Archive for August, 2014
Let’s start with 3:20 am on Wednesday morning, which is when I got up in the middle of the night, didn’t bother to turn on the lamp–I never do–and promptly fell right over, hitting the carpet hard with both knees.
Then, I couldn’t figure out a way to get up except by crawling into the hall, where there was enough room for me to sort of roll around.
The whole scene was ludicrous and embarrassing, and it left me wide awake for the rest of the night, but I thought that was all that had happened.
It did occur to me that I could have fallen like that in a room with hardwood floors. We have a lot of them. And hardwood floors could easily have broken one of my knees, or both. And that would have been very bad.
So I sort of stumbled through the day, feeling sort of mentally fuzzed from the lack of sleep but basically all right–until just after lunch, when the knees started to hurt.
They also started to have a really hard time bending. I discounted that at first, because I’ve got arthritis in those knees, and sometimes they just have a really hard time bending.
But it’s back to that thing about how everything is relative. My knees do often have a very hard time bending, but not this hard a time bending.
I also usually don’t have problems with my knees standing up.
By the time it got around to when I was supposed to start dinner, plans went from this elaborate chicken thing I’d been intent on making to plain hamburgers, which could be shaped and slapped on a broiler pan in thirty seconds.
By the time I’d normally go to bed, I’d taken all the aspirin I dared to and I was aching so much I couldn’t concentrate on the Perry Mason novel I was reading.
I managed to get to sleep, finally, although it was a little late, and I got up this morning hoping that the whole thing had taken care of itself overnight.
Which, of course, it hadn’t.
The good news is that this is a long week-end, and Monday is the holiday, so I won’t need to be up and about and vigorous for class until next Wednesday, which ought to be long enough.
The bad news is that this is a long week-end, and I have a hundred and one things to get done whether I want to do them or not.
If it was up to me, I’d order a pile of take out and pretend that my life didn’t exist until Tuesday.
As it is, I am here at the computer being Extremely Conscientious and Responsible, and I’m not very happy about it.
Having taken the time to write this, however, let me answer a question from the comments–what was so awful about the Fifties?
I’m with John, to an extent.
There were definitely some things that were right with the 50s.
We did most certainly build the Interstate highway system, and much else besides.
And although people were still people and lusted after money, there seems to me to have been a lot less in the way of money-is-the-only-thing-that counts.
It was an era in which people involved in scandals disappeared from public view instead of ending up as “celebrities” on Dancing With The Stars, and Jonas Salk refused to patent his polio vaccine because he didn’t want to make the vaccine too expensive for children to be able to have it.
But there were some other things about the 50s that were no so admirable.
Jim Crow, for instance, and a situation in most of the American Southeast that made it impossible for most black people to vote. At all.
A world where the want ads were divided up into “male” and “female” and Harvard Law School admitted one–ONE–woman to each year’s class.
A world where homosexuality was usually against the law, and where the laws against homosexuality were often vigorously enforced.
A world where the only thing it took to ruin a girl’s reputation–to get her thrown out of school, to make her “fair game” to anybody who wanted to to force her into anything (after all, she gives it away, you can’t believe her when she cries rape, she wouldn’t care anyway, she’s got nothing to lose)–was some guy saying he’d had her, no proof required.
So, no. There is much I admire in the 50s, there’s enough I don’t so that I don’t want to go back.
It’s the start of a long week-end, and for reasons that are too complicated for me to go into here, I’m going to spend it going over and over and over a column by Paul Krugman in an attempt to make sure it’s going to be comprehensible to a group of people who don’t want to read it in the first place.
This is very hard to do. If you don’t care, you’re not likely to be paying attention. And most of my students don’t care about the kind of thing Paul Krugman writes about.
This is not a matter of political orientation–they wouldn’t care about “income inequality” from any point of view.
If they think about it at all, they tend to think it’s both natural and inevitable.
Those who had heard of the Kelo decision didn’t think there was anything remarkable about it. Those who hadn’t, having had it explained to them, were upset about only one thing: that the private development project had fallen apart in the end, and the neighborhood left as a burned out hulk.
As if that whole mess would have been all right if only the project had succeeded, the private developer had made a lot of money, and the city of New London had collected its higher taxes.
