. . .

Keeping It Real

Yes, I admire the achievements of Prince Randian The Caterpillar Man. I'm still not going to chop off my arms and legs.

. . .

Precision and Theft

(Written for The Valve)

Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity
by Stefan Jonsson

Stefan Jonsson reads like a nice guy. When he plays hunt-the-applicability against a full hand of voguish theorists, his point isn't to diagnose Musil away. His point is that The Man Without Qualities anticipates them.

Not in the sense of displacing them, of course. They remain authoritative; Jonsson is the advocate: "You see, Others and gentlemen, he's just like you and me!"

Anyway, no big deal. Jonsson's OK. The notion that Ulrich's Austria-Hungary wasn't just a satiric target, that its fecklessness could be mourned as a lost range of possibility, hadn't occurred to me, so I'm grateful for that, especially while I'm in mourning for Jimmy Carter's America. I read my fair share of awkward over-extended well-meaning prose aimed at an obscure audience, and I produce more than my share, and another three hundred pages of it isn't worth writing home about. It's not even worth writing The Valve about.

Instead I'm writing about stubbornness rewarded. After hacking through the main text, and then through all the endnotes 1 to the chapters, I reached the endnotes to the "Epilogue", and there I think it was the third?— I reached a note 2 worth the whole effort. Take this quote from Musil's 1926 "Interview mit Alfred Polgar"3 and you'd get most of what I'd gotten from Jonsson's book:

"For this city [Vienna] has been besieged by the Turks and bravely defended by the Poles; in the eighteenth century it was the biggest Italian city; it is proud of its pastries, which stem from Bohemia and Hungary; and throughout the centuries it has proven that it is possible to accomplish beautiful, even profound things, if one has no character."

Giving it away for free seems like ill usage, but fair use.

1 Isn't that a nice way to do footnotes in HTML? See, it avoids these ugly interlinear gaps:


Then again, it might be a better idea to link or use bracketed digits instead....

2 Even those hooligans at Crooked Timber like footnotes. Footnotes seem to get less editorial supervision, for one thing that's where Donna Haraway used to keep all her exclamation points. They're a terrific place to gesture towards alternative essays, the ones you wish you'd started writing once you start getting bored and frustrated with the one you're writing instead. Come to think of it, I encountered one of those in my recent Musil catch-up a grim assessment of the state of Young Törless's morals with a more affirmative deconstructive reading sending runners between the conclusion and the notes. A Crooked Timber comment mentions the alternative history you can derive from Gibbon's footnotes; me, I'm crazy for the accretions of Walter Scott and others on the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont. It's like meeting a party of gossips after talking to a gossip. (It might have been with Grammont that I fell into the habit of saving up footnotes as a special treat, to cleanse the palate after finishing the chapter, or to be gorged on at the end.) Online, we see something similar happening in the comment threads of the Pepys blog. The weblog comment thread is usually compared to a discussion board, but it includes aspects of footnotes, marginal jottings, peer reviews, and Calls for Papers or Theme Issues.

3 "Some who wrote operas and symphonies live on only in a footnote."


Maryam Bazargani asserts:

in all but sweats with class bias

. . .

Time of the Season

That a certain excitement of the intelligence is necessary even to revivify ideas we have already had is amply demonstrated whenever open-minded and knowledgeable people are being examined and without any preamble are asked such questions as: What is the state? Or: What is property? Things of that kind. If these young people had been in company and for a while the subject of conversation had been the state or property they would by a process of comparison, discrimination and summary perhaps with ease have arrived at the definition. But being wholly deprived of any such preparation they are seen to falter and only an obtuse examiner will conclude from this that they do not know. For it is not we who know things but pre-eminently a certain condition of ours which knows. Only very commonplace intellects, people who yesterday learned by heart what the state is and today have forgotten it again, will have their answers pat in an examination.
- Heinrich von Kleist

I've enjoyed delivering my couple of guest lectures and teaching my couple of adult ed classes. But knowing that students are there by coercion rather than desire? and then, after slowly torturing these unfortunates, having to punish them for their lack of interest?

