I was probably in my last year of high school when I bought an Ahmad Jamal album called Extensions. I bought it only because it was in a remainder bin and cost ninety-nine cents. The title seemed intriguing, and here was someone I thought that I ought to like or ought to learn to like since so many people around me did.
The great Victorian-era writer and art critic John Ruskin explores the change in mindset that marked contemporary painters apart from their classical, medieval forbears, and that would later give birth to modern painting. “It is evident that there are both evil and good in this change; but how much evil, or how much good, we can only estimate by considering, as in the former divisions of our inquiry, what are the real roots of the habits of mind which have caused them.”
Even in this time of flux, with fluid identities and avatars that split us into separate selves, names write code for who we are. We bear someone’s name, take someone’s name, carry on a name, drop one. Names, in other words, have weight. They arrive with little suitcases that we roll along for the rest of our lives.
By lifting the literature of the academic elite above the literature of the masses, English departments imply that the masses are unimportant and further the belief that English is a field and degree of little consequence. The inclusion of commercial fiction in university and college English departments would help lessen the perception that English majors are unemployable, better prepare students to work in the commercial book market, and attract students deterred by current curricula.
In the hogan I was miserable, not enlightened, felt funky and slimed. All the individual animal and species sins poured out of me, not as catharsis or healing, but as reminder and irritant, and I did not believe in sin. This was not my culture, my ceremony, my victory, my tribe. It was like being put to death slowly and humiliatingly for my presumption.
“The prospect of passing a night in the back woods of Indiana was by no means agreeable, but I screwed my courage to the proper pitch, and set forth determined to see with my own eyes, and hear with my own ears, what a camp-meeting really was.”
Volcanoes can destroy our cities, burn away our flesh, suffocate us with toxic gases, crush us with flying boulders. Most volcanologists keep a safe distance from their subject. But they still emerge rapt.
A “Year of Vonnegut” was declared in Indy in 2007, but that was deflated by his death that year. Given the centenary, it seemed as if there should be more going on, and that got me thinking about legacy from the start.
Organized religions, at least the traditional monotheistic ones, are stingy in assigning a soul (only to humans) and defining its fate (blackened by sin). They bottle up the holy water, decree which acts are sins and which are virtues, box up God in a package of their own design. Why not let divinity spread out and envelop us, until we can see some faint glow of energy even in the inanimate?
Two classic essays, “The New Year” from 1836 and “Lying Awake” from 1852, by one of the best-known novelists in the English language.