Living · Reading

On Creativity–Saturation or Serendipity

During the last week of a long spring semester my students started talking about whether or not we’d run out of ideas. Like, as a species. We were reading the last essay in Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium, “Multiplicity,” which is the one where he talks about encyclopedic novels. Calvino argues that in order for literature to stay relevant in the 21st century and beyond, it has to keep attempting new, ambitious things. He talks about books that try to ‘contain multitudes’—books that are like people: constellations of lots of knowledge and experience and other books.

It’s an idea worth exploring because it posits where we get ideas from to be creative. When authors push boundaries, what are they pushing on? When we try to come up with something new, what does that mean? In a world where Game of Thrones is derived from Lord of the Rings is derived from Norse myth, is anything original?

Of course.

Yes, on the one hand, Disney is remaking their animated classics in live action versions, and every book about magic seems to nod to Harry Potter, and memes are funny because they’re repetitive. On the other hand, that is the whole history of creativity in a nutshell. Nothing comes from nothing. The whole history of creativity and innovation is a process not of creating from nothing, but of making stuff out of other stuff. In the most literal sense, paintings are made out of paint and canvas: materials become something new.

But ideas work that way too.

Calvino calls this process “combinatorial play” in his 1967 essay “Cybernetics and Ghosts.” He talks about it both  in the context of the first storytellers, kind of rubbing a few words together until something sparked with meaning, and then also of computer software, that can be used to compose text. We’re always and ever manipulating ideas and words and plots that we already know.

For the Google generations, this means we need to do more filling of our own heads with material we can manipulate if we want to be creative. If we offload everything, there’s nothing for our subconscious to play with. I talk about this in a few blogs on memory.

For the bigger picture, though, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman’s recent book The Runaway Species makes the best sense of it for my money. All creative activity involves working with something to create something new. Again, nothing comes from nothing (nothing every could…). Brandt and Eagleman capture the processes in the delightfully alliterative trio of “bending, breaking, and blending,” but they corroborate the product in-product out model.

In bending, they argue an artist takes a material and just reshapes it. This is the modeling clay method, but the world is your oyster, not just the Play-Doh bucket. Take what already exists, and smush it until it looks different. Caricatures for instance. Or variations on a theme. (Think of music, but also visual arts, like Monet’s series of haystack paintings or Hokusai’s wood blocks of Mt Fuji. In literary terms, think of Sherlock Holmes—all variations on a theme).

Breaking involves actual rupture of a thing—Picasso’s people, buildings or bodies or books deconstructed and reassembled. Calvino’s hypernovel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler breaks the narrative in to a dozen pieces, split up by other stories. The tower of the art gallery is split and separated in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.

Blending heads back to Calvino’s combinatorial idea. If we put two things together, we get something new. Yellow and blue make green, yes, but also King Arthur legends and comedy sketch shows make Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

All of this is to say that my students don’t need to worry that there won’t be new ideas and new art. If we have a flood of texts and images now, it’s just that much more raw material for the artists and inventors of the next generation—them. And I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Anthony Brandt and David Eagleton. The Runaway Species. Catapult, 2017.
Italo Calvino. Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Vintage. 1993.

Living · Reading · Teaching

Mr. Palomar’s Blackbirds: How couples’ private language is both more cryptic and more elaborate than is reasonable

So I’m a closet linguist. I’m interested in language—how it changes, how it works, how it feels in my mouth, and how it paints pictures without your standard art supplies. I’ve probably spent more time on how it changes from a historical perspective, but I’m no less intrigued by how it changes in contemporary slang or in my own usage. Today I’m thinking about the language my partner and I use to communicate.

The catalyst for today’s ruminations is Calvino’s Mr. Palomar. In the chapter entitled “The Blackbird’s Whistle,” Mr. Palomar is sitting on his terrace, working , while his wife waters plants, and they both remark on the presence of the blackbird couple who visits. The chapter opens:

“Mr. Palomar is lucky in one respect: he spends the summer in a place where many birds sing. As he sits in a deck chair and “works” (in fact, he is lucky also in another respect: he can say that he is working in places and attitudes that would suggest complete repose; or rather, he suffers this handicap: he feels obliged never to stop working, even when lying under the trees on an August morning)…” (22)

…and we’re done. I’m in. I prepare for class on my patio, listening to bird songs and trying not to get distracted by the wind in the peach tree and the light on the mountains. And to a teacher, every book you read, every movie you watch, every place you go might someday be worked in to a class, so you’re always sort of working.

But that’s just why I love and identify with Mr. Palomar. This is a blog about language.

