Friday, September 29, 2006

Why Read: the abstract and unpredictable impact

In high school, John Steinbeck was one of my favorite writers. I read The Grapes of Wrath when I was sixteen or seventeen, and I understood most of it, though certainly not all of it (like the ending). However, I haven't read any Steinbeck in years.

Today on MPR there was a discussion about The Grapes of Wrath, and for some reason, every time they discussed the ending, my eyes started welling up with tears.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Low-brow Aesthetic, High-brow Ideas, Part 4: Horror

(I'll keep this brief: I've written much on this topic in the past, and just want to give a brief overview).

Horror is a widely mocked and disrespected genre, but even mediocre examples of the genre deal with the biggest, most important themes.

Fragility, Frailty, Impotence, Mortality. Death, Evil, Psychology, Morality. Lack of Control over Existence. The Nature of the Cosmos. Sex and Misogyny. Authority. Group Dynamics. Individual Strength. Fear.

The most mediocre schlock in the horror genre is still about these things.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tuesday's Notes and Links

Low-Brow Aesthetic, High-Brow Ideas 3: Musical Theater
What, I need to write more?

Philosophical Question
I caught some of PBS’s documentary on Marie Antoinette last night. So, later evidence has revealed quite clearly that Antoinette committed treason (while France was at war with Austria, she was sending military plans to Vienna). However, during her trial, there was no evidence whatsoever of treason but she was convicted and executed. So, does that mean she suffered an injustice, or did she deserve it?

General Links:

"Is this a pint I see before me?" (John Sutherland)

It's about Shakespeare. It's about hangovers. Just read it.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" (Nick Schager)

"Who Should Apologize?: Another view of the Pope-Islam controversy." (Kirsten A. Powers)

As Homer Simpson would say, "THAT'S what I've been trying to tell you!"

Links with Minnesota Interest:

"Upstarts in the Lively Arts" (Carla Waldemar)

"Song and Dance Man" (Tim Gihring)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Low-brow Aesthetic, High Brow Ideas: Stephen King

This will be just a brief expansion on a continuing topic.

First, I would not suggest that high-brow aesthetic LACKS ideas. I would just suggest that what makes us think of something as high-brow is its FORM, not necessarily its IDEAS.

Second, I would like to propose another great example of the LBAHBI. I'm not going to write a lengthy essay defending the merits of Stephen King or the horror genre as a whole (I've done that many times before). But Stephen King is a great example. As a "literary" writer, he doesn't have much respect, being considered a "popular" writer, a "genre" writer, a "horror" writer (I won't defend his form here, though I think he is a master craftsman of narrative, and he is a completely underrated experimentalist). However, his books are full of IDEAS. There's substance within and around the horrors he writes about. There are significant themes to his horror that you can clearly pick up if you read a lot of his works, and read the best of his works. Sure, he'll give you the cheap thrills (maybe more often than not). But if you read King thinking you're going to get an easy pleasure, you're probably mistaken. There's something important and meaningful in his work.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Sisyphus' Journey (today's links)

I am uncertain that I have a single reader at this blog. I am fairly certain that if there are any readers, they don't read the links I post. And yet I still produce the effort it takes to post these links. Ce la vie.

Learning How to Read Slowly Again

A Scholar Is Alive, Actually, and Hungry for Debate

A Monument Crumbling With All Its Dark Secrets

Jailing the Messenger:Locking up reporters is the wrong way to plug grand jury leaks.
LA Times

The Twilight Years of Hipness: A middle-aged mom labors to stay in the know on pop culture.
By Debra J. Dickerson

Aquittal for Turkish Novelist
Richard Lea

How to Teach a Dirty Book
By Emily Toth

Liberty, Equality ... Diversity?
By Scott McLemee

Against Explanation
Posted by Joseph Kugelmass

The First 9/11 Starred Gandhi
by Eric Stoner

Searching for Deadwood's Protagonists

(note: if you haven't watched this show, and intend to, don't read this. Spoilers and all).

Who is Deadwood's protagonist? Let us look at the options.

Seth Bullock: the most likely candidate. He's the first central character to appear on the show, he shows up in Deadwood when we do, he's repeatedly shown courage and morality, and (don't underestimate this) he's good looking, clean, and clean-shaven. However, he's a minor character in much of the plot that has occurred--there are episodes in which he barely shows up.

