“Therapy”: A Kierkegaardian Sitcom

Tubby is into therapy. On any given day, he might drop by his aroma therapist and get a concoction of essential oils rubdown while inhaling infusions of lavender and such to improve, for example, his virility. Or Tubby will go in for a bit of acupuncture. One of his problems is with a knee.[1] Or Tubby will pay a visit to his behavioral therapist. Or he’ll meet his friend Amy for another installment of pretend paramour therapy. Amy is into psychotherapy, so she sees only one therapist, but goes every day.

Tubby’s behavioral therapist has suggested he keep a journal, writing therapy, and he does, and the result is David Lodge’s therapy, a novel titled “Therapy.”[2] Reading is another kind of therapy.

Tubby discovers Kierkegaard, and is struck, somewhat fancifully, by what he sees to be the resemblance of Soren’s issues to his own. Judging from his symptoms, Tubby appears to suffer from depression.

This is the sort of thing that catches his eye in Kierkegaard, from “Either/Or”:

“What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music.”

What does Tubby relate to here? He’s not a poet. He’s a television sitcom writer, a very successful one. He has a lovely wife, Sally, and two grown children successfully out on their own. He lives in a nice country house with nearby club, and also has a flat in the city, and owns a custom car his daughter has nicknamed “The Richmobile.”

Tubby is free to come and go as he pleases – etcetera. But he has no rest.

It’s not even that he’s not happy. He’s able to enjoy the fine things his money can buy, but enjoyment seems something different from happiness. He contributes to charities. He’s a nice guy. He sticks up to the cops for a street urchin camped out on the stoop of his urban flat.

Tubby appears to be depressed, though depression’s close friend, anxiety, does not come along for the ride. Tubby finds in Kierkegaard someone who understands his problem, a soulmate. Again from “Either/Or”:

“In addition to my numerous other acquaintances I have still one more intimate friend — my melancholy. In the midst of pleasure, in the midst of work, he beckons to me, calls me aside, even though I remain present bodily. My melancholy is the most faithful sweetheart I have had — no wonder that I return the love!”

Tubby loves Sally, but he’s no longer able to listen to her, and when she tells him she’s leaving, he doesn’t hear that either.

The themes of “Therapy” are Kierkegaardian: angst and dread, though both wear a smile in the novel; the seducer, hapless but caring; repetition, particularly the attempt to recover first experiences and to reclaim; commitment, the idea of the aesthetic interest, competitive interest (which may include ethics), and religious interest illustrating three layers of involvement, an analysis that might be applied to just about any pursuit; the absurd (and what better way to illustrate the absurd in contemporary life than the sitcom?), and the pilgrimage.

Lodge has adapted Kierkegaard to the situation comedy, blending references to Soren and his writings into Tubby’s story in unobtrusive ways, but both implicitly and explicitly. “Therapy,” Lodge’s novel, is a situation comedy. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get or don’t appreciate Kierkegaard; the casual reader may still find Lodge’s book an engaging and entertaining reading experience, in spite of its existential crossings. There is within it a playful sense of form and voice. Plus you learn about the making of sitcoms, from an insider’s view.

But about that engagement analysis. The book ends, wildly enough, with a pilgrimage, and Tubby uses a Kierkegaardian commitment analysis to explain the various types of pilgrims he encounters. He glosses “the three stages in personal development according to Kierkegaard – the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious,” applying them to the pilgrims making their way toward Santiago via the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James).

The first pilgrim, “the aesthetic type,” is on the road for enjoyment, to appreciate the views, the air, the exercise. The second pilgrim, the “ethical type,” is concerned with propriety, the rules of the way, procedures, and may be critical of those pilgrims who don’t see the way his way. The third pilgrim, “the true pilgrim,” like Kierkegaard’s true Christian, embraces the absurdity of the non-rational – indeed, that is what calls her to it; passion supersedes commandment. There is no reason to do this, and that becomes the reason for doing it.

