Foreword | December 01, 2005

Contemporary morality, health care and popular psychology at times appear to gang up on us, every day adding to our lists of do’s and don’ts. Overeating, smoking, being physically lazy, drinking more than two glasses of wine, telling jokes that are ethnic, gender or nationality based (other than tasteful ones regarding rich nations), failing to vigorously exercise every day—such things are obviously out. Disciplining children except by means of timeouts, failing to floss our teeth, touching members of the opposite sex in any way except shaking hands, if said persons are employed by, dependent upon, younger or otherwise “inferior”—of course such behavior should also be avoided. We who are trying to be smart, healthy and enlightened probably shouldn’t watch television longer than forty-five minutes every other day or give children too many gender-specific toys. And while we’re at it, we shouldn’t allow family members or friends to lapse into any of the aforementioned behaviors either.

Sometime in the future, the manners, conventions, and even some of the health practices of the early twenty-first century are going to seem as quaint as those of two hundred years ago. This gives me a moment of cheer. If only I could therefore drink six glasses of wine, light up some cigs, declare myself a rebel and enjoy. If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, as much as I sometimes feel that it’s so, most of our real problems aren’t caused by too many rules, too many experts, or even by the accelerating pace of change. History and literature are full of complaining about life having become too busy, distracting and regulated. Our imagined Eden has always been a place that is simpler, freer, more natural and stable, with less work and fewer rules.

Law, economics, health, ethics, government and religion remain in flux and discord, and every generation has more than one authority and institution seemingly growing obsolete before its eyes. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer makes the most fun of the biggest holders of institutional power in his day, church officials, in the characters of a hypocritical prioress, crooked summoner and hedonistic friar, who fuss and fume and try to aggrandize themselves while putting each other down. In his tragedies, one of Shakespeare’s major themes is the testing and failure of authority due to malevolence and also the sheer confusion of life and history. Every period of literature in fact is full of concern about our inability to control change. In the nineteenth century the most drastic alterations were in the economy, and authors from the Romantics through the Modernists shared a deep unease over what seemed like a rampaging, nightmarish industrial and urban world.

For me, some of the most interesting literature addresses the issue of change and shows that by its very nature it sometimes requires us to go out of bounds, say no to standard attitudes and solutions and discover new ones.

In this issue of TMR, Scott Russell Sanders’s radiant autobiographical essay “The Alphabet of Splendor” does exactly that. He describes his childhood in what some might consider a limited and limiting setting—the rural postwar South—yet for him it is a world of wonder. In her essay “Ingo Prefers Not To,” Melanie Hammer portrays her struggle with a daughter who—despite intellectual interests, great schools and teachers, real talents and intelligence, as well as repeated intervention from her parents and counselors—refuses to finish the schoolwork necessary to graduate from high school. It is an account of how orthodox current wisdom may not provide a solution. In her deeply moving “Imagination and Grace,” Wendy Wacker tells of a darker situation—loving a brother who is a junkie—in which the conventional answers simply don’t work for her.

Our talk with A. M. Homes reveals a novelist who tests boundaries and on occasion has been criticized for it. Her novel The End of Alice concerns a pedophile and a young girl who is attracted to him. For writing it she was introduced on Wisconsin Public Radio as the author of “the worst book of the year.” In both her writing and her TMR conversation about it, Homes doesn’t try to be harmless and nice but to make people think; this interview with her is the best I’ve read.

This issue’s feature on the costume designs of Leon Bakst, “In Praise of Excess,” spotlights the early twentieth-century Russian costume designer whose extravagant, iconoclastic work ran counter to art and ballet at the time—and in doing so revitalized a dance tradition that had grown stale.

All three of this issue’s poets memorialize the passing of a time. In one of Lynn Chandhok’s poems, a street in Brooklyn takes the speaker “back to Delhi’s cramped bazaars.” For Ciaran Berry, an eye exam inspires him to remember a scene from his Irish childhood. R. T. Smith’s dramatic poems reimagine the world of John Wilkes Booth through his relationship with the women in his life.

Our fiction includes “The Appearance of a Hero,” in which Peter Levine depicts the experience and loss of a magical interlude in a young man’s life. John Clayton’s “Voices” tells of a psychologist who goes over the line, breaking the rules of counseling in an effort to help a suicidal woman of a different race and class. Susan Perabo’s “Treasure” shows how quickly even the most dramatic incident can sometimes be transformed by our own set of needs, while Alex Mindt’s “Karrooo” describes a daughter willing to violate the rules of family relationships in caring for her father.

In every piece, these authors show that the most thoughtful response may take us out of bounds. The present is a thicket of transformation, new threats, mistaken experts and old systems being superseded or simply failing. What to do about it? Cross the line, these authors say. Sometimes you don’t have a choice.

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