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The Memory of Stars

I remember considering how strange it was,
To think, that the stars we gaze so raptly at,
 Might no longer burn, somewhere far off in the universe.
 To think that their light still trickles down to us every night,
While they no longer exist.
I suppose that is what you are; starlight.
 Something countless people see in my eyes.
 But were I to return to,
The source of that distant flicker,
I might find you inexistent.
Something I might wish upon, childishly, in the back of my mind;
 A wish without chance of realization.
 Perhaps one day I will find the right telescope
 To seek out the stars, so far away and buried in the night,
To determine whether that silent glimmer denotes their presence
Or whether their light survives them;
Merely the memory of a lost star.

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On Behind the Beautiful Forevers

In her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo presents an image of the Indian slums with unusually dynamic characters.  She vividly portrays the characters’ intertwined lives, differentiating her own writing about India from the often static portrayal of impoverished Indians in “squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes” shown in the commercials meant to raise money for people living in third-world countries (Boo author’s note).  Rather than blindly portraying success stories or attempting to evoke pity, Boo depicts a diverse range of emotion; ambition, resignation, joys, and pain. She recreates an India in which there is both the relatable presence of universal human emotion and the foreign shock of life in the slums. The India depicted in Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows the heart-breaking effects of corruption upon the hopes of the impoverished slum residents—a slum in which the residents must make sacrifices for the government, rather than the government aiding them, and where hopes and inspiration are so often turned into resignation.

In many developed countries, there is the idea that citizens should not fear their government, but that the government should act in fear of the citizens.  Thomas Jefferson said “when the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” This idea seems natural in our society, which makes India’s slum-life seem so foreign. Boo shows the reader what life is like for those who are victimized by the government, but who do not have the means or desire to fight back. The children in the book share some of the same universal worries as most children.  “Sunil” for example, “was spooked by the deaths and the rumors, but of more immediate concern was the fact that his younger sister had grown another inch, increasing the height gap between them (154, Boo).” Yet, their sparks of hope and resistance to cynicism are changed by the harshness of the slum environment.  While the scenes of children committing suicide out of fear for undeserved beatings and everyday hardships make the book heart-breaking, the scene in which Abdul—the book’s last stronghold of hope and innocence—admits defeat to poverty and corruption, is one of the book’s most powerful moments. Abdul tells Boo that “for some time [he] tried to keep the ice inside [him] from melting…but now [he was] just becoming dirty water, like everyone else.” He “tells Allah [that he] loves Him immensely…but…that [he cannot] be better, because of how the world is (Boo, 241).” In her description of Asha, a woman who hoped to rise above everything, Boo describes the ultimate effects of poverty in combination with government corruption, noting that “something bright in her had been eclipsed(Boo, number).” The people within the book show remarkable will and resourcefulness, and the tragedy of the novel is that their own government and birth hold them back, though they might succeed in other societies.

While Boo’s work seems unique in its exploration of the diverse of personalities and struggles within India’s airport slum, it sometimes seems that she only tells one side of the story. Although she received almost complete praise for her work of non-fiction, Paul Beckett criticized her for a lack of social representation, for being overly selective with whom she interviewed. Becket claims that, “behind the Beautiful Forevers” is an interesting book. It is an admirable book. It is a moving book. But it is not an authoritative book, which is disappointing given the extraordinary detail in it. We see the trees so closely that an ant can’t crawl up an inch of trunk without attracting our intimate attention to its precise path, the size of its steps and the topography of the bark it crosses. But the forest is painted in a messy, monotone, ominous, dark, dark brown (Paul Beckett, “The Let Down of Behind the Beautiful Forevers”). Beckett believes that because Boo interviewed the underclass, often avoiding the “other characters and trends in the book outside of the slum, which are held chiefly responsible for the slum dwellers’ collective misery,” she loses some of her journalistic “authority,” her ability to be a valid source of information on the true status of India and instead becomes more of an activist than unbiased reporter (Beckett, The Let Down of…). Shashi Tharoor, in a review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, states that Boo, “ who has an Indian husband, has not just lived with its people and gotten to know them; she has penetrated the dynamics of their relationships, acquired insights into their psyches, breathed the polluted air that suffuses their fears. Her empathy for the slum-dwellers, striving against impossible odds to earn enough for “the full enjoy” they can only dream about, is total (Shashi Tharoor, Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers).”  This empathy, which Tharoor mentions in praise of the book also suggests that Boo is inherently biased, and that her selective interviewing helped her convey her sympathies rather than to portray the whole truth.  However, her choices, her selectiveness and restraint, are what lend the book its power.  The emotional force of the book is legitimate, the lack of representation for those who she and the people she interviews in the story might lessen the impact of the story save for Boo’s extensive research into government documents. While we might have heard about corrupt officials’ motivations for beating and taking bribes from the impoverished, for Boo’s story, the documents as well as the flagrant dishonesty within much of the government leave little room for redeeming excuses. It is unlikely that through interviews with the corrupt officials Boo would find a reasonable excuse for transforming a child who committed suicide from a “vulnerable witness to a murder [and] the victim of police threats and beatings” into a “heroin addict who had decided to kill himself because he couldn’t afford his next fix” in official public record, or for allowing the police to force the impoverished to pay bribes to avoid violent beatings  (Boo, 172).  In fact, Boo does portray several acts of kindness from government officials, and the rarity of these accounts within the story makes the government seem all the more corrupt. As she hoped, Behind the Beautiful Forevers reveals “the means by which government corruption and indifference erase from the public record the experience of poor citizens (Boo, 251).”

