Aug 31, 2009


Thomaston, NY at left ???

Banjo GPA on Bridge of Sighs: 3.7

To follow up on the Banjo52 post on July 22, here are some questions about the female characters in Bridge of Sighs. I suppose these amount to study questions for a course including The Contemporary Novel as a topic, but to me it's not just an academic exercise; I'm really interested in any responses--which is to say, I'm not positive about my own answers.

Do Tessa and Sarah amount to a pair of (almost?) kindred spirits?

If so, are Noonan’s mother and Nan Beverly their foils, or at least a very different pair? What is the basis for comparison? Is it the characters’ strength and integrity as women and as humans?

How do Sarah’s mother, Owen’s wife, Brindy, and Karen Cirillo fit into the scheme, if a scheme is what this amounts to?

Is Tessa a strong woman who does what’s necessary, or is she a simplistic, stone-hearted wench? If there is tenderness in her, where and how do we see it? Does it balance the scale against her hard, sharp edges?

When I use the term "sympathetic character" below, I mean a character with whom the reader sympathizes; in literary lingo, sympathy, unlike pity, includes respect for an equal. We might not admire or approve of the character's every action or word, but we are interested in, drawn to, her or him more than we judge, or recoil from, or are bored by the character. Also, a sympathetic character might appeal to us against our better judgment, might challenge our preconceptions, especially in a moral way.

Sarah's conflict concerning romantic love, which includes other major choices about how she'll live her life--does that conflict make her sympathetic or weak, or duplicitous, or some other bad thing? At any point in the narrative, but especially at the end, has she made the right choices?

Are the male and female characters about equally sympathetic?

Are male and female readers likely to respond differently to any one of the female characters or the females as a group? (Ditto for the male characters).

Although questions remain about the role of destiny in the novel, or, in psychiatric terms, "repetition compulsion" and the shaping power of parents, I might now be finished with Bridge of Sighs here, depending in part on visitor interest.

Despite some reservations, I’m glad I invested time and thought in a novel that provokes so many questions. One of the best mentors in my career claimed that no English teacher should ask a question for which he already has an answer. That's bolder than my own view, but I absolutely believe in the spirit of his remark.

Aug 30, 2009


Thomaston, NY???

Like you, I need for Banjo to shut up about Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs. Before I can let it go, however, I’ve got to touch on a couple of subjects that have planted themselves in my mind and won’t let go.

My July 22 review was more positive than this addition might sound, but I don’t think there’s a major inconsistency—I still consider the book a notable achievement. However, the introduction of an important new character toward the end, along with the denouement as a whole, raises a question about Russo’s world view as a whole: is it too cheery to fit the facts of setting, plot and characterization he’s given us in the course of 500 pages?

And at the end of this post, I also want to re-address the novel's portrait women--regarding which, I hope you’ll look at the July 22 visitor’s comment here from istop4books.

(By the way, the comments at istop4books are the only other responses to Bridge of Sighs I’ve read, and I saw those shortly after my July 22 post. All other points here are straight out of Banjo Brain, and any resemblance to other reviews, living or dead, is purely coincidental). Now, onward.

In the novel as a whole, I wonder if anyone else hears echoes of Dickens, as Russo offers a realistic, sociopolitical study of an ensemble cast in an economically struggling town. Like Victorian London, it’s a place significantly influenced by industrial issues and class divisions. These characters in upstate New York might have it a little easier than Dickens’s folks, but life in Thomaston, NY is rough enough; the personal and economic struggles feel legitimate.

However, Russo might love this town and its people too much to allow any genuinely menacing darkness to dominate. He tries to see something bright among the litter and loose ends, the poison and disease, the constant psychological complexities and tensions in human experience. Russo’s bottom line, like Dickens’s, insists upon a positive, sympathetic view of human character, human experience, though predators, bad luck, and character flaws rip at souls. Maybe the label optimism fits Russo’s view.

But have the characters earned any hopefulness we might want to bestow upon them? Is there good reason to think they're bigger, better and brighter than the map of their lives or the landscape of Thomaston's citizens as well as buildings and its river and bridges, or do we simply like these people and thus hope for happy outcomes, whether or not such outcomes are likely? I feel affection and respect for these characters, but I don’t trust the legitimacy of my responses or how I’ve been led to them. It might have been a worthy vehicle, but I'm uneasy about it.

Now enter that new character, late in the story. She has charm, perhaps in excess, but she's also flawed and full of baggage, which portends still more complications for the core characters. Yet that whole episode probably feels rather good about itself, perhaps better than our rational selves could explain, and I wonder if Russo is playing fairly.

