Editor’s Note: This is the last of four biweekly guest posts by Peter Kuryla. — Ben Alpers
I had lofty ideas for this post. I had planned on writing something about a scene from the film Citizen Kane by way of Ralph Ellison’s wonderful essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station.” Hopefully I’ll do it some other time. Celebrating Christmas at my folks’ house, I even made a family event out of my ambition. We all sat down with microwaved popcorn and watched Orson Welles’ masterpiece the day after Christmas. It turned out ok, in that my parents then made pretty astute analogies to Charles Foster Kane all over the place, trying to make me feel better about my brother’s comment “boy, this is a really long movie.” (It’s not a very long movie at all, Ed.) After my plans fell apart as things do, I recalled Andrew Hartman’s sage advice when he generously gave me a shot to write for this blog; to paraphrase: “it’s doesn’t have to be profound intellectual history all of the time.”
That comment made me think of a story I read somewhere about William James. It could be apocryphal. (I need a real James scholar to help me out with this.) Gertrude Stein was a James student, and one day, she didn’t think an exam made sense to her. She didn’t feel like a philosophy exam, and she wrote that feeling to James. He responded by saying that he had felt pretty much the same way lots of the time.
I wonder if that happened around the holidays. Anyhow, an idea came to me at the airport on the way home by way of Don DeLillo’s great satire of a postmodern America, White Noise (1985). The novel is set amidst the life of a polyglot family whose patriarch is Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a local university. Along with Hitler Studies, a central joke in the novel has to do with the gnawing bourgeois fear of death felt by Gladney and his wife, and the pathetic lengths, pharmacological or otherwise, each is willing to go to in order to deal with the “problem.” Lots has been written and said about this book, so I have no intention to attend to its details here or say anything new about it. It also happens that I don’t have access to my library, so I’m flying relatively blind. All references promise to be hit and run. I do have White Noise though.
Spending time with my family this Christmas, I was continually drawn back to a statement that Jack Gladney makes somewhere, that “the family is the cradle of misinformation.” The observation appears around one of a handful of scenes where everyone has a conversation about random topics in the family car. Each member brings a factoid to the table, and they combine and transmogrify until the conversation threatens to cross the threshold into a tall tale. It’s sublimely entertaining. Here’s an example. Heinrich is the eldest son, Denise and Steffie daughters, and Babette the mother:
Heinrich said, “Did you ever really look at your eye?”
“What do you mean?” Denise said, showing immediate interest, as though we were lazing away a midsummer day on the front porch.
“Your own eye. Do you know which part is which?”
“You mean like the iris, the pupil?”
“Those are the publicized parts. What about the vitreous body? What about the lens? The lens is tricky. How many people even know they have a lens? They think ‘lens’ must be ‘camera.’”
“What about the ear?” Denise said in a muffled voice.
“If the eye is a mystery, totally forget the ear. Just say ‘cochlea’ to somebody, they look at you like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ There’s this whole world right inside your own body.”
“Nobody even cares,” she said.
“How can people live their whole lives without knowing the names of their own parts of the body?”
“What about the glands?” she said.
“Animal glands you can eat. The Arabs eat glands.”
“The French eat glands,” Babette said…”The Arabs eat eyes, speaking of eyes.”
“What parts?” Denise said.
“The whole eye. The sheep eye.”
“They don’t eat the lashes,” Heinrich said.
“Do sheep have lashes?” Steffie said.
“Ask your father,” Babette said.
(“Who’s this guy?” Kills me every time.) Every time I read the novel, like plenty of others who have written about it, I’m struck by how prescient, thirty years on, DeLillo’s alternate world appears. In the mixed company of contemporary families these kinds of conversations have the potential to pop up more often than ever because of the amount of information—mostly bad—we have readily available now, especially the trivial kind.
Still, I wonder whether the technology matters at all. This year, because my folks live far enough away for us to have flown in, leaving us without a car, we had occasion to pile into their car and drive around together several times, which brought back memories of childhood: Dad driving, Mom in the passenger seat, my twin brother and I in the back seat, this time around my wife crammed in next to me, sharing that feeling of conspiracy against the other’s family married couples occasionally enjoy. I’m not sure if any philosophers have dedicated much time to the phenomenology of the car, but being in motion, facing forward and having a conversation does weird things to that particular kind of experience.
DeLillo gets this I think. Rather than crane the neck around from the front seat or lean forward from the back seat and into the gap in the front seats, which a sustained conversation would require, it makes more sense to pontificate over the road noise. This sort of speech lends itself to absolutist pronouncements. The language games in cars tend toward aphorism, general summary judgment, or non sequitur. Rather than firing focused volleys at each other, we shoot buckshot, so idea pellets fly all over creation, only to hit the target occasionally or in a glancing way.
My parents are now growing hard of hearing, only amplifying the tendency (Dad, who taught Airforce people how to repair jet engines, is eighty-one; Mom, who taught and administered in Catholic schools for forty years, is seventy-five). We’re also one of those families with deep and abiding political disagreements, so driving in the car makes for adventures in knee-jerk exchanges. The advent of smart phones could mean atomized experiences, where each of us extend out into our online personae alone in silence, but my parents keep utilitarian mobile phones that stay turned off when not in use. They make constant observations while in the car, which inevitably draws the rest of us in. One of our conversations went something like this (with embellishments to get the tenor of it, etc.):
“Did you hear about the Uber people here in Chicago?
“No, what about it? Who are those people?”
“Those Uber drivers are hitting women with sticks.”
“Why are they doing that?”
“Because they want more money after they pick them up.”
“As far as understand it, the fee is already agreed upon before the ride even happens.”
“Doesn’t matter. I know the real cabbies aren’t happy about these people. Someone should do something about it. You don’t know who could be picking you up.”
“Do you mean to suggest that government ought to regulate the industry, that unregulated markets aren’t always a social good? Is that what you’re suggesting? So which one wins? Fear or government?”
“That’s obtuse. Good gravy, there are limits.”
“What do you figure that building is over there? It really is something. Odd looking architecture isn’t it?”
“Looks like a Lego building.”
“Maybe they should use it for government offices to regulate fee-based auto transportation services.”
“Maybe they should use it for a private prison to house smart-asses.”
Conspiracy and muddle-headedness mark the dark side of these exchanges, but there are benefits. Being-in-transit exchanges might eventually lead to fantastic tall tales or ridiculous speculation. Some of our most famous novels are about people traveling with surrogate families of one kind or another, sharing misinformation. Huck cruelly tricked his father Jim on the raft, the brothers Sal and Dean race across the country while lying to one another about growing up, and so on. I’ve always figured that the start of Moby Dick was an invitation to the most incredible shipboard yarn ever from the first line on: “Call me Ishmael.” Oh boy, here we go. Soon after that, Ishmael and Queequeg make a family. The greatest American novel is partly the most colossal fish story ever from there.
As I think more about the language games that come from the cradle of misinformation, I figure one of the basic rules is that no one ever wins. We can’t and shouldn’t win, because then the conversation would stop for a while. We would lose the intimacy needed to try out our fondest, most grandiose imaginings of the worlds that join up with our expansive selfhood. There could be an idea about bad ideas here. I wonder whether our greatest tall tales and stories get a primitive run in that relatively safe but combative space. Only rarely do we utter the killing phrase, because some of the time we know we ought to root for one another. We feel that stuff in the close quarters of a car. Outside the cradle, we test our stories for people who have only a temporary duty to us. Then the real intellectual history happens.