Tharoor states that “[Behind the Beautiful Forevers] is astonishing on several levels: as a worm’s-eye view of the “undercity” of one of the world’s largest metropolises; as an intensely reported, deeply felt account of the lives, hopes and fears of people traditionally excluded from literate narratives; as a story that truly hasn’t been told before, at least not about India and not by a foreigner (Shashi Tharoor, Book Review).” Overall Boo’s work remains significant because it reveals a side of India which we rarely see, in vibrant detail, bringing color to the emotions of each of the individuals in the story and highlighting India’s social problems. While one could complain that she does not detail the complexities of historical context and government perspective, Boo focuses in, centers on the story she finds important and reports on it, reports on the complexities of human interaction in relation to a changing India. She chronicles the side of India that the Indian government would rather remain unseen.  Her extensive “fact-checking” and countless interviews give her the authority to report on the lives of the people of the slums (Boo, 250). While Beckett criticizes Boo for missing the forest for the trees, Boo acknowledges that the “story of Annawadi is not representative of a country as huge and diverse as India,” but instead focuses on the impoverished within an area small enough to gain perspective, yet similar to many Indian slums. She has authority because she is not trying to tell the story of India, but rather demonstrate the effects of the Indian system on the impoverished.  Overcoming the obstacles to effective reporting posed by her class, gender, ethnicity and language, Boo follows their lives and experiences in an effort to understand the problems of poverty from the bottom up. The result is a searing account, in effective and racy prose, that reads like a thrilling novel but packs a punch Sinclair Lewis might have envied (Tharoor, Book Review).

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Travels in Siberia: Incomplete Grandiosity

In The Culture of Time and Space, Stephen Kern notes that impressionist artist Cezanne, “wanted to fuse perceptions and conceptions—the way we see things from a single point of view and the way we know them to be from a composite of views. Experience tells us that the opening of a vase is circular but when viewed from the side we see it as an ellipse. Cezanne combined these two perceptions visually with multiple perspectives (Kern, 142).”  Similarly, Ian Frazier, in his book Travels in Siberia, combines the stereotypical expectations of Siberia, with rich history and his own experiences traveling across Siberia. He explores stereotypes and preconceived notions, bringing a new perspective to an area of the world that seems to remain detached in an era of constant communication. Ultimately, however Frazier leaves Siberia with an unfinished understanding of it. Although Frazier manages to shed light on cultural and historical factors which shaped Siberia, and manages to make a place as remote as Siberia, seem both familiar and charmingly foreign, Siberia remains in “incomplete grandiosity” that it started out with in the beginning of the book.

Kern claims that the encroaching “railroads ended the sanctity of remoteness…” and that “the telephone permitted businessmen to buy and sell from afar without leaving their offices and at the same time expanded their “territory” and forced them to reach out further (Kern, 213-215).” He also notes that  Jules Verne’s novel “[Around the World in Eighty Days] projected a new sense of world unity [in the early 19th century] that became ever sharper in the decades that followed as the railroad, telephone bicycle, automobile, airplane, and cinema revolutionized the sense of distance(213,  Kern).” Technology increasingly makes the world seem smaller, more accessible, and more relatable, yet Siberia, which Ian Frazier seeks out in his book Travels in Siberia, escapes that accessibility. Siberia remains an indescribable, undefined, borderless landscape of ice and exiles.  Siberia, like Russia described in the “lines by Tyutchev…cannot be understood by the mind…cannot be measured by ordinary measure: She has her own particular stance—all you can do is believe in her (Frazier, 191).” In the minds of Americans Siberia became a cultural symbol of social exile, while “Russians from Moscow and St. Petersburg tend to have exaggerated ideas about Siberia” as well (Frazier, 152). For all of Frazier’s attempts to find a common ground between America and the Russia he has fallen in love with, he finds that despite the similarities between small towns in Russia and in America, he doesn’t “think anyone who saw Yakutsk would be reminded of Elwood, or of a place like it. Elwood is another small American town that has passed through stages of early settlement, enthusiastic development, industrial boom, and recent decline. In those terms, its frontier years ended ages ago. Yakutsk,[representative of Siberia] on the other hand, is still a frontier place, still hanging on to the writhing wilderness by its fingernails (Frazier, 390).”

Frazier doggedly attempts to investigate prison camps during his travels, but part of the darkness of Siberia, the wilderness of it turns out to be partially in the ingrained repression of painful memories.  Where Americans would dutifully commemorate lost-lives, the Russians prefer to forget. Siberia, remains a chronicle of this habit, with prison camps left untouched and unnoticed, preserved only by Siberia’s icy climate. One could classify Siberia as an unkempt memory—a collection of mementos left to slowly fall apart. At one point in his travels, Frazier “ passed a village that Victor said he remembered as a lovely place in his childhood”  but which Krushchev ruined(Frazier, 174). “The remnants of the village could still be seen, crumbling at the feet of out-of place and also crumbling 1950s-era high rises (Frazier, 174).”  Siberia is the product of overthrown governments and harsh climates, characterized by nasty weather and brutality, yet Frazier seems to love Siberia nonetheless. In his comparison to America, and the Wild West—of  kitschy film fame—and the beloved road trip, Frazier notes that,  “In America we love roads. To be “on the road” is to be happy and alive and free. Whatever lonesomeness the road implies is also a blankness that soon will be filled with possibility. A road leading to the horizon almost always signifies a hopeful vista for Americans. ‘Riding off into the sunset’ has always been our happy ending.  But I could find no happy-ending vista here, only the opposite. This had also been called the Convicts’ Road or the Exiles’ Road. Not only was it lonesome, but it ran permanently in the wrong direction, from the exiles’ point of view. Longing and melancholy seemed to have worked themselves into the very soil; the old road and the land around it seemed downcast as if they’d had their feelings hurt by how much the people passing by did not want to be here (Frazier, 220).” Ultimately, Frazier finds few redeeming qualities in Siberia. The mosquitos are unbearable, the landscape often swampy or bitterly cold, the sides of the road filled with trash. The redeeming qualities of the books come from the wanderlust characteristics of it.

