Yesterday's face was that of Joan Didion. Didion's innovative style of memoir writing has surely influenced the writing of every would-be memoirist since the 'sixties brought her to the literary foreground. Her confessional postures, connected via a journalistic style to a sense of place and history, have added vividness to the genre and elevated such writing in literature's pantheon.
Part 2 – The Re-Enchantment of the World – Secular Magic in a Rational Age, Edited by Joshua Landy & Michael Saler
I promised another post on this book a couple of weeks ago, emphasizing these essays’ approach to literature. After some thought, this:
I often hear from readers that such and such a work “isn’t realistic.” From others, particularly writers still struggling with the basics of creative writing, that dialogue should be as it actually occurs. As in:
Joe’s telephone rang. “Hello,” he said.
“Hi, Joe, this is Fred Flintstone.”
“Ah, yes, Fred. How are you?”
“I’m okay, I guess.”
“Great, Fred. And the wife and kids?”
“They’re doing okay.”
“Great. What can I do for you today?”
By this point of the text, the normal reader will be twisting with impatience, wanting to know where this conversation is headed. Whatever occurs hereafter will be watered down by the banality and meaninglessness of this initial exchange.
But what if it had been written thusly:
Lunchtime: Joe’s phone rang. He sighed, looked at his watch, and answered.
“Joe, this is Fred Flintstone.”
“Ah, yes, Fred. How’s that old Studebaker of mine treating you?”
“That’s why I’m calling. The clutch isn’t working. I want my money back.”
The second pass through this conversation is likely a truncated version of a more "realistic" one, cutting out the normal hemming and hawing that usually accompanies such an exchange. Too, the dialogue and narrative snippets in this second pass accomplish much more: Joe’s probably in a hurry to get to his lunchtime watering hole. Fred doesn’t buy Joe’s attempt at nicety. He has a problem with the used car he bought from Joe, and he’s in no mood for anything other than the business at hand.
In the chapter regarding re-enchantment and literature, we discover that literature at its best doesn’t try to reproduce the turbulence of “normal” life. Instead, it reproduces the feel of that turbulence while imposing order on it.
Admittedly, this is done arbitrarily on the writer’s part, and the order imposed is his or her own version of such ordering. Still, this attempt exposes the situation’s chaos and leaves it more nearly open to resolution.
Quoting Stéphane Mallarmé in this regard: “Things exist, we do not have to create them; we have only to seize the connections among them…”
This is the skill implied in the second dialogue version – the passage is structured so that the dilemma between Joe and Fred is enhanced by implying the connection between the two men – the connection that is at the root of their unfolding conflict.
This is one of several examples presented in this book regarding the manner in which resolving a problem might be handled in literature. But, you ask, Where’s the enchantment the book speaks of? Or more to the point, where’s the re-enchantment?
We might say that there’s the possibility that Joe has sold Fred a lemon, and we know that’s wrong. The enchantment, then, is in the supposed fairness of their dealings, superimposed on their ensuing conflict. In this case, perhaps, Joe wasn’t as forthcoming with information about the car at the time he sold it to Fred.
Re-enchantment is seen here as yet a third stage of life experience via literature. In this instance, as readers, we understand both the conflict of the passage and the moral dilemma it poses. The re-enchantment, then, is in our understanding of the skillful manner, perhaps even the mental and emotional beauty, in which the writer connected Joe and Fred in depicting their conflict.
In this way, through this three-stage understanding, we allow the alternative reality of literature to raise us above conflict. Some will even say regular inoculations of this alternative reality, presented in this way, might lead us to a sense of liberation from such human turmoil.
My rating (for this segment of the book): 5 of 5 stars.
Who did yesterday's face belong to? Does the name John Dos Passos ring a bell? Dos Passos was one of the expatriate writers who came of age in Paris following WWI and who were known as the Lost Generation. The trilogy mentioned? USA – composed of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936).
Today's face belongs to one of the U.S. preeminent non-fiction writers. Need I hint more?
Yes, yesterday's face really was Toni Morrison. The author of the renowned book, Beloved, is both a Pulitzer and Nobel winner for fiction and literature.
Today's face may seem a bit obscure, and may been taken for another. Here's a hint: his claim to literary fame is a trilogy united under a single title.
Yesterday's face was a stumper, it seems – a young John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck was one of the most prolific writers of his day. And that volume of work drew on problems still plaguing the U.S. today, from poorly paying, dangerous jobs to migrations caused by the Great Depression. If you want to better understand today's national problems, Steinbeck's books would be a good place to start. But he was hardly a polemicist; he often wrote about these subjects with consummate humor and in common but musical prose.
Here's today's twentieth century writer:
The last article of the Two Minds theme I've fabricated from the October/November 2010 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle has to do with D.H. Lawrence and his fascination with the Etruscan culture in what is now Italy. Lawrence was well-traveled and had a consuming interest in antiquities. This added to his innovative style of travel writing.
This writing of Lawrence’s juxtaposed his impressions of a very creative, artful ancient culture with the modern culture of Italy at the time of his life – that of Fascist Italy. Such a contrast of old and new could only create resonant and lasting impressions of both cultures.
Having drawn these very sketchy pictures of writing within cultures but with outside perspectives, I had to sit back and examine my own cultural stereoscope.
Where is my contrast, then? Given the Southern blood within me, it has to be a modern, pragmatic balancing perspective – something perhaps inflammatory to the South?
I have a military background, but that’s also part of the Southern ethos. My enjoyment of the outdoors? A tendency to hard work? All part of the Southern ethos. As I look back at my developing stories, I do see one contrast at work: in these stories, I'm looking largely to people glued to a rural area of the South from the standpoint of my being raised in a rootless family, constantly traveling the world, and my working for many years in an urban Southern environment. Not quite what I expected to articulate here, but it's certainly at work in these stories.
With that divined, we’ll just have to see how the remaining stories go…