THEM, APPLES – Dean Defino

A boy sees a farmer feeding apples to a pen full of pigs, one apple at a time. The boy asks, “Wouldn’t it be quicker to just dump the whole bushel into the pen?” “What’s the rush?” asks the farmer. “The pigs have nothing better to do.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this joke, but I remember wondering what it meant. Obviously, part of its meaning is clear enough: the farmer mistakes the intent of the boy’s question, which is to suggest that the farmer is wasting his own time, not the pigs’. But like any good joke, it is shot through with absurdity and irony: that is, it attempts to hold up two opposing views of reality (human and pig), while mocking the ludicrous notion that it is possible to do so.

Ludicrous or not, we do this sort of thing all of the time. In fact, it has become something of a cliché to measure a person’s level of intelligence by their ability to hold two or more opposing perspectives in their brains at the same time. Some might see this as a form of madness—an endless loop of equivocation—but “smart” people (and I will presume to number myself among them) see it as an essential part of critical thinking, believing that we must let in at least two opinions to test the validity of any particular one. Which isn’t to say that high levels of intelligence do not sometimes appear to correlate with madness. To return to the joke in question, perhaps the truly mad are those who finally refuse to come down on the side of human or pig, who refuse to finally nail a banner to their mast and pledge allegiance, who refuse to be held to account. Or to introduce another metaphor, at some point we have to stop spinning plates, take one down, and tuck into our dinner. Which, in this instance, is probably pork-based.

But jokes do not need to declare themselves one way or another. They are only critical frames and not sentient things (human or porcine), and therefore beyond any moral or social obligation. The teller of the joke does bear these burdens, but the joke itself, like any text, remains stubbornly separate and—because it is built on absurdity and irony—unresolved. That’s what makes it powerful, and hopefully funny.

Which brings me back to the farmer, the pigs, and the boy. Several things strike me about this joke. Some might not be of general interest, like questions of age and gender (why a boy and a man?), and social class (what does it mean to be ‘the farmer,’ besides the obvious, that he ‘farms’?). But other questions press themselves on all hearers, because it is in the nature of jokes to do so. Whether we are able to say with finality what the message or meaning of a joke is, we still need to take a position within it. Quite literally. To use the old slip-on-a-banana-peel gag as an example, we need to ask ourselves whether we identify as the spectator to the slapstick, as the person dropping the peel (wittingly or unwittingly), or as the person slipping on that peel.

So, who am I on this imaginary farm? The farmer, the boy, or one of the pigs? The boy seems like a safe bet. He’s the most apparently rational, framing reality in a way that is familiar to us, in terms of human time and value. If the farmer works faster, the boy’s implied logic suggests, he achieves a higher level of efficiency, which increases productivity and/or leisure for the farmer. In other words, he is better compensated. That compensation is measured in money and time, yes, but also in pig flesh. From the boy’s perspective, the pig’s value is measured in purely economic terms, as something traded upon. And if he’s grown up on a farm, he’s probably looking at the pig and thinking, “pork chops,” or “bacon.”

The farmer’s view is a bit more complex. He is a kind of poet in the piece, who acknowledges the validity of alternative states of being (pig time vs. human time). Like the Surrealists, who refused to give greater weight to waking reality than dreams and hallucinations, he does not assume that his experience of reality is the only one with merit. Of course, this does not prevent him from trading in pig flesh. Even poets have to eat.

The pigs, if I may presume to speak for them, are less inclined to think in terms of time or money, or indeed leisure vs. productivity. All they see is the apples. Red, green, ripe, rotten: all are indiscriminately gobbled with the same greedy determination that has led pigs to be identified with gluttony and excess (“Don’t be such a pig!”) and stubborn, single-minded pursuit (“Don’t be so pig-headed!”).