Frazier chooses a risky style, telling his story like a travelogue interspersed with historical notes. His style however, emphasizes just how spectacular the experience of Siberia really is. Siberia makes the story, it evokes reactions, it creates unusual stories. Had Frazier traveled through Iowa and used the same type of plot development, it likely would have been very dry. Yet somehow, the extraordinary situations created by the broken down van, Sergei’s ingenuity, and the foreignness of the whole thing create both tension and humor.  The architect “Sitte insisted that the rhythmic distribution of spaces in pleasing and functional patterns should be the top priority. He argued that urban spaces should be enclosed to give them a definite shape. He also criticized the horror of empty space that repeatedly led planners to put statutes and monuments in the center of town squares (Kern, 158).” This horror of empty, undefined spaces, lend Siberia its mystery and its terror. Both the fear and the draw of the unknown draw Frazier back out into Siberia, and define the Russian’s definitions of Siberia. Siberia was known for is ruins and its repression. Frazier makes Siberia sound unappealing and yet, one suspects that Siberia provides for him the one destination to cure an almost insatiable desire to escape and explore.

Ultimately, Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, does not make Siberia a more welcoming and warm place. Frazier acknowledges Siberia’s flaws, the proven stereotypes, the forced resourcefulness of the people. Instead Frazier achieves the effect of the French poet Mallarmé who insisted that poetry must “paint not the thing, but the effect that it produces.” Mallarmé suggested that “the line of poetry..should be composed not of words but of intentions, and all the words should fade away before the sensation.” The power of Frazier’s Siberia, comes not from the reality of Siberia, but from the reactions, the emotions that Siberia evokes within Frazier. Mallarmé wrote about his own work, Herodiade, “If only I’d chosen an easy work! But, precisely, I, who am sterile and crepuscular, have chosen a terrifying subject, whose sensations, if they are strong, reach the point of atrocity, and if they are vague, have the strange attitude of mystery… I have, moreover, found an intimate and unique way of painting and noting down the very fleeting impressions. I should add, which is even more terrifying, that all these impressions follow one another as in a symphony, and I often have entire days when I ask myself if this impression can accompany that one, what is their relationship and effect … You can guess that I write few lines in a week.” Frazier who chose a similarly terrifying and mysterious subject seems to be plagued by the same problems. Weaving historical scenes into his travels across the ice without plot development, could have made the book unbearable. Still, Frazier, like Mallarmé, managed to synthesize these scenes, intuitively recognizing the significance of their “relationship and effect.”

Frazier ends the books brilliantly. He manages to capture the impossibility of truly capturing Siberia, relating the vastness of its history and relates his concept of Siberia:

“From time to time I contemplate the phrase ‘the incomplete grandiosity of Russia.’  I’m not sure who said it originally, or how I happen to have it in my head, but it describes the country. Russia’s grandiosity, good or bad, doesn’t end. It just trails off into the country’s expanses like Kutuzov’s army evaporating before Napoleon. The incomplete grandiosity pursues itself out there in Siberia somewhere…Incomplete and cruel grandiosity (468, Frazier).”

He doesn’t buff away the roughness of the Siberian landscape and the people who occupy it, but he remains enamored with Russia. The beauty of Siberia can be found in its mysterious history, its inaccessibility, and its continued mystery in an increasingly familiar world.

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Romanticism, Modernism, and California: Didion’s Search for Self

Joan Didion, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, establishes her unease with the disconnect between her memories of California and the pseudo-culture that she believes has replaced it. Her essays reflect both the nostalgia and appreciation for landscape that are characteristic of Romanticism, as well as the prevalence of subjectivity which dominates modernism. Didion, like many romantics, emphasizes the importance of individuality and emotion over logic. She uses the Gothic development of scene to reveal greater themes—nostalgia and resistance to change.   In her sentimental descriptions of home, California, and of writing, she reveals a search for herself.

The original Romantic period grew out of the growing distaste for industrialism and the dogged rationalism of the Enlightenment. The Romantics such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley, often spurned Newtonian physics and other sciences that sought to define the natural world in terms of mathematical laws. Instead of logic, the Romantics embraced creativity, celebrated individual genius and self-discovery, believed in the purity of the child, and revered nature almost to the point of Pantheism.  Mary Shelley, in her novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, intensifies Victor Frankenstein’s guilt after his monster murders Frankenstein’s younger brother, by complementing Frankenstein’s grief with the sudden fierceness of an approaching storm (Shelley, 76). Often Romantic painters, especially those from the German Sturm und Drang movement, placed the landscape as the dominate figure, leaving the characters dwarfed by the elements. Similarly, Didion develops and often personifies landscapes and natural forces giving them emotion and character, consequently leaving the people she describes as an afterthought. In Dreamers of the Golden Dream, Didion constructs a feeling of inevitable disaster out of her description of the San Bernardino Valley,  which, through her lens, becomes “haunted by the Mojave” and “devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind,” a place where “every voice seems a scream (Didion, 3).” She continues to develop the scene by describing the type of people who live there, establishing a foundation for her dislike of the budding pseudo-culture. In much of Didion’s writing, the characters are a product of the scene and the scene itself is merely a melding of the facts and her opinions. Even her description of  what she considers “home” centers more on the landscape in which she grew up than the people she grew up with. When Didion goes to see her family, their seemingly mundane discussions confuse her husband, who fails to understand that “when [they] talk about sale-leasebacks and right-of-way condemnations [they] are talking in code about the things [they] like best, the yellow fields and the cotton woods and the rivers rising and falling and the mountain roads closing when the heavy snow comes in (Didion, 165).”  In an interview with the Paris Review, Didion hints that her extensive use of scenery comes from the influence of landscape and atmosphere in her own life. “[She] grew up in a dangerous landscape” and believes that “people are more affected than they know by landscapes and weather (Didion, The Paris Review).” Didion derives her sense of belonging more from California’s natural features and the resulting culture than from individual people.

