What I’ve Learned Bringing Kendrick Lamar into my Classroom

When Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize today, I think more than a few people probably dismissed it as somehow the committee trying to be trendy but that the award itself is undeserved.  They’re wrong.  For me, the question is not whether he deserved it, but why it had to wait until 2016’s DAMN, when 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly is, from where I sit, the true masterpiece (admittedly, I sit somewhere pretty lacking in hip-hop knowledge).

A few years ago I was at the AP grading in Kansas City.  I was talking with a guy whose name I’ve forgotten – he was a grad student (most of the most interesting people to talk to  at the AP grading – to me anyway – are on the college side).  Sort of half white hipster, half white stoner from a mountain state.  I was talking his ear off either the unit in my AP class about code-switching, race and language policy.  Because I’m really proud of that unit so I tend to talk people’s ears off about it.

Anyway somehow he gets a word in and says “you should listen to Kendrick Lamar.  To Pimp a Butterfly.  It’s like Dubliners, but in Compton.”

Now he barely knew me, and I hadn’t even yet talked his ear off about James Joyce yet (another subject I’ll hold forth on if you don’t stop me).  But when he put it like that, since either Dubliners or Ulysses is my favorite book in the English language, it left an impression.  He also told me there was a kind of radical etymology of the n-word offered in between tracks, and that I should make to listen to the whole thing, not just the popular songs.

I made a mental note, and later in the summer, got to the album.  To be honest, the first time I listened, I had trouble.  I grew up listening to punk, post-punk and grunge.  There are a lot of ways that music is confrontational and challenging to its audience, but something that’s almost entirely absent from all of it is sex.  The Clash may actually never speak to it.  Nor REM, Sonic Youth or Nirvana.  The Pixies or the Ramones?  Occasionally.  So when I heard the opening moments of “Wesley’s Theory,” the first track on To Pimp a Butterfly, specifically the line “at first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck,” it felt uncomfortable and embarrassing to hear through my headphones.  Even the album’s title seemed to rest on a sexual metaphor that felt somehow too intimate.  Later on when I listened to “For Free,” the second track, the refrain “this dick ain’t free” also didn’t sit well.

But – As I made my way through the album, past those opening tracks, something else opened up.  I’m not sure what happened to that initial discomfort, something I’ve come to see as a kind of armor placed at the outset to deter people like me, but I listened through.  The middle tracks felt less uncomfortable but I didn’t quite hear the point.

Now I very specifically remember getting off the red line at Roosevelt, walking to get my son from daycare, when I was listening to “The Blacker the Berry,” almost at the end (track 13).

There was something absolutely electrifying about this track.  The sample itself has a chilling, minor-key terror behind it, and “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” felt like a pretty new idea in the world – a daring and odd way to start a song.  When I came to the final climactic moment –

So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a n— blacker than me?

I was actually in tears.  The amount of emotional energy – real, intense, sincerely rendered, vulnerable pain – that was compressed into that final turn – it overwhelmed me.  It sat with me.  It entered a level of my consciousness from which it hasn’t really receded.

Here, I thought, okay.  This is what that nameless guy back in Kansas City wanted me to hear.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I’m at a new job, working at a school I’ve been hired to but only barely understand.  I’m making small talk with one of my classes and I say “What should I listen to?”  I remember one kid – call him Alan (all names are changed) – he was a very serious-minded Latino kid who whipped out his phone and started scrolling through playlists he had assembled.  He mentions Kendrick, and he says “To Pimp a Butterfly?  You have to listen to ‘Mortal Man.’  That’s where he explains all of it, like really breaks it down.”  One of the things I liked about my new school almost right away is that kids seem ready to have conversations like this with me for whatever reason.  A few other kids in the class perk up and offer their opinions about it.  That year a big music question on a lot of their minds, I learned right then, was “J Cole or Kendrick?”  Another student, Jameson, a black kid who had rarely spoken before that in class, said he thought both were all right, it just depended if you were feeling more chill (J Cole) or more hyped up (Kendrick).  Still a third (JD) – more outspoken than the other two, also black, said “what you really want to hear is Kendrick on Good Kid/MA.A.D City.  ‘The Art of Peer Pressure.'”

