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Scapegoats and selfies

Scapegoats have interested me a lot since I had, a few years ago, what I guess amounts to a murderous desire for one. I wanted to kill someone for no other reason than that he'd been present when my brother died in a car accident over fifty years before. The fellow was a complete stranger to me and, as far as I know, completely innocent, just another passenger in the car. His only "crime" was that he survived and my brother didn't. Where in the world did my rage come from?

I've tried reading Rene Girard's books about this, one scholar who has thought about scapegoats a great deal. It's such a powerful a force in our lives, he suggests, that all religions are based on it.

So this morning when I was idly wondering about selfies, it occurred to me that this notion of scapegoats might help account for them. We feel not quite right about ourselves, maybe some guilt for something or maybe a sense of being phony, less fulfilled, less "real" than other people, so we wrap these feelings up and send them off to someone, to lots of someones. And then, next step, we follow up with all these pictures of ourselves, just to show he or she or them that what we thought they thought just isn't true. Look at me, doing all this stuff, showing up at all these different places, I'm okay, I'm real!

Scapegoats are such handy things.

Roiling in the wilderness

Here's an introductory sentence from Craig Childs's Animal Dialogues, about his life-long enthusiasm for the wilderness:

"I would rope into canyons looking for all the fear and quiescence and exquisite forms that roil in the wilderness."

What fun!


A review essay in The New Yorker about Henry James got me interested enough to try writing a letter to its author, Adam Gopnik. I don't know if I'll finish it or if, once finished, I'll send it to him but I'd like to air the rough draft here, as follows:

Dear Adam Gopnik,

While I haven’t read any Henry James in years, I very much enjoyed reading about his memoirs in your New Yorker essay (January 18, 2016), and I especially enjoyed “wistfully but unemulously” in James’s long sentence about his neighbor’s love for reading. Such a fine word for me, unemulously. Thank you!

And now that I have found out what this word means, so shiny new to me, I can’t resist playing with it, and with that sentence, too, which I’ll repeat here for the glory of it, Henry talking about his neighbor:

“He had let himself loose in the world of books, pressed and roamed through the most various literatures and the most voluminous authors, with a stride that, as it carried him beyond all view, left me dismayed and helpless at the edge of the forest, where I listened wistfully but unemulously to the far off crash from within of his felled timber, the clearing of whole spaces or periods shelf by shelf or great tree by tree.”

I believe that Henry was having some fun at his neighbor’s expense in this description. Amid all the crashing and falling I think I hear the sound of a put-down, a humorous one, to be sure, but not entirely without heat. So then I wonder about the shiny new word, which I could find in my dictionary only in the form of its opposite: emulous. 1. Eager or ambitious to equal or surpass another. 2. Characterized or prompted by a spirit of rivalry.

I believe that Henry is fudging here, because of the put-down. Wistful he may well be but unemulous? I don't buy it.

And while I’m in this skeptical mood, doesn’t the passage sound like it could as well be about Henry’s brother? William was another great strider through forests of books; was there a single one in the world that he had not read? As you mention, a few paragraphs later, the younger brother was measured all his life against the older, and Henry “was seen – not least, at moments, by William – as an arty expatriate, and often as a failure, who had lost his fine original talent in a wilderness of parentheses.”

Sounds to me like we’ve got all three of them up there, neighbor, brother and Henry himself, striding through their various wildernesses and keeping an eye out for how the other two are faring. Do you think?

Or maybe I’m seeing things that really aren’t there, prompted by a high-achieving older brother and a certain pitch of emulosity in my own life that was there before he died at age nineteen and that has somehow managed to sustain itself, maybe even heighten itself, in the fifty-six years since then.

Yours, etc., so far,
Steve Sikora

So, it's a work in progress, as I said. I want to say more, and as humorously as possible, about rivalry between brothers and what happens, as in my case, when the death of one of the brothers puts the rivalry on hold. What's an emulous eternity feel like?

