From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Seinfeld Ethnography (48)—These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
One year ago on Round and Square (25 April 2011)—Managing History 
[a] Salty RF
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party
George's Friend        Jerry's Haircut          Face Paint             Mustachioed       Smoking              East River
Pool Man                   Dunkin' Joe              Life Lessons          Reckoning          Dog Medicine      Shower Heads
Looking Busy            George Tips             Kramer's Job          Empty Tank        Bathroom Book
Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
George is under stress. He's parking cars, engines are overheating, and he needs relief. Then Kramer walks into a Woody Allen movie. George is apoplectic. Take a look.

"What's wrong with that? I had a different interpretation."

[b] Lea/r/age RF
Yes, and it is a stressed interpretation. Although we don't get the full context of George's travails here, we certainly get a sizable dose of his angst. George is parking cars and Kramer walks into a movie line. George is the latest in a long line of frustrated workers ready to crack—one way or another. Visions of Charlie Chaplin dominate for me, and George does seem to have an oddly Costanza-ish version of the assembly line going here.

Above all, though, it is the line itself. Think about "interpretation." Elaine's is somewhat emotional in a mildly thespian sort of way. Kramer and Jerry? Milquetoast. But Georgie, we hardly knew ye. That is the voice of Lear III.ii, raging against the winds of nature and society. George—fumbling keys and gulping Shasta soda—speaks across the ages. I can imagine the pudgy little figure as Julius Caesar (from veni, vidi, vici to et tu...?) or Mao's sublimated rage (let a hundred flowers bloom) or even Richard Nixon (I'm not a crook, and you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore). In my interpretation, stress is the wind that rustles the branches of the lyric.

So what is it to "interpret" a line? George's case seems to tell us that emotion is not learned or practiced as in (as I interpret them) the failed lines of Kramer, Elaine, and Jerry. It is authentic, and flows from the heart of lived experience. His life is a car-parking hell, and:
                             ...these pretzels are making him thirsty

What does it mean to "live" lines rather than (merely to) "recite" them? There is something big going on here that we will only begin to examine today. It has everything to do with the way we talk about "book learning" and "life experience." This little clip from a twenty year-old television series speaks, if we really think about it, to some of the most important sets of assumptions we have about our world and how we come to know it.
[c] Torrents RF

Note well that I am not saying that experience makes for the best acting, writing, or other sorts of performing. Far from it; I'm on the fence on this issue. On the other hand, I am pointing it out as a place where our assumptions tend to gather, like puddles after a rainstorm. Some writers (I am thinking of the novelist John Gardner) scoff at the idea that one needs life experience to write well. Just read and write he said (and wrote) many times. Every emotion you experienced by the time you started kindergarten. What you need is technique (and practice). I have a hunch that he would say the same thing if he were an actor.

          It's the sheer act of writing, more than anything else, that makes a writer...
          One can be fooled by the legend of, say, Jack London, and imagine that the 
          best way to become a writer is to be a seaman or lumberjack. Jack London
          lived in an age when writers were folk heroes, as they are not now, and an
          age when technique was not quite as important as it is now. Though a tragic
          and noble man, he was a relatively bad writer. He could have used a few 
          good teachers.[1]

Them are fightin' words, as we say back home (sometimes—when English teachers are sleeping). This is one of the great dividing lines in all of human life. How much of it all is about living, and how much is about learning? Some especially diligent readers of Round and Square will know that this is a topic very close to my intellectual heart-mind (心), and we are better for reflecting upon it almost every day of our lives. Like life itself, it's complicated.

George had no idea what he was starting here.

[d] Mangamotion RF
And if you think this is just a namby-pamby humanities discussion about interpretation, think again, buster. The issues here lie at the heart of our lives. It is everywhere in our politics, business, and family life. Can a quarter-billionaire understand the lives of students with loans by reading policy papers? At least one critique thinks not. Can someone who has never been a parent understand the importance of vacation time (or public education levies...or family tax incentives)? Can someone who has not lived or traveled abroad understand the complexities of a global world? If those questions seem like little hypotheticals, you need to slide the "on" button on your Kindle (or buy a newspaper...or swipe that iPad screen). They are all related to the big question behind pretzeled emotion. George is on the side of lived experience. We knew he wasn't about book-learning, in any case.

So what's wrong with that? It's my interpretation!

***  ***
There are a number of directions we could go from here. We could look at the cultural implications of pretzels (and, at least with regard to twisting complexity, we will). More fruitful avenues might address issues of stress, performance, practice, and, well, stress. We have three readings, and all focus on various levels of stress in the world around us. The first is an entry in Bronislaw Malinowski's personal diary from 1915 in the Trobriand Islands. When it was published in 1967, the anthropological world was shocked that the great ethnographer had feelings...and frustrations (and even went to the bathroom...and wrote about it). Stress is a constant through the four years of his diary, and a compassionate reading can tell any anthropologist a great deal about the fieldwork process. 
[e] Cri de 心 RF
We skip from early ethnography to plate tectonics with John McPhee's resonant portrayals of how stress works in plate shifts. You might ask "what is geology doing on this blog?" There are so many ways I could answer that, but let me just remind you that geology is just a wonderfully long-vision form of history. Stress has everything to do with history. Just ask Catherine or Mao (or Alcibiades)...or San Andreas

Finally, we end today with one of the most resonant poems in the Chinese lyrical tradition. Li Qingzhao lived through one of the happiest marriages ever recorded in Chinese history, as well as the loss of her husband. She also lived through the tectonic shift of the Song dynasty, as it was forced southward by northern forces. Li Qingzhao knew stress, yet the lyrical output was a thing as beautiful as the Sierra Nevada.

