Posts Tagged ‘hope’
I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativism is defensible and attractive. It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it. (source)
From the Tumblrs: R. Crumb’s proof that there really is no hope.
The twins’ mother, April Gaede, who has been a prominent member of racist fringe groups like the National Alliance and the National Vanguard, brought up her daughters with the ethos of white nationalism — a mix of racial pride, anti-immigrant hostility, Holocaust denial and resistance to the encroachment of “muds,” i.e., Jews and nonwhites.
But after enrolling in public school and moving to Montana — a predominantly white state, albeit one with a decidedly hippie-ish vibe — Lamb and Lynx decided they simply no longer believed what they’d been taught.
Their transformation first became evident to Prussian Blue’s fans during the band’s 2006 European tour, a double bill with the Swedish white-power warbler Saga. Along with their familiar repertoire of Skrewdriver covers, racist folktunes glorifying Rudolf Hess and other Aryan “heroes,” and perky bubble-gum ballads about boys and middle school, the girls threw the audience a curve ball — a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
“Mama, put my guns in the ground,” they sang to a smattering of boos from the crowd of Scandinavian skinheads and other far-right music aficionados. “I can’t use them anymore.”
They knew it was an unorthodox choice. “Oh, our mom warned us,” Lamb recalled. “She said, ‘You know, some people aren’t going to like this — Bob Dylan was a Jew.’”
No time to post about it (I’m on my phone at the conference), but hey, how about Egypt? What a story.
I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.
I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.
* Bad news, grad students: Lack of sleep linked to early death.
* Joe Lieberman thinks he’s found a loophole in that silly Constitution thing: revoking the citizenship of suspected terrorists. It’s a great idea that has no possible downside and could never be abused.
* Oh, and Lieberman’s take on the Gulf of Mexico disaster is “Accidents happen.” What could possibly go wrong, that hasn’t already gone wrong, to convince these people that offshore drilling isn’t worth it?
* Natural Catalogue (in Alphabetic Order). Photos from Agata Marzecova.
* Eric Cantor booed by Heritage Foundation audience for refusing to name Obama a “domestic enemy.” The lunatics are running the asylum.
* Matt Yglesias covers some important bipartisanship cooperation from the U.S. Senate.
* Oil disaster update: Less than a week after British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and unleashing what could be the worst industrial environmental disaster in U.S. history, the company announced more than $6 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2010, more than doubling profits from the same period the year before. Robert F. Kennedy explores the Cheney connection, while Nicole Allan blames Halliburton.
* Hope: The Tucson and Flagstaff city councils voted Tuesday to sue Arizona over its tough new immigration law, citing concerns about enforcement costs and negative effects on the state’s tourism industry.
* Tough but fair: Goran Tunjic carded for fatal heart attack during soccer game.
* And your feel-good/feel-terrible story of the day: Local boy with cancer turns into a superhero for a day.
The following contains unmarked spoilers for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and its film adaptation. Be on your guard!
He stood listening. The boy didnt stir. He sat beside him and stroked his pale and tangled hair. Golden chalice, good to house a god. Please dont tell me how the story ends.
—Cormac McCarthy, The Road, p. 75
From the earliest pages of The Road it is clear that we are reading the most bleakly nihilistic novel ever to grace Oprah’s Book Club. Set after an unspecified apocalypse in a ruined world populated by thieves, murderers, cannibals, a man, and his son, in which the main character’s primary inner conflict revolves around whether or not he will have the fortitude to use his gun’s last remaining bullet on his son “when the time comes” (29), The Road winds its doomed characters and traumatized readers on a path through the Cumberland Gap towards the East Coast in a kind of reverse Western Migration, in which the final destination offers neither hope nor opportunity, just dead, stagnant water, not even blue (215). When they reach the coast, it isn’t long before the father dies of the illness from which he has been suffering throughout the novel, leaving the boy completely alone in a ruined, evil world. (The father, in the end, couldn’t bring himself to murder his son before dying after all.)
Up until this moment the novel is perhaps American literature’s best example of what I call entropic realism: the ideology of apocalypse, of breakdown, of things falling apart. Entropic realism is the literary-aesthetic positionality appropriate to depressive nihilism, when God’s being dead means not “anything is possible” but “nothing matters” and “there is no hope.”
Up until this moment. But now The Road throws its reader a curveball. The boy stays beside his father’s corpse for three days, and then walks about twenty feet before discovering a substitute father accompanied by a replacement mother and two ersatz siblings who happily take the boy in and provide for his well-being from then on. The end.
