Everyone is Awful

Film Poster for BreathlessA while back I watched the 1960 French film Breathless because French New Wave is thing that I know of through late night graduate student conversations in a bar. The type of conversation where you nod and keep your mouth shut in hopes that your friends won’t realize you have no clue what they’re talking about. Also, it wasn’t behind the Hulu pay wall that week. I’ll admit that I feel a bit presumptuous talking about a film that looms so large in cinema (after all my only real film credentials are that I can tell you which deaths in Friday the 13th were inspired by A Bay of Blood) but I’ve referred to War and Peace as Cluster F***: A Victory in the past, so screw it.

What struck me as I watched Breathless was how much I hated the protagonist, Michel. Throughout the film he tries to present himself as the cool film-noir anti-hero—made clear by an early scene of him staring at a poster of Humphrey Bogart—but it quickly becomes clear that he’s just playing pretend. He steals a car, finds a gun in glove compartment, and, like any child who’s found a gun, starts pointing it and pretending to shoot things. The whole stolen car and stolen gun leads to him shooting a police officer for real. We then follow Michel to Paris where we watch him break into a woman’s house, say “just like woman” when he can’t find any money, visit another woman, ask her for money, reject her offer of a lesser amount which he then steals when she’s not looking. Michel isn’t evil; he’s just a dick.

However, it was unclear to me whether the director, Jean-Luc Godard, wanted us to like Michel or not. If the director was pointing out the petty selfish reality of the characters that are romanticized in film-noir, then high-five I understood the film. However, if we were meant to sympathize with this character in midst of existential crisis and excuse his dickish behavior because ennui is hard, then I understood the film but am rather frustrated with it.

The character that really interested me, though often annoyed me, was Patricia. Throughout the film Michel pursues her, and she is the one who turns him into the cops, which results in his death. Many people see her actions as a betrayal, but I saw it as an escape. Michel tracks her down while she is working—selling newspapers—and starts pestering her in hopes of resuming their affair. Michel asks her to come to Italy with him, and she says no. He asks her to spend the night with him. She says no.  He later breaks into her house when she’s not there. At this point in the film, I was not viewing him as a love interest but as a dangerous predator. When she returns home, he’s in her bed in his underwear. At this point in the film, I want her to call the police. However, she acts nonchalant about the whole thing. He asks her to come to Italy with him again, asks her for sex, and talks about how she’s frightened of him. She tries to talk about her new poster and literature. It becomes obvious that while Michel wants her, he doesn’t particularly care about what she thinks or about her own passions. Throughout the scene, I keep yelling at my TV “call the cops!” She did not listen to me. When she confesses she’s pregnant with his child, he says something along the lines of “you should have been more careful,” which clarifies two things: he is indeed an asshole and one of the reasons that she’s been putting up with this BS is that she’s trying to figure out what to do. Unlike Michel, Patricia has ambition. She wants to be a writer and was working towards that goal: she had been given her first newspaper assignment. She is an aspiring artist, and it is Michel who stands in her way. However, even when she turns Michel in, she warns him and gives him enough time to make his escape, which he doesn’t utilize.

After watching the film, I realized that it told the story of an artist and a muse, but the genders were switched from our traditional view of that story. Patricia wants to be a writer. She talks about books, she’s starting to work as reporter, and she tells Michel that she’s going to write about him in her book. Michel is her muse, and there is nothing worse than being a muse.

If you look at famous artists and the people who are described as their muses, you’ll find that being a muse sucks. Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a friend dig up his wife Elizabeth Siddal to retrieve some poems he buried with her. F. Scott Fitzgerald used extracts from Zelda Sayre’s diary without her permission. Muses can expect artists to expose their secrets in an unflattering manner, to cheat on them, and to leave them. It is an exploitative relationship by its very nature, but as a culture we praise the artist and ignore the muse. One of the most read books in United States is On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but I doubt most people who read it know who Neal Cassady is.

By being a writer, an artist, Patricia has a certain power that Michel doesn’t. She make sense of her existential angst. She can use it to create something new. However, Michel can’t. He can ape the behavior of the characters he sees in films, but all he is doing is playing pretend. He can pursue his selfish pleasures, but all he does is consume. However, Patricia’s gender also makes her vulnerable. People dismiss her as pretty girl, and it is clear that Michel doesn’t even think of her as person. The pregnancy could be disastrous for her and getting abortion was illegal and dangerous at this time.