Most of my students are not conservative in the usual senses of the word. Most of them support an expansive welfare state, since many of them have families that rely on it.
Students who do not have families who rely on it oppose it, and that can lead to some interesting conversations in class–the students who oppose welfare state programs often don’t know what they do or what the rules are for obtaining benefits.
Once they do know what the rules are, many of them make lightning fast changes of position. as if the punitiveness of the system somehow makes it all right.
My students are, almost universally, conservative socially, which is especially true if they come from South America or the Middle East, which a lot of them do.
All the exceptions I can think of have been white, born in this country, and female–I have no idea why that is.
I would think it was just that the left assumption of politics-follows-identity for once actually worked, except that I have lots of other kids who fit the description and are still as socially conservative as the kids from Honduras and Guatamala.
The Krugman has the advantage of being short, which I think is going to be absolutely necessary to a first class on how to analyze nonfiction.
On the other hand, it’s Krugman, which means it’s both absolutely predictable and mind numbingly boring.
I still say that there ought to be a rule somewhere that says that as soon as you say “in the 50s, we had a better standard of living because we taxed people more,” you’re banished from the conversation until you can explain why it was taxing people that did it and not the fact that the US was the only functional industrial power left on the planet after a devastating world war knocked out all the others.
But none of that is going to matter, because my kids won’t care one way or the other.
The new textbook is full of politics, on the assumption that this will be “relevant” to the kids and speak to their interests and concerns.
What it really speaks to is the issues and concerns of the people who write textbooks, and to an extent to the people who assign them.
This is true even when the textbook editors are being scrupulous about presenting “all points of view,” which the editors of this one tried to do.
And even mostly succeeded.
There is no fiction in this list, and will be none. Advanced Composition is meant to teach students how to write college papers for upper level courses, and the assumption is that none of those papers will be written for English classes, because after they leave my room they will never take another English class.
That assumption is perfectly true.
In fact, as I learned on the first night, it is now possible for students to go all the way through college and get a degree without taking a single course in which they are assigned any work of fiction.
Forget Robert’s RRL. None of these kids will have to struggle for a single moment with any short story or any poem.
What I have available to assign instead are essays, some of them quite long and very complicated.
The evil side of my brain that just wants to mess with everybody’s head considered beginning by assigning Susan Sontag’s “In Plato’s Cave,” an academic essay on the esthetics and social impact of photography that is impenetrable if you don’t know a lot about–well, Plato, to start with.
And it’s Sontag, so it just gets worse.
You can complain about this new book on a number of levels, but being not really college work is not one of them.
My students, in the meantime, have their own problems, and those problems are not about to go away.
Most of them have very little money, and they’ve just shelled out close to $100 for a textbook, most of which they won’t even be able to read.
They don’t want to be in an English class, not because there’s a RRL they don’t like, but because, as far as they’re concerned, it’s completely irrelevant to anything they want to do.
The smartest of them are headed for nursing, radiology, and other medical sub-specialities. An ideal classroom experience for them would be another semester of physiology of pharmacology.
If I ask them why they think they are required to take a course like mine, most of them will be entirely frank, at least toward the end of the semester–this is the way the college makes money, by requiring them to pay for totally useless courses that have nothing to do with their majors.
This is something they both resent and fear. They resent it because they feel they are being ripped off. They fear it because getting even a B in one of these useless courses can mean being rejected by the nursing program, being forced to downgrade their ambitions from RN to LPN or even lower.
They’re practical people, my students.
Disregard the bottom tenth–the ones who are forced to be there as a condition of parole or probation, the ones with richer than average fathers who are threatening to throw them out of the house if they don’t go to school–and what I’ve got is a group of people for whom school has always been the same: at the best, a boring waste of time; at the worst, the place they come to be told that they’re stupid.
They have been a revelation to me over the past 13 years, they really have been.
It will always be absolutely incredible to me how common it is with some people in this country to throw their kids out on their own because mom’s got a new boyfriend and they don’t want the company or the kid isn’ bringing home enough money to pay for his keep or…
The number of my kids who are living in their cars instead of in houses is truly amazing.
So is the commonness of high school teachers (and sometimes guidance counselors) who feel the need to tell kids that they’re just too stupid to go to college, they shouldn’t even try, they’ll just fail.