I file all of this away, and spend a lot more time riding home on the el, looking out the window, watching the north side drift by (especially when I can snag a front-facing seat on the purple line) and listening intently to To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that’s more than 75 minutes, thus actually too long for me to finish on my commute.  I do things like take a longer walk home so I can finish it.  Over the span of a few weeks, I gradually absorb it – come to memorize lyrics, listen hard enough to hear them when they’re harder to make out because of the speed or the production— one day it dawns on me that that originally awkward line “at first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck” is sexual, yes, placing this into the genre of a spiteful breakup song – but also have recognized it’s introducing an extended metaphor: “you” becomes the United States, “love” is about patriotism and the internalized vision of unity he has held, and “now I just wanna fuck” means “I’m done with all the romanticized image of this country, my place in it and what it is supposed to mean for me – now I just want to get paid.”  There are hundreds of other references to US history, especially black history, laced throughout the album’s 16 tracks.  “This dick ain’t free” becomes not just a sly put-down of a nagging, materialistic girlfriend, but a protest about the exploitation of the black body through the history of the United States, made clear by that song’s masterful conclusion, a spoken-word explosion that never fails to make at least one of my students jump out of their seat the first time they hear it.  Its final rhyming pair, a conclusive couplet worthy of anything you will find in Shakespeare, is stark in its implications:

Oh America you bad bitch

I picked cotton that made you rich

Now this dick ain’t free.

Once you start to hear that, meaning proliferates and doubles back on itself.  Allusions unfurl.  Motifs suggest multiple, hybrid and still internally consistent interpretations.  When you step back to read the album’s hundreds of lines, parse them, unpack their references, puns, metaphors, repetitions— you get to a point where you realize you can’t hold it all, it’s too big to comprehend in that way.  I’ve only ever really experienced that – and the emotional punch that would seem to be the opposite of complexity – in one other context, and, just like my stoner-hipster conversational friend had said – it was when reading Joyce, especially Ulysses.  And I don’t just mean that as a comparison that suggests they’re both “complex”– they are — but also that the nature of their complexities is very similar, and pointed towards a similar end.

Both Lamar and Joyce integrate “high” and “low” culture in a dizzying, overloaded, hyper-allusive and entirely idiosyncratic whole. The residue of motif, imagery, allusion, pun, and the like are probably impossible to grasp all at once, I can only really get different senses of coherence each time I listen. And both Joyce and Lamar intend the comprehensive indictment of a system, one which, as Lamar puts it, is “based on apartheid and discrimination.” Joyce’s targets are the British empire and Catholicism, mutually reinforcing powers that have destroyed his hundreds of thousands of his countrymen’s lives; Lamar’s are the United States’ scheme of racism, white supremacy, capitalism and all the religious and cultural manifestations of those huge forces, which have done the same.  Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say “I am the servant of two masters” (i.e., the pope and the king and all they represent). When Kendrick says “Oh America you bad bitch/I picked cotton that made you rich” he has something just as grand and seemingly indestructible in his sights. Both authors hold the whole system in view the whole time, and explore the subjective experience of living within it, and somehow use the latter to interrogate the former, sifted through the filter of a consumer culture whose signs and significations are both maddeningly shallow and also pregnant with critical possibility.

If you think I’m reading too much into this: I keep coming back to this passage from “Ab-Souls Outro” on Lamar’s earlier Section.80:

“See a lot of ya’ll don’t understand Kendrick Lamar
Because you wonder how I could talk about money
Hoes, clothes, god and history all in the same sentence
You know what all the things have in common
Only half of the truth, if you tell it
See I’ve spent twenty three years on the earth searching for answers
Til’ one day I realized I had to come up with my own
I’m not on the outside looking in
I’m not on the inside looking out
I’m in the dead fucking center, looking around
You’ve ever seen a newborn baby kill a grown man
That’s an analogy for the way the world make me react
My innocence been dead
So the next time I talk about money, hoes, clothes, god and history all in the same sentence
Just know I meant it, and you felt it
Because you too are searching for answers
I’m not the next pop star
I’m not the next socially aware rapper
I am a human motherfucking being, over dope ass instrumentation
Kendrick Lamar” (Ab-Souls Outro, on Section.80).

or more minimalistically, this:

“the mind of a literate writer but I did it
in fact you admitted it once I submitted it
wrapped in plastic (“Momma” on To Pimp a Butterfly).