The Romantic emphasis on individuality and self-discovery, which plagues Frankenstein’s monster throughout Shelley’s novel, plays a prominent role in many of Didion’s essays, in which Didion explores her own writing, her records of significant moments, as well as the meaning of “home,” in an expression of her individuality. As she rifles through the pages of an old notebook, she discovers an unusual collection of sentences, records, and memories. Wondering at “what kind of Magpie” compiled her loose collection of observations, Didion reflects on the meaning of her notes. She realizes that “notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always , transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’ We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful penseés; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, and indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker (Didion, 136).” Didion’s notebooks reflect the personal functionality of her writing. She writes about the world, collecting information, events, details about other people, and strands of conversations, but from her observations about the outside world, she gains knowledge about herself.

The Romantics valued writing and art imbued with emotion rather than dry factual accounts, and the Modernist movement in journalism, similarly, blurs the line between objectivity and subjectivity. The original European modernist movement emerged after the Victorian era. Modernist artists during that time demonstrated restraint and often minimalism in art and architecture, centering much of their work on clean, geometric, and utilitarian designs. Modernist writers, such as James Joyce, often wrote in stream of consciousness and employed subjectivity like the Romantics, but were also concerned with the technical aspects of writing, unlike the Romantics. Overall, the European Modernists rejected the gaudy, overly-involved art of the Victorian era, resulting in the minimalistic characteristics of modernist art.  Slouching Towards Bethlehem reflects Didion’s tendency to shape her observations according to her perspective, which makes her a modernist writer both in the original sense, and the in terms of the newer modern journalism movement. Her social-conservatism demonstrates an interesting parallel between early modernists’ rejection of the flashy, overly-ornate or exotic culture of the Victorian era. In the essay Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, Didion depicts California’s San Bernardino Valley as culturally bereft by choosing to emphasize sites which hold commercialized, vaguely exotic, cultural references, such as a motel with “nineteen stucco tepees: ‘SLEEP IN A WIGWAM—GET MORE FOR YOUR WAMPUM’ ” or “Kapu Kai Restaurant-Bar and Coffee shop (Didion, 5).” Although her description remains factual, in the following sentences Didion demonstrates her subjectivity, blatantly calling the scene a “trail of an intention gone haywire, the flotsam of the New California (Didion, 5).” Through her commentary as well as her choice of details, Didion conveys her belief that California has been disinherited of its original culture. As she turns objective events into social commentary she attempts “then to close the gulf between herself and an objectified world and her method of doing so is what comes closest to home: her subjectivity (What Followed, 152).”

Some have criticized Didion’s subjectivity as well as her use of first person. Didion even stated that, in writing “you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture…The writer is always tricking someone into listening to the dream (Didion, Paris Review Interview.) Her subjectivity renders Slouching Torwards Bethlehem less factual, distancing her writing from conventional journalism, and she admits that she lacks “an instinct for reality” which she sometimes envies but does not possess (Didion, 133).  However, in the style of modern journalism, she manages to capture real events, to give us an accurate picture of them, but also to explore and display her own opinions.

While her choice of details and unique descriptions make this collection of essays interesting and enjoyable, her opinionated commentary is more suited for novels or an auto-biography than conventional journalism. Many of the essays in Slouching Torwards Bethlehem even seem slightly autobiographical because Didion relies so heavily on her own memories and opinions regarding California.  Stephen Kern, in his book The Culture of Time and Space:1880-1918, discusses the beliefs of Sigmund Freud—one of the early European modernists and one of the fathers of psychology—who argued that the earliest memories are formative but are hardest to access because they are repressed. According to Freud, unhealthy obsessions and feelings of anxiety or depression can be relieved by releasing and analyzing memories from the subconscious. Didion’s access to her earliest memories comes from her exploration of landscape and of scenes. She untangles her earliest memories by writing down her thoughts about scenes, shaping her details as she deems appropriate, and in doing so, addresses her fear of change—her fear that the years are eroding the Californian culture that she pines for.  Her writing unravels nostalgia, longing, and an uneasy sense that her vision of California—which she identifies with as “home”—is being slowly replaced by gaudy, mass-produced culture. Ultimately, Didion is “the heroine…surveying the grounds of her country place” as “the mechanical monster,” replaces the culture she understands and she loses touch with who she used to be (Didion, 148).  She reflects in Notes of a Native Daughter:

“Perhaps in retrospect this has been a story not about Sacramento at all, but about the things we lose and the promises we break as we grow older; perhaps I have been playing out unawares the Margaret in the poem:

Margaret, are you grieving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for (Didion, 186).”

Didion’s subjectivity, enhanced by Romanticism and Modern Journalism, renders Slouching Torwards Bethlehem an exploration not just of changing cultures or of separate observations, but of who she is and who she used to be.

