Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, May 09, 2016

Childishness and complexities and culture

Johanna Basford page from her Colouring Gallery,
colored by Philip
The invention of Mother's Day

Sunday was pleasant, with flowers and chocolates and a necklace so pretty it could have been a flower--most of all, a dinner with my husband and sons (our daughter was off in Montreal.) The familiar rumor is that Hallmark invented Mother's Day, but in fact it was a daughter, Anna Jarvis, who eventually attacked the commercialization of the holiday and thought that tributes should be heartfelt and homemade. No doubt she would have disapproved of my gifts, though perhaps not of Sunday dinner; I enjoyed my day, mainly because my sons came out to celebrate.

(Side note: Are there any great poems about mothers? Poems by Heaney and Plath and Poe and more, surely, come to mind. I think of Yeats's worn mothers, their daughters with ribbons in their hair--the mothers can't warn or fix a thing! If you like some poem about a mother, please leave the title and author.)

But Anna Jarvis brings up the idea that so often what starts out as a lovely thing becomes co-opted and degraded, doesn't it? And that goes for every little wisp and strand of culture.

Kidnapped

Currently I am listening to two books I've read before, The Woman in White or Kidnapped, when I fold laundry (one of my least-favorite things to do.) In Kidnapped, I'm just up to the point where David Balfour must defend his life for the first time. And I'm thinking about how different the book is from popular young adult books of our own day, though it has adventure and a teen protagonist. David Balfour begins as a very adult sort of child who has already suffered losses and is seen off in the world by the kindly Mr. Campbell, minister of Essendean. He goes off on foot to find the House of Shaws. He is no fool and does not trust his Uncle Ebenezer, but his downfall comes when he persuades himself that his uncle may mean some degree of good to him--even though his uncle tried to kill him earlier by sending him up rotten tower stairs in the dark--and he also feels a desire to step on board a ship. David suffers both physically and mentally for indulging his desire and distrusting his own instincts. Quite soon he faces another situation where he must assess right and wrong and make a moral, high-cost decision about whom to support and whether to be brave, and he sides with the outnumbered Alan Breck Stewart, even though he fears that it may cost his life and even though Stewart is a Jacobite, while David is a Whig. But it is a giant leap into adulthood, where David opposes the child-killing Shuan and the ongoing evil of Captain Hoseason.

The horror of what he has been forced to do in the battle of the roundhouse wrings David's heart, but Alan Breck Stewart is full of frolic and poetry. It is Alan who is the child, and David who is full of civilized unrest and regret and grief. And I'm looking forward to "the flight in the heather," which no less a stylist than Henry James admired. Up ahead in the tale, things become quite murky, and it's difficult to sort the moral threads, and to know exactly what Alan Breck Stewart is, and whether he is on the side of right and the angels or not. The moral crux cut through by love in Kidnapped is as fundamental to the book as the one in that other great boys' book, Huckleberry Finn.

Stevenson in a modest mode, to James, 1884
I am rejoiced indeed to hear you speak so kindly of my work; rejoiced and surprised. I seem to myself a very rude, left-handed countryman; not fit to be read, far less complimented, by a man so accomplished, so adroit, so craftsmanlike as you. You will happily never have cause to understand the despair with which a writer like myself considers (say) the park scene in Lady Barberina. Every touch surprises me by its intangible precision; and the effect when done, as light as syllabub, as distinct as a picture, fills me with envy. Each man among us prefers his own aim, and I prefer mine; but when we come to speak of performance, I recognise myself, compared with you, to be a lout and slouch of the first water.
We could use such "a lout and a slouch." It's like thinking of Auden on vacation, learning Icelandic.

Complexities and the adult

I'm thinking about Stevenson in the light of Susan Nieman's article about the infantilization of Western culture.
Each of us has to take some responsibility for this collective madness. As individuals, we are scared to read “difficult” books or attempt other challenging activities. As the Enlightenment’s two greatest philosophers, Rousseau and Kant, argued, growing up is a challenge.