And when they do better for me and I tell them I think they’re more than bright enough, they don’t change their opinion of who and what they are. They’re still convinced they’re “stupid.” They’re just also convinced I “like” them.
And I do.
I grew up in Fairfield County. I went to very good and expensive schools, and even when I went out to the Midwest to graduate school to a public university, the public university in question was the high end of that.
I’d never in my life met people like this before I came here. And in all likelihood, if I ever leave here, I won’t meet people like this again.
Some of what I see would make any sane person want to commit murder. I think I’d start with the entire faculty of a certain high school in Waterbury.
Some of what I see has made me realize that our practice of calling everybody under 18 a “child” hasn’t change the fact that some people are very dangerous very young, and probably always will be.
Some of what I see is just heartbreaking.
But every once in a while I have a win, and more often than that I have those determined, entirely practical kids who have plotted a course and stick to it.
So I’m still here.
Yes, yes. I know.
I disappear for weeks at a time, and then who knows what’s going on?
The unfortunate reality–or maybe the fortunate one–is that I sometimes have actual work to do.
Lately there’s been more than usual.
For one thing, I’m teaching an actual upper level course this term, one I have never taught before, which means I’ve spent a lot of the last two weeks trying to write a syllabus that makes sense, sticks to the academic level the course is supposed to present, and still doesn’t scare them all out of their gourds.
When I was first assigned this course, the cap on enrollment was 15. That made a certain amount of sense. An upper level course means a higher standard for acceptable work, longer assignments, more complex rubrics.
By the time I hit the room yesterday, the enrollment cap had been raised to 27, and I had 25 people in a very small room.
The small room isn’t, in and of itself, a big problem–a little claustrophobic, but not a big problem–but the lack of any kind of tech is. My place has put out a great effort over the last five years or so to install “smart” classrooms everywhere, and most of the classrooms on the floor of the building where I teach have at least got built in audio visual equipment and a computer at the teacher’s desk.
My room has none of that, which means no projecting articles or student papers on a screen so that the whole class can work with them.
I’ll admit–I started out working in classrooms without computers. I know how to do it, and I’m sure I can do it again.
I’ve just gotten very used to the conveniences, and I’m going to miss them.
But part of the reason I haven’t been writing is that I’ve been enormously depressed.
There are some ways in which only American life can make be enormously depressed, and the whole Ferguson thing is doing a great job of it.
Both the left and right, here, are doing their usual–the left by running around yelling about how everybody is racist, which is frustrating because it’s a) true in a sense but b) not in the sense they mean it and c) largely both irrelevant and trivial to what’s going on here.
And the right is…well, what the hell.
For about a week, Fox News was behaving as if it existed in an alternate universe, playing the story (when playing it at all) as if it was minor. Then it went on with the “and why doesn’t anybody ever talk about black on black crime” thing.
Which is also irrelevant and trivial to what’s going on.
And today, of course, the NYT is full of all that vile nonsense about “white privilege.”
I’ll say it again–anybody who advocates that line should be completely and thoroughly ashamed of themselves. It’s not only a lie, it can only make everything worse.
The only really interesting thing about this whole mess comes from the people of Ferguson and the surrounding towns who go on television and say things like “this isn’t about race” and “we support the police, they’re the only ones who keep us from being completely slaughtered” and “what can Ferguson expect if the community won’t get out and vote?”
That last one, by the way, was delivered by the African American mayor of one of the surrounding towns, who used his time on MSNBC to complain about the fact (and it apparently is a fact) that African Americans don’t get out to vote, and as a result a majority-black town has a majority-white elected administration and a majority-white police force, because it’s your town government who gets to pick the police.
And no, this did not come about because of “voter suppression,” unless the Missouri right wing somehow targeted voters only in Ferguson and not in the other minority-majority suburbs.
The Enlightenment gave us a set of rules by which it might be possible for a nation to be both diverse and functional–something that had never happened up to then in the history of the world.
It said that we had to treat each other as individuals and not as members of groups. It said that all justice is individual–guilt and innocence consist of what an individual person has actually done, not what their ancestors did and or what the ancestors of somebody else who sort of looks like them did.
It said we must give up our “accidental” identities for a common identity, as Americans together and not black/white/Baptist/Jew/Catholic/Asian/female/whatever.