As he sits on the patio, Mr. Palomar listens to the birds. They seem to him to be communicating, and as Mrs. Palomar bustles about commenting on them, the human couple’s communication mimics the blackbirds.’ She comments absently that the flower bed is dry again, and:

“…from these remarks Mr. Palomar derives a general picture of tranquility, and he is grateful to his wife for it, because if she confirms the fact that for the moment there is nothing more serious for him to bother about, then he can remain absorbed in his work (or pseudowork or hyperwork). He allows a minute to pass; then he also tries to send a reassuring message, to inform his wife that his work (or infrawork or ultrawork) is proceeding as usual: to this end he emits a series of sighs and grumbles—’…crooked… for all that… repeat… yes, my foot…’—utterances that, taken all together, transmit the message ‘I am very busy,’ in the event that his wife’s last remark contained a veiled reproach on the order of ‘You could also assume some responsibility for watering the garden.'” (26)

When I teach this book, this is the point where some sweet, sensitive student worries about him. Why is he not communicating well with his wife? He must be so lonely, isolated even from those who love him. He’s not communicating. She’s talking, and he’s not listening.

I have to explain that this is just a conversation between two people who have been married a long time. They don’t need very many words, just like the blackbirds don’t need many sounds. They are enjoying a summer morning together, companionably parallel-playing, my husband and I would say. He’s doing his thing; she’s doing hers. They’re not interrupting each other, but they’re keeping one another on their radar. He’s alert to potential guilt about never watering the flowers; she’s aware that he’s working and trying to preserve his time while still being present. It’s a delicate dance. But it’s not loneliness.

As we approach our 28th anniversary, Rob and I have begun making jokes about what kind of eccentric old people we’re going to be. I’m certain no one will have any idea what we’re talking about. We talk in movie quotes (“Inconceivable!”) and expressions our children coined when they were little (“Put it in the fridge and save it forever,” which my son said about a train-shaped Jell-O jiggler when he was three and gets hauled out whenever anyone wants to hold on to something long past its prime). We use more Monty Python lines than any ten people should, and we refer to new people with old names, grafting names with personalities—some of people we knew, but others of characters from books or movies we’ve seen together. We have developed our own language.

Our kids understand most references, since we’ve spent years repeating the same stories. (They’re teenagers, so they’re quick to point out when we repeat ourselves. I hope as we age, their patience increases with our propensity to repeat ourselves.)

But to a stranger, I’ll bet we already don’t make much sense.

I’m ok with that. We communicate just fine. We understand each other. Our words carry more meaning because of our shared history. This kind of thing happens whenever two or more people share experiences, inside jokes, and adequate time together. We use language to communicate, but also to reassure, to comfort, to cheer, to share, to love. The birds may do all of that with their series of chirps and trills and silences too, but they’ll never understand the importance of knowing that “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”

A group of blackbirds isn’t a murder, right? Maybe a manslaughter? A misdemeanor?
Reading · Teaching

Teaching Lies, or the View from the Front of the Class

One of the biggest lies of teaching literature is that if you’ve taught a text, you are prepared for what happens the next time you teach it.

In truth, though, every batch of readers is different, so every time through a text, even a short and relatively straightforward text, is a different conversation.

Last week I taught a short essay by Italo Calvino called “Why Read the Classics?” It’s a perfect introduction for lit students to Calvino because he’s talking about what they think is important—good books—and, in a series of definitions that tighten like a noose, he talks them through why he thinks reading classics is important.

I taught two sections an hour apart. There was virtually no overlap in the discussions.

In the first class the student leading the discussion was of a fairly conservative educational mindset, and we spent most of our time trying to articulate the advantages of reading a shared literary canon. (And this, even though we failed in that class to find one text every person had read.) Topics ranged from the influence of ancient and medieval classics on modern masters to the structural and plot similarities of old texts and new, to the realization that human emotions and reactions haven’t really changed in 3000 years.

I tried a couple times to broach the subject of Calvino’s argument for ‘personal classics,’ but I didn’t get much traction, and the conversation kept veering back to a canon—a widening canon, to be sure, including women and authors of color and other underrepresented writers—but it was generally agreed that a list of books that well read people know was a good thing. It forms bonds between people and creates a sense of shared ownership of an intellectual past. The more cultural history we share, the more jokes we get in movies and books.

The second class never mentioned ancient texts at all. The student leading that discussion responded to the idea of Personal Classics like a kid in a candy store and opened up a discussion of favorite books and how they shape us, regardless of whether anyone read the same ones. In this class Calvino came out looking like an iconoclast, which is fair, but he’s an iconoclast steeped in Ovid and Dante, Shakespeare and Dickens.

