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.

Titles in “The Reader” Series

         The Reader 
      and the 
Paywall Poem
         The Reader
      and the
Wally Moon Foul Ball
         The Reader
      and the
Pool Hall Doggerel
         The Reader
      and the
K of C Third Degree
         The Reader
      and the
Professor Who Knew It All
         The Reader
      and the
Screwball PCH Big Sur Rally of 1972
         The Reader
      and the
Walled Out Surf Cove
         The Reader
      and the
Beer Hall Jukebox Sing-along
         The Reader
      and the
Union Hall Layoff Sign-up List
         The Reader
      and the
Baloney Sandwich with Mayo&Mustard on Rye and a Glass of Milk
         The Reader
      and the
Red Clew of Yarn Mystery
         The Reader
      and the
Fans with the Giant Red White and Blue Beach Ball
        The Reader
      and the
Short Tell It All
        The Reader
      and the
True Tall Tale
        The Reader
      and the
Tall Boy PBR
        The Reader
      and the
Plumber's Helper

Find a New Year’s Resolution at Berfrois!

Poem WalkingNew Year’s resolutions sounding redundant? Bored with the idea of giving up potato chips and dip for another year? Discouraged just looking at the stationary bike you got for Christmas?

Read the Toads post “Why Read Poetry?” at Berfrois, and make poetry a New Year’s resolution!

Unmoving Literary Works; or, Needs Editing, “Ha Ha Ha”

“Ulysses could have done with a good editor,” Roddy Doyle said, fed up with all the attention Joyce gets to the neglect of other Irish writers. “I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it [Ulysses],” Doyle said. Roddy was just stirring up the stew, tossing in some new ingredients, and no need to cook it so long over an open fire. Let’s eat; I’m hungry. But what of Paul Coelho; what’s his beef with Joyce? “Ulysses is pure style. There is nothing there,” Coelho said. We introduced the topic in Monday’s post: must a work “move” the reader to have literary value?

In his On the Sublime, Longinus says, “The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification.”

Ha Ha Ha! Take that, Coelho!

Yet Longinus also says, “In life nothing can be considered great which it is held great to despise.” But does the reader despise Joyce’s Ulysses for its “pure style”? Longinus said “that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface.” Is this true of Ulysses? And, if not, would editing help?

Longinus lists “five principal sources of elevated language:…the power of forming great conceptions…vehement and inspired passion…the due formation of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression…noble diction…[and] the fifth cause of elevation…is dignified and elevated composition.”

Can we edit one or more of Longinus’s principal sources of elevated language out of Ulysses and still expect something sublime to emerge?

But what of the idea that for a work of literature to be considered “great” it must “move” the reader? I began thinking of literary works that we might consider great yet don’t move the reader. I selected those works whose design seems to match up to Longinus’s ideas of the sublime and elevated language but also at the same time might, using Doyle’s critical voice as expressed in the Guardian article, have “done with a good editor.” Here’s the list, annotated with wry comments using the “must move to be good” literary critical voice:

1. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville: Edit out all that business about whaling, surely included simply to fatten the thing up, so Melville could boast he had written a big book. But the real problem is, can anyone be moved by the killing of a mad sailor by a vengeful whale? What has this to do with the price of a loaf of bread and a bottle of beer at the local grocery?

2. The Trial, by Franz Kafka: Well, it’s a trial reading it. And who was ever moved by a trial, particularly one that had no ending?

3. Three Novels (Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable), by Samuel Beckett: Triple play of boredom, the reader thrown out at every base, a runner that never reaches home plate. The work defines constipation, the antithesis of being moved.

4. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon: Where are those scissors?

Still, there’s something to the topic that invites comment. What is good? Should a work be considered good simply because it achieves its objectives, even if those objectives lack sentiment and fail to move? Or should we keep looking, for those books that are both “pure style” and contain enough sentiment to be considered moving? How about Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury?

Related Post: Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

From Longinus’s On the Sublime, Chapter 1: “As I am writing to you, good friend, who are well versed in literary studies, I feel almost absolved from the necessity of premising at any length that sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression, and that it is from no other source than this that the greatest poets and writers have derived their eminence and gained an immortality of renown. 4. The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification. Our persuasions we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer. Similarly, we see skill in invention, and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard-won result not of one thing nor of two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude.”

The Glass Guitar Ceiling: Rolling Stone’s “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”

The women’s glass ceiling, that invisible, clandestine barrier that separates any upper economic echelon of men from their connected but not equal women counterparts, apparently extends to guitar playing, as evidenced by the latest Rolling Stone list, “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (Issue 1145: Dec. 8, 2011). There are only two female guitarists on the list, Joni Mitchell (# 75), and Bonnie Raitt (# 89). Joni Mitchell was # 72 in the 2003 RS draft, Joan Jett # 87 (Jett didn’t make the 2011 cut). Lists, of course, are made for argument, so why aren’t there more women guitarists on the list?

