Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Mis-Education of Horace Hodges

Horace Hodges (L) and Horace Jeffery Hodges (R)
HH Takes a Closer Look at Literature

I gave my talk yesterday at the international Conference on “Storytelling: Trauma, Healing, and Pedagogy,” but I didn't know much about the themes, so I spoke about what I know best:
The Mis-Education of Horace Hodges

Horace Jeffery Hodges

Ewha Womans University
“When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies . . .”
- Shakespeare, Sonnet 138

I am a hopeless, incorrigible, uncurable chromatic, a man in love with the vast, rich chromaticism of stories. As in the case of Don Quixote, a vast spectrum of colorful, disorderly notions, entire worlds of them, plucked from books and other sources, have crowded into my misshapen, mis-educated imagination (Cervantes), forming and re-forming themselves there into a sea-change of new stories, so rich and strange (Shakespeare, Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2) “as to shock the conservative, and delight the frivolous” (Adams), against the background of “a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, . . . birds singing on the bushes, . . . various insects flitting about, and . . . worms crawling through the damp earth” (Darwin, 863). Worms? Where did that come from? This talk begins already to sound rather morbid, don’t you think, getting down there in the muck with worms? I mean, that’s where we all eventually end up, right, and nobody wants to think about that, do they? We’d prefer a happy ending, okay? So, let’s strike out that traumatic part about worms, pretend we’ll never lie there under the earth. We’re too evolved for that - we’ll lie here upon the earth instead. That’s what telling stories is about, isn’t it, lying upon the earth?

Telling Stories

When I was a little boy growing up in the obscure, isolated Ozark Mountains, I was warned not to tell stories, which meant - in the hillbilly dialect spoken there - not to lie. This sense of “story” as “lie” is just as strong in the culturally similar Appalachians, as explained by April Lynne Burge in her blog Appalachian English in a post for the date of July 29, 2005, in which she cites the linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath:
Another cultural difference between the Appalachian dialect and the standard dialect of the educational system lies in the concept of lexical elements. For instance, Appalachians have one concept of the word story, while the school environment entertains another concept of the same word. Heath found that when teaching reading, teachers in Appalachia would occasionally ask students to “make up a story,” but students were sometimes reluctant to complete the task, which could have been interpreted by teachers as inability . . . to do so. However, the reason for the reluctance was a result of the lexical understanding of the word story in Appalachian English [AE]; in AE telling a story means lying, which is punishable in the Appalachian culture. (Burge, July 29, 2005; citing Heath, 294, 296)
Like those Appalachian students, I knew that lying would get you punished, possibly even roasted in Hell! That was the worst punishment. But I loved stories, and confronted with a Huck Finn choice, I decided to be a liar and go to Hell (Twain, Adventures, Chapter 31).

Practice makes perfect, and here’s one of the perfectly good lies I eventually managed to conjure up and tell to my own two children when they were yet young enough to believe every word I said:
Why Wolves Howl at the Moon
Long, long ago, before there were any people, there were . . . Wolves!

Like today’s wolves, they ran in packs.

But unlike the wolves of today, these wolves had a ball.

No one knew where the ball had come from. For all the wolves knew, it had always been there. Because it was unique, the ball was very valuable. The wolves took very good care of it.

Once a month, they would take the ball out and play with it. Their games were simple - throwing, catching, and chasing.

Simple though these games were, they required teamwork. Care was taken neither to damage nor dirty the ball. Because they cooperated, the wolves were happy.

In the course of time, however, there arose a selfish wolf as leader of the pack. He was strong and clever, but his selfishness marred his character.

He wanted the ball for himself.

One day, as the pack was playing its monthly game, their leader saw his chance. He grabbed the ball in his enormous jaws and darted away from the pack.

At first, the others thought his move was part of the game, but when they saw him run off for the hills . . . they burst after him, but he was very fast.

He was so fast that the pack at first could not keep up, but fell further behind.

Joyously free in his sole possession of the ball, the lone wolf tossed it into the air, catching it and tossing it again and again.

But his exertions wore him down, and the pack slowly gained on him.

