Ghost in Search of a Machine

February 1, 2014

One of Ours is a 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Willa Cather. Like a Quentin Tarantino Film, the story starts in one genre but ends in another. No, I was never a big fan of From Dusk Till Dawn. So it’s no surprise that One of Ours leaves me dissatisfied.

Books I through III are set on the prairie of Nebraska. We follow the growth and development of Claude, who searches for something fine and splendid in life, as he navigates the crass materialism of his dad and the foolish piousness of his mom. The prairie sections of the novel are quite lovely. Even the creek bears witness to it.

“The sun popped up over the edge of the prairie like a broad, smiling face; the light poured across the close-cropped August pastures and the hilly, timbered windings of Lovely Creek…”

But when Claude journeys to France to fight in World War I, Cather’s bildungsroman morphs into an uninspired war novel. It’s as though the narrator, at first totally enthralled by Claude and the comforts and pleasures (and difficulties) of country boyhood, abruptly loses interest in her host and breaks free from the skull of Claude’s experience. In books IV and V, a homunculus is on the loose, one that’s gallivanting about, fascinated by cheese and architecture, and by the abstract joys of military life, of marching together, of living and dying together.

Problem is, an Odysseus who leaves home in search of an ideal is only as interesting as the inner experience that propels him. And this experience is largely ignored once Cather’s narrative gaze looks beyond the green alfalfa and “shattered grain” of Nebraska.

No wonder I’m homesick for the Midwest.


Literary Cage Fight

January 27, 2014

I marvel over literary descriptions of commonplace things. If only there were a reality TV show pitting two writers against each other. At the sound of a bell and the pointing of a finger, they would be told to “Describe this!”—say, a scene of the sun and sunmoonmoon each on a horizon’s edge. Well, I’m delighted to report that two literary heavyweights are game and the contest is on.

Enter Willa Cather, from One of Ours:

“The sun was already low. It hung above the stubble, all milky and rosy with the heat, like the image of a sun reflected in grey water. In the east the full moon had just risen, and its thin silver surface was flushed with pink until it looked exactly like the setting sun. Except for the place each occupied in the heavens, Claude could not have told which was which. They rested upon opposite rims of the world, two bright shields, and regarded each other, —as if they, too, had met by appointment.”

And Marilynne Robinson, from Gilead:

“At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.”

Is there a winner of this literary cage fight?

Can there be a winner?


why dialogue fails miserably

January 23, 2014

Time to deliver on a promise, delayed as it might be. One last quick post on The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Emphasis on quick. The novel is pervaded by an atmosphere of desperation and loneliness, of mutual distrust and antagonism. People roam the streets untitledwithout satisfaction. An abiding theme of the novel is the total lack of belongingness. Because prattle, chit chat, and shooting the bull is how we connect with others, dialogue must fail in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter—and it does so spectacularly. A brute spills his guts to a deaf mute who doesn’t hear a blessed word; a troop of four visits another with comically subdued results, no one able to muster a sustained conversation, a stilted, uncomfortable affair; a boy filled with envy communicates his jealousy by way of accidentally shooting a girl in the face, leaving her with a bloodied, crumpled skull; and two men separated by race but bound by ideology bicker ceaselessly over tactics, till they stare each other down in bitter rage: “You short-sighted bigot!” “White! Fiend!” In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, talking is a dangerous affair, a terrifying parody. A thought, a word, or a sentence might cut or kill you.


apple’s “your verse?”

January 19, 2014

Yes, interesting things happen at the corner of the arts and technology. And technology can do some truly amazing things. But I can’t listen to Apple’s recent ad without a jolt of ambivalence. Watch the TV ad here; the language is below:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry, because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering — these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

To quote from Whitman,

“O me, O life of the questions of these recurring. Of the endless trains of the faithless. Of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here. That life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

What will your verse be?

The language is simple and direct. And I’m even tempted to say profound. Not because my beloved Whitman is quoted — that’s part of the ambivalence, like when a believer learns that a religious verse is used to sell toothpaste — but because there’s a very clear distinction between conventional livelihoods like “medicine, law, business, engineering” and poetry. And poetry is awarded primacy, as it is associated with the life-giving powers of imagination, meaning and purpose. Like I said, I can’t watch the ad without a sense of deep ambivalence.


The Nutritional Profile of Reading Books

January 18, 2014

Reading novels is like stuffing your face with mental veggies. It can lower stress levels, help you sleep better, keep your veggie pagebrain sharp, and stave off Alzheimer’s, all at the speed of a turning page. Before you whip out your laptop, however, consider this: “At least a few studies suggest that screens sometimes impair comprehension precisely because they distort people’s sense of place in a text.” For years I’ve been interested in the effects of reading, ranging from its impact on subjective experiences, i.e., moral and psychological, as well as on the underlying objective physiology. In a gorgeous bit of serendipity, I find myself working at HopeLab where we research the connection between mental states and the body so we can develop interventions to improve health and well-being. In the coming months, I hope to uncover and share fascinating tidbits in the realm of reading, psychology and biology.


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