Nova Reporta, 1600, from _Unseemly Pictures_ by Helen Pierce
. . .

Message in & about

At around 4:10 AM, someone said, "Write to shake the bottle. Wait and the contents return to their original state."

I shouldn't argue with Hermes, but in my experience it really depends on how tightly the bottle is capped.

. . .

Return of the Candid Friend

... and to console her private Distress I called into the Room to her my own Bosom Friend, my beloved Fanny Burney; whose Interest as well as Judgment goes all against my Marriage whose Skill in Life and Manners is superior to that of any Man or Woman in this Age or Nation; whose Knowledge of the World, ingenuity of Expedient, Delicacy of Conduct, & Zeal in the Cause will make her a Counsellor invaluable; & leave me destitute of every Comfort, of every Hope, of every Expectation.
- Hester Lynch Thrale's Thraliana, November 1782

. . .

Movie Comment

2012 (2009)

Atem. And one second after midnight... all the stone clocks stop!

* * *

The Man I Love (1946)

Hotsy. Ba-bum-ba-da-da-dum....

Totsy. We heard that song some tonight.

Hotsy. I guess it's good the movie wasn't called Barnacle Bill the Sailor.


Otherwise all I can add to The Siren's analysis is indignation at the film's iffy-to-nil critical rep. Survey the gendered terms of dismissal and the reason's plain enough: "sappy," "romantic," "melodramatic".... If Bogart had Lupino's part, The Man I Love would be a lot easier to see.

And a lot harder to believe. Lupino earns her happy ending in a way Bogart couldn't have.

Not that she's set everything right. You'd have to be stupid to think that's possible and you'd have to be crazy to try. But she's kept everything from going as bad as it looked like it might, and for smart sane people that's a damned happy ending. "You and Capablanca," I said.

. . .

Race to the bottom

People tell me Walter Benn Michaels is a good conversationalist, but you wouldn't know from his journalism.


"Stop talking about affirmative action!"


"Stop talking about affirmative action!"

And so on, down to:

"Everything's fallen apart, the state's shutting down higher education, hospital bills would kill us, and our tax money's gone to the assholes who put us in this mess!"

"Stop talking about affirmative action!"

Well, we all have compulsions to support. (For example, mentally rehearsing the lyrics of "Speedo." Whup, there they go again.) It's not like I've been doing much myself to re-write the state constitution, so why be annoyed with something Michaels published way back in August?

I admit it: I have a horse in this race. Maybe more than one. All United States citizens do, which is where the "identity" in "identity politics" comes from, right? And all those millions of horses jammed together, slipping their harnesses, milling about, and excreting at will makes it "politics" instead of a nicely maintained track with a designated finish line and number of laps.

The odd thing is my horses look like they should be teamed with Michaels's. Once I was even accused of writing something that willfully ignored the color line.

The reader I'd offended, like most people I met in adulthood, always lived in environments where it was a safe bet (no bankruptcy on a loss) that Random Black Person would be from a lower economic or cultural class than Random White Person. Me, I was raised on integrated military bases in an enlisted man's family, then transplanted to an impoverished 100%-white (red necks permitted) town about 70 miles from Eminem's birthplace (my grandma shares her name with his great aunt), then scholarshipped to an upper-crust college on the Main Line. Until my mid-twenties, life seemed, as Michaels puts it, proportionately unequal.

Thus it's not news to me that:

In the US, one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucial and entirely specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial and equally specious fellowship with rich black people.

And by the authority invested in me by IDENTITY, I attest that's the use Michaels is put to. For whatever my non-activist uncredentialed social analysis might be worth, I agree with him that wide redistribution of wealth maybe even to, oh, 1950s curves can only be achieved by paying attention to wealth, and that talking about racism, sexism, homophobia, and snobbery is insufficient. So why does he keep talking about them? For that matter, why does his talk about them get published and publicized?

Not because it's the fastest way to bring about a proletariat revolution. (Where did we leave that proletariat, anyway? I'm sure it was here eighty years ago....) Its comfort lies in the old sweet song of resentment. Recognize this tune?

But, despite the helpful hint, the cop failed to recognize an essential truth about neoliberal America: it's no longer enough to kowtow to rich white people; now you have to kowtow to rich black people too.

At a grotesque extreme, I'm even familiar with this one:

So the African-American woman who cleans my office is supposed to feel not so bad about the fact that I make almost ten times as much money as she does because she can be confident that I'm not racist or sexist and that I respect her culture. And she's also supposed to feel pride because the dean of our college, who makes much more than ten times what she does, is African-American, like her. And since the chancellor of our university, who makes more than 15 times what she does, is not only African-American but a woman too (the fruits of both anti-racism and anti-sexism!), she can feel doubly good about her. But, and I acknowledge that this is the thinnest of anecdotal evidence, I somehow doubt she does. If the downside of the politics of anti-discrimination is that it now functions to legitimate the increasing disparities not produced by racism or sexism, the upside is the degree to which it makes visible the fact that the increase in those disparities does indeed have nothing to do with racism or sexism. A social analyst as clear-eyed as a University of Illinois cleaning woman would start from there.

So while Professor Michaels can't talk to the maintenance staff at UIC, he's able to directly channel their down-to-earth wisdom? That's not "anecdotal" evidence, it's fictional evidence. And that's another authority magically granted by IDENTITY, my brother.

When Philadelphia cops had carte blanche to bust black heads, they didn't guarantee safe passage to a long-haired cracker in a leather jacket; anything that makes a cop think twice before swinging is a plus in my book. When I walked into a room of people who were richer, more powerful, or more educated than me, it never put me at ease to find they were all heterosexual white men. To the contrary, the more cliquish the group, the less likely any outsider (or any sense) will catch a break: those are the kind of rooms where you hear guff about African-American women who clean offices. And I never resented any move that mussed their ("our") monopoly; it does me and mine no harm to mix up the ruling class while we await the revolution. (Where did we leave that revolution, anyway? I'm sure it was here eighty years ago....)


Reliable source Josh Lukin reminds me that Walter Benn Michaels treats his middle name "Carlos Williams" style not "Cabot Lodge" style. I must've been thinking of Abou Ben Adhem.

He adds:

I like the fact that Michaels points out the problem with "Don't bully black people, 'cause they might be powerful." Reminds me of the crew member on the set of Gentlemen's Agreement: "Now I know not to be mean to Jews, 'cause they might be Gentiles in disguise." There's some theories of justice that would be perfectly at ease with those statements.

And a link!

. . .

Go, Pursued by Bears

Born and bred a concern troll, I combine the firm clarity of a Henry James with the nuanced teamwork of a Yosemite Sam. The only political value I ever delivered was standing sullenly in one spot, and even there my peak performance is long behind me. Not then as a particpant but as a spectator and so inexpert a spectator as to be uncertain whether any goals were scored in a racoon coat I wave my pennant and flask and agree the Big Game was well played.

. . .

Defy the Foul Fiend; or, The Misadventures of a Heart
by John Collier (1934)

At 388 pages, the longest Punch caption ever.

. . .

The Purloined Plotpoint

When reading Gene Wolfe, I never think of Joyce or Nabokov or Coetzee: Empson's poetry seems more to the point. Like the New Critics, Wolfe's admirers have fetishized one aspect of reader-text interaction into its goal. And if one fetishizes the task of detection, what could be more attractive than the Clew lost to all but its creator, a forever unattainable mistress berating us blind and clumsy worms?

Not that there's anything wrong with fetishes! I'm not immune to the spice of a M'Intosh or two, and the Wolfe-fan's fetish does little harm compared to, say, James Wood's. I merely believe it's wise to negotiate terms early in a relationship.


When assessing my own terms of engagement, it may help to know that one of my favorite Wolfe novels is an apotheosis of sexual befuddlement.

Just a Smack at Odin?

. . .

2009, The Year in Review: A Tag Cloud

Renfrew Q. Hobblewort, the nation's leading question of Anselm Dovetonsils, has left a fragrant surprise beneath our Jaysus Tree:

I received this emanation from a mysterious source, though it bears the hallmarks of the greatest unwashed poet of our time, with the interesting claim that it was found within a tag cloud of Facebook status updates for the calendar year. I have, of course, added in the (implied) punctuation, and deleted proper names in the interests of the protection of the innocent and guilty alike. I am thusly dutifully passing it along for further inscrutiny by the more familiar scholars of his work (and very familiar you are).

Of course you have.


2009 forgot time. seized band, added officially looking plastic boys, morning watching adoption, thursday family ocean, bill, california wild storm night, turkeys school home. please! tonight! christmas moon using sleeping -- listening dinner season ahead, halloween forgotten. Managed doing days - sunday section, date pittsburgh, minutes yard finalization. Little kids! Enjoy. Patrol.

. . .

The Spiral Ascent, a trilogy of novels by Edward Upward

Although unable to share the delight of Janet Montefiore, Jerome McGann, and Gabriel, I'm unwilling to join the likes of Christopher Hitchens and the author of Atheist Delusions. If sterile Leninist chatter made such fine spectacle in La Chinoise, Le Gai Savoir, and Night and Fog in Japan, why should it be excluded from prose fiction?

