David Mitchell’s “The Jesuits: A History”

“ ‘Religion is the most dangerous thing in the world. It is not little girls in their communion frocks and silly holy pictures and the Children of Mary. It is,’ he said, ‘high explosive, dynamite, the,’ he smiled at the conceit, ‘splitting of the atom.’ ”

 Burgess wrote this in his novel “Earthly Powers,” which was published in the same year as David Mitchell’s concise history entitled, simply, “The Jesuits.” It is not difficult to find connections between novels and religious institution—even secular writers are never freed from the spiritual oligarchy of their Muse—and time spent bandying interpretative comparisons between Mitchell’s work and Burgess’s might very well be regarded as time wasted.

Image Be that as it may, there is the uncomfortable reality addressed in the two pieces that many of us tend to gloss over. Religion is controversial, sure, but the most dangerous thing in the world? There is no mention of dwindling resources and a world population of unprecedented acceleration, nothing about global warming or solar flares or imminent asteroid collisions of world-destroying magnitudes. What is to be feared is the man in the cassock, and the guy with the funny hat.

Shortly before he received his death Burgess professed himself as a Manichaeist, which I suspect very few of his readers took seriously. Burgess, after ‘abandoning’ Catholicism, was something of a religious dilettante, cherishing the institution, symbols, and fundamental theology of Catholicism while giving up the Church, and doing very much the same with Islam, having once entertained the idea of conversion. His Manichaeism seems to represent more a religious sampling than it does a true and final belief. Nevertheless, Burgess’s views make an adequate excuse for Don Carlo’s dramatic and rather pessimistic outlook on religion: a profession of destruction and imminent calamity, rather than a focus on the inspired benevolence and sense of community. (I find Burgess a useful citation in addition to the fact that his review of Mitchell’s book in his collected journalism (“Homage To Quert Yuiop”) was what led me to purchase the history.)

 By way of contrast, one can turn to the end of Mitchell’s history of the Jesuits and read an interesting, albeit cautious, note of optimism: “ ‘what agent is more universal, more international in its character, or more adaptable than our Society?’ “ (303).

 What agent indeed? An institution with a name like the Society of Jesus could hardly get any more universal in Christianity. Adaptability is a bit more difficult to approve. Since Ignatius Loyola founded the institution in 1520, the Jesuits has engendered and maintained a distinctive legacy for itself unlike that of any other religious institution. It’s impressive, and also quite frightening. Mitchel’s history abounds with stories of young members eager to receive martyrdom, or who self-flagellate with prideful eagerness. “The essential thing, the Jesuit thing,” a brother said, “is always to confess Christ before men…the blood of the martyrs is the seed of vocations” (298).

 Whether voluntary suffering-as-penance constitutes ultimate humility is not debated (however, an argument could be made that, although Christ humbled himself before the world on the cross, it is something of a perversion to confess Christ’s suffering before men rather than Christ himself). Mitchell does not make it is prerogative to convert readers to Catholicism and he certainly does not go out of his way to flatter the Jesuit image. His history, at 300 pages, is compressed and direct: it mirrors well a story Mitchell quotes about a Jesuit recruiting session from the mid 1930’s:

 “ ‘They didn’t seem to want us,’ ” the sixteen-year old said, “ ‘All the other orders were trying to rope us in with photographs of jazzy swimming pools. But the Jebbies just had a couple of tight little quotes from St Ignatius in a very stark pamphlet. We though that cool scene was revolutionary. (251)’ ”

 Unfortunately, the same cool lack does not serve well for Mitchell. His history, boiled down, is one of the many stories of persecution shared by most every religious organization tacked on with a few good quotes, like John Adams’s correspondence to Thomas Jefferson that “ ‘…if ever any congregation of men could merit eternal perdition on earth and in hell, it is the Company of Loyola.’ ”

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Founder and first superior general of the Jesuits, Loyola received a holy vision in 1520 which led him to create the movement

 A reader unfamiliar to religious history may find the book informing, yet curiously enough, Mitchell spares few to no specific details about the institution itself; his writing wavers between either too much historical reporting and not enough analysis, or vice versa. We hear much about Loyola’s Exercises and see much of the residual controversy, but we receive no direct quotes from the text: the book speaks for an interested party, rather than to one.

