Bellona Times
The Knocker
. . .

Time Flies Like a Banana

After the Tudors, the canonical history of English song splits into unsingable-poetry-for-reading and abstract-music-for-listening, a process pretty much complete by the time you get to Dryden and Handel.

Now, you could say (as Pound did) that this is disgraceful decadence, same as when music separates from dance. But why be doomy about it? People do get bored with constraints, after all. Unencumbered, music gained opportunities, and although they may have been squandered, aesthetics is with Abraham: Peradventure there be ten righteous within the genre, then spare all the place for their sakes.

Even when Renaissance lyric was most neglected, evidence of its existence wasn't completely erased. That's the magic of artifact: the old hat survives to be rediscovered as healing-touch relic. (And, paddling my hobbyhorse, that's also the tragedy of copyright extension, which buries work alive and then posts a guard against desecration by exhumers.) Meanwhile, among the unwashed folk, and then among the unwashed consumers, integrated song and integrated dance rattled merrily along outside the approved cultural marketplace, eventually to be picked up by ambitious self-marketers.

Most of us would admit that poetry's landholdings have only shrunk since Pound's youth. Verse is no longer written for newspapers; newspapers don't even quote it except for sake of scandal. We don't experience quotidian poetry; its role has been taken over by other arts.

And this isn't something to regret, unless you're too snobbish to credit any virtù outside your own. It's perfectly fine that Anton Webern wasn't Robert Johnson: compromise wouldn't have been improvement. Cultural history doesn't reflect a decline but a series of bifurcations and tardy acknowledgments.

So when I call poetry dead, or call our period Hellenistic, I don't mean it insultingly. The high arts aren't "high" as in class, or "high" as in IQ, but "high" as in "that venison is beginning to get pretty high." There's the ripeness of strawberries and there's the ripeness of cheese.

Twentieth-century-and-later Anglo poetry is interesting because it's a dead art. The dead have one great advantage: They don't have to make a living.

+ + +

Are weblogs, in contrast, a living form?

Not the way I do them.

. . .

The Textbook State *

We were struck by the purity with which the California recall diagrammed techniques for taking the risk out of democracy and the First World out of the USA.

The trend continues as Governor Schwarzenegger does the Shorter George W. Bush Administration about as condensed as possible:

  1. Grab some power.
  2. Create an emergency.
  3. Use the emergency to grab more power.
  4. Repeat as convenient.

* Not to be mistaken for A State That Can Afford Textbooks.

. . .

Seasoning's Greetings
Bill's Page 2 Writing.....3 So it is Christmas time and we think about the meaning of Christmas and how it is about the joy and hope that only the birth of a baby can bring, which I must say is a tremendous thing. But there is also the question of Jesus and his life, and the question of what would Jesus do if he was in your shoes and could not perform miracles and start a church and stuff, but simply lived your life. And I think about meeting this man from Kashmir.... And I know it might not seem kosher to say this about a Muslim man living in a community of Hindus, but to me this man's life is what Christmas is all about.
Clear Cut Press? Small Beer Press? Weblogs?

Yeah, those do mighty fine work. But they all cost something, unless you're reading them at the library.

Cheapskates in the know know the year's best bargain in personal publishing is the Penzeys Spices catalog, which under Bill "Third-Generation" Penzey's guidance has evolved from a simple price-sheet into a serialized glossy Midwestern Bouvard & Pécuchet Cookbook. It's free! Plus the spices are good.

(On the other hand, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet's chocolate subscription probably makes a better last-minute gift.)

. . .

First National Bank of the Living Dead

I know I should be grateful for any audible resistance whatsoever, but I have a hard time celebrating Terry Gross's encounter with Grover Norquist, now appearing on a year-end round-up near you. Horror over Holocaust abuse concedes the main rhetorical point: Norquist didn't compare genocide to legal discrimination against rich people. He compared it to legal discrimination against corpses.

What we needed to resist was rebranding the estate tax as a "death tax," instead of a "lazy parasite tax" or a "crazy-assed worthless motherfucker tax." Like all taxes, the estate tax touches only the living -- in this case, only the living who are about to receive three million, ten million, a hundred million dollars that they did nothing to earn. Removal of the estate tax doesn't relieve a (dead) individual. It maintains a class.

But the various forces of the Republican right are well-practiced muddiers of mortality. We're supposed to feel helpless sentimentality toward the poor defenseless "dead person" as we do toward the poor defenseless "unborn person," in both cases overlooking life as an essential attribute of personality. (Live people, presumably, are able to defend themselves. Live non-rich people, anyway.)

The primal muddier in this case, as in so many others, was likely that Supreme Court who scrawled aleph, mem, tav on the forehead of the corporation and gave it pseudo-life, monstrous, immortal. Behold the clay-smeared mangled remains of the public domain! Tearful young widows pled for exclusive rights to a dead husband's ongoing profitability -- otherwise they might be forced to live solely on investments -- and "convinced" Congress that an individual artist will somehow be helped if their art is completely controlled for the century after their death by people who had nothing to do with making the art and who probably don't even like it.

In the land of the Golem, the breathing man is dirt.

. . .

Movie Mop-Up: Holes

Despite my adherence to movie-is-a-movie book-is-a-book orthodoxy, what a pleasure, after suffering through a long run of incoherent film-schooled star-indulgent crap, to encounter a script so devoted to its source novel.

Oh, the staging of the script had its discords, starting with the obtrusive music. The cast was charming, but I couldn't help but feel sorry for the overgrown hulk somewhere who'd been denied his big break when apish Stanley Yelnats was assigned to a more conventional willowy teenager. And although the desert made convincing desert, standard-issue F/X exaggerated the gruelling trial-by-mountain into Schwarzenegger fantasyland.

But Louis Sachar's transplanted machinery carried on, doing its job: the low contrivance of melodrama built up and extended, gear by chute by trip-board by flywheel, until it became the high artifice of comedy. It's a practical, if currently neglected, aspect of information theory that, while a little complexity creates suspense, increased complexity either collapses into noise or crystallizes into laughter.

Our anxiety and our relief, being pure products of storytelling technique, float free, ready to attach to whatever sentiment we find close at hand. In a screwball comedy, we associate them with romance, which is why screwball comedies are traditional first-date films and the Three Stooges aren't. Holes, on the other hand, induced in me a strong, and more than slightly disconcerting, upflux of patriotism, and I left the theater in as flag-waving a mood as I've felt in some time.

My reaction isn't easy to explain. It's true that Sachar's elaborate multi-generational farce pivots on important aspects of American history, but lynchings, anti-immigrant prejudice, land barons, and chain gangs make weak propaganda. Maybe there's a bit of Stockholm Syndrome here: America caused the story's anxiety, and so I associated America with the story's relief. After all, I'd be at least as hard-pressed to find positive aspects of sexual love in His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby.

Maybe by interlocking our national horrors with the comic survival of individuals, the movie hit at the heart of the particular sort of patriotism I call my own: a love of what Americans have managed to achieve despite all the crap they've gone through; a hope that sheer mobility is enough to release children from the chains and curses of their parents; a fractured fairy tale of chance recombination leading to something better than hostility unto the final generation.

At the very least, it might be worth trying out as a replacement for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on the Fourth of July.

. . .

Movie Mop-Up: Seabiscuit

Before I became a contented critical cow, back when I was trying to write fiction, I was fascinated by synecdochical technique, and wasted some time trying to devise a story told entirely by implication, with only the set-ups visible, with every punchline delivered offstage.

What I found (and you're probably way ahead of me) is that exclusive reliance on synedoche restricts the author to the thoroughly familiar. A reader can only be trusted to complete a cliché.

