Riding Out of Abstraction:
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Re-materialization of
Social Justice Rhetoric in “The Sacred and the Superfund”
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2015 Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants has been received with much critical acclaim. Much of this praise has focused on the book’s multi-genre qualities, like the way it “masterfully blends a smooth mixture of stories, technical jargon, botany, and life lessons” while advancing “a much-needed synthesis between indigenous and Western understandings of the environment and ecology” (Barnd 439-440). Nancy J. Turner praises the book’s controlling metaphor—braiding sweetgrass—for how it “symbolizes the intertwining of Indigenous and scientific knowledge systems in creative and mutually supporting ways, through the medium of plants as teachers and generous relatives” (161). Likewise, Jen Soriano includes Kimmerer in her list of authors who practice an “intersectional form” and “[break] away from the confines of traditional narrative arc and instead move through fragments and strands and strips, conveying multiple viewpoints to reject homogenous truth in favor of a more complex reality.” In so doing, she argues, such writing can be a means of “conveying and even modeling new ways of being in the world” (Soriano). Click here to continue reading.
A quibble with David Foster Wallace and his famous essay, but a productive one, I hope --
One of the more humanizing small ironies of Wallace’s last years is this image of him as the disheveled but still seigniorial speaker at a branded lectern, delivering a commencement address. Wallace, inevitably, no matter how much he’d spent his career doubting the parents, was the parent now, and a good one too. His young audience wanted wisdom and he was wise. Mordant too, of course, self-deprecating, halting, but taking a side throughout his essay-speech in an important postmodern ethical debate and doing it in accessible and compelling language — compelling because accessible. That he was willing to do this at all, to take the bait and try to say something big and packageable about how we ought to live, is brave, I think, and important. The particular debate revolves around the status of empathy as an ethical tool, particularly in a postmodern context where God as the unquestioned moral arbiter has exited stage left — and good riddance for that.
In “This Is Water,” Wallace advocates for what I want ethical imagination, or in other words a version of empathy that relies on the storyteller’s art, on narrative imagination. It’s a natural enough approach from a storyteller, and one that conduces well to this version of empathy — probably too well. Here I’ll argue that Wallace, who’d talked movingly about the limits of empathy, embraced in “This is Water” a logic or theory of goodness that ignores those limits, that in its attempts to use the self and its experiences to bridge the gap to the Other only reasserts the self. Click here to continue reading.
Laboring toward Leisure:
The Characterization of Work in Maine’s Back-to-the-Land Memoirs
Quincy Gray McMichael
Within the early pages of every back-to-the-land narrative I read, each memoirist offers dreams of the life they thought they would find upon returning to the land. As Eleanor Agnew writes in her book Back from the Land: “We imagined ourselves under blue skies with cotton white clouds floating by as we wielded our axes and hoed the garden. We anticipated the spiritual and aesthetic as well as the economic benefits of hard physical work, fresh air, and sunshine, hands-on tasks caring for soil, trees, vegetables, and animals” (88). Similarly, Jean Hay Bright, who memorialized her own story in Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life, recalls: “Getting away from the crowds, living in the woods, figuring it all out and pulling it all together, sounded like an exciting challenge…we would be 20th century pioneers…pack everything we owned into the Volkswagen van and head north into the wilderness” (13). Such starry-eyed visions were common. These “pioneers” found all of the above, and more. Click here to continue reading.
When talking about literary craft, however, writers seldom address a story’s emotional pacing, that is, how emotion embedded in a story’s raw material is presented and sequenced within the narrative. In one of the very few references I found, fiction writer Donald Maass describes emotional pacing with respect to the way a protagonist understands an event and in terms of the story’s emotional effect on the reader. According to Maass, one way writers accomplish emotional pacing is by shifting gears between tension and energy within a story. He writes: “Think of tension as a tiger poised for a pounce, and energy as the pounce. A shift inside a character is like that. As emotional gears shift, the reader feels the force of physics. There’s a sense of surging forward or pulling back” (Maass). I consider what Maass describes above to be part of the unfolding action and information within the story, and thus an aspect of overall narrative pacing. As Maass conceives it, emotional pacing has more to do with the emotional gear shifting itself, as if emotions were two-dimensional, mechanical objects disconnected from the body and the senses (internal and external), including the mind. His use of a mechanical metaphor—gearing—to describe emotional pacing doesn’t capture the aliveness, multivalence, and nonlinearity of its subtle force within a narrative. This energetic force is separate and distinct, yet intimately and seamlessly interwoven with other elements of narrative craft. Click here to continue reading.
Montaigne would have us think of his book, and therefore his mind, as monstrous: “I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself” (III.11, 958). And “I find that…like a runaway horse, [the mind] gives itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose” (I.8, 25). And elsewhere: “And what are these things of mine, in truth, but grotesques and monstrous bodies, pieced together of divers members, without definite shape, having no order, sequence, or proportion other than accidental?” (II.28, 165). Click here to continue reading.