This second father, and the quasi-happy ending his unexpected appearance represents, appears completely out of nowhere, both narratively and thematically. There is nothing in the book before the last six pages that suggests any sort of non-disastrous resolution to this story is possible, nothing in the world McCarthy makes that gives us license for this sort of hope. That the man would die, and that his son would be better off dead than alive without him, are both framed as inevitable, as the only possible ending for the story despite any desire that it be otherwise. True to its entropic realism, in The Road all stories end in failure and death; see, by way of example, meditations on this pessimism on 153-154, 168-169, 242-243, and elsewhere. (Please, don’t tell me how the story ends.)
The book hammers home, time and again, that such things as “trust,” “kindness,” and “happy endings” are artifacts of a dead world that is never to return, and any hope they might is just a fairy tale, a dream:
In his dream she was sick and he cared for her. The dream bore the look of sacrifice but he thought differently. He did not take care of her and she died alone somewhere in the dark and there is no other dream nor other waking world and there is no other tale to tell. (32)
I went to see the film last week specifically to see how this ending was played cinematically, and I can confirm it is played entirely straight: the substitute father appears out of nowhere twenty feet away, emerging not three days but seemingly three minutes after the first father has died. The end.
There is, I argue, something necessarily unsatisfying about this ending for nearly any reader of The Road. It just doesn’t make sense, doesn’t fit; it doesn’t seem “realistic.” Just where has this new family come from? How have they survived, intact and apparently secure, all this time? Why have we never seen any hint, before p. 281, that any such people yet remained alive?
The strange improbability of the ending has suggested to many readers that The Road is a book about faith being rewarded, a book, indeed, about miracles—if not a book about the literal Tribulation described in the book of Revelation. The father’s last recorded words suggest this sort of redemptive religious possibility: “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again” (281). In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
But I would frame my reading of The Road differently. I think the ending is a kind of dare, or leap of faith, or perhaps even a sort of literary Rorschach test. After everything you have seen, can you let yourself believe a happy ending is actually possible? Can you, as they say, buy this?
The possibility that we can’t is repeatedly thematized throughout the novel. The boy is preoccupied with narratives and the problem of their realism, particularly by the growing sense he has that the actions he and his father take, and the world in which they live, do not comport with the moral fables about “good guys” and “bad guys” on which he has been raised. In one of the last lengthy conversations he has with his father this comes out explicitly:
Do you want me to tell you a story?
The boy looked at him and looked away.
Those stories are not true.
They dont have to be true. They’re stories.
Yes. But in the stories we’re always helping people and we dont help people.
Why dont you tell me a story?
I dont want to.
I dont have any stories to tell.
You could tell me a story about yourself.
You already know all the stories about me. You were there.
You have stories inside that I dont know about.
You mean like dreams?
Like dreams. Or just things that you think about.
Yeah, but stories are supposed to be happy.
They dont have to be.
You always tell happy stories.
You dont have any happy ones?
They’re more like real life.
But my stories are not.
Your stories are not. No. (267-268)
In these terms, of course, the ending of The Road, while “happy,” is plainly not “true”; it fulfills the structural requirement that “stories are supposed to be happy” at the cost of its own realist coherence. In its final six pages The Road unexpectedly abandons its relentless entropic realism and becomes more like a fable or dream—both words that appear on the novel’s first page, and which, especially in the case of dreams, are central preoccupation of the characters throughout.
He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.
And the dreams so rich in color. How else would death call you?
When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that will never be and you are happy again then you will have given up.
Page 269, just after the part of the conversation quoted at length above:
(the boy speaking) I dont have good dreams anyway. They’re always about something bad happening. You said that was okay because good dreams are not a good sign.
To accept the book’s uncomplicatedly happy ending at face value would be to ignore everything we have seen thus far, including, in the pages before the declaration that good will always win in the end, these repeated assertions that such moral fables are lies that will only make you weak. To believe in happy endings, in this particular happy ending, is therefore in the book’s terms to be seduced by what is not real, potentially at the cost of your life. If we take seriously the way the text opposes both dreams and stories against the one-way entropic directionality of “real life,” the apparent happy ending therefore becomes a deeply problematic structural excess: a miraculous suspension of the novel’s own basic law of nature.
But other sorts of readings do present themselves. Instead of accepting that The Road ends happily, despite its own self-prophesy, we can reject the apparent happy ending and conclude (for instance) that everything that happens after p. 281 is merely the father’s interior dream as he dies.
Now, this is so dramatic a manipulation of the text’s surface meaning as to be fairly described as willful misreading. I was first exposed to this alternative ending by my mother, who considered it the plain meaning of the novel until I told her most people don’t actually read the book that way. But as I reread The Road to write this post I found more and more evidence of this possibility staring me in the face: why else, we might well wonder, is the novel so preoccupied with the father’s belief that a man close to death has happy dreams? And when I’ve brought this reading of the novel up at academic conferences I’ve seen the same reaction in others: a sense that this reading may in some sense be better than that the straight one, that it alone accounts for the novel as a totality.
