Reading 4-10 November 2012 (ZiR)

Reading 4-10 November 2012 (ZiR)

Texts William Eaton has been pleased to spend time with this week

[One in an ongoing series of posts. For the full series see Zeteo is Reading.]


4 November 2012: An hour with Thoreau

Reading in Thoreau in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates, edited by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis. The editor dwells on, among other things, Thoreau the patient observer of nature. My favorite example, an extract from a recollection written by a Concord contemporary, Joseph Hosmer, Jr., of “An Hour with Thoreau.”

On one of his accustomed rambles he [Thoreau] came where I was at work near the river, and hearing a well known sound that is heard in the low land along the banks of the Assabet, a sound as of a bird, yet somewhat like the notes of a tree-toad, only more bird like, he entered into conversation about it.

The noise alluded to always excited wonder especially with the older people, . . . It was the received opinion of the people fifty years ago that the swallows dove into the water and burrowed in the mud during the winter, and as they were first and last seen over the ponds and streams, and hence the mysterious sounds were supposed to emanate from some kind of a bird.

Thoreau said it was a frog and he thought he could show it to me. . . . After giving me minute directions how to proceed and to do in all things as he did, we started in the direction of the object we had in view, which was some eight or ten rods distant. When it sang we hastened on and just before the last note was uttered, we stopped till it began again and then on as before. When we were within a few rods of it, we dropped on our hands and knees, and worked up to it stealthily, but only when it sang. At last we were rewarded with a full view of it some twelve feet distant. It rose slowly, inflated itself and uttered the little song.

5 November 2012: Blotto

Sign written in chalk soliciting customers for a bar on Second Avenue near 31st Street in New York City:

Let’s drink till we can’t feel feelings.

My son (12) wonders why I dig in my pockets for a scrap of paper on which to scribble down these words. Among my answers is that it is interesting that people struggle so to stay alive and struggle so to not feel their feelings; death would seem the obvious way of solving both problems. To which my son points out that the effects on GNP of people realizing this could be catastrophic. Later, however, Googling, I realize that the matter is more complicated and less interesting. This ad is a knock-off of an apparently well-known line from one of the stars of the TV show Family Guy. One can even buy T-shirts with this line printed on the chest. (The exact line is “C’mon, let’s go drink ’til we can’t feel feelings anymore.”) It would seem that with the help of a whiskey or a few beers one might not only deaden one’s feelings, but also feel more alive thanks to one’s connection to a real live celebrity, Peter Griffin, an animated character.


Some days later I read an article in the 16 November Chronicle of Higher Education on “Digitally Enhanced Addiction”—a discussion of Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (Princeton University Press). A veteran machine gambler, pseudonym Mollie, is asked why she plays the slots. “To keep playing—to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.” Schüll, an anthropologist, describes the machine zone as a place in which human interaction does not get in the way of the machine-human connection.

6 November 2012: The writer versus the egg-beater

In “Voices on Voice: The Singular ‘I’ and the Chameleon ‘I’,” Carl N. Klaus, the founding director of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, reproduces the openings of four successive drafts of an E.B. White essay, “Dear Mr. 0214 1063 02 10730 08.” Here they are:

The danger in a machine culture is that in the enjoyment of the convenience of machines, we will overshadow their disadvantages to others.

The danger in a machine culture is that the convenience of machines may come to overshadow the losses we suffer by reason of their peculiar arrangements.

I’m not against machines, as are some people who feel that the computer is leading us down the primrose trail. I like machines—particularly the egg-beater, which is the machine at its finest and most mysterious. I’m only against machines when the convenience they afford to some overshadows the inconvenience they cause to all.

I’m not against machines, as are some people who feel the computer is leading us back into the jungle. I rather like machines, particularly the egg-beater, which is the highest point the machine has yet reached. I’m against machines only when the convenience they afford to some people is regarded as more important than the inconvenience they cause to all.

Klaus notes that, to get to the fourth version, White went through the “four separate drafts as well as interlinear revisions, for a 750 word essay!” I am struck, too, that, from where I sit, the third version is better, especially the “machine at its finest and most mysterious” phrase. The “highest point” revision is of course not bad writing; it simply makes a somewhat different, more satirical point, and I preferred the earlier one, the recognition of the mysteriousness of machines.

Klaus’s essay is contained in his collection The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (University of Iowa Press, 2010). White’s essay was first published in the New York Times, September 23, 1987. The draft versions of the essay are to be found in the E.B. White Collection at the Cornell University Library.

