Salesmen Pushing Unrepentant Consciences
Some hours earlier, dashing into the library to escape the rain, Tormy had forgotten herself among the warm, friendly stacks. It was one of her favorite places, and it wasn’t the first time that she’d accidentally lost hours there.
She emerged into the tail end of the afternoon. Over her shoulder she’d slung the straps of her big orange bag that was embroidered with long-necked colorful cats. She found the rain had stopped, but the wind was gusty. A narrow lane of sky remained mildly menacing above the red brick laboratory building opposite. Would it rain more? She judged it might, but not immediately. The umbrella could remain in the bag. She turned left, her long stride carrying her swiftly along her way.
Not too many other representatives of the student body out and about. The peaceful quiet of a late Friday afternoon had set in. Friday afternoons were always pleasant on campus. Most classes had ended hours before, and everybody had already gone home, decompressing from the week and preparing for the night ahead.
As she walked she remembered:
I been Roy Bittaned and Edward Wittened
Undercooked and overbooked
Gastrogavaged the sour whey and curds of
Assorted untranscendent astonishments
And there’s no dirty words, just
Salesmen pushing unrepentant consciences
It was a fragment of something of Charlie’s that she’d read that morning before leaving home, in part a parody of “A Simple Desultory Philippic.” No, not a parody, because it was more gently respectful than that. How then should she think of it? A kindly-sweet temporally-shifted paean. She knew who Bittan was because of her father’s musical preferences – she could hear the band introduction in her head: “Professor Roy Bittan!” – but she’d had to look up Witten. Leave it to Charlie to juxtapose the two like that.
Dramatizes the conflict between.
Ah, I’m succumbing to the conditioning. Reflexively weighing text for hidden meanings and arcane architectural elements. Adhere strictly to the recipe, down to the very last crumb. Vivisection’s torturous agony.
From too much reliance on clinical definition comes only death.
Down the red brick walkway under the chessboard matrix of illuminated windows glowing pallid amber she came, turning left again along the low stone wall, her bright, wide-spaced green eyes drinking everything in. Dirty blonde hair fell in shaggy puppy dog tatters over her shoulders and framed her pixie features. Her path brought her beneath soaring sheets of rain-streaked marble, four storeys high or five. Devoid of the drama of the northern façade, the rear of the library was flat and featureless, somber-silent. A majestic entombing repository of accumulated knowledge. All that unspoken strength whose brooding power awaited just the right supplicant like a sword in a stone. Only the initiated suspected the intellectual juggernaut lying latent and patient within.
The building had temporarily blocked the wind, but now the zephyrs came licking round at her again at its far corner. She crossed the street and jagged around the hedge angle. On the right the clock tower sprang up stiffly, phallic as an ICBM tumidly elevating into the overcast sky. A perilously sharp pencil point, its conic glans elevated by a circle of white columns in echo of the Old Well. The gallant, exalted organ and the musky plunging well shaft. The carillon commenced its ring-a-ting trilling on the hour as she was passing by. Hark the sound! The more head missile.
Wave willows, murmur waters,
Golden sunbeams, smile!
Earthly music cannot waken
Lovely Annie Lisle.
The most famous unknown tune in the nation.
A strong gust shook through the pine tops. It had not been so blustery earlier. She was grateful there had been no rain then because she’d been able to have her lunch in the arboretum. The chapel crenellations were visible between the trees from her bench. The chapel was one of her favorite places too, although it was funny, she thought, that she’d never gone inside. She was eating her lunch under her favorite old cypress and casually scanning through The Daily Tar Ball.
The story about the Smith boy. Tragic. The story never ends. What, half a year since the cops shot him down. One of those eternally unanswerable enigmas. A minor, sad cul-de-sac in a narrow corner of history. End of file. A confused kid, a lot of beer, a high-speed chase and gunfire in the night. They need something to put in the paper. Digging like a truffle pig. Gossipy allegations against the Assistant Dean of Students. She’d talked with him that night. Or she hadn’t talked with him that night. Or she had, but not by phone. Lots of nights I have or haven’t talked with people by phone or otherwise. Leave it alone. Not so much a story as blowing on dying embers to see whether something interesting flares up. No way to write. Make an accusation or drop it.
