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    Book Tour: Tunnels through the World

    A review of Books Promiscuously Read by Heather Cass White, Who Will Pay Reparations On My Soul by Jesse McCarthy, and Tardis Eruditorum by Elizabeth Sandifer

    Phil Christman

    April 29, 2021
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    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.


    One of the pleasures of reading is the branching-and-branching-and-branching of texts, the way the books you’ve read form an underground network of intentional and unintentional references to each other. A thing you hadn’t initially cared about becomes interesting simply because so many good books have crossed through it on their way to somewhere else. Like a person wandering through a strange city, you start to see unexpected connections everywhere, and the world begins to feel like a cozy little plot that teases you but remains beyond you. This feeling, if we can just keep it in perspective – if we can just remember that we are not necessarily that plot’s likable and heroic protagonist – can turn us a little toward the divine.

    Heather Cass White’s Books Promiscuously Read describes this joy – and all the joys of reading – as efficiently as I’ve ever seen anyone do. It is a book that I would give someone who has just got bitten by the reading bug and doesn’t quite understand yet what’s happened. “A life spent reading affirms the feeling it also creates, that books have ‘insides,’” she writes. Books are an example of “potential space,” and we go to them “because we have a self that must be articulated, and because we do not have a self until we find its articulation.” And yet White is refreshingly uninterested in overstating the claim for reading, in making it the only way of finding or being a self. She keeps reading in perspective. “Reading conduces to inwardness, but many good people are not inward, and many inward people are not good,” she writes, firmly closing an issue that some perfectly fine writers have spent paragraph after paragraph failing to fully open.

    White describes the joy of moving between texts, and she also enacts it. This short book is woven together from quotations and from White’s own beautifully aphoristic phrases. We see White’s account of reading, and simultaneously, we see the way that account is built up of bits of reading (what else would it be built up of?). She finds unexpected similarities between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative – Douglass was an avid reader of the Romantics, and White argues that his account of learning to read displays some conscious or unconscious influences from those scenes where Frankenstein’s monster scavenges the lessons that make him literate. This may seem a comparison insulting to Douglass, but consider the long tradition in which Black writers use the character of the alien, the clone, or the robot to express their sense of their own status within White society. Also, consider that the monster is the hero of that book.

    At another point, reflecting on the tendency of written words to “drift,” to take on associations and applications their authors did not intend, White quotes the opening of the Declaration of Independence, in light of its author’s other statement that “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.” Slaveholder Thomas Jefferson probably didn’t know how well or how often the abolitionists would appeal to his self-evident truths. White then writes: “Without the safeguarding of speech, delivered by a particular person to a carefully selected audience, the words say what they say to anyone at all, ignoring the implicit limits their authors may have imagined.” And then she quotes Davis Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which turns Jefferson’s words against his practice: “Compare your own language … extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders.” Here yet another tunnel branched off, one White did not intend to build – for Walker’s Appeal is a particular favorite of Jesse McCarthy, whose book I had just finished.

    blurry impressionistic photo of light at the end of a dark tunnel

    Photograph by Thomas Kinto

    McCarthy’s Who Will Pay Reparations On My Soul: Essays is probably my favorite book so far this year, novels and poetry included. (McCarthy’s own novel The Fugitivities will be published this summer, part of a bounty of first novels this year by excellent younger critics – Lauren Oyler, Patricia Lockwood, Christine Smallwood.) If the mere frequency with which we encounter an idea or a quote or a reference can pique our interest in it, the depth of a writer’s vision can accelerate this process. By seeing a great deal in a topic, and plainly telling what he sees, the writer can make us care about what we had indifferently passed over.

