When Whitman Sells Denim

November 22, 2009

Sorry for the recent scarcity of posts — the semester is winding down, and spare writing time will be pretty slim until mid-December. But in the meantime, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity…

In the 1930s, German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  In it, he talks about the loss of “aura” (authenticity, uniqueness) when art is reproduced and distributed en masse, appropriated by what fellow critic Theodore Adorno would call “the culture industry” for political or economic purposes, rather than aesthetic ones.

When that happens, has it ceased to be art (or literature)?

Bringing this debate up to the present, I recently came across an interesting discussion posted by Alexander Russo at This Week in Education: Poetry in Ads: Can We Live With It? and the related Levi’s Uses Rare Walt Whitman Recording To Sell Jeans. See video.

So does poetry lose its aura once it has been inculcated with a message for consumers?  I think there are several possible answers. On one hand, the advertisers are attempting to raise their product to the level of something artistic, powerfully American, and poetic. On the other hand, they are forging another link in the minds of consumers between art and consumption.

On one hand, they are acknowledging the power of the spoken word; on the other, they are, one could argue, debasing that power by employing a great poet to sell a pair of jeans. But then again, is this any different than hiring talented writers to inscribe Hallmark cards and magazine ads?

It’s worth considering. And to re-quote Seth Stevenson of Slate Magazine: “At least it’s not all about sex.”


A Bit of Fun

October 16, 2009

This week, my studies have been heavy on abstract, philosophical thought. In defense, I have resorted to a Lewis-Carrollian attempt to add a bit of lightness to the study of Walter Benjamin, David Lynch, and William Blake. Enjoy!

When Benjamin Met Lynch and Blake

When Benjamin met Lynch and Blake
They all went out for tea,
Except that Blake re-named the cakes,
And Lynch forgot the brie.

“No problem, friend,” said Blake to Lynch,
“I have this pound cake here.
But since the name has now been changed
We’ll eat it all as ‘Prear’!”

“Except, dear sir,” said Benjamin,
“There’s not enough for three.”
“But wait! But wait!” cried David Lynch
“Mix dirt in with the tea!

The taste, you’ll find, is not unlike
A bit of blood and worms:
Quite suited for the appetite
Of men who’ve come to terms.”

“He has a point,” said Benjamin,
“The aura is quite rare.”
“Well then, let’s dreat,” said William Blake,
“And sup this glooging fare.”

Since glooging fit the mood by chance,
They all agreed to “dreat”
And when they’d dreaten all the prear,
They called it quite a treat.

But after all was cleared away,
A feeling strange came on,
And William Blake asked David Lynch,
“That dirt you chose – a pond?”

“A puddle, Will,” said David Lynch
“With scum that has no peer!”
“Aha,” said Benjamin to Blake,
“At last it’s all come clear.

The sounds that whistle round our guts
Are not the Future’s art.
Instead, quite simply, what we hear
Is nothing but the start…

It’s Lynch’s first film coming true,
Except not six but three.
You see, our skills are better spent
On books than fixing tea.”


Twitter, Wit, and Elizabeth

July 13, 2009

To many, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Sidney seem as far removed from modern society as crème brûlée is from peanut butter and jelly.

A few conventions of modern society convince me to argue otherwise.

Like Twitter. Bear with me.

England in the late sixteenth century enjoyed “an impressive, widespread growth in literacy; an educational system that trained its students to be highly sensitive to rhetorical effects; a social and political taste for elaborate display…and a vibrant, restless intellectual culture” (Will in the World, Greenblatt).

What are the characteristics of the United States in the twenty-first century? More and more young adults attend college, creating if not a vibrant, then certainly a restless intellectual culture, particularly as more and more college graduates find themselves without a job that uses ingenuity or creativity.

One side effect, I think, is a re-awakening taste for wit in the social realm. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the newest social networking phenomenon is called tWITter.

The exchange of brief, one-sided dialogues has progressed from instant messenger to Facebook to texting and Twitter. Humor and wit are the name of the game. And it is a game. These media are ideally suited for banter: light, quick-witted one-upmanship.

One difference is the skill for which Elizabethan courtiers were known. “Courtiers were highly gifted at crafting and deciphering graceful words with double or triple meanings” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol.1) Their wordplay was born of cultural necessity. The upper classes were classically trained in rhetorical devices, and court intrigue demanded careful speech.

Perhaps the United States lacks both of those spurs to rhetorical training. Perhaps social networking is becoming more attention-seeking and self-serving. Perhaps, though, we are also returning to a simple enjoyment of language’s subtleties and possibilities.

And lest we fall too deeply in love with the PB&J to the exclusion of fine cuisine, I think we have to ask the question, are these phenomena unique to our society?

My answer? Not a bit.

Or should I say, not a whit.

Or a twhit.


Literati in the World Scoops NPR

July 7, 2009

…who is just now running the story (At Newspaper, Poets Report for a Day) that I wrote about last week (When Literati Write the News). And I thought I was late!

