I took a gang of about twelve family members on a field trip to Occupy Wall Street this Thanksgiving weekend. First, we visited the desolate remains of the famous tent city at Zuccotti Park that was raided by New York City police a week and a half ago.
The Occupy Wall Street leadership (yes, there is leadership -- they just keep away from the spotlight) has abandoned Zuccotti Park to the police. This was a smart decision, because the park itself was never meant to be more than a temporary home, and a territory battle can only be a distraction from the movement's important messages about the economy. So, Zuccotti has been left to a raggedy bunch of drop-by protesters, tourists, homeless people, persistent old-school lefties, sign-carriers, guitar players and sad-looking solo drummers. The police have surrounded the entire plaza with a continuous metal barricade fence, and I led my family through a checkpoint into the center of the concrete plaza. It was nothing like the beautiful, crowded, energetic scene I'd witnessed only two weeks before. We caught a few weak "mic check" attempts that went nowhere, and stopped to listen in on one large sitting session, an outreach/messaging conversation group, but the session barely managed to keep itself going.
A drum-banging protest march finally emerged outside the barricades around 5:45 pm on Friday evening, and my family enjoyed joining it for a noisy stroll around Zuccotti. The six teenagers in our group participated with a healthy mix of irony and enthusiasm, and together we presented three generations of support for the movement. Then we left Zuccotti Park, because I hoped to find better action in the quiet atrium at 60 Wall Street, one of many locations where small, focused groups of protesters have been holding meetings to make decisions about the future direction of the Occupy action.
We found a much more lively scene at 60 Wall than at Zuccotti Park. At least five working groups were meeting this Friday evening. The Occupy discussion groups are fully open, and my gang of tourists was able to feel welcome as we split up to listen in on various working groups. Some forbidding new signs have been put up by the lease-holders of this building, the gargoyle institution Duetsche Bank, warning protesters not to push their luck. But the mood in the atrium appeared to be as friendly and positive on Thanksgiving weekend as it had been the previous time I'd come around, before the police crackdown.
After the success of "Catcher in the Rye", J. D. Salinger began writing almost exclusively about a fictional family, the Glass siblings of New York City, from various narrative points of view. The sublime short books "Franny and Zooey" and "Seymour/Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters" were about the Glass children, and Salinger's most famous short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" tells the chilling tale of Seymour Glass's suicide in a Florida hotel room. Most of these stories are fractured narratives containing reflections of reflections of the Glass children, usually related in dialogue and allegedly recorded by the mild, stealthy older brother, Buddy Glass.
A few months ago, writer Michael Norris and artist David Richardson began working together on a project to imagine the faces of the Glass family members. This represents a creative first, as far as we know, because no well-known film, play or art project has ever emerged to represent these characters. Michael and David previously illuminated Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" for Literary Kicks, and David Richardson drew the cover for "Beats In Time", the new Literary Kicks Beat Generation anthology..
It is his second shave. He will place the razor on the edge of the sink, it will fall into the basin, but with the grace that an inanimate object, a prop, can give to a well directed scene in a comedy of manners. It is a scene every actor longs to play, a scene few will ever play as well as Zooey. He is about to turn toward Bessie, he will ease up on her and look at her with love. He will sit in Seymour and Buddy’s room after he dresses, smoke cigars, read the once white beaver board of world literature quotations, and he will help Franny, and always shine his shoes for Seymour‘s Fat Lady.
Up until the mid-fifties, J.D. Salinger had been circling around the eldest child of the Glass family, Seymour. Seymour appeared as the main character in the short story “A Perfect day for Bananafish”, but for the most part he stayed in the background. At the time of Franny and Zooey he was already dead. But in almost every Glass family story, Seymour was a presence: the soul, conscience and genius behind Les and Bessie Glasses’s large troupe of precocious children.
Now, in twin novelllas packaged in one volume, and appearing in in 1963, Seymour gets top billing. But because these are Salinger novels, Seymour does not come out and speak or perhaps do a little soft shoe for our amusement. Instead, the stories are narrated by his Boswell, his brother Buddy Glass, and once again Seymour is one degree removed from the action of the stories. The name of this collection is Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is the first and most engaging story in this collection. It concerns the wedding day of Seymour and his wife-to-be, Muriel. The rest of the Glass family is dispersed across the face of the earth due to the war, so it is up to Buddy to be the sole Glass representative at Seymour’s wedding.
Buddy had been drafted into the army, and he arrives in New York, on leave, from Fort Benning on a sweltering June day. He takes a cab to Muriel’s grandmother’s house and waits with the other guests for the arrival of the groom. And waits. And waits. Finally it becomes apparent that Seymour is not going to show up, and all of the guests pile into waiting cars to take them to Muriel’s parent’s house.