In Seabiscuit, I saw my old experiment retried and my old results verified. In place of a traditional exposition, it started with a long series of abbreviated gestures toward foregone conclusions: a certain swell of music, a certain tone of lighting, a certain placement of stars, and you understood that a fortune's about to be made, that disaster's about to strike, that these two people will get married.... Then on to the next Life Incident. The poor schmucks were following "Show, don't tell" to the letter, not realizing that such empty stuff was meant to be told and gotten out of the way to make room for the real movie.

Another Life Incident followed, and another, and I eventually realized that there was never going to be a real movie. These expensive skills, props, and costumes were going to continue to be devoted to showing only what we were trained to think we already knew. Nothing was going to be allowed on film that hadn't already been handled and worn to sepia.

Clearly, the filmmakers had pitched this as not just a horse picture but a real human story with important life lessons, and then, true to their word, had ignored the horse picture in favor of self-help homilies, thus teaching us the important life lesson that it's not always a good idea to stay true to our word.

What kept me in my seat, in that tepid bath, past that point? Perversity, I guess. Just how many little white lies would the filmmakers's consciences take on for the sake of their craft? Ah, the near-psychotically stoic Red Pollard was actually a doe-eyed crybaby who in moments of triumph pumped his arm and shouted "Yes!", just as you and I and Duff-Man. Ah, the great Depression was ended by a new spirit of optimism rather than a change in economic policies: a very timely insight. Ah, races are dull affairs, to be clipped to incoherence; the only cinematic sport is boxing, and the only real way to film it is Raging Bull's. Ah, all underdogs, even underhorses, are cute and small. (As with the similar miscasting of Stanley Yelnats, I mournfully pictured a spavined butt-ugly horse denied its only chance at stardom.)

I would not love you so, Pirates of the Caribbean, loved I not Seabiscuit less. Just for not having a surfer dude show up or a voiceover explain that the sea symbolized freedom to a weary nation, I loved you.

. . .

Movie Mop-Up: 2003

Given how much I enjoy early 1930s product, I'm not quite ready to call for a reinstated Production Code, but reviewing my recent first-release experiences, I'm struck by how many of the satisfactory ones were "family-friendly" -- Lilo & Stitch, Holes, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spirited Away, School of Rock.... The best adult-oriented "film" I saw in 2003 was videotaped by Spanish TV reporters. The most tolerable R or NC-17 rater I remember was Y Tu Mama Tambien, and even it was just Beavis-&-Butthead plus Godardian voiceovers and yet another of those scenes which will someday lead historians to conclude that our era enaged in male homosexuality solely as an emetic.

Of course, the early 1930s had a hyperactive studio system and no film schools, whereas contemporary Hollywood careers don't usually allow time to learn about grown-up stuff before production starts. Why fake it? Let overgrown children make overgrown children's films.

From what Earl Jackson Jr. says, I should be attending Korean film instead. I'd only be able to attend it on DVD, which seems like an admission of defeat, but hey, what wouldn't be?

+ + +

Any year starting with a "2" will end with a mucilaginous stack of "If only"s clogging soul's gorge. Here's one small enough to dislodge:

If only Bill Murray wasn't so irritatingly ambivalent about working and Sofia Coppola hadn't so much opportunity to practice her "But I want you to buy me an Oompa-Loompa now!" routine, we might have ended the year with Murray's Bad Santa and Billy Bob Thornton's Lost in Translation.

. . .

Another Invitation

... he was ever on the alert for an interlocutor to take part in the conversation, which (pleasantest, truly! of all modes of human commerce) was also of ulterior service as stimulating that endless inward converse of which the Essays were a kind of abstract. For him, as for Plato, for Socrates, whom he cites so often, the essential dialogue was that of the mind with itself. But then such dialogue throve best with, was often impracticable without, outward stimulus physical motion, a text shot from a book, the queries and objections of a living voice.—"My thoughts sleep, if I sit still." Neither "thoughts," nor "dialogues," exclusively but thoughts still partly implicate in the dialogues which had evoked them, and therefore not without many seemingly arbitrary transitions, many links of connexion to be supposed by the reader, the Essays owed their actual publication at last to none of the usual literary motives desire for fame, to instruct, to amuse, to sell but to the sociable desire for a still wider range of conversation with others. He wrote for companionship, "if but one sincere man would make his acquaintance"; speaking on paper as he "did to the first person he met."—"If there be any person, any knot of good company in France or elsewhere, who can like my humour, and whose humours I can like, let them but whistle, and I will run."

