Friday, April 23, 2010

On Matters Southern

In a separate post I include an excerpt from Walker Percy's novel The Thanatos Syndrome, wherein Percy references earlier sections of the novel that describe the hidden depths of communication between old-style Southern white and black. In Part I Chapter 2 of the novel, he starts to detail the strange relationship and its navigation. Being neither old-style nor Southern, I find this fascinating, not just the dynamic being described but also the beauty and precision of Percy's writing.

A strange case, yes, but nothing to write up for the JAMA.

Indeed, I couldn't make head or tail of it at the time, the bizarre business with the boy and the stallion, but mainly the change in Mickey LaFaye. But what physician has not had patients who don't make any sense at all? To tell the truth, they're our stock-in-trade. We talk and write about the ones we can make sense of.

Here's another mini-case, not even a case but a fifteen-second encounter with an acquaintance even as I left Mickey's room. How much of the change, I was wondering, comes from my two years away and the change in me?

Here's old Frank Macon, polishing the terrazzo floor. I saw him a week ago, just after I returned. Frank Macon is a seventy-five-year-old black janitor. I have known him for forty years. He used to train bird dogs when there were still quail around here. Then as now he was polishing the terrazzo with a heavy rotary brush. From long practice he was using the machine well, holding back on one handle to give it a centripetal swing until it caromed off the concave angle of the wall to propel itself back by the torque of the brush. I broke his rhythm. He switched off the motor and eyed me. He clapped his hands softly and gave me one of his, a large meaty warm slab, callused but inert.

"Look who's back!" he cried, casting a muddy eye around and past me. He throws up an arm. "Whoa!"

"How you doing, Frank!"

"Fine! But look at you now! You looking good! You looking good in the face and slim, not poorly like you used to."

"You're looking good too, Frank."

"You must have been doing some yard work," says Frank, good eye gleaming slyly.

"Yes," I say, smiling. He's guying me. It's an old joke between us.

"I knowed they couldn't keep you! People talking about trouble. I say no way. No way Doc going to be in trouble. Ain't no police going to hold Doc for long. People got too much respect for Doc! I mean." Again he smote his hands together, not quite a clap but a horny brushing past, signifying polite amazement. He turned half away, but one eye still gleamed at me.

One would have to be a Southerner, white or black, to understand the complexities of this little exchange. Seemingly pleasant, it was not quite. Seemingly a friend in the old style, Frank was not quite. The glint of eye, seemingly a smile of greeting, was not. It was actually malignant. Frank was having fun with me, I knew, and he knew that I knew, using the old forms of civility to say what he pleased. What he was pleased to say was: So you got caught, didn't you, and you got out sooner than I would have, didn't you? Even his pronunciation of police as po'-lice was overdone and farcical, a parody of black speech, but a parody he calculated I would recognize. Actually he's a deacon and uses a kind of church English: Doctor, what we're gerng to do is soliciting contributions for a chicken-dinner benefit the ladies of the church gerng to have Sunday, and suchlike.

I value his honesty -- even his jeering. He knew this and we parted amiably. We understand each other. He reminds me of the Russian serfs Tolstoy wrote about, who spoke bluntly to their masters, using the very infirmity of their serfdom as a warrant to scold: Stepan Stepanovitch, you're a sinful man! Mend your ways!

"How Miss Ellen doing?" he asked, playing out the game of Southern good manners.

"Just fine, and your family?" I asked, watching him closely. Am I mistaken or is there not a glint of irony in his muddy eye at the mention of my wife's name?

That was my encounter with Frank Mason a week ago, a six-layered exchange beyond the compass of any known science of communication but plain as day to Frank and me.

This is my encounter with Frank this morning, in the same hospital, the same corridor, the same Frank swinging the same brush. He simply stepped aside, not switching off the machine, neither servile nor sullen, not ironical, not sly, not farcical, not in any way complex, but purely and simply perfunctory.

"How you doing, Frank?"

"Good morning, Doctor."

"Still featherbedding --" I begin in our old chaffing style, but he cuts me off with, of all things, "Have a nice day, Doctor" -- and back to his polishing without missing the swing of the machine. I could have been any doctor, anybody.

Here again, a small thing. Nothing startling. He might simply have decided to dispose of me with standard U.S. politeness, which is indeed the easiest way to get rid of people. Have a nice day--

Or he might have decided that the ultimate putdown is the same American civility. What better dismissal than to treat someone you've known for forty years like a drive-up customer at Big Mac's?