Her character is drawn to Michel not because she loves him but because he interests her. She’s mining this problematic relationship for material. If she were to give up those aspiration to run away with him to Italy, he would no longer be as attractive to her. There may be further economic angle to explore here: she states that she is being supported by her parents, so she has that bit of privilege. Michel, for his part, would probably abandon her in Italy as soon as he got bored. She stays long enough sate her curiosity and then takes the steps to insure her independence. Her behavior may be exploitative but so is his.

I suspect my reading of the film is not the one that Goddard intended. This film is one where many people seem to see the protagonist as cool and see his behavior as a rejection of some status quo. However, I cannot romanticize anyone in it.  The protagonist who is bored with society is a selfish kid aping the characters he sees in the movies. The woman he wants has life that doesn’t revolve around him, but he fails to acknowledge that. The artist uses the muse, then gets rid of him. Everyone is pretty awful, all things considered.

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Questioning the Tomes

I just finished War and Peace. Yeah, you read that sentence right. Get the streamers; uncork the champagne. I read War and Peace, and it only took me a year. War and Peace is one of those books that is perhaps more famous for not being read than read. It looms, taking up an obscene amount of bookshelf space, and seems to say, “don’t even pretend like you’re going to read me.” Well, screw you book, I read the hell out of you.

What really struck me as I was reading was that I didn’t already have an idea what the book was about before I read it. Yes, I knew it was about Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, but that’s like saying that All Quiet on the Western Front is about World War I, that Slaughterhouse-Five is about the bombing of Dresden, or that Oliver Twist is about the economic stratification of nineteenth century England. However, I’ve rarely picked up a book that would be considered part of the “Western Canon” without already knowing the main conflict. Long before I read either novel, I knew that Moby-Dick was about Captain Ahab’s obsession with killing the albino whale that ate his leg and that The Brothers Karamazov was in part a murder mystery about which brother killed their father (perhaps this knowledge was why I was so frustrated that the despicable father remained alive so long). I haven’t read Great Expectations, but I know it’s a bildungsroman about a boy who aids a convict, plays with crazy Miss Havisham’s ward, and comes into unexpected wealth. The list goes on. If a book is widely read, its plot leaks into the collective consciousness. After a while, everyone knows what these books are about, yet I was wholly unfamiliar with the plot of War and Peace.

I suspect that some will say this ignorance is due to the fact that War and Peace is more famous for not being read. It’s one of those intimidating tomes that people demur from reading. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think of Tolstoy’s novel as being like Mt. Everest—it’s big and intimidating and that challenge attracts people. Around 4,000 people have climbed Everest. I bet a lot more have read War and Peace—it’s much less expensive than mountain climbing. I daresay that, like me, others will shamelessly brag about their accomplishment, which should be enough to get some of the major plot points into the larger culture.

What I think actually keeps the plot of this book out of the cultural consciousness is that we view it with such respect. It is one of the great literary classics, and to read it shows that you have refined tastes and that you’re an intellectual who ponders what others cannot hope to understand. Talking about the plot would rob the book of some of that mystique. True, it’s hard to summarize a book that follows about a dozen characters and that takes place over the years 1807 to 1819, but let’s take one character, Pierre. Pierre is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. His father has made him his heir, but Prince Vasili tries to convince the father, who is on his death-bed, to write Pierre out of the will. The father does not, and, when Pierre inherits the fortune, Prince Vasili manipulates Pierre into marrying his daughter, Hélène. Hélène probably had an affair with Dolokhov, so Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel. We’re not even through the first quarter of the book, yet this bare bones summary is starting to sound a bit melodramatic. And as we all know, there is nothing more counter to literary refinement than melodrama.

The brief summary that I gave above isn’t fair to Tolstoy’s work; as with all summaries, it cuts away the nuances of character and language. Still the novel is filled with moments that would be equally at home in a soap opera. When describing what was happening in the book to my friends, I would sometimes refer to it as The Days of Our Lives: The Napoleonic Wars Edition. Often when we talk about literature, especially books with a reputation for being “Important,” we fail to talk about the parts that share similarities with writing done for pure entertainment. I’m often surprised by how fun some old books are to read.

There is nothing more absurd than going into battle wearing white pants.

