Tag Archives: Don Quixote

Literature, the Canons, and Immortality

images5HX0A6S7Caleb Crain, in his essay “Counter Culture: Fighting for literature in an age of algorithms” (Harper’s Magazine, July 2015), shares a delightful anecdote of literary subversion:

I worked in the town library when I was in high school, and one of the librarians, a former nun, used to wander through the stacks from time to time and save her favorite books from being discarded by stamping them with false due dates.

This in the context of “what you might call the working myth of the life of literature – the half-conscious way that people decide which texts they consider literature, and how they carry those texts forward.” Or in other words, a discussion of what it means to have literary canons at all: of what good they are and how they are best established and nurtured.

images[7]In the build-up to addressing those questions he mentions the early 19th-century English Romantic poet John Keats, he of the “Ode to a Grecian Urn” which many of us probably encountered in high school. In the spirit of his belief in literature’s power to transcend time and space (this in an era long before commercial transatlantic flights, let alone email, Facebook, and Twitter), Keats once proposed to his brother, from whom he was then separated by thousands of miles and by several time zones, that they each read Shakespeare at 10:00 Sunday mornings so they could each feel the other’s presence. And later, while bedridden with the tuberculosis that in a year almost to the day – when he was not yet twenty-six – would finish killing him, he proposed something similar to his lover Fanny Brawne: “Do not send any more of my books home. I have a great pleasure in the thought of you looking on them.”

“What does it take to believe in such a communion?” Crain asks.

 I think it requires the belief that reading, or at least a certain kind of reading, is sensuous, invisible, and soulful. Each instance of this kind of reading is unique. In its ideal form, it occurs on a plane that is oblique to the physical location of the people doing it, even when they happen to be in the same room.

Anyway, while not in favor of a narrowly selected canon, carved in stone, Crain argues that “some notion of a literary canon was essential to the ideal of soulful reading, because not all texts repaid soulful attention.” This becomes a question, then, of how to read literature: how to make judgments about it and how to distinguish between good and bad, better and worse, informed or thoughtful and uninformed or thoughtless.

How, in any case, does a reasonably flexible and evolving canon of the better kind of writing get established? “In my imagination, at least,” he writes, it has always been created by an elite, but not necessarily

any particular sociopolitical elite. Anyone who could persuade another person to listen to her literary opinion belonged. It was a kind of freemasonry, crossing time as well as space. Though some communications were transmitted instantly, others might not reach another member for years, perhaps centuries.

In respect to that latter possibility of centuries-delayed literary connections, Crain also addresses H. J. Jackson’s belief, expressed in her book Those Who Write for Immortality, that a literary reputation is not necessarily built on merit alone “but also by quirks of publishing history, unforeseeable shifts in readerly tastes, and acts of advocacy and partisanship.” To anyone writing for immortality she would propose, among other things, tasking some younger relative with the management of their estate and with the creation of “a personal myth contradictory enough to keep biographers occupied.”

“Jackson considers the canon a bit of a sham,” Crain adds, “and potentially dangerous.” He disagrees with her on this point because, among other things, even if she were to demonstrate the worthiness of an author previously excluded from the canon, she wouldn’t overthrow but merely refine that canon; because it “has long been understood to be an imperfect and continuous approximation.” Its very instability, in fact, “is part of the myth’s appeal, solacing authors who feel underappreciated – who hope that the judgment of posterity in, say, 2015 might be revised come 2050. The canon is a mystical sum,” he concludes, “which can never be tallied: its only true index is written in living and fallible hearts.”

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As one of those writers who from time to time has felt underappreciated, I am “solaced,” to borrow Crain’s usage, by the notion that my day might yet come – never mind that when it finally does I might be decades or even centuries dead.

This speaks to an old vanity of mine which began in earnest approximately three and a half decades ago when I was just returned from a Mormon proselytizing mission in Argentina. But it had already taken shape before I hit the ground in that country; and was more vaguely intuited when as a senior in high school, after a series of miserable attempts, I finally wrote a short story worthy of the accolades of my creative writing teacher; who told me it was one of the two best she had seen, in her several years of teaching, from a student at that level.

