The End of All Politics

In The End of Racial Politics, I talked about how imagining racial harmony and racial equality today means shedding racial politics in all its forms – liberal, conservative, or other.  I’d like to extend that as far as it will go: Politics is dead. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool.  Best to throw it away.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s and 70s, the hippie-based anti-Establishment movement was arguably more about lifestyle choices than political choices – “dropping out” of the Establishment culture of war, money, and machines, and testing new creative freedoms through sexuality, drugs, what to think, say, and wear, how to set up alternative living arrangements – but it was still able to use a liberal politics to advance things like racial and gender harmony and to open up things that had been closed. But sometime during the 1980s, “identity politics” reached critical mass in liberal academia, and the long slow death of politics as a tool of social liberation set in. We have now reached a point where politics on the left and right are equally about defining and defending your demographic turf and not about bringing people together. Whether Jon Stewart (whom I generally agree with) on the left or Rush Limbaugh (whom I don’t) on the right, it’s about proving how right you are and how wrong the other side is: us versus them. And the whole vocabulary of racial and gender politics, left and right, has taken on that us versus them mentality. Both sides have become expert at drawing lines in the sand, both now put an equal premium on stifling dissent, and both have long given up the mission of getting people to celebrate each other across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and political preferences. It’s suddenly a long way back to the revolutionary sentiment of 1969, captured by Jeffrey Shurtleff’s stage suggestion to the crowd at Woodstock that the hippie revolution was different from other revolutions “in that we have no enemies.”

Without politics, all we have is the human heart and human imagination. We need a movement outside the scope of the political spectrum that starts with those two capacities. We need to “drop out” of politics, “turn on” the heart and imagination, and “tune in” to each other.When you go out into the street today, forget everything you learned about politics, especially if you went to college. Forget about how you’ve been trained into this or that posture of political belligerence. Start relating to each other, regardless of racial, gender, and other divides, with just the human heart and human imagination. Without politics, we might just rediscover the redemptive power of imagining ourselves into the other’s shoes. We might find that it was just those political superstructures, left and right, that each in their own way had us insisting upon differences that prevented us from doing so. Maybe the Age of Aquarius is still dawning. But we have to cast off the entire political spectrum like a snakeskin to get there.

Wearing black and whispering

Here’s another excerpt of Mr. Robert’s Bones, which starts another 5-day free run at Amazon on July 30.  (If anyone wants a review copy, I’ll send a pdf now and a free hard copy once the review is up on Amazon.)

xxx

The penthouse office at the foot of Canal Street was spacious, well-lit, with plate glass windows on every side. The south view overlooked the Mississippi River Bridge, to the east stood the historic jumble of buildings that made up the French Quarter, to the west the high rises of the Central Business District, and to the north the long view to Mid City.

Into this well-ordered space, where people worked energetically at their desks and cubicles, strode an imposing figure – fortyish, handsome and severe. He ran his large fingers over the dark hair flowing back from his receding hairline like liquid coal, with bits of silver on the side, as if some of the coal had been burnt to ash. It must have been an optical illusion of the glass-filtered sunlight, but the gel, or whatever it was in his hair, pulling it back into a short, tight ponytail, seemed to slick back not only the hair but the face, slanting the corners of the eyes up slightly and adding, by design or otherwise, intensity to the otherwise easy command of his gaze.

“Hi, Mr. Rex,” peeped a young woman at one of the desks, a salutation Mr. Rex acknowledged with the faintest nod of his head and without breaking stride.

“Mr. Rex,” said a bald man, “The rezoning uptown didn’t go through.”

“We don’t need the rezoning any more,” said Rex. “We’ve got the councilman.”

Still continuing with unbroken stride, Mr. Rex approached the door to an inner sanctum within the spacious glass chamber. A plaque graced the door:

REX ENTERPRISES
MR. TYLER REX
PRESIDENT

Rex opened the door and entered a waiting area before the executive office proper. A distinguished businessman with the air of second-in-command sat on a couch by a coffee table holding a neat stack of five or six magazines. Mr. Rex slowed his pace.

“What’s the progress on St. Peter Street, Cutter?”

“No go, Mr. Rex. The Finneys won’t sell.”

Rex gave Cutter a contemptuous look. “The Finneys need money. We need the property.”

“But Mr. Rex …”

“Admit no obstacles, Cutter. Tell the Finneys I’ll give them 80% of the assessment value today. Next week it’s 50%.”

“Yes, Mr. Rex.” Cutter bowed and motioned to leave but stopped at a gesture from Rex.

