One Hundred Fiftieth

April 12, 2011

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, which began the American Civil War. And I’ve already seen several items noting the anniversary and a few offering explanations as to why the South was wrong.

I’m not going to say that the South was right, because in the most obvious respect, they weren’t–slavery was, and is, wrong, and the South was in large part fighting to keep it’s “peculiar institution.” But I do think it’s important to understand that the South understood itself to be fighting not primarily for slavery, but for (and this is my formulation) state’s rights, community, and tradition, as set against nationalization, legalization, and modernization. Though the South was tainted by slavery, these ideals are not themselves evil. Neither are they unequivocally good, but there is much to be said for them, and much to be said against their opposites.

There are many directions I could go with this–secession, Southern culture, how the War was prosecuted, Reconstruction, etc–but I don’t think it’s all that necessary to do so. I’m certainly not the most intelligent Civil War commentator out there. I think what’s most important to realize is how bad it was–600,000 Americans died at a time when the U.S. was much smaller than it is now–and to contemplate whether those deaths were necessary or unnecessary. People have described it both ways. I find that fascinating.

Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect

September 4, 2010

I’ve recently gotten into the music of The Decemberists. Genre-wise, Last.Fm classifies them as “indie/indie rock/indie pop/alternative”; my listening to them is thus partially a result of my having picked up Andrew Bird over the last year or so. But in a lot of ways, I think, the Decemberists are closer to the rest of my music library (i.e. various flavors of metal) than they are to Bird. I’ll try to make the argument for why, though again, since I’m not a musician, I don’t feel qualified to talk about musical style; I’ll primarily be looking at lyrics in this post.

While Bird concerns himself with the inherent limitations of science, language, and reason generally, the Decemberists are interested in much the same things as, say, Kamelot; their songs are love songs, for the most part, generally failed loves, and often have a strong historical or literary bent to them. Kamelot’s best work is their two-album-long interpretation of Goethe’s Faust; the Decemberists’s three “The Crane Wife” songs are twenty minutes of music about a traditional Japanese story, and “The Island–Come And See The Landlord’s Daughter–You’ll Not Feel The Drowning,” is from what I can tell about Caliban and Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The Decemberists also bear resemblances to Dream Theater, another prog metal band. Both are strangely literary for musicians; they constantly allude to poems and poets, and try to capture the emotional state of characters from stories. Dream Theater quotes Frost and James Joyce in some of the songs off Awake; the Decemberists seem to reference Coleridge in “The Island (&c)”, with lines like “The rivers roll down to a soundless sea,” and the song “The Legionnaire’s Lament” always reminds me of Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues,” though perhaps only because of the word “legion.” Songs like “Yankee Bayonet” and “When the War Came” are historical, not literary, but show a story-teller’s eye for history, just as Dream Theater has songs about AIDS (“Learning to Live”) and 9/11 (“Sacrificed Songs”).

These may seem like facile points, that I’m pointing out similarities of the sort that exist between any two musicians. But I don’t think that’s it. The main point is that the Decemberists, unlike Andrew Bird, are predominantly story-based. They’re not trying to capture a mood that one arrives at upon contemplating the world (which is what Bird does most of the time, I think), but rather to show how emotions work as one acts in the world — primarily in the most emotional of activities, falling in and out of love.

Anyay, this all brings me to the song I started this post wanting to talk about, “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect.” I’ve been listening to this constantly over the last week or so. Though it’s a great song, I’m not here really to talk about how it functions musically; mostly I want to point out the verse in which the title appears.

And I am nothing of a builder
But here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade
To keep you home, to keep you safe
From the outside world
But the angles and the corners
Even though my work is unparalleled
They never seemed to meet
This structure fell about our feet
And we were free to go

I find fascinating how similar, and yet different this is to Andrew Bird’s stuff. It’s using so much of the same language, the same ideas. It’s more abstract than most Decemberist songs; the reference to architecture makes it necessarily meta-artistic, and we have to think of language as architecture, as a building, words used to build and to cage. The line “even though my work is unparalleled” is the kind of mathematical pun I think Bird would love. But while Bird would use these words to talk about the failings of science when it tries to understand the world, the Decemberists use them to show a failed romance; even when dealing in abstract ideas, they come back to concrete human interactions — to life, not thought. An interesting juxtaposition.

Bottum on America and Religion

August 23, 2010

Interesting article on the First Things website today: The Bible in the Public Square. I particularly like this paragraph:

The United States as it naturally wants to be—what we might call the platonic ideal of America—contains a tension we must be careful not to resolve. From its founding, the nation has always been something like a school of Enlightenment rationalists aswim in an ocean of Christian faith. And how shall the fish hate the water wherein they live? Or the water hate the fish?

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about it, so I won’t waste your time. Go read it! I don’t know if I agree with it or not, but the issues it raises are certainly worth thinking about. Personally, I’m always fascinated by attempts to get at the “essence” of “America”…

Has Copyright Law Ever Worked?

August 20, 2010

Thanks to the Arts & Letters Daily news feed, I came across this interesting article, which suggests that even back in the 18th and 19th centuries, copyright law both stifled innovation and did little to help authors make money from their writing. Even back then, it mainly benefited the publishers. I don’t know whether or not its claims are actually true, but I find most of them plausible, given what I know of copyright in the modern day.

Lowell, Bishop, and Confessional Poetry

June 4, 2010

I was going to make posts about each of the rest of the books of poetry we read in my 20thc.  poetry class (Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville, Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead, Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, Jorie Graham’s Erosion, and Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things), but then my computer started freaking out and I spent most of my free time the last week trying to figure out what was wrong with it. The class is over now, and I don’t want to go back and talk about each book individually, but I do want to briefly compare two of them.

Both Lowell and Bishop have been called “confessional poets.” This means, roughly, that their poetry includes details from their personal life and sometimes has a “tell-all” feeing to it that can make it kind of awkward to read. I’m fairly skeptical about the idea of confessional poetry, but neither Lowell nor Bishop can be entirely characterized as confessional, and I find something worthwhile in both of them.

But strangely, though on the surface Lowell is the more confessional of the two, I prefer him to Bishop. I’ve been thinking about it, and I now have a theory as to why that is. Lowell at his worst makes references to events in his life we have no way of knowing about and no reason to care about, and expects us to find that meaningful in and of itself. But at his best, he ties in personal experience to broader philosophical, ethical, and political questions. Bishop, on the other hand, doesn’t give us as much irrelevant detail from her life, but nevertheless, every poem she writes is about herself, and the reader is supposed to accept her as an everyman.

The best way to illuminate the contrast is to look at their different uses of location. Lowell will mention place-names and allow the names themselves to carry weight. He’ll set a poem in Washington DC, or Maine, or Boston, or Rome, and in doing so make the poem be about  a wider historical issue. The poems “For the Union Dead” and “July in Washington” are clearly about the idea of America; the poem “The Neo-Classical Urn” is a response to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and is about nature v. artifice; “Beyond the Alps” is set in Rome and is about Catholicism.

But Bishop, though her book is called Geography III, doesn’t set poems in places we all know. She has a poem about the objects sitting on her desk; she has a poem about sitting in a dentist’s waiting-room; most indicatively, she has a poem with the complex setting of “on a bus going from Canada to Maine at night when all the passengers are falling asleep and then they stop because there’s a moose in the road.” She doesn’t give us a setting that makes the poem immediately have meaning beyond just the anecdote; she gives a setting with no meaning of its own, and thus the anecdote itself is the only source of meaning.

I think Bishop does this mostly because she’s actually less interested in what’s in the places she writes about than in how people interact with them. She’s interested in the idea of liminality, but not in what it is that one shares a border with. Lowell, on the other hand, is greatly interested in place, in time, in history, in the world.

So why do I prefer Lowell? It’s not because I think Bishop’s too abstract. I love abstraction. It’s because neither of them is abstract – both write primarily about themselves – and if you’re not going to be abstract I think it’s better to talk about things everyone can talk about than to talk about things only you know about because only you have experienced them.

Homelesness and Uprootedness

May 8, 2010

Unsurprisingly, given that this semester I’m taking one course about the works of Herman Melville and another about those of William Faulkner, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about “America” as a culture distinct from that of Europe. America’s relationship to its cultural heritage is, to put it nicely, ambiguous. Now, I don’t have a grand theory of America to propound here, but I do have two concepts that I think are important to understanding how America understands itself.

First, I want to discuss “transcendental homelessness,” a term Georg Lukacs invents in his Theory of the Novel and defines as “the urge to be at home everywhere.” My professor used this term often to describe Melville, and I think it applies well to America as a whole (incidentally, Melville seems to me in many ways the quintessential American author). Americans are transcendentally homeless, because they want everywhere to be like America. Compare this to the concept of “American exceptionalism” that we hear so much about. “Exceptionalism” means that America believes it is somehow special, the culmination of history, but I think it is more the case that America has a hard time coming to terms with itself as a specific place in a specific time, preferring to see itself as an incarnation of a universal ideal to which all other countries ought to aspire. I am reminded of Melville’s constant references to Anacharsis Cloots, a participant in the French Revolution who said that the Revolution had to apply not only to France, but to all the world.

The other concept I want to apply to America is “uprootedness.” I mean for this to stand in opposition to the idea of “rootlessness” that sees America as a complete tabula rasa, placing man anew in the state of nature (credit to Therese of Inklings, who talked about this earlier this week). If “rootlessness” means America is cut off completely from the Old World, and represents a new beginning, then “uprootedness” means that America is based in the Old World, but because it was transplanted to the New, continuity could not simply be taken for granted. Every continued tradition had to be consciously continued, and that consciousness implied a reevaluation and modification. Look, for example, at the American South (the focus of Faulkner’s work). Its traditional structure was an attempt to remain in continuity with the aristocratic Old World, but it was necessarily a conscious imitation, not an unconscious continuation; while it “died” with the Civil War, it had hardly existed before that. Or look at the attempts to create a “city on a hill” in Puritan New England, a subject Melville is interested in; it was in some ways a conscious break from the Old World, but in more important ways a continuation of certain Old World religious ideas.

