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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

25 MARCH, 2014

Flannery O’Connor on Why the Grotesque Appeals to Us, Plus a Rare Recording of Her Reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

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“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”

Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) is among the titans of twentieth-century literature (in addition to being a lesser-known satirical cartoonist). In 1960, O’Connor penned an essay titled “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” eventually included in the altogether fantastic posthumous collection of her unpublished lectures, essays, and critical articles, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (public library). While the essay focuses on Southern literature, it touches on a number of bigger questions in all literature, most crucially how the qualifiers and variables attached to a writer — in this case, religion and regional geography — affect the writerliness of the writer. (At the heart of the inquiry is the same concern Margaret Atwood had decades later in examining how and whether being a “woman writer” impacts being a writer.)

In this rare recording, taped at the Dorothy Lamar Blount Lecture Series at Wesleyan College the year the essay was published, O’Connor reads a portion of an early draft of the piece. Highlights from the full final version, including the passage O’Connor reads, below.

I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it will be in hearing what they can witness to and not what they can theorize about. My own approach to literary problems is very like the one Dr. Johnson’s blind housekeeper used when she poured tea — she put her finger inside the cup.

These are not times when writers in this country can very well speak for one another. . . . Today each writer speaks for himself, even though he may not be sure that his work is important enough to justify his doing so.

[…]

When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic. But for this occasion, we may leave such misapplications aside and consider the kind of fiction that may be called grotesque with good reason, because of a directed intention that way on the part of the author.

In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected. It is this kind of realism that I want to consider.

All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.

[…]

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

(More than half a century later, Neil Gaiman explored the grip of ghosts in a beautiful related meditation.)

O’Connor goes on to consider another explanation for the singular sensibility of the Southern writer:

There is another reason in the Southern situation that makes for a tendency toward the grotesque and this is the prevalence of good Southern writers. I think the writer is initially set going by literature more than by life. When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion. The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.

The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets. . . .

For the kind of writer I have been describing, a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have to have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness.

She reflects on what amplifies the appeal of the grotesque in fiction:

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees.

O’Connor offers a broader meditation on why we read:

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

She follows this with a mirror-image question of why writers write and, echoing Eudora Welty on the poetic of place, ties this back to the regional roots of literature:

I am often told that the model of balance for the novelist should be Dante, who divided his territory up pretty evenly between hell, purgatory, and paradise. There can be no objection to this, but also there can be no reason to assume that the result of doing it in these times will give us the balanced picture that it gave in Dante’s. Dante lived in the thirteenth century, when that balance was achieved in the faith of his age. We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.

[…]

The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to big work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region.

And just for good measure, here is O’Connor reading the title story of her most celebrated collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, published in 1955. The recording, found on the Criterion Collection disc Wise Blood, was long believed to be the only recording of O’Connor reading, though the one above clearly disproves the case.

Mystery and Manners is a terrific tome in its entirety. Complement it with young O’Connor’s little-known satirical cartoons.

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25 MARCH, 2014

Toy Stories: Photos of Children from Around the World with Their Favorite Things

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A visual catalog of the culturally-conditioned imagination.

“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real,” MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin wrote in her fantastic design history of childhood. Largely responsible for this singular capacity are children’s remarkably metaphor-ready minds which transform toys into triggers for imaginative play, imbuing those seemingly simple plastic artifacts and synthetic-furred beings with life and meaning — a hallmark of childhood that cuts across cultural differences, geographies, and socioeconomic status. That’s precisely what photojournalist Gabriele Galimberti explores in Toy Stories: Photos of Children from Around the World and Their Favorite Things (public library) — a visual record of his two-and-a-half-year-long quest to document what boys and girls in 58 countries, from India to Iceland to China to Malawi, consider their most prized earthly possessions.

For each photograph he took, Galimberti spent the entire day with the families. In many cases, what the children did with their toys reflected the needs and realities of their culture. For instance, when the kids in a poor village in Zambia with no electricity, running water, or toy shop found a box of sunglasses that had fallen out of a truck, not only did the plastic eyewear immediately become their favorite — their only — toys, but they also quickly came to play “market,” “buying” and “selling” the prized toys to each other.