This can be a highly self-involved, self-absorbed affair, to be sure, but then our present era seems to be a time, as Mr. Gopnik reminds us elsewhere in his fine essay, "when memoirs are doing much of the work of emotional transmission that novels once did". And I'm really more interested in analysis than in talking about my brother's death and its long-lived after-effects.

Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen

When Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize for Literature last year I could imagine lots of Canadians asking, How come not our Leonard? And I can see their point. Some of Cohen’s songs shine for me far brighter than any of Dylan’s. “Anthem,” for instance. I remember coming across it for the first time not as music but as two lines in an epigraph to a book about bipolar illness:

“There is a crack, a crack inside of everything,
That’s how the light gets in, that’s how the light gets in.”

Our contemporary celebration of limits, weakness, fallibility, of all things less than perfect, hasn’t gotten a finer expression, that I know of, than here. What of Dylan’s can match “Anthem”?

But then I try to think of what else in Cohen comes close, and I’m stumped. So much of Leonard Cohen is just plain crass. I get the notion that Canadians put up with a lot more from their men than we in the States do. “Chelsea Hotel,” for instance, is worse than just vulgar or poor taste, the song where Cohen tells us about getting crude sexual service from a woman who later became one of our greatest blues singers. She’s got family, Leonard, she’s got a father and a mother, maybe brothers and sisters, I don't know. Why are you telling the world about this? What were you thinking?

Some of Bobby’s songs come close to this level of downright cruelty, such as “Maggie’s Farm,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “Bow Down to Her on Sunday,” (which isn’t the title but the line I remember from one of Dylan’s particularly snarly stabs at one or another of the women in his life), but then I don’t know that any of these refers to a particular woman. He and Cohen, in any case, had a footrace going there in the misogyny department.

Call it a draw? Or maybe we should just call it off, on the grounds that no one, no artist, can or should be singing one’s own song. It’s what we get to do for ourselves now, isn’t it? Or even stronger, it’s what we have got to do now for ourselves. We can’t expect any singer, any artist, to tell us the story of our own life. We’ve got to do it ourselves. That was one of Dylan’s great themes. “How does it feel, to be on your own?”

When I got married in 1967, my bride-to-be and I walked down the aisle to music on the organ, arranged by my bride-to-be and played by our high school music teacher: “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” We loved that song, had no idea what it might have meant, other than something kind of rueful but also hopeful and definitely not traditional. We had the Sixties vibe, we talked for hours about Dylan’s lyrics, I was shipping out for Vietnam in a month or two. Yeah, Bobbie.

But by the time I got back, we both had lost touch with him. I remember “Dear Landlord” because we played it for our landlord one night when he came to visit us, but after that? Nothing more. We lost our Dylan love, our delight in his wonderful melodies and those archly impenetrable lyrics. He tells us in one of these songs that “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is,” and by this time, I had to fess up, I was Mr. Jones. I no longer had a clue what was happening.

Back on Leonard Cohen, I don’t imagine that I would have found out about him, or learned anything of the power of his music, had it not been for “Shrek,” where I heard “Hallelujah”, and then my partner and I moved up to Canada (where her three sons live – and years after my marriage to and divorce from the woman with whom I walked the aisle to Dylan’s Sad Eyed Lady). I got some sense then of Cohen’s great standing up there. No one comes close to his appeal up there. Leonard Cohen, clearly, is Canada’s most popular, powerful, voice, their vote, I am sure, for the Nobel Prize that Dylan took away from them.

I still waffle, thinking mostly about “Anthem.” Did Dylan write anything close?

The power of a book/place?

"The Power of Place," a book by Winifred Gallagher, caught my eye just now in the box of free books outside the Borrego Springs Library because the opposite argument has appealed to me for, well, let's see, I could probably find a letter I wrote to a newspaper around 1980 in which I raised the question of how readers feel about their geographical homes alongside such places as Tolstoy's Russia or Faulkner's Yoknatapawpha (did I spell that right?) County. The subtitle on the cover of Gallagher's book gives her argument: "How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions". I still like the other: How has our reading shaped us?

