Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Julian Fellowes' book after "Downton Abbey"

The Middle Class has made a religion of books, but like the more recognized “church” religions, books are no longer what they thought they were.  Neither is the Middle Class.  As a townsman remarked to me recently,  “There is no middle class anymore.”  As my cousin noted, “We are told the Middle Class is endangered.”  He just retired after a lifetime of struggling to be what he thought was Middle Class, because that’s what that side of the family thought they were and should be.  That was the Scots side of the family.  (My father’s.)  

On the Irish side of the family the sense was not scrambling to go UP, but rather digging in one’s heels while sliding steadily DOWN.  The Scots were ultra-respectable: my grandmother objected to us saying, “Gee,” because it was short for “God” which is swearing.  The Irish were provocateurs: that grandfather loved to pick quarrels.  He had married above himself.  Both grandfathers were located in the transition from a farming world to an urban one.  On the Irish grandmother's side were profitable woolen mills and an artistic woman who married an architect and lived an upper-middle-class life in Pasadena.  I have one of her paintings, a still-life of a copper kettle with a geranium growing in it and a little covered dish made to look like a hen.  Domestic, tabletop, nurturing.  Middle Class.

When I went off to college at Northwestern University, my American lit teacher in Portland exclaimed,  “Oh, I’m so glad.  Now you’ll meet some rich people!”  She was a small bird-like woman, aging into ill-health, with huge glasses that I thought were because she was far-sighted but I now think compensated for cataract surgery.  Her heart was with Walt Whitman, who never thought about rich people, so I was puzzled.  

What she meant had mostly to do with the arts, that I would be exposed to good taste and refined living -- nothing to do with income really, except that rich people can help artistic people by accumulating their creations, even the experimental ones, or can become patrons.  She’s the teacher who taught us that it was fine to write in books, but we should do it neatly, meaningfully, and perhaps with a special pencil.  She encouraged us to get a leather-bound journal book and use it as a day book; that is, record thoughts and poems to keep.  I think that’s when I started using green ink.  Decades later someone at seminary stole my beautiful green leather journal.  

The Scots side had lots of books.  (My father went a bit over the top.)  They had been school teachers in the days when teachers kept order and supplied facts.  The Irish side -- at least the women -- weren’t much different than today’s female immersion-cravers.   These are novels that endorse Middle-Class ideas, esp. the burden of Middle Class women. (It’s not housework -- it’s carrying the culture.) I have a complete set of the works of Gene Stratton-Porter, partly inherited and partly bought.  (She had a career but it wasn’t writing romances, though she did that; it was bird photography.)  

Gene Stratton-Porter

Somewhere in the resulting surf, I search for the romance of ideas and find them everywhere, but often too cheap, too much aping others, too transient.  I thought religion would be different, but it wasn’t.  Still the same agenda: safety, repetition, replication, privileging the male but only so long as he brings in money.

Books are what you make them.  The Victorian bourgeois Middle Class women made them into strategies for rising in status (meaning making money and marrying well), escaping from rigid lives, and secretly enjoying sex.  (Imagine the Somali immigrant woman watching “Downton Abbey” for hints about how to order daily life.)  The novelistas of our times, who still believe in Victorian values but not Queen Victoria, a social category that includes the present and recent princesses, still also believe in the French kind of oppression, by which I mean “The Story of O,”  an account of dependent wickedness as a sign of distinction.  (Must I mention “Gray”?)  The middle classes are so fond of royalty and rich people because they have no actual idea of what those high-status lives are like, though they will buy many books about them.

I suppose that the “third” world, that is, the dark and marginal places where people yearn to get into the Middle Class, is no longer getting there with the help of books.  Rather they must be using their smart phones which are about information and where you are, a specialty of the part of the Middle-Class that developed from artisans and shop-keepers.  The novels that people read over and over as maps to rising (I certainly did) are now on video.  No longer do we watch the bourgeois tales favored by displaced Jewish entrepreneurs in Hollywood who didn’t have the chops to become psychoanalysts.   The indie and underground films are compelling but won’t always provide reliable maps.  On the other hand, who can map a world without a Middle Class that stays put as a point of reference while everything else shifts, empties, swarms with life that seems as foreign as the little monsters of the deep sea -- glowing, amorphous, predatory?  

These are personal essays, meaning that I make no pretense about writing about and through myself.  At first, given the chance to write what moving to Valier meant, I went straight to the Middle-Class immersive experience of partnering Bob Scriver.  It was hardly boring, and there was lots of sex, some wickedness, and always the landscape.   “Are you makin’ any money, Robert?” asked his dad every evening, puffing on his pipe as his mom served a little treat in her cushioned parlor.  He did; I didn't.  Irrelevant.

Not reading but writing changed me.  Refusing to be controlled by the Cowboy Art Cartel -- who wanted me to write something very different -- changed me.  Attending the Montana Festival of the Book, so Middle-Class that their heroes are all on NPR; writing accounts of other parts of my life: animal control, the UU ministry, this blog -- all changed me.  I was a revisionist visionary. Radicalized by realization.

Beware of writing honestly and intensely because it will change you more than reading any books.  One of the changes will be leaving paper for the glass screen.  Just as well, since avant garde exploratory books hardly exist anymore.  The progression has been:  novel (middle class), poetry (REAL poetry has no class), image (including all classes, rendering “class” irrelevant).  It has been a movement from immersion to submergence to emergence.

The necessarily final step will be nonexistence, death.  If a person can’t accept the reality of death and loss, but is always throwing up the safeguards, if a person can’t risk being stigmatized, violated, and possibly murdered, then the paralysis sets in.  If a person can’t risk creating for the sake of the thing itself in the moment instead of for the money, the status, the finger in an eye, then the paralysis sets in.  If a person can’t give up being simply a body in a social world with little relationship to whirling galaxies and swarming blood, then the paralysis sets in.
Gene Stratton-Porter, naturalist and novelist

If you follow Middle-Class ideas about success (prizes, money, speaking engagements, household recognition), you will be paralyzed.  But if you don’t, if you go soaring and spelunking, you’ll be changed and your mother will not recognize your success. 

I first read Gene Stratton-Porter’s romantic fiction on my aunt’s sheep farm where I found “Keeper of the Bees” on the screened second story sleeping porch that was necessary before there was AC. Stratton-Porter was a red-headed reckless woman who tried to save the great furniture-quality hardwood trees of the Limberlost marshy forest.  She mostly failed but she was certainly not paralyzed.  Whether she was Middle-Class or not is open to discussion.  Her novels were about struggling for prosperity and security.  She’s not forgotten.   Yet.  Because she was an ornithologist.   

Still, not so modern as a black swan.  The Middle-Class has learned to love the dark side.  A marker for horror instead of culture.  Now, why is that?

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