. . . kleist

. . .

Four Flies on Turbulent Velvet

For me, a still closer analogy is conversation, with its fragmenting veerings of immediate impulse, its easy changes of tone and subject, its relaxed or fraught (but inevitable) drops into silence, its emphasis on voice....
- Cholly Kokonino
Whatever sort of "practice" I've been casting about for and failing to define or assemble, I know it would have one important quality: it would be very directly dialogic. Yes, there'd be all sorts of byzantine qualifications to jury-rig just the right degree of privacy and publicity, to prevent the twin dangers of cold contractual individualism and co-dependent absorption. Still, this is key: I need other people dialogically. I need them far more than a writer needs his audience.
- Turbulent Velvet

Yes. We need them as a writer needs fellow writers.

Stories, poems, essays, and memoirs begin in response to more-or-less imagined peers. We haven't found a specific "genre of conversation" because every genre is a conversation, established and maintained by the conversational impulse.

And whereas most novelists, for example, find distraction from that originary impulse in the growing work itself, other writers linger by the source.

I know by experience this sort of nature that cannot bear vehement and laborious premeditation. If it doesn't go along gaily and freely, it goes nowhere worth going. We say of certain works that they smell of oil and the lamp, because of a certain harshness and roughness that labor imprints on productions in which it has a large part. But besides this, the anxiety to do well, and the tension of straining too intently on one's work, put the soul on the rack, break it, and make it impotent; as happens with water, which because of the very pressure of its violence and abundance cannot find a way out of an open bottle-neck.

It is no less peculiar to the kind of temperament I am speaking of, that it wants to be stimulated: not shaken and stung by such strong passions as Cassius' anger (for that emotion would be too violent); not shocked; but roused and warmed up by external, present, and accidental stimuli. If it goes along all by itself, it does nothing but drag and languish. Agitation is its very life and grace.

I have little control over myself and my moods. Chance has more power here than I. The occasion, the company, the very sound of my voice, draw more from my mind than I find in it when I sound it and use it by myself. Thus its speech is better than its writings, if there can be choice where there is no value.

- Michel de Montaigne
But because I do have some dim conception at the outset, one distantly related to what I am looking for, if I boldly make a start with that, my mind, even as my speech proceeds, under the necessity of finding an end for that beginning, will shape my first confused idea into complete clarity so that, to my amazement, understanding is arrived at as the sentence ends. I put in a few unarticulated sounds, dwell lengthily on the conjunctions, perhaps make use of apposition where it is not necessary, and have recourse to other tricks which will spin out my speech, all to gain time for the fabrication of my idea in the workshop of the mind. And in this process nothing helps me more than if my sister makes a move suggesting she wishes to interrupt; for such an attempt from outside to wrest speech from its grasp still further excites my already hard-worked mind and, like a general when circumstances press, its powers are raised a further degree.

The ideas in succession and the signs for them proceed side by side and the mental acts entailed by both converge. Speech then is not at all an impediment; it is not, as one might say, a brake on the mind but rather a second wheel running along parallel on the same axle. It is a quite different matter when the mind, before any utterance of speech, has completed its thought. For then it is left with the mere expression of that thought, and this business, far from exciting the mind, has, on the contrary, only a relaxing effect.

* * *

For it is not we who know things but pre-eminently a certain condition of ours which knows.

- Heinrich von Kleist

So if, like Montaigne, we find discussion "sweeter than any other action of our life," why bother to write? Why do some of us feel this impulse to rush ephemeral life, leaking and splashing from our cupped hands, into some more public and permanent form?

And why into this one? After a century of popular musics, motion pictures, talk shows, and improv comedy taped before a studio audience, why continue to transcribe or mimic half-remembered uncertainly-improved vivacity like poor old-timey storytellers, playwrights, philosophers, and critics had to?

Maybe we're talking talk a bit too up? Maybe talk has its own problems? I can't speak for Velvet or Montaigne, but the translator of the quoted essay, David Constantine, writes that Kleist "felt himself to be at odds, he felt embarrassed and uncomfortable, he was not understood. He was known as somebody who muttered to himself at the dinner table in company. People supposed, because of his difficulties in communication, that he must have some speech impediment. Ordinary dealings, ordinary efforts at communication, were bad enough; but to utter the truth of the heart, which he longed to do, this was a nightmare of impossibility."

My own delight in vigorous conversation, although sincere, isn't as reliable or benign as I tend to make it sound. It's true that I began publishing when an editor said I should "write that down and send it to the magazine." But I began writing shortly before, when I lost trust in the conversational sufficiency of lovers, friends, or jobmates. Or myself, for that matter.

Even when live discussion is available, sweetness may be lacking. After bouncing like Daffy, I deflate like Porkypine; I frequently absent myself from even the pleasantest parties. Aggressive engagement genuinely charms me, but even the hint of a slight or a dismissal makes me a sullen thin-skinned thin-lipped bore. And my own pleasure hardly guarantees pleasure for all. As Kleist notes elsewhere in his essay, "the faster speaker will always have an advantage"; what I consider a rewarding tussle between equals, others may consider the posturing of a loudmouthed bully.