Undercooked and overbooked
Gastrogavaged the sour whey and curds
Gastrogavaged. Leave it to him to disinter such a word. Or to grave rob it and cobble it together Frankensteinwise. Gastro of course was stomach, but gavage? Straightaway she’d blipped over to Douglas Harper’s site, and what do you know, there it was: “from Fr.gavage, from gaver ‘to stuff’ (17c.; see gavotte).” Good old dependable Harper; gotta love him. And gavotte? Fascinating references to a lively dance from the late seventeenth century, but also to gluttony: “to stuff, force-feed poultry.”
Force-fed the sour whey and curds. Yep. Telepathic Charlie might have written it with this very incident in mind. Newspapers spattered with the insides of damaged lives. Human softness. Fragile. Handle with care. Sure to sell.
The road flared out to accommodate game-day parking, an SUV-packed aneurysm invading the treescape.
Displacing the native forest in favor of environment-murdering internal combustors. And the CHT with its free fares. Where else in the land of the almighty dollar do you find such a deal? Milk and honey. I, a hypocrite, drove to school this morning, up to Spencer Hall from Purefoy. How far? Two miles? Already walked half as far today. Have to retrace my steps tonight to drive home. Easy to scorn collective, faceless others while protecting an unexamined self-righteous self-image. Conceit.
How do you force-feed poultry, and why?
Dad took us to the Cape Fear Expo, and later we went on our own. A junior or senior? Junior I think. Went into the poultry barn with some friends, just looking around, messing around. A great big shed with a corrugated zinc roof, airy, but stink of chicken shit. Farmers or wannabes in their blue and gold jackets. Lanes between pens watered down and raked and slightly muddy at the edges with yellow straw everywhere, and the roosters crowing, little beggar tin cups in their cages, and many rabbit breeds in their cages, too. Fuzzy bunnies. Cuties! By accident we found Robert Corrigan’s rooster, a great big purple ribbon attached to the cage. The bird was enormous and really rather beautiful, plump with gorgeous golden-yellow plumage and a wise, fierce old face with bright orange eyes, otherworldly. Dagger-spurs sprouting from his legs. I bent low to look in the cage, and he was watching me closely, puffing himself up, pacing back and forth in his little space, pushing up against the pen, challenging me to a duel. Then they started giggling. What? The ribbon: Best Cock in Show. Never forget the year Robert Corrigan won the best cock award. Whenever we asked him about it he always said it was for best rooster. Him short, with pipe cleaner arms. But books and covers maybe. Shortcomings in one area often accompany compensations elsewhere. He married that plain Jane Jordan Brooks right after high school, and they have two or three little brats.
Few cars were parked on Stadium Drive this afternoon. Everyone gone home. She angled across the parking lot with the stadium off to her right, crossed downhill between the floodlights and the alumni building.
What was the episodic sequence in his last hour on Earth? That climactic chain chain chain of events culminating in a drawn cigarette tip’s fleeting rutilant glow, then cold ash. He, standing by the roadside, uncertain, lightly swaying, all destiny teetering in the delicate balance pans. Sinking back down into eternity’s net of glittering gems, he, bound for paradise . . . Well, Hamlet never died. He’s pinned forever onto a mounting board for public inspection from all possible angles. Submitted for your approval. Literature sustains life, not was but is, eternally, amen. Even if unwritten, every life is a poem, a breath, that alters the universe . . . Minor moments become momentous. Dark shadows of unseen trees blotting out the silent cosmos. Hushed animals in the woods startled by the Forerunner rumbly-rattling off the road, gravel popping like shrapnel, lurching to a precipitous stop. End of useless velocity. And the piercing cries of dual sirens in unmelodious harmony. His ghostly ancestors watching, holding their breath. He could not have suspected that the last twinkling points of life were rushing straight at him. Neither could the policemen who had been racing through the night. Patrol car lights reeling brightly. Events indelibly stamping those still living with an iconography gouged out of forevermore. They must live with the memories because it’s personal.
Sequence of events imposes order on the stories we tell. Once upon a time begat conflict begat resolution begat happily ever after. The arrow of time is a trick of limited human perception. The totality of human experience comprises an extended manifold through all time and space. The distant past no less immediate than right now. Who walks here? I? Step. Step. Step. Maybe a young Cherokee girl in exactly the same space moving softly through an unbroken forest long before any white men had come to disrupt this continent and its timeless cycles. Her heart softly pounding, just like mine, both beating, superimposed, separated only by six or seven hundred years. God blinks and a thousand years fall away in a stardust sprinkling.
