Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Garrison Keillor: Ford Hall Forum Address on Cheefulness

Last night we attended the Ford Hall Forum lecture series at Northeastern University. As I learned last night, this series is a ninety-nine years long tradition providing free lectures and debates for the Boston public. We were there to hear Garrison Keillor.

Mr. Keillor is touring and touting his new book, Pontoon. He got that business out of the way right up front in a humorous self-deprecating way, never describing the contents of the book. You can be sure, however, that the work will cheer you up. After a delightful expose of aging and its farcical vicissitudes, Keillor explored how the proper response to such absurdities is cheerfulness. Keillor believes that art should uplift the soul, make us see the world or at least our experiences in a more flattering light, perhaps candlelight for those, like him, who have turned sixty-five this year. He lambastes modern poetry and literature for torturing high school readers with the likes of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land", turning potential life-long readers into the opposite.

Keillor embraced the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here was a man who advocated for literature and its relevance for the American way of life. He traveled the country and talked about this ideas. He sold cheerfulness and optimism as a way of life. He paved the way for writers and intellectuals. Keillor rued his most famous protege, Thoreau, who has been sold to young Americans at many graduations speeches as the valiant individualist who walked to the beat of his own drummer--as if it were a good thing to forsake community and the pleasures of society. As if being alone could substitute for the richness of friends and the vitality of life lived in touch with the living.

T.S. Eliot, Keillor noted, was miserable and packaged his agony for all to endure as Art. If only Eliot would have had sex much sooner, the course of modern art and literature in America would be far more virile than its sad state today. Sex, it seems, is good grounds to cause what we all need more of, cheerfulness. Children too seem an antidote to gloom. Keillor described episodes from his nine-year-old daughter's life that reveal how resilience doesn't have to develop thick-skin or cultivate fear and terror and its result, isolation. Children move on from each tragedy or indignity, ready for more experiences, more fun, more of the ever delightful same story read for the fiftieth time if it is read by someone who loves them.

There was a question-and-comment section at the end of the lecture with various accolades and entrapments (involving Keillor's pro-Bush's retirement stance and his personal religious faith stance), all of which Keillor handled with amiable aplomb.

As I left the hall, I overhead one woman, who was glowing, say that "it was like vitamins" for her spirit. I assume she is the kind of person who enjoys taking vitamins. After all, she was flush with cheerfulness.

Indeed, Keillor's comments made me think about my own novel-in-progress. The contents are not cheerful. Yet it makes me cheerful to right it. As I engage in the creative process I come alive in ways that the occasional yoga class, certainly laundry, even eating a fine meal can't rival. Maybe I do need to insert a comic break in my novel, well, just because. Keillor said at some point in the night, "When in doubt, write something funny." Alas, I wish I had the comic marrow-bones to do it. I can barely be funny in real life.

Writing my blog makes me cheerful. There, that is the best justification for blogging I have yet to develop.

Later that night we strolled down Newbury street after a fresh juice at the Trident. It was a fall night, air crisp and new scarves bound snugly against our throats. Suddenly, I came to a full stop and turned to face my husband. "Let's name him Garrison." (Here referring to our yet-to-be-born child.) He didn't think it resonated with either of our last names. But wouldn't that be a legacy worthy enough to pass on to American's new generation? Can you tell that I think Garrison Keillor is a jewel?

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