Monday, December 22, 2008

The passion for dumbness

Aurora borealis. (Courtesy of Tarvo.)

Not having a fully functional internet connection at home is making me batty! No chance of getting it sorted out before next week, maybe longer than that, so expect blogging to continue light through early January. I'm in the office today, though, so will hope to sneak in a few posts here and there...

Coincidentally I read what I thought was a wonderfully good novel last night, Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. It is a novel that asks to be read in one sitting (Ken Bruen would love this novel!), magically well-written in an understated way - and the heroine is named after Richardson's Clarissa, not Woolf's!

Miscellaneous other light reading (moving turns up interesting books that I fully intended to read when I first got 'em!): Kage Baker's In the Garden of Iden (very good - made me want to reread Connie Willis); Reginald Hill's A Pinch of Snuff (I burned out on this series in its later stages, but the early ones are better - formulaic but good); T. Jefferson Parker's Storm Runners (must have purchased in an airport and then never gotten to it - farfetched, shallow).

And dipping into some non-fiction that is absurdly directly speaking to me: Gayle Greene's Insomniac, which I highly recommend - Greene's website gives you a taste); and Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One.

Here is a bit of Dylan that I especially liked (the book gives me a surreal feeling that it must have been ghostwritten by Toni Schlesinger, as it has a deadpan noir New York voice that I strongly associate with her!):
[I] went into another room, a windowless one with a painted door - a dark cavern with a floor-to-ceiling library. I switched on the lamps. The place had an overpowering presence of literature and you couldn't help but lose your passion for dumbness. Up until this time I'd been raised in a cultural spectrum that had left my mind black with soot. Brando. James Dean. Milton Berle. Marilyn Monroe. Lucy. Earl Warren and Khruschchev, Castro. Little Rock and Peyton Place. Tennessee Williams and Joe DiMaggio. J. Edgar Hoover and Westinghouse. The Nelsons. Holiday Inns and hot-rod Chevys. Mickey Spillane and Joe McCarthy. Levittown.

Standing in this room you could take it all for a joke. There were all types of things in here, books on typography, epigraphy, philosophy, political ideologies. The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed. Books like Fox's Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus. Pericles' Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides' The Athenian General - a narrative which would give you chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and it talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. Thucydides writes about how words in his time have changed from their ordinary meaning, how actions and opinions can be altered in the blink of an eye. It's like nothing has changed from his time to mine.
This is the passage in Thucydides that I've been obsessed with every since I first read it, & which I obsessively cited to the students in my Swift and Burke class this fall. My copy of the book is still boxed up in some more or less inextricable fashion, so I borrow the text from this post at Crooked Timber:
To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence . . . and indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second. (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War III, 82, trans. Rex Warner, The Penguin Classics, pp. 209-210)


  1. Hello! It’s interesting that Bob Dylan might not have written Chronicles> himself. When I read it, I thought that he lived up to his reputation for being a good lyricist. If it was indeed a ghostwriter, it'd be a little disappointing because the book make me think highly of him apart from his songs. Thanks!

  2. I must clarify - I did not mean to say that the book was actually ghostwritten, it was more of a joke and a compliment - an appealing likeness of style between Dylan and Schlesinger, the latter of whom is much less well-known than Bob Dylan but should be far more widely read!