Bellona Times
Cholly at the Mighty Wurlitzer
. . .

Return to Nevèrÿon in a Long Black Limousine

Dr. Justine Larbalestier reminisces:

I went back and had a look at the first entry and there's the one about your misunderstanding Elvis' "Won't you wear my ring around your neck" the exact same way I had misunderstood it. (Actually how else could you misunderstand it?) I remembered us discussing that misunderstanding. I always liked the next line: "To tell the world I'm yours, by heck" not just cause of the fab "neck" "heck" rhyme but because the slave collar around the neck was indicating ownership not *being* owned.

+ + +

Our Motto

That is, if Mr. Delany doesn't mind sharing it:

"I assume that of the 280 million people in the United States, there must be 150,000 who are concerned with the same things I am. I have no desire to convert. I don't like to preach, and I don't like being preached to. I like to believe that we are civilized people."

That little laugh again. "But sometimes I have odd notions on what is and isn't civilized."

+ + +

Never was a Dr. Slop so beluted, and so transubstantiated

An Eudæmonist · agèd:

But what I want to know is: how do you tell? How do you tell if you are a scholar or an escapist? How do you tell if books are your be-all and end-all or just a way of passing time*? How do you tell? How can you tell?

* An ugly phrase, ‘passing time’, which always reminds me of its crude relative ‘passing water’, both being necessary and yet unmentionable.

Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:

Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all;— so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.

For my own part, I am eternally paying him compliments of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagination as busy as my own.

'Tis his turn now.

. . .

A Plea to My Cosmopolitan Readership

I can't decide whether the inability to distinguish either "apologizing" or "taking responsibility" from "making excuses" is a characteristically American trait or more generally human. Introspection is no help. Please advise.

. . .

Holiday On Ice

The Man has got me down, man,* with a knee in the small of my back, slowly (thanks to the ergonomic office) dislocating each joint from fingertip to shoulder. Meanwhile the fat hump of unwritten writings and unanswered readings continues to put on weight, healthily oblivious to my squealing. Ah, the Spirit of Life!

As a minimal public service, though, I must squeal a pointer to the perpetual "Peanuts" cycle's current monthly archive. July 1971 brought (and rebrings) us the "Shut up and leave me alone" tentmate, the introduction of Marcie, and one of Schulz's odd political references:

Going to camp prepares you for getting drafted, which I don't want to do either.. Curse this stupid war!

*  By "man," I mean you, the good reader (who, actually, I usually picture as female), as opposed to The previously mentioned Man, who has me down. However, if by some fluke you the reader do also happen to be The Man -- welcome!

. . .

My Cosmopolitan Readership Responds

... mostly with variations on "What a dopey question."

Hmmm. It happens in Australia. But you need examples from at least twenty different countries without English imperial backgrounds before you can say anything definitive. And anyway why the need for universals?
Well, as our great native bard Dom Leone once sang:

I don't know why I did it.
What's done is done.
What's done is done.

Richard Butner, back from Sycamore, wrote:

Reasons != Excuses has been one of my unending choruses for a while now, possibly even before I started getting my head examined. But I'm not sure how un-American that is or isn't.
An anonymous reader explains Buñuel:
They don't do it in Spain.
Eliot Gelwan sent a manual trackback (and yes, I do want to support automated trackbacks someday).

Our favorite eudæmonist cut to the democratic quick:

I'm not especially cosmopolitan, but I would suggest the last half of "Oedipus at Colonus" (particularly the rhetoric of Polyneices and Cleon) is a good example of "the inability to distinguish either 'apologizing' or 'taking responsibility' from 'making excuses'." How that fits in with Athens' own shirking of responsibilities after the Persian war (or the strange popularity of Alcibiades) is anyone's guess - but Sophocles' tragedy hints that it is (however unfortunately) human to confuse a rhetorical gesture with the action it supplants.
To reword, since the action being supplanted is also a rhetorical gesture, it's human to confuse all rhetorical tokens which share a social context. The Californian driver understands that a signal is needed before turning left, and so a signal is given -- but whether it's a right-turn signal or a left-turn signal matters little: "signalling" was appropriate to the occasion and "signalling" was expressed. Similarly, I've said "Thank you" when giving change to a beggar.