And, of course, it’s never been possible for anybody to do that completely. But we did get close for a while.
I think that’s gone.
I think we will go the way of every other society that has tried to be multiethnic–we’ll fall apart.
What happens when we fall apart presents questions nobody seems to bother to think about.
Both piracy on the high seas and slavery ended because the British Empire ended them, and then used its vast military power to make sure they stay ended.
When the British Empire fell apart, we were there, and we did the same thing.
I look around now, and I don’t see anybody able or willing to take on those particular jobs if we’re not doing them, and we are increasingly not doing them.
China is a police state that has no problem enslaving its own people, and no interest in interfering with slavery anywhere else.
It turns out it’s the Communist country that wants to operate on the profit principle above all else.
Throughout the history of the world, slavery has been the default mode. Every society that has developed to the point of having language–and quite a few that have not–have bought and sold human beings.
That changed only so long as somebody was willing to spend the blood and treasure to make it change. And now nobody is.
And slavery is back. It’s back across half the Muslim nations in Africa and in some in the middle east.
And we do nothing about it that could actually cause us pain, because–well, because why should the US be the world’s policeman?
The problem is that if nobody is the world’s policeman, then nothing gets policed–and the result is not happy anarchical creatures dancing on the lawn.
I warned you that I was depressed.
I lived around and in the city of Detroit for a short span of my mid twenties. It’s one of those periods of my life that I look back on with both fondness and a little embarrassment.
On the one hand, it was a truly revalatory experience–my introduction to the America beyond the East Coast that I’d never before known existed, and areas of study that I should have expected, but didn’t.
I don’t begin to know how to explain all that, except maybe to say that there turned out to be a lot more to agriculture than I’d expected.
And that there’s a lot to be said for all you can eat family-style fried chicken dinners.
I’ve always wanted to take my younger son–who is one of those people who weight 25 pounds in spite of consuming about 8,000 calories a day–to Frankenmuth. He might never leave.
The embarrassment comes from the fact that I knew, the whole time I was there, that I wasn’t really “pursuing graduate studies.” I was hiding out from taking the leap and seeing if I could be a wroter.
It’s been years since I spent any time in Detroit, but I can still remember it very clearly, both the good and the bad. Detroit used to have one of the best Greek Towns in the country after New York City. It was also the place where I first heard about a drive-by shooting, and where people celebrated a recent national crime survey by riding around in cars with bumperstickers that said: Detroit: Murder City–We’re Number One!
I have been watching the complete mess that has become of Detroit for about a year now, and I still don’t know what to think.
Certainly it’s the poster child for voting with your feet.
As the city became more and more dysfunctional, fewer and fewer people wanted to live there, and the people who could get out did get out.
Most of them don’t seem to have gone very far, because most of them haven’t had to. There are still fairly prosperous suburbs not that far over the city line, and businesses have moved to those as well as people.
Detroit itself has entered a weird phase that’s half dystopian novel and half urban fantasy: long stretched of vacant lots returning to the wild, complete with wildlife; people planting truck gardens to compensate for the fact that there are no grocery stores they can get to.
Along with this, of course, there has been a really remarkable level of violence. There are no longer enough police or firefighters to keep reliable order.
And that lack of reliability is killing all the rest.
It’s also causing a lot of paranoia.
It was almost certainly paranoia and the distinct understanding that the police can no longer be counted on to come when they’re called that led to the murder of a young woman named Renisha McBride.
Ms. McBride was driving through the city in the early morning hours when her car broke down. She went to the nearest house and started pounding on the door, asking for help.
Her pounding awakened Thomas Wafer from a sound sleep. He was alone in the house, and he was immediately convinced that he was about to be the victim of a home invasion.
He got his gun, went to the door where the pounding was coming from, opened up–and fired right through the screen at whatever was out there.
What was out there was Renisha McBride, and she was dead a few moments later.
If you want the whole story you can go here
and if you do, you’ll notice that Wafer, unlike George Zimmerman in Florida, was convicted of the killing.
Michigan has different laws than Florida’s, obviously.
But if you look more closely, you’ll see a few more things. Renisha McBride’s father himself said that he didn’t think the incident was primarily about race.
I told this to a friend of mine from graduate school, and she answered: of course it’s not about race. It’s about Detroit.