 This raises the question: what audience was Mitchell writing for? It is difficult to venture a guess: “The Jesuits: A History” is either superfluously informative or hardly informative enough. What’s more, its numbers “27,131 Jesuits” (as of 1978) are hopelessly out of date, with less than 18,000 Jesuits worldwide, according to recent polls.

 A good effort, Mitchell’s book nevertheless fails to serve a significant body of readers, and seems to be meant for a very specific audience: institutionally learned, somewhat historically versed, curious about the Jesuits but not so much as to turn to a more thorough work. Malachi Martin’s “The Jesuits” might serve the reader better, but even that history shares the disadvantage of Mitchell’s of dating (1984). One is tempted just to wait for a whole new history, one that takes recent events: the ascendancy of the Jesuit Pope Francis, the election of the Society’s new Superior General Adolfo Nicolás in 2008, rising membership in Africa and Asia, into its scope. 

 One can only hope that such a history is not too far off.

Mitchell, David. The Jesuits: A History. London: Macdonald Futura Publishers, 1980. Print. 

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Flann O’Brien’s “The Various Lives Of Keats And Chapman (Including ‘The Brother’)”

ImageThe relationship between Flann O’Brien (also Brian O’Nolan, also Myles na Gopaleen) to the other canonical Irish writers of the twentieth century: Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, is a tricky one. For the average reader, that is the reader who was or is not currently an English major, O’Brien is the most accessible of these Great Writers. The comedy of his writing, “the true comic spirit” Joyce once lauded, is able to address the reader regardless of generational gaps. “At Swim-Two-Birds,” O’Brien’s masterpiece and a novel that I have been desperate to re-read ever since I finished it the first time, gives us O’Brien as something of a scamp and a reactionary: a young student searching for a new way of self-expression amidst the drudgery of inviolable family and intolerable school.

Keats and Chapman, on the other hand, show O’Brien in a light that reads much more naturally and for good reason; the Keats and Chapman vignettes were a series of columns the writer put out when he turned to journalism, post WW2 years. They are the stuff of pub chat: short, easily quotable, and quite stupid when it comes right down to it. O’Brien’s great feat for Keats and Chapman is the pun, which closes each one of the columns with a reliable anticlimax. Jamie O’Neill in the book’s introduction attributes this characteristic to the trend of Irish writers who have “a child’s delight in vocabulary”, arising out of a tradition to see English as “a loaned vocabulary on an older Gaelic syntax.”

It’s certainly possible that O’Brien is abstrusely poking fun at this borrowed language to highlight its absurdities. What seems more likely is that O’Brien isn’t poking fun so much at language as he is at the structure of the narrative itself.

The Keats and Chapman stories operate under an immediate tension; because the columns are so small (a page or two at most) the reader immediately regards every detail as crucial, and she begins at once to examine the opening details for signs of how they will lead to the narrative’s resolution. “Keats and Chapman once lived near a church,” is the opening line to the entry “Carnival”. Setting has been established, and with it a course of direction that will end with the climax of the pun. The reader foresees this and attempts to preempt it by either guessing or solving the pun (jokes are, after all, just another form of the riddle) or skipping to the end of the anecdote to read it. This is a grave mistake. The Keats and Chapman vignettes are not about the joke or its cleverness; they are the about the immediate sense of decompression the reader feels once the pun is revealed; the ‘I’ve been had’ feeling that causes us to smirk and smile and deflate despite ourselves.

“If there is any philosophy here at all,” Jamie O’Neill writes, “it is that we are all much of a muchness and nowhere is much better than anywhere else.”

It is a convoluted quote but an accurate one to demonstrate the post-pun reading that, perhaps, we should have just saved ourselves the time and not have read the little story in the first place. But with an attitude like this, the reader is also being surreptitiously introduced to the big picture—that nothing is worth reading for its content when all climaxes of every story end in the same sense of delayed or partial gratification. And once we’ve realized this, we’ve succeeded in realizing that we haven’t been reading for the sake of the pun and the climax: we’ve read for the style and the convolution: the path that spider-webs towards a promise of satisfaction that falls flat.