Miguel de Cervantes (as imagined by the artist)

Miguel de Cervantes (as imagined by the artist)

She first goaded me by writing, at the top of a particuarly execrable attempt at a comedic imitation of the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: “A Cervantes you’re not.”Oh yeah? my offended pride soon told myself. I’ll show you! And then spent the necessary weeks, between school and home, crafting my definitive literary response. And while I understood that what I had pulled off was still not quite on the level of the great master Miguel de Cervantes, I began to think that maybe I could eventually write something of comparable worth.

The other story, undoubtedly superior to mine at least in execution but probably also in other respects, was a stream-of-consciousness piece after the fashion of Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” which my classmate (a junior) would have read in Miss Meadors’s non-elective English class that school year. In particular hers would not have been burdened, as mine was, by rampant sentimentality and a painfully naive religious sensibility.

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

Mine, the ingenuous narrative of a boy barely distinguishable from the self that wrote it, was at least in its best and central scene – fragmented somewhat clumsily by flashbacks – realistic and gritty. My fictional alter ego, in any case, after enduring years of bullying both physical and moral, took one last beating for chivalrous and perhaps heroic defense of a girl’s reputation and honor: the girl he loved but was too shy to tell her so. The story fairly dripped with the anguished sincerity of troubled adolescence and overwrought symbolism: the protagonist, as in a pre-writing exercise I had worked out to the finest detail, was named Peter Stone to reflect the disciple Peter’s name which represented the Rock the ancient Church was built on; and beyond that traveled through darkness to light, through the world’s wickedness to the borders of divine bliss, redeemed at last by his own determination and by the declared love (sealed with a chaste kiss) of his personal Dulcinea.

Within the first couple of years of my return from South America, anyway, simultaneously with my early and still tentative questionings of certain of the faith’s pieties and of the abyss between the appearance and essence of holiness, my literary conceit was fully in place: writing was for me a priestly vocation. It was my destiny, I felt certain, if only by sheer force of will, to become what in Mormon parlance would be “the great writer of the Restoration.” And I would surpass those faithful and believing writers who had come before me by virtue of my position as a virtual outsider, faraway from “the Mormon corridor” of Utah and its surrounding regions with their particular Western geography and cultures. I would do so at least at first – with my unique “insider-outsider” perspective, as a certain non-Mormon historian of Mormonism might put it – from back in Indiana where the early saints had scarcely left a trace; passing through on their route from New York and Ohio to Missouri and Illinois, final stops before the martyrdom of their first prophet Joseph Smith and the great exodus, under Brigham Young’s sure leadership, to the Salt Lake Valley.

By the mid to late Eighties, after several drafts of a novella and a set of related stories set principally in a geographically vague Latin American town called Magdalena, inhabited on its peripheries by missionaries, members, and converts to a millenarian “rainbow cult” founded on Joseph Smith’s elaborate take on the apocryphal lore of a prophet named Enoch (scarcely a footnote in the canonized book of Genesis); by this time, as I was saying, I had completed my first book-length manuscript: Saint Mary of Magdalene. Its central tale, simply “Magdalena,” was encouraged and guided through a thorough rewrite by an editor with a regional press specializing in history and culture (including Mormon history and culture) of the American West. But in the end, while he had many good things to say about it, he still thought my writing a bit heavy-handed in its witness of faith, my style having not quite attained the universal perspective and broad appeal of a Jewish narrative by Chaim Potok or Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Though one of the stories, called “Satyagraha” after Gandhi’s concept of “love-force” or “truth-force,” was modestly published by an undergraduate journal at Indiana University. It was modeled somewhat on the style of story-as-legend as exemplified by John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and inspired at once by a written account of the ongoing slaughter of native peoples in Guatemala, and by my own acquaintance with a man who had formerly been a hitman in Argentina – for the military dictatorship of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Brett with Books

The author among his books, ca. 1990

Later there would be (among various other projects including literary criticism, literary translation, and travel memoir) the still-evolving collection of stories called No One Assured in God, after a phrase by 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. It includes stories based on episodes from my childhood, with nothing at all to do with my yet-future religious conversion, as well as others in which the Mormon universe plays, for the most part, only a peripheral role or in which Mormon lives are caught up in less explicitly faith-centered situations. Over the years the manuscript has dropped some stories and added others, and while the whole remains unpublished several of the stories have appeared in obscure (and now mostly defunct) print or online journals.