But it should come as no surprise to find that one woman’s floor is not another man’s ceiling, for the disparity in nearly every correlation shows women living on floors far below men in the economic castle. The gender income gap has narrowed in recent years, according to US Census data (see chart), but the disparity that still exists can no longer be attributed to causes like the so-called pipeline factor (that women MBA’s, e.g., relatively new cohorts, need more time to assimilate into the system):

Source: DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-239, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2011.

A recent study in Catalyst dispels the pipeline and other myths that would explain male-female, gender-income disparity. Worse, the Catalyst study shows that playing louder, faster, or more power chords isn’t likely to increase the struggling female guitarist’s chances to enter the ranks of the top 100. According to the Catalyst study, women fall behind men in job advancement regardless of what promotional strategies the woman employs. In other words, these are women who know how to play the game, but playing the same chords as the men play doesn’t seem to garner the same audience. A 2010 Catalyst census shows that 92% of Fortune 500 company top earners are men, and only 14% of women are executive officers. So what’s a poor girl to do? To make matters worse yet, the Atlantic on-line just posted that “68% of the sons of the top 1% work at their Dad’s company.” The Atlantic post links to a recent study, “The Intergenerational Transmission of Employers,” and a blog post by Miles Corak, one of the study’s authors. Says Corak, of the elite nepotism, one with harmful potential, in the conclusion to his blog post: “If the rich leverage economic power to gain political power they can also skew broader public policy choices—from the tax system to the education system—to the benefit of their offspring. This will surely start eroding the belief that labour markets are fair, and that anyone can aspire to the top.”

So what women guitarists in particular did we feel were unfairly excluded by the RS list? Here are some suggestions: Emily Remler, Mary Osborne, Ana Popovic, Elizabeth Cotten, Sharon Isbin, Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ida Presti.

And the ladies were not the only slighted guitarists omitted from the RS list. We would be remiss if we did not augment the argument with some of our favorite male guitarist no-shows: Gabor Szabo, Bill Frisell, John Williams, Leo Brouwer, Herb Ellis, David Rawlings, Leo Kottke.

No doubt you have your own greatest list: “God bless the child that’s got his own.”

Related: Women Under the Glass Ceiling: Parity and Power in the Pipeline

A Portrait of the Retiring Reader

At El Camino College in the late 1960s I met an old man and an old woman in a literature class. I fell into talking with them outside class one day, waiting for the professor to arrive. The old man said he was recently retired from a life of work that had permitted him little time to read. They asked me what the young people were reading – outside of the class-assigned reading. They were looking for recommendations. I described the Beats, Ginsberg and Kerouac, and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, my interests at the time. The old man said he didn’t want to read something that might leave a bad taste in his mouth. Our literature class came to an end and I never saw the two old students again. 

I’ve now spent a life working and reading but still have a newborn’s appetite, but at the bookstore last week I picked up a used copy of Naked Lunch and quickly put it back down. I’m still the same reader I was as a young man at El Camino, but now, like the old man in my literature class, I don’t want to read something that’s going to give me heartburn. 

The many articles on retirement I’ve recently noticed are of course due to the coming of age of the Baby Boomers. If you were born after WWII but before Vietnam, welcome to the fold. Most of the retirement articles, usefully, focus on money: how much will you need, how long can you wait, what else can you do. But the question that interests me the most is how will you spend your time: Winnebago Weeks on Route 66; Lunch on the Beach at Laguna; Golf at Bandon Dunes; Flying Lessons Over the Mojave…Yes, yes, but after this, what then? 

For many of us, retirement will seem like popping out of the water after a long, slow commute to the top of a busy, crowded sea. After 30 years of working 9 to 5, we’ll find ourselves floating on the surface, surrounded by acres of open water under a baby-blue sky. What will we do with all this space and time? 

One activity for which some of us may be out of shape is reading…Yes, yes, but read what? I think of the old man and old woman in my El Camino literature class. I too now prefer books that will not leave a bad taste in the mouth. But what does that mean? We want to read books that will uplift, inspire, and encourage the imagination, books written with mystery, style, and deference, books that will float us on the open sea of retirement. Nothing sappy, mind you, nor condescending – we are, after all, adults. Here are a few books personally annotated – an eclectic selection of suggestions for beginning retirees, dedicated to the old man and old woman I met back at El Camino: 

Walden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau. Reading is economical. If Huck Finn is the beginning of American literature, Walden should have been the beginning of American economy. Here you will learn to live deliberately, and, if necessary, alone, but not quite alone, for you will have the woods and the pond and neighbors. 