Not that I want to discount her contention. In "The Social Conquest of Earth," E.O. Wilson gives us a cogent argument for the entire human race being imprinted, so to speak, by the hundreds of thousands of years that humans lived in what's called our ancestral environment. We all have a special place in our hearts, psyches, or synapses somewhere in us, for rolling hills and savannah, a certain range of vegetation, trees and undergrowth, creeks and rivers. This sounds right to me. And we haven't been reading all that long.

So I don't know how far to take this opposite argument, but I still like it. We who spend lots of times looking at words on a page -- and those who put them there, too, probably more so (who's more involved in literacy, anyway, the writer or the reader?) --- surely our lives, our thoughts, emotions, actions, have been shaped by this reading and writing.

to taxidermy

Andrew Solomon uses taxidermy as a verb in an interview of Peter Lanza about Peter's son Adam Lanza who killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook school. In the fifth grade Adam and a friend had written a gruesome story involving a character named Granny who kills lots of children. "In the third chapter," Solomon tells us, "Granny and her son want to taxidermy a boy for their mantelpiece."

When my friend Diana and I first spotted a bighorn sheep here in the Anza-Borrego Park a few years ago, we both spun around to see who else might be on the trail, so we could point out our discovery. I feel a similar urge to tell about taxidermy. Wow, everybody, check it out! Most unusual!

My urge is generic as far as the you goes. It's everybody, as I say, which is to say it's the feeling I've come to associate with writing for publication. I haven't a clue who will be reading these words, and that makes no difference. I'm talking to the whole world. And something about this persists in being strange.

Grand theory: talking to the whole world may have its share of natural behavior -- like a bird on a bush, singing its heart out and not caring (for all we know) who's listening -- but the impulse has been greatly encouraged and magnified by literacy where talking to the whole world is par for the course.

Except in private letters, to be sure, but even they (since we tend to hang onto them, pack them away for heirs and flea-marketers to find) even they will very often leak their news to the whole world. If you write it down, chances are good that someday somewhere some total stranger will look at it.

Ross Macdonald again

Ross Macdonald's words from the two previous posts: "As the century wore on -- I could feel it wearing on -- . . ." Try this variation:

As the evening wore on -- he could feel it wearing on -- she danced with the other males in the room, two of them soon to finish sixth grade and one old man whose hearing aid now and again squawked in her ear.

Maybe a third-person narration can work as well as the first-person that Macdonald was so skillful with in all of his Lew Archer series. At least I think they are all told in the first person.

I wish I could insert em dashes in this Livejournal format. Then I could quote Emily Dickinson better, since they're everywhere in her poems. Anybody know how to put those dashes in?

Robert Frost is Such a Tease

There, my subject heading says all I intend: Robert Frost is such a tease. Up on Vancouver Island at my friend Diana's home, I found a copy of an anthology, Immortal Poems of the English Language, edited by Oscar Williams, first published 1952, and I found there "Two Tramps in Mud Time," a story poem about two tramps who show up in Frost's backyard when he's splitting firewood, and they'd sure like to do the wood-splitting for him and get paid for it and, more pointedly, says the poet, they even feel a certain moral rightness in this because they have done such work professionally, as wood-splitter poet surmises, while he is just an amateur at the work and is taking rightful wages away from such as them.

There follows a little dance of words about avocation and vocation, and how the poet/wood-splitter sees himself as combining both in this wood splitting. He turns the tramps down. And somewhere, somehow, there's a fine and profound moral in this for us readers to figure out. Whatever. It flew by me as I remembered another of Frost's poems, "The Most of It," that had wonderfully exercised my mind years ago when I was publishing a magazine for letter writers and was head over heels in love with ideas about dialogue, twoness, our need for "counter-love, original response," as he puts it in this poem.

That poem ended in hints about sexuality and I felt so let down. What, Robert, such a grand theme you propose, only to end it with coy comments about a great buck that shows up to console the lonely poet. And this one today feels similar. Not about sex, no, no sex that I could find in the wood-splitter's encounter with two tramps, but similar in its coyness. Frost wants us to hear some certain set of words beneath his words, I swear, and just to keep us on our toes he's not giving us many clues.

Oscar Williams, in his introduction to his selection of these immortal poems of the English language, writes of how sensitive readers recognize this immortality in their own encounters with the poems. No need to wait centuries, that is, to figure out which ones make the cut; your own experience of them will tell you: "A poem, if it is a good one, is inexhaustible;" Williams writes, "we want to read it to refresh the dull moments of the day, over and over, wherever we may be."

So I think of the line, the half-line, in the Ross Macdonald mystery that keeps coming back to me, and which I wrote about in my previous post. "As the century wore on --- I could feel it wearing on --- . . ." This half-line of prose keeps coming back to me as if it were one of Williams's candidates for immortality, refreshing lots of dull moments in my days, over and over.

The poetry of our own era that most captures the attention, and most refreshes us, seems to be in songs, not poems. So few of us read modern poetry. I don't. But I can spout off any number of lines from John Fogerty, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan. Well, now who's the tease, putting Fogerty first?

Ross Macdonald Word Play

A line in one of Ross Macdonald's mysteries delights me for absolutely no particular reason. Not even a line, but just an aside he throws in, and I have no idea why it grabs me. In Black Money, where his protagonist private-eye Lew Archer gives us a first-person narration throughout the story, we hear about a petty squabble that takes place between Lew and some fellow he met only once or twice before:

"It was the kind of situation I liked to avoid, or terminate quickly. As the century wore on --- I could feel it wearing on --- angry pointless encounters like this one tended more and more to erupt in violence."

As the century wore on, em-dash, I could feel it wearing on, em-dash. What a hoot. I love it. And my enjoyment has nothing to do with the sentence as a whole; the rest of it could have been all sorts of other words. I have no particular interest in the general idea at hand of a century slouching towards some violent finale, although it might well be that Ross Macdonald had, or else he felt that his Lew Archer character had, such an idea. Private eye turned sociologist/historian? Possible, maybe even probable, given Macdonald's bent for the private-eye genre and his apparent desire to give his private eye a special vantage point from which to view our culture in the decades after the Second World War. This book was published in 1966, and there were plenty of pointless encounters then, which often, indeed, erupted in violence. But my own delight feels independent of such considerations.

Writing in my notebook just yesterday, for instance, I was trying to track the ups and downs of my mood swings. Call them bi-polar notes, maybe, as I am faced with these mood swings pretty much every day. So I wrote, "As the day wore on --- I could feel it wearing on --- . . . " and I don't recall what followed, just as I often forget what follows in the Lew Archer/Macdonald sentence. That part is just so neat!

Keats Pun by Clifton Fadiman

I just have to pass along this bit of Clifton Fadiman's word play in his introduction to "The Complete Book of Cheese" by Bob Brown, published back in 1955. Fadiman borrows from the closing lines of John Keats's poem about his amazement, wonder, awe, what have you, when he first looked into a translation of Homer by John Chapman. Keats compares the feeling to what he imagines Cortez felt when he and his party of Spanish explorers crossed the American Southwest from the Gulf of Mexico in the land they then called Darien and saw for the first time the great ocean that, presumably, no Western eyes had looked upon before.

They stumbled upon a view of the Pacific Ocean and stood there staring: "with a wild surmise,
Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

Closing his introductory remarks in celebration of cheese, Mr Fadiman points out the scarcity of home-grown, American varieties that rank with the best of the European: we have no Roquefort, no Stilton, no Brie. And yet, he concludes, "there is always the hope that, like a new planet, a truly supreme American cheese will swim into my ken and that I too shall at last look

'. . . with a wild surmise,
Silent, upon a peak in dairyin'. '

The part about the new planet swimming into his ken also comes from the Keats poem. Check it out.



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