Notes of expressive facts, of words also worthy of note (for he was a lover of style) collected in the first instance for the help of an irregular memory, were becoming, in the quaintly labelled drawers, with labels of wise old maxim or device, the primary rude stuff, or "protoplasm" of his intended work, and already gave token of its scope and variety. "All motion discovers us"; if to others, so also to ourselves. Movement, some kind of rapid movement, a ride, the hasty survey of a shelf of books, best of all a conversation like this morning's with a visitor for the first time,— amid the felicitous chances of that, at some random turn by the way, he would become aware of shaping purpose. The beam of light or heat would strike down, to illuminate, to fuse and organise the coldly accumulated matter of reason, of experience. Surely some providence over thought and speech led one finely through those haphazard journeys!

– Walter Pater, Gaston de Latour

. . .

I Love Luana

If you -- particularly you Butlerites -- would be kind enough to shelve those P. K. Dick trade paperbacks for a few minutes, I'd like to direct your attention to the recently reprinted-for-the-first-time-anywhere author's cut of Chandler Davis's 1958 story, "It Walks In Beauty", plucked from the sexist hegemony of 1958 and maybe still of interest to a 2004 where strong female role models feel compelled to sew plastic into the flesh of their lips and breasts.

"It's done tongue-in-cheek, but that doesn't mean I'm kidding."
- "Paradoxa Interview with Chandler Davis"

. . .

Visible Man

"... racial politics be temporarily damned ..."

"Ironically, the little sub-men of the great cities best express their own sense of helplessness by means of Negro music. While ostensibly setting about the freeing of the slaves, they became enslaved, and found in the wailing self-pity and crooning of the Negro the substitute for any life-style of their own. They destroyed or rejected the best things in the South and took the worst."
- Marshall McLuhan, "The Southern Quality"

In 1930s and 1940s Hollywood musicals, African-American performers would be brought on screen for one number and disappear afterwards, leaving the plotline untouched. Those scenes excised, the films could then be distributed in the South as artifacts of an all-white world. Most times the performers just weren't brought on screen at all, "histories of jazz" being restricted to innovators like Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, and Rudy Vallee.

Are such movies less racist than the movies in which African-American actors played comic servants? Or were they equally products of a racist culture, differing only in how easily they let later spectators ignore their context?

America fattened on racism like England fattened on colonialism, and all products of the Southern states raised themselves, directly or indirectly, with the assistance of a permanent underclass: notoriously nowadays, conflicted idealist Thomas Jefferson, but equally the blandly unconcerned Andrew Jackson; Joel Chandler Harris, of course, but also James Branch Cabell; Jerry Lee Lewis no more than Johnny Mercer.

Slander may provide a consoling origin myth for our discomfort with hillbilly cats, but the discomfort came first and cut across political lines: Elvis Presley's untoward rise to wealth raised miscegenation fears at the time; as blatant evidence of where we still live it can still bother liberals now.

His debts and allegiances were all over him like red beans on rice. But does that make Presley more beholden to racism than Pink Floyd, Yo La Tengo, Guided By Voices, or, for that small matter, myself? He surely sent more royalties to black songwriters than any of those other fellas have.

. . .

Flogging the Dead Bardic Mule

Some weeks ago, prompted by our defense of poor W. B. Yeats, Lawrence L. White sent a mixed message that I nevertheless easily understood. I regret not having previously forwarded it to your attention, especially since it in some respects anticipated later postings here.

Some time afterward, he provided a gracefully tentative response to the gracefully cautious David Auerbach; again, I've been tardy in passing it along.

