Some Thoughts on the State of Things after Re-Reading “Parker’s Back”

A piece on Christianity in contemporary fiction in last week’s New York Times Book Review mentioned Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back” and subsequently sent me to my bookcase. I pulled Ms O’Connor’s Complete Works from the shelf, checked the index, and marked the story with the book’s ribbon. My apartment is small enough and the books organized well enough that the entire process took less than one minute. To read it took a good deal longer, not least because I have learned to read slowly but mostly because “Parker’s Back” is a frightening story about a man whose apparently misplaced faith yields cyclical resentment and crisis. Mr Parker’s judgment is not what we generally think of as “sound.” It’s an extraordinarily dense work, covers a great deal of time and space in fewer than 20 pages.

Another option under these circumstances might have been to search Wikipedia for the story, where one would find a synopsis of the work that not long ago would have met the inadequate-for-all-but-testing standards of Cliff’s Notes, and from which one might glean a vague idea about faith and identity, class and fervor, failure and aggression – at least enough to cover oneself at a cocktail party should the conversation veer into The American South.

Choosing the second option, I would experience only the shame or pride of passing muster at a cocktail party, nothing of Ms O’Connor’s work, nothing of the possibilities, depth, or range of human belief and expression. That this second option has become the norm is not an argument between reading or not reading nor exactly an argument between knowing and not knowing.1

I sense that in the last several years, these two phenomena, the concession to brevity and the experience of knowing a subject or object thoroughly, have become, in many instances, practically interchangeable.2We have come to trust the brevity of our exchanges, to assume a glance and a longer look are equivalent, because we are so rarely asked to take the longer look, to digest the experience before reporting on it, to have the courage to form a relationship with a work, our own or someone else’s, without fear of missing out on something else. We spend increasingly more time scanning short, discrete expressions in anticipation of meaning if not relation. I think we suffer for it, too.

My choice, as it happened, will not be unusual to anyone who has in the course of their life assembled a personal library, a large or small collection of books or other analog materials whose presence in one’s home serves both as reference and affirmation of one’s identity and sociability. Unlike the material in the current climate of electronic reading, these collections share our space with us, as do our friends, family, collaborators, guests, and co-workers. Books can be passed around with ease, unbound as they are to any proprietary format or device, and in so doing grant our presence to the receiver’s home or travel or wherever they might take the book in question. I’m open to but not aware of instances where digital media — files, that is — provide the same sense of intimacy. There are, no doubt, exceptions but as I say, they’re not part of my experience.

I should add, for what it’s worth, that I am not a Luddite. I’m typing this on an iPad Mini, a device for which my fondness so far extends beyond its novelty and from which, earlier today, I streamed Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia to my television. I embrace such devices for what they can do but remain skeptical about their ability to replace the tactile relationship I have with my books. I am certain that this skepticism is not unique, nor is it limited to books. I have, for example, a similar relationship with records and CDs.

Perhaps it’s a generation gap but I doubt it. I know younger people, aged 25-30, give or take, who prefer vinyl or CDs to MP3s, theatrical moviegoing or DVDs (or even VHS tapes) to streaming. They’re picking up, I think, on the culture surrounding these activities and formats, which is essentially social and in-hand, and perhaps more importantly, has a history from which they can learn and grow and to which they can contribute.

Additionally, too much convenience and too many choices can be paralyzing. Sometimes the extra effort it takes to find a rare or elusive work in order to share it in person makes the experience more memorable or valuable. This is not to say none of us have benefitted from contemporary electronic correspondence, exchange, or collaboration. It is, however, to suggest that these latter relationships and their outcomes will likely remain fixed on their speed and superficial variety until such time as they resolve in a physical proximity.

In any event, “Parker’s Back” is a wonderful story and worth a read. If you don’t have Ms O’Connor’s stories handy, you can read it at Doral Academy Preparatory High School’s site.


  1. I don’t think there’s any particular harm in not knowing Ms O’Connor’s work nor do I think there’s any particular harm in cocktail parties. I do, however, think there’s a distinction worth making between knowing something because one believes it is worth knowing thoroughly and knowing about something in order to get over in a social situation.

  2. In fact, of course, they are not: the stages of a thoroughgoing learning process could be described as something like introduction, acquaintance, apprehension, understanding, and synthesis. Gleaning, I think, precludes most of these steps.

Inspiration: David Byrne

The band became a more abstract entity, a community. And while individual band members might shine and take virtuosic turns, their identities became submerged within the group. It might seem paradoxical, but the more integral everyone was, the more everyone gave up some individuality and surrendered to the music. It was a living, breathing model of a more ideal society, an ephemeral utopia that everyone, even the audience, felt was being manifested in front of them, if only for a brief period.

– David Byrne, How Music Works, pp 48-49.

Inspiration: Geoff Dyer

gd-bb

Years ago, he used to catch himself thinking about what he was playing, conscious of his own technique, and while this distracted it also reassured because it meant that in between these spasms of self-consciousness he had simply been playing — and he played best when least conscious of what he was doing. At a certain point, playing became a wild amnesia of technique.

— Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, p. 174.

Inspiration: Wendell Berry

The various reductions I have been describing are fairly directly the results of the ongoing revolution of applied science known as “technological progress.” This revolution has provided the means by which both the productive and the consumptive capacities of people could be detached from household and community and made to serve other people’s purely economic ends. It has provided as well a glamor of newness, ease, and affluence that made it seductive even to those who suffered most from it. In its more recent history, especially, this revolution has been successful in putting unheard-of quantities of consumer goods and services within the reach of ordinary people. But the technical means of this popular “affluence” has at the same time made possible the gathering of the real property and the real power of the country into fewer and fewer hands.

— Wendell Berry, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” 1987.

*What Are People For?*, 185-6.

Christopher Small

[O]ur present-day concert life, whether “classical” or “popular,” in which the “talented” few are empowered to produce music for the “untalented” majority, is based on a falsehood. It means that our powers of making music for ourselves have been hijacked and the majority of people robbed of the musicality that is theirs by right of birth, while a few stars, and their handlers, grow rich and famous through selling us what we have been led to believe we lack.

— Christopher Small, Musicking.

By which Mr. Small means, at least: it’s already in you so make your noise.

From My Old Blog, October, 2006: Thoughts on Seismosis

John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse’s *Seismosis* arrived today. It’s a wonderful-looking book with texts by Keene and drawings by Stackhouse. I don’t know the latter’s work but Keene’s *Annotations* has been one my favorites lately.

For what it’s worth, the poems remind me of *Annotations* though Keene’s style has developed remarkably, assured and matured in both subject and delivery. *Seismosis*, is less of a personal history than *Annotations*, though no less thoughtful, reflective or considerate. Keene’s approach is to take his subjects as objects in hand, noting their materials, weights, surfaces, contours, and variations. The drawings pre-register these notations, providing a record and measure as a fortifying context for Keene’s meditations.

Stackhouse’s drawings are scribbles, mostly, likened here to the titular needle-jumps of a seismograph. Taken as the book’s point of entry, they’re a pleasurable, bodily foil to the shape of Keene’s texts (lines, grids, blocks). The opening and closing poems, for example, share the title, ‘Process’; both are printed on recto pages, faced by Stackhouse drawings of dissimilar stroke and light: the first concentrates its vigorous strokes over each other and in the center of the page; the latter keeps its strokes to a relative minimum, creating two forms on the left and right sides of the page.1 Of the poems, the first reads, “In the mark event, you enter your signature.” The final poem, after much speculation on — among other things — spatial relations, human relations, and the relations between the drawings and texts of the book itself, acts as an aphoristic resolution of the first: “In the mark, we choose and lose signature.”

The distiction between the mark itself and the mark’s event is a crucial one for these collaborators, whose marks are contingent on the event of their collaboration; that is, the event (the book) of the marks (poems, drawings) amplifies the effects and meanings of the marks and transforms them into a single event, the way single notes form a chord. The resulting unity is no small feat. Most efforts at such union of illustration and text suffer the egos of their makers, an unwillingness to see their work subsumed into a greater project. For Keene and Stackhouse, on the other hand, it seems that *Seismosis* was occasioned by likemindedness, trust, and an abiding kindred sense between two artists.


  1. The drawings, part of his *Perpendicular Series*, are not entirely scribbles. Stackhouse’s use of straightedge, in particular, generates effective armatures for the works, directing attention from the page margins to the structure of his forms: drawings XII, XXI, XXIX (my personal favorite and the most ‘perpendicular’ work in the book), L, and LI (described above in conjunction with the second ‘Process’), are examples of this practice.

From My Old Blog, September, 2006: Muriel Rukeyser

I’ve been re-reading Muriel Rukeyser’s *The Life of Poetry* the last few nights. It’s not an easy book by any stretch, its density matched only by her elusive biography of *Willard Gibbs*. But there are numerous passages of immediate moral if not linguistic clarity, the following of which struck me last night:

[I]f communication has broken down, then it is time to tap the roots of communication. Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source. And it is deep at these levels that the questions lie. They come up again and again during these years, when under all the surface shouting, there is silence about those things we need to hear.

Later, in a somewhat different context, she writes, “The gestures of the individuals are not history; but they are the images of history.”

Rukeyser’s insistent humanism reminds me of Hayden Carruth’s, but not as individualist as his, and though her prose can, as I said, be cumbersome, her position is clear. Against the dominant strains of violence, imperialism, and inequality, she defines poetry as the center of healing, peace, community, and learning, as a measure of progress. Whether or not she’s right in this assertion might be open to debate (I’m pretty sure she is, for what it’s worth) but she remains, in any case, an active and productive source of inspiration as we approach election-times and face a seemingly neverending war.

From My Old Blog, September, 2006: My Favorite Book and Its Author

hollisframpton

On the left is a book called Circles of Confusion: Film · Photography · Video: Texts 1968-1980 that was written by the man on the right who was (in his lifetime, from 1936 until 1984) and is called Hollis Frampton. It is a book of essays, most of which were originally published in Artforum magazine when it was edited by Annette Michelson, a film theorist and critic whose abundant and energetic wing fostered three generations of scholars and filmmakers, including and perhaps especially, Hollis Frampton.

Visual Studies Workshop Press in Rochester, NY, published the collection. The connection between VSW, Rochester, and Frampton is not as obscure as it might seem: Frampton taught at SUNY Buffalo in the 1970s, the campus of which is situated roughly 70 miles west of Rochester, home of Kodak, and therefore a center of film manufacturing.

Such connections are, rudimentarily speaking, the stuff of Frampton’s thought and work. He came to still photography via Ezra Pound and James Joyce; to filmmaking via still photography, painting, and a devotion to mathematics and science; to video and photocopiers via filmmaking and a return to still photography.

His films run the gamut from his earliest efforts whose concern was primarily motion (e.g. Manual of Arms, 1966) to found-footage films (e.g. Maxwell’s Demon, 1968) to so-called structural 1 works (e.g. Lemon, 1969; in this case a full-frame shot of a lemon subjected to a range of light and exposure, about which Frampton said, “As a voluptuous lemon is devoured by the same light that reveals it, its image passes from the spatial rhetoric of illusion into the spatial grammar of the graphic arts.”) to the unfinished Magellan, which was intended to expand to include a film for each day of a 371 day cycle. A spirit of inquiry, a sense of humor, and a feeling for the necessity of art infuse his writing as they do his films. These are curious works, works of a curious mind, works for curious minds.


  1. I’m not sure I agree with the entirety of this page’s explanation but it does serve to provide a definition of this kind of filmmaking. I prefer to view structural film, like film noir, as a style or method as opposed to a genre.