I lived in Wichita Falls, Texas for good long while. People familiar with Texas usually feel sorry for you when you admit that. I eventually read the Dallas Morning News regularly. Every so often this odd column with the words “scattershooting, while wondering whatever happened to [x]” would appear. Written by a Texas institution named Blackie Sherrod, “Scattershooting,” as I remember it anyway, was often an assemblage of allusive, seemingly random thoughts on the page that maybe had some underlying idea or logic or maybe didn’t at all. At the time I marveled at the erudition and wit in a column about sports. In a world before search engines, Blackie had me hunting through the library to track down his references. He could really string together a sentence when he was at his best. I’ve been thinking about it some lately, partly because when I do follow sport, which happens intermittently, I follow it online through a newsfeed or as clickbait. The quality of the writing there is mostly execrable: mangled syntax, mixed metaphors, hackneyed attempts at wit, all reading to me like some species of warped masculinity. Coach was pretty darn tough on you, huh fella? I need to be a better man, seek out the good stuff and stop relying on algorithms to do it for me.
My thoughts for the day have nothing to do with sports. I’m just following Sherrod’s “scattershooting” example, even though by the time he wrote that column he had earned the right to write however the hell he wanted. The weblog hath flourished since he packed it in. Fragmentary, allusive, or incomplete thoughts now seem somewhat less idiosyncratic. Thank you Mr. Sherrod, blogger avant la lettre. Thank you, internet blogosphere.
The first part of my title, “Shit from an Old Notebook,” refers to a song by the now venerable but tragically short-lived punk-rock group The Minutemen from their masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime (1984). It’s number ten of forty-three tracks on the record, most of which clock in at under two minutes. The pace is blistering, yet the music is wildly accomplished and funky. Those guys could play their instruments. Notes and ideas are sometimes jammed into tight places, while at other times the phrasing somehow stretches out just fine in really limited space. The notes, ideas and phrases are perfectly happy to be there. It’s analogous what I remember it being like at a packed show, all elbows and asses but somehow blissful at the same time. (I’m not old enough to have ever attended a Minutemen show, so the reference here is to other shows.)
I’ve always loved the title of the song “Shit from an Old Notebook,” if not the lyrics entirely. It’s a pretty straightforward screed against the manipulations of mass advertising. There are far better lyrics on that record, but I can think of few titles that better capture the open, improvisatory, unfinished-seeming, do-it-yourself ethic of punk rock at its best. As in, “hey, here’s some shit from an old notebook that I put to music.” On the whole I don’t care for most straight-ahead punk rock music, so I suspect Double Nickels is a record for people who aren’t purists about genre. It could be akin to atheists for Reinhold Niebuhr, if I were forced to make an analogy to more mainstream intellectual history. I’ve been teaching Max Weber lately, and while pursuing one of those random lines of thought and connection that never reach the classroom, I ran across a letter William James wrote to the Harvard psychologist Hugo Munsterberg once the two began to part ways:
But were it not for my fixed belief that the world is wide enough to sustain and nourish without any harm many different types of thinking, I believe that the wide difference between your whole Drang in philosophizing and mine would give me a despairing feeling. I am satisfied with a free wild Nature; you seem to me to cherish and pursue an Italian Garden, where all things are kept in separate compartments, and one must follow straight-ruled walks.
Maybe if he had an entirely different set of references, William James might have liked the Minutemen. Anyhow, readers might listen to the videos in the order of the text, because I mean for them to accompany it. I’m trying to embrace the possibilities of this format by offering snippets of “shit from a notebook.”
Whistling on the Front Porch
A few entries ago in the wake of the presidential election, I considered the following sentence: “History is now on our front porch, so to speak, and it’s an unwelcome visitor.” I’m not sure what I was thinking at the time, but thinking about it a little more, somewhere rolling around back in there were lots of compromised, scattered ideas like these:
- The life of people around my age has been relatively placid in world-historical terms since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Naïve Fukayama end of history kind of stuff.)
- That hardly seems true. September 11, 2001 was obviously significant. Yet the wars that followed were strangely remote, even though my twin brother Ed served in Iraq and my friend Dwayne did a hitch in Afghanistan. Ed was in the Army band, playing piano in the Green Zone for muckety-mucks until the gigs ended. Then he was made to pick up a gun and deal with being shot at or having explosives lobbed at him. I joke that he was actually a spy trained to tie a garrote with piano wire—the jazz assassin. I don’t think he has ever found that joke very funny. My pal Dwayne thought about moral culpability as others in the war machine used his programmed coordinates for lethal ends. He watched it go down at a safe remove through monitors and screens. “I thought, well, I guess I killed twenty people today,” he told me once. Dwayne will never be okay. There was an unreality to these wars in my experience, and at least part of it had to do with the unqualified support Americans had and have for “the troops.” WWHDTD? What would Henry David Thoreau do? He wouldn’t be a fan of Vietnam Syndrome.
- We all have a crystal clear idea about what Thoreau would do. Even if we don’t necessarily share his views (soldiers as “machines” or “wooden men”), it will probably turn out that we may just need Henry again. (See our own Ben Alpers’ perceptive post on “the troops” from a few years ago for a nuanced approach.) This problem of “the troops”—it’s a trope now so it merits the quotation marks—does take one back to David Blight’s Race and Reunion. There Walt Whitman, in emphasizing the suffering of civil war soldiers, furthered the cause of reunion over regeneration or emancipatory revolution. The question is, what potential revolution or emancipatory visions are we avoiding with our contemporary “cult of the fallen soldier?” I suspect it’s the same one Whitman bypassed, this time around avoiding the orations of the civil rights movement or the protesters of the Vietnam War.
- Maybe somewhere back there in the history-on-the-porch comment was an observation from Philip Roth’s novel Exit Ghost (2007), where Nathan Zuckerman has to remind a young couple that the 2004 election was hardly the end of the world. After all, he had lived through 1968. Try that one on for size, whippersnappers! I think I had seen some comparisons between 2016 and that election. More than a few people felt that the sky was falling then. As if to confirm that thought, I read a short piece several weeks ago in the New Yorker filling out a comparison with 1968 made by Joe Biden. It was probably inevitable someone would do that.
But what does it mean for history to “appear” on a doorstep as if it had somehow been absent before? I guess by “history” I meant the ruptures or breaks versus steady continuities, and the experience of having lived in or through these ruptures, rather than the steady march toward oblivion that characterizes many bourgeois lives on the planet, lives of provincial concern lived out quietly in the rituals of the everyday and unspectacular, the debts, rents, mortgages, payments existential or otherwise; the sheer nausea accompanying a glittering array of consumer choices. (Is this chipotle salsa really “me” though? I mean, it tastes good, but isn’t that taste so over by the time it shows up in a jar on a supermarket shelf, much less now that it’s been in jars on supermarket shelves for years?)
Willy Loman in Prison
- I recently taught Death of a Salesman again in my U.S. History survey, and I did the usual thing, which is to ask whether Biff, Happy, Linda, and Willy love one another. This kind of a question sets up a more perverse attempt to get students thinking seriously about how success narratives, tied into ideas of work and labor in the U.S., especially after WWII infiltrate so many Americans’ thinking about themselves and their familial relations. For those Americans trapped in the trajectory of the “immigrant rocket” (to paraphrase Philip Roth from American Pastoral) so much about relations between parents and children have to do with success. In those cases, many phone conversations amount to inquiries into how the working-on-success-thing is going. Is this love? If not, then what is it? If it is, then what kind of love is it? At the very least, breaking out of this cycle of trading success narratives seems worth doing. Why not ask one’s parents questions like, “Did you ever think you were seriously going to die, and what went through your mind at the time?” The idea is to get irritatingly optimistic, privileged students to run to the dorm and call their parents, or not.
- I often think that Arthur Miller didn’t critique the American Dream that much at all so much as lament its passing. Willy is a bad parent by these lights. He doesn’t teach his kids Horatio Alger values. In Alger stories, say, Ragged Dick, the protagonist works hard, bootblacking by day, studying by night, cozying up to boon companions, developing those virtues that become “character” before rising to bourgeois respectability. Willy, on the other hand, admires the initiative his sons take when they steal stuff. He cares about “personality,” for being well-liked, to trot out Warren Susman’s distinctions. He’s also a salesman, so he constantly dreams about the big score, sometimes regretting his career choice, wishing he had taken a shot when his brother Ben tried to sell him an Alaskan gold rush as a younger man. (He’s also searching for his daddy.) Willy’s been driven insane by the riches part—both the “Acres of Diamonds” variety and the frontier chicanery variety, and forgets the rags-to part. He wants to stay right where he his so that everyone around him will like him, and he wants the big adventure elsewhere so that he never has to worry about money again. His pathos is just awful for us, because Linda believes that “attention must be paid” and Willy thinks that his life’s labors should mean that his boss owes him something, when creative destruction in an advanced capitalist society means that no one owes anyone anything. This is why he worries over his refrigerator. He gets it on installment plan, and once the debt is paid, the appliance is used up. You have to buy a new one as soon as you pay it off. It’s classic planned obsolescence. Willy doesn’t seem to get that he’s the same thing as his refrigerator. He’s used up junk.
- Miller’s suggestion seems to be that maybe the old days were marginally better, at least if we read Death of a Salesman like Christopher Lasch might have, or if we see in the play the collapse of Max Weber’s innerworldly ascetics for “specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart.” The darker reading is that even the 19th century world of social mobility, artisanal labor, and character building was always a scam, but that modern conditions only expose it in ever more naked terms. There’s not enough to suggest the darker reading though, so I sometimes feel that Arthur Miller has picked my emotional pocket by making me feel sorry for Willy Loman. Screw Willy Loman. He should have known.
- I just taught Death of a Salesman in prison this past weekend. Before we started, one of my favorite hard-boiled cynics in the class said something like “Jesus Christ, Kuryla, Death of a Salesman? Don’t you think we have it hard enough in here?” It was gallows humor. Everyone had a good laugh at that one. I tried to argue that maybe we shouldn’t feel bad for Willy. The guys mulled that over some, but on the whole thought readers should, and that it was okay to feel bad for him. I’ve noticed that men in prison think about families a whole lot. One guy pointed out that Willy is just the American male writ large: shitty father, lousy husband, morally compromised, delusional. His agon hurts us because we realize that he’s what so many of us are. It’s not that we feel for him because we think he’s right or that his version of masculinity is right, but because we realize that we’re partly a nation of Lo-mans, and that shock of realization hurts the most. One of my incredibly bright, searchingly intelligent lifers mentioned that the prison-industrial complex uses people up too. It’s the container for what society thinks are defective or junk parts. Much like landfills or cemeteries, which we keep cordoned off in spaces far away from us, prisons and prisoners are meant to stay invisible. We don’t want to see how we’ve failed them or think about how we consign people to social death without much thought at all, how, to use Willy’s words, “you can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit!” The upshot is that maybe Miller was right to write a play about a discarded person, and that maybe yes, for that reason alone we should feel something for him.
 In a review of a slew of books for The New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash considers some issues involving periodization. It’s worth checking out: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/01/19/is-europe-disintegrating/