Sol Star: He's too much the "best friend to the protagonist" role to be a protagonist.

Al Swearengen: This is an evil man. He's selfish and violent. He steals, cheats, and murders. And yet, HE is the one the show focuses on most. It is his schemes and desires that are at the heart of most of the show's plot. Is he the protagonist as anti-hero? I suppose it works.

Mrs. Garrett: Her husband is killed too quickly to be a protagonist, but Mrs. Garrett works as one. BUT...she'll have to develop into a more prominent character for me to consider her the protagonist.

Anybody at the Bella Union: They showed up several episodes in; no protagonists there, though they are now central characters.

Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, Charly Utter: Because Bill is killed so early, and Jane and Utter (despite being likeable, moral characters) play too much the role of supporting friends, I don't see them as protagonists (am I too dependent on conventional notions of clean, good looking, well-spoken protagonists?).

Doc: Now HERE's a real possibility. He's twitchy, scraggly, and hunched over. However, he's constantly involved, and he's shown intelligence, cunning, courage, selflessness, and morality. He moves about like he's a shady character, but in all of his actions he is downright heroic.

Those are the possibilities. The other characters (Trixie, E.B., Dan) are suboordinate to more important characters. We'll see how the Bella Union people develop. Right now it appears the possible protagonists are Swearengen (evil, selfish, and murderous), Bullock (protagonist in all but centrality to the plot), Doc (protagonist in all but appearance), and Mrs. Garrett (who is becoming more and more central to the events, character development, and plot).

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Bits of nuget

Art about Art
One reason I'm skeptical about literature that focuses on how writers write, or movies about directing, or any of that, is I wonder how much we should get out of it. Certainly it can be done well. Certainly it can give us insights. But am I mixing my gin with Barthes' "Death of the Author" kool-aid? Does it really matter to us WHERE or HOW or WHY an author gets his/her ideas then creates a work of art? Isn't the more important thing the work itself?

That's one reason I appreciate John Fowles' metafiction, particularly The French Lieutenant's Woman. Yes, it's about how writers write--but more importantly, it's about how readers read. In the lengthy essay I've written on Fowles below I argue that there are three levels of freedom/responsibility in The French Lietenant's Woman (and The Magus), one being the freedom/responsibility of the reader.

More "Low-brow Aesthetic, High-brow Ideas" posts coming
I'm still working on this theory and looking for good examples. Essentially, it is an argument for ideas over form, for content over style. But moreso, it is an argument that intelligence and ideas do not necessarily come from high-brow literature and film (that what makes something "high-brow" is usually the form, not the ideas). Further, playing with ideas is just as possible in works of art or entertainment that are definitely not high-brow in form (though, admittedly, most low-brow entertainment does not play with these ideas).

Hopefully soon I will write my thoughts on HBO's Deadwood. I say this because hopefully I will soon have coherent thoughts on this show. In a few key ways, it is unlike any television show I've seen. Through seven episodes it is becoming clear who the good guys and bad guys are, far it is a show without a protagonist. There's character development, but it's a plot driven show...and the clearest protagonist has most often been shown as a side character in the plot(s). There's something about it that is different than anything I've seen, and I hope to become more articulate about what, and soon.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Low-brow Aesthetic, High Brow Ideas, Part 1: Seinfeld

Item: While I have a complete contempt for modes of entertainment that have no ideas behind them and little intelligence about them (most sitcoms, almost all action movies), I also have a disdain for pretentious arthouse films that they they are about ideas and are big on mood but short on plot and entertainment.

In his essay "A Tale of Two Sitcoms," Steven Stark writes about what he sees as the superiority of Home Improvement over Seinfeld. he actually has solid insights into what makes each show work (Home Improvement is about accepting responsibility and commitment, while Seinfeld is stuck in the adolescent mind, fleeing responsibility and commitment while making jokes about masturbation and incontinence). However, I'm still struck by how an intelligent person prefers a show with completely predictable structure and a catch-phrase of "Ooh, Ooh, Ooh," (literally, a catch-phrase of grunting) over a show that revolutionized the way a sitcom can be done. There is a lot of low-brow humor in Seinfeld, though that's not the crux of its humor: the important element of Seinfeld's humor is the observation and analysis of the complexities of contemporary social connections. It's also a show driven by word play and character humor.

