22 August 2009

Paleontology of Delusion

And so it goes, and so it goes. And the book says, "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."
Magnolia (1999)
When I watched Magnolia, I thought the narrator was referring to a book by William Faulkner, and that perhaps the narrator or writer had the quote incorrect.

I watched Magnolia in 2001 or thereabouts after it came out on video, shortly after making reading Faulkner a priority. I had read the usual "Barn Burning" and "A Rose for Emily" in high school or college. In graduate school, one professor assigned Sanctuary (1931), and an assigned text in a literary criticism class demanded familiarity with Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Moreover, Calvin Martin's The American Indian and the Problem of History (1987) drove me into "The Bear," and from there into Go Down, Moses (1942). For the most part, however, I remained egregiously ignorant of Faulkner. I passed up a seminar called Southern Literature because I was appalled that two-thirds of the texts were by one author.

In 2000 I selected Go Down, Moses as one of the texts I would teach in my introductory literature class (yep, I'm nuts), and decided it was time to begin washing away my ignorance of twentieth-century America's greatest writer.

Despite my ignorance, I have been familiar for many years with the sentiment that the past has its own ideas about when we can leave it behind, and that this idea could be attributed as a line from Faulkner. Requiem for Nun (1951) remains on my "to read" list, rather than among the dozen or so texts that I've perused. Even so, for many years I have quoted, and misquoted, and have heard others quote and misquote the line: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Google knows everything

A few days ago, on my Facebook page, I placed the line from Magnolia next to Faulkner's, which had been in the "about me" box for awhile. Last night, I posted the movie line as "my status". This morning I discovered how my status update failed as communication when a friend mistook it as a statement of my psychological journey, rather than what I intended: a fishing expedition to locate Paul Thomas Anderson's source. Anderson wrote and directed Magnolia.

Searching for the quote, "We may be through with the past," via Google produces pages and pages of references to Magnolia. Often I stop there. If the fish won't rise to the surface, I can do something else. Indeed I stopped fishing several times, before returning anew. After wading through perhaps five pages, I found The Internet Movie Database's Magnolia trivia. The note references The Natural History of Nonsense (1946) by Bergan Evans as the source of the line. Evans' book also is the source for the idea that it could rain frogs.

My belief that it was an instance of Faulkner misquoted proved incorrect. The Natural History of Nonsense precedes Requiem for a Nun. Perhaps Evans' book is Faulkner's source for Gavin Stevens' memorable line?

The first chapter, "Adam's Navel," begins:
We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us. Ideas of the Stone Age exist side by side with the latest scientific thought. Only a fraction of mankind has emerged from the Dark Ages, and in the most lucid brains, as Logan Pearsall Smith has said, we come upon "nests of woolly caterpillars." Seemingly sane men entrust their wealth to stargazers and their health to witch doctors.
Evans, The Natural History of Nonsense, 5
Before this chapter begins, the text offers several quotable epigrams in the front-matter. The Preface, for instance:
This book is a contribution to the natural history of nonsense. It is a study in the paleontology of delusion. It is an antibody for all who are allergic to Stardust. It is a manual of chiropody for feet of clay.
Evans, The Natural History of Nonsense, vii


Porlock Hussein Junior said...

Oh gosh, so much fun to see a citation of Bergen Evans, one of my major formative influences way back when. And of course I'd forgotten that memorable opening line.

1946. I'd also forgotten it was that old, probably because I didn't run into it till 15 years later when I'd been introduced to his Spoor of Spooks, courtesy of a librarian the family knew, who equipped me a bunch of memorable books during the years of my adolesence.

But, umm, what does the link have to do with raining frogs? (I checked: Firefox couldn't find a frog anywhere on the page.) And the seeming suggestion that he advanced the idea goes oddly with his debunking of it, complete with sources cited for the silly old idea.

Oh yeah, Evans taught me to read and enjoy footnotes. Just turn me into petroleum with the rest of the dinosaurs.

Somebody needs to write an appreciation of Evans for, say, the Skeptical Inquirer. Wish I could get my act together to do it.

James Stripes said...

Thanks for the comment. I hadn't read Bergen Evans until I decided to resolve my confusion over the source of that line ending Magnolia.

You are correct that he refutes, rather than advances the idea that it could rain frogs. Even so, in Magnolia it does rain frogs, and that scene reflects the writer/director's debt to Evans.

Bergen wrote:

Among other delusions and myths in the realm of physical geography, climate, and meteorology, are the irresistible suction of undertows and quicksands, the belief that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, that heavy gunfire produces rain, that thunder sours milk, that tornadoes have a "dead center" in which the law of gravity is inoperative, and that frogs, small fish, and other organic beings and substances have fallen from the sky during heavy rains. (emphasis added, 19-20)

The link is to a discussion of one bit of nonsense that peppers public discourse today. Consider the belief that it rains frogs as metaphor: popular errors in matters of science, which is the central focus of Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and certain questions inspired by partisan politics continue to spice up our appreciation of nonsense. I think Evans would not be surprised to observe that sixty-plus years have not substantially altered the essential worldview of that sector of the populace that once cultivated belief in raining fishes and frogs, and that now apply their prodigious intellectual skills to unpacking the mysteries of President Obama's birth.

Having now read Evans, it is time to watch Magnolia again. Perhaps there are more references to untangle.

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