Still, even as the book winds down, I would not call it saccharine or simplistic. From beginning to end, the losses and serious complexities and traumas in relationships have made me wince with empathy, and I feel the potential for a more wounded future than these folks deserve.

So what troubles me must be the novel’s somewhat sanguine world view in spite of all that, a view that's been seeping in and tugging at me, or has been forced in while I wasn’t looking. It’s a perspective that’s improbably sunny in Thomaston. So are these just Russo’s and my wishes for people, for our prospects, the possibility that our inklings of better angels and good luck are not naïve or downright stupid?

If the novel’s outlook is as mysterious or ambiguous as I’m suggesting, is it a purposeful ambiguity--which I usually like and respect as a realistic, defensible way of seeing human experience. Does the book make a legitimate and satisfying statement that we cannot pin down the way people’s lives or most single actions should be seen?

Or does it imply something like, "There . . . . Got it. Life is more good than bad, more smiling than sad. That may have been several bridges and quite a few sighs, but it's right that we have a genuine, deservedly good feeling about people--at least these people--as they try to cross." Can we say that? Does the novel say that?

Within the ensemble cast, Big Lou and Lou-Lucy Lynch, would say, “Yes, that’s it.” Sarah would probably go along too. Even that cantankerous Tessa—maybe she’s not such a terminally tough cookie, after all. And those good Thomaston folks wouldn’t lie, even to themselves. Would they?

Tomorrow or soon: the women in Bridge of Sighs

* * *

Aug 27, 2009


Left: Screwball?

If not, I think that batter better hit the deck.

The young like to say, “That’s so random.”

At a dinner party, a husband says about his wife: “She’ll find something to wipe.”

At another dinner party, a sixty-something mother is trying out loud not to worry about her forty-something son, who’s recently divorced from someone named Susan. Aging mom says, “He’s got gum wrappers from when he was dating—you know, other girls, not Susan.”

Two of the greatest inventions of the last few decades are the TV clicker and air conditioning in cars. Yet a surprising number of people—smokers or not—keep their car windows down in hot city traffic. Why? The noise, the grime, the heat. It can’t be true that all those air conditioners are broken. Maybe there’s a secret outbreak of claustrophobia that CNN hasn’t discovered. Maybe “breath of fresh air” has been re-defined to fit our times, to include sucking suet.

In case you haven’t tried it already, next time you’re sitting at a red light, watch the cars making a left turn toward you. Yes, most of them cut it too close. But also look at the drivers’ faces. Compose their story in your head. Where are they going? Where are they coming from? What just happened? Is anyone having a happy moment while turning left? Once again those lines from W.H. Auden: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd. Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

How about the woman sitting behind you, on her cell phone, performing a full-blown soap opera or declaration of war? How can a mouth move that fast, that aggressively? Is it just gusto? Enthusiasm? Her whole head bobs like a chicken on crack. And the free arm is flailing with such vigor that she could be roping a calf. What’s the story of the day between her ears?

I hear someone shouting, Why a woman, you stereotyping pig?

Because that’s the picture I’ve seen, far more than once. The men are having a contest with themselves to see how close they can come to my rear bumper—or my left taillight as they whip around me. Some women do that too, but their mouths aren’t curled in a snarl. They’re having a happy moment, and space is irrelevant.

Aug 24, 2009


Left: Too Cute to Be Deep?

Julie & Julia GPA: 3.2
(1 is low, 4 high)

It’s hard to rate this one because it does well what it sets out to do: pleasing everyone, offending or challenging no one. In short, the movie doesn’t aim as high as it could have. It assumes an audience of females guiding their men to the ticket booth, and the strategy worked. Moreover, I’m one male who stayed interested in most of the plot, though it was the compelling performances that carried the day.

I have two major reservations. I think a serious, less slick film would have portrayed young Julie as a much darker character and the older Julia Child as a woman in a much darker situation than we see here.

Young Julie’s obsessiveness causes only fleeting problems for her, though we might think her flaws would bring her—and us—more severe discomfort. We’re not deeply worried about her outcome, or her narcissism, to which the movie and Julie pay only lip service.

Julie’s problems at age 30 should pale beside the much more menacing situations facing Julia Child and husband Paul, including chronic, nobly suppressed grief about their childlessness, anxieties about career and finances in mid-life or later, as well as an intrusion from Senator Joe McCarthy. Of course there’s also the challenging voice and height into which Julia Child was born. Emerging from all that with her spirit, wit, and capacity for love (of her man and good food) elevates her to a quality of character one doubts young Julie will ever achieve. Yet the movie seems to want us to care equally about the two women. I’d gladly watch Amy Adams trim her fingernails for two hours, but I squirmed just a little in being asked to respect and empathize with young Julie and her youth brigade, charming though they are at times.

What’s completely satisfying in the movie are the performances by every actor, from the leads to the supporting roles by Jane Lynch and others. Lynch and Streep must have been tempted to go overboard in portraying these sisters, but they are just right as colorful eccentrics. Paul Messina, whose work I didn't know, is quietly excellent as Julie’s saint of a husband. The better known Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Stanley Tucci meet or exceed the high standard they have already set for themselves in other roles.

Without these actors’ accomplished deliveries and gestures, I suspect the whole movie would have been marginally relevant fluff. There are excellent comic lines and scenes, and some of the serious moments are moving, but the story as a whole lacks the impact of these striking moments, opting instead for ensuring that Mr. and Mrs. Audience have a nice time.

That’s not necessarily a flaw in itself, but if it gets there by sweeping darkness under the rug, and the darkness is yelping, “Let me out,” there’s a problem. What Julie and Julia have faced in the episodes we see, and others left invisible, amounts to no slight matter, yet I left the theater feeling at least a little misled and brighter than I should have.

Aug 21, 2009


Left: Is That an Alien Prawn I See?


On a GPA scale of 1 (low) – 4 (high)
District 9 is 1.3.

I’m no sci fi fan, but the reviews led me to believe this movie would be better—maybe even sci fi for grownups. It wasn’t.

The visual impact of aliens as giant shrimp was nicely comic and interesting for maybe ten minutes. The image of the space ship hovering was, for some reason, haunting; it felt like a god. The rest of the movie was typically dime-store moralizing and hyper action, accentuated by extreme gore.

I am baffled by the high ratings this flick is getting from the pro reviewers—its average on is a remarkable 81.

By comparison, here, with their average ratings, are some middle- or low-brow movies I could argue for, especially if you include popcorn. For more notes on these and others, see this blog, August 13.

A Perfect Getaway 63.
The Hangover 73
Funny People 60.

More serious films that deserve at least their high average on are: The Hurt Locker, 94 (see my review here on July 28 -- a 3.98 movie) and France’s Summer Hours, 84 (which I have not reviewed, but would rate a 3.8).


Aug 20, 2009


Sunshine Musings

From Yesterday:
GPK: Value is dynamic rather than static. Whose stock is worth more now? Does T.S. Eliot mean as much to readers as he did 40 years ago?

Bjo52: “Value”? I hope the marketplace is not the primary determinant of value. If so, all poetry is virtually worthless . . .


Now, about your example of the local coffee house composer-singer, the value of his work beside Dylan, the Beatles, and other icons, you say . . .

GPK: Even if it was the greatest song ever (a song by the local coffee house guy), isn't it a text subject to the demands of context? The rigors of genre and cultural expectation?

Bjo52: The rigors of genre, yes. But I question how much the text is subject to the demands of context, if you mean culture, history, and so forth. However, I love the hugeness of the question, so here are some thoughts.

Are you saying one cannot appreciate or understand, for example, Shakespeare’s Henry plays without knowing the historical background of the Lancaster and York unpleasantness, or Shakespeare’s own vulnerability because of his queen’s sensitivity about her ancestors? If so, I can't agree. Although understanding context probably enriches those events and characters for a modern reader, there’s plenty of meat in the plays independent of Elizabethan history or the actual history of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. In fact, that very universality is a major criterion in judging what’s good, isn’t it?

Coming at it from another important perspective, if a reader chooses not to examine the actual lines of the text, if he’s using the literature only as a way of understanding more about history, he’s a pretty limited reader. Should I trust a critic who's skimming in his study of character and poetry, a scholar who uses a play primarily as an illustration of some point about the Wars of the Roses or the aftermath in Elizabethan England--or 21st century America?

I don't mean that the two disciplines should never cross paths, and of course intellectual history and art history are legitimate, important fields of study--as long as they announce that their purpose is to look at the literature, philosophy, religion, art, history and so forth as disciplines in relation to each other. But too often I've heard teachers of English talk openly or even proudly of using literature to teach history, and through history, politics, and from there to the teacher's own biases. What happened to the text? I do not accept that the text is a mere prop for the study of other fields; it may be that too, but it must first be its own entity, worthy of and demanding of study for its own sake--its intellectual and aesthetic properties.

Students and other careful, well-intentioned readers must first approach the literature carefully, line by line, word by word, and comma by comma; from there it's a natural and legitimate step to challenging each other and teachers about meaning and technique. If that analysis does not occur, points about cultural, political, religious, or other contexts will amount to little more than sloganeering.

In turn, that is part of the reason there's so much animosity about political correctness, which should simply mean treating each other and our groups with respect. Instead, it seems to mean, "I had some communist professor who made me say and write things I didn't think or believe. That's why liberals suck." The logic is incomplete, to put it mildly, yet I can see where it comes from: the classroom as professorial throne, the professor as dictator, T.S. Eliot not just frowned upon, but banned.

Bring this into the current, so-called national conversation. It's become a shouting match, an amassing of cheap shots and lies. That has become the culture or context for our talk with each other. I'd rather read Roethke's "The Waking" one more time than listen to the hyenas.

A New Critical perspective, as I conceive of it, would say, "Wait. Where's the evidence? Where are the facts? Let's look at them carefully, thoroughly, dispassionately. To the extent that's humanly possible, let's leave self-interest, vulnerabilty, rage and bullying at the door and see if we can agree on what actually has happened and is happening in this text, which may be this poem alone or this nation and the world." Quite possibly, that kind of careful examination of text might even create a different context, a culture of analysis rather than rhetorical flap and hatred.

That's a lot to ask, and it will never completely happen because we are at least as emotional as we are rational. Shall we therefore not try it? Shall we accept our status quo: Loudest wins?

Shakespeare's Henry plays are very much about Hal’s development as a human, a man, and a leader, and the nature of—the heartlessness required of?—leaders. There's the simultaneous appeal and repugnance we’re likely to feel toward a wit and buffoon, a self-interested pragmatist like Falstaff, the ersatz survivor, who ironically does not survive (as Hal's pal, as citizen).

How in the world is all that confined to the context or culture of young Henry's or Shakespeare’s England? What could be more timely than the bellicose rhetoric of Hotspur, or Glendower's exotic claims of a direct connection to the gods, the question of whom we can believe, and when, why, how?

We don't need to study aged history to appreciate the meaning and relevance of this; we may if we wish--out of curiosity or idleness. But what we must do is listen carefully to the characters' words and look at his actions and see how they're alive today. We don't need to know the particulars of the cultures that produced these characters; every culture produces these characters, admires these characters, divides loyalties among these characters, fears these characters, obeys and is victim of these characters.

Shall we compare Hal to George W. Bush, two overgrown children born into the lap of everything? Hal made it work, while even most conservatives now say, less than a year after the facts, that W. never did. How many history books about the Wars of the Roses must I read to acknowledge the plausibility of that comparison? Or the rigors to which a successful politician must submit, even if he’s a king, supposedly ruling by divine right? My answer is zero history, zero understanding of other cultures to get the gist of these plays that might seem so rooted in and confined to their specific eras.

Maybe it’s true that Leonard Cohen could not have written what he has written at other times or within other cultural norms. Maybe his culture has helped to produce him--surely it isn't either/or, is it? On the other hand, many or most great artists were aliens, or rebels, in their own times and places. I don’t know if that describes Cohen, but neither do I think we must have those answers in order to understand and love the beauty or wisdom this or that song. If we have some knowledge of Cohen's personal or cultural history, it might be useful or it might be dangerous; our first job and pleasure is to hear the song, not researching the intellectual climate in which it was written.

Ditto the unknown player at the coffee house. He may be singing about personal issues in early 21st century America, but if he isn’t at the same time singing about universal human concerns, he won’t be much remembered or honored beyond his few decades on the planet. And if he makes a zillion dollars, it won’t matter in the way that Dickinson and Whitman matter--they should matter first for their poems, secondly at most for the ways they do or do not reflect their culture.

GPK, is that too pompous for the sly humor in your commentary? It won’t be the first time I’ve been accused of bombast. I very much appreciate the sly humor, provocation, and enlarging of issues that you bring to the table.

Aug 19, 2009



Backward now to my August 11 post and onward, finally, to GOTHPUNKUNCLE (GPK) with apologies for my tardiness and appreciation for his patience. This got long (what a surprise), so I’ll spread it over two days. Stay tuned.

First, here’s a quick and, I hope, unnecessary clarification: when I said "singer," I meant the composer at least as much as the voice of the singer. More literally, I suppose the voice is the bridge between the singer and the song, as it was written. The composer and singer are the makers, the song is the product, the poem. My analogy is apparently more complicated--and more flawed?--than I thought.

Now GPK, here are some of your comments and my responses. Since you were being frisky, I hope I don't sound overly serious here, but your points are interesting, important, and plausible, so I’d rather over-respond than skimp.

GPK: Wouldn't criteria for excellence just be a matter of carefully reading the Norton anthologies with an eye toward commonalities in its selected offerings?

Banjo52: Maybe so, and maybe the Norton is both stuffy and over-esteemed. (On the other hand, my 1973 Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry has 19 pages of D.H. Lawrence compared to 9 pages of Wallace Stevens. If that indicates anything, maybe we've overestimated its stuffiness?)