A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term
[d] Stress ADV
Bronislaw Malinowski (1915)
Saturday, 1.24.15 [sic]
Yesterday, Friday, I felt quite rotten. In the afternoon and evening I suffered from characteristic lack of energy, which makes even trifles—like repacking plates, putting things tidy, etc.—appear a monstrous cross on the Golgotha of life. Yesterday at noon I took arsenic + iron, and today since midday I have been feeling better. Yesterday morning I got up as usual. Photos: making of boats; the street; 4 women. Most of the photos poor. Omaga [brought] letter from Cowley. Around 10 Omaga and Keneni came. Talk about taboo and its connection with magic practices. After lunch I waited for Pikana; happy he didn't come, and read Mexico. Very tired. With a very great effort (today, now, in the afternoon, I do not feel sleepy in the least, and I am impatient to go out, to get dressed, etc.—whatever the price, this is the result of arsenic: it is worthy of gratitude and an altar)[.] I went out after having collected the medicines I wanted to give Keneni's son (he has an abcess on the lg) in exchange for bird-of-paradise feathers. He did not come out of his hiding place. 

Went to Dini's where I discussed baskets. Came back fairly early, monstrously tired; sat behind a little rock at the ogobada and watched the sunset. Very weak. Stuffed myself too much at supper. Then I had and inspiration—I wrote a poem [...]. Igua massaged me and told stories in delightful Motu, about murders of white men, as well as his fears about what he would do if I died in that way! I fell asleep feeling very poorly. My heart a bit restless. This morning I did not feel well at all. I could barely drag myself to the village—characteristic dullness and sleepiness. I tried to obtain stones from Aba'u....Before noon Omaga came and told me about his black-magic secrets. After lunch, read Mexico—right now (4 P.M.) I feel fairly well and am about to go to the village. Today at noon I have myself a shampoo, bathed, and performed a basic evacuation—all this did me good.[2]

Plate Tectonics and Stress
[e] Plates ADV
John McPhee (1998)
The westernmost range of the Basin and Range Province is the Sierra Nevada, which has risen on a normal fault that runs along the eastern base of the mountains. The fault has experienced enough earthquakes to give the mountains their exceptional altitude. The most recent great earthquake there was in 1872. In a few seconds, the mountain range went up three feet. In the same few seconds, the Sierra Nevada also moved north-northwest twenty feet. That would help to fill in anybody's discrepancy.

Perhaps a sixth of the total motion between the plates is contributed by the other faults in the San Andreas family. Each is strike-slip, active, right-lateral—that is, viewed from one side of the fault, the other side appears to have gone to the right.
In a general way, you can demonstrate their relationship to one another with a deck of cards. Hold the deck, side up, between the palms of your hands, and slide the hands, pulling the right side toward you, pushing the left side away, and keeping pressure on the deck. The cards will respond by slipping, sticking, locking, sliding. Some may slide more than others. There may even develop a primary break. In any case, the fifty-one slips between the cards are, as in California, a family of right-lateral strike-slip faults. If one has moved more than the others, in effect you may have cut the cards, and you could call that cut the San Andreas Fault. But all the cards, to varying extents, have contributed slip to the total motion.[3]

A Melancholy Tune (Autumn Sorrow): Despair
Li Qingzhao (c. 1130)
[f] Searching ADV
     Searching, seeking,
               Seeking, searching:
     What comes of it but
               Coldness and desolation,
     A world of dreariness and misery
     And stabbing pain!
     As soon as one feels a bit of warmth
     A sense of chill returns:
     A time so hard to have a quiet rest.
     What avail two or three cups of tasteless wine
     Against a violent evening wind?
     Wild geese wing past at this of all hours,
     And it suddenly dawns on me
     That I've met them before.

     Golden chrysanthemums in drifts—
     How I'd have loved to pick them,
     But now, for whom? On the ground they lie strewn,
     Faded, neglected.
     There's nothing for it but to stay at the window,
     Motionless, alone.
     How the day drags before dusk descends!
     Fine rain falling on the leaves of parasol trees—
     Drip, drip, drop, drop, in the deepening twilight.
     To convey all the melancholy feelings
     Born of these scenes
     Can the one word "sorrow" suffice?[4]

[1] John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 77.
[2] Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term [Translated by Norbert Guterman] (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 73-74.
[3] John McPhee, Annals of the Former World (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998, 598-599.
[4] Victor Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 339-340.

Mair, Victor. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. New York: 
     Columbia University Press, 1994. 
Malinowski, Bronislaw. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term [Translated by Norbert Guterman]. 
     Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967.
McPhee, John. Annals of the Former World. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998. 
Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

Wednesday, May 2nd
George's Swooshing Pants
Conformity and its discontents. We'll discuss them (and food poisoning) next week on Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.

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