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. . . 2003-02-27

Hands! Hands! Hands! Hands! Hands!, cont.

Josh Lukin joins our perplexity:

There has just *got* to be a story of the Lucy Clifford or E.T.A. Hoffman unheimlich school that does something with artificial hands, but damned if I can think of anything but J.M. Barrie, which would be quite a stretch to include . . . Southern's use of the image in Strangeglove, of course, has all kinds of post-Metropolis precendents among authors who can be classed with Southern as Black Humorists. West, as you note. Durrenmatt's The Visit. Highsmith's "The Great Cardhouse." And of course V., wherein at least two characters have that distinction.

Shelley Jackson would be the ideal person to ask about this, followed by the authors of Narrative Prosthesis.
For pre-Strangelove self-modifying crazy-ass scientists, we might also look into Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, but that doesn't help with my personal goal of finding a precursor to Metropolis. So far the closest I've come is Nuada, which is none too close. Maybe I should just get over it and admit that some Nazis had a flair with pulp.

By the way, those of you with access to the MLN should seek out Dr. Lukin's illuminating review of Dr. Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.

+ + +

News that stays news

An anonymous reader informs us:

theocracy cheats

. . . 2003-03-01

Reading Leggott's Reading Zukofsky's, cont.

Whether theoretically justified or not, when she purveys a back-o'-the-thick-hornrimmed-specs view of 80 Flowers, Leggott follows the author's lead. The nearest Zukofsky came to a public statement about the book was in a 1975 recorded discussion with Hugh Kenner. After reading "#22 Bayberry," the first words out his mouth are:

The source of this is...
And it doesn't take long for the author's own source-digging to strike apparent absurdity.
"Durant," and that's where Dante comes in.... The name Dante: do you know what that means? ... It's still used today: it's deer-skin. And it's enduring. It presumably holds. So it's "durant leaf."
Let's imagine -- or even embody -- a close or expert reader facing the following lines:

Candleberry bayberry spice resinwax green
durant leaf moor in key
dour attested deer-wit winds survive

Even if we intuited a proper name in "durant leaf," wouldn't we hit Jimmy before Alighieri?

Given Zukofsky's lack of interest in biography, the focus on process is surprising. Maybe his assumption is that there's no reason to point out the details of the craft, it resting right there on the surface free for Kenner's taking? We are talking about someone whose most manifestive critical work was an anthology. Maybe he's not really talking professionally, even if he's not talking all that personally either. (Another quote from the tape: "My original source, that's a private matter.") Maybe he's just providing a professional friend with professional gossip.

So! All right, this is how Zukofsky amuses himself. They say, they ask me, do I amuse myself? God, no, I...! But when it's done, well, then, it's -- at least it's out of the way, damn it.
It's always a shock to find a bone-familiar sensation described by someone you admire, isn't it? "Out of the way" -- yeah. The only good reason I know for writing is to get the annoying jingle-jangle-jingle of the spurs down and out of my head so I can stop being bugged by them. I guess there aren't many other reasons for writing if you're not writing for an audience. (And I guess it's appropriate if one then ends up with not much of an audience....) But in these circumstances, it makes me feel like a piker: I haven't written about Zukofsky's poetry myself; I haven't written about most of my favorite things. When I read Zukofsky's poetry, or Karen Joy Fowler's stories, or watch Howard Hawks's movies, nothing bugs me; I'm kind of with Zukofsky in thinking that the pleasure's blatantly there.

Instead, here I write about a book about Zukofsky. Because that's where something bugged me.

... to be continued ...

. . . 2003-03-02

Oulipo boy, a long way from home

I'm with A. Waggish, Org. in finding explicitly Oulipolitan assignments the least significant components of the Oulipocorpus. Like most exercises in self-indulgent discipline (like most exercise, in short), they're for the benefit of the exerciser. My Van Morrison cover, for example, kept me in a slightly better temper while bussing from the BART station to the CalTrain station. The experiment met its goals but the goals were of limited interest.

