Friday, June 30, 2006


Science and Poetry: the two areas of life where contemporary practitioners are most dependent on the inventions and discoveries of their predecessors.

Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife contains some great poetry. It reminds me of two other poets. First, Robert Browning, as far as I know the inventor of the dramatic monologue in another persona for poetry. His influence on modern poetry is sweeping (and poetry with his influence is often sharper, harder, stronger than the confessional poetry that is everywhere in the 20th century). The other influence is Ted Hughes: in the modern verse, the ironic, somewhat detached tone, and the re-imagining of old myths.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Toni Morrison and more

What makes Toni Morrison such an important American writer? She is better than anybody I've read at showing how racism and institutional oppression becomes internalized in the oppressed. In The Bluest Eye, there are examples of clear racism of whites toward blacks--but the focus of the novel isn't on these clear-cut examples of repulsive prejudice and behavior, but on the internal effect such prejudice and behavior can have. As I'm finishing up Beloved (not as good as The Bluest Eye, but as it is clearly about the legacy of slavery, many seem to see it as the more important book. I'm not sure it is...but I'm not sure it isn't), again I see that there are overt forms of racism and oppression being described--but the thrust of the novel seems to be on the effect of this oppression on black people, and the internal lives of those who suffer such experiences. And Morrison's style and insight does the trick of showing us the internal experience.

Is the ability to show internal experience the difference between entertainment and art? If so, then film is an inferior artform to literature, to "art art" (paintings and sculptures), and even, yes, television. Often in film, time limits require that great changes occuring in a character (and great changes in people often develop slowly over time) must be symbolized in shorter, quicker changes. In many films, the internal change a character quickly goes through can seem inauthentic--it must be shown too quickly. Novels can show this. TV series can show this. Visual art, perhaps, doesn't show the change, but tries to make physical and visual that internal, and the great artists succeed. And yet, a film is more likely to make me cry than any other film.

Speaking of crying during film, a second viewing of Brokeback Mountain helped me to understand the effect this film had on me. This is a movie about...

(here it comes)


It's not just about the homosexual relationship; it's about all sorts of expectations and pressures placed on men in America. It is brilliant. I think on the first viewing I was able to feel how the movie presented this; after the second viewing, after much time and thought and the commentary of others, I have been able to think about it. The expectations involving work, family, physicality, expression of emotion,'s all there. If you want to explore this further, do a little research into why the NFL didn't allow the filmmakers to use footage of their games during the Thanksgiving meal scene involving Jack Twist, his son, and his father-in-law.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Pushing the novel

In A Gathering of Old Men (a good book with a subtle narrative drive and symbolism), Ernest Gaines uses the narrative form of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: he uses a series of first person narrators, with different characters telling the story in different chapters.

The form doesn't add a lot to the theme or the story, but it works.

Every time I read a jumping first person narration, I'll think of Faulker, who I believe invented it. But 200 years from now will readers think of that, or will it just be another literary form? When I read a novel written in an epistolary form, I don't necessarily think "Oh, this is taken from Richardson." And there are all sorts of other narrative techniques for fiction that can be traced back to a particular innovator somewhere (Cervantes and Flaubert come to mind as so influential on all novels that it's difficult to even consider the influence).

I look at it this way: the jumping first-person narration is Faulkner's contribution to expanding the novel form in all its potential. He invented that particular narrative form, and now it's there to be used. Gaines isn't the first writer to make use of this, and he won't be the last. Faulkner broke it open: first-person narration doesn't have to be limited, it can jump from character to character allowing different perspectives and ideas, and now that's just one more choice a writer can make when creating a novel.