Close reading unfortunately invites the risk of driving Keats and Chapman from the simplicity of the pun into the torpor of literary metaphysics. You can read this way, if you wish, but I recommend avoiding it. Too much talk and too much thought will drain the humor out of most any joke.

A similar bit of advice can be said for one’s reading of “The Brother”, O’Brien’s two-act, two-man play which by all appearances, is a very simple thing filled with lots of talk and lots of drink (“A Pint Of Plain Is Your Only Man”, the Brother’s rollicking drinking anthem, may very well make good on its promise as a “pome that’ll be heard wherever the Irish race is wont to gather”). Take a step back however and you’ll see that in a very small amount of space, with no clear sense of direction and no onstage action of which to speak, O’Brien has really created a very tight piece with a theme of social identity as well as philosophical and postmodern motifs hidden beneath a layer of bawdry comedy.

ImageHere is the Brother on philosophy:

“Is it life? I would rather be without it, for there is quare small utility in it. You cannot eat it or drink it or smoke it in your pipe, it does not keep the rain out and it is a poor armful in the dark if you strip it and take it to bed with you after a night’s porter when you are shivering with the red passion. It is a great mistake and a thing better done without, like bed jars and foreign bacon…it is a quare contraption, very dangerous, a certain death-trap.”

It is easy to admire the utilitarianism of the metaphor for life and to chuckle over the skewed logic, but notice too how well the metaphor characterizes the Brother; the concern with survival and danger and death, with sex and drink, and even a degree of jingoism (“foreign bacon” to be avoided). He’s cautious, but he’s also realistic: life is painful and difficult, and who could disagree that we would be much easier off without it?

Reading “The Brother” and you might be tempted to see the character as a representation for Ireland as a whole, or of a composite Irish history. “Well-known, alas, is the case of the poor German who was very fond of three and who made each aspect of his life a thing of triads,” the Brother concludes. “He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea, had three lumps of sugar in each, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.” Do we read this as a parable for the history of the Catholic Church (hence the emphasis on three: the holy trinity), which could be said to have destroyed the men who attempted to serve their country, historically, since the invasion of Cromwell and on through the fall of Parnell? Is the Brother merely a voice echoing a popular sentiment?

Possibly. Yet one must bear in mind that the Brother is only a voice in a pub, disembodied, with nary a sign of a true identity according to the criminal processing functions of the state: “If I have no name at all, and my personality is invisible to the law, then how could I be hanged for a murder I did not commit?” Neither avatar nor echo, and certainly not a nation, what is the Brother then, but an idea: the idea of an eventual realization of a consciousness; of a name, personality, and a state? The conclusion is yours for the taking.

Or you could just stick to the comedy.

O’Brien, Flann. The Various Lives Of Keats And Chapman. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 2005. Print. 

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An extremely good tidbit of advice from dailywritingtips.com.

It’s a good reminder for when the juices don’t quite flow right and the motivation to keep writing becomes syrupy and unreliable. 

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Completely Without Dignity: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard

Completely Without Dignity: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Karl Ove Knausgaard in an excellent interview, talking about his life and his “My Struggle” volumes (the first of which was previewed in March)

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All Too Irish: Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”

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Author Frank McCourt

 In 1941, Flann O’Brien published one of Ireland’s great comic masterpieces, “An Béal Bocht,” or “The Poor Mouth,” a reference to an Irish expression: “an béal bocht a chur ort” (“to put on the poor mouth”). The expression is a pejorative and refers primarily to the paupers during the time of the Great Famine who would exaggerate their troubles and woes in order to evoke sympathy or charity: an Irish widow who might make the claim that nine of her children are dead from hunger and her husband dead from consumption (and would you please spare me a penny for my troubles) would be said to be putting on the poor mouth.