Earnestness and fooling around aren't always so easily contrasted, however. The extent to which abs-tightening is purely self-indulgent depends on how dependent others might be on one's abs: the infantry, after all, has to travel on 'em. And I for one can easily imagine earnest and significant jerking off.

If the Oulipo Program readies the exerciser for anything, it's in an improved ability to apply oneself seriously to transparently arbitrary make-work. Under what circumstances might that prove significant?

Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London and Samuel Beckett's Watt obviously differ, and equally obviously Beckett has the advantage. But they both seem as solidly significant as one might possibly want to deal with this side of the grave. And they both achieve this solidity by being "about" the need to work through and after and around trauma. (Personal trauma for Roubaud; historical for Beckett. Thus Beckett's advantage: prose fiction is less friendly to pathetic fallacy than to metonymy.)

Given the magnitude of the trauma, any response -- any work -- seems pointless, insulting even. Something to force oneself through, numb, dumb, and foul. Its only justification is its necessity, while belief in its necessity is impossible to maintain.

Embodying this recognition of survival's triviality in the very work of survival is the point and foundation of the works' significance.

Although myself a mere observer of significance, I venture to guess that the triviality boot-camps of Oulipo and Murphy found their justification in helping the workers along.

. . . 2003-03-05

Reading Leggott's Reading Zukofsky's, cont.

... that's where something bugged me.

My public allegiance is pledged to the researched reading camp, even though, being a lazy kind of guy, I mostly engage in close reading. When it comes to genealogical history, well, I enjoy a good piece of detective work and (being a lazy kind of guy) I have no objection to picking up short-cuts anywhere I happen across them. But I'm uncomfortable with using special knowedge about the author to "explain" a work.

So why is it that Levi Strauss's researched presentation improved my experience of 80 Flowers not a whit, in fact left me completely untouched, while I put aside Leggott's genealogy with an exhilarating new sense of ease?

In one minor way it could be at least partly his fault or my prejudice. Levi Strauss inclines to that rhetorical quirk in which the author is personified as a paternal god (usually some unholy mix of Falstaff and Gandalf) whose slightest gesture fills the critic's doggy-like field-of-vision. This ploy may have began with bardolatry ("He is all in all."), but I particularly associate it with Joyceans and post-structuralists: "With a bawdy laugh and a knowing wink, canny Joyce invites us to join the transgressive free play of signifiers...." (You see it with Joss Whedon fans, too.) It seems kind of creepy and twitchy, like a Jerry Lewis movie with Jerry Lewis in all the parts. I think of myself as a comparatively informal and affectionate person, but I'm put off by the familiarity: that's not Joyce; I've never met Joyce and I doubt that he'd ever want to meet me, much less invite me to his signifier orgy.

But I'm grasping at straw men. In his researched reading of "#56 Hyacinth," Levi Strauss worked that OED hard, made some connections to "A", and even spotted one-word and two-word quotes from Shakespeare. Much better job than I'd've done, anyway.

And maybe because he wasn't writing a Ph.D. dissertation, Levi Strauss touched on some obvious issues that Leggott almost perversely put off, like goals and pleasure, and he voiced some obvious questions that Leggott left unasked.

(For example: The only punctuation marks in 80 Flowers are an occasional apostrophe and the compounding hyphens that Zukofsky uses to fudge the word count. In this stripped-down anti-discursive narrativeless context, words bobbing semi-detached from semantics or syntax, what can we make of the frequent italicization? Do italics indicate tonal emphasis? Emphatic citation? Purely lexical signal for some otherwise invisible formal milestones? Levi Strauss admits ignorance, which seems a comradely gesture; Leggott doesn't mention the problem except to point out "the italics that foreground thyme, rose, and thyme as the scope of #75 Thyme.")

All of which I support but stubbornly gained nothing by.

"if I asked him hed say its from the Greek leave us as wise as we were before"

... to be continued ...