Writing helps me suspend disbelief in persistent community. Writing helps me prolong the hope of shared pleasure and cooperative knowledge. If the intoxication's weaker, so is the hangover.

If T. V. and I are right that weblogging can approximate, more closely than any other form, our ideal of written conversation, then we can expect that weblogging will expose, more painfully than any other form, the costs and contradictions of that ideal.

But so long as we just keep reminding ourselves it doesn't matter, I guess it'll be OK. As the poet sang, or, more precisely, as the poet painted backwards in varnish on a hand-hammered and polished copper plate, relief-etched in acid, pressed in multiple pigments, hand-painted, and then sold a few copies of over the next three decades:

If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.


"if...we find discussion 'sweeter than any other action of our life,' why bother to write?"
We find sex, most of us do - when we find it at all - sweeter than child-rearing, with its disciplines and responsibilities - most of us do. It's the stretch of temporal finitude toward the in. The long haul and its gambles. A conversation that lasts months has depth built-in.

Yes. I tried to hint at something similar in the "distraction" of the growing novel, but failed.

Jelinek is a character in a novella by Bernhard, who is a character in a short story by Walser, who is a character in a play by von Kleist.

That reminds me of another failing in my post. I'd hoped to mention the peculiar nature of Kleist's dialog, with virtually every line of every character repeated questioningly and confusedly by other characters, as if we lived in a world of half-deaf Robert Benchleys. (And so we do.) At first its style seems more accurately described by Constantine's unflattering portrait than by Kleist's smoothed ride, but really, I think, essay, plays, and biographical note all accurately indicate Kleist's attention to the process of dialog. Only those of us who find communication troublesome feel the need to trouble ourselves with its workings, but our analyses will naturally be tainted by our troubles. Most people are fine with just turning the ignition key and accelerating (usually into the garage door).

We have been honored by the gaze of Dr. Amrit Chadwallah.

. . .

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).

. . .


(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.

. . .

The Road to Son of Paleface, 5

Q: In your writing for both cartoons and features, did you draw any line between possible and impossible gags?
A: It depends on who does the gag.
- Frank Tashlin, interview with Mike Barrier, 1971
I think one of the reasons you invest yourself in characters is: who plays them? When he was doing a Bob Hope vehicle, he could have Bob Hope carry the movie, because everybody knew Bob Hope and the kind of stuff he did, and he'd be able to use that.... It's just that he's not afraid to take them a little further than people were used to being taken at that time.
- Joe Dante, interview with Bill Krohn, Frank Tashlin, ed. Roger Garcia, 1994
Junior and Mike get lucky
Hope is the thing with feathers

To the promised land of feature film Tashlin carried assets of self-awareness, anxiety, and vulgarity: an ability not just to tap the repressed, but to hand it the reins. Hope's stardom mixed two inherently unstable comic staples: the wise-cracking fool and the feckless letch. By exaggerating both to previously (and thereafter) unimagined levels, Tashlin achieved the comedian's apotheosis. And, as Mel Gibson taught us, apotheosis is a painful process.

Macaroni supreme, Junior Potter presents something more bizarre than puffed-up cowardice. Outrageous camping combines with eye-bulging homophobia; expressions of randiness are compulsive, somewhere between a tic and a fit, but seem unattached to any thought of consummation. From observation of his Harvard classmates, he knows lust calls for leering and predatorial behavior and he knows it involves some division between men and women, but I'm not sure he knows precisely what that is. Literally dozens of gags concern sexual panic.

His confusion overflows into the script at large. Jane Russell's character (renamed from "Lily" to "Mike") promises, "As soon as I get him under a full moon, I'll empty his father's chest," and it's positioned as a laugh line but meaning what exactly? Another irrationally-numbered entendre closes the film.

As Junior proudly declares, "I'm a novelty." Where does such a creature come from?

A line of arrested-development "Juniors" stretches across Tashlin's career from the legged-egg of "Booby Hatched" to the frustrated boss of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? The original Paleface ended with its hero losing his bride-to-be before their wedding night, and although it's probably sanest not to consider that film as sharing its sequel's universe, Junior Potter comes close to androgenesis. The ghost of his legendary father the lyin'est crookedest mangiest rottenest low-down critter that never drew a sober breath literally haunts the movie. Whereas all we know of his mother is that Senior disinherited her and that she assigned Junior a gender at age twelve, two years after he kissed a girl (and darn if he ain't ready again).

Junior gazes into his father's... chest?
... begotten by Despair / Upon Impossibility.

But the queerest, feyest thing about Junior is the extent to which his queerness escapes notice. Despite the extremest efforts of Edith Head's costume department and Technicolor's saturated reds, every character in the film accepts Potter at face value as just a dude with an inheritance.