An education consists of observing, thinking, and doing, with dialog. What do grades have to do with that? Nothing, directly and nothing indirectly after the trick's known. Grades are there to balance those in school for reasons other than education. As is the way with our breed of ape, we expend immense labor (or labor compacted as money) thumbing that balance. Which is its own learning, I guess, and I guess probably more valuable in the long run.

I remember Tom Parmenter writing that you do best on tests such as the SATs by consciously playing the part of the sort of person who'd do well on those tests. (I think his exact words were "a boring white guy.") And I remember people saying that was nonsense. But I remember it was always how I managed, when I managed, despite my lack of education, despite my lack of discipline. It is not our knowledge that does well on tests but pre-eminently a certain role of ours which scores.


The one thing I was ever consistently good at - SAT's, Wechsler-Binet, Stanford-Binet, and, in another less conditional but far more exciting modality, the MMPI - attacked, attacked, rendered moot spurious and no-account. It was all I had, pretty much.

If there are any no-'counts in this post, I'd say they're me & the Von. "Do best" in Parmenter's formula means "do better than I'd do otherwise", not "do better than anyone" he's talking, I think, about what in other sports is called "game face". Me, I don't even like Trivial Pursuit.

The question of grades is different from the question of tests, anyway. The ability to score high on intelligence tests shows a quirky talent of some sort (I have a bit of that one myself), and the ability to score high on tests of knowledge is something I look on with awe. But to make them the singular point of education, something to train for and haggle over, as parents, governments, and a sclerosing class system increasingly do, misses what's valuable in education.

Joseph Duemer points out that "students" need to be on that list as well. Silly of me to leave them out, since that was my jumping-off point....

Tom Parmenter himself:

Yep, that was me all right. I was giving advice to my Number One Son about the SAT's, etc. I told him not to use any imagination, whatsoever, because it would lead to wrong answers. With imagination, any one of the multiple choices can be made to fit the question. Thus, go for the answer that would be given by a boring white guy. He received a full National Merit Scholarship without actually becoming a boring white guy. Number Two Son, on the other hand, was so disgusted by the process, he only applied to schools that didn't use the SAT.

I sussed these things out when I took the PSAT as a junior in high school. A joke played by sort of smart people on other sort of smart people. I placed on the National Merit too, but no scholarship. To hear people brag about their SAT's . . . well, ha-ha-ha! See the book None of the Above. The author so completely groks the way the tests are put together that he manages a high score on the French test without knowing any French.

It's all reminiscent of the story about quizzing junior-high students on how to use a barometer to measure the height of a building. One non-boring kid supplied twenty or so answers, such as:

- Use the barometer as a measuring device. Get the height in barometers.
- Drop the barometer from the top of the building and use the formula for gravitational acceleration to determine the height of the building.
. . . and so on, winding up with the final suggestion:
- Knock on the door and tell the person who answers, "I will give you this fine barometer if you will tell me how tall this building is."

Kid got an F (even though, in fact, it is not likely that the answer the teacher wanted would have returned a useful figure for the height of most buildings).

. . .


- in memoriam Karl Kraus, H. L. Mencken, Olive Moore
  1. Why I Read Such Benign Books: The single Nietzsche passage I think of most often is the one in which he's listened to Bizet's Carmen twenty times through and become a better person each time.
  2. Another reason: I believe Nietzsche's philosophical system was aphorism. Not his strategy, his system.
  3. There's no Sally Rand Truth to find behind the fans and bubbles. Take "fan" and "bubble" away, and away goes "Sally Rand", just as removal of "brick" and "jail" vanishes "kat".
  4. Before going to work, the aphorist pushes into long flopping shoes, and buttons, studs, ties, and cummberbunds into a monkey suit smelling of real monkey. The shoes expensively gleam and pinch; the suit is tailor-made. Still, the nature of the job is clear enough.
  5. Reading Heidegger on Nietzsche is like watching a snowed-in prospector twirl boiled bootlaces on a fork and chew and chew and chew and swallow them. Directed by G. W. Pabst, starring Gibson Gowland.
  6. Aphorists hate liberals for their earnest argument. Bible-thumpers hate liberals for their skepticism. But the enemy of the aphorist's enemy is not the aphorist's friend. The aphorist depends more directly on the existence of the comfortably tolerant than the bible-thumper depends on the existence of the heretic.
  7. Those who admire aphorists judge a tree by the tenacity of its branches. Wherefore by their thorns ye shall know them.
  8. I was too sickly to attend ag school, but I doubt you can sow fields with thorns.
  9. An aphorism is a scenic rest stop between an unsupported argument and an undesired consequence. On day trips, we wage slaves make it to the state park and turn back.


