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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Boll Weevilism

Enterprise, Alabama, has the distinction of being the only town in the world to have erected (in 1919) a monument to an agricultural pest, the boll weevil. The weevil destroyed cotton harvests, encouraging farmers to turn to the more profitable peanut instead. Charley Patton recorded a track called ‘Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues’, whose characteristically ellipsis-riddled lyrics Alice Oswald includes in her anthology The Thunder Mutters:

Sees a little boll weevil keeps movin’ in the, Lordie!
You can plant your cotton and you won't get a half a bale, Lordie
Bo weevil, bo weevil, where's your native home? Lordie
‘A-Louisiana raised in Texas, least is where I was bred and born’, Lordie
Well, I saw the bo weevil, Lord, a-circle, Lord, in the air, Lordie
The next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there, Lordie
Bo weevil left Texas, Lord, he bid me ‘fare ye well’, Lordie


‘And he made louse for us and delivered us to boll weevils amain’, as we read in Finnegans Wake.

The concept of erecting a monument to something terrible that has indirectly led to the discovery of something much more pleasant is an attractive one. Richard Dawkins can lead a church-building campaign, the ACLU can erect memorials to Strom Thurmond, Ron Silliman can write paeans to Edwin Arlington Robinson. Boll weevilism: the conscientious attainment of a long-coveted goal only to turn away from it in favour of the more interesting failures and miseries it was meant to have swept away. Wittgenstein was always a dab hand at this, whether kicking the atomistic elegance of the Tractatus in the pants and taking off to rural Austria for a protracted sulk:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

Or at the start of the Philosophical Investigations:

I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

And then there’s Gottfriend Benn introducing his Collected Works:

So now these collected works are published, one volume, two hundred pages, how paltry, one would have to be ashamed of it if one were still alive. I would be amazed if anyone were to read it; I feel quite remote from them, I throw them over my shoulder like Deucalion and his stones; maybe their distortions will turn into human beings, but whatever happens, I don’t care for them.

Boll weevilism. Success is a parasite on the worm, failure, that feeds and keeps it alive. It worked for Enterprise, Alabama, and Wittgenstein, and can work for you too.

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