Sunday, April 08, 2007

"I Will Choose Free Will"

As it's going to be awhile before I "have to" start not-quite-live-blogging the final round of the Masters at Mostly Harmless, as my working Monday will be quite busy tying up loose ends before the start of my spring semester at Kyushu U, Seinan Gakuin U, and Fukuoka U (you know, like finally posting my course syllabi and copying my handouts for Tuesday's and Wednesday's classes), as I'm rather surprisingly on a bit of a Hawthorne roll tonight, and as Hug the Shoggoth is sending me down memory lane, I'll start today's post with a question and a story.

Gall writes, in response to a comment of mine,

“The Custom House” seems like a playful and suave (and quite humorous, at times) vindication of his own artistic freedom, re-publishing it into the face of the audience even though, as he finds in these first few paragraphs, there may be complaints. That, this self-determination, made me wonder about that “evil star”-thing, in the first place--does he, the artist, have the means to escape/disable that destiny which keeps the other custom officers in that mouldy custom shack?

He's referring to this passage from "The Custom-House," by the way:

In the first place, my coadjutors were not invariably old; there were men among them in their strength and prime, of marked ability and energy, and altogether superior to the sluggish and dependent mode of life on which their evil stars had cast them.

So I didn't quite answer his question in the comment that is still awaiting moderation at the moment, and I'm not going to yet, because I have that story to tell. It's about my Mostly Harmless co-author whose book I recommended here (in comments). Back in the early '90s, he had discovered a copy of Melville's marginalia of Milton's Paradise Lost and was working on what I thought was a fantastic reading of Moby-Dick and other works in light of it, so of course we were talking about fate and free will a lot. He once shared lyrics of a response to a well-known Rush song (the key line of which supplies the title of this post) he wrote in his undergraduate days. Now, if I was a good storyteller, I'd share those lyrics with you, but you see I have this terrible memory (and I'm not talking about Sethe's). So you'll have to wait and see if "Sloucho" will visit the comments to this post to get to the climax of this little anecdote. Sorry.

In any case, my point in not-quite-telling the story is to explain my title, the irony (probably unintended on Rush's part, or at least I hope so because then it would be the same kind of irony that the only thing ironic about Alanis Morisette's "Ironic" is its title) of which I hope is clear by now. Which now allows me to get back to some kind of answer.

This is by way of Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize speech, "The Bird in Our Hand: Is It Living or Dead?" (1993), and her essay "Home" from The House That Race Built (1997)--two of her best pieces of writing, IMHO, and worth a read or reread right now. In these two meditations on language and stories (and everything they limn), Morrison suggests that the feelings of freedom a writer experiences while writing may be illusions masking a greater dependency--on the one hand, to oppressive conventions and structures, and on the other, to the reader's response. She counsels writers and critics to break with the former and embrace the latter. I think it's good advice, but I don't think Hawthorne took the first half of it. I think the declaration of independence from Salem that is "The Custom-House" is prey to all the problems with the U.S. Declaration of Independence. I think the pledge of allegiance to the republic of letters that is "The Custom-House" reproduces some of the same problems as the colonization of the Americas and the founding of the United States. So as much as he's trying to write himself into a different story-line in "The Custom-House" than the people he satirizes in it, I think he is as trapped by the national narrative as they are. In this, I differ from Lauren Berlant and others who try to find something hopeful in Hawthorne's "citizen of somewhere else".... And I'm leaning toward that being a choice of his rather than a destiny.

I'm purposely leaving all those "I think"s in the previous paragraph--something I always tell undergraduates to strike (either the "I think" or the entire sentence)--to mark my dissatisfaction with these summary statements. But I'm too tired to think straight now and too eager to see what's happening in the Masters to continue, so look for a late-day update to this start to a post--or later, if I'm inefficient at work today.

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