Commentaries - September 2008

John Rich of Big & Rich is already well known as a McCain guy. He’s written a song called “Raising McCain” which has become the campaign’s anthem.

Rich has been saying that “I’m sure Johnny Cash would have been a John McCain supporter if he was still around.”

But now daughter of the late Johnny, Rosanne Cash (about whom I’ve written here before), has stepped in to remind Rich and us that it’s not such a good idea to recruit dead people to work for one political campaign or another. Here's what Rosanne said:

“It is appalling to me that people still want to invoke my father’s name, five years after his death, to ascribe beliefs, ideals, values and loyalties to him that cannot possibly be determined and to try to further their own agendas by doing so. Even I would not presume to say publicly what I ‘know’ he thought or felt. This is especially dangerous in the case of political affiliation. It is unfair and presumptuous to use him to bolster any platform.”

At a McCain rally, Rich had said: “Somebody’s got to walk the line in the country. They’ve got to walk it unapologetically.”

For several years people affiliated with the Kelly Writers House here have been gathering under the clever series title “Word.Doc” (word dot doc) to talk about narrative medicine and “to discuss and experience the ways in which medicine, narrative, literature and art inform one another in creative and useful ways.” A now somewhat dated web site was created by these folks.

One year they made a Word.Doc t-shirt — images from its front and back are below.

This series is one of many that KWH hosts. Have a look at the complete list.

A woman presents herself as a typical suburban housewife, but she’s really a communist Jewess with a hidden political agenda. And she lied.

Lied about what? About her political past? No, not really. She “lied” in describing the daily situation of suburban women in 1950s America by implying that she herself fully lived that experience herself. True, she hadn’t fully lived it (she had a maid, and was so politically busy that she wasn't the primary tender of her and her husband Carl’s home) but when the conservative attack on her, in Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique, was published, the term “lie” was used all over the place but when you actually read the book you realize it's based on an interpretation (an arguable one, to be sure) of her book's thesis.

There's probably not an attack on civil-rights liberalism much more powerful than anti-feminist anticommunism.

Here are the opening paragraphs of David Horowitz’s 1999 review of the book about Friedan by Daniel Horowitz (no relation):

Why has this feminist icon continued to cover up her years as a party activist? What is it with progressives? Why do they feel the need to lie so relentlessly about who they are? Recently Rigoberta Mench’s autobiography was exposed as a complete hoax. Now it’s Betty Friedan’s turn to be revealed as a feminist fibber.

In a new book, “Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique,” Smith College professor Daniel Horowitz (no relation) establishes beyond doubt that the woman who has always presented herself as a typical suburban housewife until she began work on her groundbreaking book was in fact nothing of the kind. In fact, under her maiden name, Betty Goldstein, she was a political activist and professional propagandist for the Communist left for a quarter of a century before the publication of “The Feminist Mystique” launched the modern women's movement.

And here’s the rest of the review.

PoemTalk’s tenth episode is being released today. In this show Bob Perelman, Lee Ann Brown, Jerome Rothenberg, and I talk about a verse portrait written by Gertrude Stein. Imagine that — doing Stein in twenty minutes. No easy task … but very pleasurable. Here’s your link.

"Stein leaves no doubt...that she's doing portraits in the same way that Picasso and Braque are doing portraits." So says Jerome Rothenberg--very helpfully--in the first minute of our discussion of Gertrude Stein's "Christian Bérard." PennSound's Stein page includes a recording made in New York during the winter of 1934-35 of the first page of the poem as it appeared in Portraits & Prayers, the Random House volume that had just been published. The portrait of Bérard - a friend of Stein's, a painter and set designer and frequenter of her salon - had been written in 1928.

But back to Jerry's statement, meant to get us to talk about non-representational depictions, for (the first line of the poem) "Eating is her subject. / While eating is her subject. / Where eating is her subject" certainly does suggest, emphatically, that neither Bérard nor anyone else is the subject of the poem.

Bob Perelman joined us for PoemTalk 10 and noticed that when Jerry read the poem aloud for us he erred in reading the line "She ate a thin ham and its sauce." Jerry said "name" instead of "sauce" and Bob persuasively runs with that apt substitution. This is a poem about the named and not-named - or, as Lee Ann Brown, our third PoemTalker this time, noted, how language for Stein is something that can be eaten and, in that sense, purely enjoyed, taken in, consumed, made an embodiment.

I kept pushing my conversants to find an at least winking reference to Bérard, at least in the avoidance of him. We know that he was considered an improvisatory genius (in stage design) and had irresistible personal charm despite "his apparent indifference to personal hygiene."* He cut quite a figure in the Stein/Toklas flat, especially at dinnertime. Yet about Bérard's paintings, Stein quipped: "They are almost something and then they are just not."** This there/not-there quality of her subject's art--especially when contrasted with Picasso's and Braque's portraiture (the real instigation of the poem)--seems replicated in the poem's relationship to portraiture itself.

Such winking Paris-insider references aside - they become mere literary-historical background - we four took pleasure in the pleasure Stein obvious took here, word by word. Bob's sense of the punning "Withdraw" (pull back, yes; but also, draw one kind of portrait while withdraw another kind), Lee Ann's and Jerry's sense of child-like play on sounds, our all getting hungry during a late-afternoon talk about a poem dwelling upon "the difference between steaming and roasting," "breaded veal and grapes," "pigeon and a souffle"...these are elements of a language that is like food: delicious, to be taken in. Stein is perhaps to the literary critic as the lover of meals is to the foodie. The foodie's irony: there's talk about food and then there is its realist purpose. What if language were really seen in such a way? We'd all be happier.

PT #10 was directed and edited by Steve McLaughlin and recorded in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House. Our poem is available as a free, downloadable mp3 recording on PennSound.

* Dance Research Journal 22/1 (Spring 1990), p. 32; ** The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933, chapter 7.