Now of course I don’t actually believe in the dream ending either. This is a fan rewrite, something akin to The Phantom Edit. I certainly don’t think it’s what Cormac McCarthy “intended”—though, with so many references to dreams, death, and the problem of endings, who can say? Rather, I perform this self-conscious misreading as a way of making clear that at the end of the novel The Road is divided against itself: it becomes a site of indeterminacy hovering between two possible end states, almost like a thought experiment out of quantum mechanics. The boy is simultaneously rescued (and we happy, if naive) and doomed (and we sad, but wise); the boy is both at once, suspended permanently in a zone of interpretive indecision.
It seems impossible not to choose one or the other, but I think the novel may be best if we decline; that very indecision, the impossible demand that an ending somehow be both “happy” and “realistic” at the same time, is itself the novel’s crux.
The Road, in essence, provides us with a happy ending we cannot believe and sadder endings we do not want to accept, and dares us to choose between them. In this way I think The Road is best read as a deconstruction of the evaluative terms by which we normally judge stories—a refusal, that is, of the very possibility of narrative closure altogether. Midway through the book the usual flow of narration suddenly breaks to assert this very point directly:
Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground. (196)
Life, would that it were otherwise, is not a story. In its ending The Road embodies the conflict between the ordered teleology of story and the disordered antinarrative of life as it must actually be lived. The entropic realism of the text is necessarily in irreconcilable tension with its own miraculous ending; we simply can’t have both. Please, the novel seems to say to us, and we to it: don’t tell me how the story ends.
Today’s coolest ten-year-old in the world.*
* award subject to revocation if it turns out his parents put him up to it
Infinite Summer #6: Environmentalism, Consumerism, Addiction, Johnny Gentle (Famous Crooner), and the Politics of Hope
On the question of irony—where I left off last time, and where Infinite Zombies’ Daryl Houston starts off in his latest post—it’s a little difficult for me to know exactly how to read this week’s section on the Reaganesque presidency of Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner. The signposts for reading this section as a satire are all there, not just in Gentle’s OCD and Howard-Hughes-style obsession with cleanliness but also in the complete vacuity of C.U.S.P.’s political agenda—but it is difficult to tell whether the narrative’s apparent contempt for environmentalist thinking is an aspect of the satire or the motivation for it. Gentle’s political party, the Clean U.S. Party—an unlikely political coalition comprised of “ultra-right jingoist hunt-deer-with-automatic-weapons types and far-left macrobiotic Save-the-Ozone, -Rain-Forests, -Whales, -Spotted-Owel-and-High-pH-Waterways ponytailed granola-crunchers” whose first platform was organized around the ingenious plan “Let’s Shoot Our Wastes Into Space”—is organized around an anti-ecological version of supposed environmentalism that understands “American renewal” as “an essentially aesthetic affair” (382). This is, then, a fairly pitch-perfect satire of ecology as ideology, the empty apolitics of the sort “we can all agree to” that looks for consumer-friendly solutions to the environmental catastrophe caused by consumerism itself. This is our moment: “a dark time when all landfills got full and all grapes were raisins and sometimes in some places the falling rain clunked instead of splattered” (382).
I can think here of nothing so much as a DFW quote on addiction Daryl highlighted in his own post:
An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to is lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign. But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problesm for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as a relief from the very problem it causes.
Consumerism, I think, clearly qualifies, as Wallace shows throughout this section.
In IJ, it’s our malignant addiction to a consumer lifestyle that leads to Gentle’s experialist mandate, the outsourcing of environmental costs to Indian reservations and our partner “enemy-allies” (385) in O.N.A.N. It’s this malignant addiction that leads us to build wasteful and inefficient fusion reactors even though they have the “generating-massive-amounts-of-high-R-waste part down a lot more pat than the “consuming-the-waste-in-a-nuclear-process-whose-own-waste-was-the-fuel-for-the-first-waste-intensive-phase-of-the-circle-of-reactions part” (1029n150).
In the end it leads even to the forcible gifting of most of New England to Canada as the Great Concavity/Convexity, hollowed out and glass-walled with giant fans blowing our toxic air northward (385). There’s a fair critique of NIMBYism here, as well as the perpetually empty promise of near-future technological millennialism that has been so deftly exploited by the partisan right-wing and their corporate allies to preempt all environmentalist reforms over the decades. There’s a critique of the politics of Othering, too, the need for “some people beside each other of us to blame” (384) and the national ennui that apparently comes from a post-Soviet, post-Jihad era with no “Foreign Menace” to distract us from the problems of our own making (382). (What, we skipped China?) And there’s, yes, a critique of the left-wing, more-eco-than-thou granola set in (among other things) Gentle’s addictive obsessive-compulsive cleaniness and C.U.S.P.’s easy consumerist ethos, though frankly this critique seems much more of the strawman variety than most of Wallace’s jokes.