Henry, 5 (Berkeley, California)

Maudy, 3 (Kalulushi, Zambia)

Somewhere between Peter Maisel’s Material World series, James Mollison’s poignant photographs of where children sleep, and Rania Matar’s portraits of teenage girls through their bedroom interiors, the series touches on something beyond the sheer visual curiosity of this global atlas of childhood. What emerges is a poignant living testament to the nature-and-nurture model of human nature: The children’s choices, far from pure personal preference, are deeply rooted in social norms and gender conditioning, as in the dominant pink color in many of the girls’ possessions (the subject of another photographer’s fascinating project) or the extensive car collections of little boys, economic reality, as a Kenyan boy’s single stuffed monkey, and cultural climate and priorities, as in a Swiss boy’s minimalist, design-minded LEGO blocks or the toy-firearm artillery of a little boy in the Ukraine.

Julia, 3 (Tirana, Albania)

Abel, 4 (Nopaltepec, Mexico)

Talia, 5 (Timimoun, Algeria)

Pavel, 5 (Kiev, Ukraine)

Reania, 3 (Kuala Lampur, Malaysia)

Shotaro, 5 (Tokyo, Japan)

Chiwa, 4 (Mchinji, Malawi)

Enea, 3 (Boulder, Colorado)

Complement Toy Stories with an equally fascinating look at children’s classrooms, bedrooms, and family possessions, then revisit this pause-giving visual study of gender and color.

All photographs © Gabriele Galimberti/INSTITUTE courtesy of Abrams Image

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25 MARCH, 2014

Aldous Huxley on Drugs, Democracy, and Religion

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“Generalized intelligence and mental alertness are the most powerful enemies of dictatorship and at the same time the basic conditions of effective democracy.”

In 1958, five years after his transcendent experience induced by taking four-tenths of a gram of mescalin, Aldous Huxley — legendary author of Brave New World, lesser-known but no less compelling writer of children’s books, modern prophet — penned an essay titled “Drugs That Shape Men’s Minds.” It was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post and eventually included in Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience (public library) — a selection of Huxley’s fiction, essays, and letters titled after the Sanskrit word for “liberation.” In the essay, Huxley considers the gifts and limitations of our wakeful consciousness, our universal quest for transcendence, and the interplay of drugs and democracy.

Huxley begins by considering why religion is nothing more nor less than an attempt to codify through symbolism our longing for what Jack Kerouac called “the golden eternity” and what Alan Lightman described in his encounter with the ospreys — a sense of intimate connection with the universe, with something larger than ourselves:

Every fully developed religion exists simultaneously on several different levels. It exists as a set of abstract concepts about the world and its governance. It exists as a set of rites and sacraments, as a traditional method for manipulating the symbols, by means of which beliefs about the cosmic order are expressed. It exists as the feelings of love, fear and devotion evoked by this manipulation of symbols.

And finally it exists as a special kind of feeling or intuition — a sense of the oneness of all things in their divine principle, a realization (to use the language of Hindu theology) that “thou art That,” a mystical experience of what seems self-evidently to be union with God.

The ordinary waking consciousness is a very useful and, on most occasions, an indispensable state of mind; but it is by no means the only form of consciousness, nor in all circumstances the best. Insofar as he transcends his ordinary self and his ordinary mode of awareness, the mystic is able to enlarge his vision, to look more deeply into the unfathomable miracle of existence.

The mystical experience is doubly valuable; it is valuable because it gives the experiencer a better understanding of himself and the world and because it may help him to lead a less self-centered and more creative life.

He echoes Mark Twain’s lament about religion and human egotism, Huxley examines the self-consciousness at the heart of worship:

We love ourselves to the point of idolatry; but we also intensely dislike ourselves — we find ourselves unutterably boring. Correlated with this distaste for the idolatrously worshipped self, there is in all of us a desire, sometimes latent, sometimes conscious and passionately expressed, to escape from the prison of our individuality, an urge to self-transcendence. It is to this urge that we owe mystical theology, spiritual exercises and yoga — to this, too, that we owe alcoholism and drug addiction.

Huxley then turns to how drugs have attempted to address this human urge and the interplay of those attempts with religion:

Modern pharmacology has given us a host of new synthetics, but in the field of the naturally occurring mind changers it has made no radical discoveries. All the botanical sedatives, stimulants, vision revealers, happiness promoters and cosmic-consciousness arousers were found out thousands of years ago, before the dawn of history.

In many societies at many levels of civilization attempts have been made to fuse drug intoxication with God-intoxication. In ancient Greece, for example, ethyl alcohol had its place in the established religion. Dionysus, or Bacchus, as he was often called, was a true divinity. His worshipers addressed him as Lusios, “Liberator,” or as Theoinos, “Godwinc.” The latter name telescopes fermented grape juice and the supernatural into a single pentecostal experience. . . . Unfortunately they also receive harm. The blissful experience of self -transcendence which alcohol makes possible has to be paid for, and the price is exorbitantly high.