One of the most surprising aspects of War and Peace was how funny it was. Tolstoy is trying to make the point that great men aren’t the ones who change the world, but rather they just get caught on top of the cresting wave of change. To do this he often shows the chaos of the battlefield—how orders from generals are based on old, often wrong, information and how the soldiers on the field are reacting to a different set of circumstances so cannot possibly follow said orders. He also shows how the bureaucracy of war keeps anything from getting done, officers vying for advancement and trying to sabotage each other. As far as Tolstoy is concerned, wars are won or lost regardless of the generals and their tactics. During these sections, I started to refer to the novel as Cluster F***: A Victory. Another thing that Tolstoy taught me about war is that it causes traffic jams: people fleeing the coming army, soldiers marching to battle or retreating from a loss. Another title I used to refer to the novel was Traffic Jams and Bureaucracy.

Less surprisingly, Tolstoy interweaves the moments of humor with moments of horror. Officers vying for advancement, no matter how pathetic and funny they may seem, still make their power-plays with men’s lives. The chaos of the battlefield can seem funny one second, and in the next second a cannon ball has obliterated a person. In one scene, Pierre, a civilian, goes to a battlefield just to look. Tolstoy paints a humorous picture of this bumbling tourist wandering about, yet, when Pierre barely escapes with his life and the soldiers he stayed with are all killed, we are terrified. After the capture of Moscow, Pierre is taken prisoner by the French. Tolstoy superbly shows Pierre entering a dissociative state in order to survive: he focuses on counting trees rather than realizing that his friend was just executed.

Strangely, one modern genre that War and Peace reminds me of is that of the internet comment. Tolstoy is angry at historians and how they paint history. There is chapter after chapter, with many great insults, where he picks apart the Great Man theory. He mentions that many historians believe that Napoleon lost a certain battle because he didn’t personally oversee it, as he was suffering from a cold, which means, according to Tolstoy, that the servant who failed to dress the French Emperor in warm clothes was actually responsible for the outcome of the battle. Basically, Tolstoy read some history, became enraged at it, and wrote a really long comment. I imagine that if Tolstoy lived today, he would be a terror, albeit an eloquent one, of the Amazon reviews and the YouTube comments section.

It may seem like I’m being disrespectful to a great piece of literature, and you’re right, I am.

While I read the novel, I was moved, I laughed, I gained new insight, and I yelled at it. I’ll praise what I thought was good, and I’ll criticize what I thought was not. I disliked how he presents peasants as an ideal of Russian identity and Christian suffering rather than as people, and how he presented two of the women as representations of true womanhood whose identities are consumed completely by their husbands and children. Still, I loved how he showed war as absurd. I like to interact with the books that I read. One of the ways that we can kill a book is to treat it like an untouchable relic behind glass in a museum.

This post, no doubt, has revealed my suspicion of dividing literature into the categories of high culture and low culture. I find the elements that low culture is derided for (sex, violence, bathroom humor, melodrama) are often in the works of so-called high culture, while I’ve discovered moments of transcendence and have seen the human condition laid bare in low culture. Admittedly genre or pulp fiction often provide nothing more than an escape from the everyday, but sometimes Literature, with a capital “L,” is nothing more than empty intellectual posing that only reassures its readers that they’re better than that ugly rabble. The latter has always struck me as more dangerous. It disturbs me that I feel a sense of accomplishment in reading War and Peace, which is, as we discussed, primarily known for being long, whereas I was reading fantasy series where individual novels were just as long in my teens. I too am guilty of being awed by the dubious reputation of “Great Literature” and “Important” books, when all that makes a book great is that it helps you understand the world in a way that you haven’t before. It doesn’t matter if this understanding comes from horror novels, fairy tales, or chick lit, as long as it makes you re-examine who you are and how you interact with the world.

As I was finishing War and Peace, I was also giving up on another famously long, much more recent and read novel, The Goldfinch. I was listening to The Goldfinch audio book on my commute, and, for whatever reason, that medium wasn’t working out for me. I’ve had this happen with a few other audio books—sometimes I just need to experience a book through the printed page—so The Goldfinch is now on my to read pile.

Recently a Vanity Fair article came out discussing the growing divide over the novel. Is it awesome that a literary novel has become so popular, or is it an example of the decline of letters that such a book could even be considered Literature? As I haven’t finished the book, I don’t feel comfortable in saying whether I think it’s good or not. However, reading the criticisms of Tart’s novel, I was struck by how much of it was about keeping all that adventure stuff, that escapism, that ability to be enjoyed by teenagers away from important literature. I’m guessing that some of these critics aren’t big fans of Treasure Island. Ultimately, I’m suspicious of this criticism, because it reeks of the old high culture versus low culture view. What seems to decide the boundary between the two is the critics’ aesthetic tastes. However, if they weren’t moved to reflection or didn’t gain some kind of insight, I can’t blame them for dismissing the novel. Still, as an outsider and member of the rabble, I can’t help but wonder if there is some literary guarding of the gates going on here.

The only really good negative review of the novel that I read was one from Salon. The reviewer points out problems with The Goldfinch’s portrayal of its characters of color. What makes this review good is it does what good literature does: it made me reflect. The reflection was on myself and my assumptions. I had already encountered four of the characters she mentioned, and I only felt bothered by the doorman. In fact, I assumed that what we initially saw of the doorman was part of a professional persona and that there would be more to his character. However, when I heard the part about the maid who offered to work for free because she loves her employer so much, I didn’t even register what a B.S. statement that was. It’s like when, in War and Peace, Pierre asks one of his serfs if he wants to be free, and the serf says no. While I believe that Tolstoy wanted his readers to see that statement as sincere, I read the character as being guarded with his master and saying that which most insured his safety. Why I didn’t have a similar realization with The Goldfinch, when the maid basically tells the narrator’s mother that she’s such a good boss that cleaning the mother’s house is reward in and of itself, reveals my own ignorance. Notice that the maid didn’t say she wanted to be friends—which would create a more equal power dynamic between the two woman—but that she wanted to continue to serve even without compensation. I’m not  happy realizing that I too didn’t think anything of that scene when first heard it, but I’m glad that this critic pointed out the problematic assumptions inherent in such a view.

I suppose what I’m looking for when I read is an interrogation of the world and myself. While I enjoy escaping from time to time, I’ve never seen escapism as being opposed to that interrogation. Vampires, spaceships, and afternoon tea can help shatter illusions about the world. However, because books are by people, they will be inherently flawed like people with dangerous blind spots that allow us to remain secure in a false sense of superiority. When I was talking about my problems with the portrayal of women in War and Peace, a friend said, “Yeah, but it was written over a hundred years ago.” “So it was of its time,” I said, “that doesn’t mean that I should excuse either it or its time.” Let us praise the books that make us feel, but let us never excuse or ignore when they fail to question dangerous assumptions—these two activities are not exclusive.

The Years Needed to Read a Book

I’ve just finished To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and, as a surprise to no one, I loved it. I loved it so much that I didn’t just break the spine, but, to my horror, ripped the book in half. Thankfully I had some Scotch tape on hand.

What is really momentous is that this is the first book that I’ve returned to after giving up on reading it, because it was “too hard.”

I’ve always been a reader, but somewhere around my Sophomore or Junior high school year my reading habits changed. Before then, I tore through escapist literature—I was particularly fond of the Star Wars extended universe. On whim, I picked up All Quiet of the Western Front. Instead of escaping on a grand adventure, I faced a horrifying reality. Yet, at the end of the book, I felt that I understood the world—the beauty and the tragedy—a little bit better.

At the time I was ignorant of what the Canon was and the problems inherit in it, all I knew was that All Quiet on the Western Front was considered a classic, and that I wanted to experience that sense of clarity and catharsis again. I thought I could only experience it through “the classics.” As you can tell, I had only vague idea what any of this meant or what authors to seek out.

I started to wander the library stacks picking up books that I’ve heard mentioned in class or whose covers made them look like a classic (the only reason I knew Madame Bovary was a classic was because of its leather cover). Sometimes I discovered books I loved (Calvino’s, Camus’, Austen’s, Gaskell’s, and so many others), sometimes I discovered books I hated, and sometimes I discovered books that overwhelmed me.

When I selected a book that overwhelmed, I would often read a few pages, but find that I couldn’t follow what was happening or, in some cases, the syntax. To the Lighthouse was one those books. I started reading it, but I didn’t know what was going on. I was left wondering who the main character was, what were all these people doing, what conflict was pushing the plot forward. I would reread whole pages, but the words became no clearer.  Eventually I gave up—I felt that I wasn’t smart enough to read it.