At any rate, to begin discovering great writing, we have to start somewhere. In the last few decades, why not the Norton, along with some other widely used anthologies? It will be decades before we know which living writers belong in the canon (need I mention Emily Dickinson and her anonymity?), but is that a reason to avoid starting the process?

GPK: I could study . . . Rolling Stone magazine's top recordings of all times . . . and The Billboard charts . . . . I'm afraid that the song has extrinsic value as well as intrinsic value. The New Vaudevillians won a Grammy in the late sixties for "Winchester Cathedral." I'm not sure if anybody even sought Leonard Cohen's opinion on this.

Banjo52: I’m not sure I get your point, but it sounds as if folks cared more about the song (or a rendition of it) than they did the composer? Is that a bad thing? Or it was a bad song and sold well?

How does Leonard Cohen fit in? For me, the answer would be that he wrote infinitely better than he sings, so thanks to The Powers for letting us experience his work--his product--in a variety of voices, some of them better than others.

GPK: Value is dynamic rather than static. Whose stock is worth more now? Does T.S. Eliot mean as much to readers as he did 40 years ago?

Banjo52: “Value”? I hope the marketplace is not the primary determinant of value. If so, poetry is virtually worthless, no matter whose work it is.

Interrupting our broadcast--
This just in: the remarkable video of the guy sliding down
a ramp, then flying up and over into an outdoor pool? I’ve just heard from the friend who sent it that he's learned it was doctored—photo-shopped. Is this one more Santa Claus deflation? And one more way to dispute The New Criticism? Or do we say, “That video is entertaining in its own right; how it got made is irrelevant?" In any case, it cued up a ramble from Banjo52.

Aug 18, 2009

THE NEW CRITICISM, Part 3, The Biographical Fallacy

The Biography of the Nut? The History of This Nut's Species? The Context of the Nut? What the Nut's Team of Psychoanalysts Said about the Nut?

Or the Nut Itself--Taste, Smell, Touch, Sight, and even Sound?

Regarding The New Criticism--my version of it anyway--the history, context, and so forth, of the nut are of no use, are without nutrition, unless the user has understood and experienced the nut itself. Once the nut has been experienced directly, by one who knows nuts, those other factors might make interesting playthings, but they will not feed the squirrel--who, I repeat--can distinguish a good nut from a rock, without memorizing Herodotus on the Peloponnesian Nut Wars.

Here's some more on the quasi-academic way of saying that.

Surely the “biographical fallacy” is a self-evident truth: good reading does not inject details of the author’s life into his writing. The author or his biographer might have gotten it wrong, might not have understood where a particular creative impulse came from. Or he might lie about it!

Yeats’s love for Maud Gonne, Keats’s love for Fanny Brawne, Nietzsche’s apparently pathetic life in relation to his bold notions, including that of a superman—these putative facts about the author’s life, juicy as they might be, should have nothing to do with the way we interpret or evaluate his words on the printed page. We’ll never actually know the biographical details, so let’s just do the honest, sometimes difficult work of interpreting the text.

Of course there are some qualifications. For example, language has changed since Shakespeare’s time, so we need an occasional footnote about telling “a hawk from a handsaw” in Hamlet or “’Sblood” as a recurring oath. And in Macbeth, it helps to know we can reasonably assume that childless Lady Macbeth’s comment about “the babe that milks me” probably refers to a child who died, given the commonness of infant mortality in eleventh century Scotland. What we must not do is jump to the conclusion that a significant theme in the play is, for example, a Shakespearean obsession with abortion-related guilt or the bard’s mourning the death of his own lost child.

Even the facts about the actual Scottish king should have no bearing on the Macbeth in the play, who is a fictional creation. Shakespeare played fast and loose with the sketchy historical facts available to him, so why should we bring them to bear on his plays, his works of art?

All this seems so obvious to me that I do not understand why the New Criticism has fallen out of favor in the last few decades, unless its proponents grew so extreme that they became absurd. I’m aware that the New Critics are associated with formalism in poetry; but I don’t remember, or never knew, if that was a justifiable connection or one created by their detractors. I see no reason why a New Critic’s careful attention to text—including punctuation and line breaks—should be limited to rhymed or metered poetry. Surely good free verse requires, deserves, and should invite the same kind of scrutiny.

Next, I intend to get back to Mr. Gothpunkrocker. But this should be enough for one day. Enough of what? Be kind. (Rewind?)

Aug 16, 2009


An attentive audience?

