Thursday, August 10, 2006

Harper's Magazine Sept. 2006: My treadmill tidbits

Forcing myself to mount the hamster wheel, I tell myself at least I can read a magazine for the half-hour, unless near the end when I crank it up to 4.5 mph.
For your edification, a sampling of what I've found from an hour's perusal.

76% of Irish Catholics favor an end to mandatory celibacy for priests. [The Irish Voice noted that in a poll conducted by Durex how the Irish claim to have sex an average of 103 times per annum, above the 93 or so European tally.] The final page Findings column concludes its deadpan coverage: "Images of pretty women can be distracting to men and can cause them to make bad decisions. A thirty-three-year-old meth user in Oregon who went to a hospital complaining of a headache was found to have shot himself in the head twelve times with a nail gun. [As Michael Palin was wont to moan: "My brain hurts."] Scientists said that the best way to measure happiness is simply to ask people how happy they are."

Peace walls in Belfast at the time of the '94 ceasefire: 30. Now: 41. I've earlier shared here the Beckett biz advice. Marilynne Robinson on neo-fundamentalists
"who treat the matter as if the central issue were the existence of God or the literal truth of the Bible. They overlook the implications of the dignity conferred on every human being in the narratives of creation. They speak of a right to life, an oddly disembodied phrase which, isolated from the human context, tends to devalue the incarnate person." All true, but the local bible college or storefront church doesn't teach Teilhard de Chardin, so where are those who look only at the KJV and not at theology past John Calvin not to mention the First Great Awakening going to get the idea of immanence or an event horizon?

Wal-Mart controls 20% of retail in the U.S. and up to a third of many products sold are in its stores, which dictate to companies what they should supply, how they must package their products, and allots a "captain" 70% of the shelf space for their type of goods, and that captain then dictates to the other industries with which it competes how they can stock the other 30% of the shelf. Kraft, Proctor & Gamble, Gillette, Coca-Cola, Levi-Strauss all suffer under this regime, not to mention Sears, Toys r Us, K-Mart, and Albertson's. Capitalism at its best, some say, but Barry Lynn argues that what capitalists refuse to accept from government oversight due to laissez-faire claims they grant to Wal-Mart: control that, as that firm itself complained when battling Tesco in Britain in an anti-trust action, when any marketer gains 30% of a market, "there is a point when government is compelled to intervene." The CEO admits this; Wal-Mart already controls more than 30% of many markets and seeks to double its sales.

The review of the Timothy Leary book has also been summarized earlier; a few more Irish-related lit crit connections can be discerned in a review of the pair generally consigned to the lower 50% of Nathanael West's four novel output. David Gargill places West well in his time. West believed that we need abstraction. But, in his 1930s, he judged how we have abandoned the idea of God; we lost the comfort of ''our most potent and edifying illusion." The people desperate to regain meaning and fulfillment, Gargill explains, West saw

"in his contemporaries' embrace of the spurious faiths of their time an increasingly wanton and fevered dream dependency. The cheap pantomimes of modern-day prophets, the success myth and its deification of the acquisitive nature of man, the dime-store pop novels, the salacious newspapers, the Hollywood endings-- all these he judged to be hollow conceits. The meretricious dreams of mass culture served only to debase the individual, leaving him in barren terrain well below the spiritual poverty line, barely able to suppress his hysteria, swollen with the need to avenge himself against his false idols, which had, in time, only come to reflect his own hollowness. the escalation of this paralyzed frenzy into anarchic violence was the apocalypse West foresaw, and in his ambivalence toward dreams-- their necessity, their danger and duplicity-- was his warning."

I wish Harper's was on-line. A lot to type out myself. But worth it, given Harper's lack of a generous cyberarchive. Gargill goes on to show how The Dream Life of Balso Snell burlesques the silence-cunning-exile "incantation" of Stephen Dedalus. West, basically a brilliant child who had read Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Flaubert, found himself little able to put up with the hoi polloi. Our h.s. dropout ubermensch faked his way out of Tufts through Brown. But, try as he might, he was still Jewish, and the frat wouldn't pledge him. Name, manners, his own will could not triumph over this ineradicable identity, in the prejudice of others if not in his own pride.

Those last thoughts are mine rather than Gargill or his subject's. Thinking as I ponder of my own and my children's hybridity, and how this inevitably is the American Way into a present and ever more a future of millions of kids who admit "I dunno, I'm just white, or 1/16 Cherokee, or my grandmother was from Spain." I'm reading David Pierce, an English critic of Irish maternal heritage fittingly, and he has a chapter in Light, Freedom & Song: A Cultural History of Irish Literature called "The Hybrid Character of Irish Literature." Hybridity bothers Dedalus as well as his family and schoolmates, as much as it does Bloom. As Pierce shows, the harp fights the crown for dominance of early 20c Ireland---and early 21st I'd add. Tescos, for instance.

