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Archive for August, 2010

I, for one, am thrilled that “bromance” has been officially added to the newest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Bromance: “a close but nonsexual relationship between two men.”  The word received its 2010 OED stamp of approval along with “chillax,” “frenemy,” “exit strategy,” and “defriend,” among others.  Now that bromance is part of our venerated lexicon, we can wield it with authority, apply it smartly, inject it into our elite discourse.  No longer must we wave the word around with a wink and a nudge, smugly proving our pop culture literacy and familiarity with the film “I Love You, Man.”  Let the studious scholarship on bromance—Bromance Studies—begin in our literary and cultural circles.  Bromance has been given the green light, man.

I imagine that literary critic Leslie Fiedler (1917-2003) would approve of this development, whispering “I told you so” from beyond the grave.  Fiedler rocked the literary world with his 1948 Partisan Review essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” in which he pointed out that a dominant archetype in American literature is the homoerotic love affair between two men who light out for the territory in order to escape civilization’s responsibilities and constrictions (and its women).  Moreover, as Fiedler observed—even more controversially—these bromantic pairings tend to involve a young white man and a man of color: Huck Finn and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumbo and Chingachcook.  These “mythic” relationships are always characterized by the “pure love of man and man,” offering the reader a model of “chaste male love as the ultimate emotional experience.”  The love is of course always innocent; there “lies between the lovers no naked sword but a childlike ignorance, as if the possibility of a fall to the carnal had not yet been discovered.”  Bromance!  The OED should cite Fiedler.

Fiedler elaborated on his argument in his 1960 book Love and Death in the American Novel. I propose an updated edition of this book be released with a new title: Bromance and Death in the American Novel.  With an introduction by Judd Apatow.  I suspect this would make Fiedler’s argument more legible than ever to the reading public.  And to dudes, especially.

Bromance can now be applied without shame to literary studies of other male pairings, even to those men who do not abandon civilization for the wilderness.  Take the bromance between Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby.  Or Joe Starrett and Shane.  Or Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.  At long last we have the word to describe these complex character relationships.

And why stop with bromance?  I believe several other new additions to the OED would prove quite useful to literary critics.  Ahab just needed to chillax.  Hemingway’s Old Man needed an exit strategy when the fish proved too much for him.  Hester Prynne should have argued that she merely had a wardrobe malfunction.  Portnoy overthinks sex.  Biff Loman couldn’t get a hold in Death of a Salesman because maturity was too much of a buzzkill for him (and his dad needed better soft skills).  Faulkner’s Compson family should have defriended one another.  Were Gene and Finny friends or frenemies in A Separate Peace? How did Silas Lapham’s toxic debt affect his moral compass in Dreiser’s novel?  How would Sonny’s blues have sounded different in James Baldwin’s short story if he had played a vuvuzela?

The possibilities abound.  Book critics would do well not to be fussbudgets or haters and follow the OED’s lead.  Time to update the literary glossary.  As for me, I’m off to take a chill pill and eat some turducken while I reread that prescient cool hunter, Leslie Fiedler.

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During my recent hiking and camping trip to Utah, I re-read Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s eloquent and ornery work of nature writing.  First published in 1968, the book recounts the author’s three-season stint as a park ranger in Arches National Park in the late 1950s, where he was stationed in a house trailer twenty miles from the nearest human being.  Desert Solitaire is many things at once: a Whitmanesque inventory of the desert’s ecosystem, a poignant contemplation on the vagaries of solitude, a mystic’s philosophy of symbiosis.  The narrative flows seamlessly from poetic geological catalogs—“chalcedony, carnelian, jasper, chrysoprase, and agate”—to existential meditations on those moments when “solitaire becomes solitary,” when “alone-ness became loneliness.”  Desert Solitaire is also a rebel’s complaint about human disregard for nature.  Abbey rails against exploitation of the natural environment by the oil, mining, and tourist industries; in his preface, Abbey warns the reader, “this is not a travel guide but an elegy.  A memorial.  You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.”  The author similarly takes jabs at the unserious tourists he met as a park ranger, including one who asked, “Where’s the coke machine?” and another who suggested that spotlights be shined on the rock arches to make their appearance more dramatic.  Ultimately, the book offers both a close-up view of nature and a wide-angle perspective on one man’s place in the universe.

