Friday, November 23, 2007

Azar Nafisi: "The American Idea: Sivilization"

On the first page of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck informs us that the Widow Douglas decided to take him up and "sivilize" him, but

it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out.

The way Huck subverts a whole way of living, a way of thinking and relating to the world,by misspelling a word is to my mind a pure expression of the American idea. That idea is always threatened by another: the secure and smug world from which Huck and Jim turn away. Throughout the book, Huck and Jim turn the "decent" and "sivilized" world on its head, and we come out in the end with a new definition of these words.

These subversive characters, like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, Zora Neale Hurston's Janine -- all outcasts who refuse to comply -- are part of a tradition in American fiction. Like Huck, they risk hell but trust their own instincts and experiences above static convention. They are thoughtful and reflect upon these experiences; they are critical not just of others but of themselves, and they act upon their reflections. This is the American idea I would like to return to: a slight subversion, an instinctive urge to do the right thing, which, in the eyes of the "correct" world, might seem to be exactly the wrong thing.

The idea that I want to believe America was founded on also depended on challenging the world as it is and, by standing up to civilized society, redefining it. That idea was essentially based on a poetic vision, on imagining something that did not exist. It has been pointed out that the man who wrote the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence -- who could state with simplicity and beauty that every individual has the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" -- was himself a slaveowner. Jefferson lived in a slave-owning society, one in which half of the non-slave population, the women, were not equal citizens. Yet for all its flaws, that society's saving grace was its foundation on a certain set of beliefs that transcended on the individuals, their prejudices, and their times and allowed for the possibility of a different future, foreshadowing a time when other women and men, a Martin Luther King Jr. or an Elizabeth Cady Stanton, could take their ideas and words and suffuse them with new and risky and bold meanings, and with new dreams.

Huck closes his adventures with this statement:

But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.

This, of course, is the whole point: In order to keep the American idea fresh and new, it must be constantly challenged. For the American idea to endure, we have to "light out," and to find new ways to resist the "sivilizing" impulse of the Widow Douglases and Aunt Sallys among us.

And yet today it seems that America, gripped by social and political crisis, has become almost forgetful of that idea. Cyncial, shallow, defensive and at the same time arrogant and greedy, it is unfaithful to its instincts and refuses to be reflective, mistaking blame for criticism and self-criticism, and believing that success at any cost is more important than failure with honor, taking as its idea the Widow Douglas's paradise rather than Huck Finn's hell.

The question is: Can we still hope to be a little less "sivilized"?

By Azar Nafasi, Atlantic Monthly November 2007, "The American Idea"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sunday Top Ten: You Think You Know, But You Have No Idea


I'm kinda sick of talking about myself [this won't last, obvs] and I had this idea for a Sunday Top Ten that I want YOU to help out with ... there's been a lot of discussion lately about the perils of emotional honesty, cyber-honesty in particular. Um, and not to sound like Dr. Phil/Oprah ... but I've been privy to a lot of "What I Want to Say But I Can't" stories this week (slash-always) -- personal secrets you can't share for logistical reasons, emotions you don't feel comfortable expressing to anyone sometimes not even yourself, or stuff you do talk about all the time but can't talk about online ... for example, probs a lot of you are crackheads or something, right? You can't be any geek off the street, gotta be handy with the steel if you know what I mean, earn your keep, regulators, mount up!

So .... here's where you come in, if you want to come in: Tell me your secrets. What is something you'd like to write about on your blog if you have one, or even just talk about in real life, but for whatever reason, you feel like you can't? Something you'd never divulge on the internet under your own name, something that's happening in your life that you want to say or talk about ... but can't. Or even just a funny/embarrassing confession/desire.

It's like PostSecret, but Auto-Secret.

I won't use your actual name [unless you want me to?], so give me a fake name if you have a preferred alias or I'll make one up for you. I'm also gonna re-write what you tell me in my own words/style, so you don't need to worry about someone identifying your work 'cause of your writing style or Australian spelling or English-as-a-second-language thingie. When I am done butchering your stuff, it'll all be in Australian spelling and abbreviated to head-explosion-worthy proportions. You can also send pictures or something. I don't know, your hidden tattoo? A drawing? I dunno. Whatevs floats your hot boat.

