Monday, April 16, 2012

The Incomprehensible Man

Meg Wolitzer recently lamented--in an essay for the NYTimes Book Review's "Second Shelf"-- that "the top tier of literary fiction--where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation--tends to feel particularly, disproportionately male."

On the way to reaching that conclusion, Wolitzer determines that, while women can say they're interested in what men think because they already know what women think, the opposite is impossible to imagine. In her words, "Were a man to say, 'I already know what men think; I'm more interested in reading books by women,' he would be greeted with incomprehension."

Which inspired me to write the following letter to the editor of the NYTimes Book Review:


I’d like to thank Meg Wolitzer (Second Shelf, 3/30/12) for helping me decide on the title for my next book. It will be called “The Incomprehensible Man,” and its premise is taken from Ms. Wolitzer: “Were a man to say, ‘I already know what men think; I’m more interested in reading books by women,’ he would be greeted with incomprehension.”

It will be a nonfiction account of a year in the life of a man who, wanting to understand aesthetics, read The Elegance of the Hedgehog; who, wanting to understand the Civil War, read Uncle Tom’s Cabin; who, wanting to understand the shift in white sensibilities about civil rights, read The Help and, backwardly, Gone with the Wind; who, wanting to try to understand libertarians, tried to read Atlas Shrugged; who, wanting to understand America’s place in the world, read The Poisonwood Bible.

But The Incomprehensible Man didn’t even think of those books as being by women, or women’s books. It didn’t even occur to him. He thought of them as being the best books to read in order to learn about those aspects of life. And then he read Ms. Wolitzer’s essay and saw what he was doing. Why was he doing this? All he could figure was that men are more and more Freud’s Discontents, while women are more and more Freud’s Civilization. Was will das Weib? The Incomprehensible Man wants to know.

Don’t look for it in your bookstore. “Incomprehension” isn’t anybody’s idea of a market.


That "year in the life" actually did happen to me just this past year, in fact, in the course of reading for the Nevermore Book Club at my library. The format of the club is wide open: we just get together once a week to talk about books. My approach to what I'm going to read is somewhat random. I do bring a lot of current nonfiction, most of which I've ordered for the library. But my favorite books are the ones that stick with me, for good or ill (and believe me, there's a lot of ill in Ayn Rand).

This past year, these books have been overwhelmingly novels written by women, as the above letter attests. I certainly didn't try to make it that way. It just happened in that serendipitous way that public libraries so wonderfully abet. Somewhere in my mind would be a subconscious flash of neon along the lines of "What problem or issue in the world is on your mind?"--and within no time I'd be engaged with it in a book.

Was it by a man or a woman? I didn't care. All that I cared was that the book lead me into intimacy with the subject. With Margaret Mitchell it turned out not to be a place I wanted to go, and Rand depressed me no end. Still, the books punched the ticket.

Not that I expect any kudos from Wolitzer. It's not like I set out to read books by women qua women. Moreover, while the novels that I read were surely by women, they didn't necessarily exemplify the literary standards that so concern Wolitzer. Were they "top tier" literary? Only one or two really qualified.

But so what? Does the world Wolitzer imagine--that place where great literature "enters the public imagination and the current conversation"--even exist, whether the books are written by men or women?

Right now, the books that are in the public imagination are by women--but Wolitzer would scoff at the notion that they are literature. Whatever book-fueled public imagination we have is consumed by wizards, vampires, and a dystopian future of kids killing each other with bows and arrows in order to stay alive. And every single one of the chief exemplars of that influential body of literature--because, however "good" or "bad," it is literature--is by a woman.

As for serious fiction? Heck, not even the Pulitzer could dig one up this year by anyone of any gender at all. So much for that top tier where the air is rich and the view is great, where everyone yawns at Jonathan Franzen and decides not to read David Foster Wallace since he let boredom get to him.

