Sunday, March 14, 2010


Last night’s movie was a terrific Indie flick, “Big Bad Love,” based on a book of short stories by Larry Brown. The author takes a “rhizomatous” approach to the subject of love: love of father, mother, wife, child, best friend, place -- even when the nature of the love is negative, which mostly it is not. It is a yearning for intimacy, attachment, and sometimes devolves into obsession. But the real subject might be the mind and nature of writing as metaphor.

When I looked at the feedback at, which is always intriguing though not always helpful except that I need the names and dates, the critics were split between loving it and hating it, vehemently so. I spent some time trying to figure this out but didn’t make much headway until this morning I read Sven Birkerts’ essay: It has been a big hit with readers, but probably for the wrong reasons. I think most readers take it as a defense of paper books and rocks thrown at the Internet, but I don’t see that. Sven frames the problem as the difference between the novel, which I’m going to put into quotes, since I think the “novel” has come to represent any writing that offers a personal sensibility as opposed to “objective reasoning.” I put THAT in quotes because I think it’s never possible to objectively reason, though it’s a good exercise to undertake for some uses.

Birkerts makes it a point to bring up the current research on brains, thinking, and different kinds of experience, but he stops short of what fMRI has been showing, which is that the skill of reading is a hat trick that makes marks on paper call up sounds in one’s head that add up to words and sentences -- a rhizomatous skill. That is, it amounts to the brain inventing its own way to do this with a little prompting and a lot of motivation. No two people read in quite the same way because no two people’s brains are performing in quite the same way “between rhizomes.” These may or may not correspond to actual structures: hippocampus, lateral pre-frontal cortex, spindle cells or what have you. Evidently some people do it one way and others do it another. No doubt someone is trying to figure out the possibilities even as you read this.

But then Birkerts makes an important second step. Simply reading words is one thing, entering an experience is another, and that’s what he means by “the novel.” Humans are uniquely equipped to step into the experience of another being. I was never so conscious of this as when trying to reach my younger brother who had trauma to his forehead that took that skill away from him. He no longer read fiction, but enjoyed turning the pages of the encyclopedia, reading entries and looking up now and then to tell us facts. He was capable of recounting long strings of events, mostly from the plots of television shows, but had no sense of how they added up. Birkerts says “narration is sequence that claims significance.”

When one reads something that really reaches into one’s gut, the reader is sharing experience with the writer quite regardless of plot lines or facts and responding to the significance, the meaning. The question of whether it really happened or not doesn’t matter. Sometimes even the skill of the writer in terms of “mimesis,” the management of description, dialogue, event, evocation, doesn’t matter a whole lot -- one still has the inner experience of sharing the mind of the writing person. Birkerts suggests it is partly a matter of being focused, of suspending disbelief in order to enter someone else’s world. THIS, he suggests, is what the Internet does not support, even erodes. “Fiction” allows contemplation, the imaginative consideration of possibilities which Birkerts rather wonderfully calls “the ignition to inwardness,” but Internet analysis opposes this. Instead, it sets up the cry of “hoax” and enters the hermeneutics of suspicion, a matter of bookkeeping.

I think the next step is “revanchist.” (I really DO like big words -- it just means revenge.) The person who cannot kindle contemplation knows something is missing, just as my brother did, but can’t get hold of what it is and begins to feel that someone has stolen something, though it might never have existed. So then, paranoia. A missing education? A refusal of people to love him or her? Not enough money?

“Big Bad Love” is an exploration of consciousness: a man who has been badly traumatized and is thrashing around in that biological way that desperate people do: drinking, violence, endless driving -- but also by writing. Not just saying he wants to write but actually sitting there at his little typewriter and clicking away. Because this is a movie, it can take us into the metaphorical/poetic mode of operation in his head. I loved it when his typewriter turned into a small piano, which is often my own fantasy. I take his search for publication to be a trope: being published stands for achieving meaning. It means some stranger’s sensibility has kindled and extends love. His enormous strength is the ability to focus on writing, mailing out the manuscripts, and opening up the rejection letters which he pins to the bathroom wall with game darts. In other words he keeps right on in spite of the excremental put-downs from the uncomprehending.

So how does he come to meaning? He could have asked his ex-wife, who is a nurse. It’s the old rabbinical trick of the person obsessing about the loss of her child until he tells her to go with a cup begging house-to-house for a cup of soil from a family untouched by loss. Or in a slightly different way, the man who was so upset about having no shoes until he saw someone with no feet. That is, it finally gets through to him that the meaning of life is to keep living, risking, protecting, making contact, sharing and creating. But it is a quiet epiphany. He doesn’t have to go celebrating. The change is one of depth.

So now I can explain that major division between those who loved the movie and those who hated the movie. It is the division between “fiction” readers and “Internet” readers, those who contemplate and those who score.

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