7 November 2012: It’s not that people know so little

Reading takes concentration—more concentration than writing, interestingly enough—and so I wonder how much reading I or many others will be able to do after staying up until God knows when this past morning waiting for someone to help Mitt Romney realize that wishing doesn’t make it so. Somewhere in this midst of all that, and the confetti, and the intriguing choice of a victory song for the re-elected President—”Signed, Sealed and Delivered” (“I’m yours”)—there was ABC News commentator Matthew Dowd’s rich remark:

This may be the last time we see two white men run against each other in a presidential election.

He was referring not only to Romney and Obama, but also to the large role that Hispanic and women voters, and also African Americans and Asian Americans, seem to have played in Obama’s victory. Perhaps because our best wags were wagged out this morning, or with the idea that Dowd’s comment was an embarrassing gaffe and so his colleagues should not be too hard on him, as of 1 pm today the media (Zeteo excepted!) seemed to be ignoring the remark. I would ask, however, if it was a sign of a well-known Brazilian phenomenon coming north? (That is, in Brazil, the higher you rise socially the “whiter” you appear to be.) Or could it be that we are losing some of our ability to “see color”? Race being a social construct, it is not impossible that it might someday outlive its former (God awful) usefulness.

It might also be noted that Dowd was the chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign. But that was long, long ago, back when we had taken over Iraq because Iraqi terrorists had blown up the World Trade Center, or because we knew they had nuclear weapons, or was it simply the second coming of Operation Just Cuz? As Mark Twain is rumored to have said:

It’s not that people know so little, it’s that so much of what they know isn’t so.

8 November 2012: California votes (for us all?)

Food Democracy Now and others of us concerned about the quality of the food we are sold and the honesty of food labeling placed some hopes in the passage of California’s Proposition 37 which would have required the the labeling of genetically-modified food as such and would have prohibited genetically-modified foods from being labeled “natural.” The food industry, especially the Monsanto Corporation, spent more than $20 million to fight this measure, and it would seem to have been money “well” (or toxically?) spent. Last I read, Proposition 37 had lost by 47 to 53 percent.

In the wee hours of this morning, searching out this election news from my home in New York, I landed on a website called Opposing Views (“News. Controversy. Opinion.). There one Michael Allen of San Vicente Media reported on the election-day verdicts on all the California propositions. I found his review to be a kind of sketch (as opposed to a full-blown portrait) of the contemporary United States. I offer a version of this sketch below. I have eliminated some of the details (propositions) and done a lot of editing to compress and so forth. (Allen cites and as his sources.)

  • Proposition 30 was passing (at the time Allen was reporting). The measure would temporarily increase the state sales tax and income tax on individuals making more than $250,000. Governor Jerry Brown endorsed this measure which will avoid “trigger cuts” to the state’s public education system. Billionaire Charles Munger fought this prop.
  • Proposition 32 would have prevented unions from making campaign donations via members’ dues. The measure’s backers said it would prevent corporations from doing the same, but California companies were already not allowed to do this, so the proposition would have only affected unions. Allen reported that “no” was leading 56 to 43 percent. $135.6 million was spent on this fight, with labor organizations outspending the proposition’s corporate supporters by $14.6 million.
  • Proposition 33 would have required insurance companies to set rates based on the previous insurance history of the driver and provide better rates for drivers who have had insurance in the past. Prop 33 was losing.
  • Proposition 34 would have repealed California’s death penalty and replaced it with life in prison without parole. This measure was failing.
  • Proposition 35 would increase prison terms for human traffickers and requires police training on human trafficking. This measure was passing by a very wide margin.
  • Proposition 38 would have hiked the state income tax for 12 years, putting the money to pre-K to 12 education. This measure is being killed 72 to 27 percent.
  • Measure B, which would require porn performers to wear condoms, was passing 60 to 39 percent. Measure B was pushed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, but was opposed by porn producers and porn lovers.

9 November 2012: Capitalism’s moral imagination

Read this morning a compact, trenchant and inspiring critique of the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. The critique was written by Eugene McCarraher, a professor of humanities at Villanova University.

Sandel and other critics of “the market” need to appreciate that “market thinking” [involves] moral imagination. Capitalism is a telos of human ideals—the maximization of utility, the expansion of productivity, the enrichment of humankind—and it fosters an ensemble of mores to minister to those ends—calculated avarice, the work ethic, competition, technological “innovation,” advertising and the multiplication of desires. It’s not that capitalism “wags no fingers” at pernicious or craven desires [as Sandel asserts]; it encourages the exponential increase of desire as a good thing in itself. The beatific vision of the capitalist moral imagination is the Gross Domestic Product: the yearly growth in the volume of goods and services whose increase is never questioned. Tapping into and perverting our deepest desires for creative and exuberant lives, capitalism offers a beguiling, insidious account of human nature and destiny.

The full review may be found at this Hedgehog Review website. Once there, scroll down just a little.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Thoreau Looms Up Bigger and Bigger | Z e t e o

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: