Literary Criticism: Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe astounds me whenever I read him, and I am reading him again, now.  He is, perhaps, one of the most gifted writers of this generation.  Wolfe writes about the depth and surface of human experience.  People too often, and mistakenly, talk about Wolfe’s interest in status.  That’s there, of course, but Tom Wolfe can write with insight and sensitivity about the soul, about spirituality, and the conflict of spirituality with the contemporary world and its vapid secularity–giving all their own voice.

Sometimes it is difficult to recognize the shining stars in the age in which they live.  For instance, Norman Mailer was a sensation in his day, but I don’t think anyone will be reading him for much longer, if anyone still is.  Tom Wolfe will continue to be read for generations because his novels are engaging, profound, artistic, and bespeak truths about the human condition that are timeless.

Tom Wolfe’s work has received mixed critical response.  Some prominent authors of the generation preceding him panned him.  I don’t know what gets into critics’ heads, sometimes.  You often see hubris and arrogance in them that makes them think that they have an Olympian voice about everything beneath them from their lofty height.  Hemingway once said he thought he should break the jaw of one critic every year.  Wolfe’s works surpass the accepted authors preceding him who panned him.  Wolfe will live on while they are forgotten.

Wolfe delights, engages, paints realistic characters, realistic situations, and comments on the vital issues of human existence.  I am casting this criticism out into the cyber-world as enthusiasm which must find voice, and as a recommendation to anyone who hasn’t yet been touched by this abiding artist.

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SEVERAL THREADS OF LIVES

The three fates spin the thread of our life at birth

At times, so it seems with the life I know

Then, there are my choices

The threads I spun for myself:

 

The shock of working at a nursing home

Seeing the incapacitation

Drove me to drive myself in everything

I went all-out, all-in

My endeavor coursed through my ambition to achieve

And so, one thread

 

The intensity driving me drove me

Just to get by

When incapacitation overwhelmed me,

Overmedication disabled my abilities

“I can’t believe you could function,” my psychiatrist said

And so, one thread

 

Early aspiration realized late

Struggling to live out a livelihood dreamed of

In real time, in tension with tendentious intractable relations

Resolute in my own reality realizing my dreams

Despite detractors, determined

And so, one thread

 

Was it the thread spun by the three fates

At my birth?  Or spun by my own making?

In parallel universes I envision

Other roads I could have traveled by

Other doors opened, different possibilities, different choices

Other outcomes, other goals, other achievements

Other selves which could be me

Other lives I could live

Here I am, am who I am

In this life, spun by the three fates, or by me

Philosophy of Religion

For me, today, religion is more a technique than a belief system.  Religion is a set of tools to use to perfect the self.  My interfaith background has led me to this idea, and the practices I have gone through.

When I was young, and I think that this is appropriate for young people, I learned a lot of belief systems.  I had a real delight in ideas, truth, and doctrines.  Now, my concern is how the ideas I have learned work in my reformation process.  From this point of view, religion is the tools I use in this.

I recently experienced Vedanta meditation (philosophical Hindu practice).  Very briefly, very basically.  But having studied Vedanta in graduate school, I had an idea where the teacher was going during the meditation.  I have used the techniques he taught us on my own to good effect.  However, I have certain doctrinal disagreements with the theology behind Vedanta.  My main concern is with the idea of an embodied God.  As a Christian, my God is Jesus.  Yet in Vedanta, the Ultimate is pure Consciousness, Peace, Infinite and impersonal.  I believe that these qualities apply to Jesus–all except the impersonal aspect of the Ultimate.  There are other areas of intersection.  My Swedenborgian beliefs teach that self is ultimately an illusion, as does Vedanta.  The only Self is God, which fits  with Vedanta, if we call God Brahman.  Then I bump up against Jesus as embodied Deity.  These questions are in Hinduism, too, as there is a devotional aspect to Hinduism in the worship of Gods like Shiva, Vishnu, or Shakti.  Devotional Hinduism sometimes criticizes Vedanta, too.  However, when I forget about these doctrinal issues, the meditation works quite well in calming my mind and elevating my consciousness, and relieving my base inclinations.  As a technique, as a tool for reformation, Vedanta works.  Works better than just Swedenborgian rationalism.