I know, I know–but it makes me feel accomplished. This is probably the only time I will be able to make this claim.


Heroes Need Mentors Too

May 14, 2009

“The language describes the true nature of things, not the superficial aspects that everyone sees.” – Eragon

“I’ve told you. A Namer has to know who people are, and who they are meant to be.” – A Wind in the Door

I have a high standard for fantasy, formed by my early exposure to the creative stylings of J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle, followed by C.S. Lewis, Star Wars, Ursula LeGuin, and J.K. Rowling, then Philip Pullman. After years of recommendations for Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, I picked up the book at a library book sale and, three months later, have finally begun to read it. 

This is not a book review. This is not a critical comparison to earlier authors. As I read, what I notice more and more are the commonalities in fantasy, and I have begun to wonder if they are, in fact, inevitable.

  • High fantasy is concerned with the purity of language and its deterioration over time.
  • Fantasy acknowledges a connection between name and being.
  • Young heroes must break decisively with their past, often through violence done to a loved one.
  • Young heroes require tutelage from an older, more experienced person, often a father-figure.
  • A period of respite, often traveling, trains the hero, through minor conflicts, for a final confrontation. 
  • A defining moment in the hero’s journey occurs when the guide steps aside or is killed.

The pattern is not rigid or complete, and there are certainly exceptions; however, many of these characteristics are present in some form. But why? I have spent some time researching and writing about the question of language, so this time, I was particularly interested in the role of the teacher. 

Fantasy is built on the premise of worlds fundamentally different from our own. For the sake of continuity and immersion, the author cannot step in and define the rules of his or her world. To do so would acknowledge them as creations and thus alienate the reader, making suspension of disbelief nearly impossible.

The teacher, however, can do what the author cannot. Sometimes the hero, as in Harry Potter, is actually in school to learn about his new world. Sometimes, as in The Golden Compass, the hero has a variety of tutors. And sometimes, facilitated by a physical journey toward the climactic conflict, a single mentor completes the task.

What if there were no teacher?

First, the hero would have to uncover the metaphysics of the world experientially or empirically. S/he could never be certain that a spell or type of magic would work. Imagine Eragon exclaiming, “Go fire, go. Fly!” Like Spiderman in Spider-Man 2, when his powers deserted him, the hero would be left to seek counsel for “a friend” at the local psychologist’s office.

Without established wisdom, the hero would never know if evil could be destroyed, or how to do it. There could be no comfort of final victory for the reader either, rendering the story similar to an endless cycle of comic book villains and summer popcorn flick sequels. 

Apparently, heroes need mentors too.


Literary Pigs, Unite!

May 11, 2009

Check out this link via The Point: Barnyard reign of terror halted…and other unexpected results of the swine flu (originally from John Mark Reynolds in The Scriptorium). Brilliant.

Circe & pigs

Pumbaa, you’re next. Trust no one. Not even Timon.

Circe – if you want to avoid a government embargo, you might need to choose another animal the next time Odysseus stops by.

And Homer? You might want to send Spider-Pig back before the third episode comes along and he learns about his dark side…


We No Longer Go Gentle

January 13, 2009

Sunset North Island, NZDeath is an uncomfortable, disorienting subject for many. The words are insufficient when talking to someone who has lost a loved one. Perhaps that is why the topic is chosen so often by poets, who use words to approach emotion. Perhaps that is also why Americans turn to poetry when they confront death.

For this reason I have chosen The Dying of the Light, an article by Craig Bowron recently published in the Washington Post, for the next ProfoundNet.  In it, the author discusses the “calamity of so long life” (to quote Hamlet) that Americans face, alleviated, but also sometimes prolonged by modern science. The article professes to give no answers, but it challenges readers to think about the American obsession with immortality. 

The title is taken from a well-known and oft-quoted poem by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, called “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” written just after World War II. Here’s the first stanza of the poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In the poem, good men, wise men, wild men, and grave men all must face the reality of death. In a bleak postwar era, the poet urges men to resist sinking easily toward death. Today, the opposite trend exists, and it is no longer called “that good night.” 

Bowron’s article poetically describes the dilemma facing Americans:

“Everyone wants to grow old and die in his or her sleep, but the truth is that most of us will die in pieces. Most will be nibbled to death by piranhas, and the piranhas of senescence are wearing some very dull dentures. […] This isn’t about euthanasia. It’s not about spiraling health care costs. It’s about the gift of life — and death. It is about living life and death with dignity, and letting go.”

Citing illness, discontent, and the frail quality of life, a character in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure makes a poignant observation: “What’s yet in this that bears the name of life? Yet in that life lie hid more thousand deaths. Yet death, we fear.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet wrestles with the same incongruency. 

I am left with a lingering question. If, as poets and authors for centuries have recognized, we fear death, why is it so much easier to throw energy into fighting the inevitable than to consider the underlying reasons for our fear? 

Thanks, Craig, for your thought-provoking article.