What's your take on Sarah Silverman? I cannot dismiss her as a raving psycho, though part of me is tempted to, when a person has to be always on the edge the way she is. Does every boundary she crosses need to be crossed? Violated? Slaughtered? It seems an unwritten code for stand-up comedy these days. Bill Cosby didn't need to go there, and I think he accomplished far more than, say, Lenny Bruce in terms setting a standard and creating a meaningful legacy. On the other hand, do the gross-out comics test the limits because the rest of us lack the gumption--or the intelligence, perceptiveness, and courage--to notice that some dubious boundaries exist, need to be tested? And yes, this comes from a (moderate) New Critic, looking somewhat at context in addition to--not instead of--the work product alone.

Silverman can be needlessly gross, but she is funny and full of insight, so maybe the targets of her satire deserve what she gives them. I’m thinking of a scene in her 2005 movie Jesus Is Magic, where the camera “is” a baby and Silverman imitates the typical doting, goochy-goo routines people engage in—well, let’s be honest, routines more typical of women than men. I’d never envisioned such . . . affection? . . . from the infant’s point of view. Now that I have, I have to suggest it's no wonder we're all rather disturbed and scared. No wonder we don’t want to hear new ideas or be challenged in any way. We prefer a calm, dark cave, and that's with no intention of reinventing Plato—just please keep us safe from that contorted face, that voice.

I’ve recently developed the notion that stand-up comics, the 1 - 5% with real merit—genuine cleverness, creativity, plus some substance, some content worth disseminating—have much in common with poets. Naked and alone before an audience, squeezing the world and themselves for every possible subtlety and precision of language and timing, every gram of substantive personal and social content, yet the guise of naturalness: “Why, of course, this is my real psyche, my real voice—yea verily, though it sometimes lapses spontaneously into iambic tetrameter or a pause for applause (Oh! I can’t stop rhyming! Make it stop!). Of course I’m visited by muses and demons . . . .”

On top of that business of rhythm and timing, the comics have to make us laugh as they stand there, lit up, sweating in a spotlight, naked, earnest, begging, and narcissistic, “Listen to me. Something is making me do this, though I don't know what. I will pay a price, so please listen.” What could be more like a poet?

Aug 13, 2009

But Seriously . . . Health Care, Town Meetings. Movie Bits.

Sunset Finch

After yesterday’s shenanigans about town meetings, let me be straightforward about health care for a moment. I always worry when we try to make everyone equally blameworthy or praiseworthy. In a subject or situation as complex as 300 million human bodies, equal responsibility will never happen. There are smokers and speeders and bungee jumpers and late-night revelers and parents who give their babies red meat or refuse to give them red meat . . . and there are plenty, plenty, plenty of the plain old unlucky. I've been there. Have you? Probably so. Maybe it's time we all drop the hysteria, study the material, do the best we can, forgive each other and pay up. Is that kind of thinking Communist or Christian?

And Mr. Gothpunker, I’m not forgetting you. I predict line-by-line analyses of your shenanigans in the near future (though I think I’m getting something of your drift about poetry, general culture, and elitism). I predict a return to highbrow topics over the weekend or early next week.

To lighten up for now, here are some random thoughts on movies.

I should have hated A Perfect Getaway but thoroughly enjoyed it. The plot violates or stretches all kinds of rules about manipulation and plausibility, but dammit, it's fun. And I'm afraid it badly, badly needs the big screen--some great Hawaii scenery that you don't want to squeeze into a TV, even your fancy flat screen. Don't quit on it after the first 15 minutes or so, where the characters are completely unlikable. Things change--maybe not likability, but just . . . things.

Recently, a friend asked what I thought about Judd Apatow’s movies. They sort of blend together for me, but I've enjoyed them all, at least as an excuse to have popcorn. Ditto The Hangover was a working definition of guilty pleasure. Even more so, Funny People, starring Seth Rogen (who else?) and Adam Sandler, who's usually not my favorite actor. Still, that movie had more substance than most Apatow films, though comedy prevailed most of the time.

Another pleasant surprise was 500 Days of Summer , which had a bit of an Apatow feel.

Go see a movie this weekend. Get out of the heat. Have popcorn. Be a minor sinner. Tell your intellect to shut up for two hours--nobody listens to reason anyway. Go to a matinee, so you don't have to tell so many people to shut up. Well, at least your odds improve. Have popcorn. Get butter. Then you're even with the bungee jumpers and NASCAR drivers in the health care game.

Aug 12, 2009

Health Care Nuts and Bolts and Nuts

Town Hall Bouncer Boxer Attacks Woman Who Calmly Inquired about Health Care Reform

Gothpunkrocker has given us much to consider about the New Criticism, and I intend to get back to it soon. Please continue to comment on that topic if you wish.

