The Beasts

“O is for owning things

‘… Demented with the mania…’

A bad idea in general.”

This is an excerpt from Percival Everett’s Re: f(gesture), in a poem titled Zulus. This was an excerpt that, when I first read it, caught my attention immediately. I can not explain why in particular, perhaps it was the phrase “demented with the mania” tapping into my love of Poe, and Burton. Either way, I found myself attracted to this phrase. The poem Zulus is a poem “organized” in alphabetical order, and is composed of almost entirely allusions to other texts, or other events. I figured that the first step in finding any perceivable meaning in this excerpt was to go down Everett’s rabbit hole of allusions. 

After some time searching I found the phrase “demented with the mania” is from a poem by Walt Whitman titled The Beasts. This poem is told from the first person perspective and describes the narrator’s desire to be one of the animals in the wild. The narrator provides their desire with substantial reasoning, and that reasoning raises beautiful philosophical notions. For example, the narrator speaks of the animals “They do not sweat and whine about their condition; They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;”(Whitman). This poem presented itself to me as a poem by a man sick of the negatives of the human condition, of human society. This perspective seems very Everettian to me. Much of what Everett’s writing invokes, is a sense of disparity at the state of humanity. Everett seems to scoff at the sensitivity of today’s society, and the lack of resilience in much of today’s thinking.

Everett was interviewed on April 15th, 2019 by The Rumpus, where he explained some of his disdain when asked how the current political climate inspired his new book, The Book of Training by Colonel Hap Thompson of Roanoke, VA, 1843: Annotated From the Library of John C. Calhoun. This is a fairly long excerpt from the interview but I do not want to take away from Everett’s response, as I see every word as important. 

 “I mean, I had white friends coming up to me and saying that they felt like their life was over because Trump was elected, and I said, ‘Well, that’s cause you’re white. The shit’s never hit the fan for you before.’ So, part of it was thinking about how the shit has always been in the fan for us as blacks, and part of it was all these slave narratives being portrayed in pop culture and literature. 12 Years a Slave, give me a break! I am not interested in 12 Years a Slave. I’m interested in one hundred and eighty-five years a slave!”

Here we can see Everett’s similarities to Walt Whitman’s narration in the poem The Beasts. Both Everett and Whitman invoke a disdain for the whiners of the world, when in fact they have not much to whine about. I do not mean to be political and say that the election of Donald Trump is something that shouldn’t be seen as a destructive decision on the part of the U.S, I am purely pointing out Whitman and Everett’s perspective on, as Dave Chappelle put it, “brittle spirits”.

In a world where there are actual injustices why sit and complain about the small ones? I am currently finishing my History of Black Lives Matter class, where we trace Black oppression from before the Reconstruction Era to today, and how it lead to the Black Lives Matter movement. In this class we learned of the many racial injustices plaguing the U.S to this day. With an understanding of these forms of oppression today, I am personally peeved when I hear someone complain about the nominal things in life. When people complain that they are offended by something someone said such as “are you sure you want more food?”, or any other number of rude comments. Of course that person is rude, but we must think of these things in the perspective of what others around us go through. I do not meant to rant, I simply state these things because I found myself connecting to the thinking Everett and Whitman displayed in their respective texts.

In many of my blog posts I have talked about reserving scorn, about being more kind, but there is a very important distinction I believe I should make. Reserving scorn does not only mean to be kind to those you meet, it also means to move on from the scorn of others. When someone insults you, we can not let it beat us down, we can not let it define our future days. If we let scorn define who we are to become, we will not be what we could be. From personal experience, I was bullied as a kid. I was overweight, a consequence of genetics, and strange, a consequence of creativity. I, however, did not let my bullies determine my future. I lost weight, became my highschool’s rugby captain, and played with the band Wilco before 10,000 people. I know I can get too grand and philosophical with some of my blog posts, but I believe that understanding Whitman’s, Everett’s, and my thinking can help reserve scorn. We not only must reserve scorn against people we do not connect with, but with people who use scorn against us. An eye for an eye leaves the world blind, and it is incredible that a sentence is ever understood.

Peace, Love, and Understanding

Percival Everett’s “Body” intervenes in the kind of disciplinary tensions that Joe Moran outlines in “Science, Space, and Nature.” More specifically, the poems may be understood as shedding light on the ridiculousness of isolation between disciplines. Through the poems themselves, “Body” illuminates the fact that science can be taught through a humanities lens, and humanities can be shown through a science lens. This idea of lenses is something I have discussed before in a blog post. My blog post titled “Passion For Perception” (linked below) from September discusses the idea of how lenses are the significant aspect of what makes things unique. However, Everett’s “Body” is not discussing the significance of lenses rather, it is discussing that there is too much significance put on the separation of these lenses. “Body” is an academic paper written as a humanities project. It is a jab at those who perpetuate the significance of categorization. The idea that “Body” presents stems from Everett’s own personal thoughts on the ideas of genre, and other forms of segregation. 

Everett was quoted in a 2012 interview stating “ I don’t believe in genres. There are some things that are formulaic and then there’s things like detective fiction, science fiction and they are not totally interesting… But stories of stories and literary art transcend any notion of genre.”. Everett expresses his distaste for genre and categorization directly in this interview, but it also bleeds into his work. By now I assume most of my readers have seen the terms “New Criticism” and “Intertextuality”, but for those who haven’t  I will give a brief definition of the two terms. According to the Bedford, New Criticism treats texts as “self-contained and self-referential and thus based interpretations on elements within the text rather than on external factors”. According to the Bedford, Intertextuality is “the condition of interconnectedness among texts”. “Body” is a poem that, if looked at with a New Critical lens, is breaking down and analyzing different parts of the human anatomy. However, with a more open minded, intertextual analysis one can see Everett’s message of anti-structure and literary freedom.

 As a writer myself, I can understand the message “body” is alluding to. This poem is challenging the standards of genres and the divide between disciplines. One of the beauties I see in writing is the freedom, or at least the illusion of freedom. When writing it is liberating to create a world all to yourself and do whatever you can imagine, but when you want an audience you have to bend to the will of genre standards. The freedom of individualistic writing is squashed once someone attempts to gain a larger audience, because it must be more easily marketed when it is a one genre story. This however is more of Everett’s personal opinion that seeps its way into “body” rather than the message “body” itself revealed to me.

 Through the existence of the poem itself, “Body” is challenging the separation between disciplinary writings. It is challenging the idea that if you are a creative writer you cannot written about the challenges of a scientific experiment, or the processes of the human body. It is also challenging the scorn that english writers put onto the sciences as being “not creative”. “Body” is expressing a desire to nullify scorn by understanding the fluidity in the mind’s ability. I am sure that there are many scientists who could (with practice) make great creative writers, and there are many writers that could (with practice) be great scientists. There is an unnecessary amount of scorn given between disciplinary fields, when each field has its worth because of its academia. Anything that challenges the mind and is a pursuit that benefits people should not be faced with scorn because it is not something one finds interesting.

Now what can we do with this lesson? Again It seems Everett is teaching us to be less scornful by being scornful to scorn (say that ten times, fast). My answer, which may or may not coincide with Everrett’s intention, is to learn to appreciate all academic and scholarly pursuit. I personally am not a huge science person and have found myself critiquing the sciences because they are challenging and unenjoyable. After reading “body” I have a greater appreciation not of the sciences themselves, but those who pursue the sciences. It takes a smart and dedicated person to enjoy something that I find dull and challenging. My hope for the readers of this blog post is to come to appreciate all forms of scholarly pursuit, and maybe even branch out a bit with your interests. As students we limit ourselves by thinking of ourselves in categories of “english major” and “bio major”, when in fact we are all just students seeking knowledge to better ourselves. Who are we to deny the knowledge someone wishes to bestow upon us, even if it isn’t something we find enjoyable? This is not to say you must like all fields of academia rather we should accept the fields as an admirable pursuit, and reserve scorn. To cap this blog post off I will leave you all with some lyrics from a song written by Nick Lowe, which Elvis Costello sang. The song is called “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” and I believe it captures the essence of this blog post and many of my previous posts.

As I walk through

This wicked world

Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity

I ask myself

Is all hope lost?

Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?

And each time I feel like this inside

There’s one thing I wanna know;

What’s so funny ’bout peace love and understanding?

-Nick Lowe

Link to “Passion For Perception” below

Pastiche Not Plagiarism

While reading I Am Not Sidney Poitier I found myself many times confused, amused, intrigued, and most often confused. My confusion was easily swept into frustration, as it is so oft to do. However, I remembered Professor McCoy’s advice on scorn, that is to reserve it for what truly deserves it. Sadly my scorn showed its confused face when I became agitated with the novel’s use of reference. On October 25th, My Classmate Susan Dolan noted my frustration with the novel’s allusion to the film The Defiant Ones in her Blog post titled Plagiarism with Purpose. “I remember during this conversation I shared Kevin’s frustration because I also could not recognize what Everett was doing.” (Dolan).” This frustration came, in part, to the lack of understanding I had, but it also stemmed from a moral dilemma I had been struggling with. This moral dilemma was plagiarism. 

