Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Vertigo, Approval Whores and Mencken’s Sahara

A timely touch of vertigo spared me much of the eleventh-hour political electioneering and played nicely into my plan to avoid all political coverage for the final month.  Although it wasn’t Lent, I decided at the same time to uncouple from Twitter and start all over again by following only the Khan Academy.  At least once a day, my account manager at Twitter offers regular advice on how to grow my social universe.  I really do like Steve Martin but I just don’t want to follow him on Twitter.  After prayer and reflection, I did add Esther Dyson.

My Twitter-reboot task is not helped by the delicious piece by Jeff Bercovici at Forbes about how social media makes us all approval whores.  So beware the “humblebrag” who fishes for compliments but indemnifies himself against charges of fishing.  Or the “virtuebrag,” who seems to have come out in force after Hurricane Sandy.   I am getting hammered this morning, Veteran’s Day, for not reposting praises for our military on Facebook.  I guess my six years in the Navy wasn’t enough.

To get straight with the world again during this uncertain time, I decided to complete a novel, “Saturn Gets his Peter Back.”  The character is something of a phony esthete, a Baby Boomer, who thinks his life is literature and his abundant dreams provide a big data point for living.  Poor lad, he thinks a stint in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York is quite consistent with his internal compass.  Saturn, who floats somewhat out of orbit, suffers from a very common psychiatric malady: mistaking the Map for the Territory.   Saturn is a semanticist’s delight.  He confuses levels of abstractions, keeps discovering the “little man who wasn’t there,” and delights in over-verbalization or succumbing to the hypnotic effect of one’s own words.  My character has created a fantasyland with defined borders, rules of engagement, and secret handshakes.  Facts sit uneasily with this celestial body.

The first political piece I read after my novel sojourn was “Fantasyland” by Frank Rich, published in New York magazine, about the post-fact, post-science, and post-reality Republican Party living in a gated community.  “Freud couldn’t have imagined a clearer case of projection,” writes Rich.  Why is Rich writing my fiction?

Thanks to my growing Twitter universe, I discovered the Jezebel site and Floating Sheep, an online demographic firm that tracks the geography of racist tweets after the election.  According to the map posted by Jezebel, the bulk of these come from the South and really the Deep South, including Louisiana and Mississippi.  A lot of high school students were up late ranting. 

It is a hundred years between Frank Rich and H.L. Menken, the Baltimore essayist who wrote a scathing piece on the post-Civil War South in 1917 entitled “The Sahara of the Bozart,” but the descriptions of this region by these two writers are only different by degree.  Rich uses a scapel; Mencken a hammer. Example: “A Washington or a Jefferson dropped there by some act of God would be denounced as a scoundrel or jailed overnight.”  And: “It was in Virginia that they invented the device of searching for contraband whiskey in woman’s underwear.”

Mencken’s pen drips yellow journalism and reads today like a hyperbolic screed, containing enough racial rant to attract warning signs.  But he put his finger on the cultural, political, and religious forces that concocted a post-Civil War Southern fantasy that is alive and well and amplified by social media.

Soon after Mencken’s tirade, we saw the beginning of a remarkable Southern literature movement led by John Crowe Ransom, Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren and, of course, William Faulkner. The original effort was termed ‘The Fugitive Movement,” an effort to find identity in the New South.  This has been the most important literary development in American history.  I explored the theme of religious sensibilities in some of these writers in a thesis and a dissertation.  One gets the sense that the South has lost touch with its own literature, where many of the present day demons have been visited and slayed.

Time Magazine blogger Joe Klein is more polite: “The South, though a more complex region than ever before, won’t rise again until it resolves the issues that have marked its differences with the rest of the country since the land was colonized.”

And that ain’t just whistling Dixie.  

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