These two concepts are complementary, I think; one deals with America in relation to the rest of the contemporary world, the other with America in relation to its heritage. And both of them involve not a separation of America from the rest of the world, but an uneasy connection, an ambiguous bond. What I find really fascinating is that both Melville and Faulkner lead me to this same thought. It’s perhaps the strongest common thread I can find running throughout America, both North and South.


Incidentally, these are the books we read in the two respective classes; I highly recommend everything on this list, but italics I use to indicate particular noteworthiness, and the most important work on each list I bold.


  • Moby-Dick
  • Pierre
  • The Piazza Tales: The Piazza, Bartleby, Benito Cereno, The Lightning-Rod Man, The Encantadas, The Bell-Tower
  • The Confidence-Man
  • assorted poetry (mostly from Battle-Pieces; particularly good are “The Conflict of Convictions” and “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight”)
  • Billy Budd


  • The Unvanquished (not Faulkner’s best, but a particularly easy read)
  • Absalom, Absalom!
  • As I Lay Dying
  • The Hamlet
  • Go Down, Moses

Satirical Mythology

February 23, 2010

We read Gulliver’s Travels in my Early Modern Literature class a few weeks ago; it’s somewhat enjoyable, but marred throughout, I think, by overly specific satire and unfunny attempts at humor. The following I wrote specifically in response to Part I, but applies to the rest of it as well, I think:

Political satire does not age well.

The first part of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels had such a promising premise. There is a reason the word “lilliputian” has entered our vocabulary: the concept of an entire race of minuscule men captures the imagination in the same way as do the ancient myths. When children are taught about Greek mythology, they always read (and sometimes only read) the relatively short passage from the Odyssey detailing Odysseus’s encounter with the Cyclops. No one forgets the use of “no man” as a name, and no one forgets the idea itself of a giant, one-eyed man-monster. The Lilliputians are the same. Children often read the first part of Gulliver’s Travels, and after doing so, the six-inch-tall man remains in their imagination long after they forget the other details of the story.

What surprises me, in fact, is that it took until the eighteenth century for the Lilliputians to be invented. There were occasionally folk heroes like Tom Thumb, but until Swift, was there an entire race of them? Not fairy-folk, not magical in any way, with exactly the same sort of society as ours, only smaller? The idea may have as a prerequisite the kind of scientific objectivity associated with Newtonian mechanics. Before, to be tiny was to be magic, but once scientific laws are fixed, they apply to a six-inch-tall man the same as to a six-foot-tall one, and the magic is no longer necessary. Six-inch-tall men can be just that, men six inches tall, not demons or faeries.

There may be another requirement for Lilliputians to emerge: the cosmopolitan nature of an age with relatively fast and reliable travel. Ancient histories emphasize the foreignness of even nearby countries, Gulliver’s Travels the sameness of places far away. A key aspect of the Lilliputian myth is how, though they are smaller than us, they have basically the same concerns. They have emperors, farm the land, and fight over differences of dogma. To be compelling, we must be able to see ourselves as primarily human, and only secondarily of any specific nationality, for the Lilliputians are primarily a satire of humanity: men, but smaller, they show us how small we ourselves are.

But in Swift’s rendering, the satirical nature of the story is its downfall. Everyone knows “Lilliput,” but far fewer remember “Blefescu,” that the war between the two is a satire of religious wars in England, or for that matter that there is a war between the two at all. The problem is that, while the nature of the Lilliputian myth demands that the Lilliputians be a satire of humanity, Swift decided to make them a satire of seventeenth and eighteenth century England; Lilliput and Blefescu are England and France, Big- and Little-Endianism are Catholicism and Protestantism. In doing so, Swift makes the myth fallible. The comparison is one reasonable readers may disagree with; were the religious wars in England really a result of something as trivial as how to crack open an egg?

Worse (though it may boil down to the same thing), Swift makes the myth specifically historical. In doing so, he reduces himself to a three-hundred-year-old Englishman complaining about four-hundred-year-old Englishmen. It is not that specificity is in itself bad, but that Swift becomes so specific as to lose a sense of the general. “Lilliputian” lasts in a way “Blefescu” and “Endianism” do not, I believe, because “lilliputian” conveys a satirical myth, a timeless satire, while “Blefescu” and “Endianism” are political satires. Political satires are not timeless, and so political satires cannot last.

I could see it argued that this is a measure of Swift’s achievement: we are no longer moved by his argument because his side won. But that would be to say that literature is in the service of politics, that because Swift could use Gulliver’s Travels to win a political debate, even though that debate would be irrelevant within a few decades, it excuses him from having to write literature that is truly timeless. I cannot agree with that; literature’s task is to teach us about human nature, not about the nature of the Tories and Whigs, and failing at this is a real failure. The Lilliputians are a great addition to our modern mythology, but Gulliver’s Travels itself I must consider as only of historical interest.

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