But it may be that citizens of imperialist democracies, with our individualism, selfishness, litigiousness, smugness, backbiting, and naked fear, our divine rights and capital punishments, feel particularly compelled to thrash narratives of reponsibility into absolutely opaque muck.

. . .

Back to School Special

Cholly in the classroom
Sometime during my recent exile, I encountered a repentant "postmodernist" who argued that the much vilified New Criticism started with good intentions, and that his own tribe has by now been responsible for at least as much blindness and suffering, and that a revived historicism will become ossified in its turn.

I wouldn't disagree with any of that, but it's not that impressive a moral achievement to renounce one's party during the latter part of its decline, and aside from a blanket pessimism, he left the problem undiagnosed.

Primary sources trump secondary sources. That's not in question.

The question is: Why is that truism so often (and so immediately) forgotten? Even a non-U Nonconformist can occasionally enjoy watching T. S. Eliot assume a peculiarly Possum-ish position, and I've admitted to finding Derrida both harmless and amusing. So how does an insight devolve into a method and a school and a curriculum and a catechism?

Perhaps those terms hold a clue?

Myself, I'm inclined to put the blame on the penitent's institutional allegiance rather than on literary analysis itself: in the politics of tenure and publication, the weapons of grades and evaluations....

One can gain knowledge about competitive sports, or pleasure from competitive sports; one can even meet lovers while engaged in competitive sports. But knowledge and pleasure and love are not themselves competitive sports, and any institution that treats them as such is corrupt at the root.

. . .

Movie Comment: Robert Gitt's road show of outtakes from The Night of the Hunter

Although more consistently harrowing, suspenseful, and amusing than the released work, I wouldn't describe the evening as revelational.



. . .

My Funny Valentine

        -- The ungainliness
        of the creature needs stating.

Feeling this, what should be the form
Which the ungainliness already suggested
Should take?

        -- Description -- lightly -- ungainliness
        With a grace unrelated to its suroundings.
- Louis Zukofsky

Gob, he'd have a soft hand under a hen.
- James Joyce

Ungainly not only here, Zukofsky's muse. As for grace?

The extent to which you find (for example) "Look in your own ear and read" 1 an infelicitous image 2 must depend on whether you consider gooniness one of the felicities of lyric. 3

Robert Duncan and Barrett Watten have demonstrated two very different ways of reading Zukofsky humorlessly, but why bother? I read Zukofsky because he makes me laugh.

Am I laughing with Zukofsky or at him? Is the humor about a dry pedant being unselfaware, or is it the dry humor of a selfaware pedant?

First reaction

It's not any of our business. Finding out that Thurber was "really" an abusive drunk should make us rightly suspicious of getting married to guys because they make us laugh, but it shouldn't make us stop laughing at them, any more than finding out that name-your-slapstick-favorite was "really" very graceful and athletic. As Barthes pointed out in his immensely influential essay, "The Death of the Clown," one never gets the opportunity to laugh at a performer. Only at a performance.

Second reaction

It's pointless to worry about intentions if the point is that the intention is unknowable. When the absent-minded professor springs out of bed shouting "Zebra-fragrant! That's the answer: zebra-fragrant!",4 the joke depends on our understanding his lack of regard rather than our understanding what he's on about.

Third reaction

Not all laughter is mocking. Laughter is also a reaction to surprise and pleasure. We laugh to free our mind from our mind's bondage. When pundits talk about humor, they often concentrate on the Rush Limbaugh and Camille Paglia end of the spectrum, but George Herriman and Buster Keaton are funnier.

Not that Zukofsky is that funny. We are talking about just poetry, where the competition's not as fierce as in cartoons or slapstick, and the results are weaker. If it's true that twentieth-century poets' humor doesn't age well, 5 that's probably because nothing about twentieth century poetry ages well. The wit has always been sub-Rotarian; the lyricism has always been kitsch; the politics has always been blowhardy; the eroticism has always been braggadoccio; the imagination has always been received. What fades over time aren't its effects, but the personal allegiances and illusions that distracted contemporary readers from its effectual paucity.