And academia! To study poetry. As if. Architectural cross-bracing exercises. Poems are alive or they’re pointless. If professors dont know better, who does? An explication, the way they mean, is vivisection. No poet writes with any hope or expectation that her work will be perversely sliced open like that, its guts exposed and steaming in the classroom. Imagine Whitman anticipating stuffed shirts struggling to rip his words to shreds. Well many do know better, but how to make money out of it? Beastly Machiavelli. The literary academic game is a shadow world, a dim reflection. I can play games too.
Salesmen pushing unrepentant consciences
She crossed the bridge to the grassy green roof of the parking deck. The lamps around her were flickering to life. A few other late prowlers came and went at the intersection. Stop for a coffee? No. She kept left past the rec center and crossed the far bridge through the trees, glimpsing the fat, squat water tower in the distance against the cloudy twilight. Like a white mother ship descending to impose universal peace and harmony or to destroy the wicked denizens of Earth. To serve man. Silly. As if translations from one language to another retain accidental homonymous meanings. It’s a cookbook! The water tower bore certain structural similarities to the Old Well too, she realized. Subliminal thematic echoes. A weird winding staircase dangling underneath the globose lower curve of the tank like a perspective-deformed Escher sketch. She surreptitiously eyed two shirtless boys who were shooting hoops under the up-thrust warrens of a great termite den of a dorm. The twanging, thuddy sound of rubber meets backboard and the breaking squeak of sneakers. Flailing naked arms and rapid staccato dribbling. Rapid breathing whoosh. Exertion. She continued on to the open plaza and moments later entered by the second door. She went downstairs.
The hallway was empty. She unlocked the door and flicked on the lights, dropped her key ring on a desktop and the cat bag in a chair, pulling up another one close by.
No one else around. Good. Cant leave any living witnesses, and I’m opposed to unnecessary violence on principle.
She typed in her password. In theory they could track her that way, but she thought it unlikely it would come to that.
A subtle version of subversion. Too late to faithfully reconstruct events by the time it’s noticed. The deterring effort-to-reward ratio.
From the bag she retrieved the notebook that held a hardcopy of the replacement document. She snapped the flash drive from her key ring and plugged it into the tower, turned her attention to the monitor.
She located the offending document on the server and double-clicked. The file opened up. She scanned bits of it quickly, scrolling downward. A poetry explication is a short analysis . . . How are the dramatized conflicts or themes . . . We must focus on the poem’s parts . . . Look for certain patterns . . . Despite her intimate familiarity with the mini-article, her nose wrinkled reflexively. Execrable opprobrium. The formulaic glide path to public acclaim. Indoctrinate the malleable minds of witless youth. Stifle their unique, God-given voices, crush a lifetime’s myriad experiences and hard lessons, slam them head-first into a wall of lofty commandments handed down by glorified potentates draped in sanctified tweed. No. She had a duty to art itself, or perhaps to the idea of art, to the very notion that this crippling instruction completely neglected. And to her own sense of identity. It was not to be endured.
She’d previously downloaded the virginal document directly from the server, preserving its formatting intact. She’d painstakingly rewritten this cloned duplicate as it ought to have been written the first time. Away with its contemptuous assaults on creative liberty! One does not explicate a poem by systematically anatomizing it according to academia’s rigid prescriptions. That path leads only to mutilation. A poem lives; it breathes. Every word directly and indirectly sustains and charms every other word. By pulling it apart you sever those silky, delicate connections. You do violence to the language. You kill it. Poems are not understood in destructive dismemberment but through inhalation, by drawing them into your lungs and letting them infuse the bloodstream. To be carried throughout your body, to interact with your consciousness in a manner unique to each reader, so that every poem has as many meanings as the number of hearts it encounters. That’s the only way to know a poem, and to touch the soul of the poet who had found it in the world and written it down.
She replaced the original version on the server with her rectified adaptation. Unplugging the flash drive and snapping it back onto her key ring, she logged off the computer and returned the chairs to their earlier places. From her notebook she removed the printed version of the corrected text. On the other side of the main desk was a wall rack holding laminated versions of the various resources offered by the Writing Center for rapid consultation by walk-ins. She flipped through it and pulled the original, replacing it with the new and improved rendering, tucking the original back into her notebook – she’d destroy the evidence later away from the scene of the crime. Now, anyone consulting the Writing Center for poetry explication resources would discover a new and liberating tool at her disposal. It was a small act in a wider revolution, perhaps, but she’d done her part. Returning her notebook to the orange cat bag, she hoisted it back onto her shoulder, shut out the lights, and left the room, making sure the door was locked behind her.
Nobody here but us chickens.
Outside the rain had returned. She swore softly, digging around in the bottom of her bag for her umbrella. The sun had set somewhere behind the clouds.
Darkness will be here soon, and still have to walk all the way back to my car.
She started back up the brick walkway, the rain pattering on the bright pink vinyl over her head.
“No dirty words, just salesmen,” she murmured aloud to herself.
Then she thought: No dirty words. Hmm. Now that really is sort of an interesting idea. If you stop to think about it.
This short story appears in the novel Memphis Blues Again.
N.B. I’d planned to post this as a comment on a friend’s site, but apparently my comment is too long. So I’ll just blog it here, and post a link to this blog posting on his site. Check him out here. A most insightful new Joycean.
When Stephen Dedalus is thinking about Shakespeare, never forget that Stephen regards himself already as one literary genius regarding another literary genius. It’s easy to overlook that.
In the case of Scylla and Charybdis there’s another level of irony you didn’t mention, and in part this is probably because you’re still new to Ulysses and Joyce, but all of Joyce’s writing is supersaturated with events from his own life. That doesn’t mean exactly, or necessarily, that Joyce wrote autobiographical fiction, but it does blur the denotations and connotations most of us bear in mind when we use the word fiction. For Joyce the separation between his real life and his writing was not even paper-thin.
In Ulysses we have Stephen Dedalus, a surrogate genius-writer and stand-in for James Joyce. Who would argue with the equation that James Joyce ≈ Stephen Dedalus? Within the text of Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the frustrated writer Stephen, who can’t quite get it together literary-wise, it may be, on 16 June 1904, encounters the characters and events who will inspire his own magnum opus that he will soon write: a variant of the novel known as Ulysses.
That being the case, the question of the degree to which we must consider the autobiography of the author with respect to his work takes on a deeper meaning, since in the literary object called Ulysses (and Portrait before it), we are examining (among other things) the fictitious autobiography of this fictitious genius-writer Stephen Dedalus, and considering the effect it will have on the fictitious work he will produce. Can fictitious Stephen be separated from his fictitious fiction?
I doubt it.
I myself have tried to hold Joyce’s works at arm’s length from Joyce the man, but increasingly I find that difficult, and probably quite impossible, to do: understanding of Joyce’s text commonly requires understanding of triggering events from Joyce’s life. Joyce obviously knew this as he was writing: he knew we could not understand what we were reading without knowing his personal story, and he shared much of his personal story with certain biographers, formal and informal, in order to leave us the necessary signposts. Joyce deliberately made his personal life a central part of his fictional life, and vice versa. I’ve never heard of any other author doing the same. Hollyweird actors, perhaps.
I don’t think there is “a theory” of Shakespeare in Scylla and Charybdis, and so one who racks his brain trying to find one must finally be frustrated. The closest to something approximating a “theory” I’ve come is unrelated to Shakespeare: it’s Stephen struggling to work out psychological issues in his own autobiography, caught up so potently as he is in the recent death of his mother, and thereby closely linked to his relationship to his father, his Freudian hero-enemy. John Stanislaus Joyce, the model for Simon Dedalus, provided from his own life a vast wealth of story material for his illustrious son: they two were and remain inseparably linked. Joyce is interested in Shakespeare because Shakespeare is Joyce’s greatest literary rival: he wants to know Shakespeare so he can best him at his game. Stephen sees in Shakespeare ― or is it in Shakespeare’s works? or both? ― distorted manifestations of the same deep psychological concerns which beset his own family and his own life. And although in your reading, David, you’re still far from it, probably the second greatest theme of Ulysses is the question of paternity, of the relationship between father and offspring. These interior psychological matters are of far greater, immediate concern to Stephen than are their reflections he finds in Shakespeare’s life. Does Stephen believe his own theory? He denies that he does. Because the internal questions are far more important than his external projection of them.
I once wrote a book about science fiction novelist Frank Herbert in which I sought to place all his writings within the context of the times and places in which they were written, and what was going on in Frank Herbert’s own life during those times. Is it fair or appropriate to do that, delving into the personal experiences of someone who just happened to write a given book? As a writer myself, I know that all of my own experiences affect the fiction I write, directly or no. It is inescapable. What captures us as readers? If we like one novel, don’t we seek out other works by the same author? Then it’s not just the product itself; it can’t be. The question lingers: is it the writer or his works? Or as Mick Jagger would have it, is it the singer or the song?
