At one point during a strict lock-down phase of the pandemic, a controversy that had been simmering since June 2019 regarding the 2.4 square kilometer (0.92 square miles) areal that is home to the 330,000 graves serving as the last resting place for 3 million dead in Vienna’s Central Cemetery, flared up anew. Should the living be able to use the cemetery’s well-kept paths as a place to go for a run? Part of me got the critique. It was the same part of me that has never been quite comfortable with Arlington Cemetery’s dual-purpose as a resting place for the nation’s bravest and a tourist stop for DC’s Hop-On-Hop-Off buses. Another part of me, the part that recalibrates through a good run, rooted for a peaceful co-existence between the runners and resters. Granted, the upbeat orange runner signposts installed throughout the cemetery conveyed neither the solemnity nor the reflection due the cemetery’s (semi-)permanent residents (“semi-” because make no mistake, in Austria, they are hardcore when it comes to timely payment of gravesite fees – dead or not, you don’t pay your rent for your six feet under and you will be booted outa there faster than you can say Zentralfriedhofbestattungsmuseumdirektor). But given the fact that vehicles of all shapes and sizes were, with special permission, also allowed to drive the cemetery’s lanes, it seemed hard to argue that anyone out for a quick canter around the tombstones would be causing any kind of greater disruption. A part of me believes that the cemetery’s (semi-) permanent residents would even appreciate the presence of young, fit visitors, breathing deep and moving fast. Austrians, always the diplomats, baptized the trails “The Silent Run.” According to a report by the ORF (Austrian National Broadcasting Agency), the Central Cemetery hadn’t received a single complaint about runners using the trails. In these polarizing times, that’s something to aspire to.
Posts from the ‘general’ Category
Just wanted to take time out from my dissertation work (yep, still working on it) to wish everyone a wonderful 2020. May all your resolutions hold till February at least!
Following is a temporary hiatus from my blogging hiatus. As mentioned, I have had to cut back on the very lucrative business of blogging each week in order to dedicate myself to the equally lucrative business of working on my PhD and my next book project. Theoretically, I could sacrifice sleep and live for the calling but I’m too vain to willingly sport the zombie look before my biological clock capitulates. Now the following blog entry will seem quite random, but I ask if you have read this far already, just go with it. Maybe I am not getting as much sleep as I should but it would be nice to think that someone, somewhere, actually took the time to read this and it is not a bunch of blabber into the void. So here it goes…
This past spring I attended a one-day seminar on Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street“ (if you haven’t read it, do. It’s not long and quite good). Our group of about 30 students from all over the world discussed the story’s use in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a fascinating glimpse you can get when you’re only one of two Americans in a room full of non-Americans discussing American literature. I’ve come to sympathize with those who, based on qualifiers and affectionate-sounding tones, obviously like America yet find themselves wickedly conflicted about a country that remains a rather unsolvable mystery. Problems solved long ago and solutions which are now so “self-evident” for Europeans such as universal healthcare, gun regulations, and free higher education are still actually topics of hot debate in the US. How can a country be so internet-of-things be so unapologetically yesterday? Now more than ever, many Europeans seem to be pounding their foreheads on their desks wondering “Why, oh why are you Americans so out of your blasted minds? You’re all so bat-shit crazy and you can bet your Wiener Würstel, you’re even proud of it to boot.”
So all this got me thinking about what it is that defines Americans in our souls and has long defined Americans in literature, films, and our self-image. This prompted me to focus a seminar paper I had to write on Moby-Dick on the Pursuit of the American Dream. I will spare you the entire 20-some pages but I thought, perhaps, you might be interested in the conclusion. I think it really may be what defines us to a certain extent. While Marxist literature critique paints “rugged individualism” as the problem of the American, and it may be indeed the trait that makes us all seem a bit Captain Ahab-like “bat-shit crazy” to outsiders, but it is likewise undoubtedly the very back bone of the American dream. In the end, it might mean we’ve placed ourselves at the helm of a Pequod, steering ourselves straight into oblivion in pursuit of the great white whale of a dream, but I hope not. I hope we can come to understand that there is a way to pursue and live each of our dreams without dragging down our fellow crewman into a watery grave. There is a way to pursue the individual dream together with the common dream. It’s there. We just have to strive for it.
Now the conclusion of that essay I promised:
Marxist theorists argue that writers do not exist in a vacuum free from socioeconomic and ideological influences, and hence writers’ works are also ideological in character. Tyson writes, “like all cultural manifestations, [a novel] is a product of socioeconomic and hence ideological conditions of the time and place in which it was written, whether or not the author intended it so” (63). If this is true, then in the case of Moby-Dick, the time of its revival during the Great Depression is perhaps as significant as the time of its initial publication during the American Renaissance. During the Renaissance, American authors tried to codify an American dream. During the Great Depression, when all else seemed lost, American readers may have been desperate for a concrete example of a man who still believed in something, even if it were an ill-fated dream. Lisman criticizes Marxist theory for what he considers its narrow view that economic factors are solely responsible for man and everything which controls him. Lisman argues that as readers, we admire characters who are concerned with personal relationships and existential or spiritual questions (84). He writes:
|To contend dogmatically that the best novels are those which advocate social change involves a failure to appreciate the formal requirements of good literature and a failure to acknowledge that there are other equally important subjects and themes. (Lisman 84)|
The measure of Captain Ahab’s greatness is not in his success but in his ambition, tenacity, and perseverance to pursue his dream regardless of the consequences. Indeed, had Ahab been successful, it is doubtful whether he would have lived beyond the last pages of the novel. Though references to the novel in an everyday context may now have become synonymous with megalomaniac ventures most likely destined for failure, for Americans, at least, the image of Captain Ahab is not an entirely negative one.