But it's a mean sin that blows no sinner good, and my lethargy netted me a quote (filched from John Holbo's pocket) which I think will let us tie a pretty red ribbon around both those discussions and "Isn't It Grand, Form, To Be Bloody Well Dead?" besides.

First, White:

[...] Winters always ends up sideways. Yeah, Yeats is a dope. You know what? Poetry is dopey. Getting up in front of everyone (even if behind the screen of the printed page) & singing w/out music is at the least an unusual gesture. I'd go as far as call it preposterous. Certainly one should never risk the resulting social censure w/out the excuse of drunkenness or misanthropy.

I read Winters as an undergraduate. He was my teacher's teacher, & I thought it'd help me figure out what was going on. I learned a lot, but I always stumbled over the "poetry is the highest thought" thing. Man, like, I was reading Kant at the time! I think Fulke Greville is an awesome poet, but a thinker? (What is thinking? asked the man in the funny lederhosen (funny not because they were lederhosen, funny because he'd designed his own costume of what he thought peasants should wear). Let's say it's ideas unable to call on help from song or story.) Kant is 1,000 times more exacting, more exquisite, more voluptuous a thinker than any poet. For proof, compare his reasoning ability to the reasoning of Winters (the latter being the rational synopsis of the poetry). Not that Winters is by any means a fool, but he'd have a hard time getting a PhD in philosophy from the work he's submitted so far.

The metaphysics I rely on day-to-day owes much more to Kant than to Yeats. On the other hand, I re-read Yeats much more often than Kant. Luckily, my metaphysics is capable of explaining that difference.

For some reason this makes me think of the sign of the "We Three" inn -- do you know it? the painting of two jackasses?

Yes, poetry seems ridiculous even to those of us who love it, even to those who engage in it. But the classical prototype of all such comic butts is the philosopher: a role defined by its distance from quotidian value.

... to be continued ...

. . .

Flogging the Dead Bardic Mule, cont.

Lawrence La Riviere White again:

Regarding Auerbach's response to my response, I will cop to the charge. I have made my project (if something pursued so diffidently could be called a "project") exactly that, mind-independent poetry and language. Or rather, the limits of mind-independence in poetry and language, just how far can that hypothesis, that the poem comes from "Outside," that writing creates rather than communicates meaning, go. But before sentencing, I would like to make two comments in my defense:

1) I believe I come by my declaration of mind-independence honestly. My attempts to think about writing anteceded my attempts to write. & I began as a very mind-dependent, or to be more explicit, ego-dependent poet. Suffice it to say that my poetry hero was Robert Hass. I know what you think about that. But somewhere a switch took place. At the start I had come to poetry wanting something from it (I wanted to become through poetry a voice of wisdom, someone who sounded deep & therefore attractive (it was California!)), but then poetry started wanting things from me. One of the first things was wanting me to write better poems. (Other poems showed me how bad my poems were.) Which would require more understanding of what poetry is. (I needed to focus more on my instrument and less on the feelings I wanted to express.) There's the Yeats line about "the supreme theme of art and song" which flickers between the genitive and the substantive, between the great romances that poetry writes about (e.g. Motley Crue's "Girls Girls Girls") and the great romance that is poetry itself. I know I have a weakness for romantic claptrap (that Yeats-peherian rag, so transcendent, so grandiloquent), but it felt as if poetry told me its concerns, its needs, were greater than mine. Ask not what poetry can do for you, ask what you can do for poetry.

2) Given Auerbach's evidence against me, I would gladly roll over on the ring-leader, Marjorie Perloff, but as I always say (& I do repeat myself more & more), you can't fight dumb with dumb. & generalities are dumb, much dumber than (most) of the people who use them. I don't believe, & neither do many (not all, perhaps not even most) true Wittgenstein scholars (that is, people who really know, unlike me), that he had a "concept of a language not being able to contain a meaning intended by the speaker." I think what he did have was an aversion to hypotheses such as "the meaning of language equals the intention of the speaker." Which seems to be what Auerbach is saying (although I could very well be wrong here) when he says, "logic and rationality being the writer's intention, not an intrinsic property of the writing." Analytic philosophy (which is one sector of the humanities that has fiercely quarantined itself from the rest) is a graveyard of such hypotheses.