He failed to notice this, and as the hills turned to mountains, his pace slowed even more.

At the highest mountain peak, the pack trapped him unawares, and advanced.

Noticing them at last, the leader panicked. Not wanting to share the ball again after having had it to himself . . . the head wolf hurled the ball skyward will all of his considerable might!

The ball soared high, higher, highest . . . and stayed.

Look up in the night sky, and you’ll see it, too, a bit roughed up from the selfish wolf’s teeth and slightly smudged with earth from having been dropped a few times.

The wolves see it every night, too, and they howl in despair at their loss.

The moon, however, belongs to no one now, and sheds its borrowed light on the just and the unjust, the wise and the foolish . . . the pack, and the lonely leader of the pack.

On us all . . .
Now as I said, when my children were young, they believed the story, and so perhaps do we during the telling, and maybe even after the telling, but that was, in fact, a wolfish pack of lies. We all know the moon was never a ball, and we know full well that wolves don’t howl at the moon because it once belonged to them, for it never was theirs to possess. This is nothing more than a kind of Kipling ‘Just-So’ story (Kipling). And Kipling was a British Lion imperialist, so we can simply ignore him and any lying tall tales of his sort. Instead, let’s turn to another teller of tales.

Bob Dylan, Story Teller

The pop-musicologist Seth Rogovoy, writing in Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, reviews volume one of Dylan’s memoires, Chronicles, and pegs him as a “storyteller”:
The most striking thing about Chronicles is how it introduces an entirely new voice - that of Bob Dylan, the colorful, garrulous storyteller. *More important than how closely he adheres or doesn’t adhere to the facts* is the language that he uses to recount his life and times, and the detours and byways down which he leads the reader, through literature, music, philosophy, and life’s learned lessons. (Rogovoy, Bob Dylan, 280; original quote revised between asterisks after consulting with Mr. Rogovoy)
The term “storyteller” here means someone who misleads the reader in entertaining ways, and having read a bit of Dylan’s Chronicles myself, I’d say that he ‘misleads’ with a nod and a wink, signaling to the wary reader that he’s not as good as his word, he’s better than that.

A passage early in volume one makes this point clear when Lou Levy, a higher-up in Leeds Music Publishing company, gives Dylan a big break and tells the head of publicity for Leeds, Billy James, to have a talk with Dylan and write promotional material on him for a press release bio. Here’s Dylan’s ‘memory’ of the talk, in which he admits to telling a story:
Billy dressed Ivy League like he could have come out of Yale - medium height, crisp black hair. He looked like he’d never been stoned a day in his life, never been in any kind of trouble. I strolled into his office, sat down opposite his desk, and he tried to get me to cough up some facts, like I was supposed to give them to him straight and square. He took out a notepad and pencil and asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Illinois and he wrote it down. He asked me if I ever did any other work and I told him that I had a dozen jobs, drove a bakery truck once. He wrote that down and asked me if there was anything else. I said I’d worked construction and he asked me where.


“You traveled around?”


He asked me about my family, where they were. I told him I had no idea, that they were long gone.

“What was your home life like?”

I told him I’d been kicked out.

“What did your father do?”


“And your mother, what about her?”


“What kind of music do you play?”

“Folk music.”

“What kind of music is folk music?”

I told him it was handed down songs. I hated these kind of questions. Felt I could ignore them. Billy seemed unsure of me and that was just fine. I didn’t feel like answering his questions anyway, didn’t feel the need to explain anything to anybody.

“How did you get here?” he asked me.

“I rode a freight train.”

“You mean a passenger train?”

“No, a freight train.”

“You mean, like a boxcar?”

“Yeah, like a boxcar. Like a freight train.”

“Okay, a freight train.”

I gazed past Billy, past his chair through his window across the street to an office building where I could see a blazing secretary soaked up in the spirit of something - she was scribbling busy, occupied at a desk in a meditative manner. There was nothing funny about her. I wished I had a telescope. Billy asked me who I saw myself like in today’s music scene. I told him, nobody. That part of things was true, I really didn’t see myself like anybody. The rest of it, though, was pure hokum - hophead talk. (Dylan, Chronicles, 7-8)
In short, Dylan told Billy James a pack of entertaining lies, and he did so because he “didn’t feel the need to explain anything to anybody.” People want a story anyway, so he gives them one for Mr. James to write up.

Dylan as Storyteller

But Dylan is not, primarily, a memoirist, he’s a songwriter and performer, and better known as a storyteller in his songs. Let’s listen to one of those stories in song, the 1975 tale of Isis, second track on his album Desire - co-written, incidentally, with Jacques Levy, a rare case of Dylan collaborating with another songwriter:
I married Isis on the fifth day of May,
But I could not hold on to her very long,
So I cut off my hair, and I rode straight away
For the wild unknown country, where I could not go wrong.

I came to a high place of darkness and light.
The dividing line ran through the center of town.
I hitched up my pony to a post on the right,
Went into a laundry to wash my clothes down.

A man in the corner approached me for a match.
I knew right away he was not ordinary.
He said, “Are you looking for something easy to catch?”
I said, “I got no money.” He said, “That ain’t necessary.”

We set out that night for the cold in the North.
I gave him my blanket, and he gave me his word.
I said, “Where are we going?” He said, “We’ll be back by the fourth.”
I said, “That’s the best news that I’ve ever heard.”

I was thinking about turquoise, I was thinking about gold,
I was thinking about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace.
As we rode through the canyons through the devilish cold,
I was thinking about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless.

How she told me that one day we’d meet up again,
And things would be different the next time we wed,
If I only could hang on and just be her friend.
I still can’t remember all the best things she said.

We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice.
He said, “There’s a body I’m trying to find.
If I carry it out, it’ll bring a good price.”
It was then that I knew what he had on his mind.

The wind, it was howling, and the snow was outrageous.
We chopped through the night, and we chopped through the dawn.
When he died, I was hoping that it wasn’t contagious,
But I made up my mind that I had to go on.

I broke into the tomb, but the casket was empty.
There was no jewels, no nothing - I felt I’d been had.
When I saw that my partner was just being friendly,
When I took up his offer, I must’ve been mad.

I picked up his body, and I dragged him inside,
Threw him down in the hole, and I put back the cover.
I said a quick prayer, and I felt satisfied,
Then I rode back to find Isis just to tell her I love her.

She was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise,
Blinded by sleep and in need of a bed.
I came in from the East with the sun in my eyes.
I cursed her one time, then I rode on ahead.

She said, “Where ya been?” I said, “No place special.”
She said, “You look different.” I said, “Well, I guess.”
She said, “You been gone.” I said, “That’s only natural.”
She said, “You gonna stay?” I said, “If you want me to, yes.”

Isis, oh Isis, you mystical child,
What drives me to you is what drives me insane.
I still can remember the way that you smiled,
On the fifth day of May in the drizzling rain. (Dylan and Levy)
There it is, the entire song, a great story - arguably of emotional healing, among other themes - and sung by a great storyteller. But why do I call this song a story? Because things happen in a sequence that fulfills our expectations, expectations set up with the first line: “I married Isis on the fifth day of May.” You see? Something happened. We hear the line and wonder, “What’s next?” Dylan tells us: “But I could not hold on to her very long.” What happened then? Dylan continues to tell us, and in what Coleridge called our “willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge, Biographia Chapter XIV) - a suspension rendered through our experience of a story being told well - we trust the story and its teller, much as Shakespeare trusts his mistress, though he knows she lies, and who is his true mistress if not the muse, and what are her lies if not the literary works she inspires, for he addresses her directly in sonnets 38, 78, and 100 (and mentions her in many others, e.g., 21, 32, 79, 82, 85, and 103)? This trust in literary falsehoods inspired by the muse constitutes the very reason for Plato’s contention in The Republic that poets - think epic, narrative poets - must be expelled from the true republic for their truth-seeming lies.

Milton as Truth Teller?

