Here at Art Scatter we’ve been keeping a keen eye on this year’s political races and the concurrent pommeling and puffing-up of patriotism that’s been accompanying them. In ordinary times we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the sloganeering of the love-it-or-leave-it crowd. People wave their flags and spout their platitudes, and life pretty much goes on, unimpeded. But it seems such a hot topic as November 8 approaches that we decided to consult an expert on the subject, Dr. Samuel Johnson, the noted English poet, essayist, and lexicographer. Dr. Johnson is a devout Tory but possesses a sharp wit and a keen mind, and will rail against foolishness and chicanery wherever he believes he has found it. Even in the midst of a vicious election season, he is no blind slave to party loyalty.
The good doctor, as it turns out, has been busy checking proofs for his essay “The Patriot,” in which he expounds upon this very topic, and so could not meet with us in the flesh. But he agreed to answer questions through his publicist, Mr. James Boswell. The arrangement seemed congenial, and so we submitted our queries. In due course the good Mr. Boswell returned Dr. Johnson’s replies, a few from the very pages of the essay he’s been preparing. Here is the result of our long-distance discourse.
Everybody’s talking about it, from presidential candidates to professional quarterbacks. And everybody seems to have a different idea about it. What exactly IS patriotism, anyway?
I’ve been blog quiet much too long. I can’t explain these things, but just accept them. My writer brain has languished. I’ve seen glimpses of it, fragments, but capturing a cohesive sense has been a struggle.
For me, poetry often serves as a toddling way back to recovery, a voice for the broken. Not broken as in destroyed, or sad, though sometimes that can be the case, too, but in this instance, I consider it more a voice for the misshapen. It’s a bunch of puzzle pieces that need realigning. Again, I don’t question these things, I’m just grateful.
I thought I lost my poetry touch a few years ago. I never realized it was leaving, it just wasn’t there anymore and it took me a while to notice it was gone, but by then it was too late. So I’m surprised now by its sudden return, unannounced and unbidden, like a shadowed figure seeking shelter from a storm who shows up wet on my doorstep smelling of the natural order of things. Irresistible, really. But why?
Someone called Singlet, responding online to the obituary in The Guardian for the novelist and children’s writer Russell Hoban, had this to say: “A few comments that Hoban’s other novels don’t come close to Riddley Walker make me think of what Joseph Heller reportedly said when asked, ‘Why have you never written anything else like Catch-22?’ — ‘Well, nobody else has either.'”
Hoban, the American-born writer who died in his adopted England on Tuesday at age 86, was far from a one-hit wonder. But Riddley Walker, his 1980 novel set in the crude countryside of Kent a couple of millennia after a nuclear apocalypse, is undoubtedly his Catch-22, the novel of astonishing accomplishment and originality that stands as the peak of a fertile and often brilliantly surprising career.
Young Riddley lives in an age of rubble: partly Mad Max free-for-all, partly pre-Roman Celtic drudgery, partly tightly controlled medieval theocracy. What quickens the book, and distinguishes it from the standard run of post-apocalyptic lit, is its language, a wildly inventive yet carefully considered deconstruction and reassembly of contemporary English as it might have devolved and reinvented itself in the centuries after a global disaster. The writing is constantly involving and often hilarious, and once you get the hang of it (reading a couple of pages out loud helps immensely) it makes extraordinary sense. A lot of other writers have made hay by taking liberties with the language and its tangled roots: James Joyce poetically and esoterically; J.R.R. Tolkein allusively and academically. Hoban did it with a literary everyman’s gusto and sly wit.
By Laura Grimes (with help from the Large Smelly Boys)
Shhhh! Be vewy vewy qwiet! Sneak attack in progress.
It’s a big day in the Scatter household, when patriarch Mr. Scatter is feted (not fetid). So the Large Smelly Boys and I are hijacking the blog for a surprise post. The fun part is seeing how long it takes Mr. Scatter to find it. Don’t tell, OK?
It’s quite possible the rest of the blog world knows Mr. Scatter as a stately critic, a keen observer who elegantly writes deep thoughts about serious topics. Imagine him two-finger tapping away in a tweed jacket, a strong black coffee at his elbow, a softly snoring cat at his toes, and a mellifluous Haydn concerto mingling between sunbeams. That’s all pretty much right, though the jacket comes out only occasionally.
The blog world only knows Mr. Scatter’s high English finger-tapping language, though. His family hears a whole other side of him. Betcha didn’t know he has a hidden talent. He’s fluent in Bobspeak.
Just at dinnertime Mr. Scatter actually hollered — no kidding — “Time to eat! Mongo gila! Take your clothes off!”
Today the blog takes a moment of silence. Richard Vincent Grimes passed away 20 years ago today, but that’s not really the day I’m honoring. I’m remembering instead a quiet moment I shared with my dad nine months after he died.
