Monthly Archives: April 2001

A Tapestry of Metaphor


In this essay I speculate on a possible relationship between “word,” “writing,” “weaving,” and “work.” While the essay is speculative in its etymology, I think it does show a definite intertwining of the histories of metaphors that underpin the changes in meaning we see from Indo-European, Greek, and Latin, into English. Because of limited space, my investigation into the histories of these words is of need cursory. My intent here is to entertain and provoke the reader’s own imaginative speculations, not to create a definitive history or an airtight case. Continue reading

Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction

Charles Baxter: Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction
Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf Press, 1997. $15.00 paper (ISBN 1-55597-270-5), 245 pages.

Reviewed by Brian Charles Clark

burning-down-house-baxterNovelist, short-story writer, self-described former poet, and creative writing teacher Charles Baxter has a keen eye and a strong heart for detail. In Burning Down the House he wrestles with “the imagination’s grip on daily life and how one lives in the pressure of that grip.” Because they grip us, because we wrestle with them, the images and voices of the imagination require the attention of a muscular criticism: the keen eye of the narrator, plus compassion—a willingness to accept the “other” without capitulating the ideals, the imagination, of one’s own community. Baxter reads the tropes of America the way a masseuse approaches muscle, feeling for knots and eddies in the landscape of textured skin and sinew. Baxter has detected a knot among contemporary American narratives: a strain, in the senses of both species and stress.

Baxter names this strain in the title of the leadoff essay, “Dysfunctional Narratives: or: ‘Mistakes Were Made’”. “We often pretend,” Baxter writes in his Preface, “that public lying by politicians has no effect on the stories we tell each other, but it does; or that our obsession with data processing has no relevance to violence in movies, but it might.” The assassination of JFK, Nixon’s Watergate, and the obsessive attention given to grainy film and gaps in audiotape are archetypal instances of the kinds of stories straining the imagination of contemporary culture. Baxter takes a critical path that echoes the Frankfurt School, as well as Christopher Caudwell, who wrote in the early 1930s: “This is the first unwritten law of alienation, and we need to be conscious of it: The something we say no to is never the real enemy, but only the shadow it casts over and within us.” All of this, of course, is a textbook description of the “postmodern condition.” But instead of a criticism of relentlessly reductive materialism (that, in Baxterian terms, might well be seen as dysfunctional, a kind of depressive downward spiral), Baxter’s is more generous. Continue reading