Foreword | October 30, 2018
Foreword: Practical Living
Trends in international politics toward right-wing nationalism, racism in endlessly renewing guises, and the pursuit of material short-term gain regardless of what it does to the earth’s environment and national budgets: all these things make me wonder how well we remember our history beyond last year or even last month. The end of World War I led to an utterly changed, financially crippled world; World War II resulted in the physical destruction of much of Europe and between fifty and eighty million dead, only to be followed by a series of cold and hot wars arising partly from long-misguided imperial assumptions. This nation now has a president who among other things denies climate change, while the largest wildfire in California history burns along with sixteen others and the highest mountain in Sweden just lost its stature because it has melted so much this year.
Current politics and culture wars are surely a passing phase, like the reign of the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy throws a bucket of water on her, the witch will surely melt. Surely. However, given how little we appear to remember about history, one wonders if we will have to go through some cataclysm before we go for our buckets.
A couple of years ago, I mentioned in another foreword that Marc Bloch and the Annales historians were among the most notable schools of history of the last century. Bloch and Lucien Febvre, with August Comte, turned away from political and religious history—kings and queens and national conflicts—toward what might be called “human” history. They believed that the most useful historiography was detailed and empirical in its approach and that it tried to document and describe what “real” people like farmers and tradespeople knew and did at different times and places. They paid a great deal of attention to localities and the surprising differences between them, as well as to statistical information, with an emphasis on social changes over a broad span of time.
One of the inferences of this approach was that the two or three subjects that previous historians had paid the most attention to were perhaps not so all-important. Throughout most of recorded history, few people knew or cared much about leaders, nationalities, or even official religious dogmas. However, they were remarkably aware of local economies and forces, as well as the physical realities that made up their practical, daily lives. Bloch wrote a book about the different uses of the water wheel as one of the most significant developments of the medieval history—more important than many of the wars of the period. The Annales historians attended to life as lived—practical living—and the economic changes that influenced the ways people lived and thought.
Despite their empirical focus, the Annales group did not believe in either simple causes or logical progression. For example, in his book about “the king’s touch,” a king’s presumed ability to cure scrofula by touching sufferers, Bloch argues that collective belief of this sort at times may have had genuine efficacy. A myth or ritual may in some fashion “work.” In his book La lutte pour l’individualisme agraire du XVIIIe siècle, he shows that the agrarian reforms of eighteenth-century France were a failed revolution because of the stubborn persistence of traditional arrangements and hierarchies. Myth was not always meaningless, and political and economic change may have been reactionary and destructive as often as it was progressive and useful. By being among the first historians to look at factual accountings of people’s lives, possessions, and economies, the Annales historians sought to uncover more useful and true descriptions of life as experienced by people across classes and populations.
In this issue of TMR, daily life and practical choices play key roles in everyone’s lives. Ryan Dull’s “General, Unskilled” takes on the gig trend from a comic perspective. Mikey is an ambitious West Coast microtasker who embodies the new economy. He cheerfully tries to build his five-star ratings and clientele by managing day-to-day tasks, never turning down jobs, and studying his customers’ cues to figure out how to keep them happy. The story unfolds in one tense afternoon as Mikey nimbly keeps up his breakneck schedule while dealing with a high-risk delivery job and providing emergency counseling for a client on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Kyle Minor’s “The Secret to Happiness” shows how even when someone seems to have no control over her life, fate can lay down its own agenda. Set in small-town Indiana in an epicenter of the opioid epidemic, the story is a powerful picaresque tale of a young addict whose life is a train wreck of cocaine and heroin use and trading sex for drugs. After she ODs and later escapes from the hospital, she goes through a profound set of changes, ending up working for a pilot needle-exchange program. Eventually she finds stability and purpose in her new life, yet with the constant awareness that “There was always a place she could go, down the street, down the road, across the state line, in basements, in city parks…. always a man with a phone number on a little white piece of paper.”
In “The Last Voyage of the Alice B Toklas,” our previous Jeffrey E. Smith Prize winner Jason Brown returns with another piece set in New England about crusty retired English teacher John Howland and his family. Brown’s story, told by the old man’s fifteen-year-old grandson, marvelously evokes the island setting and the casual friction between locals and the summer colony. What makes “The Last Voyage” most memorable is the sly method by which the grandfather seduces an aspiring novelist into believing his very convincing yarn about one of the writer’s literary idols.
Physician Gulchin Ergun’s memoir “Afternoon with a Corpse” describes the practice of learning human anatomy through dissecting and examining a human cadaver. Ergun asks whether any online course or two-dimensional experience of the body can equal the hands-on learning that occurs through dealing with the physical facts of the body. In the end, she reflects on the altruistic sacrifice of people who donate their bodies so students and researchers can better understand “the exquisite nature of human engineering.” Dawn Davies’s “Arrhythmia” is another medically related memoir. Davies begins mildly, by surveying the range of symbols and associations attached to the word “heart,” before plunging into a tense personal narrative that begins with her middle-of-the night realization that a supposedly benign heart arrhythmia is suddenly out of control. After driving herself to the ER, Davies narrowly misses dying more than once. In a nightmarish corrective surgery, she is forced to remain conscious during the worst of the procedure so the surgeon can accurately locate the part of the heart causing the problem. It’s a medical horror essay reminiscent of Fanny Burney’s “Mastectomy.”
Whatever your feelings about the monarchy of England, Gail Griffin’s poems about Queen Elizabeth I give us an Elizabeth who is bracingly formidable. Assuming the mantle of the English crown in 1558 was a daunting prospect, to say the least, and vastly more so for a woman. Griffin navigates the treacherous straits of Elizabeth’s succession in lyric evocations of the victories and sacrifices such a life entails. John James’s poems show a powerful sense of the inevitability of joining the “empire of the dead.” Not succumbing to lament, however, James’s work instead demonstrates a coming-to-terms with mortality that is both uneasy and freighted with awe. Whether strolling through catacombs, picking his daughter up from school, or fussing with an impulse to record a moment of beauty, the speaker recognizes, even in his enjoyment of pears, his place in the natural cycle. David Bergman’s poems hone in on vital transformations, often through how they are marked or instigated by language itself. Following the distinct figures in each poem reveals to us the sudden and gradual processes that make us whole, or wholly different than we were.
This issue’s Curio Cabinet, “Coco Chanel in Hollywood,” describes the fashion designer’s year of working for Samuel Goldwyn’s studio United Artists. After Goldwyn had courted Chanel for three years, in 1931 she finally gave in, enticed by his million-dollar fee. The money allowed her to keep her Parisian salon employees paid during the Depression. Europe’s most famous couturiere soon discovered that there was a difference between high fashion and costume design. She also found herself in a world where the film industry relied on the profitability of product placement and fashion tie-ins to get through hard times, a practice discovered long before the Internet age.
Kristine Somerville’s art feature, “Extremes: the Power of Scale in Art,” juxtaposes the work of miniature artists with large-scale ones to illustrate the differing emotional and intellectual impact each approach has on the viewer. She highlights fifteen images by six artists to depict a wide range of approaches and aesthetics. Whether they work big or small, the fundamental intention of these artists is to suggest through the simple fact of scale the magic residing in the ordinary.
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