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Wolfe: Capturing Subculture Through the Details

Tom Wolfe, a member of the New Journalism movement, in his novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, catalogs the experience of Ken Kesey and his followers, the Merry Pranksters, as they travel across the country in a bus doing acid, speed, and other drugs in search of new experiences. Wolfe “tried not only to tell what the Prankster’s did, but to recreate the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it, without which their adventure cannot be understood (Wolfe, Author’s note).” He achieves this goal by capturing their moods and their drug trips—portraying the world as he saw it through their eyes. He displays the wildness, the pranksters’ vivid experiences, and the quasi-religious aspects of their journeys. While Wolfe has been criticized for artificial style, he attempts to capture the experience through the writing style which he adopts as he guides the audience through the counter-cultural world.

Walter Kaufman, who wrote a detailed account of existentialism, characterized the Russian existentialist Dostoevsky’s writing in a manner that perfectly describes Wolfe’s stylistic choices. Kaufman notes that “The atmosphere of Dostoevsky’s Notes [From Underground] is not one of soft voices and dim lights: the voice could not be shriller, the light not more glaring (Kaufman, 15).” Dostoevsky wrote with intensity, focusing in on the pain and stubbornness of the main character to make his points about the problems with conformity. Wolfe’s development of the scene in relation to the characters, rather than an emphasis on the characters alone, creates the tone, drawing the reader in. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test intense colors and fluorescent light permeate the reader’s consciousness, forcing the reader into the Merry Pranksters’ drug induced perspective, allowing Wolfe to place the culture in its historical context.

Although Wolfe only took acid once before writing the book, he writes as though he actually experienced the drug induced sensations. With splashes of dizzying color, he paints the merry pranksters’ world in “explosive beams of sunball red and sunball silver-white” enhancing each scene with synesthesia and vivid images (Wolfe, 95). His writing centers primarily on conveying the atmosphere and thoughts which drive the members of the counter-culture, through his use of strange grammar, repeated words and phrases, and unusual punctuation. Through his stylistic choices Wolfe recreates life as seen by the pranksters, holding true to the characteristics of New Journalism and Realism. “The realist impulse as Tom Wolfe described it, is to show the reader real life, ‘Come here! Look! This is the way people live these days! These are the things they do! (Eason, 193)” Ultimately, Wolfe writes to describe the culture of the “Beautiful People” for the middle-Americans, for the people who would not even consider doing drugs— for the “mothers all over California, all over America [who] got to know the beautiful people letter by heart” and in whose hearts “instinctively [goes] up the adrenal shriek: beatniks, bums, spades- dope (Wolfe, 135).”

Dwight Macdonald in his essay Parajournalism or Tom Wolfe and his Magic Writing Machine, claims that Wolfe represents a new genre of writing known as “parajournalism [which] at its best [makes] no pretense of factuality but sketch[es] with humor and poignancy urban dilemmas that one recognizes as real(Macdonald, 225).” He goes on to note that characters within this style of writing “are not persons, but personae, (‘artificial characters in a play or novel’—or in parajournalistic reportage) which have been manufactured for public consumption with their enthusiastic cooperation. Notions of truth or accuracy are irrelevant in such a context of collusive fabrication on both sides; all that matters to anybody…is that it be a good story (Macdonald, 231).” While Wolfe did write The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with the cooperation of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Wolfe tries to capture a greater truth through his stylistic choices and his characterization of the drug-culture. Although Macdonald criticized Wolfe for his gaudy commercialization of counter-culture based on sensationalistic writing, as David Eason points out, the New Journalists were actually characterized by their use of “the image-world as a background for the significance of counter-culture, political campaigns and conventions, prison rebellions, executions, and other spectacular events (Eason, 191).” Wolfe insists in the author’s note that he was attempting to capture the “subjective reality” of the counterculture, the cultural and social impact interwoven with actual experience.

While it would be hard to call The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test true objective journalism, Wolfe was not purposefully turning the Merry Prankster’s into what Macdonald calls “kitsch,” or manufactured culture, but instead hoped to capture the atmosphere in the greater context of history and society. Wolfe’s portrayal of sub-culture through his development of scene lends truth to the culture he depicts. Macdonald also critiqued Wolfe’s unusual style. Noting that the Wolfe’s writing “is amusing if one reads it in the way it was written, hastily or loosely, skipping paragraphs, or pages when the jazzed up style and mock-sociological pronouncements become oppressive…Since elaboration rather than development are Wolfe’s forte, anything you miss will be repeated later, with bells on (225, Macdonald).” In some ways, Macdonald’s assessment holds true, because Wolfe’s writing often seems unnecessarily repetitive and detailed. However, without Wolfe’s distinct portrayal of the scene, the average middle-American reader would have less of an authentic idea of what it felt like to be there. Wolfe’s repetition of words and crazed use of punctuation enhance the reader’s understanding of the experience. While one could still glean the same story from the book without Wolfe’s unusual stylistic choices, the story seems more authentic because of them. Wolfe does not remain objective, but he does capture the true nature of the movement through extensive detail.