I submitted an earlier draft of the manuscript to a Utah publisher of unofficial and often controversial Mormon topics, and in the end one of the editors sent me the comments of two readers. One of them unhesitatingly recommended publication, stating that while some of the stories were stronger than others, it represented something new and original in Mormon letters, a distinct and often disturbing though always moral voice; and left him, on the whole, with such a powerful impression that he thought he could never forget some of its most affecting stories and images. The other, however, thoroughly trashed the manuscript and seemed to call into question my moral and religious character: he accused me, in particular, of an unseemly obsession with sex; not entirely fair, though some of the stories were, to greater or lesser degree, concerned with human sexuality.

For whatever reasons, the editorial team went with the latter recommendation. I confess that I didn’t understand why they should give preference to the most prejudiced and curmudgeonly reading, but there must have been others – principally, perhaps, the editors themselves – with their own hesitations. It seemed to me, in any case, that the other review, discounting some things but praising more, should have carried the day. I was in any case thrilled with its assessment. There is something to be said for rough edges, after all. Why, especially, should a debut performance have to be perfection itself?

Though in the end I tend to be rather a perfectionist, and if there was a will to publish it, I would by no means have shied away from further revision. Still, you can edit and refine forever: in some sense a text is only “finished” by virtue of its having finally been given up for publication.

As for the earlier collection, when I picked it up again recently and re-read it, I was surprised that it didn’t seem half as bad as I had come over the years to think it was. Its audience might have been fatally limited, but it too was certainly something new and wholly original in Mormon letters and thus deserved, I longingly thought, to stand in that company. I regretted that I hadn’t pushed a bit longer and harder; any little press, however small and insignificant, would have done.

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When to Go into the Water, by Lawrence Sutin

When to Go into the Water, by Lawrence Sutin

While reading the lines cited above from Caleb Crain’s Harper’s essay, I immediately thought of a slim volume called When to Go into the Water, written by Lawrence Sutin and published by Sarabande Books, an excellent small press from my neck of the woods in Kentuckiana (Louisville, to be precise). After pulling my copy off the shelf again, I went so far as to locate the November 7, 2010 journal entry that I had dedicated in part to it; and in which I first wrote about a book of poetry by Yehoshua November, a young Hasidic Jew whose faith-affirming and universally appealing verses evoked in me “that old yearning after holiness …”

“… a yearning, though, that is often satisfied in the most unlikely of places,” I wrote [and quote here with only the slightest edits], as in this little jewel of a novel whose sublime insights and wisdom are laced intimately with what would generally pass as the profane (which is not absent, by any means, in November’s book, though in those pages God’s presence is the source of healing; whereas here that source is a sensual and, it might seem, a-moral (a-theistic?) ethos of fleshly comforts and soothing waters.) The author’s conceit …

[and this is what I was reminded of by Crain’s text]

 … is a kind of epigramic, scattered glimpse of the life and words of one Hector de Saint-Aureole, through his own travels and the parallel journeys of copies of his book – also called When to Go into the Water – which was printed privately in a small edition; and which we only glimpse from his point of view and from those of the various people who encounter the book.

In one passage one of his readers, a woman who had been seriously wounded by her relationships with men, after sitting down to read the book one night in a Starbuck’s, “poured the glass of water that the waitperson had brought with her coffee over her own head in response to the book’s admonition: ‘There is no prison so vast, so various in its tortures, as our own memories. Can we ever hope to be pardoned and released? But then, to whom are we pleading? We are the wardens of our own prisons. Wash the grime of the past from your skin and stand free in the present that is yours alone to live.’ The woman, who loved to read, let the water drip down her. The waitperson brought her a towel and asked if everything was okay. Inside herself the woman felt the water flowing into the cataracts of her heart.”

The passage, to me, was like a baptism of sorts, intensely moving, though in Nietszche’s sense, perhaps, of beyond good and evil – not, in other words, the baptism of any narrow religious (or secular, for that matter) dogma: “‘The drowning man looks upon water as the source of his doom,’ Hector wrote late that night. ‘The parched man sees it as the source of life. Water itself is without desire and washes all philosophies away.’” But not that this novel doesn’t suggest something of a latent ethical, if not narrowly moralistic, set of values, whether one think of them as humanistic or something else. Certainly, throughout, there is a hatred of war and all forms of violence against the human spirit. This is evident in a very early scene, by whose end the child Hector – in German-occupied France during World War I – has come to wish for “the war to slaughter the soldiers on both sides, as he already knew in his heart that all armies talked about love that way” – which is to say, falsely, cruelly. A later scene, which takes place in Argentina where Hector has fled to avoid the next European war, is so brutal that it took my breath away; but the shock is redeemed by this passage: “Hector didn’t so much as dare to write of it in his own book – only these three lines were entered that night as he smoked the American Lucky Strikes that were widely sold in Buenos Aires: ‘The war is everywhere. It was folly to hide. Leave Buenos Aires tomorrow and never linger anywhere again.’”

Lawrence Sutin

Lawrence Sutin

I still humor myself , now and then, with the secular promise of a kind of literary immortality that whether decades from now or centuries might yet come to pass, long after I am gone. Perhaps because of the diligence of a child or grandchild who kept the texts alive or even a more remote descendant who manages to bring them to a larger public. Or maybe, as in Hector de Saint-Aureole’s case, quite randomly and anonymously by the chance discovery of the rare copy of an old, privately-printed edition.

But I no longer suffer under the delusion of ever becoming “the great writer of the Restoration” or the epitome of anything. Though I still sometimes fancy that the literary work I do, original and in translation, matters in some critical sense; so that if not exactly a priestly profession, in some predominantly secular way those combined labors might be sainted.

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imagesRPRJ9KONIn fighting for literature in this age of instantaneous counting and valuing of things, Crain identifies three temptations in regard to all things countable.

First on that list “is to imagine that instances of [the thing] are interchangeable. The average, rather than the ideal, becomes the archetype.” This, Crain says, is the equivalent of saying, as a certain scholar of religious studies has claimed, that since “Jesus was one of a number of Aramaic-speaking magician-messiah figures with a revolutionary message in first-century Jerusalem,” then he obviously resembled the others and so a unified portrait of them all “would be tantamount to a portrait of Jesus. The trouble,” Crain insists, “is that even though such an assumption might be sensible in economics, it isn’t quite safe in history, and in religion it won’t do at all.” Nor, by implication, in literature.

Second, he writes, “is to imagine that no single instance of a thing matters – that the individual case is no more than a rounding error. In the old myth, by contrast, it was possible to believe that a work of literature succeeded if it reached just one person for whom it was a key.”

But third, he adds, “and perhaps most crucial,” is to equate value with popularity. And it is here that we come to the heart of the questions we started with: on the nature of judgment, of an established if ever-fluid canon (or set of canons).

This concept of instability that we discussed in relation to Jackson’s reservations on the subjecg “is being replaced,” Crain writes, “by an illusion of certainty. As I write this sentence, the Amazon sales rank of John Keats’s Selected Letters is 796,426, and the new Oxford Authors edition of William Wordsworth’s poetry and prose has a rank of 2,337,250.”

Fanny Brawne, ca. 1850 (about 30 years after Keats's death)

Fanny Brawne, ca. 1850 (about 30 years after Keats’s death)

“Literature will survive,” he suggests at the end of an essay infinitely more involved and thoughtful than I can convey here,

if readers declare war on counting, if they insist that literature is defined by the judgment of the ideal critic and not the average one, and if they are able to build new communities of critics and readers with borders that are porous and expansive but nonetheless meaningful. “For this week past,” Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne, on July 4, 1820, “I have been employed in marking the most beautiful passages in Spenser, intending it for you, and comforting myself in being somehow occupied to give you however small a pleasure.” The communion imagined by Keats here is on a continuum with those he imagined in his other letters to Brawne or to his brother, but in this case no mysticism is required. As soon as Keats was healthy enough he would be able to visit Brawne and share with her the Spenser verses that he had marked. But I wonder if the sharing, when it took place, would have been able to bring him as much pleasure as his imagination of the sharing had. Or to put it another way, I wonder if what he would have most enjoyed, in the act of sharing, was his imagination of Brawne’s pleasure – which, even if she were sitting beside him, would have been invisible to him – and his imagined perception that it brought their souls together. The deepest literary pleasures, even when they involve others, are a little dreamy and lonely.

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Report from Schweitzer Fest

DoroteaAt the end of my last posting I announced that I would be at the market place at the Schweitzer Fest in Tell City selling and signing books. I am pleased to report that I did sell several copies of my Young Adult novella A Bride Called Freedom and of my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s amazing historical-fantasy novel Passionate Nomads. I also sold or gave away (with other purchases) a few copies of my Passionate Nomadschapbook Quixotics (pronounce: Quick-SOT-ics) with my poetic paragraphs on the subject of Cervantes’s masterpiece and my favorite book Don Quixote. Thanks to all who visited, even if only to converse or carry off a business card. I hope you enjoy the site. By the way, there are samples of each of the above-mentioned works under “Publishing History” and of Nomads in an earlier blog posting.

Following are some of my personal highlights of the festival:

 On the first evening I learned that a fellow teacher and writer – Eddie Price, from just across the Ohio River in Hawesville, Kentucky – was also present selling his historical novel Widder’s Landing. A novel of life in Kentucky around the time of the War of 1812, it comes in an attractive hardcover edition from the Acclaim Press in Missouri (www.acclaimpress.com). Anyway, I left my daughter Stephanie in charge of my booth for a few moments and walked down the row of vendors to introduce myself and propose a trade. The author is an amiable fellow and award-winning teacher who formerly taught history to Stephanie’s wife Rachel at Hancock County High School just outside of Hawesville. We did make a trade and I look forward to reading his novel, though I may be kept from it for awhile by other projects. It looks interesting, anyway, and I have a feeling that it may do as much for Kentucky as Carol Buchanan’s extremely adept historical novel God’s Thunderbolt did for Montana – I had the privilege of working with Carol on a related project during my brief stint as managing editor at New Works Review.

The author at Schweitzer Fest 2013

The author at Schweitzer Fest 2013

Another acquaintance happily made was with a bright young eighth-grader named Inca and both of her parents, who hail from The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee and were neighbor vendors of mine. It was from them that I bought the new floppy hat (similar to the kind of hat I used to wear in my distant youth) in which I am pictured here in the photo my son Jonathan shot. Among the subjects of my conversation with Inca, as she examined a copy of Nomads with a particularly wistful expression, was the dullness of standard textbooks and how a book such as she was holding would enliven the study of history. And with her mother, Amy, the desperate need in our American culture for a broadening of perspective such as might be acquired from the reading of more literature in translation from other languages and countries.

 Amy took away an extra of my cards to pass on to her friends at The Book Publishing Company at The Farm (https://bookpubco.com/), some of whose publishing interests might overlap with some of my own. My perusal of their site today reveals, also, a strong emphasis on healthy-living topics which might be of particular interest to some of my readers. But I was especially drawn to their Native Voices series for young readers and in particular a title (which I ordered) called Deer Dancer: Yaqui Legends of Life, by Stan Padilla. My interest in that title, and in the beautiful cover illustration of a Yaqui deer dancer, stems from the fact that the Young Adult novel I am presently writing contains a first chapter that is called “Deer Dancer” and is inspired by a Mexican Folkloric Ballet presentation of that beautiful dance-as-ritual (or ritual-as-dance?).

HT-cover-Psalm-147-3[1] The other highlight I will mention is my conversation with Rhonda Patterson of the organization Hearts for Africa (www.hearts4africa.us), whose aim is to draw attention to the problem of human trafficking – about 80% of which involves sexual exploitation, in particular, of young women. It should be noted that this is hardly just a Third World problem but one that affects a startling number of girls in the United States – and not just runaways, as is sometimes reported, but often perfectly well-adjusted and academically successful young women whose greatest error is naively trusting the smooth-talking individuals (including women) who befriend and gradually lure them into the situations that end in their being enslaved for purposes of the creation of pornography or prostitution.

 In the group’s efforts to raise awareness among those who might become targets of such abuse, as well as to aid those who have been victimized and rescued, Hearts for Africa is selling some very nice jewelry, bags, and clothing that is obtained from the organization Fair Trade or made by former victims of this devastating modern form of slavery. Anyone interested in learning more about the organization’s educational services or in helping out in any way should certainly visit their very attractive website.

5629860_orig[1]***

I should also mention the hard work of Anita, my lovely wife, in raising funds again for the Alzheimer’s Association. The group she has led for the past few years is named Kroessman’s Krusaders for my grandmother Mary Kroessman who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Thanks also to the local artists who contributed original work to help in that effort.

“And they returned to their beasts and to being beasts…”

Ron Singer, writer (in Turkey)

Ron Singer in Turkey

Like the poetry of Ronald Pies, whose latest work (Heart Broken Open) I featured in a recent posting, I first encountered the poetry of writer Ron Singer in my capacity as managing editor at the now defunct online magazine New Works Review. I recall a strong Native American influence in those earlier poems, and his internationalist vision also extends to Africa. Though he is equally at home describing the very particular realities on the ground in 1970s-era Brooklyn, New York, for example, as in his new book / novella The Rented Pet.

About that book, more later. First I am happy to share the text of a poem that Ron has just had chosen for a forthcoming anthology called American Society: What Poets See (Future Cycle Press). The print edition is due out in August; the poem may already be up, or soon will be, on the press’s website (www.futurecycle.org).

The poem, dedicated to one Butchie Maxwell, is called “Listen Hard Enough.” Ron informs me that he read it at a memorial for poet-activist Dennis Brutus in Durban, South   Africa in February 2011. The text follows:

The quiet seems absolute

but, if you listen hard enough,

you can hear children’s voices

from the other side of the world.

It is a beautiful day,

weather “like it used to be.”

Clouds roll through a dark-blue sky,

wet snow in a dogless city,

so white, so heavy, so clean.

The wind, of course, you can hear

without trying. Crickets, birds, too.

But, if you listen hard enough,

certain sounds from deep in the woods

seem a mingling of children’s voices.

Picture these kids, if you will,

begging, selling petty goods,

running in and out of traffic

on a teeming African street,

or perched high on a garbage hill

in the heart of some favela.

One looks up, perhaps, and sees

wet-white clouds in a dark-blue sky

and, who knows, he may be listening

to you. He hears your distant heart.

You can see what I mean about the internationalist vision, grounded none the less in the very particular. The allusion in a single stanza to kids “selling petty goods, / running in and out of traffic / on a teeming African street,” and to Brazilian kids “perched high on a garbage hill / in the heart of some favela,” is a perfect example.

art for Ron Singer's The Rented Pet

Art for “The Rented Pet”

What the poet has to say about American society is made explicit in The Rented Pet, which he describes as “a bittersweet 14,000-word story about two dogs and the humans in their constellation.” It is set, he adds, “in a specific neighborhood in 1970s Brooklyn” and “chronicles social change: specifically, gentrification. In so doing, it serves as an elegy for a passing world.”

The book is available in a Kindle edition for the bargain price of $3.99 (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?rh=n%3A133140011%2Ck%3Athe+rented+pet&keywords=the+rented+pet&ie=UTF8). The story will also be published (in installments, starting on August 13) by Piker Press (www.pikerpress.com). I have just downloaded the Kindle edition myself and look forward to a leisurely reading of it in the comfort of my evening armchair. Meanwhile, the author’s own summary should more than suffice to suggest whether or not the book would be of interest to you:

Principal Characters:

Rex, The Rented Pet. An old German Shepherd trained as a blind dog.

Julia: His female companion.

Mildred Schaap: bookkeeper.

Jerry Kaplan: carpenter.

Joe Bassano: supervisor of a moving van yard.

Charles Miller: a blind poet who operates a newspaper kiosk.

Dr. Matt Brunn: a veterinarian.

Contents:

Part One: Renting the Pet.

Part Two: The pet is menaced. A romance begins.

Part Three: The romance blossoms. A companion is  acquired for Rex, who is also seriously injured.

Part Four: At a party to celebrate Rex’s recovery, his past is revealed.

Epilogue: Both dogs die. The Funeral.

Then there is this absolutely charming elegy, written in the style of Mark Twain’s “Ode to Stephen Dowling Botts, Dec’d”:

Let men be bold, let truth be told,

These two were a king and his queen.

Of noble scions, their hearts like lions’,

No bone in their bodies, mean.

To the lonely and the blind, ever were they kind,

These paragons of canine race.

They came, they saw, they overcame,

Leaving Earth a worthier place.

So let’s raise a cup, drink it all up,

Here’s afterlife to Rex and to Julia,

Let’s hope where they are, whether near or far far,

There’s food, water and sex, hallelujah.

As it turns out, I have also just written a story that prominently features an old dog. The specific incident of the dying of that old friend is drawn from my own adolescence. While that incident as portrayed at story’s climax is a sad one, it is situated within what I think of as essentially a comedy, and the fictional dog’s dying has the effect of precipitating the modest but not insignificant changes of heart of the two principal characters, an unlikely friendship between protagonist and antagonist.

descent of man art

The Descent of Man

The story’s thesis involves an English teacher in a rural high school who decides to teach a rhetorical / persuasive unit centered on the writings of Charles Darwin, and a local preacher who gets wind of what he’s up to and proposes to derail that anti-Creationist pedagogy. What starts out contentiously winds up in a relationship of mutual respect if not agreement. In the end, at least, they have each gained a deeper appreciation for the other’s position.

The story, as pointed out the other day by my rhetoric professor Thomas M. Rivers (U. of Southern   Indiana, retired), is polemical in structure, a plot built up around an idea. He suggests, though, that it is largely successful at presenting both plot and idea without falling into the common rhetorical error of either-or thinking. The idea, briefly stated, is in favor of Darwinian science but, at least as importantly, the importance to our national future of a civic rhetoric of dialogue that probes far beneath the facile either-or charade of contemporary politics. Idea and story both had indeed, before I actually wrote, been percolating for a period of a few years, during which time (and especially during the drafting itself) I was at considerable pains to see that plot and characterization convince on their own, independent of the polemic – and that both protagonist and antagonist are presented with humor and dignity, each one contributing something valuable to the discussion. Though, on strictly scientific grounds, as a matter of established and well-vetted fact, Darwin does necessarily come out on top.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam

I think I have succeeded fairly well at that complex task, though time of course will tell, and I don’t rule out further re-writing. My manner of working is very intense, anyway, involving a great deal of editing and fact-checking and fine-tooth combing as I go, so that the first draft in this case might be someone else’s second or third. The story that I wrote previous to this one, in March, went into a second draft after much tweaking of the first and consultation with readers. That one, called “The Recruiter” and weighing in heavily on the tragic side, is now in circulation, and I awaiting results from the first mailings.

I don’t want to say anything more specific on this blog about the present story while I also have ambitions of sending it around and finding a journal to publish it. I will only add that I have called it “The Brotherhood of Man and Beast.” And that it begins with a brief epigraph from Cervantes’ Don Quixote: “Y volvieron a sus bestias, y a ser bestias” (And they returned to their beasts and to being beasts).

For those who know me best and exclaim, “Oh, God no! There he goes again about that damned Quixote!” – be assured that I have completed the draft without a single reference, in the text itself, to that eternal fountain of amusement and inspiration. At most the comedic style, earnest as it also is, imitates the light touch of Cervantes’ story that is at once comic and deeply poignant.

Notes from My Journal: the Chicago-Indianapolis Book Tour (Part 1: A Quixotic Adventure)

Passionate Nomads“According to The Oxford English Dictionary, quicksotic sentiments: “If … our Quixotics seem foolish or extravagant.” Our foolish extravagances, then, our quixotics, or quixotries, or quixotisms, are simply quixotical. By extravagantly emulating the grand Quicksote himself, the don Quicksote of Cervantes’s novel that we may or may not have read, we become our own Quicksotes, sinking into the quicksand of our lofty, unrealizable idealisms: “Thus the Quixots of this Age fight with the Windmills of their own heads.” But to our mind quixotics is more than foolishness to be forgotten; it is a different way of knowing things, of perceiving the deeper realities that are hidden by their plain surfaces. We declare this definition boldly, without apology to this world’s wise or to the editors of dictionaries, who looking at us askance, smiling out of the sides of their mouths, are wondering if at last we would just stop quicksotizing, or quicksoting, and accept the realisms they proffer.”

– BAS, “Quicksotics,” from the chapbook Quixotics

Thursday, November 17

 The drive up to Chicago today was smooth, sunny skies all the way, brisk cold air. We drove up in a 2012 Chevy Sedan 200 XL, a rental from Enterprise in Jasper, so we were comfortably warm except for the moments standing in the brisk wind pumping petrol gas, as the Brits would say. (I’m channeling Cat Stevens, his song “Where Do the Children Play?”) Anyway, the ride was good until we hit the toll road toward Chicago and I missed a quick turn and ended up going east and then south again for a good twenty minutes or more before I could even find a way out of that mess to turn around. Studied the directions and took it more slowly the second time, and made it into Chicago well enough, but the ride was rather harrowing and we were both a little shaken by it. Now tomorrow to find our way out.

Indiana Windmills

A modern La Mancha in northwestern Indiana?

Before we hit the concrete jungle, anyway, in the northern Indiana that is mainly corn fields and open spaces, I had a rather Quixotic experience, almost as if I were in a new, more modernized La Mancha, driving toward a bunch of tall, sleek windmills. “Anita! Look! Giants!” I shouted. “I have to attack them.” She replied that I should just knock myself out then, but first park and put her in a safe place. Oh, Sancha (yes, I called her Sancha, not Anita), I should have reproved you for your lack of faith and valor, but not being knighted herself I would let her watch and learn. As we drove further into this vast wind farm, planted here and there in impressive symmetrical rows, and still the windmills as far as I could discern in front and to either side, I just felt a kind of awe, a quixotic rapture, as it were. This, if our governments have the wisdom and foresight to prioritize such projects over bombs and military adventures, here is what our future ought to look like, sleek, modern, high-tech windmills dotting the country from shore to shining shore. It occurred to me too, though, that Don Quixote, were he somehow re-vitalized (like Mansilla in María Rosa’s brilliant novel), he would be totally bewildered by the spectacle, the remarkable stretch of giant after giant after giant, an army so vast that, well, where could he start? The new age therefore must require a new Quixote borne from this Midwestern stretch of North American flatlands and prairie, someone riding – driving – an old nag of a car, perhaps climbing head and torso out the window and shooting them up, sitting in the open window while his Sancho or Sancha reaches over from the passenger’s seat and tries to steer well enough to keep from crashing itno those big metal trunks. Would the bullets do any harm to these modern behemoths? Would the ricocheting projectiles just turn back on knight and metal steed? Perhaps putting out a window or taking off an ear or striking the good don’s shoulder, knocking him out of the car and flat on his middle-aged back? Oh, the possibilities!

Anita, Maria Rosa, and Brett in Indianapolis

Anita, Maria Rosa, and Brett in Indianapolis

I will save more detail of the book event itself for another writing, but suffice it to say that it went rather well, though the turn-out was not huge. Those who were there, perhaps a dozen or so beyond hosts and participants, were a rapt audience. Afterwards there were empanadas and alfajores, and publisher-editor Jay Miskowiec and his adult son, a grad student in Chicago, helped me haul a couple boxes of books to the trunk of our sleek and relatively gas-efficient car before rushing back to the Instituto Cervantes and off to the Weber Café, just around the corner from the Institute and at a couple blocks from our hotel, with María Rosa, Jay, and his son – Professor Rosa Tezanos-Pinto, who introduced María Rosa and me to our audience, had to hurry away for her bus back to Indianapolis, where Anita and I and María Rosa will see and probably dine with her tomorrow.