    For example, when McCarthy published the essay “Notes on Trap” in 2018, I knew little about that genre of music, for reasons that may seem obvious – I am White, I am forty-three, and I walk to work, so no radio. (I was somewhat familiar with the work of Cardi B, whose compellingly blunt narratives of money earned and rivals vanquished are balanced, in her public statements, by a sincere advocacy for working people. Her political stances express the vulnerability that her supremely confident music avoids, which in turn adds a certain pathos to her performance of confidence.) It is impossible, anyway, to remain uninterested in trap music when you have seen Jesse McCarthy explain it in this way:

    The musical signature embedded in trap is that of the marching band. The foundation can be thought of, in fact, as the digital capture and looping of the percussive patterns of the drum line. The hi-hats in double or triple time are distinctly martial, they snap you to attention, locking in a rigid background grid to be filled in with the dominant usually iterated instrumental, sometimes a synth chord, or a flute, a tone parallel that floats over the field. In this it forms a continuum with the deepest roots of black music in America, going back to the colonial era and the Revolutionary War, when black men, typically prohibited from bearing arms, were brought into military ranks as trumpet, fife, and drum players. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, all-black brass bands spread rapidly, especially in cities with large free black populations like New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York. During the Civil War, marching bands would aid in the recruitment of blacks to the Union. At Port Royal in the Sea Islands, during the Union Army occupation, newly freed slaves immediately took to “drilling” together in the evenings in public squares, men, women, and children mimicking martial exercises while combining them with song and dance – getting in formation. The popularity of marching and drilling was incorporated into black funerary practice, nowhere more impressively than in New Orleans, where figures like Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet would first encounter the sounds of rhythm and trumpet, joy and sorrow going by in the streets of Storyville. This special relationship, including its sub rosa relation to military organization, persists in the enthusiasm of black marching bands, especially in the South, where they are a sonic backdrop of enormous proximate importance to the producers of trap, and to its geographic capital, Atlanta.

    When you hear this music, you aren’t just hearing stories of small- or big-time drug-dealing: you’re hearing an entire history, of freedom both fought for and subverted, whether in the Revolution that did not come for everyone or the Civil War that the Union won, and then, for the next century, acted as though it had lost.

    McCarthy ranges widely in history, as this passage shows. Essays deal with the enslaved Spanish painter Juan de Pareja; with Diego Velázquez, who “owned” him; with Toni Morrison; with Paris cafes. Probably at least some of a person’s preexisting interests will align with McCarthy’s sooner or later.

    McCarthy has the sort of mind that tunnels between topics, anyway. The subject of any given essay becomes a node in a network of subterranean connections, a way into everything, without losing its specificity. My favorite of the essays is probably “To Make a Poet Black,” in which he muses on the possible meanings of “Black” poetry. He defines the words, beginning with “poet,” and this of course leads him back to the Greek poesis, “making,” but then he goes further back to the Sumerians, where he finds, in a hymn to Inanna, a series of lines that sound oddly like the blues:

    From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
    From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
    From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.

    Like other Ancient Near Eastern literatures – the Psalms included – these poets liked a bit of semantic parallelism: A statement followed by a restatement adorned by a slight change. The Psalmist often gives us two lines, but the Sumerians like to give us three, and this “triadic structure,” as McCarthy points out, re-echoes in the blues. A page or so later, he has pointed out an odd similarity of sensibility between the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts and the “musical and poetic universe of Sun Ra and his Arkestra.” (Many of Ra’s songs have an obviously incantatory style.) He then performs a virtuoso reading of a Sappho lyric, likening it to Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” and calling her the “Lady Day of Lesbos.” Just when you’re starting to feel that perhaps he’s stretched the point too far, he unearths an ancient tradition – found in Ovid, among others – to the effect that Sappho looked more Ethiopian than Greek. He then turns to the eighteenth-century Black American poet Phillis Wheatley, whose lyric poems Thomas Jefferson considered a sort of parrot-speech. (Jefferson didn’t believe that Black people could love truly enough to write “real” love poems.) By now, McCarthy has well prepared us to see that the architect of Monticello, a fetishist of Greek and Roman culture, misunderstood these as absolutely as he did Black people. Did he think dark Sappho a parrot too?

    Elizabeth Sandifer is another writer with a capacious mind. She demonstrates that quality by diving very deeply into topics far geekier than McCarthy’s. To wit: Tardis Eruditorum, Volume Seven, like the six more-or-less self-published books that precede it, collects a series of blog posts written by Sandifer during the early 2010s. (Stay with me here.) Each series focuses on the adventures of one of the seven very different characters, played by seven different actors, to have enjoyed US cult and UK mass attention under the nom de guerre of the Doctor, on the television show Doctor Who (1963- ). For the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a show about a time traveler who periodically changes bodies. The show runs the gamut from pop sublimity to, as is currently the case, absolute wretchedness; one endures the bad stretches, as does a Cubs fan. That is almost as much as a beginner needs to know. You also need to know that it’s way better than Star Trek.