Wolfe holds a few views that are similar to the existentialists of the post-enlightenment and romantic periods in Europe. His approach to the Merry Pranksters parallels proto-existentialist Kierkegaard’s take on general society and organized religion. “Kierkegaard attacks the proud tradition of theology, ethics, and metaphysics as a kind of whistling in the dark, as self-deception, as an unrelenting effort to conceal crucial decisions that we have made and must make behind a web of wholly secondary, and at times invalid, demonstrations. (Kaufman, 17)” Wolfe often condescends to the pseudo-religious aspects of the counter-culture, examining them in-depth, but finding them lacking in substance beyond their extensive drug use. Wolfe repeatedly compares them to the beginnings organized religion. He “remembers puzzling over this…something so religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the prankster life, and yet one couldn’t put one’s finger on it. On the face of it, there was just a group of people who shared unusual psychological state, the LSD experience (Wolfe).” Wolfe goes on to indicate that other religious groups started out in nearly the same way—with individuals experiencing ecstatic revelations and sharing their experience with others. He claims, that “for all the Pranksters, as [he has] tried to show, the events in this book were both a group adventure and a personal exploration,” with many achieving insight on both levels (Author’s note, Wolfe). Although Wolfe recognizes the lack of lasting substance in many counter-cultures, Wolfe hoped to capture the significance and historic role of counter cultures. Wolfe’s sensationalistic writing makes it seem as though he is capitalizing on the “kitsch” factor of counter-culture in order to sell novels to middle-America, but Wolfe also seems to believe in the genuine experiences that each prankster went through. However, he also notes the void left after the drugs are removed from the scene. Wolfe’s criticism of the validity of the movement is similar to Nietzsche’s criticism of the enlightenment, which could be considered a counter-cultural movement. Nietzsche felt that the dogged rationalism of the enlightenment, which replaced Christianity, left a void similar to that of the drugs for the Merry Pranksters. For Nietzsche, scientific thought replaced Christianity without providing a new moral code. For the Merry Pranksters, the lack of drugs and shared LSD experiences, made their movement meaningless beyond the transcendental phrases which they spouted at every opportunity.

Wolfe writes for the middle-American, bringing understanding for a culture which they cannot comprehend. While he clearly writes to entertain, he also writes to inform, establishing the role of counter-culture in society, and demonstrating its impermanence as well as its cyclical reoccurrence. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test reflects Eason’s belief that “social reality may indeed be bizarre, but it poses no threat to established ways of knowing and communicating (Eason, 194).” Whereas other books at the time portrayed the drug-culture as the ruin of society, Wolfe indicates that counter-culture appears again and again, but is conquered by the mainstream each time.


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Impressions of “Notes of a Native Son”

In the first couple of essays in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, it seems as though Baldwin valued his own ideas and opinions over the narrative, where a balance of the two would have been more enjoyable for the reader. The reader’s opinion however, seems to be only an afterthought for Baldwin, a disregard that both strengthens the book by allowing Baldwin to write freely, unencumbered by outside opinions, and weakens the book because at times it neglects the essays narrative. In some parts of the book, Baldwin seems to insert as many of his ideas as possible. As a result, it was harder to grasp Baldwin’s overall intent for some of the first essays. In the later essays however, Baldwin better weaves his ideas into the narrative and because the story line reflects these ideas, they have more impact. Langston Hughes, in a review of Notes of a Native Son, found Baldwin’s writing “thought-provoking, tantalizing, irritating, abusing, and amusing,” and overall the collection of Baldwin’s essays lives up to this assessment. Baldwin presents unusual observations on society, what it means to be of a certain race, and what it means to be an American. His ideas stand out because they are told from the point of view of a man on the periphery examining a culture that should be his own.

As an author in the late 1950’s, Baldwin is unique in that he “depended on neither the white world nor the black world,” but instead made observations without regard to either (Baldwin, Reflections of a Maverick). In isolating himself from both worlds, he learns more about himself as he also comes closer to his goal of making “the concept of color obsolete (Baldwin, Reflections of a Maverick).” Notes of a Native Son stands out from other literature and documentaries about the same era because Baldwin does not seek the reader’s pity for black people or for himself, nor does he gloss over his less than amiable emotions.  He not only gives the reader insight into the pain of being black during this time, but also illustrates the complexity and depth of emotion within himself. Baldwin admits that a waitress’s refusal to serve him, although stated “with a note of apology in her voice” made him grow “colder and more murderous than ever (Baldwin, 96).”  In relating this story, Baldwin eschews the sentimentality, “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, [which] is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel (Baldwin, 14).” He readily criticizes this sentimentality in “protest novels,” which often reduce the subjects to caricatures comparable to the static characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Baldwin, 13). Baldwin avoids manipulating the reader into pity, sympathy, or guilt, as the author of a protest novel might attempt to do, and instead seeks recognition as a human in his range of emotions and experiences.

Langston Hughes, in his review of Notes of a Native Son suggests “that Baldwin’s viewpoints are half American, half Afro-American, incompletely fused…a hurdle which Baldwin himself realizes he still has to surmount.” Hughes proposes that when Baldwin overcomes the challenge of fusing the two, that Baldwin will become “a straight-from-the-shoulder writer, writing about the troubled problems of this troubled earth with an illuminating intensity that should influence for the better all who ponder on the things books say.” Although Baldwin fails to unite the two worlds, his detachment from both provides insight into what it means to be an American. Baldwin believes assimilation is the true goal of Americans—that the “American ideal…is that everyone should be as much alike as possible (Baldwin, 65).” Norman Mailer partially echoes this view, claiming that society is divided among the conformists and the non-conformists—the hipsters. Mailer however, romanticizes the role of the Negro in society, claiming that they avoid the pressures of a conformist society with the ever pressing threat of death or the oppression of expression. Baldwin disagrees with Mailer, point out that “a Negro learns to gauge precisely what reaction the alien person facing him desires, and … produces it with disarming artlessness” as a result of the dangers of society (Baldwin, 68). Mailer depicts the hipster, who he identifies with, as a product of society as well—“a new breed of adventurer who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts” (Mailer, The White Negro), but makes light of the struggles that Baldwin and other black people at the time faced.