Mr. Scatter noticed this pernicious form of marketing and advertising breathlessness beginning as a trickle a couple of years ago, and it’s become an all-taps-open flood. The most ubiquitous torrent is the “major motion picture event” — which means “movie that cost a lot to make and needs to make a whole lot more to recoup its costs,” or just plain “new movie” — but it’s spread to many other areas as well. A rainstorm is a “weather event.” A sale on socks at the mall is a “merchandising event.” A rational political speech is an “imaginary event.” Just kidding on that last one.
The subject rose yet again this morning when Mr. Scatter spotted an ad in the New York Times for Michael Flatley’s new movie Lord of the Dance 3D and promptly erupted into a minor hissy fit event. Now, Mr. S can take Michael Flatley or leave him, though he’d rather do the latter. (All these lords a-leaping remind him of a good friend’s dismissal of the background characters in operas and story ballets as “happy peasants.”) And Mr. S hasn’t jumped on the 3D wagon: he can’t figure out how to get those glasses over his regular glasses and still see what’s going on on the screen. No, the problem was the line right below the movie’s title in the ad: “THE MAJOR MOTION PICTURE EVENT.”
Why? Mr. Scatter asked himself in an exasperation event. Why not just “THE NEW MOVIE”? Or — gasp — nothing at all? Mr. Scatter dreams of a day when this hyperventilating linguistic gaseousness will simply implode and disappear.
On the other hand, the Lord of the Dance 3D ad reminded Mr. Scatter that today is St. Patrick’s Day, and then he recalled where he was and what he was doing exactly three years ago: lying on a hospital operating table, his left leg splayed open like a flounder getting filleted, while a highly gifted surgeon inserted what is essentially an entirely new and artificial knee. Loyal readers might recall this post from March 17, 2009, Celebrating a year of the Artificial Me, which recounted the trials and eventual joys of surgery and recovery. Mr. Scatter still can’t dance a decent jig, and he still can’t play the piano. But then, he couldn’t before the surgery, either. And these days, unless an anniversary rolls around, he rarely gives his pain-free knee a second thought.
Saints be praised.
Irish horndancing and jig shoes. Photo: Skubik at en.wikipedia
Two years ago, in this post, we passed along a few quotations from Martin Luther King Jr., whose spirit and birthday we celebrate today. In light of a frayed public discourse that verges on the ridiculous and the obscene, it seems an appropriate time to highlight King’s committed nonviolent approach to doing the right thing. Take a listen:
“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
“One of the greatest casualties of the war in Vietnam is the Great Society, shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.”
“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”
“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
“War is a poor chisel to carve out tomorrow.”
“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”
PHOTO: 1964, Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer. Wikimedia Commons.
Wordstock is all about community. It’s about taking the very private act of reading and celebrating it with a giant public festival that attracts thousands of people. It’s a shared experience of language. It’s stories that connect people.
Over two packed weekend days at the Oregon Convention Center, it was a treat to hear one writer after another and glean their personal experiences. But the stories that stand out for me the most were in the first two hours.
I arrived on Saturday right at 10 a.m. when it opened. I hadn’t planned to be an eager beaver, but The Large Large Smelly Boy had to be somewhere and Mr. Scatter dropped me off.
The readings and panels hadn’t started yet so I cruised the aisles. I nearly passed by the booth for Title Wave, the store that sells books that have been withdrawn from the Multnomah County Library system, but a cover caught my eye. I had been helping the Large Large Smelly Boy look for it at home just two nights before. I walked over to the shelf.
A clutch of five volunteers were bunched in the middle and one whispered excitedly, “We have a customer!”
Actors have a parlor trick they like to pull out to amaze and amuse their non-thespian friends. I’m not sure if it has an accepted given name, but I sometimes call it the “laugh-cry game.” It’s simple, really: They cover their faces, start making an odd guttural sound, and challenge you to tell whether they’re laughing or crying. In terms of technique, both actions come out of the same place.
It’s fitting that the art of acting is so often depicted with drawings of the tragic and comic masks, because the comic and tragic are so often barely a whisker’s width separated from each other. Tragedy gets the respect. Comedy gets the love, if often reluctantly. But really, the balance is a lot closer. Remember, Chekhov insisted his mournful plays were comedies.
I think of this because the big deal in Puddletown this weekend is Saturday night’s opening of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill‘s imperial American classic, at Artists Repertory Theatre. This production has Serious written all over it. A co-production with Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, it stars occasional Oregonian William Hurt as the destructive Tyrone family patriarch, and it drew sparkling reviews in its recently closed Sydney run. I look forward to it not just because it arrives with stellar recommendations but also because O’Neill was in a very real sense the father of American theater, our first true genius. That he was such a morose son of a bitch was the luck of the draw. France got Moliere, the satiric comedian. England got Shakespeare, the astonishing Everyman. We got Old Bleak House, and few writers have ever done bleak better: O’Neill paints loss in despairingly seductive strokes of love.