I get the point, I really do, but at the same time, I don’t think you can say that this case was not at all about race, because race is part of what everybody is paranoid about if they’re still living in Detroit.
Then there’s the ongoing crisis about the water, which has become an international incident.
That one took me a little while to figure out, and, from what I read in the comment threads of a couple of articles, I wasn’t the only one left confused.
The usual practice in the US is for residents and businesses to pay for the water they use.
This is not usually terribly expensive. Where I live, it runs about $300 a year for a household of four. What we pay helps to fund the upkeep of reservoirs and pipes and other equipment, and pays the guys who do all that. It also helps to keep people from wasting water.
The reason the Detroit water story was so confusing at first was because it was reported rather simply: the city of Detroit was turning off the water to hundreds of homes that were behind, often significantly behind, in the payments for their water bills.
For all the heavy breathing this story caused in Europe, Americans were largely flummoxed. The water department turned off the water on people who hadn’t paid their water bills? Okay. Is this a trick question?
As it turned out, it was a trick question. Detroit, it seemed, had just not bothered to collect on water bills, for years.
People weren’t a payment or two beind. They were sometimes as much as a decade behind.
Instead of doing what most places would do if they felt their poorer populations would have trouble paying the water bill–start some kind of program that paid the water company, issue vouchers that would help pay water bills the way food stamps help pay for food–the city had just gone on its way acting as if none of th is was happening.
Customers were sent bills. Customers ignored bills. Water department ignored customers ignoring bills.
And nobody, anywhere, bothered to explain to the City of Detroit why this wasn’t going to be able to go on forever.
It’s one of those things that makes you stop dead and go: no. wait. just a minute.
When the water department started terminating service to households who were not paying their bills, there were a lot of stories about how the city was terminating water service to poor people with unpaid bills, but not to businesses with unpaid bills.
This sounds like one of those Evil Corporations and the 1% get everything and you get screwed stories, except that in this case, so many employers have already left the city, and so many middle class taxpayers have gone with them, the city no longer has a tax base large enough to fund basic services.
It doesn’t want to see any more of these people go where their neighbors have gone.
If Detroit has any chance at all of getting itself out of this mess, it’s going to have to keep the businesses it has and bring a lot more in.
Personally, I don’t think Detroit is going to get itself out of this mess.
I think it’s going to collapse where it stands. In another ten years, I think there is going to be nothing left but abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned to some kind of quasi-natural state.
And then–then, I don’t know.
Maybe Detroit can adopt Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as its official poem.
Perry Mason had a Cadillac convertible. I don’t know what color it was, because the show was in black and white except for a single episode, and the convertible didn’t appear on that episode.
But Perry Mason had one, at least for the TV show, and the really amazing thing about that was: time after time, Mason was shown driving up to his office building with the top of the convertible down, parking in front of the building’s front door on a busy Los Angeles street, shutting the car off, taking the keys, and hurrying out to enter the building.
Notice what I did NOT say.
I did NOT say he put the top back up before leaving the car on the street.
He didn’t do that. He left the top down.
And he left the car open on the street.
And nobody ridiculed the scene, or talked about how that car would have been gone as soon as Mason got into the building and out of sight.
Of course, nobody complained about the possibility of rain, either, but this was supposed to be in LA, which is in the desert, and mostly dry.
What I can’t get out of my head is the fact that, in the 1950s and very early 1960s, nobody thought those scenes were unrealisitic.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, in LA, it was not implausible that you could park your convertible on the street with the top down and not have to worry about it getting stolen.
One of the things that has happened to me as I have gotten older is that I have begun to lose the sense of what I actually remember and what my memory has reconstructed to fit with what I wish things had been like.
That is why things like the Perry Mason episodes bring me up short, and why I’ve been increasingly fascinated with a CNN original series called The Sixties.
Leaving aside the narration or the construction or what the intentions of the producers were in presenting this show, there are lots and lots and lots and lots of clips, and those clips are just astonishing.
It is staggering to see just how polite we all were–Humphrey conceding to Nixon, Civil Rights icons giving speeches about integration, even teeny bopper screamers trying to get a glimpse of the Fab Four–everybody is neatly and half-formally dressed, nobody is indulging in Anglo Saxonisms, there’s virtually no slang and even the Beatniks are speaking mostly in standard English.