Many centuries later, in books 14 and 15 of the mid-fourteenth century encyclopedia of pagan mythology, Genealogia deorum gentilium (Genealogy of the Gods of the Nations), the great Renaissance literary figure Giovanni Boccaccio defends poets against the charge that their stories are lies. Two hundred years later, Sir Philip Sidney offers the defense that: “Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth” (Sidney, 57). On an abstract level, Boccaccio and Sidney might have a relatively strong case, but on the level of experience, I have to demur. Stories compel our belief. And what are we to do with narrative poets like Milton? He goes even further, calling on the Holy Spirit as muse to ensure the truth of what he affirms in his cracking good story, Paradise Lost, which opens like this:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men. (Paradise Lost 1.1-26)
Milton wants not only truth, he wants it writ in capitals: TRUTH! And he wants from his readers not merely a suspension of disbelief; he expects full-throated belief.

From the perspective of Boccaccio and Sidney, Milton would therefore be an outlier, if not an out-and-out liar, particularly because he’s given to uttering such self-confirming verses as the following, which seem to affirm his poem as divinely inspired, if not dictated, by the Holy Spirit, the:
. . . Celestial Patroness, who deignes
Her nightly visitation unimplor’d,
And dictates to me slumb’ring, or inspires
Easie my unpremeditated Verse . . . (Paradise Lost 9.21-24)
Dictates? Inspires? Is Milton claiming divine inerrancy for his poem? Is that his intention? As a loyal reader of Milton, regardless of his intentions, I find that I believe his story as I’m reading it, caught up as I am in the experience of reading. Am I being misled? I am indeed, if Stanley Fish be correct in his monumental work on Milton in Surprised by Sin, for he there maintains that Milton intentionally misleads the reader toward initially identifying with a heroic Satan in order for the reader to experience sin and culpability firsthand through eventual disappointment with Satan’s low character.

Work on Myth

The German intellectual Hans Blumenberg wrote a great deal on mythos and logos, especially in his tome Work on Myth, in which he extolled the current importance of both ways of dealing with the world. In our existential situation, the truth of logos, or reason, must be nestled within mythos, or story, in order for us to find meaning and make sense of our lives. Partly for that reason, I was moved a couple of years ago to rewrite Stephen Vincent Benét’s Faustian story, The Devil and Daniel Webster, by combining it with Mikhail Bulgakov’s equally Faustian Master and Margarita and Milton’s Paradise Lost, along with other texts, including of course Goethe’s Faust, in order to derive a reworked mythos. I titled my story The Bottomless Bottle of Beer, and though I won’t recount the entire story here, to avoid plot spoilers, I would like to note the story’s opening lines:
The world sometimes just declines to cooperate with my good intentions. I had been drinking a bit more than my wife thought reasonable for my health and our pocketbook, and after a close encounter with a breathalyzer that I managed to confound by sheer dint of will, I bowed to her legalistic position on laws against drunk driving and even agreed to stop drinking altogether. I didn’t intend to pursue the twelve-step route to complete spiritual indoctrination, so I resolved to quit entirely on my own. But I reasoned that such a significant occasion called for a drink, and I wanted that drink to be extraordinary, even unforgettable. My wife grudgingly acceded to my desire for just one more bottle to celebrate my decision, and I began to wander the town looking for that perfect beer.

My quest took me down to an old part of the city that I’d never seen before, and I was surprised at its narrow and twisting, cobblestone streets. The area looked vaguely European, too archaic for the New World, but I shrugged the impression off, figuring the streets and buildings had been designed to draw tourists. Such traps are never what they seem to the unwary, but I had to marvel that the effect was so authentic. I noticed a few wine shops, and their selections were truly excellent - again an authentic touch - though the shops seemed to stock only older vintages, but I wasn’t looking for wine anyway.

