|. . . 2013-01-01|
Long before 1993, I'd thought of art(-in-the-most-generalized-sense-possible)-making as a human universal, and since I don't believe homo sapiens was formed de limo terræ on the sixth day by that ginormous Stephen Dedalus in the sky, I must perforce believe the inclination to have evolved(-in-the-most-generalized-sense-possible).
But scientists' applications of neuroscience, neural nets, and comparative zoology to art were sheer inanity, and with a few very welcome exceptions the "neuro-aesthetics" and "evolutionary turns" which migrated to humanities journals and popularized books catered no better fare. As Paul Bloom put it in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry:
Surely the contemporary human's love of literature has to have some evolutionary history, just as it has a cultural history, just as it has an instantiation in the brain, just as it emerges in the course of child development, and so on. Consider, as a concrete example, the proposal by the English professor Lisa Zunshine. She argues that humans have evolved a taste for stories because they exercise the capacity for social reasoning or theory of mind. Suppose, contrary to my own by-product view, Zunshine is correct. Why should this matter to your average Jane Austen scholar (to use a common synecdoche for English professors everywhere)? It would seem to be relevant in exactly the same way as finding that stories are processed in a certain part of the frontal lobe — that is, not at all.
While literary critics can safely ignore those interested in theories of the origin and nature of stories, the converse isn't true.
To a published-or-perished team-player, my little biographia literaria may sound naïvely promiscuous: tacking to each newly prevailing wind without a glance at the charts, discarding yesterday's party allegiance in the face of today's confident campaign ad.
I swear, however, this ever unrulier tangle springs from one integrated ground, albeit of well-manured soil rather than bedrock: a faith born at pubescence in the realization that mumbling through Shakespeare's King John was a different thing, a different incarnate thing, than speed-reading Isaac Asimov or Ellery Queen; a faith which developed through adolescence and reached near-final form by age twenty.
This chapel's sacrament is aesthesis, sense-perception, rather than "high art":
For it is false to suppose that a child's sense of beauty is dependent on any choiceness or special fineness, in the objects which present themselves to it, though this indeed comes to be the rule with most of us in later life; earlier, in some degree, we see inwardly; and the child finds for itself, and with unstinted delight, a difference for the sense, in those whites and reds through the smoke on very homely buildings, and in the gold of the dandelions at the road-side, just beyond the houses, where not a handful of earth is virgin and untouched, in the lack of better ministries to its desire of beauty.
But honest attention to sensibility finds social context as well as sensation. Words have heft; the color we see is a color we think. And art(-in-the-most-general-sense-possible) wins special interest as a sensible experience which is more or less bounded, shared, repeatable, and pre-swaddled in discourse.
Pluralism is mandated by that special interest. Any number of functions might be mapped into one chunk of multidimensional space. Integer arithmetic and calculus don't wage tribal war; nor do salt and sweet. We may not be able to describe them simultaneously; one may feel more germane to our circumstances than another; on each return to the artifact, the experience differs. But insofar as we label the experiential series by the artifact, all apply; as Tuesday Weld proved, "Everything applies!" And as Anna Schmidt argued, "A person doesn't change because you find out more." We've merely added flesh to our perception, and there is no rule of excluded middle in flesh.
Like other churches, this one doesn't guarantee good fellowship, and much of the last decade's "aesthetic turn" struck me as dumbed-down reactionism. But The New Aestheticism was on the whole a pleasant surprise. Its reputation (like the reputation of most academic books, I suppose) is based on a few pull-quotes from the editors' introduction; the collection which follows is more eclectic. Howard Caygill sets a nice Nietzschean oscillation going in Alexandria, Gary Banham's "Kant and the ends of criticism" nostalgically resembles what I smash-&-grabbed from the display case back in college, and Jonathan Dollimore snaps at ethical presumptions with commendable bloodlust.
The contributors keep their disagreements well within the disciplinary family, however. They cite Adorno, Kant, and Heidegger very frequently, Wilde once, and Pater never, and disport themselves accordingly. After all, Adorno was a contentious fussbudget and respectable role model, whereas Pater was an ineffectual sissy.
