The Playwright & Intellectual Responsibility (Updated: 1/14/2012) Reply


Mark Edwards has two important posts in a series on the late playwright, essayist and dissident intellectual Václav Havel (1936-2011) up at Concurring Opinions: here and here. Yours truly with a lengthy comment in the second post.

Update: Mark’s latest posts (Parts III & IV): here and here.

The Long & Winding Sentence in the Age of Twitter 1


 

Pico Iyer has an essay on “the long sentence” in today’s Los Angeles Times. A taste:

“‘Your sentences are so long,’ said a friend who teaches English at a local college, and I could tell she didn’t quite mean it as a compliment. The copy editor who painstakingly went through my most recent book often put yellow dashes on-screen around my multiplying clauses, to ask if I didn’t want to break up my sentences or put less material in every one. Both responses couldn’t have been kinder or more considered, but what my friend and my colleague may not have sensed was this: I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment.

When I began writing for a living, my feeling was that my job was to give the reader something vivid, quick and concrete that she couldn’t get in any other form; a writer was an information-gathering machine, I thought, and especially as a journalist, my job was to go out into the world and gather details, moments, impressions as visual and immediate as TV. Facts were what we needed most. And if you watched the world closely enough, I believed (and still do), you could begin to see what it would do next, just as you can with a sibling or a friend; Don DeLillo or Salman Rushdie aren’t mystics, but they can tell us what the world is going to do tomorrow because they follow it so attentively.

Yet nowadays the planet is moving too fast for even a Rushdie or DeLillo to keep up, and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light. No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the ‘gaps,’ as Annie Dillard calls them — that don’t show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying ‘Open wider’ so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

‘There was a little stoop of humility,’ Alan Hollinghurst writes in a sentence I’ve chosen almost at random from his recent novel ‘The Stranger’s Child,’  ‘as she passed through the door, into the larger but darker library beyond, a hint of frailty, an affectation of bearing more than her fifty-nine years, a slight bewildered totter among the grandeur that her daughter now had to pretend to take for granted.’ You may notice — though you don’t have to — that ‘humility’ has rather quickly elided into ‘affectation,’ and the point of view has shifted by the end of the sentence, and the physical movement through the rooms accompanies a gradual inner movement that progresses through four parallel clauses, each of which, though legato, suggests a slightly different take on things.

Many a reader will have no time for this; William Gass or Sir Thomas Browne may seem long-winded, the equivalent of driving from L.A. to San Francisco by way of Death Valley, Tijuana and the Sierras. And a highly skilled writer, a Hemingway or James Salter, can get plenty of shading and suggestion into even the shortest and straightest of sentences. But too often nowadays our writing is telegraphic as a way of keeping our thinking simplistic, our feeling slogan-crude. The short sentence is the domain of uninflected talk-radio rants and shouting heads on TV who feel that qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity (and not, as it truly is, integrity’s greatest adornment).

If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us. We will not be able to read one another very well if we can’t read Proust’s labyrinthine sentences, admitting us to those half-lighted realms where memory blurs into imagination, and we hide from the person we care for or punish the thing that we love. And how can we feel the layers, the sprawl, the many-sidedness of Istanbul in all its crowding amplitude without the 700-word sentence, transcribing its features, that Orhan Pamuk offered in tribute to his lifelong love?” [….]

And…in case you missed it, Pico wrote on “The Joy of Quiet” in “the other Times” at the close of last year.

Pico Iyer on Graham Greene Reply


 

There’s a notice of a new book on Graham Greene by my friend Pico Iyer, in the New York Times. As I note in the former link, I would unhesitatingly recommend anything written by Pico, but I especially look forward with relish to this book, having had several conversations with him about his (and now ‘our’) fondness for Greene. Buy from your local, independent bookseller if possible (so as to help them avoid the fate of my beloved Bodhi Tree Bookstore) but if not, see here.

Questioning the use of the Socratic method in law school Reply


Though I don’t teach in a law school (nor have I attended one), I read with great interest the recent Room for Debate feature in The New York Times on the Socratic  method as used in law schools. None of the participants–Guy Uriel Charles, Robin West, Robert Dinerstein, David Wilkins, and Amanda Pustilnik–favors abandoning the method entirely, but rather questions the excessive exclusive reliance on it and the narrow wrange of topics to which it is applied.

Pustilnik’s contribution was my favorite, focusing on the core idea of deep questioning at the heart of the Socratic method, which is also relevant to Charles’ point about the various uses of the term itself. Pustilnik’s point can also address West’s concerns about the Socratic method leading law students to investigate the internal logic of the law without engaging in external critique; used right, it can certainly do both.

This also brings us to Dinerstein’s and Wilkins’ points, that it is not the method itself, but how law professors use it, that determine its value. If it is augmented with other methods and brought to bear on all aspects of legal education–or, I would argue, education in general–the Socratic method (in its most basic and ideal form) is timeless, not only leading students to an answer, but also highlighting how to find it.

Place, No-Place, and the Transnational Stage: “Minor” Works by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams 1


The following is cross-posted from Legal Lacuna:

In his 1993 classic To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, Eric J. Sundquist pays careful attention to texts many critics view as “minor,” such as Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. As Sundquist reminds us, we miss much when we focus only on “major” works by canonical American writers, including, often, American literature’s insistent cultural heterogeneity and its fundamentally transnational character. It is in this light that I have been thinking about some plays I read recently.

In the 1940s, Tennessee Williams established his gift for rendering the local on stage: the characters and social dynamics he introduced in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire continue to populate our imaginations when we think of the American South and New Orleans. His spatial metaphors still resonate: the streetcar that rushes us headlong through life; fragile characters trapped in a menagerie of societal constrictions. Written in the shadow of World War II, Williams’ highly successful family dramas might be seen (superficially) as reflecting a turn inward, a privileging of the domestic over the global at a moment of anxiety about America’s role abroad.

But Williams’ sense of place was more expansive than most remember. In Camino Real, first staged in 1953, Williams creates a surrealistic no-place that is alien yet familiar, fitting for this prescient allegory of American imperialism and state repression. In the first of sixteen “blocks,” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, looking bedraggled, arrive in a Spanish-speaking town “that bears a confusing, but somehow harmonious, resemblance to such widely scattered ports as Tangiers, Havana, Veracruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, New Orleans.” After consulting a map, Sancho notes that the Camino Real (Anglicized) and the Camino Real (Spanish) meet in a dead end. Soon arrives the protagonist, an American named Kilroy who sports a jeweled belt spelling out “CHAMP” and a pair of golden boxing gloves. The audience follows Kilroy as he travels the Camino Real, encountering desperate characters of varying nationalities. In this play, unlike in Williams’ more well known works, tensions and contradictions within American society are projected vaguely outward onto the global stage (so to speak), resulting in a play filled with abstraction and symbols, rather than crystallizing into a concrete narrative of dysfunction in the domestic sphere.

Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play The Emperor Jones, first staged in 1920, stands out as another allegory of empire and identity that has since been overshadowed by the playwright’s realist family dramas, which include Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. Brutus Jones, an African American who speaks entirely in minstrel dialect, has made himself ruler of an unnamed Caribbean island, and now faces an uprising. He escapes into the forest, where he encounters a series of frightening, surreal scenes that reflect the traumatic history of race in America. Like Camino Real, this play also creates an unspecific foreign setting as a way to explore both the moral ambiguities of U.S. actions abroad and the deeply rooted conflicts that characterize American identity at home. Over the years, the play has been criticized for its racist imagery and characterization, but has also been interpreted by anti-racists as a cynical commentary on American race relations. It is a significant work insofar as it highlights the global or transnational aspects of American cultural history, particularly with respect to race.

Southern Literary Review 1


I have become the managing editor of Southern Literary Review.  We seek book reviews about Southern literature, and we’re looking for enthusiastic writers to contribute biographical profiles of landmark Southern authors.  Visit our submission guidelines.

The Southern Literary Review celebrates southern authors and their contributions to American literature.  We feature classic southern writers who have defined southern literature, such as Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner.  SLR also profiles and interviews modern novelists such as Tom Wolfe and Wendell Berry and emerging southern writers such as Daniel Wallace and Sue Monk Kidd.  With hundreds of pages of original content, we are dedicated to offering quality information about America’s southern authors, and their works.  Peruse our excellent book reviews on new southern novels as well as the classics of southern literature.

SLR was founded in 2004.  With an overhaul of the site in Spring 2009, SLR has now invited several contributors to join in producing fresh content on a regular basis, so there will always be something new to see here.  Julie Cantrell served as editor-in-chief for nearly two years and Adele Annesi joined as managing editor in 2011. Both Julie and Adele have recently retired. After years as dedicated contributors, Philip K. Jason and Allen Mendehall took the reigns of SLR in November, 2011. Phil is now publisher and executive editor.

On Walls and the Spectacle of Sovereignty Reply


The following is cross-posted from Legal Lacuna.

My oral exams are scheduled for late January, which means the past month has been a frenzy of reading and the next three promise to be equally busy. The bright side is that my program gives us a lot of freedom in formulating reading lists, so one of mine is a rather idiosyncratic theory list focusing on race, global studies, law, and spatial theory—my small effort to chip away at the walls, so to speak, between the disciplines that have informed my studies.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reading Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2010). The book begins with a meditation on the recent spate of global wall-building that paradoxically coincides with supposed weakening of nation-state boundaries. The most well-known examples are the winding Israeli West Bank barrier and the exorbitantly expensive (and ineffective) high-tech “fence” that now separates the U.S. from Mexico. Brown notes astutely that these walls are meant not really to strengthen borders between nations, but rather to keep out certain non-governmental, transnational forces perceived as a threat to sovereignty—yearning would-be immigrant masses, illegal drug trade, terrorism. Moreover, these walls serve a significant symbolic function: they are “iconographic of” and spectacularize the idea of sovereignty for a privileged population anxious about its porous cultural and political borders. Of course, to say that walls are spectacles of sovereignty is not at all to diminish their material, often destructive consequences, which have been many.

Reading Brown’s book reminded me of my visit to Germany this summer. Having only one day to spend in Berlin, I headed for the East Side Gallery, a kilometer-long section of the Berlin Wall that has been transformed by artists into an “International Memorial for Freedom.” I also walked through the bizarre historic site of Checkpoint Charlie, a former crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors, where a man dressed as a Cold War-era U.S. soldier still stands guard for photographic purposes. At both sites, I participated in the usual rituals celebrating the spread of democracy and economic freedom: that is, I took pictures (exercising my right to an individual point of view) and purchased postcards (participating in both transnational communication and the commodification of nostalgia). As Brown points out, something about walls offends the liberal worldview and westerners like to vaunt their demise, even as we deploy new walls for the “protection” of democracy.

Irony aside, the visits were actually quite moving for me, as I thought of the East Berliners who had risked (or lost) their lives trying to escape political oppression and economic stagnation, as well as my own family, which left Vietnam as boat people when I was a baby. I, like the average American, eschew romantic notions of how life would be better under communism (though my reasons might not be ordinary). Nevertheless, I know there are limits to the liberal tearing down of walls: in uncritically celebrating the spread of “freedom,” we risk forgetting the burdens we force on those living outside the walls we continue to build. It is true that freedom isn’t free—but Americans are usually not the ones who pay.

The College Football Top 25 as Compared to Literary Classics Reply


As Andy Staples writes, who knew that LSU was compared to Slaughterhouse Five, Alabama to To Kill a Mockingbird, or Oklahoma to Grapes of Wrath. For what its worth, I think All the King’s Men was a Far better choice for LSU and clearly Missouri is Hamlet. Of course Robert Penn Warren taught at LSU….  Need there be any other claim to number 1?