Real adult activity takes effort and often courage. Colouring in someone else’s designs is always easier than making your own, just as forming your own opinions – after gathering and weighing information – is always harder than parroting other people’s views. This is why Kant wrote that thinking for oneself is the key to growing up. 
The moral complexity of the relationship between Balfour and Stewart: is it equaled in our "young adult" novels? According to Nieman, more than half of the young adult books sold are sold to adults, and most of those report buying them to read themselves. In a world awash in Marvel hero movies, infinite games, artists who can't paint or sculpt, writers who want to shock an unshockable world with heightened sex and violence, and coloring books for adults, do we even desire morally complex relationships in any kind of novel? Does anyone care if entertainment wrestles art to the ground and skips away triumphant?

All of this leads me to conclude that I am really a minor character in Gawain and the Green Knight, unseen, occasionally bringing out a serving dish but mostly scribbling in a back room by the fire, leaves in my hair. I send you greetings from the leafing castle.

More from Basford's gallery of fans.
Colored by Lynn Lamont
with Staedtler Noris Club pencils.

21 comments:

  1. Like. As you know, I write for tweens and up. Most of what comes out for that group are morality plays -- Ricky Stands Up To Bullies, Susie Tries Out For The Team -- and lack any complexity or depth. Kids are not stupid. They need and want real stories with real characters, not approved psychobabble. Art and entertainment? We should have both.

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    1. Yes, I agree entirely. And we used to have both without suggesting by our behavior that entertainment ought to crowd out art.

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  2. Cummings has a nice ode to his mother: "if there are any heavens." And George Bernard Shaw has a really lovely and unusual letter in which he describes the cremation of his mother. "The end was wildly funny," he concludes, "she would have enjoyed it enormously."

    When I talk about the fine arts with people younger than I am—I'd call them "the adult arts" if there weren't something inadvertently suggestive in that—they often come back with, "well, haven't opera, painting, theater, poetry, and classical music always been minority interests?" I find it difficult to explain that "minority interest" isn't the same as "increasingly shut out of the culture entirely."

    A couple weeks ago, I saw a Johnny Carson rerun from the '70s that devoted nearly 30 minutes of the 90-minute show to Itzhak Perlman—not only a gorgeous performance, but also a lengthy interview where Johnny talked about his obligation to use a lightweight entertainment program to promote the fine arts from time to time. It's unthinkable in 2016 that talk-show hosts, their producers, and TV executives would do the same; the arts just aren't part of their culture or key to their lives.

    Even if, say, Shakespeare or the symphony are minority interests, I'd find it progress if we reclaimed a world in which the fine arts weren't drowned out entirely by corporate entertainment. People at least need to know this stuff is out there when they start to get bored with the usual offerings but don't quite know what to do next.

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    1. Oh, I love love love Shaw's cremation account. Read it years back and it sticks hard--the gaiety. A merry image of the little bouncing fiery bits of her stayed with me (or is the result in my mind of the account), even though I forget so much. Shall have to go look at the Cummings--haven't read him in a good long while.

      Yes, that's the thing. Shut out of mainstream culture. And that Carson story--I didn't watch a lot of t.v. as I was growing up, but I remember that the arts were mixed with entertainment, not alien to it.

      One thing that I love about my children growing older--the youngest is 18--is that I no longer have to go to the latest comic book hero movie. I doubt most people can easily go from very fast-paced entertainment over-egged with sex and violence to Shakespeare. And a great many people can't tell the difference between the meretricious, the okay, the good, and the great. We've abandoned inculcating taste in schools and home for the most part.

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    2. Speaking of schools, I've found one trend particularly sad: a tendency to stage plays based directly on corporate entertainment. Nearby elementary and middle schools recently did "Peter Pan Jr." and "The Lion King Jr.," and last year our high school put on the banal and execrable "High School Musical," all of them with books, scores, and directors' handbooks licensed from Disney. At this rate, we'll soon get to the point where a drama-and-music-inclined kid will go all through school without participating in anything new and unfamiliar. Art and education alike must bow before the great god Entertainment. (I'm tempted to repurpose a quotation from Mussolini: "All within entertainment, nothing outside entertainment, nothing against entertainment.")

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    3. That's true in the schools around here, too--the Disney senior musical is popular. Often the plays are cut-down versions, even if they're not Disney. And then there are ones that refer to some popular entertainment (like "The Munsters") but changes names and creates parallel events to avoid copyright issues and make a simplified play. My children have all been in such plays / musicals.

