Monday, March 30, 2009

Return of the Son of the Jedi Prince

We're finishing up Hamlet in AP English (to the extent that you "finish" that play) and, while trying to track down a working Xerox machine, I thought not about Shakespeare, but about Lucas, and not about Hamlet, but about Return of the Jedi.

(Serious Daddy Issues in both works, after all).

Specifically, I heard the Emperor croaking, "All is happening exactly as I have foreseen."

And here's my question: what the hell good is foresight if it can be wrong? Isn't it pretty much just "guessing" at that point? If I put MSU in the Final Four, is that foresight? Or just a prediction, a guess?

New Dylan

It's another month before Dylan's new album drops (see that? "Drops." That's how I roll, kids. See that? "Roll." That's how I roll, kids. See that? Pete and Repeat were in a boat. Pete fell out.) but you can pick up a track (downloadable) from if you get there today (Monday).

It's "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" and, if the song is any indication, the album should be pretty damn good. Not necessarily better than Love and Theft or Modern Times, but right in that same vein of consistent, pretty damn good craftsmanship that he's been mining pretty damn well for the last decade. And the accordion that leads off every story about the album works for the song, the whole thing an odd-at-first-glance melange of loping shuffle and dirty guitar, of border trumpets and 1950s Chicago studio magic. It's a little like the swampy mudfunk of Time Out of Mind but with the production approach of the last two records -- not too much of the Lanois reverb (though the drums are fairly wet). Plus, it might just redeem the "Black Magic Woman" beat (and progression, for that matter).

See that? Melange...

Et Tu, Church Lady?

Okay, with a minimum of Chicken Little madness, of "things are darker now than ever before" nonsense, of "we're all doomed! Doomed! Dooooooomed!" screaming, I present to you the following:

(Again, trying oh-so-hard not to histrionicize).

1. Nightline held a debate on the existence of Satan. And I know, I know, I know that Nightline is not news, not journalism, but it presents itself that way, ultimately -- as a part of the industry of news, of journalism -- and there are plenty of people who take it as such. And I know, I know, I know that this is no different than other commentator-based television or radio programs. And I know, I know, I know that this recognition of the non-news-ness of Nightline is, likewise, not news. But, return to that first sentence: Nightline held a debate on the existence of Satan. Invited guests on to their "news" program to argue about this. As if maybe if each side receives an opportunity to state its case, then this becomes responsible journalism; after all, weren't "both sides" presented? Isn't this the very definition of unbiased journalism? And, given both sides of the argument, what can a reasonable, logical, otherwise intelligent viewer-at-home do but conclude that, "Gee, the truth must be somewhere in between those two sides."

2. This quote from a story about the debate: "Nobody in the Bible talks about hell or Satan more than Jesus," said audience member Mike Garcia. "If Jesus talks about Satan and the reality of hell, then it has to be true." (Hulk want to smash. Want to smash. Must smash. Smash!) Wonderful logic, isn't it? If Jesus says it, it must be true. What more can you say after a conclusion like that? Can there be any further discussion, any further questions?

But, Chicken Little be damned: obviously, this sort of thinking (thinking?) has been around forever and not solely in the context of religion. Politics. Advertisements. Wartime announcements. Be like Mike. It's a Crab Step, not travelling. Science, too.

I used to give students Edward Abbey's essay "Science with a Human Face," in part because it made for an interesting companion to Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman and Barry Lopez (and not, clearly, because they all agree with each other) and in part because the essay works as a fine example of how "essay" does not mean "easily digestible three-prong thesis that no one is going to dispute anyway because it's both simplistic and already believed by just about everyone" and how an author's conclusion may be more complex than you immediately assume. Any attempt -- whether by religion or by science -- to reduce the world down to something abstract, something ultimately incomprehensible, is wrong. And any hands-up acceptance of such a reduction -- whether through religion ("Oh, well, you know, God works in mysterious ways, so I can't possibly understand why things happen the way they do, but I believe that they all happen for a reason, even if I can never have access to those reasons because God works in such mysterious ways") or through science ("Oh, well, you know, science is so complicated that I don't understand it, but the whole universe works in really, really complex ways that I can't understand and I can't have access to different models of how the universe is constructed because I'm not a scientist") is, likewise, wrong.

Anyway, check out Abbey's essay if you never have. It's worth a reading. Not in order to accept everything he says, but in order to consider it. To think about it. To think.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


We read Beloved last month in AP English. Is this the sixth time that I've read the book now? Seventh?

Regardless, how did it take so long for me to make the link between "When the four horsemen came" (in all of its intentional apocalyptic obviousness) and the description of the sick camp of Cherokees that Paul D encounters after escaping from the flood in Georgia? Here's the Cherokee:

Decimated but stubborn, they were among those who chose a fugitive life rather than Oklahoma. The illness that swept them now was reminiscent of the one that had killed half their number two hundred years earlier. In between that calamity and this, they had visited George III in London, published a newspaper, made baskets, led Oglethorpe through forests, helped Andrew Jackson fight Creek, cooked maize, drawn up a constitution, petitioned the King of Spain, been experimented on by Dartmouth, established asylums, wrote their language, resisted settlers, shot bear and translated scripture. All to no avail. The forced move to the Arkansas River, insisted upon by the same president they fought for against the Creek, destroyed another quarter of their already shattered number.

So far, so good, no?

It's a wonderful, and terrible, compressed history of a civilization. It's not a complete history, of course -- it's not meant to be -- but it is a window between two plagues. Literacy, government, craft, agriculture, religion, etc. Even higher education, here given the awful irony of "been experimented on by Dartmouth." It's enough, right? It has to be enough, right? Isn't that enough to ensure your civilization's survival? Isn't that enough to ensure the continued existence of your people? Isn't that enough story?

Nope: all to no avail.

Here's the rest of the relevant passage, though:

That was it, they thought, and removed themselves from those Cherokee who signed the treaty, in order to retire into the forest and await the end of the world. The disease they suffered now was a mere inconvenience compared to the devastation they remembered.

It's hard to miss the "now vs. then" appeal to memory, to the potential terror of the past, the echoes of the struggles of Sethe (and Baby Suggs, and Stamp Paid, and etc etc etc) to remember as little as possible. And, I suppose, for a lot of people, it's hard to miss the "end of the world" echo in the later description of Schoolteacher and Company as the "four horsemen," but I hadn't seen it until this year. Even after being prepped for it by Morrison concluding the Cherokee's 200 year window with "translated scripture."

And that's why I re-read. Not just because I have a pretty damn mediocre memory, making too many books feel like first-reads even on a second go-round, but because I love how re-reading adds layers and layers and layers to my understanding both of the questions that a given text is raising (and how it seeks to answer them) and of how that text is put together, how it works, and why it works.

(War and Peace, by the way, now that I'm about 400 pages in, is feeling more like a first-timer than a true re-read. And that's okay).