I have had classes that met somewhere in the middle—nodding in the direction of our literary forebears and then careening off on our personal trajectories. I have also had classes who spent the whole time niggling with either Calvino’s list of definitions or his list of accepted classics.

But no class is the same. The more times I teach a text, the better prepared my opening comments are, and the larger my range of responses to topics that come up with some regularity, but really, truly… we could go anywhere. Giving students the reins in this way is not so much an act of bravery as an exciting spectacle—an intellectual event.

After nine pages of refined definitions and compelling exceptions, Calvino’s conclusion can feel like a bit of a cop out. We should read the classics (the accepted canon and our personal favorites) because it is better to have read them than not.

But he’s not wrong. We define ourselves and construct ourselves in affinity with or in opposition to what we encounter in the world. That means the more we encounter—the more characters we meet and situations we seen navigated—the finer we can tune our personalities. And the more fun we are at cocktail parties. And the better we react when classes or conversations go places we’ve never seen coming.

Read. Think. Talk. And grow. Have fun out there, y’all.

Reading · Teaching

Every Story is a Palimpsest

Spring semester classes started today for those who have a Tuesday/Thursday schedule. This semester I am teaching classical and medieval mythology and postmodern novels—quite a spread in time, if not culture. Ovid’s Metamorphoses takes up a little over half of the myth class, and the postmodern author I’m teaching is Italo Calvino, so there’s overlap in Italy, albeit 2000 years apart.

I often take some time to impress upon the myth students how valuable it will be to have learned these stories. I show them how the same motifs and characters keep getting reused through the centuries, how some of the stories even inform our language, as in the case of the myth of Narcissus giving us ‘narcissicism’ and the Hercules myth leaving the metaphor of a ‘Herculean effort.’

Today as I was teasing that idea out, we discussed the need for some familiarity in our stories. No one wants to read the same thing over and over, but no one wants everything about a story to feel new either.  So even stories that are set in wildly inventive places use character types and plot lines that we’re familiar with. We need a foothold or an entry point. If it’s all new—new setting, new character types, new plot elements, new structure—we can’t make sense of it. We say it’s too weird. It’s stupid, or that most damning of student responses: it’s boring.

But if you give us something familiar—a reluctant hero, say—in a new context—let’s say the futuristic world of the Matrix movies—then there’s enough for us to follow along with.

This strikes me as a Cosmic Truth related to “It’s all connected.” And it’s one I think is most succinctly captured by Alberto Manguel in his recent book, Packing My Library.  He writes, “Every story is a palimpsest…” (80). And he’s absolutely right.

A palimpsest in its strictest sense is a piece of paper or vellum that has had something written on it that has been erased, so something new can be written over it. In the Middle Ages it was very common, because vellum was so expensive to produce, that scribes would scrape off the top layer of skin and with it the original text, so they could use it again. In later times, you can imagine erasing from paper and getting the same effect. What matters here is that some of the old text remains, kind of a ghost in the background, still visible under the new text.

Manguel’s use of it is metaphoric, of course, but no less vivid. Every story we tell has ghosts of other stories behind it. Sometimes that ghost is the plot, like a new rendering of the King Arthur tales or the Trojan War or a biblical story. Sometimes it’s a character type, like Neo’s reluctant hero archetype in the Matrix example. Sometimes it’s structural, like the frame narrative structure (of stories within stories) of the Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales or Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

As I begin another semester with three new groups of students, watching them pick through the pages of the past, introducing them to characters they already know but didn’t realize how old they were, I think this might be my favorite part of the term. It’s a type scene too, of course—the Hero on the Frontier: where you stop and take stock and think about what’s about to happen, planning the best approach and reveling in the anticipation.

When I get older and my filters drop, I’ll probably start saying the things I always think: ”Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” Turn the page. Read this story again. You already know it, but now we’ll look closer, go deeper.  Let’s just hope I stop before getting to the part where we close the wall up with our English dead.

Reading · Teaching

The Wife of Bath’s Experience

Last week, as Americans and others watched testimonies before the Senate Judiciary Committee pertaining to a Supreme Court nomination, millions of people relived their own moments of traumatic assault and discussed why women fear they won’t be believed. And I taught “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” In fact, we were discussing how survivors are treated (and were in the middle ages) at the same moment Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was under oath.

The Wife of Bath is, sadly in some ways, still screamingly relevant.
Her name is Alisoun and she is from Bath. Let’s start there. She is the only pilgrim among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims whose prologue is longer than her tale, because in a very real sense her prologue is her tale.
She begins by establishing the basis for her authority, and it is not the standard. In the medieval period writers based their stories on previously attested, authoritative works.
People who wrote (and read) were overwhelmingly male, educated by studying languages and literature and theology–what Chaucer affectionately refers to as “olde books.”
Alisoun, traveling in a group of mostly men, of clergy and members of the lesser nobility, as well as tradesmen and middle class managers, asserts her voice and her authority and their basis in experience.
Her subject is marriage, or more precisely the relationship between married men and women. Really she’s interested in who has what she calls “maisterie” or “mastery” in the relationship. She has been married five times and is ready for a sixth; she describes herself as being of “five husbands’ schooling.” And she has a lot to say on the subject.
There are several remarkable things happening here. First, Alisoun is claiming authority for herself in an environment where it is both challenged (by the Friar, who tells her to leave off “preaching” and tell a nice story) and sought out (the Pardoner asks for tips, for her to teach him her “practice”—the same word you might use to describe work in law or medicine).
Second, her tale really is biography and a kind of testimony, where she explains how her marriages worked and gives voice to her experiences, some of which we would characterize today as abuse. She enters the masculine, patristic arena as she challenges St. Paul’s doctrine of chastity and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan, where Jesus tells the Samaritan her current husband is not her “real” husband.
Surely God gave us sexual organs, she argues, not just to purge urine, but also to make begetting children pleasurable. How many of the Samaritan’s husbands “counted,” she wonders aloud, and why would Jesus fix a number on marriages? She advocates for gentler rules—for acknowledging that the highest goal is virginity, but that people who do not maintain such austerity can be virtuous too. In a century of plague and a society with an outrageous mortality rate, she advocates for remarriage as a necessity, but also as humane.
When she’s done arguing, she recounts an overview of her first three marriages, but it’s structured as a laundry list of all the anti-feminist ideas circulating among scholars at the time. She knows these stereotypes and biases, and she manages to turn them back on her husbands, gaining mastery—of her husbands and their finances. These are all the accusations she’s had levied at her since she first married at the age of twelve.
The last part of her story recounts her fourth and fifth husbands, one of whom kept a mistress, and the other of whom beat her regularly, but these two were the ones she loved. That was the problem, she deduces.
Chaucer has done something here. He has let a woman speak, validated her experience, and given her a full, flawed, beautiful character. She explains herself on her own terms and enters a discussion that has not been designed for her presence.
We literally haven’t gotten yet to the Tale she tells about a rapist knight whose life is forfeit to the queen and who is rehabilitated when he discovers that all women want authority over their own lives. Today we don’t need to.
What we need to do is hear Dame Alisoun’s story. We need to believe her. We need to learn from her not exactly what she says, but what she shows—that these problems are centuries old, and it’s past time to fix them.
Living · Reading

In Defense of the Prose Poem, or The Existential Escargot

Every time I teach Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium, I buy another book he references in them. It’s like getting a reading list from a trusted source. Usually it’s another treasure I don’t know how else I would have stumbled across. Once, I admit, I didn’t see what he saw—I put down Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual after reading about half of it. But I’ve chased down others of his works and enjoyed them, so I still count him as a triumph.
One of my favorite discoveries was Francis Ponge. Ponge writes prose poems, which I adore. I’ve had many conversations defending this delicate art.  Ponge’s The Nature of Things (Le parti pris des choses) features in Calvino’s essay on “Exactitude” because Ponge is a master of exactitude. In the quest for “le mot juste,” he takes all the prizes. He describes objects and incidents with laser precision. I read one or two occasionally when I need a shot of beauty, like an vaccine against the dis-ease of the world.
In The Nature of Things, “Snails” is by far the longest piece–over four pages. It is quite striking throughout, but the end compels me to write (but first to quote).  He calls snails “saints.”
“That is the example that snails offer us: saints who make masterpieces of their lives, works of art of their own perfection. They secrete form. Nothing outside themselves, their necessity, or their needs is their work. Nothing is out of proportion with their physical being. Nothing that is unnecessary or obligatory.

“And so they delineate the duties of humanity: great thoughts come from the heart. Live a better life and make better verses. Morality and rhetoric combine in the ambition and desire of the wise.

“How are they saints? Precisely by obedience to their nature. So: know yourself. And accept yourself for what you are. In agreement with your vices. In proportion with your measure.

