Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Among the Simple

The Idea Collective
I went to college with not much knowledge at all. Public school had taught me grammar, a general form accepted at the time, and then it taught me how to string all those adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, verbs, prepositions, etc., into statements (or sentences) in a "proper" order so that when I wrote down my thoughts in sentences like "I like birds," for instance, I wasn't really meaning "Birds I like" or "Like birds I," though I was given to think from a "birds I like" point of view and my poet grandmother would have used "Like birds I," and I thought poets were crazy even at the tender age of 5. So, putting sentences together, where am I, third grade? I mean, I could already "speak" by the time I entered public school; I was taught not to use contractions, especially "ain't," a forbidden word in my house. "Is not, young man, and if I catch you saying that word again, I'll wash your mouth out with Lava soap [an exceptionally harsh soap said to have been made from volcanic pumice ash] and I was afraid of my folks when it came to proper language; they really would have washed my mouth out with Lava had I tried to get away with using it again.

Also I could write fairly well with pen and ink before I went to 1st grade thanks to my dad's obsession with fine pens and with the fine penmanship you could become capable of developing using one of those fine "writing instruments," as my dad called them. He would take one of his beautiful fountain pens, he had a gold-tipped Sheaffer that was a pen among pens to him and cost him an arm and a leg that he taught me to write with. [$25, which is about what a Sheaffer gold-tipped pen and pencil set cost back in those Great Depression days. During that Great Depression, both my mother's and my father's families were dirt poor (my father did have a couple of brothers and a sister who had good jobs at that time and they supported his side of the family; my mother's side of the family all lived within blocks of each other and all of them were struggling--my mother wrapped butter at a local dairy for a penny a stick--my dad drove trucks for "chicken feed," as he described it. So in order to keep eating, the families would gather together in each other's houses every night and go out into the backyard in the summertime to cook out since not all of them could afford electricity or gas for spells or else in the winter time they cooked in their fireplaces or they cooked on cans of Sterno--nor could they afford much food--so all of them gathered what food they could find during the day and then bring it with them to whoever was "cookin' dinner" that evening. My florist grandmother could make salads out of dandelions, rose petals, wild chards and mustards, wild onions, wild asparagus, wild peppermint, wild berries during the spring and summer and the ladies all canned foods to make it through the winter. My grandmother, my mother's mother, knew all of the wild plants that were good to eat and she knew where to find them, along certain creek banks, or even by the side of the highways sometimes--nuts, too, she always found, especially hickory nuts--she was a tough Pioneer Woman (there is a statue to the Pioneer Woman in Ponca City, Oklahoma--she's a symbol of those single-mother white women of great strength who survived the struggles of living on those plains and prairies on that huge wild Western Frontier, single mothers because their husbands were killed by wars, Native Americans, or their own kind or they died of consumption (TB) or some other terminally attacking disease or they became insane or were old men to begin with who liked young girls in their nasty old age (my great-grandmother married a 72-year-old Texas "War of Independence" veteran when she was 14). I had an uncle who made wine out of wild grapes, "mustang" grapes we called them, and they used this wine to make salad dressings and to cook with and this uncle was also good at telling wild attention-holding stories--he was an early aviator--about flying, he had been a sailor so he could talk about sailing on ships and being in strange foreign places, and he had been an early cinematographer and he'd been to Los Angeles and met with King Vidor, a Texas man from where my mother's family was from--and my grandmother sometimes used that uncle's wild grape leaves in her salads, too, or she would make one of her specialities: spicy mashed potatoes (with with wild onions and wild herbs) wrapped in a grape leaf and then sauted in a skillet of pork lard until the leaves were crackling crisp. I had a one-eyed uncle who was a master at preparing wild meats, especially rabbits and squirrels that he'd catch himself out in the fields and along the creeks and he dressed 'em out and then used the meat in stews he called "burgoos," a term I was told came from my Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Kaintuck past generations, folks from those states thick as hops in Great Depression Texas. The following is an interesting little essay by Jerry Parsons on varmints written in a wonderful Texas style of writing--check it out:


But my dad would take his fine Sheaffer pen and he would show me how to write, like starting with the alphabet, you know, holding my hand and then moving it to form each letter--teaching me to use a square-topped A--my dad's style--his first name beginning with an A; and then a fancy B, I later think he got from seeing a letter B in German, each letter having to be printed or scripted in his certain ways, on and on, etc. Then he taught me how to sign my name--he could sign his name backwards and upsidedown; sometimes, if you caught him in a show-off mood, he would sign his name forwards and backwards at the same time. Then, using the Good Book of the Christian World of Fables, he taught me grammar and, by golly, I was growling pretty correct sentences when I entered first grade. Besides, all that prepping had caused me to develop into a little smartass know-it-all. I was amazed at how advanced I was with knowledge-seeking tools over those other just-plain kiddie dumbos who competed with me in first grade. I was a little man; they were pencil necked geeks. I knew how to spell words correctly too, another discipline taught to me by my dad who loved to read the dictionary and loved the idea of spelling bees. My dad loved learning to spell, pronounce, and use-in-sentences big words, and of course I knew how to spell "antidisestablishmentarianism" before I was 5. The other little brats in that class considered me a little masturbating-mouthed prick; even the old schoolmarm teacher hated my guts, though she tolerated me because she had taught both my dad and my brother--she was ancient, in her 80s when she was my teacher. She found me a problem student because I already knew what she was administratively programmed to teach me. I became an outcast because of this; I became a disciplinary problem; I became a prime subject for a good dose of methylphenidate.

Being a smartass kid put me in a position to where throughout most of my public school education I had to discover my own brand of learning or gaining knowledge. Yes, I learned rudiments in PS, the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but I had to gain the knowledge of those systems on my own. I became an autodidactic.

Here's a list of autodidactics from history: I'm in good company; I notice William Faulkner and Bobby Fischer are in there in alphabetical order--two of my human heroes:


"The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education." -Albert Einstein

Why Me, Lard?
This all came up when I went on what I think is a fascinating site run by the University of Virginia--yep, old Tom Jefferson own personally designed university--the first American-style college in this country. The site is called The Dictionary of the History of Ideas and I go on it occasionally when I get curious about an idea I suddenly remember reading about, like Theosophy...or today, I decided to read about Structuralism. Holy shit, what was wrong with me? But I used to read Michel Foucault with fascination, not understanding a lot of him--I think you have to learn French to really understand him, or maybe Esperanto would be better--anyway, this site had a whole huge long piece on Structuralism written by Peter Caws.

Good god almighty it was interesting; it's a very deep subject; I need a guide to make it through most of its vastlands of linguistic thinking. Structuralism arises from the work of a man named Ferdinand de Saussure, who taught at the university level in France around the turn of the 20th Century, that one that just past--it seems like at a breaking-the-speed-limit celerity--as fast as one of those armadillos old Jerry Parsons likes to go hunting for at two in those starry Texas mornings--when armadillo chili is on his craving mind. Three of de Saussure's students took extensive notes in his classes and after he died, they collected them and published them as Cours de linguistique generale. de Saussure envisioned the science of semiotics.

I was already connected to these guys through a lot of postgraduate work I had done in Sociological Theory; I wrote my Master's thesis on Georg Simmel and his theories of triads, with very similar theories to Gestalt Psychology and now I see Structural Anthropology. The humanties, these areas of learning are called because they deal with what makes human beings human beings--as opposed to staying stupid chimps and having an easy life of it in the sweet and easy jungles of Tarzan's distant-relative world--the Shangra-La for chimps and apes--F other monkeys--chimps eat other monkeys to get rid of their wild instinctual desires for wild, fresh, hot, bloody sweet little monkey meat occasionally then they get it out of their system and go back to eating nuts, berries, and tree leaves.

So I started getting into this definition of Structuralism by Peter Caws and it got more and more involved and especially fascinating for an autodidactic like me. I understand structures and structures of systems and system functioning--I learned some of it in Urban Sociology, in Cultural Anthropology, in Race and Race Relations, and in reading the works of French Sociologist Emile Durkheim, who was very interested in the role of languages in society. Sociology you know was invented by a Frenchman, Auguste Comte, who based his thinking on two universal laws, one "The Law of 3 Phases": 1) the Theological 2) the Metaphysical, and 3) the Scientific (the Positive Phase). [Comte declared himself a Positivist and Positivism a religion and himself "the Pope of Positivism."] His other universal law was the Encylopedic Law, or his word for it, physique sociale (social physics). After a Belgian thinker started calling his work physique sociale, too, Comte changed his science to sociologie. Comte loved inventing words (neologism) and by taking the Latin for "friend" (socius) and the Greek for "word" (logos) and he came up with Sociology.

Comte also invented the word "altruism," now a branch of Sociology started by Pitrim Sorokin at Harvard.

And what Sociology is is a systematic and hierarchical classification of all science; thus, Sociology, according to the Pope of Positivism, is the greatest of all sciences because through combining all sciences it leads to social evolution and social progress which leads to THE POSITIVE STATE, what Sociologist Karl Mannheim later wrote about in his great book, Ideology and Utopia (1936) while Mannheim was on the run with Hitler bearing down on him, moving to London where another phase of his thinking evolved.