I encountered Woolf again in a college literature class, where we read Mrs. Dalloway. Once again, I couldn’t follow what was happening.  Woolf’s narrative switched from character to character without warning.  I kept wondering why we were spending so much time with boring Mrs. Dalloway and not more time with Septimus Warren Smith, who I found more interesting. I figured that I just didn’t like Woolf’s writing that she was just to hard for me to read.

This all changed when I saw the film, The Hours. I quickly tracked down the book by Michael Cunningham. His book made me question my initial reading of Mrs. Dalloway, allowing me to read it once more. It is strange how point of view can affect our reading of a book. When I first read Mrs. Dalloway, I’d firmly believed that literature should be about grand ideas and grand passions. When I read The Hours, or maybe because I read The Hours, I was starting to wonder if literature could be about the little things that made up our days. I started to wonder if the trifles that I had been so quick to dismiss were just as important to our lives. In Mrs. Dalloway, and really in much of Woolf’s writing, she shows how the grand and small connect, how our lives are made up of both wars and the errands we run on a busy afternoon. She shows how what we would dismiss as insignificant can make life worth living.

Since then, I’ve read The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Orlando, The Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is one of my favorite writers. Yet when I picked up a copy of To the Lighthouse, I was intimidated. Here was one of the great books that I had failed to read.  Here was a book that I was not smart enough to read. This feeling of doubt is, of course, familiar: I feel it every time I sit down to write.  It asks me who I think am. I’m not that important; I’m not that smart; I’m not one of those people who will finish To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, or Swann’s Way. Perhaps that is why I sat down with the book; I needed to prove something to myself.

When I finished To the Lighthouse, what surprised me most was just how easily I could read it. I could follow the narrator as she switched focus from one character to an other. The action was clear. I wondered if this was the same book that had so overwhelmed me before. But it was, I had simply grown as reader. I was now more familiar with Woolf’s syntax. I had read more complex, sometimes frustrating, experimental writing. Stream of consciousness following multiple characters was familiar; I was an old hat at it.

In some ways my journey to finally reading Too the Lighthouse oddly suites one of the book’s main themes—the relentless march of time. People die, houses fall to ruin, books and paintings are forgotten, nothing lasts. Yet there is comfort in that change. A painting will be finished, and books will be read.

In Too the Lighthouse, Woolf questions  the traditional view of art—an avenue to immortality for the Great. In one scene, we see Lily Briscoe remember Mrs.Ramsey taking her and Charles Tansley to the beach.  Lily thinks:

But what a power was in the human soul!…That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite…something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.

Mrs. Ramsey had gone to the beach with two of her friends and created a day that causes Lily to question her views and had truly moved her. We tend to think of the duties of hostess as inconsequential, but that day, because of Mrs. Ramsey, transcends and works like a piece of art. Woolf has shown us that those “inconsequential” moments can carry consequence.

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because it speaks directly to my artistic endeavors. I have known several Charles Tansleys who have told me that I couldn’t write just as Charles told Lily that “women can’t paint, can’t write.”  I too have looked at my writing, much as Lily looks at her paintings, and thought it will be forgotten.  Yet Woolf’s final paragraph in To the Lighthouse reminds me that it does not matter:

she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture.  Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred.  With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

As I read those final lines, I feel I can go on writing.  Once again I feel that I know something more about this world. I again feel that catharsis I felt at the end of All Quiet on the Western Front and so many times since with many other books.  It was worth all the years it took me to finally read those lines.

The Experience of a Book

For the last six months, three days a week, I make the hour-long drive to Santa Fe and the hour-long drive back. The biggest problem I’ve faced, other than gas prices and the ability of landscape to distract me, is a lack of listening material. I have a habit of driving to music, which increases the likelihood of speeding tickets. I’ve been listening to podcasts so far, but I’ve only found three I really like (Read it and Weep, The Bookrageous Podcast, and Literary Disco). Unfortunately, I’ve exhausted their past episodes and now must wait for each new episode. I’ve tried finding some other podcasts, but nothing has really caught my attention (feel free to make suggestions), so in an attempt to remain sane and within the speed limit, I’m entering the strange new world of audio books.

Now the thing is I love listening to books. Growing up both my parents read to me, and I was still asking them to read to me after I could read chapter books on my own. I only stopped asking my mother when I discovered that she was censoring the more risqué parts (which really weren’t all that risqué). At my father’s house, I had younger siblings, so I was, under the guise of bonding with them, able to be read to well into middle school.