And no, that’s not because these clips lack “diversity.” There are plenty of black people in them. It’s just that the black people are also speaking standard English, whether they’re Martin Luther King or a sharecropper’s wife trying to register to vote.
In many ways, watching that CNN series is completely and utterly surreal.
It’s not just that there is “civility” where now there is none.
“Civility” doesn’t even begin to explain what is going on there.
One of the better words to describe what I was looking at might be “innocense.”
We were innocent in a way, then, that we are not any longer.
It hadn’t begun to occur to us that we needed to worry that somebody would steal our cars if we left them on the street with the top down.
Never mind worrying about other things like whether our next door neighbor was a pedophile with his eyes on our six year old or if the adolescent kid across the street had a gun in his room he was planning to use to blow away most of his classmates at the local high school.
I am not saying the times were actually innocent, because of course they were not.
This was the era of Charles Starkweather and the Clutter family murders. Pedophiles existed then as now. Bad people embezzled and robbed and raped.
But I think one of the things we had was an inner conviction that most people were good people, that the evil among us were an exception, not the rule.
That was a principle stressed over and over again in those old Perry Masons, both the TV show and the books: if a character believed that “everybody” was crooked, that said more about him than the world. That was a sign that he himself was crooked, and you had to watch out for him.
And this sea change–this shift to a place where we feel that most people are up to no good, that even under the skin of the seemingly most admirable among us there lurk the reality of corruption and vice and predation, to militarized police departments and schoolteachers convinced that the children in their classrooms are victims of abusive families who have to be rooted out and punished–
This sea change has come in spite of the fact that the actual incidence of crime, including gun violence and sexual predation, is far lower than it used to be.
It is no longer the case the boys get their first gun at the age of 10 and drive to school in pick up trucks with three rifles hanging on the gun rack in the rear windshield.
Part of this is, I know, a result of the distortion brought on by television news, amplified by the 24 hour cable cycle and the 24/7/365 Internet.
We now here about everything, everywhere, so that what is actually less crime and less danger perceived as more. 100 years ago, we wouldn’t have heard about the rape and murder of a teen aged girl in that took place several states away. It would have been a local, not a national, story.
There are no longer any truly local stories anywhere.
Some of this, though, is a real shift in attitude and understanding. We live in a world where almost everybody now assumes that if we hear a rumor about somebody and that rumor is discreditable–well, then it’s probably true.
And that makes me wonder how much of the change is due to the other thing that’s surreally different between then and now: the fact that we are no longer culturally coherent as a society.
The problem is not that we are now multiracial when we didn’t used to be. We’ve always been multiracial, and multiethnic, too.
The problem is that there is no specific public face that pretty much everybody strives to present.
I suppose I am saying that there was more conformity, and I am–but I’m think of that conformity as a matter of outward appearance, not of inward orthodoxy.
Study after study–yes, those studies; and no, you can’t trust them without looking into them–
Study after study has shown that ‘diversity” is actually bad for us in a number of ways. It decreases trust, for instance, and it makes people less willing to support things like social programs to aid the poor and unfortunate.
The more I look at it, though, the more I am convinced that the “diversity’ they’re talking about–the one with unplatable side effects–is a matter of surfaces.
People are lazy. They take other people at face value unless something occurs to make them reexamine their ideas.
If someone appears to be one of their own, most people accept that person as one of their own, without really thinking about it.
And race and ethnicity, in and of themselves, do not mark someone out as NOT one of their own.
I think the early Civil Rights movement understood this, which is why you get guys in suits like that of any banker and women working voter registration in crinolined skirts and little clutch hats.
The signal was not that everybody was alike, but that everybody wanted to be part of the same enterprise.
These days I think most people spend their time signalling that they DON’T want to be part of the same enterprise–and they send that signal no matter who they are, left or right, liberal or conservative.
Superficial individuation has become not a mark of true individuality, but of festering resentment: no, I’m not like you, and I don’t even want to be.
But people always have been, and always will be, more willing to do for their own than for people who don’t even seem to like them very much.
It’s not a matter of selfishness or racism or the hundred million other things we spend out time accusing each other of these days.
It is a matter of a willingness to see your fellow citizens as people you could at least potentially like and trust, and of being willing to make some surface accommodations to signal the fact.