2. Only Nietzsche's? Or even moreso?

What strikes me is the blatancy with which Nietzsche's practice is ignored by his elucidators. But his work is hardly alone in that regard, you're right. Maybe if I started thinking of the process as something like Hollywood adaptations not pretending to get at any better understanding of the material, but at least publicizing it and occasionally providing entertainment of its own it wouldn't seem so odd to me....

they ALL ignore ALL the formally and methodologically and practically idiosyncratic writers' and thinkers' schticks. even when they don't ignore they don't ignore by writing monographs in which they don't ignore.

Whatever I'm selling, Turbulent Velvet's not buying.

And if you think he's wrong, look closer before you leave the shop. All aphorisms are nonrefundable.

Josh Lukin comments:

I always thought somebody must have been insisting on Nietzsche's system's aphoristicness for Thomas Mann to have worked so hard at challenging that view (in fifty years, people will be substituting "Wilde" and "Hitchens" for those names). Or am I missing your point?

And "Hollywood adaptation" criticism (beautiful analogy) can do a lot. Where would we be if Delany or Butler had understood Althusser correctly?

Plenty of unsystematic Nietzscheans and anti-Nietzscheans around, true. We aphorists don't pretend to novel insights, just to novel phrasings. My point or more accurately my initial motivation was to understand a certain shared limitation, or flaw, across a range of aphorists.

And of course I'm grateful to any scholar who will defend the use-value of misinterpretation.

. . .

Heathcliff, Come Home

(Written for The Valve)

I suppose many readers of The Valve eventually get around to The Yale Journal of Criticism on their own, but if un-lit blogs can point you to the New York Times front page, it must be OK for me to point you to "Petted Things" by Ivan Kreilkamp, starring the Brontë sisters as animal rights pioneers.

Kreilkamp's essay pleasingly draws from history, the authors themselves, and recent Derrida in the service of (to me) a novel, amusing, and evocative association of realism with anthropomorphism. The critic even shows good reason for having treated "the Brontës" as a group rather than as individual novelists.

Potential Disney adaptors of Jane Eyre should especially note the story of Clumsy, A Dog:

"Tell how he grows ugly in growing up;... Madam's disgust for him; the rebuffs he suffers.... Clumsy, for that is what she calls him now, banished to the yard; his degradation; detail his privations, the change in food and company."

Everyone else should especially note that Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog carries far more entertainment value than its equivalent in Lucas-movie-and-junk-food.

+ + +

Afterthought: The Brontës as potential writers of noble-dog stories reminds me of one of my own favorite alternate-literary-history scenarios: What if, rather than giving up their shared fantasy worlds, the Brontë sisters had successfully brought their mature styles and concerns into Gondal and Angria, weirdly anticipating Joanna Russ's Alyx, M. John Harrison's ret-conning of Viriconium, Samuel R. Delany's Nevèrÿon...?

Pointless, I know, but at least it's a break from imagining the rest of Emma.

. . .


(Pumped out for the sake of The Valve)
The use of the essay, for example, a kind expressing liberal interest at first, began with Humanism in the sixteenth century; and one of its forms, the miscellaneous familiar essay, ceased to be popular after the crisis of Humanism in the 1930s.
- Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature

At 9 PM on Saturday June 18, the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley is showing a revisionist Western from 1972, Dirty Little Billy. All later muddy streets seem thin in comparison: puddled with New Age puke or John Ford horsepiss. Given its timing, a few of the Billy demythologizers may have benefited from personal experience of frontier communes.