It’s a useful expression, particularly when applied to the pre-modernism movement in Irish literature (not to be confused with Anglicized Irish literature, such as that of Stoker or Wilde). The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the country’s influx of Irish Gaelic writing and much of it was devoted to chronicling death, the fazing out of the old ways, and of course the Famine (as well as more general hunger woes). Tomás Ó Criomhthain (or, O’Crohan) and his memoirs “The Islandman” is a principle writer of this genre, greatly admired by O’Brien who nevertheless used much of the book’s content and refrain: “for our likes will not be seen again” to fit his parody. A cruel twist of his country’s greatest disgrace and misfortune? Perhaps, though I consider it not so much a cruelty as it is a chastisement and a critique of Ireland’s backwards thinking and revenge mongering populous. One cannot properly get over the past until he can laugh at it. To do anything else would be to stifle any form of progress.

This past week has been cool, cloudy, and raining—proper Irish weather O’Brien might contend. I’ve spent much of it indoors reading Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” which my mother has been recommending me for over a year. To be honest, I’ve been purposefully neglecting it ever since it was first mentioned to me. Its status as a New York Times Bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winner and its descriptions as “a joy to read” and “modern classic” made me hesitant. American readers and airport terminal bookstores distrust foreign writers unless they write genre fictions. What’s more, the memoirs of an unknown writer who doesn’t even profess a rags-to-riches story shouldn’t, by modern standards, be a national sensation (even if it was published in the nineties).

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Flann O’Brien’s comic masterpiece “An Beal Bocht” (The Poor Mouth)

Rather than call “Angela’s Ashes” a literary anomaly, I would prefer ‘publishing anomaly’ because the literature, when we get down to it, isn’t all that great, nor is it unique.

Francis (Frank) McCourt, deceased as of 2009, was born in New York in August of 1930, the eldest of what would become five younger siblings, three of which died before the author turned five. His father, a riotous drunk and ex-IRA man, came from County Antrim in the north of Ireland (protestant and British-occupied) while his Roman Catholic mother came from the southern County Limerick. Shortly after Frank’s birth, the McCourts moved back to Limerick where Frank’s father failed to hold a job and ended up drinking his wages away from those he did find, instead of providing for his family. By the time Frank turned twelve, his father had gone to England ostensibly to earn better wages but in reality to drink more lavishly. While his mother begged for wages, Frank performed odd jobs until he turned nineteen, when he left Ireland for good and returned to New York. The memoirs end with a “’Tis” from Frank, affirming a comment that America was a “great country altogether.”

This is all the book gives in terms of plot, though it’d hardly be fair to judge McCourt’s life in such banal standards. McCourt excels in chronicling the small events of his life, both tragic and comic, and the people and family responsible for them. The people and relatives are many (what else could one expect from Irish Catholic families?) and similar more often than not, yet each one appears like a character or a family member we have met in our own lifetimes. There are the catty aunts, the gossipy neighbors, the simple and lovable uncle, and the grumpy, traditionalist grandmother, who inspires this memorable exchange on Frank’s First Communion Day:

 “Come here till I comb your hair, said Grandma. Look at that mop, it won’t lie down. You didn’t get that hair from my side of the family. That’s that North of Ireland hair you got from your father. That’s the kind of hair you see on Presbyterians. If your mother had married a proper Limerickman you wouldn’t have this standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair.

She spat twice on my head.

Grandma, will you please stop spitting on my head?

If you have anything to say, shut up. A little spit won’t kill you. Come on, we’ll be late for Mass.”

Most of McCourt’s family either spurn his mother’s pleas for help or else grudgingly bestow what little they have: pennies, stale bread, a place to sleep. Frank is far from ignorant of his family’s condition, yet his memory filters everything through the simple yet perceptive lenses of childhood. Here is the author recalling his schoolboy days:

“They (schoolmasters) hit you if you can’t say your name in Irish, if you can’t say the Hail Mary in Irish, if you can’t ask for the lavatory pass in Irish…

One master will hit you if you don’t know that Eamon De Valera is the greatest man that ever lived. Another master will hit you if you don’t know that Michael Collins was the greatest man that ever lived.

Mr. Benson hates America and you have to remember to hate America or he’ll hit you.

Mr. O’Dea hates England and you have to remember to hate England or he’ll hit you.

If you ever say anything good about Oliver Cromwell they’ll all hit you.”