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms describes Plagiarism: “In which one author steals a passage or idea from another, passing it off as his or his own and failing to credit the original source.”(Bedford 316). They key to understanding plagiarism, however, is intent. The Bedford goes on to explain that “deceptive intent” is required for any copying to be considered plagiarism. It was with this definition in mind that I faced the plagiarism tutorial Dolan described in her post. Dolan describes that the tutorial states “any reference to facts, ideas, or data that are not considered common knowledge must be properly cited.”(Dolan). Within this course I had been given two standards of plagiarism and asked to uphold both of them. I was made to believe by the Bedford that deceptive intent was what characterized plagiarism, but this lesson was telling me that even an accident could make me guilty of plagiarism. This confusion, again lead to frustration, and scorn. Which standard was I to uphold? 

While searching for the answer to this, I began to better comprehend what I Am Not Sidney Poitier was doing with its parallels between Sidney Poitier movies. Sadly, what comes with comprehension is critical thought, and thus the question was raised in my head as it was raised in Dolan’s; Is Percival Everett guilty of plagiarism? My initial answer was yes. At face value, Everett is using exact lines, and story arcs from movies to fill the plot of his novel. This made me, understandably, upset. Why should I as a student writer be held to a standard that not even a college professor such as Everett himself cannot uphold? Are the Masters not expected to be greater than the students? Roughly 78 pages of I Am Not Sidney Poitier parallel either The Defiant Ones or Lilies of the Field without a citation in sight (I took the time to count them myself). Everrett even prefaces before the novel begins, “All characters depicted in this novel are completely fictitious, regardless of similarities to any extant parties and regardless to shared names.” (Everett). In other words Everett is claiming that all of these said characters are completely fictitious and that he created them himself, seeing as he does not credit them to anyone else. 

Finally I believed I had a just reason for scorn, I was ready to write a blog post about the inequality between student and teacher, the failures of our academic standards, and the ridiculousness of plagiarism. As I was about to begin writing I decided to reserve my scorn, and make sure I had the proper information to support such a presumptive and bold statement. I again turned to the Bedford. As I looked again for the definition of plagiarism I came across the term pastiche. Pastiche is “A literary, musical, or artistic work that imitates another’s recognizable style or pieces together a medley of often incongruous elements from a number of existing works.”(Bedford 316). Yes, as you might guess I was again confused. How was this any different than plagiarism? What was I missing? The key lay in the next few lines of text. Here the Bedford explained “it is sometimes treated synonymously with parody, but is more often distinguished from the latter by its respectful tone.”(316). Pastiche it seems was a loophole from plagiarism. A copy? Sure in some ways, but one of admiration and respect. The intent is key, pastiche is an intent of homage. My scorn began to lessen as I realized that Everett wasn’t plagiarizing. He was implementing a literary device that until now, I hadn’t known. Under the definitions of the Bedford, Everett is not guilty of plagiarism. Without giving it much thought it may seem that he is, but with a more critical lens it is visible that I Am Not Sidney Poitier is making a point. This point however, I plan to explain further in a blog post of its own.

This internal struggle of understanding where the black and white line of ownership and plagiarism left me with an important lesson. This lesson was that writing is never black and white, it is usually grey. Grey is the line between tragedy and comedy. Grey is the line between genius and madness. Grey is the line between Sidney and Not Sidney. Grey is the line between plagiarism and pastiche. As budding writers and students, my classmates and I need this lesson now more than ever. Many of us have learned to write through rigorous structure and clear cut outlines. Now we are in college, where for many of us there is little to no structure, where freedom can either sink us or lift us to new heights. It is through accepting that writing is grey that we can find our own voice and become greater writers. Do not take my advocating for “the grey” as support plagiarism, far from it actually. Rather, I believe we should not let our confusion and scorn force us into decisions that aren’t well thought. Before we label someone guilty of plagiarism, let us think about what their intent was. If I had used this judgment I wouldn’t have been so scornful towards Everett. My tale of confusion and scorn in many ways itself parallels the confusion and scorn Not Sidney faces in his story. My hope, however, is that my life will be seen as pastiche, not plagiarism.