Was the movie intended as history or satire? To some extent, whether you're mocking or creating is decided later, by who notices what and how they respond. Artmaking is largely about being distracted from your original purpose; sometimes you even wake up in a new neighborhood. If you want to explain Robert Browning's influence on Ezra Pound, you could start worse than with a Browning parody like "The Cock and The Bull":

I shoved the timber ope wi’ my omoplat;
And in vestibulo, i’ the lobby to-wit,
(Iacobi Facciolati’s rendering, sir,) ...

That's a recent addition to an ongoing retrospective of a Century of Imitation, along with Calverley's "Proverbial Philosophy":

A maiden’s heart is as champagne, ever aspiring and struggling upwards,
And it needed that its motions be checked by the silvered cork of Propriety:
He that can afford the price, his be the precious treasure,
Let him drink deeply of its sweetness, nor grumble if it tasteth of the cork.

Also Thomas Hood Jr.'s Poe, worthied by its expiring exclamation!, and Swinburne's "The Person of the House", which literalizes Victorian reticence as "That Only a Mother" later literalized pulp science fiction reticence and to similar effect, as well as another online copy of Swinburne's magnificent "Nephelidia".

In other serialization news, Paul Kerschen has just begun serializing a free translation of Franz Kafka's diaries, alongside the original German. And if you aren't already following the lifework of W. N. P. Barbellion, 1910 is the year his journal completes its transition from dissection of other species to vivisection of our own. As the few remaining years go by and he consults and reconsults his own archives, we'll see Barbellion develop a craving for precursors or peers. He'll read Portrait of an Artist and decide he and James Joyce have struck the same vein independently. Later still he'll excitedly decide he's just like Marie Bashkirtseff.... "Is there one who understands me?"

But once your isolating eccentricity does turn out to be a community, new issues arise. I believe Djuna Barnes said everything worth saying about surveys: "I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public." Yet since Mr. Waggish is a compatriot to whom I owe the deepest respect, if Mr. Waggish requests something, I must assume Mr. Waggish has good reason, and therefore:

Total number of books I've owned: I buy books because of not always having had access to a good library ("I will never go stupid again!"), but I winnow them because of moving fairly often in the past, but I still want to re-read more books each year so the collection does grow, and because I've lived in one place with access to a good library for a while I've been buying fewer books but unread bought books are piling up. So maybe four times the number of books I have now? Roughly. Within a factor of ten.
Last book I bought: It was a group. A translation of Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, the new Hans Christian Andersen translation, Ron Silliman's Under Albany, and Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness.
Last book I read: This must mean what I'm in the midst of reading since the next query is the "Last book I finished"? Mostly right now Kinds of Literature by Alastair Fowler.

It's free of nonsense, and, for all its easy style, extremely concise: virtually every page of this library volume is mostly underlined, the table of contents bears a jot by each chapter title, and I found there a improvised torn-paper bookmark with the scrawled note "BUY WHOLE BOOK?" (It's out of print, of course.) Two-thirds of the way through and Fowler's heroic attempt to revive the form of the Anatomy became a worthwhile drama of its own.

In 1982, I would've argued against Fowler's low opinion of the works recovered by feminist critics, but, hey, by 2005, I bet he might argue against himself. I'm possibly more skeptical that something fixedly "literary" can be found in all the works that drift in or out of literature, but that disagreement means less in practice than I thought at first. I may know a bit more about contemporary American genres, but that's to be expected; Fowler is sensible with the parts he knows, and he has a far wider and more detailed grasp of literary history than my autodidacticism has managed. His biggest difficulty may be the usual academic one of distance from working artists. Genre doesn't just happen between books; it's also a way for the author to feel less lonely for a bit (before feeling betrayed). Publishing isn't just to make money; it's also to make contact (before getting an unlisted number).