The Joyce/Lamar parallel goes much deeper I think – obscenity, the blending of the sacred and the profane, the materialism, the density, apparent commercialism and finally both of their initially sexualized veneers – but I won’t belabor the point now.

In that English class, we were slated to read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a text I had read and taught many times.  But as I had listened so many times to To Pimp a Butterfly, this sense emerged that both of these were texts of liberation, where a self-assured yet vulnerable black male voice told his story of his emergence from slavery to freedom.  So while we were reading Douglass, we listened to one song each day until we were done.

I asked the students to do something simple and experimental – every day, we’d read a part of Douglass, and listen to a song from To Pimp a Butterfly, and I’d ask students to write down a quotation from each, and draw some kind of a connection.  Any kind.  I had no agenda except the vague teacherly intuition that these sources were telling a similar story.

What they came up with was powerful in its imperfection.  They did not offer coherent theses, but instead pulled strings in both texts to cinch them together.  A very particular strain I remember growing out of one girl’s ideas (call her Janet).  Janet had spoken very frequently before the class about the idea that black people couldn’t experience depression, even though she, as a black girl, did.  And hear she found, in both of these texts, both men forthrightly acknowledging their depression.  Others discovered a pattern of religious belief (and critique of false religion) shared across the 150 years that separated these texts.  The nontraditional way in which each claimed to have acquired their learning was a big trend.  Hypocrisy was a shared theme.  Every day it was something oblique but real.

Since then I’ve tried to treat the album as its own thing, not ancillary to Frederick Douglass, and we’ve come to explore themes through the lens of the documentary 13th.  And as I’ve worked with now three sets of students going through this process, this is (in extreme summary) what I’ve made of this album.  Though I’ve written a ton already, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Here’s my findings in one paragraph:

The multi-layered “Wesley’s Theory” opens the album and sets forth several hugely resonant motifs through the lens of the record industry’s desire to commodify Lamar’s abilities.  “For Free?” expands upon the historically gendered basis of that commodification, rooting it in slavery.  “King Kunta” advances the first glimmer of the solution/resistant stance the end of the album will cash in on – it’s about African ancestry  (i.e., Kunta Kinte, not Toby) and experience deployed as a counter-narrative to “Uncle Sam.”  Tracks 4-10 explore the first-person experience of Kendrick’s life in much more depth, and they are woven together by a cumulative tale, a few lines of which are revealed in each retelling. – “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence…” – it eventually swells to a full poem.  Each reveal between songs expands the themes introduced on tracks 1-3 and connects them to Lamar’s personal experience.  Tracks 11-16 set forth a slate of increasingly radical indictments that imply alternatives, exploring selfishness by returning to Africa on “How Much a Dollar Cost,” examining colorism’s origins in the slavery period on “Complexion”, internalized forms of white supremacy on “The Blacker the Berry,” and then finally the self-affirmation of “i” (which has that fascinating coda about the n-word, itself a kind digressive appendix that recreates the argument of the album as a whole in an oblique context).  “Mortal Man,” indeed does, as Alan said to me 3 years ago, break it all down, using the language of a kind of double eulogy for Nelson Mandela and Tupac Shakur, one that expounds a final plea for Kendrick’s audience to learn from history, “unite and stop the enemy from killing us.”

I can’t do justice to the complexity of all of that in one paragraph but that’s my best try, and I’ve barely even delved into the poetics of it at the line level, but that’s my best try for a Tuesday night.

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7 Responses to What I’ve Learned Bringing Kendrick Lamar into my Classroom

  1. Alice Neve says:

    Thanks, Josh. I am working to absorb your writing this morning. I know much less of what you are beginning to understand. I am going to keep my ears open when I hear this music, rather than shut it down. Teach.

  2. Ron Maimon says:

    There’s one big difference between Joyce and Lamar— nationalism and collective identity. Joyce was writing to express a sense of Irish nationalism, a separatist nationalism standing apart from Great British Unionism, Catholic in religion, but secular and socialist in manifestation. The Irish famine is central in this, also Parnell and Irish independence. He wants to be for Ireland what Shakespeare was for England— the national literature. He succeeded. He’s the Irish national poet.

    Kendrick Lamar has no nationalist sense, or any meaningful collective sense. He isn’t writing with a separatist agenda, or against American ideas of individual property accumulation. His grievances reflect his own separate individuality, “they won’t let me get ahead”. Which makes his such an American that he’s more American than most Americans.

    Unlike Kendrick Lamar, the Wu Tang Clan is all about collective allegiance, namely allegiance to “The Wu”! This imagined Wu nation is funny like Joyce in the Wake is funny. You can’t hurt the Wu, they come together like Voltron. They’ll karate kung fu you, and their lyrics are actually Joycean.

    Regarding sex in the Clash, in “Should I Stay or Should I go”, staying means fucking, sorry to break the news. R.E.M talks vaguely about ambiguously gay sex constantly, e.g. Pretty Persuasion. It’s gay half the time, so it’s hidden. Every other song by Sonic Youth is about fucking, e.g. Dirty Boots, Drunken Butterfly,Tuff Gnarl, On The Strip, Kissability, etc. And Nirvana’s big hit “Rape me” is well, “Rape me!” Rap is a lot tamer about sex, where sex is just a status symbol, it’s not the whole point, like in rock.

    Kendrick Lamar is not really like Joyce. Joyce is a bolshevicki hero representing British downtrodden Irish, like Einstein for European downtrodden Jews. Lamar is more like that guy who wrote “Infinite Jest”, whatsisname, the one who wanted to be a tennis player, which is the individualist nonsense, so he smoked a ton of pot, imagined a toxic waste America with Trump president in his toxic waste brain, then killed himself. Kendrick Foster Wallamarce. Actually Lamar is a little better, but just because he’s black.

  3. Josh says:

    Okay same deal, I’m going to go bit by bit. Thanks for the engagement even though we disagree. I look forward to hearing your replies to mind.

    “Joyce was writing to express a sense of Irish nationalism, a separatist nationalism standing apart from Great British Unionism, Catholic in religion, but secular and socialist in manifestation. The Irish famine is central in this, also Parnell and Irish independence. He wants to be for Ireland what Shakespeare was for England— the national literature. He succeeded. He’s the Irish national poet.”

    How closely have you studied Joyce? Because he very explicitly rejects Irish nationalism in several ways. He was skeptical about the discourse of purity that surrounded its embrace of Celtic mythology, language, sports, etc. We can see this lots of places but the opening of Ulysses – where the British anthropologist Haines, who seems enamored with this kind of nationalism – is made to look like a fool for thinking the milkmaid will speak Gaelic. Maybe a clearer example is the “Cyclops” chapter, where the Irish Nationalist “Citizen” character is portrayed to be as an ignorant, blathering fool, and Bloom, the non-Irish, Jewish protagonist, tells him off.

    As for Joyce being the “Irish national poet,” or wanting to be – he returned to Ireland about 5 days after he was 22, and left immediately after. No one wanted to publish his books there until it became commercial profitable to embrace his identity in a way that he criticized. He was cosmopolitan and pretty much post-nationalist in a lot of ways. He explores that cosmopolitanism though his knowledge of Irish culture and history, because it provided him with such a vivid way to demonstrate the traps of nationalism and the myth of national or religious purity.

    I agree Joyce had socialistic impulses, and so does Lamar. More on that below.

    “Kendrick Lamar has no nationalist sense, or any meaningful collective sense. He isn’t writing with a separatist agenda, or against American ideas of individual property accumulation. His grievances reflect his own separate individuality, ‘they won’t let me get ahead’. Which makes his such an American that he’s more American than most Americans.”

    I agree Lamar is not nationalistic, but like I just said, I don’t think Joyce is either. There is a separatism underlying the shifting perspective that we see on To Pimp a Butterfly. The start of the album pretty unambiguously rejects Americanism in the form of “Uncle Sam” on “For Free?’, and moves towards an embrace of something Afrocentric (hence Nelson Mandela and Tupac on the final track).

    At the outset of his album the grievances to seem personal, but by the end they have become collective. That’s one of the really powerful aspects of the album – things broaden slowly, and most dramatically on “How Much a Dollar Cost” where he is confronted with his own selfishness by a beggar in South Africa. He is deeply convicted by his own discourse, and puts this in biblical terms, drawing on the Genesis trope of a hero meeting God in the guise of a poor stranger.

    I’ll take your word about the Wu Tang Clan, whose stuff I don’t know so well. I think the way Lamar is Joycean was demonstrated in my initial post’s discussion of lyrics and his overall project as announced on Section.80. Without quoting specific lyrics it’s hard to know why you’re so sure he’s not. It’s the integration of the sacred and the profane I’m most seeing as the parallel. Also the integration of the high-literary with the vernacular. Obviously Lamar and Joyce are not the only two artists who ever tried that, but they both are.

    “Regarding sex in the Clash, in ‘Should I Stay or Should I go’, staying means fucking, sorry to break the news.” Not sure what the point of your sarcastic tone is here. I’m not arguing these artists don’t have sexuality present, I’m arguing it’s usually innuendo, not explicit. I agree Nirvana gets closer. I get that sexuality underlies a lot of rock music. I just think it’s present in a much different way in hip-hop, one that makes it a tougher sell for white audience often. That’s all I was trying to say.

    “Kendrick Lamar is not really like Joyce. Joyce is a bolshevicki hero representing British downtrodden Irish, like Einstein for European downtrodden Jews. Lamar is more like that guy who wrote “Infinite Jest”, whatsisname, the one who wanted to be a tennis player, which is the individualist nonsense, so he smoked a ton of pot, imagined a toxic waste America with Trump president in his toxic waste brain, then killed himself. Kendrick Foster Wallamarce. Actually Lamar is a little better, but just because he’s black.”

    I think David Foster Wallace is brilliant, and I read every word of _Infinite Jest_ (did you?) but that book and anything Lamar has produced are drastically different. There is nothing really postmodern about Lamar. ‘Mortal Man” offers a kind of resolution that the protagonists of Infinite Jest getting high and listening to Wings recordings with Linda McCartney vocals turned up obviously doesnt – the endings (and arcs) of these two texts couldn’t be more different. They do share a willingness to write openly about depression I guess? Yes, Infinite Jest is about individualism, but never really sets it aside or even sees it as a problem that could be deconstructed. I don’t know why you’re being so sarcastic about Wallace – there’s a lot there you might like, and your summary of him sounds kind of second-hand.

    Actually a lot of your post sounds kind of second-hand – like you’re expressing an opinion about texts but not really engaging with them. So I do want to hear your replies and I imagine you disagree with me, but I’m hoping you can cite some specific examples of lyrics, characters, etc, rather than sweeping generalities. Let’s not talk about the Cliffs Notes, let’s talk about the things themselves.

  4. Ron Maimon says:

    Whoa, whoa! You responded. I wrote that just to vent my thoughts, not imagining you would publish it, let alone respond!

    Yeah, I agree, Joyce hated dumb stupid nationalism, because he was a socialist. He didn’t imagine that everyone in Ireland would speak Irish (but I think he would be surprised at how many of them do now!) Einstein hated that kind of nationalism also in the exact same way. All socialists do, myself included. But Einstein still went to Palestine and set up the Jewish University in Jerusalem, and supported the nationalistic aspirations of Jews. It’s the same with Joyce. He’s a socialist type person who wants to help his people rise up, in the socialist sense of acquiring a strong voice, not in the nationalist sense of militarily oppressing others, or all wearing the same uniform.

    The thing is, Joyce has a uniquely Irish voice, and a uniquely Irish perspective, and his Wake can only be read in an Irish accent if you want to understand what he’s saying! He’s so Irish, it makes total sense. And he came at the exact right time to become the Irish national literature, after a century where the Irish were seen as British vermin, just as Einstein came at the exact right time to be a Jewish icon after a century where Jews in Europe were seen as vermin. American blacks are not quite vermin to Americans anymore, but they used to be.