All men (and women) have the potential to be Ahabs and to willingly and even recklessly sacrifice everything in order to heed the call of their personal drummer, beating the message of what they are meant to do and be in their short time here. The protagonist of the American dream is the JetBlue attendant who grabbed two beers, pulled the emergency slide and never looked back, or the NYC bus driver who, after an exemplary 17-year-long career with the NY transit authority, decided one morning to take a different turn and just keep going. Since his birth, Ahab has come to stand for dictators, tyrants, corporate executives, presidents, but moreover, every single one of us. “Melville felt that whatever essential meaning lies in Moby Dick could be found in the life of a living Ahab by an Ahab himself” (Myers 19). In the American dream, fulfillment of one’s destiny, even in light of possible self-destruction, is far more preferable than bowing to a colorless life of mediocracy and non-individuality. Captain Ahab embodies the promise that man can be more on this earth than an indistinguishable drop in the puddle as interchangeable as the machine parts of Ford’s first automatized production lines. The American dream is not what is to be believed but what is to be done. It is that yearning, burning need to unearth one’s purpose here and pursue it to its ultimate finish, whatever that might be. It can be as practically-minded as a chicken in every dinner pot or as outlandish as the chase of a singular great white whale swimming somewhere in the big, wide, unforgiving ocean.
The ambitious drive of the individualist that holds a negative connotation in some countries and cultures, is a positive and admired trait in America. As Emerson writes in “Self Reliance”:
|There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide[…] no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him (qtd in Izaquirre 20).|
Captain Ahab’s quest to kill Moby Dick may have been doomed from the beginning. However, in his failure, he succeeded. He exercises his agency to at least try and proves himself a man by doing so. No what-ifs plagued Ahab during his final breath as his dream plunged him deep into ocean. Perhaps what Ishmael contends is true –who on this earth isn’t a slave? And yet in our brief time in this world, it is up to us to determine who and what we allow to be our master. In this manner, Captain Ahab and Bartleby are kindred spirits, both abiding their inner will as captains of their chosen destinies. They and they alone choose what to do with their time here. While Ahab exercises his self-evident right to action; Bartleby exercises his right to inaction. Both choices lead in the end to the character’s destruction. A Marxist might therefore argue that it is precisely the rugged individualism that is the destructive trait. Yet by criticizing this “cornerstone of the American dream” (Tyson 57), Marxist ideology drives a stake directly through the heart of an American conviction: within every man (and woman) resides a seed, that, like the majestic Redwoods of the American West, may need a fire for its release in order to become what it was always meant to be.
Every American is born with a thousand futures and every American will die with just one past. The American dream would have us believe that whether that past will be one of an eternal blaze of glory or a fast-fading fizzle of mediocrity is up to us. We may be equal in birth but it is our life that should forever distinguish what we’ve made of ourselves.
Sorry – long time no hear but I swear, I am hard at work with my studies, reading, researching and writing papers. But life mustn’t be all work and no play. So…just for you… some beautiful mementos from a recent hike in Austria’s very gorgeous Hochschwab region.
Spend a weekend at this gem of a guesthouse where the St. Ilgen valley ends and is surrounded by a majestic panorama of mountains: Bodenbauer (http://www.der-bodenbauer.at/der-bodenbauer/anreise).
From there venture up and out into some breathtaking walks, treks, hikes, and climbs.
A short hour-long trek will take you to the lovely Hainzlhuette where cows laze happily in the meadow and the Wirtin will serve you up a very tasty Brettljause and refreshing drinks so you can tank some energy to power onwards.
Further up the mountain about 2 hours straight up from Bodenbauer is the Häuslhuette situated along a route that is better marked than the Hainzerlhuette route (Haeusl Alm website). The Häuslalm is along route 840. Consider downloading maps of the area before you go because the markings aren’t always optimal. And if you are crazy enough to venture up in pounding, stinging rain, dragging your soaking wet body, step-for-step upwards like I did, you might just have a Frodo-like experience that would make the entire effort worthwhile. Cold, rain-beaten, and tired, you might just enter an abandoned-looking hut after the two hour hike that seemed oh so everlong to find an interior filled with the warmth of a wood-burning stove, the scents of homemade grilled Bratwurst, an abundance of drink and an over-bursting of song and merriment. Unbelievable. Not only was the hut busting at its seams with hikers out in that weather (some who climbed over in hail and snow), there was an accordion, an accordion player and a cabin full of beer-mug-swinging Austrians who knew all the lyrics to all the songs he played. Good times were had by all and I may have been mistaken, but I could have sworn there were some hobbits in the corner milking their Barlimann’s Best. Indeed, thank goodness this world has more to offer than work and perfect weather. Life is short, make the best of it!