Huxley argues that while the intuitive solution seems to be to enforce complete prohibition of mind-altering substances, this tends to backfire and “create more evils than it cures,” while also admonishing to the diametric opposite of this black-and-white approach, the “complete toleration and unrestricted availability” of drugs. Peering into the future of biochemistry and pharmacology, he foresees the development of “powerful but nearly harmless drugs,” but also notes that even if these were invented, they’d raise important questions about use and abuse, about whether their availability would make human beings ultimately happier or more miserable. He finds reason for concern in medicine’s history of overprescription of new drugs and writes:

The history of medical fashions, it may be remarked, is at least as grotesque as the history of fashions in women’s hats — at least as grotesque and, since human lives are at stake, considerably more tragic. In the present case, millions of patients who had no real need of the tranquilizers have been given the pills by their doctors and have learned to resort to them in every predicament, however triflingly uncomfortable. This is very bad medicine and, from the pill taker’s point of
view, dubious morality and poor sense.

He then turns to how these psychopharmacological tendencies might be exploited in a political context:

The dictatorships of tomorrow will deprive men of their freedom, but will give them in exchange a happiness none the less real, as a subjective experience, for being chemically induced. The pursuit of happiness is one of the traditional rights of man; unfortunately, the achievement of happiness may turn out to be incompatible with another of man’s rights — namely, liberty.

Wondering whether it would even be possible to “produce superior individuals by biochemical means,” Huxley points to an experiment Soviet researchers embarked upon in 1956, a five-year plan to develop “pharmacological substances that normalize higher nervous activity and heighten human capacity for work” — in other words, psychic energizers. Rather ironically given the context of subsequent geopolitical history of despots, from Putin to Yanukovych, Huxley considers the fruits of these experiments an assurance against despotism:

Let us all fervently wish the Russians every success in their current pharmacological venture. The discovery of a drug capable of increasing the average individual’s psychic energy, and its wide distribution throughout the U.S.S.R., would probably mean the end of Russia’s present form of government. Generalized intelligence and mental alertness are the most powerful enemies of dictatorship and at the same time the basic conditions of effective democracy. Even in the democratic West we could do with a bit of psychic energizing. Between them, education and pharmacology may do something to offset the effects of that deterioration of our biological material to which geneticists have frequently called attention.

Huxley ties this back to religion and the parallel artificiality of the transcendent experience:

Those who are offended by the idea that the swallowing of a pill may contribute to a genuinely religious experience should remember that all the standard mortifications — fasting, voluntary sleeplessness and self-torture — inflicted upon themselves by the ascetics of every religion for the purpose of acquiring merit, are also, like the mind-changing drugs, powerful devices for altering the chemistry of the body in general and the nervous system in particular. Or consider the procedures generally known as spiritual exercises. The breathing techniques taught by the yogi of India result in prolonged suspensions of respiration. These in turn result in an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood; and the psychological consequence of this is a change in the quality of consciousness. Again, meditations involving long, intense concentration upon a single idea or image may also result — for neurological reasons which I do not profess to understand — in a slowing down of respiration and even in prolonged suspensions of breathing.

(Coincidentally, scientists have just begun to shed light on why meditators hallucinate — Huxley was, once more, ahead of his time.)

He concludes by reminding us of the deeper spiritual and psychoemotional roots of both drug-induced and religious experiences:

That men and women can, by physical and chemical means, transcend themselves in a genuinely spiritual way is something which, to the squeamish idealist, seems rather shocking. But, after all, the drug or the physical exercise is not the cause of the spiritual experience; it is only its occasion.

He once again peers into the future:

For most people, religion has always been a matter of traditional symbols and of their own emotional, intellectual and ethical response to those symbols. To men and women who have had direct experience of self-transcendence into the mind’s Other World of vision and union with the nature of things, a religion of mere symbols is not likely to be very satisfying. The perusal of a page from even the most beautifully written cookbook is no substitute for the eating of dinner. We are exhorted to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

[…]

My own belief is that, though they may start by being something of an embarrassment, these new mind changers will tend in the long run to deepen the spiritual life of the communities in which they are available. . . . From being an activity mainly concerned with symbols, religion will be transformed into an activity concerned mainly with experience and intuition — an everyday mysticism underlying and giving significance to everyday rationality, everyday tasks and duties, everyday human relationships.

Whether one considers Huxley a madman or a prophet-genius, Moksha is a fascinating read and an unusual, dimensional lens on the human longing for transcendence. For a wholly different side of Huxley, see his only children’s book.

HT Open Culture

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