Of course, there is another perspective: that of the apple. Like the banana peel, it looks to play the role of the vehicle rather than the subject of the joke, because it lacks a will of its own. At best, it is the currency of the joke, the verb in the sentence that is the joke (okay, there are more than one sentence in this joke, but you see my point). The farmer ‘apples’ his pigs, and the boy wonders why the farmer ‘apples’ so inefficiently. But the apple is also done to. Or maybe it is better to say that it is done in by the joke. If the boy makes the farmer the butt of the joke, the apple is its more concrete victim. Even the pig is prized for its flesh. But the apple is just the fodder that makes the pig flesh, that in turn feeds farmer and boy (and, in industrial farming, other pigs).

By all appearances, it sucks to be the apple. As it has, seemingly from the beginning. In Eden, the apple was the instrument of damnation; in the story of Johnny Appleseed, it is the currency, rather than beneficiary of abundance. In myth anyway, apples have ever existed in the service to others’ transformation, but never their own. They remain, despite genetic cross-breeding and the occasional caramel coating, apples, plain and simple.

Which is why, I suppose, my first impulse is to speak for the apples, as the Lorax presumed to do for the trees. And also why I pause. After all, the Onceler might have been an amoral free-market capitalist without a thought for the environmental impact of his massive Thneed operation, but he was right about one thing: the Lorax was a self-satisfied, self-righteous, humorless scold. I certainly don’t want to be seen that way.

And there are other complications, as well. By what right do I claim to know the plight of apples, or to serve their welfare? Who am I to say what it feels like to be an apple, and what an apple wants or needs? I see them as victims of an oppressive narrative, a hierarchy where they are rendered powerless, incidental. But isn’t that critique informed by my own limited view of power dynamics?

Here’s something I do know: there is no joke without the apples. They are not merely the vehicles of the joke, but—if you’ll excuse the pun—the core of the paradox within. They are the creative tension, the frisson that makes meaning, both grist and grease for the mill. Whether as symbols of the transitory nature of existence (‘stuff’ as energy in a constant state of transformation), or digestible, but otherwise irreducible objects (‘stuff’ as ‘stuff’), they are essential. But like so much that is essential, they also appear to be indifferent to the transaction of the joke. They have no clear stake in it, which is why they may be fodder for the joke, but they are never the butt. Talk about a paradox!

So even if I can’t presume to stand up for the apples, I want to stand with them. They may pay the ultimate price in the joke, but they never submit to its tyranny. Within the many transactions of power and meaning, and the web of intersecting human and pig realities that complicate those transactions—in which I, the hearer, invariably get lost–they remain, stubbornly, themselves. Apples. Which of us can make that claim?

Besides, isn’t the underlying truth of any joke the same? That we all get eaten in the end?

Writing on Paper – T.J. Moretti

#howIwrite

I like to write. I haven’t published much, so I wouldn’t call myself a “writer,” certainly not a poet, though I started writing things when I wrote poems to cope in junior high. They were cheesy love poems for my first or second crush. Rejected, I wrote more poetry, either sighed a lot, or (more likely) bingewatched Video JukeBox until Green Jelly’s “Three Little Pigs” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog’s “Nothin but a G Thang” came on (YouTube it all, folks), or (just as likely) gorged myself on Super Nintendo or Genesis games to prepare for my first year in high school.

I don’t have those poems anymore. Don’t ask.

I wrote those poems on paper because it wasn’t until my second year in high school that I learned how to type on a computer and format a document.

I still write on paper whenever I can: poems, drafts of short stories, character sketches, ideas for novels, dreams, parts of an academic essay. I didn’t write this post on paper, I admit, but I tend toward paper, because writing on paper helps me remember what I wrote, what I changed.

My last writing: I wrote a poem for an Advent booklet distributed through Iona’s Office of Mission and Ministry. I started it on paper. Take a look at a section of an early draft.

See how messy it gets? I cut here, squeezed there, interrupted myself twice. I look back and flinch at some of my early word choices, like “numbing cold,” (like really, I could have done something else there, I mean, there was no need for me to even write that phrase down).

When I write on Word or Google Docs, I lose a history of those edits, those lessons in real-time, those signs that I was really thinking hard, really struggling to find meaning in an image, to find meaning at all. (I could just use “Track Changes,” but all the colors and lines seem too messy for me to untangle).