Buddy jumps into a car with, among others, the matron of honor, who keeps repeating that she wants to just get her hands on Seymour for ”just two minutes” and do him some bodily harm. Buddy, who at this time has still not introduced himself as Seymour’s brother, sits uncomfortably in the car, not knowing why he is even there.
The car moves along slowly and then comes to a dead stop. Madison Avenue is blocked both north and south due to a parade. The occupants of the car wait in the sweltering heat, a situation that becomes even more uncomfortable when it the others discovers that Buddy is Seymour’s brother. The inhabitants of the car eventually decide to abandon it and head for a nearby Schrafft’s restaurant.
In 1948, J.D. Salinger published the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in the New Yorker. This event was a major step in his literary career. First, it brought Salinger serious critical acclaim. Second, it established a working relationship between the author and The New Yorker. The magazine offered Salinger a right of first refusal contract, and he subsequently published his new work almost exclusively in the New Yorker. Third, it marks the first published appearance of Seymour Glass, the oldest sibling in the Glass family. Salinger would go on to chronicle the lives of the Glass family siblings in a series of short stories and novellas.
“Bananafish” is the only story in which Seymour appears in real time. In all the other stories he is either referred to, or described from a distance in time. Nevertheless, the spirit of Seymour pervades all of the stories, and is a constant presence in the thoughts of his younger brothers and sisters.
The "Bananafish" story (which became the opening story in Salinger's beloved collection Nine Stories) is a masterpiece of economy and style. Using mostly dialog to set the scene and give background on the main characters, Salinger presents the barest of facts, describes a series of events, and then lets the reader puzzle out the meaning and fill in his or her own perception of the characters. Salinger at this point in his life was a student of Zen Buddhism, and “Bananafish” is similar to a Zen koan, or riddle, in which a question is posed and the answer is found through meditation and self-examination.
Fifty years ago this September, in 1961, J.D. Salinger published a slim volume containing a short story and a short novel that had both appeared previously in The New Yorker. The book was Franny and Zooey. It appeared ten years after the publication of his best-seller The Catcher in the Rye.
Franny and Zooey is the first book-length treatment of the Glass family. Salinger had already introduced some of the family members in stories such as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Down at the Dinghy”. Now, the mythic Glass clan is fleshed out. The family history is revealed for the reader, and all the family members enumerated - the parents: Les and Bessie; and the seven children: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, the twins Walt and Waker, Zooey and Franny.
Franny Glass is presented almost entirely in dialogue. The youngest of the Glass family, she's a student at an unnamed Eastern college. She is attending a football weekend at her boyfriend Lane Coutell’s school. It is the Yale game, so his school is of the Ivy League variety.
During lunch with Lane at a restaurant, Franny expresses her disenchantment with phony college intellectuals and the egotism that abounds in her school's Theatre department, which caused her to quit her involvement. She also reveals that she has been reading a book called The Way of a Pilgrim. It's a work by a simple Russian pilgrim that describes his spiritual quest, and how he learned to say the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”.
The Jesus prayer is to be repeated continuously until it becomes as much a part of the unconscious functioning of the body as the beating of the heart. After a period of time, the constant repetition of this prayer will lead to a form of spiritual illumination, similar to the meditation on “om” in Buddhism or Hinduism.
Franny suddenly becomes quite ill – it appears that she is in the throes of a complete nervous or spiritual breakdown. She is pale and perspiring, and at one point she goes into the bathroom and cries for about five minutes. Upon returning from the bathroom, she is okay for a while, but then faints. Lane Coutell takes her into the restaurant manager’s office, and then goes to fetch a cab. She is seen at the end of the story in the office, lying on the couch, silently repeating the Jesus prayer.
I've dreamed up a political project so crazy, so utterly out of step with the mood of American media coverage today, that you know I'm going to have to run with it.
Many have suggested that the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement have a lot in common (many others have ridiculed or severely ridiculed this notion). Well, I don't think it's worth dwelling on whether or not they currently have a lot in common. Instead, let's look to the future and ask if a common political platform -- addressing the economy, social issues, foreign policy, the environment and electoral reform -- can possibly be built that might capture the enthusiasm of a significant fraction of both Tea Party and Occupy protesters. And I'd like to try to construct that platform over the next few Philosophy Weekend blog posts, with your comments and suggestions. I can hardly think of a more exciting and ambitious project to take on.
A unified protest platform for the United States of America -- why not? One thing I'm pretty sure about: there are only a few bloggers or political commentators
stupid ambitious enough to seriously try something like this. And I'm one of them.
