Posted by: HAT | April 26, 2011

Grosbeak Returns

The original grosbeak.

Hi, Gang!

Days have been dismal here, not just because of the non-stop rain and thunderstorms of the past week or so.

Just finished reading Empire of Illusion:The End of Literacy and The Triumph of Spectacle, by Chris Hedges. Either the book or Hedges, I can’t tell which, is “winner of the Pulitzer Prize.” I’m guessing Hedges, though, rather than this book, which was something of a disappointment. Empire of Illusion cites Debord less than one would expect from a book with “Spectacle” in its title (i.e., not even once – although he does have a nice quote from Adorno). It makes implicit arguments from the juxtaposition of chapter titles and chapter content, amassing lots of examples that are sure to outrage the good reader (well, I was duly outraged, naturally) and then allowing the outrage to bridge the chasms between argumentative and evidential connections.

It’s not that I don’t believe we are living in the end times of literacy – I live with a 12-year-old who can look at text without bothering to read it. It’s not that I believe US culture is something other than spectacle – that’s why I bought the book in the first place. But I think the problem deserves better analysis. It definitely deserves better than the concluding left-field paean to hope and goodness with which the book concludes. (“Love will endure, even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.”)

It’s not that I don’t believe hope, goodness, and love are tenacious and ultimately victorious. (That ought to be obvious by now, daft as it is.) It is not clear to me that these things depend on literacy, though. They clung on for about a thousand years of western civ largely without that.

It seems to me they depend more on the hypo-literate, hypo-imagistic practices associated with positive human contact. Feeding the hungry. Tending the wounded. Wrapping blankets around the chilled and shivering. Barbara Brown Taylor, in An Altar in the World, another book I just finished reading, makes the comment that “the religion of kindness” is not such a bad one. That strikes me as a properly pragmatic, and also utopian, impulse. It’s also the impulse that makes me think it is too early to write off “America” or “our culture,” or whatever one wants to call this situation in which we find ourselves, as a lost cause – which seems to be the upshot of Hedges’ text. The future may not be bright, but “there is no discharge from the battle” even so.

So, on Sunday, having finished this edifying experience of literacy and having come to myself, as it were, I decided to celebrate new life by shelving the 50 or so books that had taken up residence on my desktop, and consolidating the file drawer of papers that had colonized the entire workspace and have been untouched since October, so as to liberate the surface of the desk. As luck would have it, the annual grosbeak chose this occasion to put in a welcome apearance. This may not be the same bird; he looks a little thin and bright compared to Grosbeak I; maybe he is a younger relative, taking over the freehold. Nevertheless.

We may have no peaches, after the week of freezing weather right at peach-blossom time, but the thing with feathers has not given up on us.

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