Also, feel free to email me back from a different email address if you know me and want to participate but don't want me to know your secret, either. Just put "Secret Sunday Top Ten" in the subject line.

You may be asking yourself: why, Riese, should I do this for you? The answer is: Why NOT? Is it your birthday? Are you bathing your children or washing your hair? Okay, well, when you're done, do this. Also, you could not do it, too. I can't tell you what to do, you have to go your own way and make your own path in life ... I can't think of any reasons why. Just um, because.

If you don't get it into me before Sunday afternoon, that's cool, whenevs, because I'm thinking there probs'll be enough to do another installment or many, and I'll probs put an open call on the blog if it goes well. And there's nothing I love more than installments. That's right -- nothing, not even you, Haviland. (JK I love you more than installments)

I probs forgot to add people to this email and everyone is BCC'ed, so just um ...

... feel free to pass this on to whomevs.



P.S. If you do want me to use your own words, link to you, or anything, obvs I will. I'll do anything, you say jump, I say tell me more.
P.P.S. Or if you prefer to express yourself in visual images, go for it. I'll publish anything. Just tell me something good.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Stephen Dunn: "Parable of the Fictionist"

He wanted to own his own past,
be able to manage it
more than it managed him.
he wanted all the unfair
advantages of the charmed.
He selected his childhood,
told only those stories
that mixed loneliness with
rebellion, a boy's locked heart
with the wildness
allowed inside a playing field.
And after he invented himself
and those he wished to know him
knew him as he wished to be known,
he turned toward the world
with the world that was within him
and shapes resulted, versions,
In his leisure he invented women,
then spoke to them about
his inventions, the wish just
slightly ahead of the truth,
making it possible.
All around him he heard
the unforgivable stories
of the sincere, the boring,
and knew his way was righteous,
though in the evenings, alone
with the world he'd created
he sometimes longed
for what he'd dare not alter,
or couldn't, something immutable
or so lovely he might be changed
by it, nameless but with a name
he feared waits until you're worthy,
then chooses you.

(from Local Time, 1986, or New and Selected Poems 1974-1994)

Raymond Carver: "Your Dog Dies"

Your Dog Dies

it gets run over by a van.
you find it at the side of the road
and bury it.
you feel bad about it.
you feel bad personally,
but you feel bad for your daughter
because it was her pet,
and she loved it so.
she used to croon to it
and let it sleep in her bed.
you write a poem about it.
you call it a poem for your daughter,
about the dog getting run over by a van
and how you looked after it,
took it out into the woods
and buried it deep, deep,
and that poem turns out so good
you're almost glad the little dog
was run over, or else you'd never
have written that good poem.
then you sit down to write
a poem about writing a poem
about the death of that dog,
but while you're writing you
hear a woman scream
your name, your first name,
both syllables,
and your heart stops.
after a minute, you continue writing.
she screams again.
you wonder how long this can go on.

(From All of Us)

Friday, November 2, 2007

Chris Pureka, "Everything is Free"

Everything is free now,
That's what they say.
Everything I ever done,
Gotta give it away.
Someone hit the big score.
They figured it out,
That we're gonna do it anyway,
Even if doesn't pay.

I can get a tip jar,
Gas up the car,
And try to make a little change
Down at the bar.

Or I can get a straight job,
I've done it before.
I never minded working hard,
It's who I'm working for.

'Cause everything is free now,
That's what they say.
Everything I ever done,
Gotta give it away.
Someone hit the big score.
They figured it out,
That we're gonna do it anyway,
Even if doesn't pay.

Every day I wake up,
Hummin' a song.
But I don't need to run around,
I just stay home.

And sing a little love song,
My love, to myself.
If there's something that you want to hear,
You can sing it yourself.

'Cause everything is free now,
That what I say.
No one's got to listen to
The words in my head.
Someone hit the big score,
And I figured it out,
That we're gonna do it anyway,
Even if doesn't pay.