Fowler's book was recommended to me by Wendy Walker. If Wendy Walker is a new name to you, for the love of god, drop that copy of Emma Brown and hie ya. I'd like to tell you how I came to get a book recommendation from Wendy Walker. I commuted daily between Nashua NH and Cambridge MA, and I read something about Samuel R. Delany appearing at some convention between, so I stopped there. Formal emphasis was placed on the most ambitious class of science fiction and fantasy, but participants also included small press publishers, readers of contemporary poetry, and listeners to contemporary music. Our conversations were intriguing enough to bring me back the next day. I kept in touch with some of the people I met that weekend, and one of them, Don Keller, kept suggesting I write down some of what I spun in conversation. I started doing so, and the practice eventually became habitual.

Wendy Walker's work is sui generis. But some genres are friendlier towards the sui than others. Her novel The Secret Service seemed to me one of the great books to be found in the 1990s, but who would find it? I browsed shelves randomly and was fortunate enough to live by shelves which included Sun & Moon Press, most of whose other contemporary authors were poets poets I admired, but whom I knew to be a sadly insular group. I gave copies to friends, recommended it, and wrote about it. Independently, so did Henry Wessells and Elizabeth Willey. Walker's cult was small but fervent, and, fearing that neither the writer nor her publisher had any clue as to its existence, I dropped him a note to suggest that an audience awaited.

The note was passed along. In a few weeks, Wendy Walker will be attending that uniquely ambitious conference in Massachussetts. It's a small world.

Or a big sign.

. . .

O Felix Error!

(Written for The Valve)
In whom the dear errata column
Is the best page in all the volume!
Thomas Moore

Establishing the "real meaning" is one goal of the critic's game, but no one achieves a perfect final score, even when they live in the author's time and know the author intimately. (Sociologists estimate that I misunderstand approximately 82% of what I write myself.) Although Blake wasn't referring to the Industrial Revolution, the "dark Satanic mills" we read inevitably reek of coal.

Since it's unavoidable, we might as well celebrate the preservative and generative aspects of literary misinterpretation. Misreading Virgil as a Christian prophet benefitted both Virgil's work and Dante's.

But how about misattribution? What benefits do we gain from that?

Forgery's not nearly as lucrative for English majors as for art students, and so I can only think of one.

Much as Microsoft or Sony won't be content till all content is licensed from Microsoft or Sony, a canon drowns competition through sheer shelf-filling reproduction. Misattribution to a canonical author can carry a work into otherwise inaccessible environments. How likely is it that we'd have good copies of the Song of Solomon or the Revelation of St. John if they hadn't wandered into exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time?

In English, Bardolatry promotes misreadings of the Bard and ignorance of everyone else. But, at the cost of their authors' names, some lucky parasites have hitched onto the Swan's belly. I got my first access to the helpfully anonymous "Tom O'Bedlam's Song" that way.

Appropriately, those Bardolators who worship misattribution itself perform the greatest public service. "After God, the Earl of Oxford has created most" looneys distributed copies of George Gascoigne's collection long before the first widely available scholarly edition. Ronald B. McKerrow pretty much established contemporary editorial scruples with his wonderful Works of Thomas Nashe, but it was last in print in 1958, and, on the web, only the Collected DeVere takes up the slack.


Josh Lukin points out the "felicitous misattribution of the 'St. Anthony Divertimento'":
. . . and could Brahms' "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" have even come into being as "Variations on a Theme by Ignatz Pleyel"?

Thanks, Josh that's an interesting case: a popular melody known only because of Brahms, who knew it only because somebody stuck Haydn's name at the top of the page.

Other recent re-attributions from Haydn involve Haydn's sticking his own name at the top a more ambiguous case than I had in mind. Presumably Haydn saw himself not as a plagiarist but as a guarantor of Genuine Haydn Quality, much as the senior tenured professor subsumes the work of underlings and spouses. In the art world, of course, few successful careers have been single-person operations, much to the confusion of our more naive age.

The literary equivalent has an even more dubious reputation: the factories of "Dumas" or "Nancy Drew" novels, and, on a more intimate scale, the ghostwriters. The late career of "Ellery Queen" is an amiguous case: since the named author is a fictional character, the only thing that makes Sturgeon's, Davidson's, and Vance's volumes more "ghostwritten" is the relative openness of the secret.

And then there's Klaatu....

. . .

