America, in eight books

Joseph Luzzi (photo by Dion Ogust)

A full-page ad in Ulster Publishing’s newspapers some weeks back first announced a One Day University lecture, to be given by Bard College’s interdepartmental classics wonder. Professor Joseph Luzzi lectured last Saturday morning at ten o’clock at the Kleinert-James Gallery in Woodstock on Eight Books that Changed America. 

Minutes before that hour, a sluggish attendance abruptly swelled, filling the hall. Next Steven Shragis, the Woodstocker who founded the One Day University in 2006, was introduced by our publisher, a particularly gleeful Geddy Sveikauskas [Woodstock Times and Woodstock Book-Fest were co-sponsors of the event]. By now the reasons for a largely elderly crowd’s excitement had become obvious.  

The One Day University program, which has grown to include 70 U.S. cities, was concocted a full decade before ignorance came into power in this country. The timeliness of a passionate defense of literature specifically and higher learning in general was palpable to every attendee. However, we also knew a two-and-a-half-hour lecture (with break) awaited us. Nothing less than a TKO from the visiting professor could live up to his audacious program’s title or override the general skittishness of intellectual life in Woodstock, across the nation, and throughout our so-called civilized world. 

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Happily, professor Luzzi proved a true and highly gifted evangelist, as was obvious moments after he took to striding forth and back across the stage like a lay preacher in a full suit or a caged lion eager for the red meat otherwise known as the human heart. He also happens to be quite a handsome man of Italian ancestry, who — we learned — grew up without a single book in his immigrant family’s home. 

Devastated early in his career by a double domestic tragedy, Luzzi’s rescue came in the form of a full immersion into Dante Alighieri, who survived his own most bitter exile from Florence by writing The Divine Comedy 700 years ago. Luzzi was a one-time graduate student of Harold Bloom, which is akin to a young singer studying with Enrico Caruso. Here was a man literally brought back to life by literature, poised to accomplish that same miracle in miniature within the most famous small town — some say — in the world. 

Eight Books That Changed America sounds a great deal like a talk on American authors. In fact only three of the writers discussed were American. Luzzi might have better called his lecture was Eight Books That Formed America. What he accomplished was simply to rivet us with his exegeses on eight books which shaped the world inside which “The Great American Experiment” today seems to have run off its rails. He lectured on eight books which could possibly reawaken America to what it is our founding fathers hoped — against perilous precedent — to accomplish here. 

If there’s anything the last two years have taught us, it’s that the only thing absolutely necessary to a successful democracy is an educated (or at least accurately informed) populace. The air at the Kleinert became charged with a David versus Goliath electricity last Saturday morning. I’ll spoil the urgency of this report by admitting up front that the good guy won.

No surprise, the Old Testament of the Bible was book number one.  Professor Luzzi lost no time in zeroing in on the thoroughly American contradiction which found Adam and Eve initially tossed out of paradise for disobedience, before mankind was Given The World By Its Creator to use up and toss away any time it liked. (… Comes the first echo of Donald Trump.) 

Luzzi was correct, of course, in stating that as the formative American book the bible encouraged us as a nation to endure the privations of earthly life in hopes of a more just afterlife. Americans tend to await sequels that improve upon originals — at best an unlikely proposition. Fast came a hilarious reference to Ernest Hemingway’s eloquent cavemen leaping from scripture, allowing each (for a time, anyway) to seem the very voice of God. For like any true maestro, Luzzi’s references to masters of every age soon encircled us like webbing of an invisible net of such charm that few realized the trap until it was too late — and we were at his mercy.

The Odyssey for book number two was another shoo-in, although Luzzi dexterously avoided stating exactly how many dozen Homers he believed actually composed The Iliad and The Odyssey. Since the latter remains my favorite book, I of course agreed with all the accolades awarded it, the best stories ever told with the coolest and most telling details, fantastic sex, great gore, psychologically thrilling, and with gender-blending from the get-go. 

But American? Well, okay, in counterpoint to the bible, Homer supplies Odysseus with that maverick and highly American spirit of “don’t trust the afterlife — grab what you want now and sque-e-e-e-ze.” (Trump leapt to mind.)

Number three: The Divine Comedy by Dante. The only book of the eight I haven’t read, and to be honest (although I adored every word Luzzi lavished upon the work) I can’t recall how it in any way changed America except for our guide insisting the best English translation was completed by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow. 