At length, on a back street that twisted like a wandering maze, only to decline into a dead end, I came upon a shop above whose door was a metal arrow extending, sharp point outward, perpendicular to the shop’s façade and from whose shaft, suspended by two hooks, was a small sign bearing some rather puzzling words in Gothic script that I managed to make out after a fair bit of close inspection:
Our Back’s Ratskeller
Mr. Faland Em, Proprietor
I could at first only imagine an exterminator of rats, but the word was not “Ratskiller.” Definitely “Ratskeller.” Was it a misspelling? Curious, I attempted to peer through the window, but the shop was dark, and I could make out nothing of the vague room’s shape, nor of anyone within, nothing distinguishable in member, joint, or limb, just seemingly insubstantial shadow.
Erudite readers - as all of you of course are - would quickly catch such literary allusions as those to Goethe’s Faust or those to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Yet, would any readers initially catch the ambiguity in the first line alone: “The world sometimes just declines to cooperate with my good intentions.” Two different interpretations present themselves. One can read “declines” as “refuses” or as “lowers itself.” Two incompatible meanings result, though the consequences are similar. If the world refuses to cooperate, then my good intentions find no support, so I fail. If the world lowers itself to cooperate, then my good intentions find support, but we must recall that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, hence consistent with a world that lowers itself! This latter meaning would gradually emerge upon subsequent readings of the entire story, and both interpretations are true, though not quite consistent with one another, and to affirm both simultaneously is to knowingly embrace a contradiction, hence perchance to lie, even as the text lies.


In his most popular work, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Nietzsche claims that “all poets are liars,” and speaking myself as one intimately acquainted with various sorts of poiesis, I agree. We storytellers are tellers of stories and cannot be trusted. But we are trusted. Why? And can any pedagogical lesson be drawn from this fact? Let us see, anyway. Perhaps the reason for the trust lies partly in the expectation set up by a story. Think of Dylan’s line, “I married Isis on the fifth day of May.” An expectation is established, not especially specific, but we listeners know that some event has to occur next, and it does: “But I could not hold on to her very long.” Our expectation is met, confirmed, thus shown to be true. Concurrent with that confirmation is another expectation, more specific this time, namely, that the speaker will perhaps leave, and he does: “So I cut off my hair, and I rode straight away / For the wild unknown country, where I could not go wrong.” A story, then, is more than a series of events in sequence, it is a series of expected events in sequence, with each confirmation establishing the ‘truth’ of the preceding event. This is the experience of reading a story! Of course, not every event conforms to the expectation set up, but such is acceptable if implausible twists in the plot don’t occur too often or don’t offend narrative sensibilities through some entirely improbable deus ex machina or the like, an implausibility rendering the story ludicrous, a reaction undesired unless a writer intends to evoke laughter, and that’s okay, too, for I’ve heard that laughter is the best medicine, and that’s about the best I can do to shape my presentation into fitting the theme of this conference: “Storytelling: Trauma, Healing, and Pedagogy.”

Thank you for listening!


Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. Online.

Benét, Stephen Vincent. The Devil and Daniel Webster. Online.

Blumenberg, Hans. Work on Myth. Translated by Robert M. Wallace. MIT Press, 1988.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Genealogia deorum gentilium.

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. Online.

Burge, A. L. “Illiteracy in Appalachia.” Appalachian English. July 29, 2005 (Blog). Online.

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Don Quixote de la Mancha. Online.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. 1817. Online.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection. 6th Edition. 1872.

Dylan, Bob. Chronicles, Volume One. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2004.

Dylan, Bob and Jacques Levy. “Isis.” Desire (album). 1975.

Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997.

Goethe, Wolfgang. Faust. Online.

Heath, Shirley Brice. Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. New York: Cambridge, 1996.

Hodges, Horace Jeffery. The Bottomless Bottle of Beer. The Williamsburg Circle, 2013. Online.

Kipling, Rudyard. Just So Stories. Gutenberg. Online.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The John Milton Reading Room. Ed. Thomas H. Luxon. 2014. Online.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Also Sprach Zarathustra. Online.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Online.

Plato. The Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Online.

Rogovoy, Seth. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet. Scribner, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Online.

Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets. Gutenberg. Online.

Sidney, Sir Philip. An Apology for Poetry. Ed. Forrest Robinson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.

Twain, Mark (Samuel Clemens). Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Charles L. Webster and Company, 1885. Online.
I didn't read out the bibliography aloud, but the audience had the entire paper in hand, so you're seeing what they saw.

I hope this was enjoyable . . . I know I am an acquired taste, best taken with a grain of salt.

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