. . . 2003-03-06


Reader Robert writes:

I run a group called 'PawPets West', we make music videos lip-syncing animal puppets to pop music. These are shown on an internet TV show (The Funday Show) that is fully RIAA etc. licenced. If you are interested, here are some excerpts of our music videos.

I have a couple of comments on the lyrics at 'When life gives you scraps, make collage'.

The 'uauchghh!' sound is not phlegm-hawking but the term 'wack' pronounced with the severe gutteral Mersey dialect. 'wack' is a form of address, about equivalent to 'mate', or 'guy' in USA. See 'A dictionary of slang'.

At the end 'wacker' is a more direct form, perhaps translatable as 'YOU!'

Also in line

When my loost's run out, that twister's Dawn(4) away and run out on me

Dawn might be 'gawn' i.e. 'gone' with Mersy modification of G to D sound. 'Gawn' is the normal slang pronounciation of 'gone'.

Spends my dough but more to resist him

In plain english -

Spent my dough, could not resist him

I have to re-tune my ears to follow this stuff after 30 years of listening to North American!

We thank Robert for the information and regret any inconvenience.

. . . 2003-03-07

Sheepskins & Skin-the-Goat

One of the nice things about not dying young is instead of regretting all the things you never accomplished, you get to see other people accomplish them. Like, you can imagine my relief that Patricia Highsmith's reputation has advanced to the point that a critical biography is being written without me having to lift a finger. And the nicest thing about weblog memes (jargon for "dogpile on the topic") is that it takes less time for someone else to say what you're trying to figure out how to say.

Thus I've stayed on the sidelines of the world-wide town-gown rumble long enough that notorious gown-wearer Alex Golub beat me to the punch, and punched way better than I would've. (Besides being lazy, I'm a feeb.) What follows is merely supplemental:

I know of people who treat academia as a day job (the way I treat software engineering, say), but I haven't met many. Most of the academics and ex-academics I've befriended come in one of the following easily distinguished forms:

Both have the best of motivations (love) and both seem admirable characters. Both also seem intelligent enough to realize that equally admirable characters can have very different experiences and suffer very different outcomes. What's struck me most forcefully in my limited sample set is the overwhelming extent to which one's status as sheep or goat seems to have been determined by a single factor: the relationship with one's doctoral advisor.

That's not so much the case in the day-job world. A beginning software engineer may have a bad manager first time out and soldier badly on. But even aside from disillusionment with the Community of Learning, the power of the advisor is so absolute, and modifying a post-graduate study program is so difficult, and the amount of debt thrown down the school's maw (in the present USA, at any rate) is so horrifying, that a callous, narrow-minded, self-serving, deceptive, or simply incompetent advisor can do decades of damage to a life with astonishing ease.

For me, it's never been an issue. I'm with Harvard apostate Henry Adams: tying the collaborative role of teacher to the punitive role of judge drops us into a pit of corruption; associating the sacrifice of youth and money (nowadays more money than the youth is ever likely to see again) with bell curve competition elbows our brightest ideals into a drainage ditch. Undisciplined and openly hostile toward authority, I barely achieved a B. A. -- and that only for purposes of class mobility. I live for scholarship, but much of the research I've depended on and virtually all of the learning and teaching I've done were free of institutional ties. When I wish I could make a living by scholarship, it's like wishing I had fifty million dollars, or wishing I was ruled by the just. In short, I'm no academic.

But I depend on the academies for their libraries (and now, surprisingly enough, for my paycheck) and to supply my academic friends with worthwhile happy lives. So I wish the academies well. And in that spirit I offer the following advice:


  Dat GOD DAMN HAT, that SHIT FAKE WIZARD!! I been his aprentice over a year an he NEVER done a trick, he never taught me nothin' but ABUSE an PAIN! Advisor damage

. . . 2003-03-10

Reading Leggott's Reading Zukofsky's, cont.

Having worked even harder than Levi Strauss, Leggott permits even more niggling. No (or little) OED for her; she keeps Zukofsky's own 10 volume 1895 Century Dictionary close at hand -- in fact, most of Zukofsky's library close at hand, along with his manuscripts, letters, and published works. That makes for a pretty crowded (even cramped) hand. The hand becomes overstimulated. The hand bounces off the walls.

