Veterans’ Day Potpourri

It’s 7:30 p.m. as I start this post, but with the Standard Time sunset and an afternoon meeting, it feels much later in the day. But even though “the night cometh, when no man can work,” that doesn’t mean a man can’t blog, right?

***

Today in my long 18th-C. class, we talked about Johnson’s Rasselas, a work that has resonated with me since I originally encountered it in the first semester of my Ph.D. work at Ball State. I’ve mentioned before that I wasn’t always a medievalist — in my M.A. years at Kentucky, I envisioned myself as an Americanist, likely specializing in crime and detective fiction. But I realized I had a knack for Middle English, and I found myself energized by the fact that medieval writers knew that matters of the soul are far more vital than matters of material condition. They believed in things like Capital-T Truth, Capital-G Good and Capital-E Evil, and since I do too (and did then), it was a good fit for me. The fact that I figured schools would always need someone who could teach Chaucer was a factor as well. But because I’m essentially an autodidact (and honestly remained one even at Kentucky — more than half of my M.A. work was in creative writing, not literature, which I picked up on my own), I had several sizable gaps along the way, and one of those was the Restoration/18th-C.

Where I’m going with this is that I was blessed with an astoundingly good professor when I took the class in the fall of 1998. Dr. Rippy was one of the last representatives of a different era of scholarship (as was my dissertation advisor), and talked about the texts we read not simply as manifestations of a set of sociopolitical theories, but as sources of wisdom and ideas about life that are as valid now as they ever were. In short, she felt the same vitality in the texts she taught as I did in Chaucer and the Macro Plays, and what’s more, she communicated that as beautifully as any teacher I’ve ever had. In fact, I sometimes find myself thinking that if I weren’t a medievalist, I could have been quite happy focusing on that later era. [Side note: Dr. Rippy gave me one of the greatest intellectual compliments I’ve ever received, telling me once that I had “a fine Eighteenth-Century mind.” I understood what that meant, coming from her. End of side note.]

I guess it’s not surprising that I take a very similar approach when I teach the period — or any period, really. I don’t really care much (or at all) if my kids know Swift’s opinion of the Whigs and Tories, but it’s vital to me that they can see that the bright, beautiful, vapid young things of Rape of the Lock aren’t that different from the social media influencers of the present. Because I agree with Glenn Loury that “human nature has no history,” I want my kids to see what Dryden, Johnson, and the other writers we read were able to see about that nature, since those observations remain true now. Please understand that I’m not talking about the business of “making the text relevant” to the students, a phrase that I associate with creepy folk-rock arrangements of hymns. The text is already relevant — it always was. All I have to do is show my kids where the parallels are.

Rasselas, like nearly everything the Great Cham wrote, is at once elegant and tough-minded, demanding that the reader clear his head not merely of cant, but of the folly that perfection is attainable in our human world. He reminds us that “philosophers may reason as angels, but must live as men,” that life is often — always — a series of choices between flawed alternatives, and that doing all we can do will be both honorable and insufficient. And because he recognizes the inevitability of human failings (including especially his own), he can accept those failings as part of his tragic view of life, and even smile about it, at least as he sees it in others. (He was far less forgiving of his own failings, which is part of his tragedy.) But his smile strikes me as less mocking than indulgent — less “What fools these mortals be” than “What fools we mortals be.”

Dr. Rippy understood that and I think that fired her love for those writers. In turn, that love kindled a love in me, and this semester, I’m trying to pass it along to a dozen or so kids in Mondoville. That is work worth doing, I think.

***

I’m pleased to report that my story “The Jacket” will be appearing next year in Black Is the Night, an anthology edited by Maxim Jakubowski, inspired by the life and works of Cornell Woolrich. The other writers are a who’s who of crime and horror authors, and it’s an honor to be among them.

Meanwhile, I’ll also have a story appearing in El Bee’s next antho. Playing Games. The eighteen stories in this volume all deal with (Surprise!) games and competitions, and include works from such terrific writers as S.A. Cosby, David Morrell, and the legendary Robert Silverberg, as well as a new story from the editor himself. My story is called “Lightning Round,” and it’s set in the world of barroom trivia contests.

I hope to have more publication news before too long, so stay tuned. But until then, I find myself once more marveling that I seem to have earned my way into these circles. I’m starting to accept that it isn’t a fluke that my stories keep getting published (or at least no more of a fluke than anything that happens in anyone’s life). At the same time, though, there’s part of me that is still the fat kid from Bonnamere Drive in Nashville, Madge and Warren’s eldest, the clumsy weird kid who made a huge, gobby, wet sneeze on the CPR mannequin in middle school health class. I’m the kid the guidance counselors used as the example of an underachiever. But here we are. I wish my folks were available to see it. I mean, they knew I was turning out okay, but I think they would have been tickled by all this. I certainly am.

***

In my own reading, meanwhile, I was at the used media emporium recently and picked up Voodoo, Ltd., by Ross Thomas. Mr. Block has spoken well of Mr. Thomas’s work, so I had planned for a while to start reading it, and this was my first opportunity. It won’t be my last.

The book is the third in a series of novels about Artie Wu, detective and pretender to the Chinese throne, and Quincy Durant, his partner. Their firm is Wudu, Ltd. (a speaker’s German accent gives the book its title), and the principals work as “professional altruists”, doing work other people can’t do for themselves, an occupation not unlike Travis McGee’s “salvage consultancy.” While I was reading the book, I had a strong sense that it wasn’t a standalone, that I was coming into a pre-existing world and set of characters, but it’s a world and set so ingratiating that I found myself too busy being delighted to mind, and now I have to read the other two books, and the rest of Thomas’s work besides.

I think part of the book’s charm is that it feels as though Thomas himself was having a great deal of fun writing it — how else can you explain a con man character known as “Otherguy” Overby, or an ex-Secret Servicewoman named Georgia Blue? Runyanesque, I tells ya. The book certainly has its share of darkness and bloodshed, but it never ceases to be a ton of fun. I’m only sorry it took me so long to take LB’s recommendation.

Earlier this evening I started a very different book, Angel’s Inferno, William Hjortsberg‘s posthumously released sequel to Falling Angel (filmed as Angel Heart). I’m about a third of the way in, and will probably finish it this weekend. Details to follow, but my impression thus far is that the book is an almost mannerist take on the intersection of noir and horror. We shall see.

***

Well, I have to teach in the morning, so I’d best wrap this up. I’ve mentioned Toronto’s The Sadies recently, a band that does surf, country, psychedelia, and everything in between, and does all of it remarkably well. As it happens, they’ve just put out a new song, and when I heard it this morning, I knew I had to share it, so I will. This is “Stop and Start.”

See you soon!

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Faith, Family, Literature, Medievalia, Music, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

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