However, I just saw this video, sent as innocent horseplay, and I must reply. My response will make more sense if you first watch the video at

Banjo responds: I hope the town hall militants go after the guys in this video -- as one more group with whom they won't, by god, share health insurance payments, along with smokers, meat eaters, fat people (how fat is too fat?), speeders, drunk drivers, fast drivers, cell phone drivers, make-up applying drivers, drivers whose brakes haven't been checked recently, drivers whose tires haven't been checked recently, drivers whose cars have been bumped in a parking lot in the last 30 years, skate boarders and bikers without helmets, people who put butter on their popcorn, babies born to mothers who smoked tobacco, babies who were not properly fastened into up-to-date-safe car seats, babies who are left-handed, teens who play football, hockey, or lacrosse, people who annoy others into hospitalization in a mental health facility, the patients in the mental health facility, the bricks in the mental health facility, which reminds me of prisons, where no one, or his/her babies, should be insured--let 'em rot, even if they were wrongly convicted (by the way, I want them executed, but I do not want to pay for the electricity to fry them; the government or Donald Trump should pay for that). I do not want to pay for the health insurance of Lance Armstrong; his activity is dangerous, he is clearly obsessive, and by the way, he had cancer--once a cancer, always a cancer. Ditto any NFL or NHL player--and some will need my money because they all go to prison or move to other countries and become illegal immigrants.

And if you disagree with any of the above, contact Charlton Heston, my man at the NRA. Wait -- did he die or something?

Aug 11, 2009

New Criticism, Part 2: The Intentional Fallacy

Left: My Grandmother?

The Singer and the Song

So you say you love Faulkner? Me too (or at least I went through a mild Faulkner phase). Therefore, you want to know what he intended by blah blah about blah blah in this or that work? Who was the real Benjy, and was he in fact a savant?

In a PBS interview with Faulkner’s daughter a couple decades ago, when she was middle aged, she talked about being a young girl and trying to stop one of her father's drinking binges—she’d learned to recognize the beginnings.
“Pappie,” she said, “please don’t. Please stop.”
His reply? “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.”

Although it’s not relevant, I want to add that Faulkner's daughter, all those years later, was dignified and restrained in narrating this tale. Dignity and restraint are valuable weapons.

The point is, artists and writers full of psychopathologies have produced stunning works—Van Gogh, Plath, Sexton, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Nietzsche—the list seems endless. In fact, we commonly assume—don’t we?—that great artists have led unusually troubled, often mean lives, unless we hear otherwise. Presumed guilty (i.e., neurotic) until proven innocent. Somehow that mollifies and elevates our own troubles and meanness, I suspect; we are of a kind with Faulkner, or something like that. Never mind that he'd probably prefer we be of a kind with his characters.

Further irony: don’t we assume that literature offers wisdom, whatever else it might do? Yet we expect this wisdom to come from our looniest fellow travelers. The looniness produces the wisdom. Why else Lear's fool? And from there, it's only inches to: "I am loony; therefore, I am wise."

Of course some of that might be true. The point is, however, in being a good reader, it is wasteful to speculate much about the author’s life or his intentions, titillating as that can be, because authors are not completely aware of the correlation between their intentions and the object they’ve in fact created.

The work is on the page; read it. The writer is dead or dying or too flawed to believe, or simply unaware of precisely what he’s wrought. So what he says about his work is of limited value. Think of his commentary as literary fortune cookies, party favors, mints on the pillow. Do not think of his remarks as the entrée; that’s pointless idol worship. That's Hollywood. That's fawning from the mosh pit. Instead, read the damned poem. Over and over. Out loud. Can you chant it? Why not? Wallow in it. If it's too shallow for a long-wallow, there's your answer about how good the poem is, at least for you; and in arriving at that evaluation, you've probably come to understand it fairly well.

Was that too impressionistic? How about this hypothetical: a writer intends to compose a merely literal chronology of his grandmother’s life, but does it so well that he ends up with a brilliant novel about man’s inhumanity to man. Why should we deny his achievement simply because it was not his intent to produce so grand an object?

Of course the evaluation game usually goes the other direction, with the author trying for canonical greatness, but achieving only a superficial sketch of his grandmother’s life. In either case, his intent is irrelevant. The work product "is what it is," as we say these days; it may or may not be what its creator intended it to be. It sits there trying to come alive on its own terms, begging us to participate in it, not its creator's daydreams or the facts of his life.

More coming? You betcha. (I speak Alaskan).

