Saturday, November 21, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

Looney Toons

If my lover can be struck
And crushed
To mush stuck to a truck
And if
My dog can fall
From a forty-foot cliff
(Beloved pet)
What’s next?
An anvil? A piano?
An exploding cigarette?

[Image from]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

False Start

Hell’s not just pain, it’s triviality—
A play that no one else would come to see.
Null dimension; crushing gravity.

“We suffer when we can’t let go,” they say,
“The self’s all just attachments anyway.
Unclench your heart and learn to love today.”

“Just bondage” seems reciprocal to me.
I’ll pay my creditors before I’m free—
To “let it go” would mean my bankruptcy.

Still others preach, “For us it has sufficed
To think about what Jesus sacrificed.
Repent your sins and give your life to Christ.”

If praising God with practices devout
Can free the soul from pain, regret, and doubt,
Why does it feel so much like “selling out?”

A colder voice sneers, “Fuck it, let’s be blunt:
Life is death. You don’t get what you want.
God’s a fiction; Gaia is a cunt.

“You won’t give up your dead biologist—
Her mangled hands, those dry, cracked lips you kissed.
You cursed God then—admit it, don’t resist.”

It’s true, and I’m addicted to that pain—
The wormy muse’s singular refrain,
The eggs it lays inside my beating brain.

I’ll rest awhile and then I’ll try again—
It’s hard work setting fire to these straw men.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Are We Learning in English Class?

I suspect the taste for self-consciously ironic cliché and the general paucity of intellectual and moral brilliance in the North American media these days has something to do with 20+ years of increasingly bad “language arts” and English classes, among other things. While English inevitably has to be taught as a basic communicative tool at the lower end of the student ability spectrum, the increasing focus at the higher end on “media literacy” and “cultural literacy," i.e. thematically organized “critical thinking” about commercial and political rhetoric, seems to have occurred mostly at the expense of actual literacy, i.e. learning to read and write well by studying the work of a variety of excellent and challenging writers while reading and writing as much as possible. Speaking from my own experience and biases, I'd like to suggest that the latter inculcates a healthy and respectful skepticism; the former, cynicism and paranoia. One helps create an individual who is judicious, imaginative and capable of appreciation as well as critique; the other implicitly associates sincerity with gullibility, and fosters a reflexive (defensive?) attitude of boredom and incredulousness--of having "seen it all" already. One teaches the value of informed opinion and reasoned argument, while the other is incapable of distinguishing between the two, and tends to breed adults who have no time for either insofar as these concern anyone unlike themselves.

Among participants in the North America Media Experience, the only phrase that could possibly be uttered more frequently than "That's offensive!" (which differs from "That hurts my feelings" in subtle but important ways) is "It's funny because it's stupid." Both are hostile to whatever it is that elevates human life above the naked horror of two-thirds of a fairy tale followed by a bloodbath, or, worse, a melodrama in which churlish and self-righteous crybabies live and die in banality, hounded by institutions they are powerless to influence or understand. Whatever the soul is or isn't, a human being isn't much without a brain, a heart and a backbone.

In any event, it's probably a good idea to encourage exceptional students to become exceptional readers and writers, rather than ostensibly average coasters who are exceptionally mad at Dead White Males, Coca Cola and the cosmetics industry. Some of them will probably figure this stuff out on their own, but many of them won't. And if English class must have a political agenda, maybe it ought to be dictated by great books and not the other way around. Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce and Tolkien will be here long after today's "constructivists" and tomorrow's "connectivists" have been buried and forgotten.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Talking to Texans: At the Shoe Store

ME: Well, if my new sneakers are a whole size too big, I'll be tripping over those big gaps in the Texan sidewalk.

IRATE WOMAN AT SHOE STORE: You're damn lucky we have sidewalks!

ME: ...

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Homesick on a Thursday Afternoon

I miss my home. The people there
Mix grudging hope with sweet despair.
They’ll have your company, not just your money.

They’re mongrel Scots, Acadians,
And other good Canadians
Who get when life is sad and when it’s funny.

I find it hard, try as I might,
To understand the Dallasite,
That prairie heat-bred strain of local fauna—

The way he always shouts his news,
The way he pushes through the queues,
His citizen’s contempt for marijuana.

The people never “hang out” here—
They make a date to have a beer!
The Dallasite means business—work or play.

I’m sure someday I’ll miss this place.
I’ll mourn all that I can’t replace
When time, that old, bald cheater, slips away.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Bad Satire at The Onion

The Onion's "Our Dumb World" is an online map of the world on which users can scroll around and read satirical factoids located at various points on the map. When a country is "featured" for the week (or month, or whatever) the blurbs proliferate within its borders. The problem with "Our Dumb World" is similar to the problems with The Simpsons' "Africa" episode or Hostel's handling of its Slovakian setting: it tries to pass off the writers' ignorance of the subject matter as a satirical critique of America's ignorance of the rest of the world. This week's featured country is Romania, and the various jokes include a spooky castle, a spooky path, a picture of Nicolae Ceauşescu dressed as Count Chocula on a box of cereal, a used coffin dealership (bored with the vampire schtick yet?), a gymnast in a Bride of Frankenstein fright wig, and some 11 other jokes about mad scientists, werewolves, vampire bats and reanimated corpses. What is conspicuously absent is evidence of any research whatsoever concerning Romania past or present, despite an abundance of such information on websites an 8-year-old could use. The Ceauşescus, for example, were killed in their dotage by assault rifles on Christmas Day. Or a one-step Google search for "Romanian jokes" yields this communist-era gem:

Q: What's big, black, noisy, makes a lot of smoke and cuts carrots in five?
A: The Romanian machine for cutting carrots in four.