In another area of my spirituality, I find certain articulations in Taoism working better, again, than my Swedenborgian rationalism.  Swedenborg has a difficult concept called “proprium.”  Proprium means, basically, self-generated self.  Self-generated feelings and actions are the source of all evil.  Relief from self comes when we are moved by God’s Spirit.  Then, activity flows freely.  Explaining this and understanding it with linear language is difficult and inefficient.  I find that the Taoist metaphors of “the uncarved block,” “the way of water,” “the breath of the valley spirit” work well to illustrate how the Holy Spirit moves self without self-generated deeds.  Also, Taoist paradoxes work well, such as “action without action,” or “effortless doing,” what they call “wu-wei.”

When I was younger, I used to say I was sometimes Buddhist, sometimes Christian, sometimes Hindu, sometimes Jewish, depending on how I felt in the moment.  That was a kind of way of showing off my interfaith education.  Now, however, I find that all those doctrines I learned can help me in my spiritual growth.  I don’t have the arrogance to claim that I really am Buddhist sometimes, for instance.  But sometimes, Buddhism does work better in my life work of spirituality.  But it works as a tool, not as a concept.  So that is now how I view religion: in terms of a tool that will make me better, and of better service to the world I inhabit.

I kind of think that if people did view religion as a tool, and not as an exclusive world-view, there would be more religious harmony in the world; less fighting; better people.  I am aware that many people today don’t have a place in their life for religion.  But maybe that is because too often, religion is thought to be a belief system, and not a tool in the process of reforming the life.  In my experience, religion works!

Learning Peace

Effort isn’t always good

Forced achievement

Being natural, unaffected, at peace

Listening

Passive

The way of water

The uncarved block

 

What we put on

Mentally, personality, affected responses

Is too much self

Proprium

 

I am learning peace

To act without effort

Just learning

“Are you at peace?” she asked me years ago.

“I have satisfaction,” I replied.

“That’s not what I asked,” she said.

I am learning peace

Just learning

There’s Nothing Funny about Comedy

I can’t recall a comedy ever winning an Academy Award.  Maybe one did, but I don’t remember it.  There’s a common understanding that comedy is lowbrow.  Not serious stuff.  And, indeed, calling comedy serious is a paradox.  The whole point of comedy is not to take anything seriously.

I used to be publicly funny.  I made jokes in school, made jokes in my professional life, made jokes in my social life–made jokes all the time, everywhere.  And it didn’t serve me well.  I think that people may have thought me unprofessional.  And maybe I was.  I was passed over for professional positions I wanted.  And I now believe that it was my attitude that was responsible for it.

In ancient Greece, where drama originated in the west, there were two masks which captured the essence of drama.  One mask was for tragedy and one mask was for comedy.  One of Aristotle’s works is on theater, called Poetics.  It lays out the principles of tragedy.  But there’s no comedy in it.  Scholars conjecture that the Poetics was meant to cover both aspects of theater: tragedy and comedy.  But the part on comedy was lost.  They even speculate about what Aristotle said in his missing work on comedy.  And Plato himself has Socrates forcing Aristophanes and Agathon to admit that tragedy and comedy both come from the same causes, and that the same author could write both comedy and tragedy.  He does this at a party where everyone else has passed out drunk.  Perhaps this is why Blake writes, “Excessive sorrow laughs.  Excessive joy weeps.”  Robert De Niro has successfully played tragedy and comedy.

In school I took a course in Comedy and the Christian Imagination.  That’s where I learned that there’s nothing funny about comedy.  It is a serious classical category.  Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso is called the Divine Comedy, and there aren’t many funny parts in it.  Shakespeare wrote both comedies and tragedies, and his comedies had funny parts in them.  In fact, even in his darkest tragedy, Hamlet, there a really funny part in a graveyard.  Some people think that I am a serious guy.  My mother doesn’t understand how, after all my many years in graduate school, I can laugh at Super Troopers or Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  I genuinely enjoy stupid comedies.  I want to make the claim for comedy in our lives.  I could produce some serious arguments as to how comedy functions, and what the prupose of comedy is.  But that isn’t the point of this post.  I merely want to say that there’s a place for funny in our lives.  And even serious people can laugh, should laugh, at movies like Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

GRADUATE STUDENT

I left my idealism somewhere

Back in early manhood, apprenticeship

For getting by only.

