Emerson and Melville on Melancholy

Two great quotes I picked up on earlier this summer when I read Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness:


I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe, and is disappointed when anything is less than best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods.

–Emerson, “Friendship”

So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. ‘All is vanity.’ ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tombstones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.              

But even Solomon, he says, ‘the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain’ (i.e. even while living) ‘in the congregation of the dead.’ Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

–Melville, Moby Dick, ch. XCVI


A Conservative Case for Amnesty

Today, everybody’s talking about the Supreme Court’s universal health care ruling.  However, here are some thoughts I’ve been putting together since their ruling on Arizona’s controversial illegal immigration law a few days ago:

Regardless of whatever details or variations are appended to either, the fact is that the only two options here for ending the debate over illegal immigration are amnesty or deportation.  When the dust finally settles, either the millions of Hispanics in this country illegally will generally stay here, or they will generally leave.

In that light, the choice should be obvious.  Amnesty may well have some advantages that conservatives have overlooked, and deportation is simply untenable.

Mass deportation is a Utopian fantasy.  The first rule of conservatism is to approach reality as it is, not as we wish it would be.

Continue reading

Serendipitous Relevance and American Lit

I like to show how the books we study in school have left a lasting legacy to contemporary society.  If nothing else, when students complain how boring and outdated the books are, I can either try to elicit some open mindedness by showing them that P. Diddy consciously imitates The Great Gatsby, or I can at least argue that their recalcitrance is in opposition to the popular culture with which they’re enthralled. 

This year has been an especially good one for that.  I started the year off with The Scarlet Letter, just as a teen comedy loosely based on it, Easy A, hit theaters.  When we read Moby Dick, I was able to show them the recent Blackberry ad about the novel (many students told me that the ad made much more sense afterwards!).  We finished Huckleberry Finn last month and now, as we review the semester, there’s a national controversy brewing about a new, censored version of the text. 

Near the end of this year, when I try to wrestle some Faulkner into my students, I’ll be able to tell them that Hollywood hunk James Franco is directing a new film of Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying

Now if only I could find a more recent reference for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea than a second season episode of The Simpsons

Weird Metaphors

Throughout this first semester of American Literature, a pair of bizarre metaphors have stuck with me for their singular strangeness.  Good figures of speech work because they connect a new experience with a familiar one.  “Walking through the fetid jungle was like trying to swim through a soaking wet wool blanket,” for example.  Never been to the jungle?  That’s OK, because we can all imagine being swamped by a wet blanket.  It’s like that. 

In a famous scene in Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab admits that the white whale had bitten off his leg; Ahab savagely wails and screams the fact, “with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” 

So, how exactly did Ahab sound when he crazily lamented the loss of his leg to the whale?  Well, he sounded like a moose when his girlfriend trots away, or something.  You know.  That sound.

Oh.  Because we’ve all spent time in Alaska with lovelorn wildlife. 

Melville’s contemporary Edgar Allan Poe was even more esoteric.  Continue reading

Style Imitation Exercise

As the year winds down in American Lit, I assign a style imitation exercise to review the major works we’ve read and the styles of some important authors.  The students’ job is to write a brief version of any four stories, each in the style of a different author.  Either the story or the author has to be one we studied in class. 

Here are two examples I gave them (I know, neither Shakespeare nor Star Wars is American Lit, but I had the idea and couldn’t resist):

The Empire Strikes Back, as written by William Shakespeare

VADER:  Fair young apprentice, it is I who am the father of thy fleshly tabernacle!

LUKE:  Oh, forswear it, vile wretch!

Never shall the days come when I shall agree

To partake of the black compact thou hast proposed.

The very seraphs of heav’n shall blow their mighty trumps

Ere I rule the galaxy with thee!

Napoleon Dynamite, as written by Emily Dickinson 

Alas and woe is me,

For bereft of the sweet tots am I.

My lily-white palm reaches–

Out–to cast away the button of

The flippin idiot who–

Votes for Summer in place of Pedro–

My heart drops and yearns for…

Ninja skills!