“What is most appropriate to the human being? Words. Decency. Our humanism.
And he wrote this in Paris in 1936. So 350 years after Polonius told Laertes “To thine own self, be true” and 70 years before a rash of self-help books and articles in women’s magazines, here was some crazy Frenchman watching snails in his garden and thinking ‘Hey, we’re a lot alike!’ What a cool world we live in when meaningful connections can be made between such disparate entities, when patterns in the nature of things echo, or reverberate, or like images in a mirror, respond to each other.  The longer I live, the more I feel everything is connected.
And the advice is so beautiful:  Know yourself. Accept yourself. 1- in keeping with your vices, and 2- in proportion to your stature. So look honestly at yourself. Learn your weaknesses. He doesn’t say to stamp them out; just learn them. And understand your stature. I take that to mean we should acknowledge how we stand tall (our strengths, etc.) and how high we stand—to realize our position in relation to other things and people. Find your place. Plomb your depths and measure your heights. Then express yourself—all with a mind to perfecting yourself. At 17 I told a friend I was questing to create the perfect Alison, and he very gallantly asked me not to because he liked the current version fine. But who could ever stop? The point Ponge makes is that we must do it consciously every step of the way.
Discover our nature and live it. Well. Really well. Good luck out there.
(The Ponge text is taken from Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau’s translation, available on the Poetry Foundation website: The photo is of a little girl running toward self-actualization, faster than a snail or a stopped train.)

The Dualists’ Dilemma

I love how some ideas just keep getting reworked. We don’t outgrow fairy tales; we just repackage them. We recreate some of the same archetypal scenes (this is just so-and-so’s odyssey) and characters: he’s such a Casanova. Today I’m entranced by our idea that we are dual in nature—a mixture of good and evil, or a compound of body and soul.

Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde explores our good and evil natures, but not in the way the cartoons taught me. Tweety Bird got huge and scary and violent when his evil side came out, as did many others, but Stevenson’s Hyde was smaller than Jekyll—wiry, malnourished, wild. Jekyll came to understand that he had cultivated his good qualities, and thus his body was tall and strong; his evil side was purely evil, and he had quelled his evil side, not fed it.
This is reflected in the Cherokee story about the grandfather who tells the boy there are two wolves inside each of us—a good wolf and a bad wolf. The boy asks which one is stronger, and his grandfather replies “The one you feed.”  Jekyll’s wolfish Hyde is in danger of growing when Jekyll sets him free and exercises him.
The popularity of Stevenson’s work in the 20thcentury, from cartoons to films to Star Trek episodes means this idea struck a chord with our imagination. In the Star Trek episode, entitled “The Enemy Within” splits Captain Kirk in to his good and evil side, and complicates matters by making his good side really problematic. He can’t make decisions or lead effectively. The implication is that the “whole” Kirk has enough ego and chutzpah to step on toes if he needs to get something done. Of course it’s the original Star Trek, so the evil Kirk is a pleasure-seeking hedonist, drinking and chasing women (more aggressively than usual).  Different context, but same idea.
The other way we seem to split ourselves, and perhaps with an even longer literary (and philosophical) history is the Cartesian dualist division between the physical and the conscious, or the body and soul. This is ancient, of course, but it hasn’t left us for all our technology. It came up today in class, reading Calvino’s The Nonexistent Knight. (Incidently, Calvino also explored the other dualism in The Cloven Viscount, where the titular hero gets blasted in to his good and bad sides by a cannonball, but today we were talking about matter and spirit.)
The nonexistent Knight is an empty suit of armor that walks and talks and rescues damsels, fueled, as he tells Charlemagne, by “will power… and faith in our holy cause” (7), which Charlemagne concedes is enough to get us all moving. This nonexistent knight is given a squire who is his opposite: a man who seems to be “all body” in the sense that he doesn’t know he exists, so he “becomes” everything he comes in contact with—ducks, pears, soup, and Charlemagne himself.
This novella is a thought experiment: what if we could separate our mind and body in to separate forms? What would a mind look like with no body? Nothing. He needs the armor to give him shape. What would a person be like with no core soul binding him to one identity? A person who seems to carry traces of all races and who, having no core identity of his own, borrows one from his immediate environment, which changes as he moves around. He’s not a duck at dinner time, only when he’s walking by the duck pond and dives in. He’s soup at dinner time, not knowing whether he should eat the soup, or feed the soup to a tree with a hole in it, or become the soup itself. He literally dives in to whatever surrounds him.
Why so many stories with binaries over the years? We have a long history of thinking of ourselves as composite, frequently of two parts. And is the real progress of the last century that we don’t anymore? That now we tend to think of ourselves in multiple parts or roles? Today my students discussed the idea of a Disco Ball theory of identity: we all have lots of different facets, not just two constituent parts. That idea could take us far afield from Jekyll and Hyde, more like boldly going where no one has gone before.
(Images from Shutterstock, Star Trek Season 1, Episode 5, and the Harvest/HBJ edition of The Nonexistent Knight)