I don’t keep all drafts of all my writings. I’ve scrapped drafts of articles that have been published, or early, terrible versions of dissertation chapters that took my advisor hours to edit. I don’t feel the need to hold onto that history.

The poems, though, and the short stories, and the ideas for stories, and any drafts of unfinished scholarly articles demand that I document the changes, in the body of the writing or in the margins.

I want a written record of those changes.

I don’t want to tap “Backspace” or “Delete” to erase the history of my thought-process, my habits of mind, my search for meaning in art and my search for art in meaning.

Those writings demand that I take stock of my work, that I study the documents of their past, that I learn from those documents what I thought, felt, or thought I felt.

I need to write on paper to remember.

I can still write on Word and still make the final version permanent, but I find myself in the quirks of the drafts. Without a record, I don’t have a way to remember the quirks I changed, even if I can notice in the permanent version those quirks I can’t change. Take, for example, the final version of my advent poem:

The Advent Wreath: A Vigil

You fear what the dark means,

or might, you don’t know enough

to know why the holly, why the pine,

why four candles on a wreath

when coal for boys and girls

gone bad, born to the bad they know,

they know not, they know not what

they know.

Round and round

trace a bruise around an eye or wrist,

purples wrenched from pinks,

hope numbed cold.

Round and round loop the yarn by a lamp

near a hearth into stockings empty for more

quick picks, scratch offs, Crayola wax

to waste on stick-figure-family smiles

and North Pole lists next to Guida and Oreos

on the oak veneer table.

Round and round the barrel bomb

in Aleppo once, twice, more than three,

smote your peace.

Your hara feels what the dark means,

what excretes through pancreatic ducts

toward your right, your core—

call it your duodenum—

for food that feeds your life for more

than round and round until aground.

A square of candles, vertices on a circle of pine.

Light one, two, the third, four the sum.

Purples into a pink to purple,

you see in flickers—

dawn rays through dew on hydrangeas,

there is a peony—

the halo like a white oak

aspiring from winter’s ground

to rival the snow: I will green again.

Wax melts and puddles and sets

into the wounds of the world.

The wreath, the pine,

the wicks aflame,

the mess below,

or nest, a womb, dark aglow,

you know you know

you hope you know

See? Nothing I can change there, even in stanzas 2 and 3, which really need work. And stanza 1…

Well, I could edit this blog post, I suppose—take a screenshot of before and after or something. But that just sounds like so much work, you know?

Words I Loathe (part 1) – Aaron Rosenfeld

Aaron Rosenfeld

As my students know, I loathe the word “relatable.” They know because I always tell them, usually early in the semester, and there is always a casualty (and to those unfortunates, I offer an overdue apology, along with my unstinting gratitude for supplying me with my teaching moment).

I had not even heard the word “relatable” until about 10 years ago. In his “On Language” column in the New York Times, Ben Zimmer traces the evolution of the word “relatable” from “able to be related,” as in a story that can be told, to the new usage, “something you can relate to.” He partly blames the influence of television: mass culture requires mass relatability. Since television traffics in flattery of its target demographics, “relatable” is a proxy for profitable. As long as characters on screen offer easy access to fantasies of “they’re just like me,” albeit slightly better looking and with better apartments, our eyes stay glued to the magic mirror.

The problem with “relatable” is that, like the passive voice, it dupes the reader by smudging out the subject. When I say something is relatable, I mean I can relate to it. But, instead of taking responsibility as the one that does the relating, with all the attendant limitations and qualifications that attribution implies, “relatable” pretends what I experience is actually a quality of the object. This might seem like a venal sin, but it has mortal consequences for the intellect.

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the great literary stylists of the twentieth century, calls “impersonal imagination” (Lectures on Literature, 4) the reader’s most important tool; identifying with a character is “the worst thing a reader can do” (4). We need “scientific” aloofness to balance emotional intuition if we are to recognize the specificity, the otherness, of the author’s experience. When we identify, we replace the author’s experience with our own; we find – yet again – our same old selves. I can think of no greater horror than being sentenced to bump forever against the bars of my own brain. Say goodbye to the sudden insight that might cause us to reevaluate who and what we are; say goodbye to the exhilarating leap into strangeness.

