What fiction is for

This remarkable quote is from President Obama, speaking with Marilynne Robinson

Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

 

Kafka is funny

kafkagregor‘The “signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students,” that “it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny… nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories.” Part of the problem arises from the fact that “Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary U.S. amusement,” especially to “children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance.” So what kind of jokes can we find in Kafka’s stories, if we know how to get them?

‘Therein, Wallace argues, lies another part of the problem: “It’s not that students don’t ‘get’ Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them that humor is something you get — the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have,” all of which gets in the way of perceiving “the really central Kafka joke — that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.” Of course, as Wallace adds in one of his signature footnotes, since “most of us Americans come to art essentially to forget ourselves — to pretend for a while that we’re not mice and all walls are parallel and the cat can be outrun — it’s no accident that we’re going to see ‘A Little Fable’ as not all that funny.” But read enough Kafka, preferably outside the walls of a classroom, and you’ll get a much more expansive sense of humor itself.’

Twilight of the Headbangers

This brilliant rumination on what it means to persevere and grow old in rock in roll was written before Lemmy died, from The Atlantic:

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“There is a second prime, we are discovering, in the life cycle of a rock-and-roller, a madder and more precarious second heyday. The potency of early manhood passes, and its beauty is a memory. Barely a blip now travels around the once-blazing circuit of your inspiration. Your bones ache, your voice is shot, and the rags of age are upon you. But you keep going. You keep playing. And gradually this becomes the thing about you: You’re still there. You endure, you defy, and the older and gnarlier you get, the more magnificent the rebellion is. Creaking recklessly, in swaggering infirmity, you sally forth; you hit the road again and again (and again) and you give the people what they want. And now, check it out, they don’t just worship you. Now they love you…

“But when it’s done—and it’s almost done—there will be no more Anguses, no more Lemmys. The bloody-minded, death-demolishing longevity of AC/DC and Motörhead cannot be counterfeited or repeated…And now he’s disappearing into the dark wings of the stage, taking with him his grave-digger wit and his gnashing bass and the gorgeous, ruinous momentum of his music.”

Tennyson put it this way:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

The Parish and the Universe

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience… a gap in the hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

Patrick Kavanaugh, “The Parish and the Universe”,  as quoted in the frontispiece of “Common Ground“, by Rob Cowen

What’s the use
Of being found?
You can lose yourself
In some good ground
In the weeds hiding
Down the river right next door
There’s no frame around your picture
Just a view through my back door

Beck, Country Down

 

John McFee on Writing by Omission

From The New Yorker, Sept. 14th, John McFee tells it like it is:

“When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out….

Creative nonfiction is a term that is currently having its day. When I was in college, anyone who put those two words together would have been looked on as a comedian or a fool…What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”

He knew not what to do

From LRB, an old piece about Coleridge, and how it might have been better had he died young:samuelcoleridge

He knew not what to do – something, he felt, must be done – he rose, drew his writing-desk before him – sate down, took the pen – – found that he knew not what to do.

After the first glorious days of his friendship with Wordsworth, Coleridge set about – or perhaps only resumed – a course of procrastination and ruin from which it seemed decent to avert one’s eyes. His life grew complicated and his poetry sparse, and his achievement took forms that required sometimes unreasonable effort to value.

In December he recognised that ‘I never had the essentials of poetic Genius, – that I mistook a strong desire for original power.’ By March 1801, Coleridge had decided it was all over: ‘The Poet is dead in me.’