“The aesthetic pilgrim didn’t pretend to be a true pilgrim. The ethical pilgrim was always worrying whether he was a true pilgrim. The true pilgrim just did it” (“Therapy” 304-305).

Taking philosophical propositions and turning them into templates is probably a philistine idea, but one that might possibly result in effective therapeutical analysis. To use the three stages as a template, substitute any aim, belief, or disposition you’d like for the word pilgrim in the quote above: hipster, poet, professor, or politician, for example. Or try your own selfie identifying word in place of pilgrim.

 

[1] I’ve never been to an acupuncturist, enculturated as I am to believe health care is synonymous with medicine; but this week, walking in town, we happened to pass a sidewalk sign advertising group acupuncture. How does that work, I asked Susan – they skewer you like on a kebab?

[2] “Therapy,” by David Lodge. Penguin Books, 1996. I had picked up Lodge’s “The Art of Fiction” for a project I was working on. I liked his appeal to the casual reader, and looking at his other books, decided to try “Therapy.” Ethical type Kierkgegaardians may find it merely quaint, but true Kierkgegaardians might enjoy the humor. As for me, I’m not a Kierkegaardian at all, but thanks to “Therapy,” I do know now how to pronounce his name. Maybe that makes me an aesthetic Kierkgegaardian?

Sitcom

The Syllabication of Desire

You are here.In “The Stylization of Desire,” William H. Gass[1] complains philosophers have ignored the body. I guess if you live a life of the mind, you don’t dwell on the accoutrements. You save your energy for argument. Gass argues an evolution in the development of human desire, from a direct recognition and fulfillment to more sophisticated, abstracted satisfactions. A fly fisherman ties his own handmade, artificial flies onto barbless hooks, intending to catch and release fish not to be eaten. That’s my example, not Gass’s, and the fish dances, which is already style, but does the fish find or hunt the fly? While the fly fisherman is hooked on a style, not the object of his desire?

Gass says his subject is, indirectly, style, not desire. The hungry man finding food employs a different style from the hungry man hunting for food. The man who is not hungry, but who knows at some point he must eat, develops rituals when repeated over time create their own needs and wants, which may or may not have all that much to do with food anymore: on which side of the plate should the barbless hook be placed?

Style is need become recreation. Substitutions are impurities, and style is anything but a distillery. Style is additives, an acting out: a method, a process, a procedure, elliptical, indirect, never subtle. And style is a tool, a way of reaching for something just beyond immediate grasp or sight. In 1971, when Gass was writing his essay, the goal of music may have been lost in the style of sound systems, in stereo equipment, components, each creating its own desirabilities. The sound system is a stylization of music, as music is a stylization of sound. The war was sixteen years old, also a style, because there was no end in sight. It was the long reach of promise, the promise of style. You could master MLA, even if you had nothing to say. You could still read for style, before theory stylized the wrecking ball. Theory is a means to no end, all style.

By desire, Gass means basic human needs. By style, he means the infrastructures erected culturally and socially that achieve goals to reach those needs. To create the infrastructure, people have to agree about what they want. Things they want are then called values. Values are the styles of desire. You wanted a fish, to eat. You may have seen a bear or a bird snagging a fish from a river. You watched the bear eating the fish with her hands, cold, river to mouth, maybe a rock for a table. You could learn to do that too. But now you can grab a can of tuna off the shelf at the supermarket. You get a job so you can pay for the tuna. The job probably has nothing to do with fishing. It takes a whole lot of infrastructure so you can make a tuna salad sandwich, and all kinds of new needs are created along the way which have nothing to do with fishing for fish.