Still, Pound's bullying excursions into dialect are clearly enough distinguishable from Zukofsky's homeboy familiarity. One is Collins-&-Harlan; the other is, if not Herriman or Keaton, then at least, say, Milt Gross. 6 On his recordings, I hear a soft-spoken hay-fevered rabbinical Groucho Marx; like Marx, a near-as-dirt-to-perpetual verbal machine requiring just an occasional squirt of impulse -- lyric (Zukofsky) or aggressive (Marx) -- to keep the flywheels spinning.

Whether we react like Margaret Dumont or like Edgar Kennedy is a matter of personal taste. I know to which model of bewilderment I aspire, even if I only ever make it to Zeppo.

1 Speaking of private knowledge, this paraphrases Ezra Pound's advice, "Look into thine owne eare and reade," sent in a letter to Zukofsky in 1930.
2 Cf. "Ars Vini" by Anselm Dovetonsils:
         Look up your nose and blend.
3 Presumably Lorenz Hart, for example, was aware of the consequences should one's cardiac muscles try to twist themselves into even the coyest of smiles.
4 Wasn't it Marianne Moore who described poetry as "imaginary lunch bags with real frogs in them"?
5 But how can you trust the judgment of a guy who writes about humor without mentioning David Bromige?
6 A search for "Milt Gross Zukofsky" lands me at the Hugh Kenner Papers, which isn't surprising. What surprised me was finding the typescript of the Heath/Zenith Z-100 User's Guide there.

. . .


During my time away, a tolerant reader reassured me:

don't worry if you're not good enough
Good thing, too, since another had just taken me to task:
cosmopolitan shozmopolitan seems to me like you just got answers from Americans. Who cares?
I somehow missed the news that we'd annexed Australia, Spain, England, and ancient Athens, which just goes to show how busy I've been. All I can say is if they get statehood first, Puerto Rico should be pissed.

. . .

Hollywood Remembers... Cecil B. DeMille

Evelyn Keyes:
DeMille didn't like Quinn at all. He actually told me to "Stay away from that half-breed." And he got his, because Quinn ended up marrying DeMille's daughter, Katherine. And his grandchildren were quarter-breeds.
It is true that he always had an assistant carry a chair for him. And it was his son-in-law who had to carry it. It seemed to me it was a high chair. DeMille wouldn't even bother to look around, he was so sure that that chair was going to be there. And it was there. His son-in-law was there every day with the chair. Anytime DeMille backed up, it was there. Think about doing that to your son-in-law. That's rotten mean, isn't it?
Leatrice Joy Gilbert Fountain:
He was sure that if he made crappy movies, that everybody would love them. And he was right! He would tell Mother, "I want you to be a lady in this, but I don't want you to be what a real lady is, I want you to be what a housemaid thinks a lady is. Do it for them." He was always aiming down at his audience.
Oh, he was terrible. Very egotistical and very tyrannical. He was always very nice to me, though, when I was a child. Gave me a little string of pearls for my birthday.
Ken Paradise:
Jesse Lasky Jr. made a very handsome living as a screenwriter under the DeMille banner. Because DeMille used him as his favorite whipping boy. Another pretentious ass if ever there was one. I met him. I saw how he treated Jesse Jr. I saw him at work on the set of The Ten Commandments. There were 125 people back there, and some extra would be laughing. And DeMille would be up on his goddamn stepladder -- he always wanted to be one step below God. He'd see this person laughing and he'd say, "That man is laughing. I want him off my picture right now. And I want a letter sent to Central Casting. I want everyone notified. This man is not a professional."
And he was out one door, and back in another.
Else Blangstead:
He was an ugly, bald man in riding breeches with a whip. He wanted terror, he wanted confusion, and when he got what he wanted he would get an erection. Such that everyone could see; there was no missing it. I did not like him.

from Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of Its Golden Age by Paul Zollo

. . .

Mystery Train Bound for Gloryhole

My old pal Matt writes:

So, I've been listening on the radio to tributes to the late great Johnny Cash, and I've heard one, two, three different commentators refer to "I Walk the Line" as a statement of a commitment to sexual fidelity in the face of temptation, or somesuch (NPR times two and one jock on the local station).

This kinda smacks of some punk-ass rock critic's line that's been repeated over and over, unattributed.