Till at a corner of the wayWe met with maid Bellona,Who joined us so imperiouslyThat we durst not disown her.My three companions coughed and blushed,And as the time waxed later,One murmured, pulling out his watch,That he must go—'twas Pater.- "The Traveller" by Arthur Graeme West
Adorno might have been happy surrounded by worshipful li'l Adornos; a majority of such as Pater, "the very opposite of that which regards life as a game of skill, and values things and persons as marks or counters of something to be gained, or achieved, beyond them," would be the heat death of the world. But there's more to existence than procreation, and aesthetes, at least, should appreciate the value of one-offs and nonreproducible results. We can no more say that Derrida "proved" Searle wrong than that Bangs "proved" the Godz brilliant musicians or Flaubert "proved" us all doomed to follow Frédéric Moreau. That doesn't mean Derrida was therefore best when dishing unset Jello like Glas and Lester Bangs was therefore best when writing fiction and Flaubert was therefore best avoiding emotionally hot topics. Every flounder to its own hook.
If false dilemmas and heroic battles against empire or barbarism are what's needed to drag some white bellies to the surface, well, that's no more ridiculous a procedure than constructing imaginary villages with real explainers in them. I wouldn't presume to say it's all good, but it is all that is the case.
giddy upon the Hobby-Horse
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Aw, come on, horsey! Please, horsey? Please, whoa. Purty please? Doggone it now, horsey! Won't you please whoa?
Has Dollimore gotten less irritating since his days of applying Godwin's law to literature? ("Here essence and teleology are explicitly affirmed while history becomes the surrogate absolute. If we are used to finding this kind of utterance in our own cultural history it comes as something of a shock to realise that these were the words of Alfred Bäumler, a leading Nazi philosopher writing on race." etc etc)
He kicks off with Hesse, so probably not.
Dollimore kicked off Radical Tragedy with Hesse as well! So this is a rerun, I gather.
A preview of the third edition intro, looks like.
|. . . 2013-01-13|
Commuting, the sentence.
drowned the rock salt:
It's not, it's not, it's not my fault.
"I feel like I've lived inside a box." Which is occasionally shaken, swabbed by oily slabs of fingertips.
I would like to become a better mouse.
"To look forward to the next month or season is to be impatient for one's own death. This is natural, since the elements trapped with the soul long to return to their former state."
|. . . 2013-01-20|
It's a message movie, and the message is the kind that makes you request an unlisted number.
|. . . 2013-01-21|
As a stereotypical Blank Generationer with carnal and spiritual all balled up, I can't directly enter stereotypical Victorian sex-fear. But I can approximate its consternated repression through another bestial sin: wrath.
Through the years some acquaintances have advised me to express anger more frequently and openly, but none who'd seen my face and heard my voice. It's a Mr. Hyde transformation, complete with William Castle visual effects: I literally see red. It halts converse, it's ended friendships, and if it doesn't exactly deplete purity of essence, still (since it takes no account of the size, hostility, or weaponry of its target) it could shorten my life. And the knowledge that it will finally be extinguished with my flesh lends comfort to mortality.
|. . . 2013-01-22|
As noted by David Ehrenstein at the time of the film's release, Pupkin is in fact the "distorted funhouse mirror image" of the Idiot characters in Artists and Models, The Nutty Professor and The Patsy.
That resemblance escapes me, but I recall my horror when I realized how closely Travis Bickle's character arc mimics the Idiot-Makes-Good solo vehicles of Jerry Lewis.
I was prodded to that revelation by the missing-fingers gag ("gag" as in E.C. comics' CHOKE! GAG!).
|. . . 2013-01-23|
Repugnance towards that which almost accomplishes what you'd like to accomplish but not in a way you approve, embarrassing your own desire. The rage of Caliban seeing the photo of someone who looks a bit like Caliban.
On Facebook, I told Peli the origin story:
... it seemed the projected personalities who angered me most were ones I feared resemblance to. Not so much the damage they'd done as the damage I might do inspired by their example.
Hypocrite lecteur,— mon Sasha,— mon Frere!
|. . . 2013-01-24|
It's just the way people are built. At the job, at a meal, in a letter to a friend, I may believe I express an observation, a vendible product, an emotion, a reasonable argument, a caustic corrective, an earworm, or an amuse-bouche. Someone else (or myself later) may perceive expressions of a biography, a definite type, a lost age, a lamentable trend, a stunted personality, or a body of work. (Or, of course, contrariwise.)
There's nothing special about art except as spur to confusion.
my way or the highway: agree that it's that, or that's it!
|. . . 2013-01-25|
Now we no longer have the idea of a central truth. We now have more of an understanding about the thinking of others, that perhaps there is something in it: maybe it is an interesting angle, an interesting way to illuminate the matter, it's not false but perhaps it's not true either. It is a kind of transformation of language. Not in the sense of Wittgenstein's use of language but in the sense that we each have our own philosophical characters. Philosophy gets closer to what we can call novels; that is, we each have our own characters which we put into motion within one framework, and others have their own novels and characters but we can still read each other's novels.