She assures us that the line "zebra-fragrant sharpened wave currents tide" (#80 Zinnia) ain't so tough: thyme has a fragrance, even if zinnias don't, and thyme is important, thyme thymitie thyme time! And the Century's "zebra" entry is really keen since its text includes Zukofkian attractors like "light and symmetrical," "wild asses," "bottom," "secluded," "watchfulness," and "destined to extermination."

Which is all very nice for those of us who like this sort of thing, but still doesn't begin to answer the most obvious questions: What the heck is zebra-fragrant supposed to mean, and what's eau-de-zebra doing at sea?

And so on, but not entirely so forth.

I can't think of any way to convey the odd surface inutility and subterranean utility of Leggott's approach except by example. Here's one of Leggott's shorter and simpler exegeses, of "#63 Oxalis":

Was it the combination of "sorrel" and finding out that the Greek oxys had more senses of sharpness than acidity, sourness, pungency (the leaves and stems of most oxalises are sour-juiced), that decided Zukofsky to bring in the horse again? Plus the resemblance of oxalis leaves (three leaflets, notched) to those of clover, the lucky leaf ("One's a lucky horse," "A"-12, p. 176) -- more lucky to Zukofsky when its heart shapes number three rather than four? Each leaflet-heart comes to a sharp point at the mutual conjunction, or is "brought to a point" (kyrbasia es oxy apēgmenas); Zukofsky was looking at Liddell and Scott's entry for oxys. "Tow ox / a"? The vertex of a triangle is expressed in the phrase to oxy. The Greek point was also extended to the senses, and could signify sharp keen feeling, whether the blazing heat of the sun or stabs of pain or grief. Virgil's "rapidus sol" is cited by Liddell and Scott as an analog; Zukofsky checked Lewis and Short and found the reference under the literal sense (very rare, used only poetically) of rapidus as "tearing away, seizing." In the Georgics, the effects of burning-over are supposed to harden and therefore protect the soil from, among other things, "seizure" by the sun's heat:

  ne tenues pluviae rapidive potentia solis
acrior au Boreae penetrabile frigus adurat.
(Georgics I.92)

"So that the searching showers may not harm, or the blazing sun's fierce tyranny wither it, or the North-wind's piercing cold." Remembering "so much sun, clouds, stars usw*(ice storms too) [sic] thru our windows, we should have left the city ten years ago" -- Zukofsky is developing a landsman's sense of the elements, probably hearing with the poet's ear: "Fear no more the heat o' th' sun, / Nor the furious winter's rages" (Cym. IV.ii.258), or even: "The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night" (Ps. 121:1). In #63 Oxalis, the sense of Virgil's "rapidus sol" and Liddell and Scott's citation of the trope is to be heard in: "rapids whose soul / air-spring disperses through water."

For rapidus in its more customary sense means "tearing or hurrying along, swift, quick, rapid"; and suddenly we see that the oxys-rapidus carryover has generated a multitude of meanings in #63 Oxalis, from the sharp points of (keen) hearts that may feel (or, unwittingly, inflict?) pain, grief, or other emotional blazes ("scald scold"), to the quick (and as sharply felt) elations sweeping those same rapid souls: "a breeze sweet rampant pulse." If this last, by means of the drive word "pulse," stirs powerful memories of the horse of the Epigraph, perhaps it is intended to, because the source of the line deals expressly with the issue of poetic inspiration. Johnson wrote of Milton's compositional technique: "Richardson, who... discovers always a wish to find Milton discriminated from other men, relates, that 'he would sometimes lie awake whole nights, but not a verse could he make; and on a sudden his poetical faculty would rush upon him with an impetus or oestrum, and his daughter was immediately called to secure what came.'"