Good satire is supposed to critique ignorance and injustice, not celebrate them. The worst of it is, The Onion's writers (like too many other North Americans) aren't even "dumb"-- they're just too lazy and complacent to care.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Virgin of the Grapes (1640)

Pierre Mignard, 1610-1695

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Freedom and Responsibility

To the extent that we're responsible, life is tragicomic and we are free. To the extent that we're not responsible, life is a melodrama or horror story and we are not free. If we want to be able to laugh at ourselves and forgive others, it seems to me that we should cultivate self-discipline and generosity, not excuses.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Time Clipping Cupid's Wings (1694)

Pierre Mignard, 1610-1695

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Courtesy of Intellectual Debate

Critics of postmodernism and poststructuralism, such as Alan Sokal, Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Frederick Turner, Joseph Carroll, etc. have been criticized themselves for making straw men of their opponents' arguments. I think this criticism is valid to some extent: Turner's pointed critique of the postmodern avant garde in Culture of Hope and Carroll's treatment of "textualism and indeterminacy" in "Theory, Anti-Theory and Empirical Criticism" do tend to reduce much of the past 40 years of literary theory to grouchy caricatures. However, after reading some of the Marxist New Historicists on Shakespeare, such as Stephen Greenblatt, Jean Howard, Stephen Orgel, and Richard Levin, I couldn't help but notice that they also rely heavily on constructs such as the bourgeois straw man, the Western metaphysical straw man, the positivist straw man, the formalist straw man, the capitalist straw man, etc. Orgel and Greenblatt, in particular, see fit to mock and sneer at these as well.

Intellectual debate should be conducted like a martial art. Boxers touch gloves before striking their first blows, and often hug when a match is over. Karate fighters bow, showing mutual respect and proud submission to their tradition. Such games involve serious risk, but are as much an art and a dance as a "fight" per se. All martial arts have rules against hitting below the belt, and specify serious consequences for unsportsmanlike conduct. Once upon a time, scholarship had a similar code of conduct, if not camaraderie, that involved disinterestedness, objectivity, self-effacement, and neutrality. In recent years, this has been criticized (sometimes with good reason) as an ideological mystification "naturalizing" racism, sexism, the covert pursuit of class interests, and political partisanship.* Regardless, I think that, at the very least, scholars of all stripes can and should work harder to be courteous, civilized, and to acknowledge their own biases without resorting to demagoguery.

Politics, schmolitics--we're humans first and ideologues second. If the 20th century taught us anything, it's that even the most apparently humane political ideologies can end up machine-gunning each other into a ditch. If humanities scholars, of all people, can't have a civil conversation, then we might as well all give up and go home to pursue biochemistry degrees or sell carpet cleaner and credit cards over the telephone.


*"Argument," according to a related line of thinking, is symptomatic of patriarchal aggression and ought to be replaced by "discussion," wherein no one, presumably, attempts to advance a logical position with the aim of changing another's mind.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Love, Personified

I suspect love finds its highest expression in the family. Here's mine.

Eva and Jeronym

Just needed a link to your picture, you old goat. Having met you even once, how could anyone ever forget you? Moc mi chybí.

(Eva Kronusová 1980-2006)

Thursday, November 20, 2008


He's all my exercise, my mirth, my matter;
Now my sworn friend, and then mine enemy;
My parasite, my soldier, statesman, all.
He makes a July's day short as December,
And with his varying childness cures in me
Thoughts that would thick my blood.

--William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ideological Critique

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses the word "nigger" over 200 times. The Merchant of Venice depicts the humiliation and ruin of a Jewish villain at the hands of a Christian majority; Othello, a negro who strangles his perfectly innocent wife. The famous first line of Pride and Prejudice can be read as a blatant formula for prostitution, if one so chooses. The women of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight inspire and manipulate their men, but don't engage in any decapitating contests themselves.

It's relatively easy to point one's finger at a work of art, especially challenging art, and denounce it as ideologically unsavory in some way. Anyone can (re)apply this or that political formula (e.g. the "Woman in the Refrigerator," or any of the dozens of other ways to reduce a story to who's-doing-what-to-whom) and bandy about the -isms of the day in a denunciatory fashion. There are people with tenure right now who have made entire careers out of little else. It's a lot harder, however, to make a sincere effort to participate in an artist's world view, to try to give him or her the benefit of the doubt, to make an honest and uncompromising critique that nonetheless adds value to the world rather than merely taking it away.

I'm talking about imaginative generosity, not apologia. And I'm not always great at taking my own advice--I talk more lazy, cheap, snide, cynical shit than a lot of people I know. I'm just saying I'd rather watch Othello than Gothika.

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