No, what exasperated me was finally the other side of Upward's narrative dialectic: art. In politics, his hero obsessively evaluates his own theoretical status as pure Revolutionary; in literature, his hero obsessively evaluates his own theoretical status as pure Poet. In both realms, "success" represents a transcendental fantasy, never reachable and therefore forever enticing, each compulsion only eased by a switch to the other. The last volume is rightly titled "No Home but the Struggle" (with no place like home), and the trilogy as a whole rightly promises us a Spiral, in which we always seem to be striking outward but always find ourselves further in.

A young man swathed tight by his own freely spun web...? From a more jaundiced teller, the story would be familiar enough. As is, it's as if Rabbit Angstrom found true and lasting fulfillment in suburban car dealerships. The generic difficulty, then, is mood rather than matter. A realistic mainstream novel might, with some clumsiness, endorse one such ideal. Two two is too many for my comfort.

But not, of course, for the author's. By the few accounts available, Upward's quietly unquenchable fervor made for a fine life finer than any alternative I can imagine... and thus I seem to have spun myself into McGann's comparison, to La Vita Nuova: a testament, not a novel.

Dante was briefer, though.

. . .

Movie Comment: Moonlighting for the Holidays

Is anything more Christmassy than working long hours in retail?

Why, yes: Working long hours as an illegal alien! And shoplifting! And as Skolimowski's heroes wheel their bundles to Heathrow the sentimental viewer will recall that long-ago night when Santa led the Three Wise Men....

. . .

What I tried to say to Michael

I don't think Jack Spicer was "hermetic" in the usual sense: there are lots of quotes and misquotes from the canon and nursery rhymes and folk songs, but knowing where they came from doesn't explain them, it's more the opposite: they show up because they're catchy tunes and they're winnowed till all that's left is catchiness.

But it's true, there is a kind of sealed-off quality to his writing, and I can understand how someone might want to open the window after a while. Most blatantly, Spicer waves the word "poetry" around a lot more than I can usually stomach. It's not like he's a snob: we get baseball games and walks by the ocean and JFK's assassination and sick horniness. But every whiff of fresh air gets processed and reprocessed into the same characteristic funk.

The thing is, though. A lot of writers, maybe most writers, not just poets, sometimes sense a material force, intuit some structure that pre-dates us, which can derail or at least side-track us towards some destination that seems to be waiting there with its own integrity, with almost its own rights. Last week, for example, I read this from Rae Armantrout:

Who are we talking to when we write? I don't really think, in my case, that I'm talking to a specific audience; I think I'm talking to myself, but when I'm talking to myself, who am I talking to? It feels very much like when I was a child and I prayed, so it's not that I actually believe there is an entity called God who hears what I say, but there is this desire to somehow perfect utterance. But make it perfect for whom, you know? I think in a way we are making something for the gods that we don't believe in.

I don't mean sabotage, although it can turn out that way, more of a grip-hold on artifactuality. Most writers treat the intuition in a practical way, as incitement, to distract us from self-consciousness, or as an uninspected justification of last resort.

If you start behaving as if there really was some unsurfaced connection between verbal structure and worldly business, you get what's called "magic." You get poets like W. B. Yeats and Robert Duncan. But their magic is a self-inflating and semi-deniable fantasy, dressing up and feeling slick, a boost to get the job done. Maybe more sexual aid than sex toy, but still basically utilitarian.

What would it be like to honestly follow through on our when-it's-convenient lip-service? To drop the playacting, and take "this horseshit, this uncomfortable music," seriously and take the intellectual, spiritual, and practical consequences?

That wouldn't be fancy-dress Magick but the daily, nightly, and eternal grind of religious duty, of a particularly dour sort, a dutiful homespun Protestant...

Very Protestant...

He was an atheist.

Nah, not really. He deploys the word "God" almost as often as the word "poetry," more often than any other twentieth century English-speaking poet I know. But not a "personal God." Gods don't manifest just so you can drop God's name and get waved into the club. If God's there, God's there, and you take God on that basis, and from your base. Spicer doesn't lose himself in religion, we're all grown-ups here. The Poet is a beat-up receiver of God's Martian radio signal (or an aching catcher of baseball God), fully responsible for any transduction and traducement (or pick-off attempt and error), and that's where the personal begins and ends and bends: as the characteristic funk of modulation. A radio tuner works within its range, a radio speaker works within its range, and Spicer's exploratory theology works within the voice of a resentful impoverished well-educated alcoholic gay mid-century American. No escape from our home in the range.