It was during that time that I first encountered an audio book. My family has a tradition of reading Night in the Lonesome October every October. Someone eventually gave us the audio book version. We put the cassette tape in the stereo, gathered around, and listened. We didn’t even make it through the fist chapter. The voice actor had got it all wrong. And by all wrong I mean, he sounded nothing like my father.

In recent years, my husband has read many of Terry Pratchett’s books to me. He is a wonderful reader—he does the voices—so wonderful in fact that hearing him read the Discworld novels out loud is preferable to actually sitting down and reading the books silently. In large part it is because my head doesn’t do the voice, everything I read is in my own voice, even if a picture of Morgan Freeman is right next to the text.

In fact listening is so integral to my reading that I cannot read poetry silently. When I open a book of poetry, I know that I will speak every word. If I read it silently, I won’t retain anything. This habit can get interesting if I’m reading some LANGUAGE poetry.

So considering that reading has so often been linked to listening to me, you would think that I would take quicker to audio books. Yet still I hesitate. Maybe it’s because I don’t know the voice actors—I would hate a bad voice actor to ruin a good book.

Or maybe it is because I feel listening doesn’t count. I can’t claim that I’ve read a book if I only listened to it. I’ve haven’t listed any of the Discworld books that my husband has read to me on my Goodreads page (well until now). Of course, I don’t mind that it doesn’t count when my husband reads to me. I’m able to enjoy a book with him. However, I don’t have that additional bonding moment with an audio book. Alone on my way to work, only I will laugh and only I will cry.

The important question is why do I care if it counts or not. At first I want to say it is because reading is active, you have to work at it, and listening is passive. But as someone who speaks at students on a daily basis, I can tell you that listening is not a passive activity. I still experience each and every word of the book whether I’m reading or listening to it. True I can’t analyze the sentences and the plot of an audio book in the same way, but then I never analyzed everything I’ve read.

Yet I’ve seen people judged by their reading habits all the time. The worst is when people are dismissed as readers because they read science fiction, mystery or romance. I’ve heard people point out that audio books don’t count. But audio books are not like movie adaptations, all the words that the author wrote are still there. I wonder if it’s because we associate being read to with being a child. Is part of being an adult that we don’t get to be read too anymore? I’ve already given up trick-or-treating; I don’t to give this up as well.

In the end, I have six hours a week where I’m alone on the road. These are six hours where I cannot read, yet I can still make my way through a book. I can still empathize with the characters, enjoy a well turned phrase, lose myself in wonder, and ponder new ideas. How could that not count?

The Joy of Bad Movies and Classic Literature

Among the many books on my bedside table, I try to always keep one book that I consider intimidating. This book could be a scholarly work, philosophy, science, contemporary fiction (with a reputation for difficulty), experimental poetry, or one of the “classics.”  The intimidating  book is one that  I feel I’m not smart enough or educated enough to read, but how else will I educate myself if I don’t read it. Also, I don’t like the idea of being bullied around by some printed pages.

The intimidating book currently on my bedside table is The Aeneid; I’m about a hundred pages (three books) from the end. What surprised me the most is how much I enjoy reading it, and that my enjoyment was similar to that of watching a campy horror or action film. In other words, I MST3Ked it. Now I’m probably far from the ideal reader for Virgil—my understanding of Roman history and culture is spotty to say the least. I bring, probably unfairly, my modern perspective upon the work. While this may mean that some allusion will go over my head, I can’t believe that works of literature should be read as though they exist out of time. Of course The Aeneid will read differently for Virgil’s contemporaries, scholars in the 19th century, and me in the 21st Century.

First let me mention the things that frustrated me. Right now I’m in middle of reading about the war in Italy, which started because Aeneas wants to marry Lavinia and so does Turnus. We hear what Aeneas wants (to make the Trojans a great country once again), what Turnus wants (Lavinia and the throne that comes with her), what Lavinia’s father, King Latinus, wants (for Aeneas to marry Lavinia), what Lavinia’s mother wants (for Turnus to marry Lavinia), and what the Goddess Juno wants (to muck things up for Aeneas). We never learn what Lavinia wants. While I know that given the cultural background of this work, this over site is to be expected, it still annoys me. Here is a character that they are starting a war over, but her main characteristic is that “she was ripe now, ready for a husband.” Yuck! I’ve always found the woman who is a fruit ready to be plucked metaphor gross.