Along similar lines, for a student in my time and place the great utopias (including Utopia) instruct best as leviathan self-portraits of the philosophers' souls. It's like one of those things where you get asked a bunch of questions and it turns out to be your porn star name.
The Republic could hardly have been more explicit about it. Socrates sets out to describe the just man, but a city is bigger than a man and it's easier to see big things — same principle as walking the school group through a giant plastic alimentary tract. Plato isn't promising to make the poets shut up. He's promising to make the Laws duller than the Phaedrus.
|. . . 2013-01-27|
Back in the mid-1980s when I first saw copies of The Mythical Man-Month, I assumed it was about Elizabeth Bishop.
The third culture is the third rail.
Guy Davenport, from "The Peales and their Museum":
(The word mammoth Peale got from the zoologist Georges Cuvier, who got it from the Russians; it is the Yakut word mamont, meaning "creature-from-the-earth," the nt looking in Russian, MAMOHT, like a typo for th, which somebody corrected.)
|. . . 2013-01-29|
But if Pat's affinity for Jewish dentists was yet another example of the subversive Miss Highsmith turning an ordinary exchange upside down — i.e., the "German-identified" Pat being "gassed" by "Jewish dentists" (an idea so offensive that it might actually have appealed to Pat) — she never said so.- Joan Schenkar,
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
Gee, how clever you are to know about things that never happened.- Joanna Russ, The Female Man
Against my better judgment, I read Schenkar's long dreadful book for the same reason I read Juliet Barker's similarly vindictive The Brontës: its compilation of primary sources. But Barker is a more controlled writer (or maybe benefited from a harder-working editor), and her intolerance closely resembles that of her chosen villain, lending the affair a certain meta-piquancy.
Schenkar, on the other hand, only resembles her own telling. She calls Highsmith's prose awkward and flat-footed, and she ladles out an Irish stew of purple clunkers. She snickers at Highsmith's pretensions, and she routinely overreaches:
By 1977, when Edith's Diary was published, rye had not been produced in the United States for at least twenty years.
She descries Highsmith's compulsive disruptions, and she's so full of redundant snark that she can't wait till a quote is finished before telling us what to think:
But she was "quite unable to do any creative work, though in my house there is always quite enough else to do. The mental fear needs a thousand words to describe. [But Pat did not provide them. [And neither does Joan.]] It as though death is right there — suddenly — and yet one feels no pain, one is talking in a calm voice to friends & doctors."
Schenkar's starting position may not be far from uncannily unmoved and unmoving witnesses like Found in the Street's Natalia or Inez from Those Who Walk Away. Here, though, their silent treatment bursts into a grossly extended middle-school poison-pen letter: "We just thought you should know: we don't like you." The best I can say is it gives Highsmith's paranoia, misogyny, and resentment a more flattering context than I could've conjured on my own.
Highsmith scholar Josh Lukin:
"When Pat Highsmith gave life to Ripley, she was exposing the black backside of her country's Zeitgeist" is more than a purple clunker: it's Tom Friedman on weed.
And Josh follows up:
But you know what'd be helpful in maintaining your youthful figure? Her recenter reminiscences of Stanley Hyman and Shirley Jackson, complete with critical comments by their kids in the comments dept.
A relatively restrained and respectful performance. Wall Street Journal's blog must have an editor.
|. . . 2013-01-30|
Pat defines sociopathy not by acts but by thoughts: labile memory, for example, and temporarily but vehemently held truths.
By which analysis, I'm a sociopath. Benign, I hope. "Casper the Friendly Sociopath," to paraphrase Justine.
|. . . 2013-01-31|
|. . . 2013-02-01|
For once the title's staider than the text. An apparent survey of eighteenth-century occasional verse is instead a briskly related origin myth of New Yorker-ish Anglo-American poetry, its snottiness about as securely veiled as a nipple at the Oscars:
... in return for greater latitude in claiming occasional basis for a wide range of purely mental events, the poet must subject himself to scrutiny on ethos, not occasion. The new-modeled elegiac poet is in this sense always a 'persona,' as it were — in every social setting, the poet must strive at all times to act like an inspired being (even to the extent of stubbornly living in the country, hoping for visitors as witnesses to one's dramatized solitude). Testimonials backing up epideictic claims no longer attest to the reality of a particular incident, but to the ethos of the poet. Thus it is not surprising that Cowper's first volume of verse on the new pattern was prefaced by a testimonial to his moral character by his religious guide, Mr. Newton. That testimonial replaces the long, occasion-substantiating subtitles of previous generations. The 'dispositions of the [poet's] mind', if sufficiently vetted by clergy or other reliable persons becomes the new ground of belief in lyric narrative; and as ever in the English lyric, belief precedes, grounds, and all but makes superfluous the act of reading the text itself.