Oestrum, says the Century, is more properly oestrus and it means "vehement desire or emotion, passion, frenzy." Oestrus, from the Greek oistros, is "gadfly" or "breeze" and by extension "vehement urging, stimulus, desire"; in fact, "sting." Oistros is listed as a synonym for myōps, the goad/gadfly/squint of #59 Spirea. And so it is that a sweet breeze is another sharp point, this time rather like the Aristotelian goad, for the "rampant pulse" of the horse -- whose imagination still seems to run with the wind whatever stable the old singer is compelled to inhabit, reaffirming: "If someone stole off with its body / Be sure that its spirits / Canter forever" ("A"-12, p. 181).

As for "honor the bard," the phrase with which #63 Oxalis closes, more than Shakespeare and a hint of the honorary doctorate [from Bard College, 1977] is encompassed when we discover, as Zukofsky did when he checked the Century and found a fine illustration, that a bard can be medieval horse's armor....

Shorter and simpler than most, but still one might hope to be prepared for the original at this point.

Let's try it:

#63    OXALIS

Wood sorrel lady's-sorrel 3-hearts tow ox
a leese rapids whose soul
air-spring disperses thru water elator
ox lips mistaken for clover
more ruse mulberry locust-flower shield
welcome wanderer óxalis time primrose-yellow
a breeze sweet rampant pulse
scald scold honor the bard

Part of the comedy here is the contrast between Leggott's prolixity and Zukofsky's enigma (that 400-to-80 page ratio).

And part is how little elucidation has occurred. Not just what remains unexplained ("leese"? "more ruse"? why the accent?), but also the irrelevance of Leggott's "explanations" to any possible reader (the Samuel Johnson quote may show up in Zukofsky's worksheets, but not a single word from it remains in the finished poem).

It's a one-way passage. Following Zukofsky's sources gets Leggott further along the "z-sited path are but us," but she's further along in the same direction: a path that remains z-sited and but them, while we remain but us.

That's what Leggott demonstrates, and that's why her work helps me enjoy Zukofsky's.

... to be continued ...

. . . 2003-03-16

The Worms Look Up

The Ouliposse might turn (or might roll) their eye to Michael Blumlein's "Know How, Can Do," first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in December 2001, and since reprinted in several anthologies.

Blumlein uses the queerly dessiccated complexity of palindromes and lipograms -- a page of "a" as vowel (with "y" as cheat); a page-and-a-half of "a" and "i"; two pages of "a," "i," and "o" ("I now can say it") -- to stage the dawning consciousness of nature's noblest creature.

Once fully voweled, his plotline proves to be melodrama in a well-worn humanist sf tradition ("Helen O'Loy" and "Flowers for Algernon" among hundreds of examples). But literalizing showy technique into familiar narrative is one of the tricks sf was born for.

Am Adam. At last can talk. Grand day!

Am happy, happy as a clam. What's a clam? Happy as a panda, say, happy as a lark. And an aardvark. Happy and glad as all that.

Past days, talk was far away. Adam had gaps. Vast gaps. At chat Adam was a laggard, a sadsack, a nada.

Adam's lamp was dark. Adam's land was flat.

Fact was, Adam wasn't a mammal.

. . . 2003-03-19

Causal Fallacy

I haven't had much to say about the New Adventures of Bush. That's because I don't have much to add to what I've previously said, and as a firm believer in artifacts, I'm also a firm believer in say-something-once-why-say-it-again.

If anything, as time goes on I find even more that's been said and therefore even less to add. For example, in the peculiar post-September-11 turn of this artifactual presence to the question of determinism -- which now seems less a pleasant distraction than the point on which we're being shishkabobbed.

To a more extreme extent than we've ever known before (the bloated Republican puppets of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties being at least answerable to their puppet-masters), the United States is under the power of the consequence-free. We have the causes, but where'd the effects go? Bush went AWOL, and speaks as a patriot; he failed in business, and remains rich; he snorted and drank and raised those who snort and drink, and pushes life imprisonment for dabblers; he lost an election, and became President; he dragged the FBI off his Saudi business associates and some of them attacked our country and Bush hid and bin Laden still hides, and Bush was praised for his bungling; he squanders our national treasury and destroys our tax base and increases government spending on anything that might profit his domestic business associates, and I still don't see the so-called fiscally responsible turning against him. He keeps inviting disaster, and retribution keeps passing harmlessly through him and onto the nation.