The object of desire is mystified by egress, the tool, the way. The path becomes the object of desire, as in Zen. Gass visited Plato country, maybe, but he seems to have been looking for a way out. Today’s gentrifications imply style, new rituals in old neighborhoods, where you can no longer belly up to the bar and drink beer from a bucket, which was also a style, but one now no longer valued. Styles change as values change. Gentrification is a means-end inversion, where desire for the object is lost to desire for the tool, and tool instruction becomes ritualized: indentured servant, laborer, apprentice, master, homemaker. This is the abstraction away from the body, from hammers and nails to blueprints and picking out your wall and rug colors and appliances. Houses, once homes, are now investments. Houses are the shells of families. The oldest ones have ceilings and walls and floors layered with sediment, basements full of dregs, the debris of style. An investment is not a body. But investments, like bodies, can get run down. Style is a value. Values are mutable.

But while the philosophers may have avoided the body, the poets embraced it as well as all of its functions. First comes the body, then the mind. That’s not to say the body is always taken seriously. From Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” a situation comedy:

“Speak, sweete bird, I know not where thou art.”
This Nicholas anon let fly a fart,
As great as it had been a thunder dent*;                     *peal, clap
That with the stroke he was well nigh y-blent*;                 *blinded
But he was ready with his iron hot,
And Nicholas amid the erse he smote.
Off went the skin an handbreadth all about.
The hote culter burned so his tout*,                             *breech
That for the smart he weened* he would die;                  *thought
As he were wood*,  for woe he gan to cry,                           *mad
“Help! water, water, help for Godde’s heart!”

From Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Episode Three, Stephen on a meditation walk:

Cocklepickers. They waded a little way in the water and, stooping, soused their bags and, lifting them again, waded out. The dog yelped running to them, reared up and pawed them, dropping on all fours, again reared up at them with mute bearish fawning. Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolf’s tongue red panting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffling rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody! Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.

From Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” 21:

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into new tongue.

and from 50:

Wrench’d and sweaty – calm and cool then my body becomes,
I sleep – I sleep long.

The body is energy, energy heat; how to cool the mind? Sprinkle some water on it.

In “Being Peace,”[2] by Thich Nhat Hanh, we find a tool that might be used to solve Gass’s algorithm, that style (means) usurps ends (desire), a game Gass calls civilization, the realization of values. Civilization is a clock, the stylization of time. It’s hard to live in the moment when the clock is ticking and clicking away. Tests are timed. Clock in, clock out. Days are geared for what comes next. Hanh’s solution, simply put, is to be in the moment, which requires body and mind to come together, stop arguing, come to some agreement. Hanh offers a three-fold mantra that blends breath (an amalgamation of body and soul) with mind. Breathe in calmly; be calm. Breathe out and smile. It’s not easy to smile under rigid conditions, but it’s even harder to feel anger, frustration, envy, or any of the other so-called deadly sins when smiling. Bringing the present moment into focus cuts style short because there’s no reliance on a past or future moment. There is no time for playing games, for acting out, for conceits and deceits. And there is no need for revisions.

In “Being Peace,” Hanh identifies three energies: sexual, breath, and spiritual, a trichotomy, but peace requires oneness:

Breath energy is the kind of energy you spend when you talk too much and breathe too little [many examples of breath energy can be found on The Coming of the Toads blog, including this post]. Spirit energy is energy that you spend when you worry too much and do not sleep well.

The Zen practitioner works on conserving energies, though if describing an expert at it, work might be the wrong word.

For some reason, we have language. What is language? Do all animals have it? Do plants have languages? Writing is the stylization of language. Metaphor is style. To live in the moment as Hanh suggests, to meditate, sitting or walking, may require thinking anew and reevaluating the primacy of words as a means to cut away from the hankering that looks before and after and pines for what is not.[3] To live in the moment may mean to abandon metaphor. To liken this moment to some other moment we must leave, momentarily, this moment.