Funereal pathos without the corpse; the intra-cranial space as the last, costly refuge from the truth demands of a suspicious audience; abandonment of overt narrative invention to the novel....
(Dolan later had occasion to track the novel's progress.)
A few steps are missing between Wordsworth and Louise Glück, and a few millennia elided before Milton. But I appreciate a well-told story. And the howl-wagging-the-dog influence of "mainstream" lyric (no occasions? we make some!) is what finally made me stop playing poet in my youth. And Americans do mostly know poems as those things you have to read at weddings and funerals. All things considered, the book might have had a salutary influence on some English departments.
We'll never know. After Poetic Occasion, Dr. Dolan joined a roadshow company of Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail. His book garnered two iffy reviews and a dozen citations, and in the consumer paradise of contemporary publishing, it can be yours for $287.41.
Academics still get off lightly next to Dolan's treatment of Victor Davis Hanson.
That carries Gary Brecher's byline, but I understand your mistake. The Exile enforces house style as rigidly as Henry Luce's Time.
nice to see you posting regularly, one could get used to this rhythm
Thanks. The dayjob relented a bit, and gorging on josh blog stirred me a bit.
Thank you! I AM A TERRIBLE SCHOLAR!
|. . . 2013-02-02|
The least contrived scenario of Michael Haneke's career is also best-case (compare; contrast), capped with a happy ending. He remains a high-class embalmer, but Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant fight processing every breath of the way. We didn't regret watching it.
|. . . 2013-02-10|
When I observe the landscape of midwinter Missouri, I am forced to concede the superiority of bright saturated colors.
When I observe the midwinter wardobe of Missourans, I confess, my friends, I am puzzled.
|. . . 2013-02-11|
|. . . 2013-02-17|
As a admirer of Latin, Samuel Johnson Englished its syntax. As an admirer of Johnson, Jane Austen Englished his English. The dialect became a language. It got a navy.
|. . . 2013-02-18|
A week in Missouri's hospitals and dying towns may have tinctured my sickbed reading of Mind and World. As was, despite many points of contact,1 I could only admire from a distance the confidence with which John McDowell liberated himself (well, all humanity [no dogs], but since he doesn't cite stats I presume we were redeemed by extension) from the "realm of law." And although his talk of "exculpation" and "justification" brushed my cracker-barrel essays on a related topic, we walked to different seats of the courtroom.
From within his context (so far as my imagination allowed me to follow), his argument ran soothingly cool and clear. Within mine, temporal binaries continue more to the point than zoological. What has occurred rests unpeaceably in the realm of law. In the realm of spontaneity and/or reason, the realm of the present tense, on those rare occasions when a conscious decision cannot be avoided, what we grab for might as often be called an "algorithm" as a "justification"— anything to slap us back into the realm of law ASAP, though it be the law of probability, the law of the jungle, or the law of SATAN HIS BAD SELF. Anything so's to be just following orders.
1 Of course I agree that the experience of human perception cannot be separated from the exercise of human thought. We possibly diverge on the priority of the converse.
If all I ever achieve is instigating essays at metameat, it will be a life well led.
|. . . 2013-02-20|
He says his family's vacation spot in Maine has become more diverse since wealthy couples began adopting African babies. I thought of that Braymer witticism: "I got nothing against niggers. I think everybody should own one."
|. . . 2013-02-21|
Prodigal son looks like a sweet gig but it's more dangerous than the brochures make out. The great mill-wheel won't keep turning without a stream of bad karma.
Like an anti-bodhisattva, to maintain self-image the confessional writer needs sins to slough off. Alcoholism's an indispensable occupational hazard, like coal dust for miners. You drink to forget what you learned the last time so you can relearn it in slightly different words.
That may be why Frank O'Hara stopped producing in his late thirties, after he got the big day job. The bitterness of the mean middle-aged drunk, so essential to a Lowell or Berryman, blocked his balancing act.
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Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2013 Ray Davis.