting satisfaction while fixated on their own or others’ sexuality.  These 16 stories, told in chronological order from the recent past to the immediate future—and, at last, to the year 2084—are not directly about sex.  Yet sexual anxieties, appetites, and insecurities bear a subterranean, causative relationship to the acquisitive urge and cupidity that complicate many of the characters in Allen’s dystopian community, Belladonna, a gated subdivision in South Carolina, probably near Greenville.

Allen’s opening story is a complex portrait of loving and loathing, and the fine line between the two.  A childless couple, Butler and Marjory Breedlove, still in their early 40s, struggle to remain compatible as they degenerate into a life of stultifying domesticity, having suffered through three miscarriages and the abortion of an anencephalic child.  Butler is an insurance salesman and a beer-drinking baseball fan who will pull for an aging veteran against his own beloved Atlanta Braves.  Marjory, the silent, brooding type, obsesses over her luxuriant, blooming flowers, the fecundity and fertility of which contrast with her own barrenness.

Butler, as if to compensate for a sense of emasculation occasioned by his inability to sire offspring, sets out to install storm windows one Saturday morning while Marjory is off visiting her mother.  If Marjory cannot be gratified through sexual activity, he presumably reasons, then she’ll derive pleasure from his dutiful, manly labor.  A client has told him that storm windows are “easier than a second honeymoon” because they require just nine “screws,” so there’s little doubt that Butler’s chore is substitutionary: it fulfills the need for virile exertion that, we may assume, is not met through copulation.

The problem is, Butler procrastinates and leaves the windows leaning over Marjory’s flowers for too long.  Any boy who’s used a magnifying glass to burn ants would’ve known not to do this, but not Butler.  He doesn’t consider what might happen to Marjory’s flowers as he sets aside the windows to pursue booze and television.  He does, however, manage to complete the window installation.  When Marjory returns, he proudly reveals his handwork, announcing, “I did it myself.”

He’s not fully aware of what it is until Marjory, ignoring the windows, says, “My flowers.”  She stares at her garden as if peering into an “open grave.”  The florae that were adjuncts for her lost children, that were little leafy lives she had created and sustained, are now dead.  She can’t bear the loss.  Tragedy compels her to mourn on a closet floor in her nightgown.  It’s an intolerable image—her sitting there, grieved and defeated—that captures the sad inability of two people to live out their most primitive desires.

The seemingly banal agonies in this story of strained marriage are subtly and quizzically meaningful.  What is the significance, for instance, of Marjory’s decision to serve up a scrumptious breakfast for Butler while she munches on blackened toast?  Such a small gesture, but so gravely significant.

With moments like these, impressively numerous in such a short, short story, Allen achieves, I think, the right amount of ambiguity: neither Butler nor Marjory is the “bad guy,” and both seem thwarted from intimacy and happiness by forces beyond their control yet caused by their own deliberate action.  They mean well, mostly, but they’re the same poles on a magnet, destined, it seems, to repel one another.  Even their surname—Breedlove—raises interpretive puzzles, since breeding and loving seem foreign to their relationship.  Whether it’s their childlessness or an accumulation of small disappointments that causes their desperation and despair remains unclear.

Perhaps they recognize, as most of us do at some point, that they’ll never become the people their younger selves wanted to be—and that this, whatever this may be, is all there is.  Youthful aspiration is bound to become dashed hope, and once we’ve made ourselves what we are, there’s no unmaking us.

John Beegle, the protagonist of the following story who happens to have purchased health insurance from Butler Breedlove—each story is delicately linked—faces a different problem, or problems: a growing estrangement from his wife and the incapability to connect with his teenaged daughters, one of whom has grown increasingly flirtatious in proportion to her budding breasts.  John likes “to understand things, piece by piece,” but he can’t make sense of the females in his family.  They move so fast, and he so slowly.

This all changes when he discovers, in the garage of his new house, an “autogyro,” or small helicopter, circa 1961.  This antique machine remains operational, and the more John works on it, the more his daughters take to him.  He even revives his libido, surprising his wife with a “midday tryst.”  The restoration of the helicopter refurbishes his own spirits, and he eventually takes the perilous contraption for a ride, rising high into the air until he can “see everything.”  Like Frost’s wistful narrator who imagines himself climbing a birch tree up toward heaven only to be set back down again, John, hovering in the sky, “begins to dream of his landing, of his own house.”  He thinks of his family and his return to the ground.  Earth is, indeed, the right place for love.