What Bob Hope had to add to Donald Duck's sputter and Daffy Duck's self-awareness was fear. Not fear of death so much as the self-devouring fear of humiliation, of being found out. And left unremarked that fear swells to universal proportions: isn't everything as empty and arbitrary as he suspects himself to be? Junior isn't just an intrusion of fantasy; he's the sole recognizer of fantasy. When the film's title is announced, and when de Mille puts in his cameo, Hope conveys a metaphysical perplexity as anguished as Kleist's. He alone grasps the implications of the singing cowboy's hippophilia and he alone considers "Mike" "a pretty masculine handle for such a feminine pot of goodies." When he cautions a character not to repeat a shtick from an earlier scene, his admonishment is blankly accepted, no curiosity, no questions asked. He's the guy who knows the score, but no one's interested in the game.

Long before Junior's horseless carriage set forth, galli, berdaches, hijira, and sangomas blazed a path from ambiguous alienation and ambiguous knowledge to ambiguous power. Michael Ripinsky-Naxon describes three phases of shamanic initiation:

  1. Androgyny and adornment 1
  2. Administration of hallucinogenic preparations, with "an echo of a strong sexual tenor permeating all aspects of the trance" 2
  3. A journey on which one meets a "power animal" who "may even become the shaman's spiritual spouse" 3

While the parallels to Son of Paleface are striking, Tashlin's conclusion more directly addresses a fellow satirist, Andrew Marvell:

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne'er have flown,
But vainly flapp'd its tinsel wing. 4

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt. 5

When a gift for fantasy becomes dependent on a hypocritical system of fantasy, betrayal and complicity entwine. To the lasting offense of right-thinking critics everywhere, Tashlin, unlike most movie-makers, grappled openly with that dilemma. We're all in the same boat, but conscience demanded he at least admit there's a boat here and water underneath. In Hope's other solo vehicles, his character was walked through some pretense of "redemption" before receiving benediction from the plotline; Tashlin instead rewards Junior's decision to, all right, then, go to Hell.

In a world where nothing rings true, anything is permitted. Boy gets girl in extremis, when she fully recognizes his supernatural (or supergeneric) abilities. And the very next the next-to-last gag, prurient and nonsensical at the same time, is an extravagant reminder of the characters' encasement by Hollywood film.

All Junior knows is what the movies show him, and he knows that can't be right. But one has to live.

1   See above.

2   Tête-à-tête (pardonnez-moi, madame) chez Mike with champagne cocktails.

3   Ghost town rendezvous with Trigger.

4   The miracle of the flying flivver.

5   "But you know, it's no fun talking to the woman you love through a wire screen."


Joseph Jon Lanthier, in March 2013:

I tethered myself to your SON OF PALEFACE post in the href storm, only to discover that it was more of a steeple than a post. Regarding this, though: "When he cautions a character not to repeat a shtick from an earlier scene, his admonishment is blankly accepted, no curiosity, no questions asked." I'm entertained by your narratological analysis of these fourth wall breaking moments, but wouldn't "vaudeville logic" (in which Hope was conversant, and some of which Tashlin had earlier transposed into cartoon logic) dictate that such lines are intended for only the audience, and comprise a "pausing" of action? I'm not really contradicting your point so much as wondering if the performance tradition trumps the character dynamic you recognize. A stringently diegetic form, vaudeville requires the implied "character" of the audience, and their less-than-suspended disbelief, to function properly--which is directly referenced by Hope when he apostrophically chides the vultures perched on his car for being "implausible".

I certainly agree with your historical insight, but demure (for myself, if not for history) at the "trumps". While experiencing or re-experiencing a movie, nothing quite trumps what we see and hear there, right there. What makes Margaret Dumont more memorable than other Groucho stooges is her embodiment of pause. In Son of Paleface, Bob Hope has become lost in a world of Dumont.

. . .

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth, translated by John Hoare

Untouched and absolutely perfect source material for an artsy 1970s movie, should anyone be in the market to produce an artsy 1970s movie. The Coen brothers are about due, aren't they?

It also would have made a more convincing John Cusack vehicle than Kleist hacked out, but I guess that's all fire under the stable now.

More regrets:

He spends an hour or two every day writing his memoirs. They will probably possess no significant literary value, for Count Mortsin has no experience as a literary man, and no ambition as a writer. Since, however, he is a man of singular grace and style he delivers himself of a few memorable phrases, such as the following for example, which I reproduce with his permission: "It has been my experience that the clever are capable of stupidity, that the wise can be foolish, that true prophets can lie and that those who love truth can deny it. No human virtue can endure in this world, save only one: true piety. Belief can cause us no disappointment since it promises us nothing in this world. The true believer does not fail us, for he seeks no recompense on earth. If one uses the same yardstick for peoples, it implies that they seek in vain for national virtues, so-called, and that these are even more questionable than human virtues. For this reason I hate nationalism and nation states. My old home, the Monarchy, alone, was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men. This mansion has been divided, split up, splintered. I have nothing more to seek for, there. I am used to living in a home, not in cabins."
- from "The Bust of the Emperor" by Joseph Roth


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.