    I read half of Infinite Jest, because I got bored with it, I didn’t like the faux black-girl bit in the middle with the black girl having terrible things happen to her, or whatever it was, it was totally inauthentic. Also the bookstore closed, and I wasn’t getting into the spy-vs-spy stuff with stubble-guy in the dress. The part where the guy chokes on his snot was pretty good, that was okay. The tennis stuff was just so individualist and stupid, and the guy holing himself up in his room to smoke pot for three days was so obviously what this author did. It’s the American version of “genius”, a rich white guy who can’t think because his brain is pickled by drugs. I got sick of it. I got sick of America also, at about the same time. Still am sick of America, but I might finish Infinite Jest. It wasn’t the worst book I ever read.

    I didn’t like it because it looked like an American bourgeois immitation of great European writers. Sort of like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Phony rich-guy problems and phony rich-guy witing, except now with drugs. The only American who could immitate Europeans successfully was Bukowski, because he lived a life of poverty, genuinely understood socialism and fascism, not just the American caricatures of these, and didn’t listen to any music from America, only 19th century European classical stuff. It shows in his writing, it’s all baroque and inventive like European writing of the early half of the 20th century.

    My only point regarding sex in rap music is that there’s a crapload less of it there than in white music, it’s just said in ghetto talk, so you notice it and it gets on your nerves. I am a huge fan of the Wu, and I kinda like Kendrick Lamar, but not really, because he isn’t one of those bolsheviki socialist types. Neither is the Wu, but they’re funny enough and inventive enough that they get a pass from me. There’s also the “Insane Clown Posse” who do a working class version of rap, and they’re totally white! But they invented a genre of “horror rap”, and they are hilarious and inventive. They are simply working class.

    If you want to know who’s worth reading, there’s a simple rule: are they working class? Do they live in squalor and filth on the margins of society? Yes? Worth reading. No? Bourgeois crap. Since literatuh is the domahain of the wehalthy ehleet, you get an obvious bias to preserve the bourgeois nonsense.

    I am not a professional critic, and there’s no reason for you to take me seriously. I came here because I was reading book II of the Wake, and you had commentary on it which was pretty good. Your analysis of Book II ch 2 is excellent, it made the contents clear in a way no other commentary has.

    But I disagree with your idea that Hosty is a stand-in for Shem, and also that the 29 girls in chapter 1 are all Issy representatives. Hosty is Hosty, he’s his own character, and the girls in chapter 2 are like a school-class of girls with Issy just one of them. They are likened to flowers. Also, in chapter 2, the two kids are having a mock sword-fight, so that’s why they say “arrest him!” Shaun wins the mock sword-fight. There is also imagery of an actual play, with all that, going on simultaneously. Also, it’s really not that incestuous, it’s just an undertone, the critics overemphasize the sex aspects, because anything cryptic turns the mind dirty.

    I couldn’t quite get a handle on Book II ch 3 very well, that’s as far as I got. There’s a Norwegian captain of some kind, and sailing people, but I don’t go around identifying all the characters with archetypes or anything like that, I read it as straightforwardly as possible. It’s already got all the symbolism sprawled out all over it, the hard part is teasing out the straightforward parts, like “who is speaking to whom?” and “where the heck are they?” and “should this ‘a’ be pronounced long or short?”, and “what common phrase is this supposed to be?” etc. It’s not very erudite, it’s like kids writing. A ridiculous prodigy.

  5. Josh says:

    I’m glad to know someone’s reading my Finnegans Wake posts. To be honest I don’t remember the details enough to argue with you right now. I think I read it with a bit of a commitment to trying to reduce almost all the characters to one of the archetypal ones – or if not reduce at least see as resonant with: HCE, ALP, Shem, Shaun, Issy. If you push that even harder you can probably compress them down to HCE and ALP, or even just ALP.

    For me, which characters are or are not their “own characters” actually becomes a less answerable question. That’s why I think it’s important to think about “character” in a different way when reading the Wake – hence its etymology – a “stamp,” like the way we would speak about the character of a fabric. Reading the Wake is not about how many subjective entities exist (for me anyway) but more about how many different resonant tones or tone-clusters there are. Hosty is a balladeer – he has that in common with Shem. That’s really all I meant by that I think.