But is this scattershot, unstable irony all there is here? A pox on everybody’s house? Is there any place for the reader of Infinite Jest to imagine a non-hypocritical, anti-consumerist politics? Do we really have no stable interpretive ground on which to stand? History seems in this novel to have somehow calcified into an inevitable trajectory of decadent disposability, and the only suggested response for the educated observer of these trends seems accordingly to be a bitter, smug withdrawal. I want to see DFW as getting past mere smugness into something more viable, but he doesn’t make it easy. The only way out of this trap of hopeless cynicism that I can see so far lies in the unstable irony inherent in the novel’s own presentation, its cartoonish and over-the-top hyperbole. Here, it’s the fact that all this information is literally being conveyed to us through the well-respected and politically responsible medium of video puppet show, organized around Mario and his father’s penchant for the “parodic device of mixing real and fake news-summary cartridges, magazine articles, and historical headers” (391). But I’m not sure irony alone is enough to get us out of smugness—I’m just not sure yet if the novel gives us much hope for escape from the surreal banality of turn-of-the-millennium American life, hope for something after or beyond consumer culture. We’ve already seen in IJ the transcendental existential threat of the Entertainment, which clogs entirely our ability to want anything besides it. Elsewhere, as with Gately, we see that addictions can in fact be broken, that renewal is difficult but still possible—but where is that hope here?
The use of the phrase “years right around the millennium” in the same footnote I cited above contains, I think, an important ambiguity for all this—from what point in the future, and from what cultural assumptions, are we to understand this book actually being composed? Is it a moment where this sort of perpetual-motion fusion suddenly somehow works—a time in which the miracle works? A moment in which the Entertainment, or something like it, has destroyed the culture entirely? Or, perhaps, a moment that is not “a terrible U.S. time for waste” for other, more politically hopeful reasons—a moment where, beyond belief, we have somehow managed to change?
Can addictions only be beaten when they originate in an individual’s excess? When an addiction is communal—when it is ideological and so totally normalized—what is our prescription for hope?
You are clearly not exactly the person we hoped you would be. And perhaps it was wrong and impractical and unrealistic of us to lay such hopes upon you.
Still not sure whether the “Colbert” was pulled on Obama or on his disenchanted supporters. I think both.
Kyle Smith in the New York Post has some fun with the new Springsteen single, “Working on a Dream,” which he feels augurs a frightful new era of songs in which Bruce is happy with the world as it is.
There is a bracing consistency in Springsteenian gloom, from the Ford years (“The street’s on fire, a real death waltz”) to Carter’s (“Lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy”) to Reagan’s (“This old world is rough, it’s just getting rougher”) to the first Bush’s (“Ain’t no mercy on the streets of this town, ain’t no bread from heavenly skies”) to Clinton’s (“Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia?”) to the second Bush’s (“Woke up Election Day, skies gunpowder and shades of gray”). If the Boss has a motto, it has always been this: No hope, no change, no way.
What’s his next song going to be called – “Goodlands”? Will universal pre-K childcare give us “Junglegymland?” I for one am not looking forward to “Tenth Avenue Love-In,” “Happy Heart” or “57 Channels (and a Lot of It Is Really Interesting Interviews with Cabinet Members About How They’re Going to Improve Everyone’s Job, School, and Personal Dignity).” Instead of looking for inspiration to John Steinbeck to make “Ghost of Tom Joad” or to Pete Seeger for covers of one of the old let’s-make-a-union-that’ll-one-day-destroy-the-car-industry songs, could Bruce take a Lauperian turn and surmise that we’re all just “Born to Have Fun”?
The song’s now available on iTunes. Here’s the live debut from an Obama event last month, which frankly I think sounds significantly better than the single. (I love him, but the Boss tends to overproduce the studio albums. It’s true.)
A judge on Tuesday ruled that a strict Florida law that blocks gay people from adopting children is unconstitutional, declaring there was no legal or scientific reason for sexual orientation alone to prohibit anyone from adopting. Yes, yes, yes. No moral reason, no practical reason, no good reason, no reason, period.
Image of the day: a small crowd gathers around the Lincoln Memorial last Tuesday night to listen to Obama’s acceptance speech on transistor radio. Via Kottke. Here’s the description of the scene from the photographer.