Rambling about Zion and Bryce Canyon and Arches by day and revisiting Abbey by night, I found that many of his observations and a few of his plaints still resonated forty years after the book was published.  It was easy, for example, to sigh along with his chapter titled, “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks.”  Here, Abbey unloads on automobile culture (specifically the endless construction of new highways) and the rising popularity of family vacations (courtesy of Disneyland and the station wagon), two postwar manias that together have wreaked havoc on the national park system.  Abbey too idealistically proposes that all cars be banned from parks in order to protect the environment and enhance the experience of visitors.  Such a move, Abbey argues, would elevate parks to the esteemed position they should rightly hold in our culture:

“No more cars in national parks… We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.  An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches.  Therefore, let us behave accordingly.”

As I re-read this chapter, I found myself less taken with Abbey’s lament about cars—today, after all, some parks like Zion ban private vehicular traffic and run propane shuttle buses to cart visitors around from trailhead to vista—and I was instead struck by his point about treating parks with deference.  Have we, in the forty-two years since Abbey published Desert Solitaire, come any closer to viewing parks as sacred places?  Or do we still tread less lightly, using parks rather like playgrounds, like vast, government-protected jungle gyms?  How many of us come to national parks seeking sanctuary, hoping for some kind of a sacred experience?  Is that even our default cultural mentality?  Or do we tend to view our outdoor spaces as a series of scenic overlooks ready-made for digital snapshots (the park as nude model, posing for us, a stranger to us, there solely to be gazed upon, salivated over)?  I can’t tell you how many people I saw rush off of the buses in Zion and Bryce, with camera in hand, who would speed walk over to a panorama, look at said panorama only through their camera lens, pause not a wit, snap, snap, snap, and then race back to the shuttle in order to take in another “sight” elsewhere in the park.  Per Abbey, I wondered—would we treat our churches, museums, and concert halls the same way?

Abbey says we need nature to “startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful—that which is full of wonder.”  It can sometimes be difficult to find the space and the quiet to surprise the mind and find the wonder, especially in the busy month of August, but I believe nature yet holds an esteemed place for many of us.  And at the end of the day, we get out of parks what we put into our visits.  Personally, some of the most transcendent experiences in my life have occurred out-of-doors, in nature.  Not necessarily life changing, but awe-inspiring nonetheless.  I’ll always remember, for example, wading barefoot into icy Lake Ediza in the Sierras.  Looking up at the endless night sky in Big Bend.  Listening to the wind whip around outside my tent on Mt. Washington.  Touching the White Cliffs as my canoe glided past them on the Missouri River in Montana.  Even when visiting elbow-to-elbow, car-to-car Yellowstone, I was overwhelmed by the sheer power and grace of the falls of Yellowstone River.  Parks can be our sanctums as long as we chose to experience them as such.

Despite Abbey’s sporadic grumpiness and desert rat elitism, Desert Solitaire remains a classic work of nature writing, one that narrates the wonders of the desert as brilliantly as John Muir relates the mysteries of the mountains.  Like the best nature writers, Abbey articulates for us the relationship between wilderness and civilization: In nature, away from our cultural infrastructure, we are reminded that “out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real.  For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels.”

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I don’t have a T.V. but I do have access to TV programming, thanks to my Netflix subscription and various other online sources of traditional broadcast entertainment. As a result, I found myself watching HULU the other night, and as after I selected the sitcom I wanted to watch, the screen went dark and I was presented with a decision:

Which advertising experience would you prefer?

And then, Hulu presented me with a choice of three ads to watch, each one for a particular insurance company.

Is this really what all the hype about interactivity and the radical power of the internet has come to? If this is really what it means to “harness the power of the internet,” then I might just go back to dial-up. Has Web 2.0 been reduced to my ability to choose which advertisement to watch? The dimensions of absurdity of this encounter, framed as a “choice” of “experience,” are too manifold to list, so I’ll focus on just two:

1. It’s a choice of advertisements, but I still have to watch an advertisement.
2. It’s a choice between advertisements for the same insurance company.

In a sense, this is the epitome of choice within capitalism. Which is to say: its not really choice, or else its a choice that is so constrained that the choice itself doesn’t end up really mattering. Theodor Adorno would be so proud and so perplexed. And he’d be laughing (BTW: if you don’t “choose,” HULU will choose for you…. so even not choosing is a choice).

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