“And Cutter. Call Mr. Abadie. I believe he’s the assessor for the third district. Set us up for lunch tomorrow, say one o’clock at Galatoire’s.” Cutter nodded and left.

Mr. Rex gazed out of his great glass cube toward the north. Had his almost superhuman knack for finding and using all of the pressure points of power been accompanied by a superhuman kind of vision, he might have seen about three miles in that direction another house in the neighborhood that concerns us so deeply. It was a sangria red house that stretched way back, two-storied but long and flat, with no sense of verticality about it. At the front of this house was a large dining room; not just a dining room but a commercial dining room; not just a commercial dining room but the one presided over by Francis and Lorene Serio. Francis had been a bit shifty and aimless back in the 60s, but when his Uncle Anthony died in an arson attack on a gay bar in 1973, Francis took over the Serio family’s bar and grill, married his old high school sweetheart, Lorene, which caught her as much by surprise as anyone, and ran a responsible business. So respectable was the new Francis Serio that he tried not to work the faux marble counter in his U-shirt overly often, in acknowledgment that his body was toward the hairy end of the Homo sapiens spectrum and discerning customers might consider the wife-beater attire unhygienic.

We must assume that the extended rear part of the house was the family estate, with noisy kids and dogs and stray spinsters from the home country upstairs wearing black and whispering mysteriously over rosary beads. The front room, though, spilled effortlessly onto a broad, solid patio, with what looked like a second story above it — enough space for a crawl-in attic or a colony of Lilliputians, but not enough to accommodate anyone of boisterous Serio blood.

As the staff inside called out orders, wiped tables, or generally pretended to be busy amidst the pop and smell of frying bacon, William Jensen, Ph.D., sat on the patio between a concrete column and a crepe myrtle, sipping a cool one with his old friend, Allen. On this afternoon, the sunlight passed through the leaves of a pecan tree and filtered onto the patio in single smoky rays, as if distilled in the passing. Meanwhile, Jensen and Allen, in the grand hierarchy of male bonding rituals from the NFL chest bump to the riotous road trip to the barbecue cook-off, took their humble place with a clink of their longneck beer bottles.

“William Jensen Einstein,” grinned Allen, fair-haired and wiry, shaking his head in mock-incredulity. “Back in the little leagues.”

“Just scouting for the majors, Allen.”

“Will, you ain’t missed nothing. Nothing ever changes here. Mayberry RFD.”

Jensen eyed two cops coming onto the patio. “And here comes Sheriff Taylor and Barney Fife.”

One of the cops, Jarvis, had the bearing of authority. He was shorter than average, but bursting out of his uniform with his weightlifter’s body. To this peculiar specimen of traditional masculinity, the tall, broad-shouldered partner seemed subservient.

“Back in the third district, eh Will,” queried Jarvis in a blue-collar, longshoreman accent. It wasn’t exactly a question, but Will Jensen was well-bred enough to take it as such and answer.

“Sure thing, Jarvis, back from the riotous college life to the land of law and order.”

Jarvis sent his partner to Serio’s counter inside with an imperative, “Get us two coffee and chicory,” and turned back to Will.

“Yeah, you right. Third district crime down 10% this year. No thanks to that knucklehead police chief Mayor Guste put in.”

Jensen thoughtfully laid a finger against his long nose and smiled almost imperceptibly before answering.

“But the papers say Mr. Guste is a man of principle.”

It was enough to start Jarvis’s blood into a gentle percolation.

“Mr. Guste needs somebody to knock him upside his knucklehead.”

Jensen, smiling more broadly: “Now, now, Jarvis. We don’t want you driving back up the crime rate.”

The joke brought Jarvis’s dander back down and he laughed as his partner returned with the coffees.

“Ok, y’all don’t drink and drive,” said Jarvis by way of peroration.

But Jensen couldn’t quite let go.

“Jarvis, this is New Orleans. The last great refuge of the drunken driver.”

As if remembering something important, Jarvis turned back and put his rough, puffy face close to Jensen’s smooth face, staring at, or through, the persona of its surface, returning Jensen’s wry gaze without wavering.

“Be careful, Will,” he said, suddenly grave in demeanor. “I’m not kidding.” Then he wheeled abruptly and walked back to the squad car.