& to bring a little focus to my oh-so-vague notion of "grammar," I would never consider any useful grammar to be purely self-referential. Useful grammars glom on to problems, that is, resistance points. Things that have eluded all previous formulations, that constantly call for new formulations (grammars being generative). Now I'll admit that tenure is a problem, but such a tedious one! Not nearly romantic enough for my taste.

Yes, there are few good arguments in the humanities. But perhaps we could find a virtue in this (can I get any fuzzier? As I have said from the start, I am guilty!), or at least we could become virtuous enough to stop pretending we're arguing, stop claiming the kind of conclusiveness, the kind of judgmental righteousness, that is the just reward of a good argument. Am I just applying more fuzz-tone & vaseline on the lens? Consider this: my introduction to the humanities was through analytic philosophy. Now those people are sticklers for argument. & what does it get them? Remember the joke from Annie Hall, how his mom couldn't think about suicide because she was too busy putting the chicken through the deflavorizing machine? That's analysis for you. One big deflavorizing machine. For all their rigor, they don't end up, at the close of the year's accounts, having contributed any greater number of interesting or useful essays than the cultural critics.

When I said I'm guilty, I meant (my intention!) I agreed w/most of what he said. I let the criminal trial conceit carry me away a bit, or rather I let the conceit reveal more of my defensiveness, resentment, & meanness than I care to show. After all, I write to create a better (smarter, more graceful & considerate) persona than I communicate in the day to day.

As for our agreement, when he says, "I don't feel especially happy about talking about this stuff," I take it for a different version of "dumb can't beat dumb." Not that he's calling himself dumb, but his unhappiness in the engagement reminds me of my own, & my unhappiness comes from not being able to figure out the right answer, to figure out the new way of thinking about the problem, the answer that will solve our troubles (& "our" includes those inside & outside the academy). As if it were all janitorial work & you couldn't ever get the grease off your hands.

In closing, let me say the single phrase "In the Shadow of the Oversexed Women" is better than everything I've ever written you. That's the kind of joke I admire. I have been thinking ever since, but not productively, about how translation is ripe for such jokes. (The tag that keeps ringing in my head is Eliot's "hot gates" for Thermopylae, the low for high substitution.) The Proust-work feels like it's on to something profound. (There's a type of deflavorizor, the guy who always wants to explain the importance of the joke.)

Here's all I've come up w/so far: translation is an example par excellence of applying a grammar to a problem & how that problem has the resources to ceaselessly resist the grammar. The deconstructive lesson (what gets taught as deconstruction) is all about vertiginous glee (nobody knows nothing), but that blankets over certain palpable sharpnesses i.e. the words "strapping, buxom, oversexed" all have nice edges to them. The joke is on us & not the French, but it took Proust to bring it out.

& hints of a vision of a pluralist utopia form on the screen. Starring the Marx Brothers making their translation from borscht to blue-bloods.

It sounds as if White's post-adolescent poetic tastes changed in a way somewhat like my own. Not uncommon, I think, and resembling the common move from "readerly" fiction to "writerly" fiction. In both cases, we exchange some of the mixed pleasures of heroic identification for the mixed pleasures of ethical socialization (or, if you prefer, of obtuse alienation -- or, if you prefer, of an even more pathetic form of heroic identification). I maintain John Berryman and James Wright as more-than-usually mixed pleasures from the bad old days, but Yeats plays well enough in both camps.

+ + +

Regarding yesterday's entry, here's bhikku:
...which reminds me of the joke about the two Irishmen passing the forest and seeing the sign saying Tree Fellers Wanted. "Isn't it a shame", says Pat, "that there's only the two of us."

... to be continued ...

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

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2004 Ray Davis.