I believe a unified protest platform is possible because the need to fix structural problems in the USA government is so urgent that caring citizens on both sides ought to be willing to cast a wide net in the pursuit of change. Who are the real opponents of Tea Party and Occupy protesters? The automatic answers might include Barack Obama (if you're a conservative) or the Koch brothers (if you're a liberal), but I'd like to propose instead that these are the real opponents:
- Dishonest government bureaucrats
- Corrupt lobbyists, and the businesses that pay them
- Pessimistic citizens who fear the future and prefer the safety of the status quo
- Apathetic or uneducated citizens who don't understand the urgency of either protest movement
Please note that I said "opponents", not "enemies", because a friendly and non-judgmental approach towards fixing major problems is much more likely to gain traction than a hostile and accusatory one. My proposal is to examine the practical political platforms represented by both protest movements, identify the areas of mutual agreement, and suggest some compromises that might appeal to moderate or action-oriented protesters on both sides.
1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:
The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.
2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.
3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?
I love a good cross-blog debate. Last weekend I responded briefly to Bill "Maverick" Vallicella's question as to how a pacifist can support abortion rights. Vallicella has now responded back (and, as usual, has done so intelligently), and I see that I'll have to work a lot harder this weekend, because he's pointed out several ways I'll have to improve my argument to stand up to his response. I'm going to give it my best shot.
In fact, anybody who plans to write about the debate over legal abortion ought to prepare to work hard, because this has got to be one of the most difficult, most vexing and most emotionally potent issues in the air today. I have often wondered if there is any chance for pro-choicers and pro-lifers to settle on a common ground, to co-exist in peace. The current legal status quo favors my position, the pro-choice position (thanks to Roe vs. Wade), but pro-choicers cannot feel secure about the future of the Supreme Court's stance on Roe vs. Wade, and the anger and intensity on both sides has harmed the overall chances for moderate political agreements in America in general. To hope for any possible universal settlement of this controversy, given the current state of the debate, would appear highly quixotic. This is indeed a problem for philosophers to try to solve, because nobody else is going to be able to solve it.
I'm going to boldface each of the important points that Vallicella makes, and respond to each one. For helpful background, it would probably be best to read my post from last weekend and Bill's response before reading today's installment. What follows is my attempt to truly understand and fairly represent both sides of this debate, and to reach for any kind of principled answers that may cut across the well-dug trenches. Here goes:
1. Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, includes pieces by J. G. Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Philip Roth, Rudy Rucker and Robert Crumb. Here's the full table of contents.
2. And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... some dude I never heard of! Which kind of surprises me, since I thought I sort of knew this space. Anyway, meet Tomas Transtromer of Stockholm, Sweden. Words Without Borders has him, of course.
3. I couldn't find any Tomas Transtromer at Asymptote, another new journal of international/translated literature I've started looking at, but they do have Robert Walser (translated by Susan Bernofsky), Lin Yoade and a new translation by Mani Rao of an old Upanishad.
The Outlaw Album just might be the most eagerly anticipated book release in years that doesn’t involve insufferably prude emo-glampires or awkward tween warlocks. After all, this is the first book we’ve seen from Daniel Woodrell since his masterful ’06 novel, Winter's Bone. Forget the disappointing irony that it took a film (the 2010 adaptation of Bone) to get a writer critics spent years calling American literature’s best-kept-secret the readership he deserved. He has it now. The question is: what’s he going to do with it? Anyone who’s followed Woodrell’s career can easily answer that question – Woodrell always delivers.
Many of our country’s greatest literary lights suffer from quality inconstancy. Hence, John Updike caps a career as one America’s most esteemed modern novelists with a paint-by-numbers embarrassment like Terrorist and the maladroit fumble that was The Widows of Eastwick. Philip Roth gets it right with Exit Ghost then follows it up with the thoroughly humbling The Humbling. Fortunately, Woodrell doesn’t share this hit-or-miss quality. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but it’s an admirable trait for a writer to aspire to and one Woodrell can rightfully claim.
Woodrell hearkens back to an older age of story-telling. It would be hard to draw a more obvious literary progression than from William Faulkner to Flannery O’Connor to Daniel Woodrell. Woodrell’s novels have always seemed like a middle ground between these predecessors – but The Outlaw Album (perhaps because it’s strictly short stories) seems fully in the camp of the latter. It’s as if he’s found Flannery O’Connor’s secret formula for short story perfection and boiled it down to its essence. Instead of the longer, more character-driven pieces she wrote, Woodrell starts the story just an hour or two before the violent, often shocking, climax we know to expect at the end of an O’Connor story – then slows things down enough to fill us in on what came before.