Seinfeld often seems to have a purile appeal. The most famous episode is about a contest between friends to refrain from masturbation. All sorts of adolescent ideas about sex and relationships are presented. BUT...there's ideas behind Seinfeld. There's intelligence. If it's not the post-modern, deconstructionist sitcom (a show about "nothing), then at least it is a show filled with irony, about the absurdism of contemporary social life, the ridiculousness of commercialism, the confusion over social conventions, even, dary I say it, THE ANXIETY OF EXISTENCE. There's something many people may overlook: underneath the light-hearted veneer where we laugh at the foibles and problems of the four main characters, Seinfeld can be a very dark show. In one episode, George says: "Well, Jerry, I been thinkin'. I've gotten as far as I can go with George Costanza." Jerry responds, "Is this the suicide talk or the nickname talk?" A lot of bad things happen to people in Seinfeld, often as a result of the insensitivities and flaws of the main characters. Injury, illness, death, unemployment: these are some of the results of sandwiches, Juji Fruits, Junior Mints, lunches, cheap envelopes, cheap wheelchairs, and very frequently, thoughtless words. These mundane parts of life lead to the decidedly non-mundane (you could call them tragic if Seinfeld gave them a bit of dignity).

You see, behind the low-brow comedy of a show whose primary goal is to get laughs, there are ideas. There are truths about the random and absurd ways our lives work, the way the seemingly minor, pointless elements of our lives can lead to our doom.

Seinfeld is a sitcom, the most low-brow of genres. Though its humor aspires above the low-brow of Home Improvement, it is a decidedly watchable, entertaining show that makes us laugh. I'd almost be willing to say it has a low-brow aesthetic (with an asterisk: Seinfeld wasn't a conventional sitcom, but used many short scenes and changed the way content, pace, and setting to into a sitcom episode. In some ways Larry David again changed how a sitcom can work with Curb Your Enthusiasm, but that's a point for another post). Let me then present Seinfeld as the first example of my Low-brow Aesthetic, High-brow Ideas theory.

More explorations to follow.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Some historians, using a particular linguistic interpretation of one word, believe Martin Luther had his revelation on justification by faith while sitting on the toilet.

Today, in the public restroom, while thinking of the ways in which I use language relative to how others use language, something came to me. It's not the revelation of Luther, of course. But it's an answer I've been looking for. It's something I'll expand upon in a future post, hopefully this week.

Coming soon: "High-brow Ideas, Low-brow Aesthetic (or, don't call me middle-brow, chump)."

So spend all your waking hours looking forward to that.

Tuesday's Links (but first, two quotes)

Here is a line from Captain Kirk quoted in the Moore essay that is linked in the post below:

“We’re human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we won’t kill today.”

It's a quote I'd like more people to live by.

And here is a line from A.O. Scott, also linked in the post below:

"Rock stars have fans; opera singers have worshipers; but movie directors have partisans. Liking a given director’s movies can feel like a matter of principle, not of taste; failing to appreciate them is therefore evidence of cretinism or, at best, a serious moral and intellectual deficiency."

I definitely sense the same thing in film lovers.

A Challenge, Not a Crusade (John L. Allen, Jr.)

Yesterday I said I wouldn't link to comments about the Pope's comments. I'm nothing if not a liar and a hypocrite.

Hannibal Lecter to Drop By for Holiday Helpings (Motoko Rich)

There are a lot of intriguing things about the new Thomas Harris book, including the way it was written.

Finally, Some Prime-Time Racism: Battle of the races on 'Survivor' places discussion of stereotypes where it belongs -- in the mainstream. (Joel Stein)

Does Stein have a point?

Author Too Much Of A Pussy To Kill Off Characters (The Onion)

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Gerrymandered To Serve King Friday's Make-Believe Agenda (The Onion)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Monday's Links, and One Comment

First, the comment.

I'm not linking to any opinion articles about the Pope offending Muslims. Here's why. The Pope is the head of a religion that believes it is the one true faith and all other faiths are wrong. From both a non-catholic and Catholic perspective, what the Pope says about any other religion SHOULD be offensive (non-catholics will likely disagree and should disregard the comments of a man who doesn't speak for their faith, and Catholics should be happy that their leader speaks firmly about what they believe to be the truth). It's preposterous to think that the head of a world religion should worry about offending people of other religions; his very stature and belief SHOULD offend members of other religions. It's not that I oppose ecumenical attempts to help adherents of different religions live in peace together (I am, after all, a pacifist; the idea of a holy war is anathema to me); but until the Pope starts calling for a new Crusade against any particular non-catholic group, by all means, let him rant.

Now, the links.

"Mr. Universe" (Ronald D. Moore)

An op-ed about Star Trek's influence on one man.

"Turkey, a Touchy Critic, Plans to Put a Novel on Trial" (Susanne Fowler)

There's censorship problems in Turkey.

"Say ‘Brian De Palma.’ Let the Fighting Start." (A.O. Scott)

For film buffs.

"India's literary elite call for anti-gay law to be scrapped" (Randeep Ramesh)

Authors and Politics in India.

"Fables of Identity, European and American" (Bill Benzon)

The Valve should be a daily reading source for theory and culture.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Our lives! What kind of lives are these?"

Poetry matters in our world. Poetry should matter to us as individuals. Because poetry can help us to understand ourselves; poetry can help us to make sense of our lives.

I'm a sucker for the horror genre; even when I see a horror movie that I know is bad, it usually succeeds in, if not outright scaring me, disturbing me. And I've come to realize that horror doesn't need the things that most other movies need to work. There needs to be the thinnest sliver of plausibility to horror (we need to be able to see ourselves in the character or situation), but ONLY the thinnest sliver of plausibility. Characters, institutions, and events can all behave incomprehensibly, but the film may still work because of its goal to scare or disturb. Or, if remotely worthy of the genre, it reminds us of the fact that we will one day die, and it reminds us of the darker side of human nature.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Today's Links (and why we're here)

I started Costanza Book Club in part because I missed the academic discourse on literature and theory from my time attending Grad School at St. Thomas. I wanted a place to share various ideas, but also a place to discuss various ideas (the former has worked better than the latter so far).

But I also want Costanza Book Club to be a place that can contribute something to the intellectual life of anybody who reads it. So I'll try more frequently to link to articles that I find interesting, hopefully on topics of literature and theory, but also on education, film, comedy, and history. These aren't articles that express views I necessarily agree with--just articles that have something to contribute to our world of ideas.

Also, I'll be spending time looking for other good sites around the web that deal with literature and theory. If I find them, I'll link to them. And suggested reading is always welcome.

“Comedian Turned Activist, With His Own Campaign” (A.O. Scott)

“Equal-Opportunity Offender Plays Anti-Semitism for Laughs” (Sharon Waxman)

“Turkish Novelist Faces Trial” (Lawrence Van Gelder)

“Textbook Foolishness” (Jennifer Washburn)

“When Can We Finally Be Funny Again?” (Bill Maher)

“Universities should give students the freedom to think - not threaten them with petty rules and regulations” (Marcel Berlins)

“A lament for idle summers” (Karin Klein)

“Girl Moved To Tears By Of Mice And Men Cliffs Notes”

“State of the Annotation” (Scott McLemee)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Another Link in the Chain

"Ted Hughes, the Domestic Tyrant" by David Smith
Should the fact that Ted Hughes was a raging asshole who drove TWO lovers to suicide make us appreciate his poetry less? Well, "should" isn't the right word. What does it do for you? I still think Crow is one of the truly brilliant poetry collections of all-time.

"Britain's Democracy Problem" by Tim Luckhurst
Plus you've got a freaking queen.

I figure that if I am relatively unable to contribute much to literary and theoretical discourse during football season, I can at least seek out links that may amuse you.

You might notice that there are some changes in the links at Costanza's Book Club. I'm going to continue seeking out newspapers from anywhere in the world that have particularly good Opinion and/or Books sections (I have a lot of office hours to fill). If there's a site you go for literary or intellectual chatter, let me know.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Stupid Thing I Believe (III and IV)

I believe The Odyssey is still the greatest thing ever written.

I believe a rhyming couplet rhyme scheme (aabb) is the worst form of poetry ever devised by humankind.