They came up with some pretty impressive stuff.  Here are some ideas, just to give you a sense for their creativity:

  • Twilight, by Mark Twain (he highlights the pathetic flaws in every character by sarcastically mocking their lame, emo worldview)
  • William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by Herman Melville (a sixteen-word poem becomes a stark, 1000-page epic: “So very much of the innermost intensity of our eternal, ethereal souls depends upon the minutest particularities of crimson hue inherently blasted, seared into the fibre of the side of the wheelbarrow…” etc, etc)
  • A Walk To Remember, by Edgar Allan Poe  (The way it was meant to be–less corny romance, more gory phantasms torturing the dark secrets hidden inside us all.  The girl still dies.)
  • William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” by Dr. Seuss  (“I would not, could not with a corpse…well, maybe I could.”)
  • The Crucible, by Dorothy Parker (the men accuse all of the women of witchcraft because they’re neurotic and needy–the women tartly retort at first, but end up agreeing and hanging themselves.)
  • Moby Dick, by Stephen King (Ahab can’t kill the whale because it’s a psychic, flying alien!  But Ahab turns out to be a vampire from another dimension!  Now we’ve got a story.)
  • The Great Gatsby, by Mr. Huston (everybody dies on page 2)

American Lit Review

A group of students working on a review assignment for my American Literature class this week got creative and decided to write a mash-up of all our major novels from throughout the year.  I think I’ll end up reading a silly story about Atticus Finch defending Hester Prynne on charges of witchcraft (said case to be financed by Jay Gatsby), all to be done as they float down the Mississippi River on a raft as they all look for work as farm hands in California.  That is, of course, if they can kill the white whale first.

Television Review: The Mentalist

The MentalistI recently read a movie review that pronounced the death of PG-13 comedies starring unusual characters and the rise of the raunchy, R-rated adult comedy. That may be true in theaters, but on the TV screens of America’s homes, the unusual character is stronger than ever.

Think House, think Monk, think Grissom on CSI, or any of a ton of other unique personality-driven shows. Last season, I was impressed by the savant-like quality of the innocently antisocial Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, but now the crown for best new character goes back to a drama.

Patrick Jane is a great character.  Though the advertising for The Mentalist sells him as a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, his powers of observation take a back seat to the sheer audacity of his harmless brashness.  Simon Baker as Jane is instantly likable, but in the way a politician or car salesman is: you know you’re being manipulated by a pro, but they’re just so good at it you don’t care. 

As the season has gone on, however, Jane’s back story has added a compelling depth to the character.  It’s not just Jane’s cheesy megawatt smirk that endears us to him, it’s his apparent struggle to keep up his life in the wake of the tragic murder of his family, and then it’s moments of pure surprise that end up fitting into that frame perfectly that keep us fascinated by this new man in our head. 

In one episode, Jane gives voice to what we had just been led to wonder about him when he looks at his superior and says, bluntly but totally without malice, that when he finds his family’s killer he’s going to do to him what the killer did to them.  It would have been chilling had it not sounded so reasonable, put so easily out in the light like that.  Jane makes revenge seem not only reasonable, but nice.

However, that same episode revealed a possible weakness of the show.  The camera likes to do our work for us.  When Jane is looking around for details inside the trailer of a mentally challenged man who might be involved in a murder, we zoom in on a copy of Moby Dick hidden on a closet shelf.  Hmmm.  That’s not right, we think.  What’s a mentally retarded man doing with Moby Dick?  Of course, the suspect is faking it, but we already knew that–isn’t that the only logical explanation for the book?

Also in that December episode, another suspect gets locked in a barn and appears to be threatened by a shadowy figure who might be a murder victim who survived.  The figure’s approach even closes an act and leads to a commercial break.  Naturally, we know that the figure is actually Jane in disguise, tricking the suspect into a confession, if only because it doesn’t make narrative sense to have such a long, key scene late in an episode leave out the main character. 

Hopefully such stumbles won’t become par for the course in what is becoming such an intriguing story.  Last night’s episode made me want to know more about the “Red John” story arc, and it ended on a solidly Holmesian note: a brief, taunting phone call is made to Jane from an unknown location, which he immediately figures out is a hotel in Tijuana.  His clues–the noise in the background (indicating the thin walls of a hotel) and the villain’s access to a phone, among others, are undeniably clever.  (I’d add that the bad guy also ended his call with “Vaya con Dios,” and since he has no apparent Hispanic background himself, it makes sense to think that he was calling from a location where he was surrounded by a Spanish influence.  But that’s neither here nor there.)

Such quick bits of observational derring-do, and the even more present employment of little psychological tricks to get people to say and do what he wants, make Jane a detective to keep our eyes on, and a character to keep our minds sharp. 

And maybe this will be just the thing we need to bring vests back in style.