And we’ve lost that.
And I think that’s a bad thing.
Every once in a while, I have a moment when I really don’t understand how I can claim to be a writer, since I don’t seem to be able to communicate anything to anyone.
Yesterday I tried to explain the difference between a totalizing fictional universe and your ordinary everyday fictional universe, and I seem to have failed utterly.
Lots of people do write fictional worlds that you can lose yourself in.
But Tolkein didn’t just do that.
There is such a fictional world in The Lord of the Rings, but there is also a complete grammar and alphabet in Elvish, which can be learned and is learned, and used, by hundreds of people every year. The appendicies for The Lord of the Rings contain history that appears in no novel. He wrote at least one companion volume–The Simillarion–that is supposedly one of the works referred to in the novels.
He didn’t just write a novel that gives the reader the allusion, for a time, that he’s living in a different world.
As far as he could, he constructed the elements of Middle Earth so that artefacts and records exist for it that normally do not appear anywhere except as the relics of actual civilizations. He provides the languages, and the histories, and the genealogies that provide information that occurs nowhere in the novels, or in some cases is referred to in the fiction only tangentially.
If that sort of thing exists for Barsoon, I’d be glad to see it–but my guess is that it does not.
In general, writers of fiction do not do that kind of thing. Rather, they evoke a “world” for which our only reference is to the fiction itself.
Before I wrote that blog post, I had a discussion with a friend about the fact that I thought Tolkein was the first person ever to do this.
I was told that it was not so, and that other writers had done “the same thing” both earlier than Tolkein and later.
I accepted that at face value, but it’s obvious from the comments yesterday that we weren’t talking about “the same thing” at all, but only about the ordinary kind of world-building novels have been doing for centuries.
So I’ll go back to where I started before I wrote that post–as far as I know, Tolkein was the first person ever to do this, to create not just a world in fiction, but to create the documents, devise the languages so that they could be learned and used to read and write, and all the rest of it.
I think Tolkein was such a powerful force on the culture that this kind of construction began to seem natural, which it most definitely is not.
What also happened was that, sometime in the last 20 years or so, we started to get writers, and sometimes fan comunities, who try to do the same thing.
You can read the Bible in Klingon–it’s up online. Which mean somebody worked out enough of Klingon as a language to make it possible to read and write it.
The Star Trek universe, like Middle Earth, now exists independently of the fiction that created it.
Someone who was so inclined could immerse himself (or herself) in that universe without every reading the books or seeing the television shows or movies.
It would be wrong to underestimate just how deeply one could immerse oneself in such alternate worlds–the Star Trek have their own charities, their own celebrants for weddings and funerals and “naming days,” thick books of philosophy and ethics and history from every world in the fictional universe.
It is becoming possible for people who would rather live in that world that this, to do it.
And the almost is not a small thing.
But there is a movement in fantasy and science fiction to try to create such worlds–worlds with “extras” outside the fiction, worlds which can exist independently of the fiction that created them.
And that is something qualitatively different than our normal ideas of a “fictional world.”
And that, I think, is a very interesting development.
So, the last few days I’ve been doing a lot of actual work and not much on the blog, but when I haven’t been working, I’ve been reading.
And in another twelve pages or so, I will have finished the last of the appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings, which means I’ll be able to say that I’ve actually read the thing. The whole thing.
All of it. Not just some of it.
Although, given the nature of the appendices, I can’t say that I actually understood all of it.
I went through the appendix on pronunciation twice, and I still can’t pronounce anything.
At one point, Tolkein explains that “ng” in this case is pronounced as in “sing” and not in “finger,” and I’m still unable to figure out any way in which the “ng” in those two words are different.
Part of me is convinced that there is no such way, and that Tolkein was just yanking everybody’s chain.
That aside, though, I still have a healthy respect for any writer who could name something Mount Doom and still get taken seriously.
For better or worse, it was about what I expected–way too many action sequences for me, and occassionally lapsing into that sort of quasi-“olde” language that makes me a little nuts, but on the whole something I had a good time with.
None of that should come as a surprise, and with any luck there will be the minimum of yelling.
But surprised or otherwise, there’s something in this that has me interested.
So I am going to make a suggestion.
In spite of the almost certain yelling.
