Sunday, August 24, 2008

Coincidence is either hit or miss

I spent the summer reading every short story Flannery O'Connor wrote. I also took two classes. In an assignment for the first class, Overcoming Reading Difficulties, we were instructed to read whatever we wanted for an hour, as long as it hadn't been assigned by a teacher for a class. The next day, the professor asked each one of us what we read, wrote the titles and authors on the board, and used these titles for a discussion about reading. I liked her as a professor and as a person, and the strategies she taught us to help struggling and reluctant readers understand and engage with texts will come in handy when I start teaching. However, our aesthetics couldn't be more different. She sees reading as a social act that brings us together and shows us how, deep down, we're all the same. She believes literature is at its best when the reader can relate his/her life experiences and background with the text. She also believes the curriculum should assign books featuring characters with the same demographic background as the students. I see reading as a solitary act that benefits us most when it presents us with our differences, not our similarities. We all want to be loved, we all bleed when we get cut, we all need to sleep. So fucking what? It's our differences that matter. Over-reliance on relating our own life experiences to the words on the page creates too many opportunities for shallow, superficial readings and misreadings. We're imposing our own backstories on the text and making it all about us instead of about the work. The time to relate our own experiences to a piece of writing is after we've read it closely and understood it, not during the reading process itself. This touchy-feely, hippy-dippy, put-yourself-in-the-text approach in secondary school jarringly and abruptly morphs into pointless symbol-hunting and post-colonial canon-shredding in college. Sometimes you get lucky, but mostly you're told that literature is only as important as its analysis, criticism, and/or use as a launching pad for theory. But that's another story. When my professor called on me and asked what I read, I mentioned the O'Connor stories. She then asked suspiciously, "This wasn't for a class, was it?" I was the only one who was asked this question, and I was a little insulted. Then, another student asked what kind of things O'Connor wrote. My professor said, "Southern."

O'Connor lived in the South for most of her too-short 39 years, and most of her writing takes place there. She wrote incisively about the South, and her take on racism and black/white race relations in a specifically Southern context is one of her greatest achievements as a writer. But I felt this description of her entire body of work in one geographical word limited and marginalized her. My professor might have said other one-word descriptors: "Death." "Christianity." "Hypocrisy." "Ignorance." "Humor." "Terror." "Families." "Faith." They could apply, too, but they're equally limiting and ghettoizing. Flannery O'Connor writes Flannery O'Connor stories. To find out what that means, you have to read her, and read her closely. Like all good artists, she's too strange to fit the tidy niches where we try to shove every messy, slippery thing. And everything is messy and slippery. Except for the music of Conor Oberst. You can safely file that under "Shit," my friends.
While reading the O'Connor stories, I thought a lot about my grandmother, who died in March. See, I told you everything was messy. Here I am, doing what I tell everyone not to do. Imposing my personal life on the work. Both O'Connor and my grandmother were devout Catholics, while I'm as secular as can be. I only believe what's in front of me. However, both O'Connor and my grandmother were creative, intelligent people with wonderful senses of humor. Their strong, personal, admirable faith is something I don't have, but something I feel close to anyway. I was raised Catholic, and Catholicism will always play a part in my life. (Obviously, I'm talking about O'Connor's personality traits that come through in her writing and in reading about her personal history.) I'd like to think my grandmother read and enjoyed O'Connor, and I wish I could talk to her about it. I asked my mother last week if my grandmother read any O'Connor. She wasn't sure, but she thought so.
My grandmother's favorite movie was The Wizard of Oz, and one of her favorite songs was "Over the Rainbow." In the weeks immediately following her death, my iPod on shuffle played both Harry Nilsson's and Jerry Lee Lewis' versions of the song several times. My mother said she also heard "Over the Rainbow" on the radio several times in those three weeks. (I'm not sure which version.) She told my uncle this story on the phone. When he hung up, he turned on the radio. "Over the Rainbow" was playing. He immediately called my mother back and told her. That same uncle had recently started dating a woman, and it was going well. She had been in two abusive relationships, so when she was driving alone in her car, she asked for a sign that my uncle was a good person. "Over the Rainbow" started playing on the radio. Surely, this should instill a little faith in me, right? No. These are just coincidences. Lovely coincidences that make me think about a wonderful person I was lucky enough to have in my life for 30 years, but coincidences nevertheless. My uncle and the woman he'd been seeing have since broken up, eliminating that sign from God. Judging from the frequency of the song's appearance on limited playlist corporate radio stations in western Nebraska and Colorado, I'm guessing someone has recently covered it and had a hit with it, or the oldies stations are working it into the repertoire. And I put the Nilsson version on a playlist on my iPod. Songs in the playlist tend to come up more often on shuffle, though this could be a coincidence as well.
Last week, I watched the "Dark Side of the Rainbow" on YouTube, which syncs up Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" album with The Wizard of Oz. The supposedly staggering number of synchronicities leads many gullible, conspiracy-loving and/or stoned individuals to insist that the band specifically wrote the album to match the 1939 classic movie OR some kind of cosmic interference from some mystical realm created the synchronicities for reasons we can't understand. Ignoring for now the Herculean task of attempting such a folly with pre-DVD, pre-VHS 1973 technology and the fact that the movie is 1.5 times longer than the album, there are still many problems with these theories. I agree that there are a shitload of coincidences, which send chills of delight and spookiness up my spine, particularly the fact that each song ends right as a scene changes in the movie. But, and this is a big but, for everything that synchs up perfectly, there are at least, AT LEAST, ten things that do not. I'm happy that so many freaky coincidences happen when the album plays at the same time as the film because it's a lot of fun, but in order to believe some grand design, one must ignore everything that doesn't work. We're talking about a cognitive bias here called apophenia, which is seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. Once, I rented Fritz Lang's silent classic Metropolis, but I didn't care for the score, so, roughly ten minutes into the movie, I hit the mute button and played Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II" instead. Many movements of people and machines matched the music perfectly. Many others did not.

