Conrad’s Typhoon: or, An Ode to My iPad

Joseph Conrad

Typhoon by Conrad, Joseph

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Conrad’s Typhoon: or, An Ode to My iPad

I think one reason I don’t write and publish more than I do is because I am far too slow on the trigger. The ubiquity of blogging hasn’t helped this any since I usually find that someone else much more intelligent and articulate than I has blogged on what I think of as MY SUBJECT in a manner far more perspicacious, acute and interesting than I could manage. Take Charles Simic’s meditation on boredom during the recent power outages along the east coast, blogged over at the NYRB. I had several of those, Yes-that-is-exactly-what-was-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue moments reading lines like these:

“We sit with our heads bowed as if trying to summon spirits, while in truth struggling to see what’s on our dinner plates. Being temporarily unable to use the technology we’ve grown dependent on to inform ourselves about the rest of the world, communicate with others, and pass the time, is a reminder of our alarming dependence on them.”

Of course, these words weren’t actually on the tip of my tongue, but by imagining that the poet is only telling us what we have always known but could not say so well, we are able to give ourselves credit for a lot of intelligence and imagination that we don’t actually possess. Simic goes on to talk about the notable demise of reading and other delights like radio in the fact of our ubiquitous gadgets. Now, of course, reading books on a rainy afternoon or listening to a radio show has the faint reek of quaintness when we can’t manage to champion with a straight face these distractions as relics of authenticity. Simic reminds us that reading too was a form of distraction as surely as an i-phone.

“All of this reminded me of the days of my youth when my family, like so many others, lived in a monastic solitude when the weather was bad, since we had no television. It wasn’t in church, but on dark autumn days and winter nights that I had an inkling of what they meant when they spoke about eternity. Everyone read in order to escape boredom. I had friends so addicted to books, their parents were convinced they were going crazy with so many strange stories and ideas running like fever through their brains, not to mention becoming hard of hearing, after failing to perform the simplest household chores like letting the cat out.

“Living in a quiet neighborhood made it even worse. Old people stared out of windows at all hours, when they were not staring at the walls. There were radios, but their delights—with the exception of a few programs—were reserved for the grownups only. Thousands died of ennui in such homes. Others joined the navy, got married, or moved to California. Even so, looking back now, I realize how much I owe to my boredom. Drowning in it, I came face to face with myself as if in a mirror.”

Be that as it may, I lived out this boredom during the last hurricane by taking up Conrad’s Typhoon, the Project Gutenberg version, on the recommendation I received via my facebook friending of the New Yorker Magazine. (Let’s be frank, folks.  Oprah’s book club is absolutely yesterday).  Too dark to read, yes, but unlike the youthful Simic I had one gadget in hand that bore its own light to me in hand, my trusty iPad, fully charged and functioning.

When I began blogging three years ago at Read, Write, Now (a title I have come to detest, so future bloggers choose carefully), I had a suspicious and doubtful mindset about e-books, e-readers, and many things e-in-general. To be sure, I saw the advantages of blogging as a means of immediate intellectual self-gratification, and even then I think I felt that a great deal of writing and reading, especially in the academic world, would migrate effectively online. But I could not imagine, then, that an electronic gadget could take the place of paper. I wrote about the fact that I freely took my paper books in to saunas and bathtubs, that I could find my way through paper books more quickly and simply than with a scrolling sidebar, that I didn’t have to worry about whether it was sunny outside. And the smell, the smell, the smell. E-books were sterile, it seemed to me. In a word inauthentic.

I may still believe some of this, but I believe it less than I used to, largely due to my i-Pad. To come back to the

The steamer Nan Shan in the Storm

ostensible purpose of this review, Conrad’s Typhoon, it was the first full book I had read on my IPad, if a novella of 100 some odd pages can be thought of as a full book. And the verdict is that it was like reading…well…a book. The interface felt book like, I can adjust the light to the needs of my aging eyes, and can read more clearly than I could have managed by candlelight. I’ve always worried about the ability to personalize the texts, but iBooks lets me underline, and if anything I personalized the text more than I might have some others since my handwriting is unreadable and my notes in paperbooks cryptic and unintelligible. By contrast, the marginalia tool in iBooks is clean and my notes copious. Perhaps above all, I loved my iPad for remaining charged and working when everything else failed, leaving in the dark and to my own devices. Scary what I might find in that mirror. I read the entire book undistracted by facebook or my email apps, but I took comfort in knowing they were available for my distraction should I need them.

Now as to Typhoon itself. I want to say “Yes,” with qualifications. The story is gripping and intense, a naturalist drama of man against nature that becomes a kind of paean to stoic and pedestrian endurance, though one that is ironic and complicated in the end. The main human character is Captain MacWhirr, whose name betokens a machine-like efficiency. He is a man of small intellect, little imagination, and no intellectual curiosity. Because of this it is hard to describe him as actually courageous in the teeth of the hurricane. While a more imaginative man might have hidden his response to the terrors of the outrageous sea in cryptic understatement, MacWhirr is mostly just given to small emotion and small imagination.

Captain MacWhirr was trying to do up the top button of his oilskin coat with unwonted haste. The hurricane, with its power to madden the seas, to sink ships, to uproot trees, to overturn strong walls and dash the very birds of the air to the ground, had found this taciturn man in its path, and, doing its utmost, had managed to wring out a few words. Before the renewed wrath of winds swooped on his ship, Captain MacWhirr was moved to declare, in a tone of vexation, as it were: “I wouldn’t like to lose her.”

One doesn’t come away from this novel feeling grand and heroic and triumphant about human beings. On the other hand, one doesn’t come away feeling like human beings are small and accidental as you do, for instance in reading Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”. Instead endurance seems something to be achieved, and we end up happy for MacWhirr that he has achieved it, knowing we’d rather have him dull and unimaginative, but steady, were we caught in the writhing seas ourselves.

The story as a whole is gripping and seems to reveal something about both our human frailty and our strength and complexity, making it more than just a good adventure story. If I had read it first, I’m sure I would say that The Perfect Storm reminded me of it in being only partly a book about humans against the storm, and as much or more about humans against themselves.

One thing keeps me from a whole hearted endorsement. It really is the case that the depictions of Chinese in the book are deeply troubling. Passages in which Chinese are cast a jabbering animals or as writhing forces of nature are offensive and hard to find a way to redeem. I have always thought the criticism of Heart of Darkness was perhaps unearned since the thesis of that book had always seemed to me to be the evils of imperialism. But there is no redeeming theme that I can find for the representation of the Chinese coolies as brutes, and I found myself less inclined to defend Conrad, either here or for Heart of Darkness than I was before I began. To say this is not to say that the book is not worth reading, since there is no good human thing that is free of the scent of corruption, but it is to say that the goodness in the book does not overcome that corruption and reminds this reader at least that human beings are mixed creations, leaving us to admire and cringe in the same moment.

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Rego on Roosevelt

I had the pleasure a couple of weeks ago to read my colleague Paul Rego’s new book on Teddy Roosevelt.  Although I’m a little more critical of Roosevelt than Paul is, his book seems very timely, and does a good job of pointing our Roosevelt’s continuing relevance.  Even this week John McCain morphed into a Roosevelt Republican taking on the Titans of Wall Street.  Whether McCain was convincing in doing so is another matter, but it was in line with Paul’s insight that Roosevelt remains a touchstone figure for many contemporary presidents and presidential aspirants.

I thought I was supposed to do a full-blow review/critical response to Paul’s book at a reception in his honor, but I had the honor of introducing him instead.  What follows are my meandering scribbles on Paul’s book, titled, by the way “American Ideal:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Search for American Individualism.” These don’t quite amount to a review since they’re mostly notes for a talk, but I thought I’d post them here anyway.