What distinquishes these books for me–and what distinquishes the whole of Tolkein’s work taken together for a lot of people–is not any particular detail or details about the events of the novels, but the fact that all of it is part of a single totality.
Tokein created not just the suggestion of a world that is necessary to the successful execution of any novel, but a fictional totality, with its own languages, geography, history, you name it–in far more detail than is necessary to write or understand the books.
This is now a common thing. My sons, who can get fairly insane on the subject of fantasy, tell me that many fans these days judge a writer by how completely and successfully he can create such a total world.
What people want is not just stories, good or bad or otherwise, and not just characters that engage them, but complete worlds that can operate independently and that have the kind of texture that real civilizations are supposed to have.
Are supposed to have–but maybe don’t, any longer.
Homer’s world was complete and self referential not because he made it that way, but because it was that way.
The people knew the names of the heroes and the names of the gods, the peculiarities of the land and the stories about them, the names of important battles and the nicknames of important kings–well, because they knew them.
It was in the very air they breathed. It didn’t need to be explained to anyone but very young children, and very young children learned it the way children now learn to sing the jingles on television commercials.
I am not going to go into a long rant about how debased our modern culture is, although I think it’s pretty debased in some cases (think Dating Naked).
I am going to say that I think it may be one of those “distinctions of being human” things that human beings live mostly in a context of history and legend.
Societies define who and what they are not by teaching it to children in schools–although they do that, too–but by referencing the important aspects of their identity in literally everything they do.
What’s more, the part of the individual in all this is not passive. Each person learns the stories because the stories are there to be learned. Each person applies the stories toh is or her own life. Each person understands himself and the world he lives in through those stories.
What is important is made so by the context into which it can be fitted–or not.
There is an old saying that traditional societies see utopia in the past, and modern ones see it in the future.
It’s not a bad distinction as those things go, but I wonder if the modern version is workable for most people.
Surely we are living now in a world without a shared remembered past. At least in the West, we inhabit a kind of eternal present.
We don’t know what came before us, but most of us can’t imagine anything much different happening in the future.
We’re just sort of here.
I think the problem is much wider than the usual complaint that we ought to be teaching our children better in school. Surely we should be teaching them, but if we HAVE to teach them, we’re already in more trouble than we realize.
Even in as late a time as when I went to kindergarten, most kids came to their first day of school already knowing about Noah’s ark and the birth of Jesus, the Pilgrims and the ride of Paul Revere, not because anybody had sat down to teach us, but because we lived immersed in them.
If our parents didn’t teach them, we saw them on television, or they were in the children’s books that were read to us, or other kids explained to the dumb baby all about Thanksgiving.
If my students are to be believed, all of that is already gone.
It’s not only the children of immigrants who come to class these days without a common culture.
It’s everybody–and it’s not a case (except, perhaps, with some of the immigrants) that they just come in with DIFFERENT cultures.
My students come in with no reference points at all except the ruthlessly individual. They don’t see themselves in the context of anything.
They develop vague ideas about right and wrong, past and future, and especially what is “fair,” but these things constitute a world of dotted lines that don’t connect to anything.
I keep getting the feeling that people can’t really live this way.
If their lives have no context, they’ll go looking for some–on ancestry.com, maybe, or in politics or religion, or–
Or in created worlds, worlds that work as worlds are supposed to work, worlds that make sense because they are whole and not a collection of fragments.
And not just in Tolkein, either. There are now dozens of successful fantasy and science fiction authors creating whole worlds.
Most of them don’t go to the kind of trouble Tolkein did to invent entire languages with syllabaries and grammars, but most readers don’t go to the kind of trouble diehard Tokein fans do to try to learn the languages.
Tolkein is, for most of my students, difficult to read.
When they read fanatasy and science fiction–or, more likely, become entranced with fantasy and science fiction television or movies–they largely choose authors whose names I don’t recognize.
But choosing the author is just the beginning of a complicated process that includes conventions, local fairs, even choosing a name in their newly acquired universe. The Harry Potter fans sort themselves into houses.
I am not denigrating the activity. Students who get involved in those kinds or worlds are usually doing better than average on almost every measure.
It grounds them in a way that most of their fellow students can’t seem to manage.
But you’ve got to wonder how long we can do this and still stay together as one society.