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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Gioia on Cultural Decline

Since literature seems to be the theme this week, check out Dana Gioia's speech delivered at Stanford's commencement exercises. Some highlights:

"There is an experiment I'd love to conduct. I'd like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.

Then I'd ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.

I'd even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name. Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement. . .

Our country is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups. One group spends most of its free time sitting at home as passive consumers of electronic entertainment. Even family communication is breaking down as members increasingly spend their time alone, staring at their individual screens.

The other group also uses and enjoys the new technology, but these individuals balance it with a broader range of activities. They go out—to exercise, play sports, volunteer and do charity work at about three times the level of the first group. By every measure they are vastly more active and socially engaged than the first group.

What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn't income, geography, or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility."

Here's a nice biographical feature about this poet and NEA Chairman: he used to be a businessman in a big corporation. I love reading about life transitions like that, don't you? Now go read something edifying.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A New Literary Jerusalem

On my way to the office this morning I listed to Sufjan Stevens's Seven Swans CD. Though this is not my point, it's worth noting that I only bought his CD because I Googled "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" for the lyrics, and discovered the Youtube video below, which is precisely the kind of thing that major record labels want to outlaw.

Anyway, as I pulled into the parking lot and popped out the CD, my radio blared some popular Christian song about how "you got me and Jesus." It was jarring, to shift so suddenly from Stevens's dreamy "Abraham" to that nasally, unimaginative croaking. Perhaps that's the only way to recognize the richness of something, to trade it for dullness for a time.

I found this interesting, coming so quickly as it did on the heels of a similar experience over the weekend. I finished Walker Percy's Lancelot on Sunday afternoon, and turned immediately to a couple of literary journals. Lancelot is by no means Percy's best, and if you've not read him I recommend The Moviegoer instead. But after being immersed in his lyrical style, I was jarred by the clunkiness of what passes for so much modern prose. These are top journals, but I could barely stand to read a good bit of them, what with Percy's phrasings still fresh in my mind. I imagine even his best would be rejected by a number of lit journals today, along with Robert Penn Warren and James Agee and Graham Greene. Those sentences are too long. There isn't enough detail. All this falling from grace and coming to redemption is too fanciful. And seriously, what is up with those over-long sentences?

It's depressing, the squeeze: an increasingly aliterate public on one side, and on the other a host of literary-minded folks hell-bent on murdering voice, narrative, and lyricism. I'm imagining a New Literary Jerusalem, and I don't even need to be one of the writers. I'd be content just to sit in its shade and read. Perhaps with a little music:

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments

Monday, August 6, 2007

Pen v. Sword

I recently read Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village. It's probably better to say that I scanned it, or perhaps that I read through it, because only the most narrow of partisans would restrain himself from speed-reading to the end of sentences like this:

At a time when democracy depends so much on our finding common ground, and when so many adults are unsure about how to bridge societal divides, there seems to be one idea on which most people agree: we need to find ways to offer our children a vision of affirmative living that can be applied in their daily actions and interactions

I know many of you have your reasons for voting against Hillary, and now I have mine.

Still, if nothing else we should applaud the woman for enduring sentence after sentence like this, because I assume she was conscious and sober when she wrote it. I'm not sure if anyone else deserves that praise, however, because if the lack of acknowledgements are to be believed, she wrote the entire thing without any research assistance or ghost writing whatsoever.

I didn't pay the book much mind when it first came out, other than to roll my eyes at the way it was predictably savaged by conservatives, and lauded by liberals, and subsequently ignored — to everyone's benefit, I can now assure you. It's interesting, to me at least, to consider it now, after seeing this woman's evolution from cookie-maker to Iron Lady to investment genius to aggrieved wife to distinguished Senator from New York. I'm struck, for example, at her enthusiasm for a myriad of small programs for every social ailment: reading programs for at-risk kids, nutritional initiatives from the USDA, programs to match parents with daycare providers — there is no problem so small that Hillary Clinton cannot solve it for you. It's always striking to me how people who have spent their entire lives observing firsthand how poorly bureaucracies perform can have so much faith in their ability to intervene at the micro-level to ensure that everyone is safe and well-read and happy.

Then there is the iron in her tone when she labels those who disagree with her "extremists." It's a peculiar logic that goes: Homeschooler = Rush Limbaugh = Timothy McVeigh. Anyone who thinks the Daily Kos was the first vehicle to popularize the Left's mindless, hateful response to mindless Right-wing hatefulness isn't giving Hillary Clinton her due.

The quote that stuck with me, however, was this rumination:

The networks of relationships we form and depend on are our modern-day villages, but they reach well beyond city limits. Many of them necessarily involve the whole nation. They are the basis for our "civil society," a term social scientists use to describe the way we work together for common purposes.

I don't think there is a more succinct way to get the truth absolutely backwards. We mostly pursue different purposes, self-interested humans that we are, and it is rules and laws and culture that channel our pursuits into actions that either do not harm or in fact assist others in the pursuit of their individual aims. Were we a society of ants serving a queen, Hillary's curious notion of civil society might be more apt, but we are not. Not yet, anyway.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I was reminded why I've largely forsaken politics for good prose. But I certainly hope it's true, all this business about the pen being mightier than the sword.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments