What England needs is more Belinskis
. . .

Thinking of Cluny Brown: Part 1

[Revised & re-assembled & relocated to Senses of Cinema,]


J.D. would lead off with "deferantial".

Under the title "between thought and expression", Josh Lukin sent:

Well, according to some taxonomies of affect, what you're crediting Boyer with *is* expression --or one of the more interesting modes thereof. As Charles Altieri said last Wednesday, one of the categories which we can use to discuss affect if we aspire to a non-cognitivist take thereon is *mood* --moods are modes of feeling where the sense of subjectivity becomes diffuse; where influence pulls against resolving action --the subject of moods, poised between the active and the passive, can be seen as a contemplative agent or as a subject so large as to lack room for action. "Moods are forms of ontological weight in which we feel our dependency on external factors and don't resist, attending to the actual possibilities of relishing our embodiment. That's good --I wish I had written it down." Now, Altieri, to my mind, was being very abstract here and could have benefited from illustrating his point with, say, something from Emerson. Instead, he used the conclusion of "The Dead" as the climax of his whole riff on affect, suggesting that Joyce creates or invites a "generous irony" in which we do not have to repudiate all the intimacies the text has offered in the way that a more bitter irony would suggest, but we can still avoid the self-congratulation (something CA evidently knows about) that accompanies settling on an ethical identity of the self. Such a position insists that the intellect attuned to the aspect of lucidity allows, after one's expectations are chastened, for us to project a wary trust and allows affect as a challenge to the structures of belief and their rules. At which point one auditor suggested that Altieri's "irony" owed more to Frye than to Wellek, and that he was engaging in some rhetorical contortions to avoid invoking the cognitivist view that he associates with Nussbaum. "As Altieri spoke, my mind kept veering of into thoughts of René Girard and Francis Barker and all the other writers who'd addressed the same subjects far more interestingly," quoth a colleague. But heuristic tools are where you find them, and I find Altieri's schtik, my colleague's critique of it, and your description of Boyer mutually illuminating,

Me too, and I expect even more illumination as I fill the opsimathic blanks represented by those names. But oh, dear, I worried about the ambiguity of "expression", and you're right, I should've worried more. When Boyer's good, he's not affectless, or inexpressive in that sense (although when you start cataloging, it is remarkable just how few configurations his facial muscles support). He's not shy. He's just inactive.

To forestall another confusion: Of course he acts, being a professional actor, but what he acts is someone who takes no action. He conveys high intelligence and high passion, those highnesses seem always to be in perfect accord, and yet they stay plunked together at the bar, commiserating and shrugging. Dedicating heart, mind, and soul to one true love, he doesn't fuck; hating his spouse, he doesn't strangle; and in a political cause well, there we have Confidential Agent and (less directly) Cluny Brown.

I think you're right to associate this ironic quality, made so attractive by Lubitsch, with Altieri's talk: he sounds smitten. But in Joycean terms it seems to me exemplified less by Gabriel's contagious swoon than by Giacomo's "Write it, damn you, write it!"; like most seductions, the results are problematic. Try challenging machine guns with affect and see how far it gets you. Heck, try challenging your boss with affect! In sneers begin life sentences.

Since, as a practical matter, narrative artists promote confusion of acting for action and affect for effect we can't be blamed much when we fall for it. But I think you're also right to suspect the motives of anyone so quick to celebrate their own enlightened generosity. That's Heaven Can Wait. We want Trouble in Paradise.

. . .

Baboon see, baboon do

Maybe belligerent democracies are just reactive by nature. Power struggles to balance intensity, not hue.

It's hard to realize nowadays the extent to which Sputnik incited support for scientific education and research in America. While the national enemy was secular and egalitarian, the United States achieved its rational and fair best. (Although, as Chandler Davis would remind us, that was nothing to write home about.)

And now that the national enemy is fundamentalist and plutocratic, we feel the need to close the intolerant billionaire gap.


A helpful reader recaps the story so far:

An amoeba in a tutu, with a little pink hat on its uppermost. Bikers re-enacting Lakota chest-piercings in disused pastures. Souls of the wronged lined up for miles at the window someone said they thought might be the place you go to state your case. At the end the weak ones turn around and go back through time, creating a tidal effect. It gives them an unassailable advantage, but it doesn't really go anywhere. Domestication and sophistication begin to merge. Everything gets stolen. SRI had these tests...

Ah, how I loved that tutu it gave me a waist....

Josh Lukin's mention of René Girard led me, a few hours too late, to this:

The error is always to reason within categories of "difference" when the root of all conflicts is rather "competition," mimetic rivalry between persons, countries, cultures. Competition is the desire to imitate the other in order to obtain the same thing he or she has, by violence if need be....

And, a half year later, the brilliant Narrow Shore starts from the same comparison and reaches a horribly beautifully complementary contrast:

The detonator in those planes was not a gadget but the absolute faith that allowed the human pilots to steer dead into the glass towers. There has been a Sputnik moment, but the tech and arms race embarked upon recognizes faith as the ultimate weapon, and the tactical goal seems be to out-believe the enemy.

This is very dangerous. Not that belief cannot be part of a very effective military technology. Clearly, it can. But the trigger mechanism (didn't anyone notice, in this Sputnik moment?) is suicide.

. . .

Thinking of Cluny Brown: Part 2

[Revised & re-assembled & relocated to Senses of Cinema,]

. . .

The Witlings by Frances Burney

Fanny Burney wrote four full-length comedies, none performed or published in her lifetime.

Her first play, The Witlings, was drafted in 1779, a year after her first novel, Evelina. It had every hope of production among her most enthusiastic admirers was Drury Lane's manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan until Burney's father lovingly lowered the boom:

Not only the Whole Piece, but the plot had best be kept secret, from everybody.

Her second comedy made it onto the Covent Garden schedule before, again, Burney's father forced its withdrawal. Thereafter, Burney drafted solely for herself.

If The Witlings had been delivered to Sheridan's company, the play would have undergone revision. Virtually all its asides are disposable, conveying no more than a facial expression or tone of voice would, and its curtain speech against the evils of dependency, although undoubtedly sincere, isn't exactly a rouser.

But who's to say that those would've been the cuts? In its rough form, The Witlings feels uniquely contemporary; it might well have been normalized back to the 18th century. The first act, for example, is unusual both in locale (a milliner's shop) and in its leisurely approach to exposition and that latter objection might be extended to most of the play.

In lieu of a rigorously constructed storyline, Burney builds her play on a rigorously distributed social premise: Self-regard blocks communication.

No character can stop broadcasting long enough to receive any other character's signal. This discursive flaw impedes the play's hysterically overdramatizing young lovers as much as the play's vain and greedy fools. Even the admirable Censor repeatedly sabotages resolution by indulging his impatience and sharp tongue; insofar as resolution's finally won, he wins it by the promise of silence.

Most of Burney's targets are familiar to us: self-congratulatory book clubs, mutually sycophantic workshops, fraudulent freestyles, slow-leaking airbags, pretentious note-jotting moldy-joking obsequious thin-skinned self-styled writers, and culturally-encouraged A.D.D. (Jack would be an enthusiastic toter of cell phone, PDA, text messenger, wireless laptop, and iPod.)

For once, I'm not inclined to defamiliarize. This is not a finished printed work, but an unpolished manuscript made to be spoken aloud. And so I've taken the liberty of regularizing spelling, capitalization, and the formatting of stage directions. Burney used commas to indicate prosody rather than sentence structure; when that seemed too distracting, I also lightly revised punctuation.


A reader takes this opportunity to ask:

was muddy waters involved in any scandals

Let's just say his name wasn't exactly kept clean....

Another witling responds briefly:


And, referring back to this entry from 2001, but slightly appropriate to our present concerns:

you can take the girl out of the east end but you can't take the east end out of the girl

. . .

Thinking of Cluny Brown: Part 3

[Revised & re-assembled & relocated to Senses of Cinema,]

. . .

Disquiet American

I vacationed in New Zealand to be bludgeoned pleasantly insensible by landscape, birdsong, plantlife, wine, seafood, dairyfood, red meat, civil union acts, and Penguins both yellowed and yellow-eyed.

Two-thirds through, I went to a bar that'd pinned up the Daily Mirror front page, and for the last week, whenever I wasn't forcing my mind elsewhere, it chanted a single refrain:

"My poor country. My poor country."

Next: Back to the sucking-stones!


Oh! Give us the sucking stones! Do! -pf

. . .

Thinking of Cluny Brown: Part 4

[Revised & re-assembled & relocated to Senses of Cinema,]


SUCKING STONES! (ps also pls tlk abt leslie fiedler thx xxo)

With pleasure:

Leslie Fiedler wrote nothing about Cluny Brown.

. . .


From 1001 Afternoons in Chicago by Ben Hecht, written 1921-1922:


One of the drawers in my desk is full of letters that people have sent in. Some of them are knocks or boosts, but most of them are tips. There are several hundred tips on stories in the drawer.

Today, while looking them over I thought that these tips were a story in themselves. To begin with, the different kinds of stationery and the different kinds of handwriting. You would think that stationery and handwriting so varied would contain varied suggestions and varied points of view.

But from the top of the pile to the bottom through 360 letters written on 360 different kinds of paper there runs only one tip. And in the 360 different kinds of handwriting there runs only one story.

* * *

"There is a man I see almost every day on my way home from work," writes one, "and I think he would make a good story. There is something queer about him. He keeps mumbling to himself all the time." This tip is on plain stationery.

"— and I see the old woman frequently," writes another. "Nobody knows who she is or what she does. She is sure a woman of mystery. You ought to be able to get a good story out of her." This tip is on pink stationery.

"I think you can find him around midnight walking through the city hall. He walks through the hall every midnight and whistles queer tunes. Nobody has ever talked to him and they don't know what he does there. There is certainly a queer story in that man." This tip is written on a business letterhead.

"She lives in a back room and so far as anybody knows has no occupation. There's something awfully queer about her and I've often wondered what the mystery about her really was. Won't you look her up and write it out? Her address is —" This tip is on monogrammed paper.

"I've been waiting for you to write about the queer old man who hangs out on the Dearborn Street bridge. I've passed him frequently and he's always at the same place. I've wondered time and again what his history was and why he always stood in the same place." This tip is on a broker's stationery.

"He sells hot beans in the loop and he's an old-timer. He's always laughing and whenever I see him I think, 'There's a story in that old man. There's sure something odd about him.'" This tip is on scratch paper.

"I saw her first several years ago. She was dressed all in black and was running. As it was past midnight I thought it strange. But I've seen her since and always late at night and she's always running. She must be about forty years old and from what I could see of her face a very curious kind of woman. In fact, we call her the woman of mystery in our neighborhood. Come out to Oakley Avenue some night and see for yourself. There's a wonderful story in that running woman, I'm certain." This tip is signed "A Stenographer."

They continue tips on strange, weird, curious, odd, old, chuckling, mysterious men and women. Solitaries. Enigmatic figures moving silently through the streets. Nameless ones; exiles from the free and easy conformity of the town.

If you should read these letters all through at one sitting you would get a very strange impression of the city. You would see a procession of mysterious figures flitting through the streets, an unending swarm of dim ones, queer ones. And then as you kept on reading this procession would gradually focus into a single figure. This is because all the letters are so nearly alike and because the mysterious ones offered as tips are described in almost identical terms.

So the dim ones, the queer ones, would become a composite, and you would have in your thought the image of a single one. A huge, nebulous caricature hooded, its head lowered, its eyes peering furtively from under shaggy brows, its thin fingers fumbling under a great black cloak, its feet moving in a soundless shuffle over the pavement.

Sometimes I have gone out and found the "woman of mystery" given in a letter. Usually an embittered creature living in the memory of wrongs that life has done her. Or a psychopathic case suffering from hallucinations or at war with its own impulses. And each of them has said, "I hate people. I don't like this neighborhood. And I keep to myself."

But that doesn't begin to answer the question the letters ask, "Who is it?"

* * *

The story of the odd ones is perhaps no more interesting than the story that might be written of the letters that "tip them off." A story here, of the harried, buried little figures that make up the swarm of the city and of the way they glimpse mystery out of the corners of their eyes. Of the way they pause for a moment on their treadmill to wonder about the silent, shuffling caricature with its hooded face and its thin fingers groping under its heavy black cloak.

In another drawer I have stored away letters of another kind. Letters that the caricature sends me. Queer, marvelous scrawls that remind one of spiders and bats swinging against white backgrounds. These letters are seldom signed. They are written almost invariably on cheap blue lined pad paper.

There are at least two hundred of them. And if you should read them all through at one sitting you would get a strange sense that this caricature of the hooded face was talking to you. That the Queer One who shuffles through the streets was sitting beside you and whispering marvelous things into your ear.

He writes of the stars, of inventions that will revolutionize man, of discoveries he has made, of new continents to be visited, of trips to the moon and of buried races that live beneath the rivers and mountains. He writes of amazing crimes he has committed, of weird longings that will not let him sleep. And, too, he writes of strange gods which man should worship. He pours out his soul in a fantastic scrawl. He says: "One is all. God looked down and saw ants. The wheel of life turns seven times and you can see between. You will sometime understand this. But now you have curtains on your eyes."

Now that you have read all the letters the city becomes a picture. An office in which sits a well-dressed business man dictating to a pretty stenographer. They are hard at work, but as they work their eyes glance furtively out of a tall, thin window. Some one is passing outside the window. A strange figure, hooded, head down, with his hands moving queerly under his great black cloak.


hot beans in the loop! that was worth waiting for

. . .

Thinking of Cluny Brown: Part 5

[Revised & re-assembled & relocated to Senses of Cinema,]

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