Or: Feeling bad, tired, old, out of it, he might have drawn a blank.

Or: Something strange has happened to him.

On Matters Asinine

Here is a portion of Part I Chapter 6 from one of my favorite books, The Thanatos Syndrome, by one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy. I've thought about this passage regularly in the 15 years since I first read it and have wished that I'd read it 10 years earlier so I might not have wasted so much energy engaged in so many heated and pointless political arguments in high school and college. In part of this section, Percy writes about the interaction of old-style Southern whites and blacks: that is worthy of another transcription of another small section of this same novel.

Bob Comeaux likes to argue. I don't much.

For two years I was caught between passionate liberals and conservatives among my fellow inmates at Fort Pelham. Most prisoners are ideologues. There is nothing else to do. Both sides had compelling arguments. Each could argue plausibly for and against religion, God, Israel, blacks, affirmative action, Nicaragua.

It was more natural for me, less boring, to listen than to argue. I was more interested in the rage than the arguments. After two years no one had convinced anyone else. Each side made the same points, the same rebuttals. Neither party listened to the other. They would come close as lovers, eyes glistening, shake fingers at each other, actually take hold of the other's clothes. There were even fistfights.

It crossed my mind that people at war have the same need of each other. What would a passionate liberal or conservative do without the other?

Bob Comeaux reminds me of them. He comes just as close when he argues, must closer than he would in ordinary conversation, his face, say, a foot from mine. He wants to argue about "pedeuthanasia" and the Supreme Court decision which permits the "termination by pedeuthanasia" of unwanted or afflicted infants, infants facing a life without quality.

I can tell he has hit on what he considers an unanswerable argument and can no more resist trying it out on me than a lover can resist giving his beloved a splendid gift.

"Can you honestly tell me," he says, coming even closer, "that you would condemn a child to a life of rejection, suffering, poverty, and pain?"


"As you of all people know, as you in fact have written articles about" -- he says triumphantly, and I can tell he has rehearsed these two clauses -- "the human infant does not achieve personhood until some time in the second year for the simple reason, as you yourself have shown, that it is only with the acquisition of language and the activation of the language center of the brain that the child becomes conscious as a self, a person. Right?"

He waits expectantly, lips parted, ready, corners moist. His eyes search out mine, first one, then the other.

"Do you see what I mean?" he asks.

"I see what you mean," I answer.

He waits for the counter-arguments, which he already knows and is prepared to rebut.

He is disappointed when I don't argue.

Instead, I find myself wondering, just as I wondered at Fort Pelham, what it is the passionate arguer is afraid of. Is he afraid that he might be wrong? that he might be right? Is he afraid that if one does not argue there is nothing left? An abyss opens. Is it not the case that something is better than nothing, arguing, violent disagreement, even war?

More than once at Fort Pelham I noticed that passionate liberals, passionate on the race question, had no use for individual blacks, and that passionate conservatives could not stand one another. Can you imagine Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson spending a friendly evening alone together?

One of life's little mysteries: an old-style Southern white and an old-style Southern black are more at ease talking to each other, even though one may be unjust to the other, than Ted Kennedy talking to Jesse Jackson -- who are overly cordial, nervous as cats in their cordiality, and glad to be rid of each other.

In the first case -- the old-style white and the old-style black -- each knows exactly where he stands with the other. Each can handle the other, the first because he is in control, the second because he uses his wits. They both know this and can even enjoy each other.

In the second case -- Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson -- each is walking on eggshells. What to say next in this rarified atmosphere of perfect liberal agreement? What if one should violate the fragile liberal canon, let drop a racist remark, an anti-Irish Catholic slur? What if Jesse Jackson should mention Hymie? The world might end. They are glad to get it over with. What a relief! Whew!

Frowning and falling back, Bob Comeaux even gives possible arguments I might have used so that he can refute them.

"In using the word infanticide, you see, you are dealing not with the issue but in semantics, a loaded semantics at that."

"I didn't use the word."

Bob shrugs and turns away, his eyes suddenly distant and preoccupied, like an unsuccessful suitor.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Connells Albums: Soon Back in Print

This is GREAT news, not just for people who like good music but for anybody who appreciates fairness. After a decade of being unable to make any money off their impressive catalogue of work due to corporate asshattedness, it appears that the Connells' albums will soon be back in print and available for a new generation to discover good Southern jangle rock.