Wait! All right, Luzzi explained how the masterpiece reconciled that notion of “earthly existence as preparation for the afterlife,” with the over-riding Homeric idea that Heaven Can Wait. It’s certainly fair to say that America remains in a constant faceoff between these opposing views, even if present-day proselytizers from both camps insist Donald Trump to be the shining champion of each. 

In the number four spot Luzzi tipped his hand by calling Othello the most America-relevant of Shakespeare’s plays (while falling in line with Harold Bloom’s premise that the Bard essentially invented the English language as well as modern love and thus … life itself). I think it’s obvious that either Julius Caesar or Macbeth remains a better portrait of our country today. Othello remains a bold choice not for what the professor stated concerning the play but for what he suggested. Namely, that America is Iago. That we pretend to want to help the black man in our midst when in fact we seek to destroy him. (As to why this is so, we’d do better to look to last year’s comedy-horror film “Get Out” for the best true answer ever placed before a general U.S. audience.) 

Taking the cake for “incredulous choice,” Luzzi’s fifth book is another favorite of mine: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. To wonder what it ever did to change America is like asking how Judy Garland changed rock’n’roll by being altogether classier than it.

Luzzi’s sixth book returned us to this professor’s most honorable fixation with America’s long-misunderstood struggle with race. After all, we are that unique nation which until two years ago prided itself on welcoming the world’s dispossessed onto real estate stolen from this lands’ native population. So racial confusion is something of a national birthright. 

By choosing The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison as among America’s most transformative novels, Luzzi reminded us of the document that both exposes and demonstrates what African-American intellectual W.E.B. Dubois called “the double veil.” Due to this obscuration, Luzzi noted, Ellison’s hero “refuses to reveal his identity to a people who refuse to see him.” Yet this reflexive anonymity also deprives The Invisible Man from ever fully seeing himself. In other words, race in America is a double-blind test. I’d argue that’s proven by the fact that contrary to general belief Barack Obama did exceedingly little for African-Americans except to get elected —  miraculous though that be.

To complete this hugely important discussion I leap to book number eight: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. This novel (which in many ways parallels Ellison’s in so far as both white and black Americans fully comprehend its oracle) was allowed great celebrity only because its author was an unmarried white woman. Miss Lee was granted asylum sufficient to depict a decent, strong, and well-mannered southern black man seductively cornered by the daughter of a poor white racist, a daughter who ordered him to destroy the infamous piece of furniture known as a “chiffarobe.” Because the writer was a celibate female bystander, white America tolerated Harper Lee’s courtroom recreation of what occurred in her own southern town a generation before, as experienced by the girl she named “Scout.”

An innocent black workman attempted to harmlessly escape the sensual trap of a desirous young white woman and was eventually shot for a crime he didn’t commit. American high school students across the land (and soon moviegoers flocking to Gregory Peck’s all-time-best performance) soaked in the simple Freudian argument at the base, middle and top of white American racism towards Afro-American men: sexual envy and fear. To Kill A Mockingbird laid it out simply then and it remains simple to this day. Perhaps more than any other work named by Luzzi, Lee’s novel indeed placed a mirror before a nation which had never honestly looked at itself, and rarely ever would again.

The other spot-on recipient of Luzzi’s wildly erratic award was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which both exposed the war-for-profit machinery underlying World War Two (and all other wars), while hilariously demonstrating an otherwise humorless Wilhelm Reich’s credo that war is mass insanity, the only sane reaction to which must deteriorate into insanity itself. For Luzzi, Heller is our “Shakespeare of the street,” and who would disagree?

Anyone who could object to Luzzi’s tidal wave of eloquence while hypnotized by sorcerers of erudition spanning the last 3000 years is nothing less than a modern-day Scrooge. So Dickens, get thee behind me! The professor’s point is that the mind is a muscle and the imagination through which we experience literature is its solar plexus. 

We are in a struggle against the powers of darkness disguised as harbingers of light. To survive we must return to the well of literature or become little more than janitors in the jailhouse of our own convenience. Eight Books That Changed America is a carny barker’s absurdity which pulled me in to hear a soul-saving lecture. In today’s sell-it-or-die economy, all that is as it must be. I wouldn’t have paid my money and entered this snake charmer’s tent drawn by any less audacious a claim.

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