“Relatable” is the perfect word for a narcissistic age, insisting on the adequacy of the receiver’s experience, even though perhaps the most important reason for reading is to acknowledge our own incompleteness. Writing about student evaluations, Mark Edmundson tells of a professor’s solution to this form of self-satisfaction:

It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? (Harper’s, September 1, 1997)

Edmundson’s cheeky professor raises a real issue. When we cannot relate, maybe we ought to look inward; the fault is not in our books, but in us.

I will admit, I have heard reasonable defenses of “relatable.” Just the other day, a student pointed out, “it doesn’t mean others have to relate, only that I do.” Maybe so, but framing it as a matter of relatability at all presumes we are central to the business at hand. Do authors write for us? Or do they write for themselves, out of a fascination with a feeling, a voice, a story, or a texture that they feel compelled to put into words? If it is the latter, then we are not the destination; we are no more than a bathroom break along the way.

Or, you might argue, “relatable” is like “edible,” just a way of describing whether or not something is ingestible by mind instead of mouth. But not exactly: “edible” describes an empirically verifiable state of being – either something can be eaten or not – the burden of which rests entirely with the object proposed as food (unless we mean it figuratively as hyperbole). Our ability to relate to a work of literature, in contrast, evolves depending on the effort we put into it. A shovel will always be inedible, no matter how good you get at chewing.

Edmundson and Nabokov point to how “relatable” makes intellectual laziness an approved category. We all have a tendency to treat the new things we encounter as confirmation of what we already know. This is how Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” became a poem about following your own path in life rather than a poem about self-deception and regret. Writers play with expectations—they trick us into thinking we are reading something familiar, only to twist it into something new. When we reflexively reduce what they have written to confirmation of our half-formed thoughts, we get it exactly wrong; in our rush to hear our common sense reflected back at us, we miss the meaning entirely.

Ultimately, calling something “relatable” undoes the real work of reading. Reading means hearing the voices of the others that inhabit the texts we read. Some effort is required. Empathy is not a thing that we all simply have in equal measure, it is to be cultivated, and reading is a tool for this end. Reading well can make all things “relatable,” but this is the outcome, not the precondition for our encounter with a work of art or literature.

A work of literature is only as large as the mind that contains it. So next time you find yourself thinking about whether a work is “relatable,” I have a suggestion: look for what is not “relatable” in the text; that is where you are most likely to find its genius. But I imagine you knew that’s what I would say.

 

 

 

 

 

What I Read Wednesdays – Alyssa Quinones

Alyssa Quinones

 

For me, Wednesday is the day of the week that causes me the most stress. I spend my Tuesday evenings and the entirety of my Wednesdays with my nose in a book. As a grad student, having two lit classes back to back that are novel-based is no small feat. The permanent dark circles under my eyes and coffee shakes in my hands are a representation of my perpetual tiredness. But the one thing that makes it all worthwhile—I’m greatly enjoying the books that are being brought my way, books that, if it weren’t for these courses, I probably would have never picked up myself. My Images of Women in Modern American Literature class has been one of my favorite courses I have taken in my collegiate career. Books in that class have not only broaden my scope but have also pushed against my comfort barrier. They have made me cry in sadness and in anger, but have also made me immensely happy. Everyone should read them.

americanah

One of those books is Americanah by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This book was a roller coaster of emotions for me, and after Adele dropped ‘Hello’, I couldn’t handle life anymore. If you occasionally jam out to ‘Flawless’ by Beyoncé (if “occasionally” means every day) than you already know who this woman is. Beyoncé sampled words from Adichie’s Ted Talk entitled “We should all be feminists” in her hit song.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)

Adiche, with her authoritative voice and boundless humor, takes you on a sensational journey of race, love, and class by transporting you from the past and the present to tell an unforgettable story about a young woman named Ifemelu. What makes this book so important is how acutely relatable it is because it is of our time. It is rooted in our decade, in our history. The prominence of technology, internet culture, sense of community within the blogging world, the 2008 election and the microscope held over race in America as a result are all aspects of what makes this novel such a prominent and essential part of our culture.