Whether Saddam Hussein is dangerous or not is beside the point. When I want to complain about dangerous leaders, I can see closer examples. The question is: Should a nation with a ruined tax structure which has been unsuccessful at waging war against one enemy initiate a new war on a second front (Saddam Hussein being a torturer and dictator but no fundamentalist terrorist)? What possible justification can be strong enough for the cost? That it will help advance us toward Third World status? That Bush thinks he can get away with it? That Saddam Hussein is a (and our) nasty piece of work? Well, I think it would be nice to open space stations throughout the galaxy, or to resuscitate public education, or even to supply the troops with toilet paper, but we don't have the money for those things either.

All that, obviously, I can talk about, although I say nothing new. What leaves me speechless is the widespread notion that Bush's "success" will depend on the "success" of his unprompted war rather than on whether any unprompted war is a justifiable venture right now.

And, attempting to learn from history rather than from reason, I have to admit that the notion may be right. In such times, rationality can only bow its head before stupidity and try to learn to keep its mouth shut.

(Dan Rather, on the other hand, can keep right on talking. I just heard him disapprove of those who raise the question of civilian casualties: "War is cruel. It shouldn't need to be said." That's right, and it makes me wonder why he says it now when he didn't a year and a half ago....)

. . . 2003-03-23

Shock & Awe by Harlan K. Ullman & James P. Wade, 1996

With all due respect, "Blitzkrieg" was a catchier trademark.

A sense of Heinrich-come-lately haunted the authors as well, their contagious enthusiasm for Extreme Battling dogged by doubts about "political feasibility and acceptability" and regrets that, for example, the decapitation of concubines might lie "outside the cultural heritage and values of the U.S." It's hard to achieve fascist levels of brilliance when you have to deal with obstacles like democracy and a free press.

Alongside General Fred and General Chuck (when did our officer corps lose its grown-ups?), Admiral Bud Edney contributed an appendix, which expressed similar worries in managementspreche:

"Would the concept of Rapid Dominance offend and generate a counterproductive public relations backlash from those who believe force should only be used as a last resort and then with a measurable degree of proportionality? ... Do we know the funding tail to such a policy and are we as a nation ready to accept this cost when/if Rapid Dominance is applied in situations that are less than of vital interest?"
But what "when/if" we could somehow avoid democracy and a free press...?

Over a few decades, American political coverage has combined the sports page and the gossip column. Policies count for nothing; all that matters are polls. The end result of a political contest is not a government but "a winner."

At the end of 2000 came the harvest: wide-spread declarations that it didn't matter who the winner was or how arbitrarily he was chosen so long as the big game could be brought to a conclusion.* After all, it's just a game, and there are bets riding on it.

If civilians and enlisted personnel (you know, the people who can't be trusted to think big) could be made to take that same just-a-game outlook towards warfare,** perhaps the brilliant boys club could get their entrepreneurial day in the sun.

And so they have.

My own doubts? War is too big a game to be left to athletic scholarships.

For one thing, what makes a game a game is its delimitation. Wars, like political compaigns, have consequences far beyond their final score. As I understand it, extraludic consequences are why civilians were put in charge in the first place.

For another, there's a chance that a new league might be, practically speaking (that is, non-game-speaking, like when thousands of New Yorkers get killed?), more important than who you've already booked the stadiums with.

* I don't mean to begrudge Nader credit in this process. Our futures haven't been fully determined by a right-wing conspiracy. We apolitical and self-absorbed did our bit.
** "You might be willing to pay big bucks for a B-2 superstar quarterback, but you will also need lower cost and capable riflemen or destroyers to block and tackle." - General Chuck, Appendix B

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2003 Ray Davis.