The book is full of characters like these: the widowed Priscilla Knobloch with her twelve-year-old, one-handed daughter; Ted Dickey, whose numerous speed-dating partners represent different social ailments from materialism to decadence; the unnamed hick hair stylist who likes to rear-end Porsches (just a “love tap”) and talk about blow jobs; a thrift store worker and his wife, the menopausal Meredith, who start a non-profit corporation for religious “bedding”; Jorja Sorenson, a painter, and her husband, Houston, who collaborate on the sculpture of a fetus that draws the attention of none other than Marjorie Breedlove; and on and on.

Through these hapless, heedless figures and their goods, interests, and acquisitions—television, cars, homes, designer shoes—certain symptoms of our national condition are projected: greed, consumerism, profligacy, extravagance, melancholy.  It’s not overstating to say that, with these stories, Allen has tapped into our national consciousness and disorder.  The quintessential American, restless and without a past, energetic and democratic, his works and beliefs at once enterprising and derivative—that iconic, preeminently rugged and relatable laborer—has, in our imagination, transitioned from self-reliant and industrious, always ready to “simply, simplify,” to dark and pitiful, burdened by the wealth and joy that forever elude him.

Although Americans once envisioned a vast frontier of possibility, an unknown and ever-widening expanse of hope and promise, imbuing optimism and idealism wherever we went, we now, sketchy and insecure, stumble along looking for opportunities that don’t exist, endeavoring to remain perpetually young and verdant, as if gray hair weren’t a crown of glory and splendor.  We want what we can’t have and have what we don’t want.

Once we were Franklins and Jeffersons, Emersons and Whitmans; today we’re Willy Lomans.  Or Cher Horowitzes.  Or Gordon Gekkos.  Without guilt we can’t identify with Reverend Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne.  Without abstinence, we can’t appreciate the allure of Rappacini’s daughter.  As coddled, perpetual children, we don’t get Ishmael and Ahab, Frederick Douglass, or Jay Gatsby.  We’re so phony that we don’t understand Holden Caulfield anymore.

So Allen has done us a great service.  By mocking us and portraying our ominously recognizable and quotidian depravities, he’s exposed the warring desires to which we’ve fallen prey: extravagance and simplicity, envy and indifference, aspiration and defeat, conformity and revolt.  He’s a spokesman for the disenchanted and disillusioned, for those who still possess the poetic vision about which Emerson intoned.   He sees a double consciousness, a conflict of the mind, that drags us into woeful insipidity and angst.  If reading his book isn’t like looking reluctantly and masochistically into the mirror, or less figuratively into your own split psyche, then you’re delusional or dishonest, or perhaps—just perhaps—the rare exception.

These stories are harsh, biting, titillating, disparaging, and sarcastic, but they’re also funny.  Allen derides us, and perhaps himself, with humor.  He’s a sensitive man, and very quiet.  Who knew that, beneath his silent façade, there was a hilarious personality?

I did.  Because his poetry reveals that about him.

His first collection of poetry, In Everything, was spiritual and serious, a sort of Buddhist mystical meditation on Nature and Being.  As time went on, he eased up and relaxed.  He moved from the intensity of numinous experience to the comic realities of everyday life.

It’s not that his writing became lighthearted, upbeat, or shallow.  It remained pensive and complex and open to rigorous interpretation, sometimes even cosmic in scope.  Yet there was something more playful and satirical about it.  He came to enjoy social criticism as much as he enjoyed, say, the splendor of sentience and the complexities of the mind and soul.

This tendency towards the witty and quirky, as I have suggested, finds expression in The Final Days of Great American Shopping.  It’s evident in a pick-up line: “Would you like to go on a corporate retreat next month?  As my tax deduction?”  It materializes in unsuspecting places such as the urinal, where a man talks on his cell phone as he pisses.  It even surfaces in the epithet “Confederate Flaggots,” which implies a phallic fascination with flag poles that’s endemic among men “who dress up in nineteenth-century costumes to do unspeakable things to one another in public parks.”

But not every attempt at humor is successful: the narrator of the story “Friends with Porsches” speaks like a redneck, but not a real redneck—just a forced caricature whose colloquialisms and ungrammatical syntax aren’t quite believable as actual speech.

Allen’s sardonic, unpretentious fiction renders a society that’s abandoned the “errand into the wilderness”—as Perry Miller so aptly labeled the once powerful theme of American experience—for the errand into the shopping mall.  Although some of the technology that appears in his stories is already dated—most of the stories were first published before iPhones and iPads made the Internet and email a ubiquitous, hand-held phenomenon—one senses in their representation a renewed and profane scrutiny that’s both subversive and daring.