In some respects, Paul’s book focuses on the irony of his subtitle: Roosevelt’s search for an American individualism. Though an intellectual biography, Paul seems to suggest that Roosevelt doesn’t arrive at settled substantive positions so much as he grapples mightily with antinomies of American thought, practice and culture—the most important of these being the split between the pluribus and the unum in the American psyche. Born out of the Enlightenment, American politics and culture has never rested easily with the earlier notion of an individual as being one member of a group. Instead, the individual and the society are necessarily in tension with one another, if not actively opposed to one another. On this view, the individual is society’s other, not matter how much we may say that society’s could not be conceived of without individuals and vice-versa. On this reading, a search for an American individualism is a quixotic quest—my reading, not Paul’s—since to be an American is to be a part of a collective, but one which only defines itself through the exaltation of the individual. Nevertheless, however impossible the project, the struggle to reconcile these opposing forces gives Roosevelts work much of its energy and contemporary relevance, no matter that he didn’t completely succeed in his quest.

I especially like Paul’s tracing of the opposition between progressivism and individualism. For one thing, those people in American literature who pay any attention to Roosevelt tend to emphasize his individualism, and so Paul’s attention to Roosevelt’s progressivism was enlightening. Moreover, I learned a lot in Paul’s argument that at the turn of the twentieth century, progressivism was imagining largely in collectivist terms and was in some respects seen as anti-individualism. The complexities involved suggest, as Paul explicitly attempts to do, that politics of the early 21st century continues to bear the marks of the discourses of a century ago. Liberals still rocket uneasily between individual empowerment and government regulation and intervention, while conservative ideals of the self-made man and the destructive energies of capitalism collide, sometimes violently with the conservative values of community, family, and tradition. If Roosevelt has not solved the problem of the pluribus and the unum, neither, really, have we.

Paul doesn’t really take up the gendered elements of Roosevelts thought, and I think they are important on various levels. Roosevelts view of individualism is, in my view, deeply masculine, verging on masculinist, and one reason for the popularity of his books lay in his idealization of masculine activities—war, hunting, camping, and the like—as a remedy for the feminizing forces of culture. Ironically, of course, many conservatives perceived the government as just such a ‘feminizing” force, wherein a man had to give up his manly individualism in favor of the will of the collective. The identification of progressivism with the feminization of American culture is everywhere in American literature at least, and finds it’s way even in to contemporary politics. Think, for instance, of the fairly popular conservative dismissal of the liberal “nanny state,” and the preference that men pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Paul argues that Roosevelt was willing to use the powers of the state in order to enable the possibility of individual achievement. Whether this is genius or hopeless contradictory may depend upon your politics, but I’m struck by the way in which this structure is represented in one of Roosevelt’s signature achievements—the establishment of the National Park system. One reason, though not the only one, that it was brought in to existence was so a place where men could test their mettle against the forces of nature could be preserved in a rapidly urbanizing society.

Paul recognizes Roosevelt’s racism and makes the argument that he must be understood as a man of his time, and I think Paul also successfully shows that Roosevelt’s understanding of individualism did not exclude African Americans, making room for those of the race who in some sense transcended the handicaps associated with racial oppression. To some degree, this is a common argument made about someone like Lincoln—who Roosevelt took as an ideal. By modern standards would clearly be understood as a racist, but his thinking was supple enough to imagine the possibility of transcending the racial categories of his days.

Nevertheless, I wonder if some of the issues surrounding race as well as gender don’t go closer to the root of the problem Roosevelt faced, which would be in how the individual is imagined as an individual. That is, the political conception of the individual in American history is always imagined in raceless terms; however, in our conceptualization of race until very recently, only white people can be raceless. To be black is to be raced; in other words to be inherently marked as identified with a collectivity. By contrast, whiteness is more usually understood as the sign of individualism, of being unbounded by tribe, history, tradition and society. In short, to be free. The great literary essay on this idea remains Achebe’s meditation of Heart of Darkness, where he rightly points out that the travails of Conrad’s white characters depend upon the facelessness and inarticulate jabbering of the black mass that makes them stand out as individuals. In other words, however much room we may make in our conceptualization of individualization for specific black people, this is very easily transmuted in to the understanding that others can become individuals by becoming just like me—in which case they are no longer clearly other in terms of race.