I believe T.S. Eliot has written on the subject of poetic influence (and there's Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence). A lot of work has been done on examining how poets write with and against innovative poets of the past. A lot of work has been done on fiction, too, but less attention is given to form in fiction than in poetry. Novelists contribute concepts, and future novelists use them for their own purposes. John Fowles has his author show up as a character in a book. So does Stephen King (and King has read Fowles). Fowles got some of his metafiction ideas, as I understand, from Beckett. Beckett's relationship to theater makes for a good gateway of metafiction: all theater is metafiction, and modern theater makes that explicit. So once an innovative, creative novelist pushes the limits of form for the novel, two things happen. One, other innovative, creative novelists push those limits and try go further and further. Two, that form is now available for any writer's use. In A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines didn't do anything to push the form further; he just uses one of the available forms of narration that, I would guess, he thought would work best for the story he wanted to tell.

A few other book comments.
Luther Man Between God and the Devil: the most sickening part of Luther the man is his attitude toward the Jews. Oberman does a good job of examining Luther's attitude toward jews with an attempt to understand it while not simply explaining it way: he doesn't shy away from the subject, and remains justly harsh (calling one of Luther's tracts a call for a pogram). Luther is no saint: this aspect of his personality must be confronted, examined, and repeated.

Elliot Kalb's Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball?: While doing a little research for an entry on my sports blog on Wilt Chamberlain (and since I forgot my notes on the subject at home, I'll probably wait to write that entry rather than use my 60 minutes here re-researching), I looked at Kalb's chapter arguing that Shaq is the greatest basketball player ever. He uses three very shoddy arguments, in my opinion. One, he argues that Shaq was clos to winning more scoring titles than he did. To that I say, so what. Two, he compares playoff series won by Shaq's teams and Russell's teams. To that, I say, "OK, so Russell missed out on a lot of easy first round victories). And finally, he talks of Shaq's "rebounding prowess," then showing his season rankings without comment. What is evident is that Shaq never led the league in rebounding--not once. In fact, you can make an argument that of the greatest centers ever, Shaq is the worst rebounder of the group. It's a chapter with poor logic and unconvincing arguments. Anyway, I guess this should be on the sports blog, shouldn't it?

Friday, June 09, 2006

History Project

Though I've got 40 pages left in the final book, here are my brief comments on the Luther biographies I've read so far. They stand as 3 distinct ways to do history.

Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther
This is mostly a conventional history biography, but of the best sort. Bainton brings a real life to his subject. There are moments when it reads like a novel. Bainton also gives a glowing perspective: Luther's flaws are pointed out, but quickly glossed and always followed by an attempted explanation. I recommend it as a starting point on Luther's life.

Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther
As Dr. Buschen says, this is psychanalytic history par excellence. I would summarize two areas of focus: Martin's stormy relationship with his father, and the development of a "great man" through an identity crisis. This book is a bit dense sometimes, but Erikson fills it with incredible ideas and insightful comparisons. While finishing it up, I thought that if people really want to understand me, they should read this book.

Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil
Here we have Revisionist History. Erikson involves some historiography, but Oberman takes history on in force. He is essentially taking common perceptions and myths of the meaning of Luther and explaining why they are wrong. He gives a wider context to Luther's time in order to make sense of Luther the man and his theology (for example: other biographers gloss the reason the Augustinians sent Luther to Rome, and focus on his experience there; Oberman gives the context and meaning of the monastic conflict that sent Luther to Rome, which helps to illuminate the broader issues going on leading up to the Reformation).
I recommend this history if you are already familiar with Luther's biography and Reformation history--it's not all convincing, but it definitely forces a re-examination of perception.

Luther's biography isn't just a story of a monkish theologian coming to his ideas. Luther's life was one of events. His theological writings must be understood in this context. He was not writing in an ivory tower, protected to do nothing but think and pray. He was writing in the center of the storm. History happened in the case of Luther. The wider context of Europe at the time is what makes his life exciting. Reading his biography, I'm always struck with the contributing figures, and would like to go further learning about them: Frederick the Wise, Hutton, Melanchton, Zwingli.

Also, an intriguing discovery: I never knew that Hutton the author of "Lives of Obscure Men" that Dr. Buschen taught us about was the very same Hutton who as a knight was attempting a nationalist revolution at the time of Luther's revolt.