Nov. 12, 2011

The White

by Patricia Hampl

These are the moments
before snow, whole weeks before.
The rehearsals of milky November,
cloud constructions
when a warm day
lowers a drift of light
through the leafless angles
of the trees lining the streets.
Green is gone,
gold is gone.
The blue sky is
the clairvoyance of snow.
There is night
and a moon
but these facts
force the hand of the season:
from that black sky
the real and cold white
will begin to emerge.

"The White" by Patricia Hampl, from Resort. © Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of French literary theorist Roland Barthes (books by this author), born in Cherbourg, France (1915).

Barthes was not the kind of thinker who spent his whole life working on one theory. He changed his thinking throughout his career, and he drew on many different schools of thought — from existentialism to Marxism, structuralism to post-structuralism. In his book Mythologies (1957), Barthes used a theory called semiotics, the study of signs, and applied it to cultural objects like children's toys, professional wrestling, red wine, and laundry detergent.

In semiotics, an object becomes a sign, the combination of its signifier (the word that signifies it — for example, the word "wine") and its signified, which is more or less the definition we associate with the word (so for the signifier wine, the signified might be an alcoholic beverage made from grapes). The idea of sign, signifier, and signified were not invented by Barthes. He went a step further to apply these ideas to the world of popular culture — he broke down the signified (definition) into two categories: denotative and connotative. Denotative is the more straightforward association we have with a signifier (word) — in the wine example, the denotative part of the signified would be seeing wine as an alcoholic beverage made from grapes. But Barthes was more interested in the connotative, the deeper meanings we associate with objects that don't necessarily match the reality of the object, but are highly influenced by culture — for example, with wine, the connotative part of the signified would be to see wine as a representation of warmth and friendliness, good company, inspiration, and above all, French identity.

In each essay in Mythologies, Barthes takes on a different cultural object. In his essay on toys, he shows how children's toys are assigned a much greater meaning than simply objects to move around and play with (like simple wooden blocks, which he says are an exception, a toy without too much meaning). Most toys, Barthes explains, have connotations of adulthood — doctor kits, hair dryers, cars — and many are ever preparing children for adult gender roles: Dolls prepare women to be mothers, toy soldiers prepare boys to fight. Barthes wrote: "All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world; they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size."

Barthes was not only an important literary theorist, he was a popular one as well — even though he used complex ideas like signs, signifiers, and signifieds, he was a clear writer and he wrote about things that interested people, like luxury cars, women's magazines, and Einstein's brain. He was one of the first thinkers to help readers understand how popular culture and marketing worked. Barthes did not appreciate his popularity — he saw Mythologies as a scathing attack on French popular culture, but the book itself was extremely popular.

He wrote: "Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire."

And, "To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it)."

His other works include S/Z (1970), The Pleasure of the Text (1973), and A Lover's Discourse (1977).

It's the birthday of DeWitt Wallace (books by this author), born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1889) who broke into the publishing world when he began selling a collection of government sponsored pamphlets about farming. The pamphlets were free, but most farmers didn't even know about them. So Wallace didn't have to pay anybody for his material, he just had to pack it together and get the word out, and the whole operation was a big success. He got the idea to do a similar thing with magazine articles when he was injured while serving in World War I. He passed the time in the hospital reading magazines, and he realized that he could publish a magazine that just reprinted condensed versions of the best articles from all the major publications of the day. After the war, he went home to St. Paul and spent hours at the local library, picking magazine articles from the previous ten years that he thought were still appealing, put together a prototype of the magazine and went of to New York City to sell it.

All the major magazine publishers turned him down, but Wallace did sell his idea to a woman named Lila Bell Acheson, who agreed to be his assistant. They put the first issue of the magazine together in a basement underneath a Greenwich Village speakeasy, and while working on it they fell in love and got married. Just before they left on their honeymoon, they sent out several hundred circulars advertising subscriptions, and when they got back, they had 1,500 subscribers. The first issue came out in February, 1922, and it went on to become the most successful magazine of all time, with 39 editions in 15 languages, with a total circulation of almost 30 million magazines a month.

It's the birthday of actor and playwright Wallace Shawn (books by this author), born in New York City (1943). He's best known as a character actor in Hollywood movies such as The Princess Bride (1987), and Clueless (1995), but he's also one of the most disturbing and experimental modern playwrights in America. His father was William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker magazine from 1952 to 1987. Wallace grew up surrounded by the New York literary society, and he became an excessively sophisticated kid. In grade school he wrote puppet plays about the fall of Chinese dynasties, and he wrote a puppet adaptation of Paradise Lost that went on for hours.

But when he grew up, most people found his plays too strange. He said of his first play, Four Meals in May (1967), "[I thought it was] the answer to the war in Vietnam. I thought they would rename the country after me when people saw that play! ... [But they acted] as if they'd been given a handful of blank pieces of paper."

He continued writing plays that either had no plot, or were so violent and disturbing that no one would produce them. He has said of his early plays that they are characterized mostly by "weeping and vomiting." His first play to receive a full production was Our Late Night (1975), about a series of casual conversations at a cocktail party where the characters begin to reveal deeply disturbing things about their sex lives. At the premier of the play, members of the audience were so disturbed that they started shouting for the characters to shut up. One audience member tried to climb onstage and attack one of the actors.

At the end of the 1970s, Shawn felt he was running out of ideas, so he collaborated on a play with the experimental theater director Andre Gregory. The two got together and recorded their conversations about theater and life, and Shawn used the conversations as the basis for a script about two friends having a conversation over dinner. The script was made into the 1981 movie My Dinner With Andre, and even though the entire movie consists of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn sitting at a dinner table talking, it was a big success. He's since gone on to write several more plays, including The Designated Mourner (1996), his most recent.

He said, "I really don't think there is very much honor in a life devoted to writing, unless that writing can do something awfully unusual, awfully necessary."

It's the birthday of journalist and short story writer Tracy Kidder (books by this author), born in New York City (1945), who started out as a fiction writer, but decided early on that he preferred writing about real people. In the late 1970s, he spent eight months living in the basement of Data General Corporation, watching the engineers at work on a new microcomputer. He described the engineers as, "knights errant, clad in blue jeans and open collars, seeking with awesome intensity the grail of technological achievement....They believe that what they do is elegant and important, but they have the feeling that no one else understands or cares." Kidder's book The Soul of a New Machine was one of the first non-technical books about the computer industry, and it won the Pulitzer Prize when it came out in 1981.

Kidder went on to write a series of books about apparently ordinary topics. For his book House (1985), he wrote about the construction of a single house in Amherst, Massachusetts, because he said, "[Building] is the quintessential act of civilization." To write his book Among Schoolchildren (1989), he sat in a single fifth grade classroom in an impoverished public school for an entire school year, missing only two days. Over the course of that year, he took 10,000 pages of notes. He wanted to focus entirely on the experience of a single teacher because, he said, "For better or worse, education is what happens in these little rooms." His most recent book is Strength in What Remains (2009).

Tracy Kidder said, "To write you have to have stories you want to tell, you have to keep your mind alive, and you have to work hard."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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