And when our voice is given over to the music, what does the music have to tell us? Get lost.

Nothing by this music.
Is a frigate bird or a rock or some seaweed.
Hail nothing
The infernal
Is a slippering wetness out at the horizon.
Hell is this:
The lack of anything but the eternal to look at
The expansiveness of salt
The lack of any bed but one's
Music to sleep in.

If Spicer's the only writer who can make me swallow a punch-line like "Poet, // Be like God," it's because first he defined his terms: God sees everything that we have lost or forgotten. God is a cannibal that only eats itself. God is gone.

And that little door with all those wheels in it
leave in it
Like God.

And I suppose you could say the experiment's results were negative. There was no (commercially viable) Northwest Passage. The patient died. But for those stuck in these experimental conditions, the operation itself was a triumphant success, something to celebrate and dwell on. The experiment had been waiting to be made, and now none of us have to make it.

. . .

"Thea's main objective in life seemed to be to make her contemporaries feel awful."

Since I'm a long-time champion of Patricia Highsmith, my friends have naturally asked me what I thought of the new biography. Well, when I gave up the idle fantasy of writing a critical biography I also seemed to lose interest in reading one, and so I haven't read it. But of the opinions formulated by people who have, I commend with pleasure Jonathan Lethem's, and would only add to his suggestions two novels of particular import to biography readers: the alternate-history life-of-Highsmith Edith's Diary, dedicated to the unlikely proposition that Things Could Be Worse, and Those Who Walk Away, which narrates the healing powers and jarringly hard limits of empathy in a way and in settings that Henry James might recognize without quite endorsing.


Dave Haan differs:

Betty Noir's not my thang, but it seems a shame to overlook the Sunday Times' appreciation in its lit-quotes of the year, under the VS Naipaul award for most repellent author:

"[Patricia Highsmith] kept 300 snails as pets. She drank a quart of gin a day. She considered robbery worse than murder. She left the United States to live in Europe because of what she called 'the Negro problem' by which she did not mean discrimination against Negroes, but the civil rights movement that had Negroes demanding their rights. A houseguest once left her window open; she threw a dead rat inside. She took tips left on restaurant tables. She'd drive 60 miles to get a cheaper spaghetti dinner. She called Hitler's extermination policy a 'semicaust' because only half the world's Jews died."

The rest of Kornbluth's take

and Joan Schenkar has a couple items up there as well.

Oh, and for heaven's sakes how did I leave The Price of Salt out of my additional recommendations "of particular import to biography readers"?

. . .

The day job stymied any notice of this here venture's tenth anniversary this summer. Still, I can't let the calendar change come upon us without conveying another rude term for [pantyhose]:

The cat's pajamas

Happy New Year!

. . .

Henry James talks himself into a good mood

Henry Adams to Elizabeth Cameron, 8 March 1914:

I've read Henry James’s last bundle of memories which have reduced me to dreary pulp. Why did we live? Was that all? Why was I not born in central Africa and died young. Poor Henry James thinks it all real, I believe, and actually still lives in that dreamy, stuffy Newport and Cambridge, with papa James and Charles Norton and me! Yet, why!

Henry James to Henry Adams, 21 March 1914:

I have your melancholy outpouring of the 7th, & I know not how better to acknowledge it than by the full recognition of its unmitigated blackness. Of course we are lone survivors, of course the past that was our lives is at the bottom of an abyss if the abyss has any bottom; of course too there’s no use talking unless one particularly wants to. But the purpose, almost, of my printed divagations was to show you that one can, strange to say, still want to or at least can behave as if one did. Behold me therefore so behaving & apparently capable of continuing to do so. I still find my consciousness interesting under cultivation of the interest. Cultivate it with me, dear Henry that’s what I hoped to make you do; to cultivate yours for all that it has in common with mine. Why mine yields an interest I don’t know that I can tell you, but I don’t challenge or quarrel with it I encourage it with a ghastly grin. You see I still, in presence of life (or of what you deny to be such,) have reactions as many as possible & the book I sent you is a proof of them. It’s, I suppose, because I am that queer monster the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility. Hence the reactions appearances, memories, many things go on playing upon it with consequences that I note & ‘enjoy’ (grim word!) noting. It all takes doing & I do. I believe I shall do yet again it is still an act of life. But you perform them still yourself & I don’t know what keeps me from calling your letter a charming one! There we are, and it’s a blessing that you understand
I admit indeed alone
Your all-faithful Henry James

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