Hybridity figures also in Robert Boyers' review of John Updike's Terrorist. Curiously, Boyer thinks "no doubt academic books will soon be devoted to something called 'the terrorist novel,' and scholars will again debate such hoary topics as the ability of fiction to do justice to politics and to reality itself. Well phrased, although I can look behind me at the spine of the doctoral thesis published as Gangsters or Guerrillas? Representations of Irish Republicans in Troubles Fiction, by Patrick Magee, who had been imprisoned after failing to blow up Thatcher in Brighton in '84, and remind Boyer such works have long filled shelves, if not as prominently as a novel by a heavyweight contender like Updike.

Boyer's beef is that Updike's too complacent to penetrate the cardboard figure of Ahmad he sets up as the protagonist and sticks to throughout the novel to its detriment. Compared to The Princess Cassamassima or even The Secret Agent, Updike's fiction fails to explore the depths of his character's inner motivations or how those around him who influence his revenge themselves can be as complicated as we realize humans are and expect our finer novelists to show in more nuanced and recognizable portrayals of characters who can convince us if not of their ideological truth than of their common bonds with us. We cannot get into Ahmad's head.
"We can believe in such a character but he cannot inspire in us solicitude or pity or even loathing."

One memorable instance: "Ahmad is numbingly earnest. Even when he is offered oral sex by a naked girl, he speaks in the usual stolid accents of his discipline ('I still hold to the Straight Path. . . Islam is still my comfort and guide.')" This reminds me of Ss. Jerome or Anthony tempted in the desert--surely even those we are instructed to admire if not emulate in conventional Catholicism display similar fanaticism in their determination, distorted into caricature as it seems to us, to renounce the wiles of women and their wicked ways. Francis of Assisi rolling in the briars naked to rid himself of lustful thoughts. Dominic brandishing the flame at that poor nameless humiliated girl pushed into his room by his family to tempt him away from his vocation. Kevin tossing the gal off a cliff (I think!) at Glendalough. Maybe Joseph dashing away from the couch of Potiphar's wife--although I always suspected maybe more out of fear of P. catching them in flagrante delicto rather than piety per se as the saints seem to reify if unrealistically for us sinners. More realistically the rabbis told the men if they had to sin, to do it with a woman on the other side of town, in the shadows, out of sight of the gossiping neighbors. That old Irish setting: "valley of the squinting windows." Think of Jesus, come to think of it as shown so well in Scorcese's film, speaking of desert seductions repelled. Hard example for the rest of us to aspire to let alone imitate succesfully, but such are the narrow paths to salvation.

Boyer imprisons Ahmad (who it is to be noted has a spacy but more familiar character type if only by contrast with dour suicide bombers, an Irish-American earth mother type mother, turquoise-bangelled) alongside straitjacked of flat figures with whom we readers cannot emphathize. Updike, Boyer argues, resists fleshing out his character to make him less one-dimensional and more like we see his mom or his Jewish high school counselor depicted. I have not read the novel yet, and the reviews have generally been harsh, but it does rouse my curiosity for Updike's attempt to--even if aesthetically it distances us from his protagonist--give us the unblinking true believer.

I think back on Irish fiction to try to find analogies. Troubles fiction is, as Magee would concur, not given to rounded Loyalist or Republican protagonists, and rarely are they in this category throughout a novel rather than as its antagonists. Off the top of my head, it seems all the republicans I can think of as main characters tend not to end their stories intact in their ideological allegiance and/or their physical condition! O'Flaherty, O'Connor, O'Casey then--naturally not McDonagh now: who has defied their norm? Perhaps fiction by its very insistence upon humanism (I guess I out my own ideology here) or at least the primacy of the humane over the mechanized, the reed that bends rather than breaks, gives writers an archetype few can counter. The contrast of the unbending injunctions and threats in The Green Book compared with the change of heart by Stephen Rea's protagonist in The Crying Game. Nuanced Collins vs. devious Dev in that film and in political myth. But, don't writers always want to check the advances of the regime? To detour around the barricades and undermine the impenetrable peace walls? Even when they lose the good guys will one day win, the example of the fallen inspires the fanatic to recognized the error of his ways and of his mates and of his flag, the duty to the individual trumps the allegiance to the ideal.

I had liked James Hynes' The Wild Colonial Boy more on first reading over a decade ago than when I re-read it a couple years back, but it does try to give us the p-o-v of an American lured into the clutches of the 'ra. But, I suppose, the fact he gets away at the end and keeps trying to give up the mission into which he's compromised while the bad guys don't win shows that he's not truly a terror-loving central character. I'll have to mull this over more: protagonists who do not surrender their Cause by plot's end. Conrad's twist in his novel holds promise--I wonder if Irish writers ever took it for their own revisions?

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