What JJ’s Reading and Being Confounded By

30 11 2010

. . .mostly news and commentary, mostly online, although the other night I did finish the latest Grisham legal thriller in real book form, with a hard cover and paper pages. It reminded me of a true story of my own and of the book, Bonfire of the Vanities — all about the power of conflicting stories full of both truthful fiction and factual fakes, stories that compete to confound us into real rage and real riots in our streets, but to no real (much less happy) end either as individual persons or as The People.

I am both aflame and unable to stop shivering.

“For all its apparent realism, Mr. Wolfe’s novel is not realistic. A 650-page narrative in which it is almost impossible to find a character who experiences a generous impulse or acts out of a generous motive may be said, in fact, to defy realism.”

As our new century’s political storms rage on and the light is dying, we can rage, rage back against it, and against each other. We certainly have the right to live our mutual lives as satire in the streets.

But if this reviewer was right, Tolstoy offers us the more enlightened lesson of problem-solving in a storm . . .

So what I’m reading is always a story with power but which story are we in, these days? And which story has the power? The more I read, the harder it is to know. Seems that as our stories and their power implode, power of story increasingly is all about power of story itself:

In a democracy, people have a right to know what their government is actually doing. In a pseudo-democracy, a bunch of fairy tales from high places will do the trick.

And here’s a perversely self-referential example, in which a book review takes a book about books to task for being a book in the first place (I think?)

“We come to books,” David L. Ulin writes in “The Lost Art of Reading,” “to be challenged and confounded, made to question our assumptions.”

. . .All of which is true enough, but that’s precisely the problem.
. . .There are too many books . . .

Richard Dreyfuss might disagree, unless the books at issue are the cynically corporate school textbooks he despises for confusing and confounding the “ideas of America” that bind us together in one civic identity. He advocates public education built on “exercises of the intellect” like reason, clarity of thought, logic, civility, etc. As a curious post-partisan I’ve read and written about his initiative before, and he’s on cable news right now too. (Oh, he just cited my favorite confounding education author, Howard Gardner!)

Dreyfuss is saying we’ll get chaos and eventually blood, or else we’ll get his power of story and read an inspirational book called America the Beautiful by Sri Chinmoy. Or more accurately, listen to it as downloadable audio released yesterday.

I had my own critic for my own true story, years after I told it at Culture Kitchen. A stranger commenting as “Judge Mental” indicted me as partly culpable in my own street riot (this was both true and false, both right and wrong, both fact and fiction) and observed that my “story was missing some pieces.” Aren’t they all!

So I’ll keep reading, but damned if I know anymore how to read power of story or what to write about it.

And no basement makes a good environment for books, too damp and dark, much less for booklovers . . . surviving a hurricane with windows boarded up and no power so not even enough light to read, actually is a LOT like hunkering down in the basement for the storm’s duration, just waiting for it to pass.

Better to see and know the storm is coming, prepare well, help your neighbors, or move to safety if you decide that’s best for your family, etc. Just running to the basement (even if we had one) isn’t much of a storm survival plan . . .

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11 responses

1 12 2010
Lynn

What a coincidence. Lately, you’ve been reading confounding commentary – and I’ve been writing it. 🙂

I wanted to like Richard Dreyfuss’ Initiative, but it seems a little naive. Or is just because I watch cable news opinion programs, which makes big sound small and small, big? (Although the schooling of culture war must exist on some level as ours is aiding and abetting Franklin Graham’s Operation Christmas Child again this year – and, yesterday, daughter’s history sub was proselytizing in class…)

1 12 2010
JJ

It’s all distorted, isn’t it? — in school or out. Big is diminished, while small is conflated if not exploded (like confetti, if not guts.)

Someone on the cable news you and I are probably watching too much of, said that Sarah Palin’s immediate comment about the wikileaks was just so “small.” (She compared it to keeping her own book contents confidential until the publishing date, and said if she could do it, the president should be able to but obviously couldn’t.)

1 12 2010
JJ

And of course corporate money is behind most of it in both directions.

1 12 2010
Lynn

Is it just wishful thinking or are conservative pundits and politicians being more publicly critical of Palin? Or is it that I’m just watching cable news programs that diminish, conflate and tell me what I want to hear?

Not to hammer on Dreyfuss but I was a little surprised by what he said about knowing nothing about the “wiki-thing” — and not following news, figuring “if something big happened, somebody would surely tell him about it” (loosely quoted). Dare I suggest that he sounds a little Palinesque? Though, at least, he seems to be aware of the nature of our many problems (clashing worldviews), which is something.

By the way, “Judge Mental” is a clever moniker but I wasn’t impressed with his unprovoked, out-of-the-blue attack on your retelling of the unprovoked, out-of-the-blue attack suffered by you and your husband. How frightening – and sobering – and life altering. I’m so sorry you went through that.

1 12 2010
JJ

Thanks, Lynn. He missed a key piece that WAS there, that the Car was a classic Freudian symbol from start to finish, first of my attacker’s inchoate rage and then (pretty naturally) of mine in response. That the Car was the lead character in our human drama was such an obvious true yet also false fact. (It wasn’t ever really about the Car.) Also the police officers were there solely because of Cars, seeing their “serve the public” job as directing traffic, much more [absurdly] so than as serving and protecting actual people, who were an annoyance to be bullied into compliance with their smooth-flow playbook.

Although I still wonder why the Car being stopped in the middle of traffic while its driver and passengers got out to beat up pedestrians, wasn’t at least worth a traffic citation! 😉

My Judge Mental commentator also seems to have missed that my story was about irrational, uncontrollable rage on both our parts. That rage begets rage in human beings no matter how civilized, sooner or later. None of us is immune although I sure thought I was until it (literally) hit me.

What still astonishes me is that the original incident took place when I was newly pregnant with now-15-year-old Young Son. Yet it’s a story rich with currency on so many levels. Take the Rand Paul thugs who knocked down the woman they then stepped on, to grind her into the pavement. Take TSA searches, in which officious government “public servants” embarrass and infuriate us both individually and collectively. They focus on transportation concerns rather than human sensibility, by violating us because their rulebook says to and blaming us as the problem if we dare protest.

And he missed that the whole scene that day for all us characters, was about School, not the usual take-to-the-streets politics or religion.

1 12 2010
JJ

About the Dreyfuss Initiative, I see it as akin to Philip K. Smith’s Common Good initiative. I don’t know how much reform can come directly from such attempts but if you believe the cognitive psychology we talk about here so often, it does eventually make a difference to a story’s effective power, for it to be repeated and echoed and integrated with other tellings, to perform whole symphonies of meaning in concert rather than just whistling alone past the graveyard to make yourself feel better for one scary moment.

(Btw, I read recently that George Soros is looking at how to help fund progressives to do that better.)

1 12 2010
JJ
15 12 2010
Crimson Wife

I’m currently reading Neil Postman’s Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education. It has a copyright date of 1988 but it’s amazing how prescient he was about politics, propaganda, education, the media, etc.

Next up in the queue is Roger Schank’s The Connoisseur’s Guide to the Mind, which I believe J.J. was the one who recommended it to me.

Ever since the county library’s massive book giveaway in September, I’ve made it a priority to read the older titles on my “to read” list. I don’t want them taken out of circulation & given away before I get the chance to read them!

15 12 2010
JJ

CW, how excellent! I’m so glad you’re taking that approach and I’d love to talk about your reading. Yours isn’t the Postman we passed around copies of, “The End of Education” — does he emphasizes power of story in it, too?

From Library Journal review of The End of Education:
. . .Sharp, witty, and frequently quotable, he demolishes many leading popular themes as lacking in meaning. Education without spiritual content or, as he puts it, without a myth or narrative to sustain and motivate, is education without a purpose. That purpose used to be democracy and could still be, if only we were willing to look for the elements that unite rather than separate. . .

Postman offers a number of positive and uplifting themes around which a new education philosophy could be formulated, some of which are far-fetched or extreme but nonetheless interesting.

15 12 2010
Crimson Wife

Yep, same Neil Postman who wrote The End of Education and Amusing Ourselves to Death. He very much was into the power of story. The first essay in the book I’m currently reading is entitled “Social Science as Moral Theology”. Here’s an excerpt:

“I call the work [of social scientists] storytelling because this suggests that an author has given a unique interpretation to a set of human events, that he has supported his interpretation with examples in various forms, and that his interpretation cannot be proved or disproved but draws its appeal from the power of its language, the depth of its explanations, the relevance of its examples, and the credibility of its theme. And that all of this has an identifiable moral purpose. The words ‘true’ and ‘false’ do not apply here in the sense that they are used in mathematics or science. For there is nothing universally and irrevocably true or false about these interpretations. They are bound by time, by situation, and above all by the cultural prejudices of the researcher. Quite like a piece of fiction….

Both the novelist and the social researcher construct their stories by use of archetypes and metaphors. Cervantes, for example, gave us the enduring archetype of the incurable dreamer and idealist in Don Quixote. The social historian Marx gave us the archetype of the ruthless and greedy capitalist….

What I am driving at is this: Once we rid ourselves of the false notion that we are scientists and accept the idea that we are among our culture’s most important tellers of social tales…creators and narrators of social myth…to put forward metaphors, images, and ideas that can help people live with some measure of understanding and dignity.”

Very interesting stuff!

15 12 2010
Crimson Wife

Oops, I skipped a portion of the last paragraph. It should read:

“Once we rid ourselves of the false notion that we are scientists and accept the idea that we are among our culture’s most important tellers of social tales…creators and narrators of social myth…the answer to the question I began with [what is the purpose of social research] is to put forward metaphors, images, and ideas that can help people live with some measure of understanding and dignity.”

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