One road I see coming out of the Utopia of Sociology is the road leading to Structuralism. Wow, systems and system functionings are all important to encyclopedists, which is what these "doctors" are--observers, writing down every aspect of a structure, starting with its whole and deevolving back through its structures within structures and the functioning systems within those structures--or that big structure [Comte used Sociology to explain society in France before and after the Revolution--its theological structure; its metaphysical or humanitarian structure, and its scientific structure--the structural ironworks of that which should have led to great positive feelings in France after the Napoleonic era. And another all-important character in this story is Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote an essay called Essay of the Origin of Languages --Structuralism began with this essay and that led to the science of Linguistics that started with the Western rediscovery of Sanskrit in the 19th Century, using it to trace the origins of their language, the Indo-European language. Through what they called the "diachronic" they studied the evolution of a language; and through what they called the "synchronic" they observed the systemic theory of language. And then here comes Semiotics. Symbols. Hand gestures. Margaret Mead being fed a bunch of bullshit by some Samoans. The Golden Bough becoming a very important book in all these folks's repertoire--especially us Jungian Sociologists who see everything humans do as based on myth and superstitions and codes--protections from the evils of the unknown, including those people speaking languages that are unknown, that have to be interpreted through hand signs, or combining hand signs and sounds--I've noticed people hem and haw and giggle at things the same whatever the language they are speaking.

Fascinating isn't it? [I recall Jerry Colona when I write that--"Fascinating, isn't it." One of the most unusual and brilliant crazy men of the stage of induced laughter--he had a quaint way of cracking your ass up.] But learning is so much fun. I mean Structuralism is too big a subject for me to be becoming an expert in this late in my autodidactic existence, but, hell, it's fun to try and grasp their concepts, concretely or otherwise.

Besides, I know one of the world's great linguists personally; one of the most brilliant guys I've ever known; but I am one who likes hanging around people who are more brilliant than I think I am. It's like when I played golf, an old pro, Billy Maxwell, whose father started my hometown municipal golf course, and he went to my alma mater, told me, "Hey, kid, get out there and play with your friend, C.C.; he's the best damn golfer I've seen out here; you play with him all the time, you have a tendency to strive and beat him and that makes you play above your skills because you're having to learn to shoot better than him as you play him; the more you play him, the better you'll get, unless you're a natural phenom--which you're not, by the way." I took his advice and entered a semi-pro tournament over in the bald-ass plains town of Sweetwater, Texas, and I was paired with Charles Coody, who went on to become a major player on the PGA tour; and in order to play with this guy and not look like a fool, I used a two iron off my tees that day and for the first time in my golf playing adventure, I hit every fairway with my drives, and though I was 30 or 40 yards behind Coody, I still managed to get to every green in regulation, though there's where I fell apart; on the greens; I couldn't putt for shit. At the end of the match, Coody shot a 69, set the course record, and went on to win the tournament. I shot an 84, the best score I had ever posted in match play--in fact, it was the best golf I had played to then. Coody even congratulated me by popping me a cold can of beer out of his golf bag as we walked back to the clubhouse to check and sign our scorecards. I missed the cut by 2 strokes and was eliminated from the tournament, but hell, it was a day I shot like a pro because I was playing with a real pro.

Ferdinand de Saussure compares "structuralism" to a game of chess. Really exciting thinking.

I still really do not understand Structuralism, but at least I'm very acutely aware of it now; let's see if I delve into it deeper.

My Own Reality Show Idea
How about a "Battle of the Gods"? You know, have the most powerful witch doctors from all the voodoo religions (and that's all of them) go mano y mano against each other. Like American Idol but with shaman and Holy Rollers competing to bring down their gods to do battle on stage. You know, have a Santa Ria ritual--kill some chickens and spray the blood and feathers in curse against the demons present in the teevee studio. Wow. I'd love to see Baal and Jehovah go at it again in a reconstruction of Elijah and the High Priest of Baal battle of the gods in the Christian's Old Testament (or Ye Olde Testament to be more King James about it)--with the pillars of fire zooming down, and the burning wheels coming out of the sky--"Sweet low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home...." Dizzy ended one of his versions of "Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot," with the shave-and-a-haircut tag of "Tender-leaf tea...." A brand of real tea, but what we old potheads called marijuana--Tea and good Tea was Tenderleaf Tea.

Roll me a mezzroll, Mezz. [Mezz Mezzrow wrote Really the Blues, a book of total bullshit but one of the most important linguistics studies ever written. "How's 'bout a muggles, Mezz?" I love that book.]

for The Daily Growler


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