This having been said, I tend to agree with Paul that the structure of this thinking can’t be blamed on Roosevelt, since it is part of the structure of American thinking per se. He did not invent it, nor is it completely clear how he could have escaped it. Instead I think it points to the notion that perhaps the reason these issues cannot be reconciled is that they begin with a deeply flawed notion of what it means to be an individual, however attractive that ideal may continue to be.

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Black Snake Moan

Like most of the American world, I take summer to catch up on all the things I didn’t have time for in the past year, or twenty years as the case may be. Books I haven’t read that I wish I had or know I should, or someone somewhere says I should. Movies no red-blooded American can appear at cocktail parties without having seen. Or sometimes just shlockey stuff–other than TV–that I never give myself the time to enjoy because it’s…well…shlockey. Thought it might be fun this summer as I drift in to my new job as interim dean at the college to blog a bit about some of this year’s guilty summer pleasures. Guilty either because I have to admit that I haven’t gotten around to some of these things until now (“WHAT!!! YOU NEVER READ MADAME BOVARY???” I admit, in fact, that I haven’t. Maybe I’ll get around to it this summer.) or guilt because I have to admit that I like every tawdry thing that tells me a halfway decent story. Guilt, I am good at.Black Snake Moan Poster

Black Snake Moan with Samuel Jackson falls in to the latter of these I guess. But I can’t bring myself to describe it as shlockey exactly. On the one hand it’s a film that sells itself to all our most prurient desires. You know, the desire to see Christina Ricci in her underwear, or less…the desire to see Samuel L. Jackson dragging her around chains, which plays I guess to the lurking fetishist in all of us. And the title, “Black Snake Moan”? That speaks for itself, I guess.

Still, I found the film weirdly compelling for the way it commented on and reorganized our American obsessions with the combination of sex, race and violence…a combination that goes back in literature to, SURPRISE!, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Probably before, but UTC is the signature bit in American literature on this score as far as I’m concerned. And Black Snake Moan strikes me as a kind of revisionary commentary on Stowe’s masterpiece. The parallels are so obvious to me that I looked around on the web for a half hour or so but could find only one glancing comment on a blog that saw the connection.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in this case, is Samuel L. Jackson’s cabin on his farm in the depths of Mississippi. Christina Ricci is a perverse Little Eva, almost as if the repressed sexuality that made Little Eva saintly in UTC comes bursting out in rage in the nymphomaniacal performance by Ricci. It’s a testimony to Ricci’s performance that after a while you stop wondering about whether she’s going to remove the rest of her clothes and actually start to care about her character’s development and healing. Which may be part of the commentary on UTC I guess. One of the problems with UTC is that all the good people in the novel are too good for the world. They demonstrate this goodness primarily in two ways, by being asexual and by dying. The two seem to go hand in hand. Craig Brewer, the director, says in the special features on the DVD that he felt he was making a religious movie. It’s certainly a film about redemption and healing, and also a film about the saints of this world rather than the next. In other words saints riven, and sometimes lacerated, by desire but who manage after all to keep on living.

Tom and little EvaThe film flirts more overtly with a barely repressed pedophelia that lurks around UTC, and with the cross racial sexual taboos that the novel merely hints at. Eva fainting evermore on Tom’s welcoming breast, he laying her ever gently into bed. The relationship between Legree and his mistress. Ricci, of course, is hardly a child, but her deeply damaged psyche as a result of child abuse, and her self-abuse through drugs and promiscuity render her weirdly innocent and vulnerable, tended to by Jackson’s inexplicable kindness. Indeed, I worried that Jackson was too much the Uncle Tom character in his resistance to Ricci’s sexual advances. The big hack on Tom is that he’s sexless, a reassuring white fantasy that black religion renders black men neuter. Still, I thought the movie negotiated that by having Jackson have a separate flirtation, and through his guitar playing and blues singing, which, for an actor who hadn’t played guitar before this film, I thought was absolutely phenomenal.