Are we in the final days of American shopping, as Allen suggests?  If so, is that an apocryphal singularity, the secular equivalent to the eschaton?

Maybe.  Shopping, for Allen, is, after all, much more than merely examining and evaluating retail merchandise with an eye toward a trivial purchase.  It’s systemic and magnificent, a fluid cultural sickness with no immediate cure.  Alike in severity to those idolatrous practices which demand prophetic ministry, it signals a coming destruction that necessitates oracular warning.  Shopping has become the lord and king of us all.

As for the other events of shopping’s reign, those which don’t appear in Allen’s book, are they not written in the records of the Internet, the annotations of our technology, and the annals of our digital media?  Allen buries shopping with its ancestors.  And he buries us, and our endless wants, with it.

Part Three: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, America, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 23, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

 

AM:  James Seaton is a good friend.  He and I began corresponding roughly a decade ago, and we first met in person about six years ago at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan.  His edition of Santayana had just come out with Yale University Press, and he was there to give a lecture on it.  Seaton opens his essay for your volume with the following sentence:  “Neither Henry James nor George Santayana were active participants in the politics of their time.”  Don’t you think there’s something inherently conservative in this very distance from one’s own cultural and political moment?  I’m thinking of Kirk’s admonition that conservatism is about the rejection of ideology. 

MZ:  It was actually James Seaton who, some time ago, in an innocuous but characteristically trenchant review of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism published in The Weekly Standard, provided for me the framework for thinking deeply about literature’s authenticity and its exploitation by postmodern criticism. I very regrettably lacked a lot of exposure to more traditional approaches to literature and, while I instinctively eschewed the most obscure theoretics, I remained unaware that the critic could do more than scamper around the edges of territory claimed by Jürgen Habermas and Paul de Man. To Kirk’s point, I think I had always rejected the ideology – I just wasn’t fully aware that there might be a viable alternative to it.

I do think there is something to be said for one’s distance from the cultural and political moment. The conservative disposition doesn’t really lend itself well to the act of politics, and this is perhaps why conservatives have been consistently rolled in nearly every public debate over culture for the last half-century. Being always on the defensive and lacking the language to explain the intuitive – Lee Harris calls this the “visceral code” – puts the conservative at a rhetorical, if not moral, disadvantage. For me, the everyday analogy to Seaton’s statement is the conservative tendency to focus on the admittedly prosaic underpinnings of civic life – largely the familial and the associational. As we are witnessing with the ever-increasing presence of the state in the daily lives of individuals, the absence of participation in politics by those whose disposition might be called “conservative” is conspicuous.

AM:  I remember where I was when I read Seaton’s review that you mention. In his book Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism, in the context of remarks about E. D. Hirsch, he says that “’[c]ultural literacy’ would be particularly valuable for those now termed the ‘culturally disadvantaged’ in achieving individual economic mobility,” and he adds that the “spread of cultural literacy would also promote political democracy, since discussion can only take place on the basis of at least some shared assumptions and common vocabulary.”  Do you agree with this?

 MZ: I would agree wholeheartedly. There has been much invested, however, in facilitating a kind of cultural amnesia. Some of it has been inadvertent, but much of it has not. As reflexive relativism has taken hold, any semblance of commonality has been superseded by historical moral equivalencies. Consequently, we are left with little more than recriminations and collective guilt. Western culture perhaps has much to atone for, but past transgressions cannot be the sole basis for self-definition. There just may be certain shared values and traditions that could serve as the basis for a common culture and a source of pride, but it is often more expedient to assign particular beliefs and behaviors to discrete and easily identifiable groups.

This may be cynical, but I think there is much to be gained politically – the recent election notwithstanding – from the veneration of difference. I’m not sure the individual is or ever has been truly dignified when human worth is either enhanced or degraded by how that individual is situated during any given cultural moment. It is difficult to argue that this is not what is happening now, at least to some degree. Perhaps by expanding our very narrow conceptions of diversity, we would have a much greater chance of constructive dialogue, which might then enact a more conscientious effort to promote this notion of cultural literacy. The deliberately false promise that multiculturalism is the surest path to unity and a common, mutual understanding has generated much confusion and it has, against its fundamental premise, created self-defeating forms of tribalism. The multiculturalist program has sought to validate rather than engage and evaluate global cultures, and its underside has been the raw factionalizing that consumes so much public discourse.