Those familiar with Irish history can perhaps sympathize with the schoolmasters’ prejudices. Less than 100 years prior the Famine killed the country; fifty years prior and Ireland’s shining home rule leader was killed by politicians and hell raising Fathers; twenty years prior and Ireland killed herself in the Civil War.

For the better, most historical references escape McCourt as he works to capture what moments and atmospheres from his childhood he can. There are no direct references or angry dinner conversations over or about Parnell or home rule. There are no remembrances of nights spent hovering over the radio listening for news about the Allied Invasion or the bombings in England (the author lets his reader know that his family didn’t have a radio). Those references to De Valera and Michael Collins are pretty much the only ones in the book, excluding the rare passing comment by a drunk or a family member (often both). McCourt’s life is situated solely on its own concerns.

This would be a problem for most other memoirs. The act of remembering an earlier life is about more than just the singular life: it is a process that begs examination into the culture and politics of the times in order to discover how the life was made. We the readers connect with characters based on relatable, relative details: a character in a modern novel will elicit a certain response from most readers if his political alignment is conservative Republican or liberal Democrat. Historical relevance and how (and if) the author makes use of it is also one of the ways a critic gauges whether or not the book is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Much of the greatness of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” lies in how the novel chronicles the years 1805 through the 1820’s, though the author himself said that it was “not a novel, even less…a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.” Joyce’s “Ulysses” takes a much more specific historical approach in giving the majority of the book’s action in one day: June 16, 1904. If we were to look at modern literary memoirs and their handling of current times, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part “My Struggle” affect a Joycean and Proustian influence: an ordinary man writing about an ordinary life and ordinary times combined with a hypnotic, magnetic prose, both parts digressive and concentrative, incredibly real and sometimes unnatural.

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Castle Desmond Adare in County Limerick

McCourt succeeds by leaving unsaid the historical details that need not be restated, focusing his energies instead on the idiosyncrasies of his life as an Irish pauper. The residents are his supreme achievement: equal parts jingoistic, patriotic, mournful, and drunk. McCourt’s humor is best when he simply lets them speak for themselves, whether it be about pests and how to contain them:

 “A man on a bicycle stopped and wanted to know why Dad was beating on that mattress. Mother o’God, he said, I never heard such a cure for fleas. Do you know that if a man could jump like a flea one leap would take him halfway to the moon? The thing to do is this, when you go back inside with that mattress stick it on the bed upside down and that will confuse the little buggers. They won’t know where they are and they’ll be biting the mattress or each other, which is the best cure of all. After they bite the human being they have the frenzy, you know, for there are other fleas around them that also bit the human being and the smell of the blood is too much for them and they go out of their minds. They’re a right bloody torment an’ I should know for didn’t I grow up in Limerick, down in the Irishtown, an’ the fleas there were so plentiful an’ forward they’d sit on the toe of your boot an’ discuss Ireland’s woeful history with you. It is said there were no fleas in ancient Ireland, that they were brought in be the English to drive us out of our wits entirely, an’ I wouldn’t put it pas the English. An’ isn’t it a very curious thing that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland an’ the English brought in the fleas. For centuries Ireland was a lovely peaceful place, snakes gone, not a fela to be found. You coul stroll the four green fields of Ireland without fear of snakes an’ have a good night’s sleep with no fleas ot bother you. Them snakes were doin’ no harm, they wouldn’t bother you unless you cornered them an’ they lived off other creatures that move under bushes an’ such places, whereas the flea suks the blood from you mornin’ noon an’ night for that’s his nature an’ he can’t help himself…Good luck yo you. I have to be careful standin’ here for if one of them gets on my clothes I might as well invite his whole family home. They multiply faster than Hindus.”

Or about politics:

 “The men in the pub are talking about the terrible state of the world and how in God’s name Hermann Goering escaped the hangman an hour before the hanging. The Yanks are over there in Nuremberg declaring they don’t know how the Nazi bastard hid that pill. Was it in his ear? Up his nostril? Up his arse? Surely the Yanks looked in every hole and cranny of every Nazi they captured and still Hermann wiped their eye. There you are. It shows you can sail across the Atlantic, land in Normandy, bomb Germany off the face of the earth, but when all’s said and done they can’t find a little pill planted in the far reaches of Goering’s fat arse.”

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The Great Blasket Island, a Gaelic-speaking, agrarian community and home of the Irish writer Tomas O’Crohan

With jewels like these, it’s easy for the reader to get carried away in his praise of McCourt’s book, and yet these jewels are hardly anything more than common pub talk on Ireland’s woeful history, expertly reported but unoriginal in the long run. Most Irish writers have wits equally sharp, if not sharper. O’Brien does it better and more concisely in “The Poor Mouth,” which was, coincidentally, published in English the same year as “Angela’s Ashes.”

Little has been said about how McCourt handles his tragedy. Little need be said. His story of immigrating to America is shared by hundreds of thousands who underwent, or whose ancestors underwent, something similar. The Irish diaspora shares the contrastive qualities of being the single most alienating and uniting event in recent history. Citizens in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, South America, and Central America celebrate a culture shared by virtue of (mostly) one calamity in the years 1845-1852. It is the most adopted culture in America (Irish pubs, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Celtic musicians from Bono to the Dropkick Murphys on radio top hits) and one of the few cultures with a steadily rising interest. All of this is good for the writer who wishes to reach a wide audience, yet it makes his task of originality more difficult. Popularity only breeds more popularity. One is far more likely to find a Famine book in Barnes & Noble (Mary Pat Kelly, Elizabeth Byrd, and Patricia Falvey are just some authors that come to mind) than, say, a novel about an indigenous American during the colonization of the early seventeenth century.

Though “Angela’s Ashes” is certainly not a Famine book, this does not preclude it from sounding like one.

“The shirt I wore to bed is the shirt I wear to school,” writes McCourt. “I wear it day in and day out. It’s the shirt for football, for climbing walls, for robbing orchards. I go to Mass and the Confraternity in that shirt and people sniff the air and move away. If Mam gets a docket for a new one at the St. Vincent de Paul the old shirt is promoted to towel and hangs damp on the chair for months.”

This is subtle tragedy—the lack of basic human resources—and adequately written, but it details a picture that fails to shock readers, most of whom have grown used to pictures of starvation and depravation. An hour of watching CNN or any other news network is able to elicit more horrific images than any book. One would be better satisfied in turning to an earlier Irish writer like Tomas O’Crohan should he want original though similar details. “The Islandman” is one of Ireland’s least known classics and also one of it’s most beautiful. Writing from the Gaelic (or Irish)-speaking Great Blasket Island at the end of the nineteenth century, O’Crohan’s memoirs chronicles a life spent during the transition from ancient living to modern living. What makes the book tragic is the reader’s knowledge that O’Crohan’s mean way of living, beautiful in its simplicity, is fading away even as he writes, never to return and unlikely to be remembered. It’s hardly an easy life, granted: O’Crohan is twin parts amazed and skeptical when he receives his first pair of shoes, yet it’s authentic in what it knows and couldn’t care less about what it doesn’t (English, for one. O’Crohan’s story was translated by Doctor Robin Flower, who wrote his own account of days spent on the Great Blasket, called “The Western Island.”) By historical rights, it belongs in a museum; instead, it rests on a bookshelf.

With writers like O’Crohan and O’Brien, and a considerable amount of Famine and diaspora literature, we don’t really need “Angela’s Ashes.” McCourt’s story deserves to be told, the same as everyone else’s, yet much of its praise is unwarranted and superfluous. It will make you laugh; it probably won’t make you cry. It is, like all things, just one more story.

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The Chicago Sun-Times Cuts Its Books Pages

well, there goes one more job for the future critic

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Woes of the Corporate Editorial Intern

All around me it is silent, a wasteland of bland grey cubicles. Amid the silence, the only registerable sounds are empty, ambient noise, barely remarkable mouse clicks, the occasional typing, the hum of the air conditioning overhead.

Amidst the quiet drear, I am the misplaced intern. For eight hours, I am doomed to perpetual silence. My lack of human interaction? A product of the task I have been given. I am to move over 3000 out-of-print books by myself. If I’m lucky and the mail-room workers are available, I might be able to borrow one of their carts. But I’ve never been lucky, and I know better than to expect them to be available. They’re busy too, and they don’t have time for an intern who isn’t even part of their crew.