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  3. the trouble with Democracy is taste sinks to the lowest level(someone else said that, i didn't); by some sort of magic, art has maintained a high level regardless of changing governments, politics, war, or ambition. always a smaller or larger % of the extant population has persevered in gluing itself to powerful and meaningful creative productions. i think it's been miraculous. if i were a totally objective visualizer from outer space, it would seem much more logical for there to be nothing on earth but barbarians and slaves. what there is and has been, is remarkable...

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    1. Perhaps, then, we're just in a lull when there's less support for concerts, opera, literature, painting. And perhaps it will be a larger percentage in another era. If enough strangeness and desire for art endures!

      Perhaps it is a miracle that we're not all chopping off heads, since so many now and in earlier times relished that sort of behavior. But if you look at the images from Chauvet (32,000 years ago), it seems that we have had the impulse to make the beautiful and celebrate the world for a long time. And the first geometric design may be more than half a million years old.

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  4. Mothers: If I reach for a poem mentioning mothers, the second-last stanza of "Among Schoolchildren" comes to mind. Thetis in the Iliad gets wonderful lines early and late; Rachel Bespaloff's essay "Thetis and Achilles" deals well with this.

    Kidnapped: It strikes me that in a sense Stevenson is working with the situation of Rob Roy: a young man to be done out of his inheritance finds himself on the shady (Jacobite) side of the law. John Jay Chapman wrote what I think a very good essay on Stevenson's strengths and weaknesses, which you can find at Gutenberg.org (http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13088/pg13088.txt).

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    1. I find that I took more from Chapman's essay than I had recalled: "Kidnapped is a romantic fragment whose original is to be found in the Scotch scenes of the Waverley Novels."

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    2. Thanks for the recommendations! You must have spotted my weakness for Yeats. I am reading Christopher Logue's "War Music," so Thetis is on my mind.

      And I've never read any but bits of Scott, though I do remember checking out "Ivanhoe" as a child. Somehow I don't think I made it through...

      There are a number of writers with novels considered to be boys' books whose work I like. Stevenson is loved by many writers, I note. And Kipling, Kim: a grand book.

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    3. When I read it in my thirties, Ivanhoe seemed to me something of a boy's book. Scott's novels of the 1700s have their quirks, but I think them stronger.

      The best boys' books have something or much to offer to the adult. There is a great deal of Mark Twain that I can read with the same pleasure as forty-five years ago; but I read it differently, and the parts I admire often enough have changed.

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    4. A children's book isn't worth all that much if it can't interest a willing adult, I think.

      I have meant to try Rob Roy. I just have such towering stacks of books by friends and books not by friends that I want to read or reread. Maybe I'll get there eventually.

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  5. yes; those occupants cowered under who knows which elder gods and produced their gravings and etchings, partly or wholly, to fend off the resentment and bad moods of the imagined overseers... maybe we still need art for the same reasons. protecting ourselves from bad karma and the vengeful hidden creatures in our minds' eyes...

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    1. Mudpuddle, I for one am a far more cheerful writer than that suggests! Hah.

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  6. yes you are; i was kind of being geological there... another bad habit...

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    1. Geological! Yes, it goes back a long way.

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  7. I hope you had a lovely Mother's Day. I do not think people who have not been (can never be) mothers ever sufficiently appreciate their mothers. In fact, I think that men in particular can never sufficiently appreciate and understand women. That is not misogyny but bewilderment. BTW, enjoy Wilkie Collins' novel. Such sensational fun!

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    1. Thank you, Tim--I note that you seem to appreciate your wife very much. Yes, I love Collins.

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  8. "At least they're reading," is what people say when kids or adults pick up some empty sexy new adventure novel. It reminds me of the time I was commuting home from work, and as my bus passed a schoolyard I watched from my window as three young boys kicked the crap out of a fourth. "At least they're getting some exercise," my seatmate remarked.

    Happy belated Mother's Day! I have both Gawain and the Green Knight and Kidnapped on my to-read stack. This summer, surely.

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    1. We're overlapping this year--I reread some LeGuin that you read this year, and at the same time, I think.

      Yes, that's exactly so. How could filling one's mind with dross lead to gold?

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.