Now that your appetite for Joyce has been whetted by the last blog post, here’s the Want to Know More? critical link: Dubliners at 100 – The Greene Space. (Hint: click on it. Definitely.)
Why Read James Joyce:
On the Inspiration of James Joyce’s Writing:
Why is James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ so Cool:
The Music of James Joyce’s Writing:
Order of Battle, Northern Army, Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
10 August 1861
Brigadier-General Nathaniel Lyon, Commanding
Lyon’s Bodyguard (Commanding Officer unknown)
Major John McAllister Schofield. Acted primarily as Lyon’s Adjutant at Wilson’s Creek, although also said to have been a major in the 1st Missouri Volunteer Infantry and captain, 1st Artillery.
Captain Gordon Granger, one of Lyon’s staff officers, came with Sturgis from Fort Leavenworth.
|First Brigade ― Maj Samuel D Sturgis|
|2nd Missouri Infantry Battalion (two companies; B and C) ― Maj Peter J Osterhaus|
|Regular Battalion [1st US Infantry (4 companies: B, C, D and I)] ― Captain Joseph Bennett Plummer|
|Captain Arch Houston|
|[2nd regiment, no known designation]|
|Lieutenant Henry Clay Wood‘s Company of Recruits (US Regulars)|
|Company I, 2nd Kansas Infantry (Mounted) [AKA Kansas Rangers, Mounted Company I, 2nd Kansas] [detached from 4th Brigade; see below] ― Captain Samuel Newitt Wood|
|Mounted Home Guard companies (Captain Theodore A Switzler and Captain Clark Wright)|
|Company F, 2nd US Artillery (6 guns) ― Captain James TottenCompany (Battery) F, 2nd U.S. Artillery|
|Company D, 1st US Cavalry ― Lieutenant Charles W Canfield|
|Voerster’s Pioneer Company ― JD Voester [The following month seemingly organized by Frémont as Voerster's Independent Company of Sappers and Miners]|
|Third Brigade ― Lieutenant-Colonel George Leonard Andrews|
|1st Missouri Infantry ― Lieutenant-Colonel George L Andrews (w), Captain Theodore Yates|
|2nd U.S. Infantry (4 companies; battalion of regulars) ― Captain Frederick Steele|
|Companies B and E, 2nd US Infantry|
|Lieutenant WL Lothrop’s Company of Recruits (US Regulars)|
|Lance Sergeant John Morine’s Company of Recruits (US Regulars)|
|Du Bois’s Battery (US Regulars) ― Lieutenant John V Du Bois|
|Fourth Brigade ― Colonel George Washington Deitzler|
|1st Iowa Infantry ― Colonel John F Bates (being sick, did not accompany the regiment when it took the field); Lieutenant-Colonel William H Merritt|
|“Governor’s Grays” ― Francis J Herron|
|1st Iowa Infantry ― Colonel John F Bates (being sick, did not accompany the regiment when it took the field); Lieutenant-Colonel William H Merritt|
|1st Kansas Infantry ― Colonel George Washington Deitzler|
|2nd Kansas Infantry [minus Samuel Wood's company; see 1st Brigade] ― Colonel Robert Byington Mitchell (w), Lieutenant-Colonel Charles W Blair|
|13th Illinois Battalion (21 man detachment) ― Lieutenant James Beardsley|
|Home Guards ― Captain Clark Wright [See entry for First Brigade]|
|Second Brigade ― Colonel Franz Sigel|
|3rd Missouri Infantry ― Lieutenant-Colonel Anselm Albert|
|5th Missouri Infantry ― Colonel Charles Eberhard Salomon|
|Company I, 1st US Cavalry ― Captain Eugene Asa Carr|
|Company C, 2nd US Dragoons ― 2nd Lieutenant Charles E Farrand|
|1st Battery, Backof’s Battalion, Missouri Light Artillery ― Lieutenant Edward Schuetzenbach, Lieutenant Frederick Schaefer|
|Reserves in Springfield|
|Company B, 1st US Cavalry (commanding officer unknown)|
|Company C, 1st US Cavalry (Stabley)|
|Green and Christian County Home Guards (Boyd)|
|Section (two guns), Backof’s battery (commanding officer unknown)|