    How good can this person’s highly eccentric “psychocronography” of this TV show be? Well, if John MacPhee can wring a literary masterpiece out of orange production, then presumably Elizabeth Sandifer – who has also written brilliantly on comic books, science fiction more broadly, and on the alt-right – can make something enduring out of a TV show and character that is particularly prone, as Doctor Who is, both to dramatically reinventing itself for new eras and to weaving itself into the imaginations of the young. And she has. In this book she covers the period when the character was represented by the character actor Sylvester McCoy – you may remember him as Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit films, although given the odd inertness of those films you may not. There is a high pathos to this era of Doctor Who. The show had lagged in the ratings for years at this point, and cancellation seemed inevitable, and so by 1987 nobody was paying particular attention to what the writers did. This left the way open for Andrew Cartmel, a young and hungry new script editor, to commission work from other intense young writers, who had grown up with the show, argued with it, and wanted more from it.

    With the help of the redoubtable McCoy – soon joined by the utterly inspired Sophie Allred in the role of the Doctor’s newest human friend, a cheerful punk petroleuse named Ace – they reinvented the show. Unfortunately, they had no money. The scripts are as funny and strange as anything in the history of televised fantastika up to that point, but a person watching with the sound off would mistake it for a public-access show. It is as though the handsomest man in the world were forced to wear a puce leisure suit at all times. Nobody watched; cancellation ensued. Thereupon the Doctor existed only in tie-in novels, which, like the last episodes of the show, were often better than they had any right to be. The covers all look like an eleventh-grader drew them.

    Such a tale of ambition thwarted, of brilliance humbled, could hardly fail to interest even the reader who only cares so much about some science fiction kids’ show. And Sandifer brings to these texts not only the expected fannish obsessiveness but a deep investment in the politics of the show and a deep curiosity about the history and power and persistent changeability of storytelling itself. In an entry on the chronologically knotty 1989 storyline known as “Ghost Light,” she arranges the paragraphs such that there are multiple pathways through the piece, as there are through the episode. It is as though Italo Calvino or Christine Brooke-Rose had taken up the art of television criticism. In a paragraph that justifies both her own approach to writing the entry and the complexity of “Ghost Light” itself – and I agree with Sandifer that “Ghost Light” is one of the richest things the show, or TV as a medium, has done – she writes:

    The logic of fiction is associative. This is where the people who fail to understand this story run aground. The story holds together not because every step of what’s going on is well-explained, but because all the parts of this story fit a clear aesthetic. Every part of this is, at the end of the day, clearly part of the same story.

    And the same is true of the entry; it holds together even as you race to put it together. This is clearly someone who realizes how strange the world actually is, how far its tunnels go.

    Still, this book, like “Ghost Light,” does ultimately have a traceable story, and it is, again, the story of how a failing cultural enterprise took on entrenched political power, and what it accomplished by doing so. In tracking the series’ treatment of Margaret Thatcher – Cartmel once half-jokingly remarked that he was trying to “overthrow” her – Sandifer reaches some useful insights about the strengths and limitations of culture as a way of intervening in politics. The short answer: you can articulate a vision – she writes of one episode that lingered in her mind for years, “at once utterly intelligible and clearly about things I didn’t understand” – but don’t be surprised when your subversive art is “reintegrated into the spectacle” by people unsympathetic to you. I find this conclusion perhaps less tragic than she does; for a Christian all politics are anticipatory, so the dynamic can’t be avoided. Even when capitalism has given up the ghost, we will still need works of art that seem to reach us from places even farther off, where yet more things have become sayable and seeable.

    At any rate, one can certainly come to know a bit of Doctor Who, and of narratology and British political history and feminist aesthetics, and even of Elizabeth Sandifer herself through these books. I have deeply enjoyed the acquaintance for about ten years now, and I expect to continue to do so for many more. She proves, as good critics always do, that criticism is potentially no less teeming than the world is.

    Contributed By portrait of Phil Christman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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