Hanh’s mantra can be shortened to four words: Calm, Smile, Present Moment. Present can be substituted with wonderful. This is the syllabication of desire, but can it be done without words? Below is a table I created containing variations on the mantra, simple syllables, monosyllabic, mostly. Read vertically top to bottom or horizontally left to right or right to left. Note the mantras are presented with their counter or anti-moment-mantras, the desired calm moment placed near its opposite, acknowledging tension and conflict and the difficulty of doing this, of being calm, of smiling (Hanh is talking about smiling in the face of suffering), while some attempt has been made to create a cycle using the four seasons:

Calm Storm Smoke Motion Drizzle Quiet
Smile Frown Swell Blow Open Spring
Present Absent Green Tube Empty Mouth
Moment Nowhere Dwell Past Scene Space
           
Thorn Palm Face Prayer Smooth Light
Snarl Wave Play Tick Listen Place
Reach Hand Wall Honey Summer Reel
Mist Balm Way Brim Water Well
           
Naked Red Still Rough Sweet Noise
Laugh Close Rest Remit Toss Circle
Full Scar Walk Future Soft Moon
Ocean Door Rhythm Evening Fall Flat
           
Snow Freeze Silver Bleary Cold Cool
Spur Scowl Thaw Abstract Breathe Call
Hither Fix Winter Weary Slow Bird
Rapt Incessant Drip Notion Motif Bell
           
Calm          
  Smile       Wave
    Present Current  
      Moment  
Eat Drink Enjoy Labor[4]  

[1] “The Stylization of Desire” appeared in The New York Review of Books, February 25, 1971. It’s paywalled, but the first few paragraphs can be viewed. I have it in an old copy of “Fiction: The Figures of Life,” a collection of Gass essays from late ‘50s to early ‘70’s.

[2] “Being Peace” by Thich Nhat Hanh. 1987, 2005. Parallax Press, 118 pages.

[3] from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s, “To a Skylark,” stanza 18:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

[4] “And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.” Ecclesiastes 3:13 (KJV).

Ruddy Rubescent Red

RedIf you’re thinking about figurative language (and who isn’t?), you’ve probably bumped your head on the thought words have meaning, but whose? And too much meaning for their own good, or ours. We pick words like bananas, firm but yellow, not too green, ready to eat. We try to narrow our meaning, so as not to be misunderstood. Ambiguity is not valued in certain kinds of communication, but confusion is hard to avoid because readers puzzle over variations in a word’s meaning, and may disagree or simply read differently the meaning or significance of even the simplest of words.

It’s hard to stop words from connoting, from loitering. Words hang about, and we’re unsure what they’re going to mean next. Words are two-faced, and when you talk out of both sides of your mouth, you’re really asking for trouble. Denote this, literally, as if we are running our tongue around an auricle. The connotative meaning of a word is its suggestive, associative meaning, definitions farther down the word’s trough in the dictionary, the entry to the word corral. You might find a connection in its etymology between a word’s denotative and connotative meaning. The suggestive meaning of a word might include a cultural, technical, auditory, or personal source. Connotative meanings may be widespread and commonly understood, or limited to idiomatic or idiosyncratic inflections understood by only a few.

Try on, for example, the word red, the color, one of the three primary colors, located on the color wheel between orange and purple. What are some connotative meanings of the word red? Ideas, emotions, or things we might associate with red: shame, fear, or embarrassment; danger, risk, or emergency; love, passion, or temperature; emotion, anger, or temper; communism, US Republican states, or wine; blood, sacrifice, or courage; prostitution, fast cars, or valentines. Of course we think context is also a kind of corral, but its fences are weak.

Figurative language involves more than connotative meanings, but the difference between denotation and connotation provides an effective illustration of the difference between literal and figurative language, and since one of the characteristics of literature is the conspicuous use of figurative language, an early awareness that words may mean more than we want them to mean is useful. At the same time, literature involves more than the use of figurative language. Flaubert is very much interested in literal meaning and in literal descriptions. A Simple Heart might be described as a realistic portrait. But when Flaubert describes Felicite early in the novella, she is said to wear a red dress all through the year. A perspicacious reader may ask why a red dress? Why not a blue or green or white dress?