My Garden (Book) (1999), by Jamaica Kincaid. This backyard Walden helped inspire my own backyard Salsa Garden, where we plant everything we need to make our summer salsa. 

Silence (1961), by John Cage. Cage’s writing is less annoying than his music, until you completely let go and find yourself laughing and enjoying the indeterminacies and exactitudes. 

Siddhartha (1922), by Herman Hesse. If you missed the serene trip in the sixties, you can read it in your 60’s. 

Memoirs (1974), by Pablo Neruda. The beloved Chilean poet’s memory is full of stories about life and a love for life. Neruda’s great strength was his patience and will to explore that love in a way that others might feel and see and taste and touch and hear. 

The City and the Mountains (1901), by Eca de Queiros. In 2008, New Directions published a new edition, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. The story is an exercise in compare and contrast between city and rural living. The many delightful but absurd technological inventions the city-dwellers value foreshadow our own time. 

The Square (1955); Moderato Cantabile (1958); 10:30 on a Summer Night (1960); The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas (1962) by Marguerite Duras. Mysterious, short novels, though not exactly mysteries, with fine dialog, setting, and characterization. 

My Antonia (1918), by Willa Cather. The look of recognition in another that lasts a lifetime of separation. A truly beautiful book. 

The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw (1989), by Patrick McManus. I first heard McManus as bedtime stories my wife read aloud to our son, the day ending for all of us in laughter. Now, I think there are few images as beautiful as an older person laughing, which is what you’ll be doing when you read this book. 

Rose, Where did you get that red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children (1973), by Kenneth Koch. From Koch’s experience teaching great poetry to children in New York City, examples of great poems with the children’s poems following, one illuminating the other. We can understand a great poem, get the ideas behind great poems, volunteer to teach poetry in our local grade school, and have some fun with great and small, old and young. 

A good reader is someone who can recommend a book to a friend and get it right. I might not have been such a good reader back at El Camino, and I’m still working on becoming a better reader. We read to remain in the world, and to enjoy our stay. We may have retired from a job, an occupation, a role – we hope never to retire from the pleasurable occupation of reading.

Common Earworm Remedies and the Mutant Earworm

Thanks a compost heap to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg (April, 2011) for re-infecting readers with a term we already could not forget – earworms. Earworms are snippets of jingles or songs that unwanted, uninvited, and unannounced crash the polite party of our otherwise peaceful thoughts. We now have a mutant version that has crawled through our ear producing an image of the brain as a worm farm, a compost bin of electric eels. Our previous version of the insidious virus was bad enough, a sponge soaking in brine. Our brain plays host like a seashore shell to homeless snails that worm their way in, and no Q-Tip can reach them.

It’s like the kid whose mom washes his mouth out with a washrag and a bar of soap, for she overheard him let slip with a playground ditty, a mouthworm, a dirty word, and she hopes to get to his brain by way of his mouth, but no amount of mouthwash can clean the miscreant tongue. Just so, Q-Tips cannot reach earworms.

The mutant earworm is a strain some think threatened by the current reading crisis, exemplified by the pending disappearance of newspapers. But its mutant capabilities seem to make full eradication unlikely. The very word “earworm” is a classic example. We now think of the brain as a mass of worms electronically touching ends, randomly sparking the dull slow mass to inexplicable thoughts, thoughts like thinking of the brain as a mass of worms…. The mutant earworm invades without benefit of the jingle or song. The word is enough, and it seems to infect readers more than non-readers.

Neurologists don’t know where earworms come from, and given the current health care crisis, cries for help are being ignored.

There are of course two kinds of earworms: the bad kind, and the good kind. They often travel in pairs, but it sometimes takes two or three good earworms to outwit the bad earworms. To outwit a bad earworm with a good earworm, it helps to have a ready list of songs you can stick in your ear, common earworm remedies, household cures. A few bars of any of the following should reduce your bad earworm to compost dust after a few bars:

  1. “Hear Comes the Night” (Bert Berns, 1964). Van Morrison with Them, 1965.
  2. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (1949). Hank Williams.
  3. “Walkin’ After Midnight” (Block & Hecht, 1957). Patsy Cline.
  4. “Are You Lonesome Tonight” (Handman & Turk, 1926). Elvis & other versions.
  5. “Skylark” (Johnny Mercer & Hoagy Carmichael, 1941). Many versions, one of the best is K. D. Lang’s for the soundtrack to the film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
  6. “Oh Lonesome Me” (Don Gibson & Chet Atkins, 1958). Johnny Cash 1961, Neil Young 1970.
  7. “All of Me” (Marks & Simons, 1931). Many versions.