The Sport Parade (1932)

Leonard Maltin mentions the lame story, the flashy direction, and Robert Benchley's brilliant screen debut, not looking as puffy-fishlike-thing-on-the-beach as he would a few years later but already blatantly inserted, as America's worst color commentator ("And it should be a great Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth game today at Yale Stadium, here in Cambridge, Massachusetts...").

True, true, all true. But it says something probably not worth saying about heterosexual hegemony and the all-male capsule review business that unmentioned goes the most eyeboggling aspect of the movie, young pre-Code Joel McCrea. I always accepted on faith that this sullen, stubborn, humorless, not-too-bright character was sexually attractive, but I never really understood why till I saw him with no clothes on.

OK, he's not completely nude on screen. But I gotta say if Jean Harlow or Myrna Loy had spent a sizable portion of a movie greased up and wearing only tighty-whities, Leonard Maltin sure as hell would've found it fit to mention.

Plus: "Skeets" Gallagher!


Ray Davis writes:
Speaking of het. heg., last night I dreamt I visited Patricia Highsmith's home around dinnertime. She threatened to turn testy at times, but her adoring husband and son maintained a sort of stoic cheer through the distraction of baseball. Whether pitching, batting, or fielding, Highsmith was an astonishingly graceful player, and seemed to derive comfort from her own easy precision on the field.

Others dream differently:

All kidding aside, being Patricia Highsmith's son, the Patricia Highsmith of literature as opposed to of earth, and they are different, would be I think, less like The Natural and more than a little like being Betty Topper of Norco.

. . .

The Death Wish in American Publicity Material

Part 4 in an Occasional Series

Matt Wall submits:

TV commercial hawking Heineken beer, featuring "two free music downloads from Rhapsody dot com" with every 12-pack purchase, which is running on various sporting event channels right now.

The opening graphic is of an EKG, which flatlines, to the sound of

"And now they're trying to take my life away"

and then the rest of the lyrics and music are unintelligible. As far as I know, this is not a well-known song.

Seventh Fourth

I have a house where I go
  Where no one can be;
I have a house where I go,
Where nobody ever says "No":
Where no one says anything so
  There is no one but me.

My wooden Muse has grown a number of painfully extended limbs which I'm desperate to lop off, but, you know, in your mid-forties desperation can go on a surprisingly long time.

As so often when I feel especially and inescapably alienated by labor, I find that less energy is needed to comment than to initiate, and even dashing into a party, shouting incoherently while tripping over the coffee table, and then dashing back to a sleepless bed provides some welcome brief illusion of human contact.

Two of these recent blurts composted cuttings that I'd originally intended to plant here in fuller and more revisable form. In fairness to those long-suffering readers who just haven't been getting enough suffering lately, they were an argument against trying to reduce cognitive processes to first causes (at Waggish) and an argument that anti-essentialism isn't really out to kill us.

Return of the Snobbish Dead Part III

Somewhat perversely, Limited Inc. asserts that "Santayana is a philosopher one should read." Although I don't myself share LI's high opinion, I do share his perversity, and therefore am pleased to pass along the single piece of Santayanania I've enjoyed, "What Is a Philistine?", if only for its magnificent final paragraph.

Speaking of last lines, I am now convinced that Sir John Davies's Gulling Sonnets (c. 1595) contains the ultimate Elizabethan closing couplet:

Pumps of presumption shall adorn his feet,
And socks of sullenness exceeding sweet.

And speaking of my perversity, I'm hatefully charmed by these early portraits of humanities scholars who ventured into political activism and cutting-edge science, both by James Kenneth Stephen, university wit, misogynist, Virginia Woolf's cousin, and possible Ripper.

. . .

Land of the Dead (2005)

I'm sorry that "Mr. Tambourine Man" wasn't played over the closing credits. Even Dylan's harmonica would've been contextually justified!

Otherwise a near perfect Fourth of July movie, complete with fireworks and everyone wanting to move to Canada.


Re your "Mr. Tamborine Man" suggestion --wouldn't that have been PERFECT!!!? and so in keeping with the sensibility that produced the opening shot ("EATS >>").

I thank that fine newspaper man Tom Parmenter for copyediting.

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