Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Shop. Vote. Don't forget to be human.

After the Election. Ink on archival panel card, 5" x 7."
© 2017 Mary Boxley Bullington, all rights reserved.
See more of Mary's work here.
And if you are going to be in or near Roanoke this fall,
be sure and attend her open studio!

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Read the preface (nobody does, when it's a book!)

I'm not paying the least attention to whose ideas are best in my singular, possibly eccentric mind and in this post, partly because I don't think writers have any business dictating to others, partly because I choose to trust you to have some well-formed ideas, and partly because what I am interested in here is the decline in our ability to see others as human beings worthy of respect and interesting in their own right. This is, naturally, of a matter of intimate concern to me as a novelist and poet.

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Shop. Vote. Don't forget to be human.
Also: thinking like a writer.

I’ve been thinking about the loud controversies of late and the various ways we Americans have changed the meaning of our identity as human beings. An American man or woman shopping at the mall is human—that’s a given, right? A consumer is important; is human. A voter is human, but these days it is only if he or she believes the same things we do and trusts in the same proper steps to transform the country (rather than some other, surely evil steps) and so votes for “our” party. The ideal of respect (sadly, not always fulfilled over the centuries) for one another is in pronounced abeyance. That’s natural, of course, because the ideas that the image of God shines through all mortal flesh is dead in what is essentially a post-Christian society.

In the states, we are all well aware (though we often don’t give a hoot because we are grossly, madly addicted to mall-going and such) that we are interchangeable moving parts in the complicated, well-oiled machine of the economic shopping machine. In great part, we mean in this country because we shop. I shop, therefore I am. Likewise, we are tiny parts in the voting apparatus, continually pestered to think according to correct party lines. If we are too young to shop or vote or too ill or decrepit, we just don’t matter much to the system—we’re not quite human, and others decide what to do about us.

But this is wholly wrong, isn’t it? We have forgotten what it is to be human if we believe that either consuming or voting correctly grounds us and makes us human, much less fully human (another large question!) But that akilter definition of the human is the strong impression one gets from vocal campus outbursts and the standard media and the blizzard of advertising tumbling around us….

As a writer with a dislike of malls and distrust of politicians, I have a distaste for these trends and tendencies. No wonder ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty have been shunted off to a corner. No wonder many post-post-modernist practitioners of what's called (or used to be called) fine arts resist all three. And what of story in the current milieu? To believe that only one sort of thinking and action is acceptable (a thing that a thousand thousand memes tell us, though they do not agree on what sort it is) is the death of the novel. An insistence on conformity kills story. Examples of writers apologizing for their words are on the increase. Novels have been cancelled by publishers for violating correctness. Groupthink? Maybe we'll get some good satire.

To attempt to enforce a set of proper ideas—even if and when they happen to look like pretty good ideas—onto all people is simply the death of narrative. Novels and narrative poems need varied, surprising sorts of human beings to propel them, and the writer needs to respect and fully know the peculiar depths of each one of them, no matter what characters believe, how they vote, or whether they "shop till they drop" or tilt against the system with all their tiny might. A novelist needs to love a whole world of people. She needs to be large, to contain multitudes, to be myriad-minded.

12 comments:

  1. Thank you for using my drawing, Marly.I'm glad you saw that the satire is two-edged. But then, you would!

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  2. I'll admit that I also find it odd to see friends, acquaintances, and strangers exhorting me (and everyone) to vote. What if I, and others, vote against everything they hold dear?

    When I voted last week, all of the volunteers kept applauding—literally, applauding, at every step!—a new 18-year-old voter who looked irritated and bored. He voted at the cubbyhole next to me, where I overheard his mother say: "Now, see that? When you see that after the name, that's who you vote for." The kid had no idea what he was doing or why. It was a pathetic moment, but I snickered a little, because it was a considerably more real moment than all of today's grinning, self-satisfied "I voted" selfies.

    So yeah: "remember to be human." In the long run, that's much better advice than "vote."

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    1. Hah, good story. I did see a kid of 18 I know voting for the first time (wholly by himself) and congratulated him. Voting in Cooperstown is always a sweet, old-fashioned experience because I know so many of the volunteers...

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  3. Andrew Hacker wrote that if Americans had to choose between the right to vote and the right to shop, they would overwhelmingly choose the latter. One must admit that the link between act and consequence is more obvious and predictable in shopping.

