Friday, September 11, 2015

Borderless Books & "Speaking American"

 I guess it was sometime in the 1990's when I first heard the phrase, "Speak American."  It was uttered by Bill Hicks, during one of his brilliant screeds about the state of jingoistic post-Reagan America.  Last week, Sarah Palin said it again, but she wasn't doing satire.  She was doing…whatever it is she does.

I would go off on my own rant about this, but the challenging fact of the matter is, I'm working very hard to take that Bob Marley line to heart these days.  The one that says, "So before you point your fingers, be sure your hands are clean."  On some days, my Refuge Vows are harder to follow than others.  Election seasons fall into the former category, it seems.

That's why a recently resurfaced interview with Sam Shepard has really stuck with me.  In 2014, Sam said he felt that America is on its way out as a culture.  While my prognosis of our status isn't quite as bleak, I think our collective myopic view of the world certainly does not bode well for a cultural renaissance here on our homeland.

Sam's most poignant statement on the subject came from his answer to the question, "What have you been reading lately?"  Here's that passage from his interview with The Guardian:

These days, he reads a lot of Irish writers. "They are head and shoulders above," he says. "It's the ability to take language and spin it." And a lot of South Americans, too, "because they seem to have a handle on the ability to cross time and depth." He struggles to think of contemporary American writers he rates, beyond Denis Johnson. "The thing about American writers is that as a group they get stuck in the same idea: that we're a continent and the world falls away after us. And it's just nonsense."
Did he ever get stuck in that idea? "I couldn't see beyond the motel room and the desert and highway," he says slowly, and turns his glass a little. "I couldn't see that there was another world. To me, the whole world was encompassed in that. I thought that was the only world that mattered.
"And it's still there," he adds, "but now it's redundant because everything's replaced by strip malls."

I remember a time when I was reading Chekhov plays for fun.  I rented Bergman films.  I watched National Geographic documentaries about cultures halfway around the globe. Then, imperceptibly, I retreated within the safer borders of our own national culture.  Certainly, there is much to indulge and celebrate here.  This is the nation that gave us Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee, Hemingway and Twain, Scorsese and Sorkin, Mingus and Monk, and the list goes on with almost infinite artistic reverberations.  

Yet, for all my fascination with scores of American cultural icons, I've been guilty of building a wall around my experiences.  I've been, inadvertently, speaking American.  

As our family saves nickels and dimes to take our long-awaited bucket list trip to Ireland and England, I'm diving into travel guides that remind me of the genius of Joyce and Beckett, Blake and Eliot.   I admit, I've missed sitting down with a Kurosawa film and actually making the effort to read subtitles for three hours.  I miss the effort, and I miss the reward.  I miss understanding more about the world in which we live, and seeing the world - earth, as it were - from the perspective of astronauts, a phenomena called "The Overview Effect."   As astronaut Ron Garan related it, this is "the sense of a home that is intimately shared."

It's why I'm going to do my best to dust off that collection of Pablo Neruda poems, watch "The Bicycle Thief" and "Amour", and see if I can spare one of my Sirius/XM programming buttons for BBC.  It's a big world.  I'll never see 1/10th of the places on our bucket list.  But I have access to them through cultural experiences.  It's time to get a bit more multi-lingual.  I've been speaking American long enough.

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