Wolitzer's envy is needless. If change hasn't already happened, it's on its way. Modernism was the last gasp of male literary culture. Now that it's expired, men have fallen back into either the Iliad or the Odyssey and are content to relive either story again and again in sporting events or computer games. Women--to some extent despite themselves--will discover that the language they invented to express the concerns of their sphere will be the main prop of their growing political power, a power that will reshape civilization.

Patriarchy, your days are numbered. Time for a circle jerk with Louis C.K.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The weirdest performance ever on the stage at Barter Theatre

In the course of some Facebook-commenting, friend Anthony Parnther reminded me of a unique event in our lives: a duet we performed for Barter Theatre's 14th annual Community Christmas back in 2007.

We agreed that our duet stakes a solid claim as the weirdest performance ever on the stage of Barter Theatre.

And I'm sure Barter's seen plenty of weird things. For those of you who haven't heard of it, it's the professional theatre of the Commonwealth of Virginia--a year-round, residential repertory company with a wide variety of theatrical works in production at all times. It's in Abingdon, just up the road from where I live. (The name "Barter" comes from its early days, during the Depression, when local folks could parlay their vegetables into the price of admission.)

Barter is thoroughly professional and high-quality, but they're not what I'd call weird. Sure, they'll do Waiting for Godot or something by Ionesco from time to time, but challenging as those are, they're so well-known as to be mainstream. In order for a performance to qualify as "weird," it has to combine novelty, uniqueness, and strangeness in such a way that it leaves the audience completely unmoored from any safe haven of expectation.

Anthony and I, with the help of Jon Hutchins, unmoored that audience way more than Othello could have.

Partly it was just in the nature of things. The Community Christmas is a charity fundraiser variety show, and this being Appalachia, the variety is provided by a folksy mix of local performers--three or four bluegrass(y) bands,three or four acoustic balladeers, a Dixieland band, a youth choir, maybe a church choir, and--this being a town with cultural pretensions--a youth ballet company And there's always a theme--the heart of Christmas, celebrate local, a Southern Christmas, etc. Or rather there's always supposed to be a theme. I'd done the gig before and was impressed with how performers just seemed to do whatever the hell they wanted to do. The theme in 2007 was "high notes of the season: a jazz, blues, big band Christmas concert." They asked me to play and, well, basically, I'm an oboe player.

I don't know about you, but "oboe" doesn't just leap into most people's minds at the thought of jazz, blues, and big band. However, I had, as I said, done the gig before playing oboe with a bluegrass(y) group called The Full Grace Grifters. We'd rendered Jimmy Buffett's "Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum," and I must've fooled some people. But hey, isn't that what grifters do?

I was determined to give them what they wanted. If they wanted jazz and blues, I'd give it to them. Since they'd already bid for an oboe, why not call them with a bassoon, and then raise them with electric lap dulcimer? Anthony Parnther would be able to cover on the bassoon whatever I threw at him. But who would we be? For some reason I started thinking about how unfair it is that our indelible image of Ebenezer Scrooge is his beforeness. So we'd be him afterwards. We'd be "Joy of Scrooge."

So, now that I've set the stage for the weirdest performance ever at Barter, here's how it went:

[Emcee Nick Piper]: And now, here for your listening pleasure are Eb Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, appearing at the behest of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, to exhibit musical abilities that they never knew they had by performing jazz on the oboe and the bassoon.


[Scrooge (me)] Just remember, as in everything connected with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, what you're experiencing right now is a hallucination designed to change your behavior. What you are about to hear doesn't have to happen in real life ... if you will change your erring ways. Specifically, in one small matter of punctuation.

Look at your program.

Do you see how our first song is listed as "God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen"? What about that comma? Horrified? No? The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is horrified. God rest you? What, is God in the mattress business now? Humbug! It should be "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen"! God rest you merry! God rest you merry! God rest you merry! Gentlemen. And ladies. Upon the placement of that comma rests an entire understanding of the nature of the holiday and indeed of divinity. So now we're going to play it with the comma in the right place so you can wake up to the joy of Scrooge.