I was similarly annoyed when Mercury warns Aeneas to get out of Carthage and says, with regards to Dido, “An ever/ uncertain and inconstant thing is a woman.” Or, when the Trojans are leaving and see Dido’s suicide-funeral pyre and Virgil writes, “They cannot know/ what caused so vast a blaze, and yet the Trojans/ know well the pain when passion is profaned/ and how a woman driven wild can act.” Yep, Dido is crazy for expecting Aeneas to hang around—she only destroyed her political reputation at home and caused a war with a neighboring king by shacking up with Aeneas. If Dido hadn’t committed suicide, her fate was still a pretty bleak one. So yeah, I feel she deserved a little slack. At least she got to snub Aeneas in the underworld.

I’m enjoying  reading about the war in Italy; it makes me laugh. Take Euryalus and Nisus who sneak off to warn Aeneas that the Trojans are under attack but stop to kill some Rutulians and pick up some loot, meanwhile I’m yelling “You have a job to do.  Warn Aeneas!” I’ve seen lots of action movies. From them I have learned that the moment you start killing people, it is only a matter of time before the enemies start noticing you, especially if you steal and wear some of their shiny armor. While Virgil presents their death as heroic and tragic, they don’t seem to understand what being a messenger sneaking through the enemy camp entails. Considering their message was something along the lines of “Help we’re under attack! Need Reinforcements!” they kind of screwed over their comrades.

Yet no one is really good at their job as soldiers here. Oh, they are heroic, glorious, and brave in battle, but they are crappy soldiers. At one point the Trojans, who were ordered to defend the fortification until Aeneas returns, get so caught up in battle they open the gates to better attack their enemy. Opening the gates to attack is not really a good move when you’re defending against a force with greater numbers.  Their enemy of course use this moment, and the enemy’s leader, Turnus, finds himself inside the Trojan fortifications where he goes on a killing spree. In fairness, Turnus isn’t good at his job either.  As Virgil points out:

The Trojans turn and run in fear and trembling;

and if the victor the had taken care

to smash the bolts, to let his comrades pour

inside the gates, the day had been the last

day of war and of the Trojan nation;

but rage and an insane desire for slaughter

drove Turnus on against his enemies.

Oh Turnus, if only you had called for back up, you could have won.

I realize it may seem like I’m nitpicking this great work of literature. I can’t deny the beauty and the power of Virgil’s work, and I’m grateful to Allen Mandelbaum for giving us a translation that is so readable and poetic. However, often works of literature seem to be put on a pedestal just out of reach for the rest of us, who have decidedly plebeian tastes. But as I read this great work, I saw the same tropes I see in Bond and Schwarzenegger films.  I enjoy watching these cheesy movies—I enjoy sitting at home and yelling at the heroine to run instead of investigating the basement. I love yelling at the megalomaniac madman to stop monologuing about his plans to take over the world. And if I can find that same joy reading the “classics,” I don’t think there is any good reason in denying it because it’s high art.

“Please, no soliloquy!” he seems to say.

There Is A Reason—Just Not A Profound One

When I grade a stack of student essays, I will often come across one where the student just didn’t get the material.  Their interpretation has nothing to do with the work itself, as though they had an opinion they wanted to express and they were going to do it regardless of the assignment. Rarely, however, have I seen a movie do this.

As I watched Rubber, a film directed and written by Quentin Dupieux, I felt like pulling out my red pen.  Admittedly what I am about to say has probably already been said by quite a few film critics.  Unfortunately, I ignored their warnings.

A film about a tire, named Robert, that comes to life and telekinetically explodes people’s heads seems like it would be the perfect film for me.   If it was just a silly gore-fest, the horror fan-girl in me would be happy.  If it was an art house film that resisted traditional story telling and interpretation, the pretentious academic in me would be happy.  How could I not like this movie?

I hated it, because the director did not trust his audience to understand it.  The “No Reason” monologue at the beginning of the film would get points for having a clear thesis, if it were a student essay.  Film is visual medium, and that leaves some room for interpretation by the audience.  The director runs the risk of being misunderstood, but hundreds of other directors, writers, poets, painters, sculptors and musicians have faced this possibility and still created great works without having to spell out the meaning.  Creating art is an act of trust—artists put out their ideas and emotions for the world to see and hope at least a few will understand.  However, if you have to spell it out for your audience, than maybe you need go back and look critically at your own work.

