Thursday, July 17, 2008

The (Ever-Elusive) Grandeur of the Forest

Many years ago, when I was in the full throes of my pomo-lit phase, I read John Barth's 1955 novel The Floating Opera, which was one of those books that serendipitously landed in my lap at just the right time. John Barth is a little bit of a Philip-Roth-Lite, I think. He's funny and smart and reluctantly nihilistic, just like Roth, and they both have an ear for uniquely American dialogue that is as keen as their sensitivity to uniquely American psychopathologies. (As you may remember, poor Philip Roth did not fare well in our books-you-should-NOT-give-as-gifts discussion a while ago... but for the Barth and Roth fans still out there, we also discussed DeLillo a bit on this blog, with no consensus resulting of that conversation, per usual.) The "floating opera," from which Barth's title is taken, serves as a bit of a ham-handed (but effective) meta-metaphor in the novel. It is, quite literally, a floating opera-- a riverboat that floats up and down the river conducting an opera performance that the spectators sit on the riverbanks to watch. Of course, because the opera is floating, the spectators never get a coherent, complete, or linear narrative-- sometimes they don't even get the action performed in their general direction-- which just serves to illustrate Barth's larger point about the manner in which we all attempt, provisionally and precariously, to both author and interpret meaning in our lives.

Anyway, there is a great quote from that novel, spoken by the protagonist Todd Andrews, in which he claims that he wants to be judged by "the finished product" of his life, and "not by the steps of construction." He adds:
"There would be a grandeur in the forest, so to speak, transcending and redeeming any puny deficiencies in the trees. "
Ahhh, would that it were so! I imagine that we all, from time to time, have indulged just this sort of pining sentiment-- a belief that each indiviual's life will add up to more than the sum of its parts. And, yet, but... here we stand amidst the puny, deficient trees. I was reminded of Barth's passage from The Floating Opera by a recent post on Booga Face's blog about the dangers of believing too-simply in the "promise" of the Symbolic Obama. (Well, to be honest, Booga's post just gave me a reason to write about Barth's quote, since I pretty much run those words over and over in my head, like a mantra.) Like Booga, I worry that many Obama supporters are investing all of their energy and faith in the still-yet-to-come "grandeur of the forest" at the expense of paying real attention to some of the puny deficiencies in the trees.

Let me state outright that, at this point in the game, I am a full supporter of Obama for President of the United States... but that doesn't mean that I'm gulping down whatever Kool-Aid is being handed out. The "change that I can believe in" must be real change, a real departure from politics-as-usual, and that means that I am interested in making sure that whatever puny deficiencies are ultimately transcended by the grandeur of the forest are actually "puny." One of the things that I really admired about John Edwards was that that richer-than-all-get-out guy never stopped harping about the plight of the poor and disenfranchised in this country, which is the only perspective from which a "change I can believe in" will be enacted. (Okay, so I did and still do drink the Edwards "Two Americas" Kool-Aid!) My hope is that Obama supporters (myself included) stay on his back about that message. Pro-business Democrats, as far as I am concerned, might as well be Republicans.

So, I'm all for the grandeur of the forest, and I am well aware of the fact that achieving that grandeur sometimes means taking tiny, incremental steps that might even necessitate downplaying some of the "puny deficiencies in the trees." But I'm afraid that, in these dire times, we need to be pretty rigorous about what counts as genuinely "puny" deficiencies.


christophresh said...

I haven't messed with hardly any of this presidential business this year; I know I am slacking in my duty as a citizen (but I maintain that 'ethics is the new politics anyhow...).
But my understanding is that Obama's trees are getting less puny, no? That in his bid to get the general election, he may be sliding more and more towards some no-changing middle, that all the hope and inspiration might be dissipating - even for those with Kool-aid stained lips, etc.
But I really wanted to talk about the books!
Just last night, I told Eric (and Charlie, a second-year VU grad) that I get DeLillo, Roth, and Wolfe confused: I've never read any of them. I don't read contemporary lit very often, and part of the reason is that it is too rare that I get a good description of what the writing is like, or what the author does in her writing. (For instance, that 'middlesex' book was all hot a while ago, and all anyone could tell me was what it was about- gender mixy - and not the style, the force, the point of the writing. What it's about? Literature ain't journalism, people!)
But you did that really well here Leigh, so kudos/gracias/mi amore or something.
I'm still not going to read this guy though- too busy (ignoring the election).
As Foucault said, "For give me, I have taken as long as usual".

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks, Christophresh. But I think you'd really like some of these guys (esp. Roth). His novels read really quickly-- good for fast talkers and fast thinkers like yourself.