This is similar to the tactics those incredible douchebags like John Edward use when they claim to speak to dead people to exploit the grief of the bereaved for money. These "cold readings" usually involve a barrage of guesses. Some of these guesses are going to be correct, and grieving people desperate to hear from a loved one on the other side tend to ignore the incorrect guesses and grab onto the correct ones. Another of my recent YouTube obsessions is watching magician/skeptic James Randi debunk psychics, cold readers, mediums, astrologers, faith healers, etc. Beautiful stuff, especially when that idiot Uri Geller squirms on "The Tonight Show."

If there is an afterlife, maybe I can get together with Syd Barrett, Flannery O'Connor, and my grandmother and watch "Dark Side of the Rainbow" on a puffy cloud while John Edward and Sylvia Browne burn in hell below. I'm open to being wrong about the whole secular/skepticism thing.

By the way, I have an uncle who does a perfect imitation of the Cowardly Lion.


steigrrr said...

What a coincidence! I have an aunt who does an IMperfect imitation of the cowardly lion!

Also, I have lots to say about difference and identification in literature, but I have to save my writing energy to finish an encyclopedia entry about post-colonial theatre in Africa and Asia. No joke. I just finished reading Chinua Achebe's lecture called "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." That one's an excellent and very pointed piece of canon-shredding based on a really careful close reading.

"Wise Blood" was my very favorite book for a long time, but I haven't read it in a while. I was a big Flannery O'Connor fan, having been brought up Catholic in the semi-south. Did you ever read "The Habit of Being?" You should. It's a great collection of O'Connor's letters.

Anonymous said...

I've wanted to comment on this post for weeks, but am always too tired to really explain my position on it. In the spirit of the faceplant, however, let me be elliptical and brief, if only to instigate further postings, which, as even my colleagues will attest, are bitchin'.

I think it is interesting, fantastic, ironic, eerie that you have picked Edwards as the primary example of why you dislike symbolic/coincidental readings of literary texts. Interesting, fantastic, ironic, and eerie because the dude who I am positioning as a scarecrow (a scarecrow, mind you, who wears Angus Young school boy knickers to academic conferences) in my dissertation--on this very topic--also uses Edwards. The argument for him--though you wouldn't ever be this crass about art--is that our insistence of derivable meaning in texts, of some sort of communicative pact between author and audience, is always evidence of "onto-theological" yearning, which is a fancy way of saying a belief in intelligent design, which is a coward's way of insisting upon God. In other words, if I imagine literary texts as not just the text, the "story" laid before me, but also--simultaneously?--as the intended communication of an author who is relating the story (through craft, and sweat, and hard work, and a need to connect with other human beings)to some intended audience, if I believe all of that, than I am somehow subscribing to a belief is divine coincidence, or a neurotic and unenlightened searching for a sharing of selves--between author and reader, director and audience--that makes me an unenlightened boob. It means I am hearing somewhere over the rainbow and believe that an angel has got their wings.

Obviously, I think this man's position is adolescent horsehit (remember the boy-shorts? did i mention that hair-metal mane?) but it is, actually, the accepted hermeneutic position of the Academy. What is more interesting to me, however--and is it a surprise that smart friends inspire more interesting things than fat-headed, fat-tenured strangers?--is you assumption that literature starts from a point of difference. I disagree with this only insofar as I agree with it, and although you know me well enough to know that I would employ that kind of dipshit sophistry to dodge an argument, it really is the most clear articulation of what I mean: we all exist, hopelessly alone, trapped inside of skulls and membrane, longing for telepathy but stuck with the clumsy communicative mediums of art (film, literature, words, sex). Our irreparable difference-ness as humans is what creates the itch, the longing, the need for art, and so, for me, any act of art is a cry for communication and thus identification. Even the stodgiest of solipsistic fussbudgets couldn't avoid this (Nietzsche will write 400 pages about not wanting to talk to you because he so desperately needs--aw christ, who gives a shit about Nietzsche?) The point is: once you commit words to page, your desire--always parse-able by degree--is to get me to see you, even in your difference. And while it may seem like I'm splitting hairs here, I think this approach to aesthetics (one that is ultimately based in rhetoric: seeing the ways in which people strive to communicate the incommunicable to one another) is splitting the atom in terms of art appreciation. And since you--of can-smashing robot--appreciate art on a level that I sincerely appreciate, I would be curious whether we are actually sitting on separate sides of the divide on this one.

Yup that's it. Except Mike Watt rules and I can't belive I'm about to send something to McSweeney's out of spite/desperation. (See: the need to communicate misanthropy never ceases, even on blogs by in-laws.)


A man in no way legal obligated to you and yours. (Who isn't going to proofread the above not out of a need to non-communicate but a belief in a generous reading by those who know him well and will search for an designing author--intelligent or non--admits the parentheticals and slop clauses .)

p.p.s. pick a song for xmas, otherwise we're playing "Hot-crossed Buns" reggae style.