[Joy of Scrooge perform God Rest You Merry for oboe and bassoon.]

[While they are playing, a figure--in real life Jon Hutchins--comes out onto stage behind Scrooge's (my) back, carrying an electric dulcimer and wearing a full peacock tail, snakeskin pants, a loud plaid tie, a loud paisley tie, sunglasses, snowshoes, and a faux-tigerskin cowboy hat with a garish crown of crosses for a hatband. Bemused titters from the audience. The figure--in real life Jon Hutchins--slides the dulcimer next to Scrooge's (my) chair and puts the cowboy hat on Scrooge's (my) head while he plays.]

[God Rest You Merry concludes and Scrooge (me) takes up the patter] OK! Enough drama about a comma! You know it's not widely known that Dickens had a fourth Christmas ghost, between Ghosts 2 and 3, variously known in his manuscripts as The Ghost of Christmas 2.3 the beta version, The Ghost of Christmas What Were They Thinking?, and The Ghost of Christmas My True Love Gave To Me As a True Test of Our Relationship.

In this pre-first-edition self-published version of the story [here Scrooge (me) holds up the Classics Illustrated comic book version of A Christmas Carol], Dickens describes this ghost as--I'm reading his words--"a bizarre, chimerical figure, part peacock, part snake, part plaid, part paisley, with the eyes of a bluebottle fly, having for feet the shoes of Esquimaux, and haberdashed with a broadbrimmed hat of tiger skin, banded with a coronet of sham Byzantium."

I've never met this ghost, but I've felt his presence on occasion ... hey! What's this?

[Scrooge (me) reaches up and feels the cowboy hat, takes it off, examines it, then questions the audience] Is there something you're not telling me? Oh, and look here!

[Scrooge (me) looks down and sees the electric dulcimer] Just what I've always wanted! An ironing board with strings! Nothing like a truly practical gift that only The Ghost of Christmas 2.3 would know how to bring! But we hope our next song is something you can take home and use. It's a simple folk blues from the tradition that recognizes that Mary must've been one tired mama sometimes that first Christmas, and that her and our own Christmases sometimes need some rocking to keep us going.

[Joy of Scrooge perform Mary Had a Little Baby on bassoon and electric dulcimer, with the dulcimer sound run through a distortion/phaser pedal and the bassoon laying down like a bad bari sax.]

[Performance ends. Polite applause.]

[Backstage patter: "Joy of Scrooge, y'all are very dangerous people."]

So anyway, that's it. There was no aftermath. Anthony rushed off to another gig. Jon had already left with his Bride of New Year's Yet to Come, my daughter Emily.

Barter Theatre hasn't invited me back.


Any oboe/bassoon re-enactors out there that want to take a shot at God Rest You Merry: get the music here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Living la vida logos

A while back, wanting to put some conversational flesh on the literary bones of my college French, I went to Paris soon after I graduated and straightway signed up for a class at the school for foreigners. Needing a place to stay besides a hotel, I lucked out finding a room, practically around the corner from the school, in a boarding house at 44, rue d'Assas, called the Pension Familiale Littré. The luck wasn't so much finding out about the place--it was listed in the bible of my journey, the Harvard Student Union Let's Go guide to France--as it was that there was a room at all. It was the last one, and it was the size of a closet.

Which is only a slight exaggeration. There was a bed, a desk with chair, a wardrobe, and a sink. I could wash my hands by reaching over to the sink while lying on the bed. The desk and wardrobe, side by side, were the same length as the bed. When I sat at the desk, the back of the chair touched the bed. The door, when opened, rubbed against the foot of the bed. It was all very snug.

The proprietor of the pension was, unexpectedly, enthusiastically pro-American. He was French, but of Algerian birth (making him what the French call a pied-noir, or "black-foot"--like Albert Camus), and had fond memories of Americans during WWII. He always wore a lapel pin of crossed French and American flags. When he showed me the room, he apologized for its size and said it surely wouldn't be good enough for "un américain." But I thought it looked great. He seemed surprised when I told him I'd take it.

Next to the building's street entrance was a stone plaque that explained the "Littré" in the boarding-house name:

Littré, "author of the great dictionary of the French language," had died in the building where I was now living. It was kind of like booking a room in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For three months as a resident at 44, rue d'Assas, I took my classes, made this book on French argot my dictionary, wandered around a lot in Paris, enjoyed the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, and kept up my oboe lip. Around the dinner table I asked the other boarders if the oboe bothered them. No, not at all, they said; in fact, they enjoyed listening to it. 

Years later I used my time there as part of the inspiration for a novel with the same title as the address. (p.o.d., XLibris, 2000.) It was written under the influence, as it were, of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and of Plato and George MacDonald, by way of C. S. Lewis, with their insistence that ideas have their own realm. If a genre is to be applied, probably "magical realism" would be the closest: the book  is supposedly a shadow play written by an oboe for Plato's Cave; words in the book take the life of miniature soldiers that interact with the real world of real people. You'd have to read it to ... understand? haha.

Here's the formal description of the book:

"What good are words against terrorism? Words haunt 44, rue d’Assas, once the Paris address of the great lexicographer Littré. It’s where two soldiers confront their souls of engraved lead, where an old lady can’t help her bitter pronouncements, where a young man tries to define himself. And it’s a place visited by world terrorism, with its stock-phrases of benevolence and its stockpile of ammonium nitrate. Words can be revealing, if you can understand them. The author is an oboe. Let the music begin."

In chapter 8 of the book the "old lady" is sitting in her apartment at 44, rue d'Assas, on a drowsy afternoon. Along with other sounds of the world outside, she hears through her courtyard window an oboe constructing a composition. Here it is as imagined on music video.

In case there are any treble instrumentalists (e.g. oboists, violinists, clarinetists, saxophonists) interested in the composition, here's the sheet music:

(Oboists: I bet you didn't know it was possible to play a low a-sharp ;-))

Thursday, April 5, 2012

No one expects the Copyright Inquisition

It's the time of the year to keep the earth-circling serpent from tightening its grip by making a pysanky-method Easter egg. I did my part. (Don't come complaining to me, all ye non-pysanky-method-Easter-egg-makers, when they prove that global warning is caused by an earth-circling serpent.)

Then I got los cuatro oboistas del Apocalipsis over to the house to record an instrumental version of the first and eponymous movement of Stabat Mater, by G. B. Pergolesi (it was originally scored for two women's voices). Then I recruited my egg into the Ballet Pysanka and made a little movie as my way of saying "Happy Easter, y'all."

It wasn't 15 minutes before I got a message from Youtube that my video "matched third party content." The message guided me through a process that gave me choices ranging from doing nothing and waiting for future action from the copyright owner (though ads might begin to pop up when the video was played) to disputing the claim.

You're damn right I disputed the claim. If this isn't public domain, there ain't no public domain. Pergolesi died in 1736. I'm pretty sure whatever claim he might have has expired. The performance is los cuatro oboes del Apocalipsis; it is, I'm absolutely certain, the only four-oboe performance of Stabat Mater in the entire universe--including any alternative ones you might want to throw in. I filed my dispute and, to Youtube's credit, within hours they had removed whatever copyright lien there was on the video.

Still, it was disturbing. What I'm thinking is that a robot matched the musical content to other video performances (using choirs or voices in duet) and through up a red flag to cover Youtube's DMCA ass. But it's also possible that somebody out there has tried to copyright a performance of Pergolesi, which is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Although not surprising. Over at the Librarian Party in Goodreads I've been reading Copyfraud and Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law by Jason Mazzone. He documents case after case of entertainment industry over-reach that has all but destroyed our heretofore healthy sense of the public domain and drastically weakened the legal doctrine of fair use.

To the point that when you put up your own video Easter card with ancient music bizarrely arranged, copyright's Grand Inquisitors come knocking.

If it was Halloween, I might understand.