My knees hurt

Not like they did before, to pay the bills

Walking behind a power-mower

All day

 

Isn’t it ironic that Wordsworth will sing of

Quarry workers singing as he

Wanders in his daffodils

Whitman praises the common laborer

As he loiters in the grass

 

The privations, the deprivations

The catalog of things to do without

Logged into my bitterness–

Formerly an occupation–I try not to be bitter.

 

I read Hemingway to buoy my spirits–

His Catholic poverty in Paris,

His un-Christian feeling of superiority

To the vague wealthy.  I guess I feel superior

 

Or try to feel superior to buoy my spirits.

The indignities,

The fear as I lie to a bill-collector,

slough subordination,

Try to feel above it all.

While the town keeps me down.

 

To dignify the working class—

Which I am now and a grad student

And the town keeps me down—

Your sore knees

Must speak more than their pain—

The bills that demand their “dignity”

The landed idle

Still demand my money

As they loiter

 

Though,

In the end

I will have to forget

The laborious pain

Of achieving a place of less pain.

Pain where?

 

Will I be able to forget adulthood?

When eternity speaks its demands.

Reflections about Money

For 3/4 of my adult life I’ve lived in poverty.  My impoverished life, though, was of my own making.  I was chasing a goal–education–and that was why I ended up poor.

I resented my poverty quite a bit, when I was in school.  I didn’t see why poverty was a necessary condition for education.  The English department at my university had a motto, “Going for broke!”  Back then, I spoke with a young woman once, and asked her if she were considering Ph.D. studies.  She said that she wasn’t.  When I asked her why, she replied, “I don’t want to spend the next 8 years of my life in poverty.”  However, pursuing the goal of higher education made my poverty bearable.  I had a higher purpose; it transcended the pecuniary world.  I tried to make myself feel better by thinking about Hemingway, and his poverty in Paris while he was learning to write.  Nobody likes poverty; but when one likes a calling more than money, one accepts one’s condition.

Now I have a comfortable income.  That has been for 12 years out of my 40 adult years.  I am still getting used to the feeling of having enough money, in fact more than I need.  But I am still pursuing a higher purpose, though, with my money.  I am recording a disk of my original music.  And that is draining a considerable amount of my income.  Some might consider this an extravagance, in that I’m not a professional musician and I’m not in a band.  But even as higher education is not always a money-making endeavor, but a meaningful pursuit, so music is not always a money-making endeavor, but art is a meaningful pursuit.  And without the CD project, I don’t know what I would do with the several thousands I am investing in this enterprise.  And for me, the purpose of money is to be used–not just possessed.

Most people secure gainful employment at a young age and spend most of their lives financially set.  I think self-image for many depends on money.  Sociologists have given us status labels.  They made up the categories, “upper-class; middle-class; lower-class.”  In doing so, they told us how we were to think of ourselves.  I try not to measure my self-worth by money.  But when I was an impoverished student, always riding in the back-seat of someone else’s car, not being able to buy “nice things,” not being able to take a girl out on a date, I felt worthless.  This, despite my higher calling, higher education.  My brother, a rich engineer, told me, “It’s only money.”  That didn’t help.  Now that I’m in a good financial place, I don’t think about money at all, don’t measure myself by money.

Growing up, my generation disdained money.  The rock music of my time sung songs against materialism and money (Pink Floyd wrote a song with that for a title).  We talked about love and peace; looked to get back to Nature.  Perhaps that’s why I didn’t pursue money in my life, but went for more spiritual acquisitions.  I made my bed and I’m happy to sleep in it.  Everybody makes their own bed.  They must sleep in it, and hopefully they are happy to, as I am.

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