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The Holy or the Broken

I'm enjoying Alan Light's book about "Hallelujah," the song by Leonard Cohen that went from several years of obscurity to worldwide recognition and seemingly endless covers on UTube.  What a treat to hear about all the different interpretations. The song really has become  an international anthem.

Given how much I enjoy this book, take this one little criticism with salt when I point out a very curious comment Alan Light makes about one of the song's interpretations. He didn't care for what Susan Boyle did, "cutting a verse in half for no discernible reason, so that the final line she sings before the concluding chorus is 'I used to live alone before I knew you,'  which makes no sense at all."

I'm not a Christian believer and I haven't heard Susan Boyle's recording. But  her last line strikes me as one that a Christian would find very powerful and making perfect sense.  "Let Christ into your life and never again feel alone": isn't that what you hear so often from Christians seeking your conversion?  

Thoreau's got me going again because of his silly insistence upon solitude. One review of recent books about his mentions the limits of his celebrity, how he's lionized here in the States but ignored in other countries. He benefits in his after-life here, I think, because of our infatuation with the individual.  So when he tells us that he went to live in the woods "because I wished . . . to front only the essential facts of life," we nod our amens and sing our hallelujahs, not hearing the silliness that any outsider can hear. 

The essential facts of life do not include other people? Bedrock reality involves only oneself alone?  Really, Henry.  This is beyond silly, verging on the fatuous, and yet here in America it slides right by. 

My guess is that Thoreau at this point was still basking in denial of an otherwise unendurable grief for his brother, who died from lockjaw two or three years before Henry took up his life in the woods of Walden . He had nursed his brother John through the awful final stages of a tetanus infection, and in the days that followed John's death Henry developed the exact same symptoms. The arched back, the clenched jaw, the lungs shutting down for lack of air: Henry picked up these symptoms from nowhere, everywhere, from his great longing to join his brother.

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The announcement by the Swedish Academy for this year's Nobel Prize in literature refers to an abyss that's presumably beneath us all. The prize was awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro, "who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world."

Any connection at all? It's all just an illusion? This is somber indeed, reminding me of those Puritan preachers who spoke of hell-fire and damnation for everyone. And for many of them, to be sure, any connection to this world couldn't help but be illusory since this world was apart from God, a place where our souls did not truly belong. That the Swedish Academy would craft a line like this suggests to me a kind of latter-day puritanism.

A few weeks ago I encountered another reference to the abyss, this one in a blurb from the NY Times about "Book For Living," the title of a new book by Will Schwalbe. This author believes that books "are our last great hope to keep us from spiraling into the abyss." As with the Nobel Prize announcement, we've got "the abyss," flat out -- I'm trying for something American in place of tout court -- with no ifs, ands or buts, as if we all take this for granted. It's underneath us all, folks. Don't be fooled by any connections you might feel to this world.

Making gender, making meaning

National Geographic ends its special issue on "Gender Revolution" (January 2017), with a short essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter. "The ultimate goal, surely," she writes there, "is to let all people define themselves as human beings, to break out of assigned categories and challenge received wisdom." While this may be a worthwhile, or even ultimate goal, I don't believe it's possible. We use language to define things, after all, and language is communal. Takes at least two.

Here's another example of what I see as the same problem in a comment by Tina Fey on the pro wrestler/boxer Ronda Rousy. Could Ronda be the one, she asks, "to finally help us understand that as females, we define the word feminine and that it doesn't define us?" If only women are in the community, then yes, sure, define yourselves as you will. Same goes for men and their sense of who they are. But in mixed company, forget it. All your attempts at self-definition are inert until someone on the other side helps bring them to life.

Self-definition, can't be done. We need one another for this.

Matches made in heaven

Another sign of the times, this one on a box of Diamond Strike-in-the-Box matches:

"Includes wood from responsibly managed forests"

Of course, any really serious, pro-active consumer would want to know why the Diamond Match people did not include percentages on this label. Shouldn't we be told how much of their wood comes from the other kind of forest?

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.



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