    I think II.3 is the single murkiest one in the book. Since I wrote that set of posts I actually completed a MA thesis that focused on that chapter. At this point I think it’s the heart of the book, and the place where all the “characters” are present, at a pub, with a television on in the background, and HCE is narrating the story of Kerrse the Tailor and the Norwegian Captain, while the patrons are interrupting him and the television is interrupting him, and eventually his story actually interrupts the television advertisements, and then the patrons all get drunk and leave. That’s my overall schema for reading it at this point.

    I can see what you’re saying about DFW – he definitely has a blind spot around issues of race, and so it’s not surprising that character would seem inauthentic. He’s got this essay called “Authority and American Usage” which I think is a great essay, except there’s this part in the middle where he describes being called out by a black student of his for insisting upon SAE vis-a-vis black English, and he defends himself in a sort of awkward, less than persuasive way. In a lot of ways I’d say he’s more conservative than a lot of his readers might want him to be. I think he’d be okay with that (even if I’m not).

    For what it’s worth I’ve read interviews where Wallace insists very little of IJ is autobiographical, and he gets confused about why people need to see it that way. He says the deepest addiction he ever had was to television.

  6. Ron Maimon says:

    I don’t see IJ as autobiographical, just the marijuana obsession, and the three day hash orgy in that closed room. It sounds like something he did. If you see interviews, sounds like he suffers from that horrible pot-damage you see in a lot of American would-be intellectuals. I hate marijuana like Bukowski hated marijuana, and all the American ‘intellectuals’ smoke that infernal stuff, and that stuff rots your brain, makes you forget about mathematics and precision and structure, and eventually turns you conservative, which is what happens when you can no longer think. Even the greatest most inventive geniuses like Louis Armstrong or someone, all their brains turn to mush.

    I am pretty sure the newfangled device they are installing in book 2 ch3, with it’s coily-coiled magneto-gizmometers, and so on, is some kind of radio. It’s definitely a wireless device, and it talks, but don’t know if you can look at it. I know there’s a bit about television in book 1 (even though it had barely been invented), but I am not sure how “sci-fi” this thing is to imagine a television at an inn/tavern in 1929. I am not sure though, I couldn’t figure out whether there’s a picture attached! I mean, I can’t even figure out whose pants got thrown into the fire! Someones pants, someone’s coat, but WHOSE PANTS?! WHOSE?? Hump’s pants? The Norwegian Captain’s pants? Is the Norwegian Captain Humphrey’s imagined alter-ego? What got stolen by the tailor when he left? Did the tailor steal the pants? These are the difficult pressing questions of the Wake! The archetypes and allusions are totally trivial, they’re spelled out in detail. I guess that’s why all the commentary focuses on archetypes and allusions, not on “whose pants”. Normally, you can figure the second more easily than the first.

  7. Ron Maimon says:

    Whoa! That radio from the first half of the chapter (there’s a reference to radio static, a then-current Irish radio station, they’re listening to radio-stuff, there’s all these ear things at the start, it picks up stray sounds from electric devices) turns into a no-doubt-about-it for-sure television later! There’s a vague reference to the customers being “televisioned” or something, and then comes the “billboard bombardment screen” where Butt and Taff end up projected, in scanlines, on the “taut guranium satin”: I assume that’s the front fabric of 1920s radios transmuting into the Baird-style television. I hadn’t read that part when I wrote that previous comment (it took me a HELL OF A LOT more than three hours to read this! More like 3 pages an hour). Also, according to Wiki, it seems BBC were broadcasting Baird television starting in something like 1929 until 1937! So it’s not anachronistic. My bad. But I am pretty sure it’s just an ordinary 1920s radio at the start of the chapter, it morphs into a TV later. I could be wrong, but I didn’t see any television in the first part, only for sure after Butt and Taff.

    Also, “acey deucey” means riding horse with one stirrup higher than the other (according to Wiki), I think that shows up in the Kersse horse-racing bit, as horsey-dorksey and tersey-kersse, it’s not int he notes. It’s a weird sound-alike reference (I never heard of acey-deucey in this context before).

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