So I guess I thought this reading of UTC was actually really interesting. Building recognizably off of the themes and imagery of the original, but inverting all of them in a way that critiques them. Showing that the white mania with black sexuality is a perversion of both instinct and generosity, and not one that will be healed through sexlessness, but through a healthy embrace of life. One that Brewer finds equally in the blues bar and in conventional marriage–which may have been a too conventional way to end the film, but one that again replicates the sentimentality of a UTC original–equally in the steam of eros and the prayers of the church.

The whole earth is moaning, awaiting its redemption. Black Snake Moan, indeed.

Barack Obama Sings America

Let it be said now. Barack Obama channels Walt Whitman.

Nevertheless, something there is in a political woman that doesn’t like poetry in a man. MSNBC reports today that Hillary has chosen to attack Obama by mocking his eloquence. She’s been stumping in New Hampshire, saying “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” One of many jabs that Hillary uses to demonstrate her superior manliness to Obama and his fluff, the quote comes originally from Mario Cuomo. Another Clinton favorite: “I’m a doer, not a talker.”

May be. Though it does seem to me that Hillary is a little tone deaf on this one. She is, after all, campaigning and not governing, as if she has forgotten that she has to campaign after all. I’m also not so sure it’s a wonderful move to deride the citizenry for having false hopes. (Who does she have writing this stuff?) All of this is of a piece of Hillary’s general effort to demonstrate that she has the cojones to be president. And that her own cojones…among other things…are a lot bigger than Edwards or Obama.

Indeed, I was fascinated with the way last night’s debate among the Democrats degenerated toward a variety of male stereotypes—as if we can’t get past the masculine image even at this moment when the stereotypical image of masculine leadership seems to be less stable than ever.

In one corner, we had Edwards the pugilist, who seems bound and determined to be fighting everyone and everything. “You can’t nice these people.” Another jab at Obama’s apparently suspect masculinity. I wished someone would give Edwards some valium, or else a good book to read. In another corner we had Richardson the affable elder statesman (who, in my estimation, pushed himself a notch closer to the vice presidency). Clinton played the hardnosed greybeard realist with her nose to the grindstone. She’s apparently been working non-stop for 35 years. Does it occur to her that when she says this most Americans say “Why don’t you take a vacation. I would. In fact, I’ll be glad to give you one.”

Which left Obama to be….What?….again, something that seemed new, that didn’t seem to quite fit in.

Still, I’m getting far afield from my original purpose. I’m intrigued by the role that literary metaphors are playing in the political campaign so far, and especially in Hillary’s latest attacks. The Huffington Post had a much quoted blog a few weeks ago to the effect that Obama was poetry and Clinton was prose. Hillary’s attack picks up on this dichotomy and falls into typical masculine stereotypes that men who like poetry are just a little too effeminate for comfort, at least for political comfort. Hillary’s attacks called to my mind Maureen Dowd’s skewering in the New York Times of John Kerry in two different op-ed pieces because he not only read but also wrote poetry. Didn’t this signify somehow, Dowd seemed to imply, that Kerry was too unreliable, too unserious, or at least not serious in the right ways, to play with the big boys. See June 8 2003 and March 7, 2004 in the New York Times.

Picking up on my post from yesterday, I’m intrigued with how the candidates use literature as a means of communicating something about themselves, and whether what they reveal about their literary tastes and interests says anything about them. I went on the respective candidates’ Facebook pages to see just what it said about their literary interests.

About Hillary I discovered….zilch, zero, nada. Indeed, Hillary’s Facebook page offers absolutely nothing about her personal interests at all. As if in playing out the traditional masculine split between public and private, she has to absolutely deny that she has any personal interests whatsoever. Or maybe it is just that her personal interests only extend to becoming president of the United States.

Of all the candidates, Obama’s is the most extensive, the most diverse, and the most dominated by literary texts. He names Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, The Tragedies of Shakespeare, Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Parting the Waters, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Self-Reliance by Emerson, The Bible, Lincoln’s Collected Writings.

My God, the guy actually reads. I mean, I have no doubt that these pages are massaged and picked over by staff for the kinds of messages that might be sent. (More on Mitt Romney’s choice of Huckleberry Finn—an apparently quick correction from an earlier choice of a novel by L. Ron Hubbard that earned guffaws from the blogosphere last year– and Mike Huckabee’s choice of The Holy Bible in another day or two). But Obama has to have actually read this stuff, and he has to actually read books for his own interest. Having read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson not only helps him with the literary crowd—he doesn’t really need the help, they’ll mostly vote for him anyway—it also helps him with moderate and educated evangelicals who found Robinson’s novel immensely complex and moving, testimony yet again that the connections between literature and religion are hardly dead. They’re just quiet.

By comparison, I guess I was disappointed at the fact that Hillary didn’t list anything at all. I dug around for awhile—unscientific word searches on Google—and finally found a reference at the NEA where Hillary suggests her favorite book as a child was “Goodnight Moon.” A lovely choice. I read it ad nauseum to my kids, but am now far enough removed from the cuteness that I get warm fuzzies at the sound of the title.

Has she read anything since? She did not list a favorite adult book on the NEA. I also just found a blog on the same topic at Huffington Post that says Hillary chooses Little Women and The Poisonwood Bible. However, I can’t find anything else readily available that confirms these choices. Still, I think they are worthy choices if true. John Lundberg finds them too predictable. I’m not sure that I agree but they do suggest a certain prepackaged quality of control and safeness to me. The bitter attack on fundamentalism in the Poisonwood Bible won’t win her fans with the hardest core of fundamentalists, but, again, they wouldn’t vote for her anyway.

I admit to disappointment in having to dig so hard to find out anything about Hillary’s literary tastes. Whereas Obama strikes me as a person to have in your book group. What a great conversation that would be after eight years of a president who can’t be bothered by literature. Too much nose to the grindstone for the imagination to have much play for Hillary. Somehow it says something to me that Obama is presenting himself as a literary man while I have to dig and dig to figure out if Hillary reads anything other than the bible she apparently carries with her everywhere—and which still does nothing for her with the biblically literate electorate.

Still, I’m wondering if Hillary’s graybeard, workaholic, no-time-for novels, approach to this political campaign will really win out in the end. America famously honors novels more in the breach than in reality. Real men—and Hillary in some ways has to prove that she’s man enough for the job—have no time for literary folderol. Obama’s depth and complexity run the risk of seeming, well, wimpy, something both Clinton and Edwards have keyed in on.

I’ll take a risk here and say that Obama can get away with it because he’s …black. Odd leap, I realize, but bear with me. In white America’s racial codes, black men are portrayed as hypermasculinized, all body and no mind. There’s a lot of scholarly material out there on the historical fears that white Americans have of black American masculinity (I’ve drawn on some of this and use it in my book on masculinity and religion in the Harlem renaissance—freely admitting that “book” is a hopeful word for the 400+ pages that now sit in my computer, just starting as we are to sniff around for a publisher). Obama’s literariness and his lyrical eloquence serve to humanize him for a white audience that, while improving, is not so very far removed from the appeals of Willie Horton ads. Henry Louis Gates, after all, has pointed out that historically blacks used literacy—the ability to read and write literature—to demonstrate their full humanity to white audiences. I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that Obama’s literary card softens residual white fears of a black male planet.

Obama’s poetry, his admirably diverse literary interests, serve the purposes of showing him once again as a uniter, someone who brings all things together. He brings black and white together. He brings Herman Melville and Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison and Shakespeare together. He brings male and female together. He brings his hard political and his soft literary sides together.

Obama’s literariness strikes me as genuine and authentic—though I realize that in this day and age even authenticity is pre-packaged. His literariness quite clearly matches and even enhances his political imaginary. Obama’s literary “softness,” deadly to men like John Kerry and John Edwards–and perhaps deadly, too, for political women like Hillary Clinton–plays to the idea that he can be all things.

He is large. He contains multitudes.

He too sings America.

Side note: I’ve added Liz Laribee’s blog, peaceamillion, to my blogroll. Liz is one of the funniest, and best, young writers that I know. Of course, I don’t know that many young writers. Sorry, Liz. The truth will out. No seriously. Everyone should go delight in Lizworld.