The End of Racial Politics

In writing Mr. Robert’s Bones, in which a racially mixed neighborhood in New Orleans struggles to find its identity, I found that the best way to deal with race was to take politics off the table. From my liberal brothers and sisters, I figured I’m damned either way. If (as a white writer) I don’t include black voices struggling with the issue, I’m marginalizing or silencing the black community. If I do include black characters who engage the issue, I’m appropriating the African-American voice.  Damned either way by today’s stock liberals, I’d fare no better with a conservative politics of race, since the whole hidden strand of the novel is to find and exorcise the demonic center of the “good old days” mythology that holds up the status quo. So I figured I’d have to jettison racial politics (in all current forms) and approach the issue armed not with political weapons but with only the human heart and human imagination. Having kids play some of the protagonist parts helped, as kids have the heart and have the imagination but haven’t yet been trained into this or that posture of political belligerence.

I may or may not have failed in this regard — time will tell as readers read and weigh in — but it might be time for society at large to try some imagination-based movement outside of the normal political arena, as politics on both sides seem better equipped to draw lines in the sand than to get people of all colors, shapes, and sizes to celebrate each other without regard to those lines.

Medieval Blues

I stumbled upon the following lyrics by Medieval jongleur, Rutebeuf, circa 1200s. The blues haven’t changed much in 800 years. This could be Leadbelly or Lightning Hopkins.

With my right eye, once my best,
I can’t see the street ahead …
I can’t earn a living,
I enjoy no pleasures,
That’s my trouble.
I don’t know if my vices are to blame;
Now I’m becoming sober and wise,
After the fact …
I discovered too late
That I was falling into a trap…
Now my wife has had a child;
My horse has broken his leg
On a fence,
Now my nurse is asking for money,
She’s taking everything I’ve got
For the child’s keep,
Otherwise he’ll come back home to yell…

Translated from French in Joseph and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Village

The Architecture of Narrative

The Architecture of Narrative, Sydney Smith. Melbourne, Australia: Threekookaburras, 2014. (Reviewed by Gary Gautier)

Sydney Smith’s The Architecture of Narrative has much to offer within its limited scope. An experienced manuscript assessor and writing mentor, Smith focuses this short guidebook on plot and structure, packing in an abundance of tips for beginning and intermediate writers who will most benefit from learning the established tricks of the trade. In such a guidebook, there is an unavoidable drift toward template-driven writing, and Smith notes in her introduction that she hopes to convey a skill in “using the general principles effectively” and not in “being formulaic” (3).

When she gets to the nuts and bolts chapters, Smith does not always escape that drift toward templates, but her awareness of that risk for the most part keeps her on the razor’s edge where one can make specific recommendations about how to write well without trapping writers into preset conventions. Smith’s formalist focus on compositional elements, visible in a table of contents that includes “character drivers,” “character inhibitors,” “plot triggers,” and the like, is just right for the target audience, and she often develops them with excellent concrete tips. For example, “You can make a villain likable by making him good at what he does. He may be a car mechanic, a computer programmer or hacker … We respect experts, or people who are good at what they do” (64). Or “If a character is obstructed by a character flaw, we must first see the flaw in action” (150). At times like these, Smith’s years of analyzing character show, and she gets at the psychology as well as the formal details of the scenario.

The very thing that makes the formalist approach to elements and genres useful – that it allows practitioners to keep their hands on something concrete and test it out – can also make it reductive. Smith’s distinctions, for example, between “a protagonist” and “a hero” (46), or between “a romance” and “a love story” (48), although internally consistent, are probably too rigid to apply across a fluid range of narratives. Likewise, “plot thumbscrews” is a great device for writers to internalize, but Smith’s application – that “Pride and Prejudice contains three plot thumbscrews” (118) or that “a novella will have only one” (119) – seems to foreclose interpretation and place limits that weaken rather than strengthen the fine writing strategies she offers.

To demonstrate her “general principles,” Smith hones in on two sample narratives, Pride and Prejudice and The Bourne Identity, which are analyzed throughout the book against the screen of tools and mechanisms Smith puts forth for the reader. On the one hand, this nicely allows concrete demonstration of her points. On the other, she sometimes goes too far, gets bogged down in those narratives, perhaps too eager to show through a kind of reverse engineering how extended sequences in the two subject narratives match up to her templates (e.g., the “thumbscrew” sequence on The Bourne Identity, pp, 119-132).

The structure of Smith’s own book also has its strengths and weaknesses. The general structure, as expressed in the table of contents, with its formalist isolation of elements and techniques, is perfectly suited to Smith’s audience of those in the midst of the writing process. She ends many segments with a “Question(s) for the writer” section. These questions, useful (“What actions of your protagonist reveal their character?”) if simplistic (“Who is your protagonist’s main antagonist?”), have potential but are underworked. I might have preferred more concrete and nuanced exercises, where Smith would give the reader a scenario and then asks the reader to develop by using the tools of particular chapter. But we do not get exercises at that level of detail.  We do get an appendix on “A Plot Map” and “The Escalation Graph” – excellent concepts that might have come across more forcefully with visual graphics, especially of the plot map – but the book otherwise ends without much of a general conclusion.

Despite its flaws, The Architecture of Narrative remains a well-framed discussion for a target audience of beginner to intermediate narrative writers, who will find here a voice of experience and a small but solid encyclopedia of good tips. Probably the best indicator of the book’s worth is the number of times I had to smile and shake my head as Smith had pinpointed another one of my own recurring evasions with regard to “conflict” or “motive.” I had to read with a grain of salt here and there, but I feel myself to be a better writer for having read Smith’s book. Definitely well worth the short read that it is.

The art thing in the brain

Sometimes I’ll be writing a poem or a scene in screenplay or novel, and I know I hit it just right. I can feel it grow heavy with symbolic meaning that will transmit and stick. Why? Because the “symbolic meaning” behind the configuration at hand is easy to name and identify? No, quite the contrary.  It’s because I’ve set it up just right to hit the symbolic generator in the reader’s brain. We all have one. Part and parcel of our evolution is an instinct to search for the meaning behind events, behind all the visual and auditory signs that make up our daily life. All animals with optic powers might take note that the raven is black, but homo sapiens by nature drives toward a second plane of knowledge, a symbolic plane that stands at a distance from the visual percept but gives it the weight of meaning. What does it mean “when a raven flies to the right or a crow to the left,” as Cicero ponders it. The quest for the meaning behind things separates us from other animals, with whom we share the raw perception. This is what I call “the art thing in the brain” – the thing that makes us want to see a depth of meaning in an otherwise simple percept, the thing that makes us want to override the pleas of poet William Carlos Williams and read his “Red Wheelbarrow” as something rich in symbolic meaning.  And when you hit it right, you get the reader’s symbolic generator pumping, giving them a scenario pregnant with meaning but without fixing meanings and pre-empting the reader’s own process of symbolic generation.

The art thing in the brain goes to the heart of one of higher education’s dilemmas today. STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) do not have to explain their value to the parents of prospective college students. (See fellow blogger, Oxford Dphile.) Nor do the subject disciplines in the fields of the College of Business. But the Humanities are on the defensive. Parents frequently seem to have both monetary and philosophical concerns about their children majoring in the Humanities. Will he or she be on a line cook’s salary in ten years? And isn’t it frivolous, anyway, for a young man or woman to choose Art History or English Literature as a lifelong vocation?

To the first and monetary question, I’d say that if you think making money is the highest form of human achievement, don’t major in the Humanities. But consider that once minimal needs are met, a deeper understanding of the riches of cultural history and of the human imagination and of human subjectivity and connection is probably more fulfilling than generating profits and buying more and more stuff.

To the second and philosophical issue, I’d say that whether a lifelong vocation in the Humanities is frivolous depends on your frame of reference. Since roughly the time of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), homo sapiens has become increasingly defined as homo economicus. If you buy into that frame of reference, which views the human individual as essentially an economic unit, then you may conclude that such a choice is frivolous. But I’d argue that the representation of our species as homo economicus is an invention of capitalism, a modern-day mirage that serves the interest of a market economy but is itself frivolous in that it ignores the rest of our evolutionary history. In particular, it ignores the art thing in the brain. But pretending it isn’t there doesn’t make it go away. People will still crave to find deeper symbolic meaning behind the things they see and live through. Their symbolic generators will always be at work.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the disciplines of other university colleges. We need scientists who study the first plane of information, the plane of material observation that is prerequisite to any symbolic plane of meaning. We need engineers who can put their brains and hands together and make things work.  We need people with business skills to manage the enterprises of the other groups. But we also need theater and literature and art and most of all a body of intellectuals who understand inside and out how those symbolic generators work and have worked throughout human history. You can try to dismiss the value of that enterprise, but you will only be degrading the value of the human spirit. Be careful what you wish for, because without the Humanities we might truly become homo economicus, nothing more than units in a vast economic machine, without imagination or spirit or symbolic sensibility.

5 Days FREE — Mr. Robert’s Bones

Immersed in mysterious New Orleans, three kids join up with quirky old mid-city characters to save their neighborhood by unraveling its haunted history of racism and betrayal.

Kindle copies FREE and paperback copies marked down. Five days only, starting June 18. Great gift for young adults or adult readers.

Go to Amazon or see my descriptive link.

book cover from createsp1