The narrator of “The Custom House” introductory chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter seems to be a perspicacious reader:

But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth, — for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth had reduced it to little other than a rag, — on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were  signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.

At first glance, we want nothing past denotative meaning. We get the literal meaning, forget the word, and move on. We don’t even bother rolling the word around in our mouth, tasting it before we swallow a meaning, minding our manners. The sentence got us to where we wanted to go; no need to get out and look under the hood. And we often keep connotative meanings, when we do experience them, to ourselves. And denotative meanings are fairly reliable, often going unchanged for long periods of time, while connotative meanings may change relatively quickly. We might first associate the color red with love, roses, and amorous adventures, but when Stephen Crane titled his novel about the Civil War The Red Badge of Courage, we may safely assume he was thinking the color of red might suggest something more along the lines of fear, blood, violence, and sacrifice. In the earlier parts of the 20th Century, and particularly during the 1950’s in the US, the word red was often used to suggest an association with communism, as in “the Red Scare”; a reference to a “red state” today appears to reverse that connotation. And then there’s true blue, Mary’s color.

For some reason, for Robert Burns, in his poem “A Red, Red Rose,” a single red was inadequate. Why does he repeat the word red in the title and the first line? Does he simply mean a very red rose?

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June…

For William Blake, in his poem “The Sick Rose,” primary red also seemed inadequate. How might our reaction to the poem change if Blake had said “Of red joy” rather than “Of crimson joy”?

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Is Burns’s rose blushing? Is Blake’s crimson closer to the color of blood than red? How might our reading of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” change if the line read “Of bloody joy”?

Even if we don’t make an effort to think consciously about the effects of words upon our reading experience, connotative meanings influence our comprehension and reaction. It is difficult to avoid the effects of connotation, of suggestive meanings. Remember the effect of the sound of fingernails being scraped on edge across the face of one of the green chalkboards back in grammar school? Words make noise. Noise soothes or grates. Words have texture and color and flavor. Some words are soft, mushy, others strong, firm. We like some words; we dislike others. When we get a bunch of words together we don’t like, we might say poetry, and spit them out. Or there’s been a stampede, words running ruddy and rubescent, out of the corral. But we can always brush away the ruddy gnats and make banana bread.

Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”

What is the “relation between literature and life” in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”? Maybe just this, that they both might move us to tears. But moving readers to tears may not have been Flaubert’s intent. If readers want to be moved to tears, all they need do is hit the streets, where reality resides, or watch the news. They don’t need books. But is crying into a book a kind of pleasure?

“’A Simple Heart’…moved me to tears,” Russell Baker said, in “Hymns to Joy,” a New York Times article, the quote selected for the back of a New Directions “Bibelot” (NDP819, 64 pages). What was omitted in the ellipsis was Baker’s simple guess that most literary folks probably will have read Flaubert’s tale of the long life of a 19th Century French servant, Felicite, but he had not. Baker selected it as he was gathering reading material to take on a vacation. But the angle of his article wasn’t about Flaubert or reading that moves one to cry, but the suggestion that reading for pleasure has become a lost pastime. But wouldn’t a common reader going on vacation want something a bit more éclair than Flaubert? But what is pleasure?

Like Baker, I had never read Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” and I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of Russell Baker. A cursory search found a witty, prolific journalist, and a host of Masterpiece Theatre – ah, of course. But I was sure of Harry Levin, also quoted on the back cover, having read his “Critical Introduction” to James Joyce. In Levin’s book “Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists” (1963), he says his subject is “the relation between literature and life.” Can literature not true to life move a reader to tears? Should literature resemble life? But what is life? In any case, while I wasn’t moved to tears by Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” I was moved to put something up on the blog – but what?

A recent post over at Bristlehound’s “navelgazer” blog takes on death as its topic. It’s a good post, witty and courageous. But as I get older, I think less of death than I do of getting older. Jenny Diski recently put something up at the Guardian on the topic of aging, concluding aging might be something easier to read about than to live through. I’ve written a bit about aging in past posts, and Flaubert’s passages on Felicite’s aging and passing reminded me of Atul Gawande’s moving articles on aging. How we respond to death may simply reflect how we respond to life. If life is a bummer, so too is death. If we take grudges to the grave, or we let others pass without our making amends, life is constriction. But none of this should bring tears to any reader’s eyes. Flaubert named his heroine Felicite for a reason, and he was a master of realism. Felicite is happiness, happy, another Gawande theme. But what is happiness?

Felicite is happy in spite of her predicament. This is why Flaubert named her Felicite – she is Flaubert’s definition of happiness. Her life begins with the existential decision to leave home after a potential partner jilts her for a chance with a woman with some dough. The only dough Felicite knows is the kind made into bread. But while Felicite is dependent on her mistress, she is independent in her capabilities, her skills, her ability to read others. It all seems so random, yet the plot elements also seem to fall into place naturally, inevitably, logically. Felicite examines her life, and it is worth living. Her every day is part of the exam, a test, in the end, she passes, even as the house decays and implodes upon her, while life in the street explodes with color and ritual and motion.

Fickle Moon

Plum blossoms fall in a cool moonglow,
and the calico cat cleans alone
in the delicate shower,
thinking, “How silly is this want of words,
where so much moonglow goes to waste.
She’s in the house, behind the curtains,
can’t see me awash in falling petals,
her face stuck in a moonless book.”

Another moon passes with more moonglow.
The ocean sky fills with gleeful moons.
The cat bats at the sweeping beams,
catching moon drops in her paws,
wiping moon balm across her lips and whiskers,
chasing yellow shadows in her tea garden,
thinking, “The television emits no moonglow,”
and cherry blossoms fall.

Another moon passes, and again she misses the moonglow.
Another moon passes, no moonglow for her.
The ocean sky rises and falls with full moons,
but no moonbeams come her way,
no moon drops fill her hands,
no moon balm wipes her lips.
The cat’s tail brushes daylily flowers,
and she bathes in a lavender mulch.

A loony moon glowers along,
heavy with a surplus of moonglow.
“Here, Kitty…Here, Kitty, Kitty…,”
but no moonbeams come her way,
no moon drops wet her palms,
no moon balm soaks her lips,
and no cat graces her garden,
ripe plums soon falling.

On Discussion

IMG_2347 "Let's dialogue"

“Let’s dialogue!” “Oh, please.”

What is there to discuss-ion? “Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said.* “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words.” As both a jazz and Cage fan, I’ve often reflected on the paradox, for discourse, “running to and fro,” seems an accurate description of jazz, with or without words.

According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the word discussion in American English is on the decline, following a peak around 1960. Interested readers may follow the link to an Ngram Viewer chart that graphs the word discussion found in “lots of books” from 1800 through 2008 using the corpus “American English.” But what is the difference between being involved in a discussion and having a conversation? Again using Ngram Viewer, we find conversation and discussion crossing just after 1900, discussion on the rise, conversation falling off, but recently apparently headed for another crossing, discussion dying, conversation on the upswing, beginning around 1980. What does all this mean, if anything? But it looks interesting, even if it does not provoke a good discussion question.

Are discussions weightier than conversations? We may not associate the chitchat, the tete-a-tete, with discussion, but with conversation. Do we gossip during a discussion? We prattle on. Are you still with us? Maybe conversations are more intimate than discussions. Can we have a conversation question in the same sense we have discussion questions? If words have meanings, then perhaps a discussion on discussion might mean something. But is mere meaning ever enough, or must we have entertainment to boot? To mean is to mind, as we mine for meaning. And Cage added, immediately following his seemingly anti-jazz comment, in parentheses, “(Dialogue is another matter).” What did he mean by that?