AM:  It is interesting and bothersome to see how multiculturalism has degenerated into a monolithic orthodoxy, which is by its very form and function against diversity, not for it.  I wonder what would happen if we exposed more students to political theory in the vein of Michael Polanyi of F. A. Hayek, thinkers whose intelligence and theoretical sophistication have to be taken seriously by those who study literary theory and criticism.  The forms of devolution and subsidiarity advocated by these men might provide challenges to the prevailing consensus among many students and teachers in English departments about the kind of ideas motivating certain figures on the right.

 MZ:  I do believe that radical multiculturalism militates against diversity, and in this regard the university has failed in one of its stated core missions. The failure to cultivate an inclusive campus community has been made evident not only by civil disobedience and other visible forms of unrest, but also by the imposition of predictable bureaucratic programs aimed at solving problems that the administrative bureaucracy has itself made worse. Obsessing about difference and instituting special privileges for certain groups, and then pontificating about equality just seems disingenuous. Current narratives on race as well as the devaluing of our common culture have been toxic for the university, as a lot of students, I think rightly, feel as though justice in this context is punitive. If there is any palpable hostility to the learning process or to intellectual climate on today’s typical campus, perhaps we as the academy should look inward rather than to historical prejudices that we can conveniently circle back to after having tried to address all of them through administrative means and a thoroughly politicized curriculum.

Moreover, as politics has regrettably become a proxy for character, even reasoned opposition to progressive ideals, particularly on the campus, is delegitimized and discounted as having been informed by sinister motives. I argue in the book that too often conservative ideas are either ignored by their critics or deliberately distorted so as to identify an enemy against which the social justice war may be fought. There is ample evidence of this, and I hesitate to identify any one event or episode to draw conclusions. Yet I recently find myself coming back to a video passed along to me that recorded the Young Americas Foundation at the University of Kansas being aggressively confronted at one of their meetings by protesters. What strikes me in that video is that the person behind the camera seems to be officiating the ensuing debate, commenting on and critiquing every gesture or utterance made by members of the YAF group, essentially flagging them for violations of rules to which they never agreed. The concept of civil discourse is applied so lopsidedly that only one set of ideas is allowed to prevail. I think this is by design, even though, as you suggest, a serious consideration of conservative ideas and philosophies would broaden minds and better prepare us all for the responsibilities of civic life.

AM:  Do you worry about our habits of reading in our technological and digital age?  I recall Harold Bloom once saying that we all read “against the clock.”  Readers of the Bible, he says, read with more urgency than, say, readers of Shakespeare, but there’s always the problem of the limitations of time: Life just isn’t long enough for us to read everything worth reading.  Thinking about that has sometimes led me into a feeling of existential angst, especially after I spent a few years on a self-imposed reading diet that included the consumption of a canonical work from Western Civilization per week.  When I finished the program each year, I was distraught at how little I’d actually read.  I’m concerned that we’re wasting a lot of precious time reading texts that just aren’t that fulfilling or edifying. 

MZ:  The reading project you describe is an ambitious one. I merely committed to reading a page of Waugh every day this year, and I couldn’t even do that. On a related note, a current depressing irony for me is that I have volume I of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time sitting on my shelf, and I have spent precious minutes staring at it, wondering if I could actually ever get through all 7 volumes. There are a lot of reasons for our society’s detachment from literature, and reading has definitely been made very difficult in the digital age. The sheer amount of available information is daunting, and it has led to a frenetic search for the quick, easy, and thereby ungratifying.

I think, though, that while the internet has shifted our ability to focus and perhaps even changed how our brains process information, it has also caused a loss of discipline. It appeals to human nature to swipe to the next task if something becomes intellectually difficult, and this is made almost compulsory by technology, especially for those young people who have been immersed in it almost literally from day 1. Maybe I’m just projecting, though. I struggle with it as well, and I also find myself often wondering, in this day and age of always needing to be busy, how much we all might benefit from slowing down and reading a little Austen.

AM:  This has been a fun interview for me.  One last question: are you working on any projects right now that readers should know about?

MZ:  Thanks, Allen, for the opportunity to talk with you. I have enjoyed it as well. I have shifted my research focus a bit from literature toward the state of the university more generally. Editing Literature and the Conservative Ideal prompted much thought about the future of higher education and the increasing importance of broad-mindedness on the campus.

I am currently editing a collection for Rowman & Littlefield tentatively titled Remaking the University: Liberal Learning, the West, and the Revival of American Higher Education. I am also in discussions to publish a separate volume entitled Defending the West: Finding Culture and Common Humanity in the Postmodern Age. Both books seek to build on a long tradition of support for free expression and the pursuit of truth as well as Western culture’s influence on both. After our discussion, though, I am realizing I might need to just be doing a bit more reading.

AM:  We all need that.  Thanks for the interview, Mark.

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