As I heft stack after stack of books from one end of the building to the opposite end, I can’t help but think that none of this would have happened if I had just settled on going to law school instead. I’d still be bored, but rather I’d be using the critical thinking skills I’ve been force-fed since grade school. But no, no, I love words, I love writing! Nevermind that editorial work has quite nothing to do with anything I’ve studied or practiced in my English classes. This is only an internship, I know. My work would be different if I had a different position. But I struggle to reconcile the tenderness of my arm muscles with the brevity of my position.

This is normal, I am told. This is important, I am told. My role here matters, I hear.

But I am supposed to be gaining corporate on-the-job experience. How do you work some sort of work education into this? Having moved books for over three weeks now, I have to wonder, if this is such an important job, why am I not being assisted by another worker, to ensure the job gets done faster and more efficiently? If I say I’m done and hide the rest of the books and ask for new work, will anyone notice? I can’t safely say yes to that, but I don’t think they would.

In between lifting books I check my email anxiously, having been warned of the dire consequences of leaving my email closed longer than five minutes. I know better of course–I haven’t had my email shut since they gave me a computer. But the lack of traffic in my inbox is a curious thing; if no one emails me, will my supervisor notice when I actually stop caring and purposely sign out of Outlook permanently?

The editorial assistants I work under weave in and out of cubicles, training the new temp worker who effectively replaces me as the trainee. I have five weeks left–and she has another five and a half months. She is now being taught to do the sort of monotonous, yet, mindful and altogether more interesting tasks that they haven’t thought to hoist on me yet. As my supervisor assures me, yes, you will eventually miss moving books, you’ll wish you could go back to this task, you’ll miss the mindlessness…and lack of human interaction, I’m  count off in my head the number of weeks until my contract ends. At the rate I’m going, moving books is all I will have done, I think. I have done so little yet!

I want to learn, I want to work! My fingers twitch with nervous energy and I can’t stop  my feet flicking back and forth. As long as I am occupied with thoughtful tasks, I am at ease. As long as I am being instructed on more and more new tasks, and receiving work of some importance, I feel fine. But when I consider my pile of books in the corner, waiting to be hauled to their final resting place, I have to suppress a groan of ennui and desolation. I can’t any longer be motivated to move these library letters, the remaining stacks that I have left to organize. I remember the advice I’ve been given by superiors, hoping it might stimulate what little faculty of mind I have left: Don’t feel self-righteous, everyone works hard and you have to work your way up. Keep your email open, pay attention to reminders, ask for more work when you finish a project. I have done these haven’t I? I search for logical fault lines. I do ask for work, my email is always open. I trudge on, exhausted. I have so little left to do, I just have to push through it I tell myself.

Yet, there is room for something new and enjoyable. While last week I finished the more notable side tasks and was left only book-moving projects, my supervisor has heard my cries of dissatisfaction. A small page-marking task to occupy me, and serve some small semblance of relief from my current long-winded chores. I remind myself how close I am to the finish line. One more month as a corporate intern–now, now, they don’t hate you. Maybe they just don’t realize how demoralizing some of these tasks are, once you’ve been at them for so long by yourself. One more day’s worth of books to hoist–after this, I’ll ask for something I can do with the marketing intern. What’s this? I should’ve just asked for a new project? I don’t need to rush this first one? Please allow me a moment to face-palm myself. The office air is getting to me, clearly. I nearly forgot! I’m supposed to be asking questions! I’m supposed to be learning about my coworkers’ jobs and how this relates to productivity and revenue raising and making interpersonal connections! I should be pressing them for information about the other departments! Do you suppose that nervous-looking women over there (the one madly typing away) would be too terribly disturbed if I just popped into her cubicle for a few questions?

Not that any one task is more interesting than the next, but… it’s always a relief to switch to some other project. I rejoice in the reprieve that comes from flipping through books as opposed to lifting them. I while away the minutes.

Oh look, it’s nearly 4:30! Time to head out for the day. I can’t wait to come back tomorrow! Who knows what new and exciting missions I will be assigned? Oh wait… I still haven’t finished moving that library. Oh well.

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