Aug 10, 2009


As an all-round pile of virtue, I am completely honest about everything. So I’ve been getting militant about what we know, or think we know, or can know, or how we came to know it—or came to think we know it. We know very little; we inch forward. Yet others seem to think we can know so much we can play golf with God.

Among my several ongoing Herculean endeavors, I try to use strategies of literary criticism as a way to get at other problems, the solutions to which might prevent divorce, war and most human injustice.

I have breakfast buddies; one group of four meets every month or so, with the understanding that we have come together because we’ve been called upon to discuss timeless, epic matters, such as education, politics, and metaphysics—the usual suspects. From one perspective, these are merely more freshman dormitory ramblings. From another, better vantage point, however, it's clear that we should never pretend to have outgrown those concerns, for that is when we end up talking endlessly about golf, plumbing, brownie recipes, and babies’ bowel habits.

One Saturday morning the breakfast boys were speaking freely about the author’s life, character, and intentions during the composition of The Get-Down Dirty Frolick Papers. Turns out that Dickens—not Charles, but Big-Lew-Tiny Dickens (BLT to his breakfast pals)—underwent gall bladder surgery halfway through that novel’s composition. The vast majority of reviewers inferred, therefore, that Dickens’s thorough, precise, artistically rendered gore, splattered throughout the second half of his murder mystery, was the result of the author’s daily three-hour study of his own gallstones, which sat in a jar on the mantle, beside a shot glass with a cyst floating in formaldehyde—it had been removed three years earlier and is now widely accepted as the inspiration for Dickens’ contemporary classic, Chicken Fat Floats.

When I asked if they’d forgotten about the New Criticism, my friends stared at me. Puzzled, I gently reminded them of the New Criticism’s rejection of biography as a means to understanding literature. They stopped chewing. They raised their silverware as if to attack. Slim Tim developed a little spittle in the corner of his mouth.

These are smart guys, so their rage led me to wonder: am I the only one who still clings to The New Criticism as an approach to understanding poetry (I'd include all serious literature)—and through that, understanding what one can and cannot know about most things, from religious beliefs to magical popcorn.

The New Criticism was developed at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s and then at Kenyon College in Ohio. It remained in favor into the 1960s (Wikipedia). It still makes complete sense to me, but no one else, it seems.

The New Critics' thesis holds, modestly, it would seem, that readers and critics should look only at the words on the page to interpret a text. Serious readers are interested in the song, not the singer or the auditorium; leave the singer and his venue to the biographer, historian, or architect, not the simply good reader, whose subject is the song.

Stay tuned for more. Sleep well.

Aug 8, 2009


Or merely a robin bathing?

Aug 6, 2009


From a Noah's Ark, a racket, a chattering frenzy, a veritable chaos, a donnybrook of sparrows . . .

. . . Mister House Sparrow brings home the bacon to junior (or dudette--I'm happy to say I don't know the difference)--

Aug 4, 2009

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

This fuzzy shot was the best I could do--I don't see many of these guys and had to take what I could get.

Aug 2, 2009

Cardinal Miscellany -

is a very nice video of a cardinal nest with 3 chicks being fed, one of whom is surely Alpha Chick.

is a site with information on cardinals, including the fact that they are known by other names, including "Virginia nightingale."

I'm fired up about cardinals again because "my" couple has at least one surviving fledgling who (not "that" or "which," but "who") is feeding out back, sometimes with Ma and Pa, but usually rumbling around by herself in her '39 Ford.

I say "her" because of the current coloring, but that might change as the bird ages. I'm pretty sure I read once that the red-tailed hawk doesn't have that rusty red tail until its second year of life. Other teen birds also look like the female adult for awhile--the boat-tailed grackle, for one.

The daunting bounty of information on all these critters is what keeps me at the Class D Minor League level of birding and naturalist. On the other hand, I wonder if major league birders get any more of a charge than I do from knowing a cardinal or mockingbird's presence by the song alone.

But I do envy and admire the knowledge of these folks. I don't know about protocols for recommending other blogs (is it uncool?), but I'll mention two that I follow as examples of experts (by my standards) who have not lost their youthful enthusiasm for the subject. These are good places to get some education the pleasant way.

Susan Gets Native at

Aug 1, 2009

Blue Jay Arrival; New Blog; Deep Banjo Symbolism

Left: Flapping for Balance

FYI to my vast readership, a new and noteworthy blog in Banjo52 world is . . . look under the blue jay:

For now it’s a travel blog. But the guy can write, so who knows where he’ll go with it after his current trip in China and the Eurasian ‘stans.

By the way, I’ve just noticed the banjo’s shape: at the bottom, an exclamatory O! . . . which sprouts a lengthy antenna of intellectual curiosity (or is that modesty in disguise?).

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Lovers' Lane