But the interpretation was novel to me. I'd always assumed, since it's a well-known fact Johnny Cash sold his soul to the devil, that the song was intended as a sort of satanic gospel masquerading as a spiritual. After all, he doesn't "walk the line" because it's the right thing to do, or because it's easy. He does it "because you're mine".

In any event, the "you" in the song makes a LOT more sense if it's referring to either Jesus or Satan.

I mean...think context here for the hit halfway between "Folsom Prison" and "Ring of Fire".

The alternative theory I once proposed during a band bull session was that this was a prison song, from a lifer who was a bull's (or possibly just another prisoner's) punk. "Because you're mine, I walk the line" (walking the line being something prisoners are forced to do in prison, literally, following the white lines, putting their toes on the lines on the floor, etc.)

Again, another explanation that seems far more likely than a 'statement of commitment to sexual fidelity'.

What say you?

I say you got a point.

Or rather you got a respectable blunt instrument which you may be trying to whittle too pointy.

The dark engines of American pop music are fueled by Jesus, sex, and class. No redemption without backsliding, no rebirth without corruption, and when the smoke's at its BBQ-pit heaviest and the mind's boiled by spirits and sauces, praisin' the Lord and goin' to Hell or Texas become as one big mess.

Sam Phillips understood better than anyone the creation of such messes. Cash's pledge to be simultaneously true to "those who believe in me," to those who "depend on me," to "myself," and to "God" already bristled with conflict, and Phillips's fast tempo upped the ambiguity, perhaps irredeemably.

Stretching "the ends out for the tie that binds," does Cash resemble a child before a mother, a vagrant before a cop, a bachelor before the bride, a bride before the Christ, a sacrifice before the Devil?

Yes, just as the Ring of Fire (written by the woman he sinned with while married to the woman for whom he walked the line) sets us shaking in our boots with both fear and desire. To clarify would misrepresent.

. . .

My Funny Valentine, 2

The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things, not according to their immediate impression on the mind, but according to their relations to one another. The one is a monopolizing faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion; the other is a distributive faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of ultimate good, by justice and proportion. The one is an aristocratical, the other a republican faculty. The principle of poetry is a very anti-levelling principle. It aims at effect, it exists by contrast. It admits of no medium. It is every thing by excess. It rises above the ordinary standard of sufferings and crimes. It presents a dazzling appearance. It shews its head turretted, crowned, and crested. Its front is gilt and bloodstained. Before it "it carries noise, and behind it tears."
William Hazlitt. Characters of Shakespeare's Plays

Michael O'Donoghue used to say that humor has to be startling, and I agree with that. It has to reframe reality in a way that is exciting. It's like seeing in two dimensions and then opening the other eye or looking through a View-Master and suddenly seeing in three.
George Meyer

"Brass Orchids."
"No 'The' or anything?"
"That's right. Just: Brass Orchids."
"That's very nice. I like that. I—" Then Newboy's expression changed; he laughed. "That really is nice! And you've got quite a sense of humor!"
"Yeah," Kidd said. "Cause I think it takes some balls for me to pull off some shit like that. I mean, me with a book of poems?"
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

Admittedly, Hazlitt is talking about "Coriolanus," which is bound to get anyone down. But "imagination" seems democratic to a fault, injustice is more tediously predictable than justice around these parts, and anyone who thinks the powerful are noncomformists hasn't spent much time in yuppie bars.

Shakespeare's drama individuates rather than inflates. Collapse is another perfectly valid "anti-levelling" technique, and to judge by his works (sweatily self-defeating ambitions, clowns running wild, nobility in disguise, frauds unveiled) and his reception (as badly educated, laughably pretentious, and politically ambiguous), collapse came natural to the guy. "Humor" easily swaps in for "imagination" and "poetry" in all but Hazlitt's first and fifth sentences.

Some might say even those two aren't exceptions, but the great anti-democratic satirists of the past would sneer at the language of American power c. 2003: the dull levellers of know-nothing fundamentalism and care-less finance. The whole point of money as a unit of exchange is that it's detachable, anonymous, and personality-free, right? The imagination is not a Republican faculty.

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

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2003 Ray Davis.