    A writer should not be compelled to withdraw work or apologize for it, yet some may have had unprompted or at least uncoerced second thoughts. Henry James did not include The Bostonians in the New York Edition of his works, and Louis Auchincloss suggested that this may have been because of second thoughts about how he portrayed the reformers.

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    1. Never heard that proposition! I fear that it is true...

      Of course, Henry James was an inveterate tinkerer and reviser! Haven't read "The Bostonians" in many years... not sure I want a reread.

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  4. I always read prefaces, forewords, introductions, dedications, even summaries, etc, but after I've read the book. Blogposts, however, seem to impose a linear approach.

    Surely no one you know is "dictating"; if they are you simply walk away. But there's nothing wrong with laying out our opinions which of course you eventually do.

    You say you distrust politicians. Including FDR? Angela Merkel? Clement Atlee? I know there's a sense of betrayal when we discover that politics is not a series of absolutes. That principles always seem to give way to compromise and the "pure" message becomes cloudy. But that's evidence of the point you are making - there are others out there with different views and with whom we must co-exist. Absolutist politics is not really politics at all. Ask General Franco. Ask Pol Pot.

    Equally I must worry about "ideals of goodness, truth and beauty" since all are subjective. Think of the problems liberals have when writing about Eliot or Pound; is the work synonymous with the writer? What must I think of:

    Son of man,
    You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
    A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
    And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
    And the dry stone no sound of water.


    when told the author wrote anti-semitic letters.

    But then I'm in danger of committing the act you disapprove of. Do I really want to change your views? Of course I don't. I have profited from them and expect to do so tomorrow. A mendicant at the gates of The Palace at 2 am. I'd like to characterise what I've said as sound and fury except that the phrase carries more energy than I'm capable of or intend. Think of it as Rice Crispies and Clabber Girl baking soda bought at the mall.

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    1. I did not say "dictating" but in fact I think that many people are attempting to do so, particularly on our campuses. As a former prof, I find it bemusing that free speech is on the decline at universities, and debate is often unacceptable.

      While I tend to think the professional politician is a rather a new creature, FDR certainly proves me wrong. Perhaps every professional politician needs a sad bout of paralytic disease in order to become stronger and more wise?

      In earlier times, people with many different backgrounds served their country. They were not professional politicians. I like the idea of farmers and doctors and shop owners in the House and Senate, but we are dominated by lawyers... I dislike that tendency.

      Of course, at heart I am apolitical and am not particularly interested in the whole subject, though I dutifully make myself pay attention. And I think we often worry about the wrong things. We don't know what are the right things. As, it's possible that we should not dither over climate change endlessly while not paying attention to the signs that Yellowstone may possibly be about to blow--which would be an epic tragedy for the states and a sudden, sore revolution in climate for the world. I expect we could come up with a long list of people looking toward one problem when another might turn out to be more serious. We're human. We're obsessive about the wrong things and fail to notice the right ones. We're tugged by media insistence instead of being sensible or wise.

      I believe that in the act of creation, writers are sometimes lifted above their own petty views and, indeed, above their own limitations. The work can be better than the writer. The ideal can seize hold and transform, at least temporarily. The classical idea of a genius spirit reflects this idea, as does the Christian idea of inspiration.

      The current times distrust and find falsity in goodness, truth, and beauty. But set Tracey Emin's unmade bed against, say, a Fra Angelico Annunciation (any of them) or Brueghel's Tower of Babel. For me, at once beauty, goodness, and truth rise up in their imperishable, essential, ruthless nature and need no defense from me.

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  5. Militant Tendency was a Trotskyist entryist group designed to infiltrate the British Labour Party in the sixties. I love the idea of a Lawyers' Tendency, lawyerly in everything they do, bringing up children according to case law, charging clients $300/hr for opening an office door and a further $250/hr for indicating a chair to sit on, always in dark suits, severely coiffed, finally suppressing a shriek of delight on discovering the essence of DC. George Grosz knew whereof he caricatured although they were much fatter in his day. I am on the wings of an idea and you may delete this comment should you wish.

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    1. Hah. You're often offering to let me ignore or delete, but you're always interesting and amusing.

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  6. I blame all electronic media ..... let’s go back to the19th century (but let all adults vote — or compel all adults to vote) .... hmmmm.....

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    1. Oooh, Tim, I will drop by soon, I promise--have had wonderful descents of company during Glimmerglass Film Days...

      Yes, let us now blame electronic media! Hahaha. Even when we are quiet, most of us are still buzzing on the inside.

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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.