What are discussion questions, and should we have them? Can we have a discussion without a question to prompt one? What is the discussion question that can only result in silence? And is that the discussion we desire?

                                                 Give any one thought
                a push       :     it falls down easily
          but the pusher  and the pushed    pro-duce      that enter-
tainment          called    a dis-cussion       .
                  Shall we have one later ?

Cage, "Lecture on Nothing," Silence, 1961 (1973), 109 (the text is 
arranged in four columns, here approximate).

Without further ado:

7 Short Discussion Questions with Equally Short Suggested Answers:

  1. Q: Are discussion questions deconstructive? A: Pour the lecture neat.
  2. Q: Where would you like to sit? A: In separate sections.
  3. Q: Has education become entertainment? A: You’re taking me out tonight?
  4. Q: How can we improve the world? A: How long is this supposed to last?
  5. Q: What can we learn from randomness? A: Noise counts – percussion discussion.
  6. Q: Why even when diligently minding our own business are we often snared by a discussion question? A: “Do you know the way to San Jose?”
  7. Q: Does wasted time pay for itself? A: Time will never tell.
* John Cage, "DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD 
(YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965," 
A Year From Monday, 1967, 12.

On Setting and Narration

Life on the Mississippi

Life on the Mississippi – Reading the Waves

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s explanation of Lawrence Buell’s reading preferences informed by historical setting (New Yorker, “Go Giants: A new survey of the Great American Novel,” 21 Apr, 104), there’s an ambiguity, whether caused by Buell, Adam Gopnik, or both, I’m not sure, but Gopnik says Buell thinks Huck helping Jim escape is a less radical act in the eighteen-eighties, after slavery has already been abolished. The argument is made in the context of a comparison to Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, an inferior work, according to Buell, but one, the argument continues, that Mark Twain must have read in order to write his better book. That’s probable, but while “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published in the US in 1885, Twain set Huck and Jim’s story in “The Mississippi Valley. Time: Forty to fifty years ago,” before the Civil War and before Stowe’s book. Would a common reader in 1885 have understood the costs to a kid of deciding against the values of his immediate, local culture “forty to fifty years ago”? The answer to that question seems vital to Buell’s method of reading literature.

A common mishap reading any text occurs when readers confuse the author with the narrator. And often, indeed, writers struggle separating themselves from their narrator, trying to turn memoir into fiction, unwittingly revealing more about themselves than they intend. But crafty authors often deliberately create unreliable narrators. The lying or self-deluded narrator is most easily detected in the first person, but hidden behind the credible screen of the third person omniscient narrator, an author may still turn deceitful, sleight of hand tricks. And authors, too, often suffer from self-delusions. This isn’t so much about how literature works as how the making of literature works. But either way, readers may be easily confused. But how does that confusion matter to the reading of a text open to multiple possibilities?

Buell thinks it’s important that readers understand something of the times of the author; or does he mean the times of the character the author created? Either way, a reader who knows something of the setting of a novel will no doubt read it differently than a reader unfamiliar with the novel’s setting. But there’s another problem: how does a reader come to know settings of the past? Through narratives, some of which may be unreliable, even if cast in the non-fiction mode. And even if reliable, history is constantly undergoing revision. How does historical revisionism impact the reading of literature?

But the question of whether or not readers in 1885 understood Huck’s predicament given the novel’s setting is an important one. It’s a question we might ask of any number of literary works. Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957), for example, gets a new reading with each new generation of readers, but the further we get from the so called Beat Generation, the more we might need other works surveying the period of the work’s setting – a good companion piece to “On the Road” is “Go” (1952) by John Clellon Holmes. How readers respond to a narrative is dependent on many variables. Non-Catholics, for example, are likely to read Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” differently than Catholics, and Catholics who actually attended Catholic schools will read it differently again.

Where is the reader who brings no experience or expectation whatsoever to a text? They just might be the author’s best target audience. And likewise, why wouldn’t readers search for that very book, the experience about which they know nothing?