Ignoring the director’s lack of trust—the opening speech makes some major errors.  The sheriff, who is giving the monologue, asks why in E.T. is the alien brown, why in Love Story do the character fall in love, why in Oliver Stone’s JFK is the president shot, why in The Pianist is the titular character in hiding, or why in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre do the characters never go the bathroom.  He answers each question with “no reason.”  If I were grading this like a paper, I would circle the word “reason” and ask Dupieux if he meant “meaning.”  We can argue that these choices are meaningless and tell us nothing about the film or the world, which apparently is also without reason or meaning.

All the things listed in the monologue have reasons, they just don’t carry deep meaning.  To take one example from the above list, we don’t see the characters in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre go to the bathroom because it’s unnecessary for the story and would ruin the tension.  What does it mean? Nothing.

Art is not like life and is created with purpose and meaning.  When artists take up their paintbrushes or movie cameras, it is because they want to communicate something.  Sometimes it is something profound; sometimes they’re just saying those trees over there are pretty.  Art always has a reason and a meaning, even if the piece is telling us that there is no meaning in the world and shit just happens for no reason.  It is, however, a mistake to think every aspect of a piece of art carries meaning. The designer of the alien in E.T. probably had some very good reasons for making the alien brown, but this does not give the alien’s color a symbolic meaning.

Without that monologue I would have thought that Dupieux was saying that a movie is only a movie.  Much like how Rene Margritte’s painting “This is Not a Pipe” calls attention to the fact that a painting is just some pigment on a canvas in the end, it is not the object pictured. After all, the audience watching the events of the film while in the film, the sheriff pulling out the script and reading it, and the army of tires finally arriving in Hollywood seems to call attention to that fact that a movie is artifice.  Hell, even most of the opening monologue could have been to draw attention to the fact that things happen in a movie for no other reason than to move the plot forward.  Since Dupieux’s thesis connects film with real life, he seems to be saying that art like life is without reason.

Maybe I’m being obtuse and the monologue was meant to be ironic, but I doubt that.

I have to admit that I’m probably being unfair here.  The films in my queue after this one were Waiting for Godot and Hobo with a Shot Gun, which satisfied both my super ego and id.

On Not Reading

I have a confession to make; I am guilty of one of the cardinal sins of writing.  I started writing poetry in middle school, but did not start reading poetry until college.  That’s right, I was one of those students—the bane of creative writing teachers—I wanted to write without reading.

These type of aspiring writers have recently gained attention, as shown by The New Yorker and the Salon articles.  And as someone who has taught a couple of creative writing classes, I understand the frustration that a teacher feels when an aspiring writer rejects the best tools for learning to write—reading.  After all, why would someone want to write if they did not enjoy its results ?  Isn’t it hypocritical of someone to want others to read their work, if they are unwilling to read the work of others?

Through middle and high school I filled journal after journal with bad poetry.  I had things I wanted to say, and I enjoyed the way line breaks allowed me to play with rhythm.  However, I did not read poetry.  This was in part because most of the poetry I was exposed to was from school textbooks.  I was only familiar with the sweet floral verses of Dickinson, the two or three over-read poems of Frost, and the tedious Wordsworth.  The poems that were selected to be in the textbooks were safe.  What PTA mother would challenge “I floated lonely as a cloud”?  Some of the more daring teachers, particularly the one who got me writing poetry, introduced us to the Beat poets.  I never connected with the poets presented to me, either they were too stuffy or they were from my parent’s generation.

I took to writing because I had stories to tell and ideas to share that I didn’t see any of these poets writing about.  I think there is much worse reasons to write than realizing no one is telling the stories you’re interested in.

It was only in college that I discovered the poets who wrote about my interests.  Once I discovered them, I became an avid reader of poetry.  I suddenly knew where to look.  Hell, I remember my shock when I came across some of Dickinson’s sexy poems.

While there will always be those egotistical students, who feel they have something important to say and can’t be bothered with what others have said, some students may have simply not found the right author.  They have a type of story that needs to be heard. And since no one else is telling it, they are endeavoring to tell it themselves.  Maybe instead of condemning them for not reading, we should take a look at what they are writing and point them in the direction of similar stories.