Having never really thought in depth about what it meant to be an American, I always assumed that being an American was about having the right to be an individual, to criticize, to protest, to practice your own beliefs. What Baldwin insists, however, is that much of America would prefer that everyone were the same because differences make us uncomfortable. Baldwin forces the reader to acknowledge that some of the people who consider themselves the most patriotic, the vehement proclaimers of “’Merica,” are more than just a caricature of our society. America was once called a melting pot, a blend of cultures that became something completely original. While this idea, this exchange of cultures, seems ideal, what Baldwin depicts, is more of a forced culture loss—an America in which “any minority identified by the color of its skin and the texture of its hair… eventually grows self-conscious about these attributes and avoids” using products that emphasize their differences, but instead searches for ways to become more like the majority (Baldwin, 65). However, while assimilation is normal, there are many different groups and many cultures that retain their own characteristics and practices while living in America.

Although Baldwin has been criticized for writing about black culture after fleeing to Europe, the new perspective he attains while in France allows him to further understand himself and the differing worlds back in America. It also reduces the temptation to write sentimentally. “From the vantage point of Europe, he [discovered] his own country (Baldwin, 137).” While in France, Baldwin points out the paradoxical role of Americans in the world. In the United States Americans seem to wish to be a part of the same culture, to fit into society. While they are abroad, Baldwin suggests that Americans are resistant to being lumped together with American ideas and stereotypes such as the “Marshall Plan, Hollywood, the Yankee dollar, television, or Senator McCarthy (Baldwin, 129).” What Baldwin seems to be referring back to is the problem of historical background the “depthless alienation from one’s self and one’s people [which] is, in sum, the American experience (Baldwin, 123).” He implies that Americans have separated themselves from their history and therefore attempt to become a part of whichever society they live in.

Baldwin also makes some striking if not merely cynical observations about America politics. He proposes that while most of America is said to distrust politicians,

“of all Americans, Negroes distrust politicians most, or more accurately, they have been best trained to expect nothing from them;[because] more than other Americans, they are always aware of the enormous gap between election promises and their daily lives. It is true that the promises excite them, but this is not because they are taken as proof of good intentions. They are the proof of something more concrete than intentions: that the Negro situation is not static, that changes have occurred and are occurring, and will occur (Baldwin, 73).”

He expands upon this idea by noting that “in the struggle for mastery, the Negro is the pawn (Baldwin, 74).” Baldwin points out an idea that holds true for today’s politics. The minority groups, the people who are in need, the people who have a specific goal, are often used as pawns because they are the people with the most to lose or to gain. Politicians can decide whether to take a possibly profitable risk and endorse the goals of a minority group or to make them promises—or—they can withhold their views and refrain from action in order to hold onto the votes of a different group. This happens in politics every day, and while I would like to believe that Baldwin is wrong, that all politicians sincerely believe in the groups they make promises to, it would be naïve to believe that strategy never affects politicians’ decisions in regard to minority groups.

Through his writing Baldwin began to find his identity—who he is in relation to society, as an American, and as a human. Baldwin believed that “when you’re writing you’re trying to find out something you don’t know…what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out (Baldwin, Paris Review).”  In the autobiographical essays of Notes of a Native Son Baldwin reluctantly finds his identity and his past. The essays are powerful because as Baldwin states in an interview with the Paris Review, he did not allow himself “to be defined by other people, white or black. It was beneath [him] to blame anybody for what happened to [him]. What happened to [Baldwin] was [his] responsibility (Paris review, Baldwin).”

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September 26, 2012 · 4:26 pm

In Cold Blood:Both Sensationalistic and Meaningful

In Cold Blood, a journalistic novel, written by Truman Capote in the early 1960’s, captures the murder of a respected family of four and the murder’s impact on an idyllic Kansas town and its residents. Capote takes advantage of his readers’ morbid curiosity, creating suspense within the novel by withholding the gruesome details for as long as possible. While some people, such as Tom Wolfe, have criticized Capote for his exploitation of violent tragedy, Capote actually capitalizes on his readers’ interest in the murders to comment on the way humanity enjoys gawking at tragedies, to force the reader to sympathize with the murderers, and to relate his opinion on capital punishment. Overall the book is more forceful because Capote contrasts this illusion-shattering violence with a calm Americana town and a relatable middle-class family, and because he uses characters and their dialogue to represent his own opinions and overarching truths about mortality.

Writer Tom Wolfe, a well-known member of the “New Journalism” movement, criticized In Cold Blood, in an essay entitled “Porno-violence,” for exploiting the same morbid interest which Capote depicts several times within the book. Wolfe suggests that Capote’s work is a part of a new genre of sensationalistic literature and film that draws in readers with the promise of a cheap thrill. While Capote undoubtedly exploits the audience’s interest in the deaths to make the novel more successful and to heighten suspense, he also explores themes regarding the darker sides of humanity, occasionally even making light of the sensationalism which popularized the book. The universal themes which Capote addresses, albeit addressed partially through the use of graphic scenes, ultimately make In Cold Blood more meaningful than the violent films and flashy headlines which Wolfe disgustedly compares the book to.

Wolfe argues that what makes a work “porno-violence…is that in almost every case the camera angle, therefore the viewer, is with the gun, the fist, the rock (Wolfe, 184).” What Wolfe accusingly points out—about Capote’s unusual use of perspective—actually increases  the impact of the book overall.  Capote intends for the reader to understand the murderers, to see what they saw, to experience their emotions during the murder. While we follow Perry, one of the two murderers, into the house and witness the murder, we also experience Perry’s shame, his lack of intention, and the mental disturbances which caused him to murder the Clutters. Wolfe notes that in this narrative style, “no matter whose side you may be on consciously, you are in fact with the muscle, and it is you who disintegrate all comers, villains, lawmen, women, anybody(Wolfe, 184).” Capote uses this style partially to build suspense but largely to force the readers to empathize with the characters, who might—under the direction of Kansas newspapers and local opinion—usually be considered villains.