From the beginning of the novel, it becomes clear to the reader that Adichie has a firm grasp and understanding of what makes people tick. Her narration is a flawless examination of race through the lens of “otherness.” We perceive of race through Ifemelu’s eyes whilst in America and in Nigeria, where race is something she never had to truly acknowledge. Back home, the issue at hand wasn’t race, it was class. While going to college in Nigeria, Ifemelu is bogged down by bouts of discontentment. She wants a better life and education for herself.

One of the main complications I had with this novel was the protagonist herself. Although I greatly enjoyed the novel and found Ifemelu’s strength, perseverance, and intelligence to be refreshing to read, I came away with mixed feelings. Ifemelu’s general fickleness and self-sabotaging manner made her a difficult character to like at times. Her relationship with her old boyfriend Obinze conflicted me the most. Unlike a majority of my classmates, I did not view this as a love story and, by the end, was not rooting for the two to be together. But like every relationship Ifemelu has in this novel, she finds a reason to end it. Curt, her first American boyfriend, commonly referred to in her blog posts as the “hot white ex”, provided her with a life too easily lived, too comfortable. His race, wealth, and high social standing provided her with numerous ways to better herself and her standing whilst in America, but she sabotaged herself out of the relationship. She was playing a role if you will, involving herself in an experiment. She was happy, but not content. Her second American boyfriend Blaine, an African-American professor at Yale with high intellect and a false sense of maturity, appeared at first to be the perfect man. Before they had begun dating, Ifemelu could see their lives together quite easily. Once together, the only basis of longevity in their relationship was Obama’s campaign for the presidency. She found it difficult to fit in with his friends. Again, she found pleasure, but she wasn’t content. Obinze was the great love of her life, having met at school in their youth and dating into University, they had a strong and seemingly unbreakable bond. Bouts of depression and feelings of hopelessness regarding her situation caused Ifemelu to feel outside of herself and give up on the relationship.

At times during my reading, Ifemelu came off as petty and selfish. Now and again, her behavior is what caused me to find this book so harrowing to read. I’m fairly certain I had to stop reading out of anger and frustration at least 5 times towards the end of the book. (Note to self: ‘Friends’ is always a great distraction when literature or real life becomes too stressful. Naps help too.) Though, looking back on the novel, now I see that, that is something Adichie was blatantly trying to do. She is able to find the balance between impactful characters that both entertain and enrage whilst offering an important social and cultural commentary.

I hope I didn’t come out sounding too preachy in this post, but my class discussions are only 2 hours long, and I’m fairly sure half of the class would have crucified me for my opinions on Obinze x Ifemelu (#Obinelu? #Ifeminize?). I think I may be the only one who feels this way about Ifemelu. I’m sure the Internet dwellers are sharpening their pitchforks, but, even though I had my problems with the two protagonists of this novel, it was still one of the greatest novels I have ever read. I hope my interpretation of Ifemelu as a character can spark some conversation. She is a character that, like any human being, is riddled with many flaws, but flawed characters are usually the most interesting ones to read.

The end of Americanah brought with it a sense of longing and melancholy. I found I was not yet ready to leave the story or the characters within it. I wish we got to see more of Obinze’s point of view. Although I disagreed with some of his actions, I found him to be a very fascinating character and his time in England was some of my favorite parts to read in the novel.

Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ifemelu and Obinze as a couple by the end, I liked the idea that there is a certain dullness to life without the one you love. They both were living a life removed of color because the person they wanted to be with was no longer in it, a life of black and white, separations and categories, decisions and paths, all leading them to their true adventures.

One of the many securities of literature is that it can offer its readers an escape from their lives. In light of recent events in Paris, please stay safe and love one another.