In an interview with George Plimpton, Capote admits that he believes “that capital crimes should all be handled by Federal Courts, and that those convicted should be imprisoned in a special Federal prison where, conceivably, a life-sentence could mean, as it does not in state courts, just that.” His opinion on capital punishment, that the death penalty is morally wrong, becomes a theme within the book. For instance, Capote paints Perry as a victim of circumstance, someone to be pitied rather than reviled—an unusual take on developing a murderer’s character—and through Perry’s experiences and dialogue, Capote relates the injustice of capital punishment, a theme present in the dialogue of other characters as well. Perry’s inner dialogue allows the reader to see that he never really intended to murder any of the Clutters, but that as detective Dewey notes, “the crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act,” a fact that induces sympathy for Perry who—in today’s society—might be labeled criminally insane, and would thus be immune from the death penalty (Capote, 245). Capote further builds on the theme of the injustice of capital punishment through the dialogue of one of the townspeople, who points out the hypocrisy of the death penalty. You can practically hear Capote speaking through the words of defense attorney, Harrison Smith who summarizes Capote’s view that “[Capital punishment] is a relic of human barbarism. The law tells us that the taking of human life is wrong, then goes ahead and sets the example. Which is almost as wicked as the crime it punished…[It] merely cheapens human life and gives rise to more murders (Capote, 303 ).” By choosing to elaborate on the diagnosis of a court appointed psychologist near the end of the book, Capote further illustrates the injustice of the process in determining Perry’s sentence to death. Perry demonstrates that he never intended to kill Mr. Clutter, in fact Perry seemed to respect Mr. Clutter until the very moment Perry slit Mr. Clutter’s throat. Instead, both Perry Smith’s mental illness and his turbulent upbringing cause him to murder Mr. Clutter without even realizing what he is doing. Ultimately Capote wants the reader to conclude that,

“Perry wasn’t an evil person, [and that] if he’d had any chance in life, things would have been different. But every illusion he’d ever had, well, they all evaporated, so that on that night he was so full of self-hatred and self-pity that…he would have killed somebody—perhaps not that night, or the next. You can’t go through life without ever getting anything you want, ever (Plimpton, 19).”

Dick Hickock, the other murder, contrasts sharply in personality and background with Perry.  Whereas “Perry Smith’s life had been… an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another,” Dick’s life seems to have contained fewer influences on his criminal history (Capote, 246). Of the two men, Dick is the cold, insensitive one, whereas Perry is delicate, and emotionally vulnerable. Perry grew up in a violent family, which he watched fall apart, and with a father he eventually isolated himself from.  Dick however, had a relatively stable family which he goes to visit on occasion and he grew up with reasonable opportunities. He mentions that while he was tougher than Perry, Perry was mentally unstable enough to kill someone, whereas Dick, under most circumstances, would be unable to actually commit murder.  By contrasting the two men, Capote garners more sympathy for Perry.

One aspect of the book that I found particularly intriguing was Capote’s exploration of the darkness of the human mind, the desire to “see a man get his head blown off,” and to talk endlessly about and relive tragedy (Wolfe, 184).  Capote illustrates this morbid interest by depicting the gossips that gather around the local restaurants greedy for information and the crowd that eagerly waits in the square for the delivery of the two murderers to the jail, awaiting their arrival as if “expecting a parade or attending a political rally (Capote, 247).” The more they discuss the murders, the less real the events seem, and when the crowd finally sees the murderers, it falls “silent, as though amazed to find them humanly shaped (Capote, 248).” While Capote remains more observant than critical about human nature at this point, he does make light of the sensationalistic atmosphere and the resulting headlines which “raised rounds of laughter” among the townspeople due to over-dramatic titles such as “Fear Lynch Mob Awaiting Return of Suspects (Capote, 247).”

Capote explores other themes in the book as well which create lasting impact, unlike works which—to Wolfe’s disdain—momentarily entertain, but are readily forgotten.  Perry’s search for normalcy, his desire to attain something meaningful for the first time, ends in the “collision of two worlds” in which “someone had to pay,” a theme present throughout the book. While Capote suggests in an interview with George Plimpton that many readers thought “of the book as a reflection on American life, this collision between the desperate, ruthless, wandering, savage part of American life, and the other, which is insular and safe(Plimpton, 19).” He believes In Cold Blood “has struck them because there is something so awfully inevitable about what is going to happen: the people in the book are completely beyond their own control (Plimpton, 19).” However, the book has an even greater effect because–although Capote does not admit this in the interview–his audience is Middle America, a group which the iconic Clutter family represents. The book is so striking to most readers because it attacks their sheltered world. It is not so much that the Clutters are out of the readers’ control, but that the readers must realize that their own mortality is beyond their own control as well, a fact that Capote emphasizes several times throughout the book.

Capote writes well throughout the book and uses suspense masterfully, making the book interesting and fast paced. Although some details, such as the scene with Perry carefully watching the two feral cats, seem too convenient, too aptly metaphorical to be completely factual, I believe Capote did his best to remain true to the original story. However, I would consider In Cold Blood more artistic and subjective than objective and journalistic because of the opinion-influenced choices that Capote makes about which details to include and what to include about characters and within dialogue.

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