Bellona Times
Das schmollende Ehepaar
. . .

Flogging the Dead Bardic Mule, concluded

In a work-in-progress, John Holbo applies to contemporary theorists a quote from William Empson, describing John Donne's appeal:

"'Argufying' is perhaps a tiresomely playful word, but it makes my thesis more moderate; I do not deny that thoroughly conscientious uses of logic could become a distraction from poetry. Argufying is the kind of arguing we do in ordinary life, usually to get our own way.... This has always been one of the things people enjoy in poems; and it can be found in every period of English literature."
Holbo, Auerbach, White: What all three of these readers dislike in contemporary academic cultural writing is the stultifying reign of a few approved flavors of argufying. Myself, I think I'd be pleased with any of these outcomes, since I think all of them are capable of producing more of what I enjoy.

The thing about cycles of fashion, though, is that even when you know they're inevitable and fun and all that, you can't really summon up hearty enthusiasm for tight skirts and high heels the third time round. (I mean, not if you like women to be able to walk places.) A dose of Empson might be healthy for kids nowadays, but I associate him with a stultifying effect of his own: snobbish conservatism, with many a dismissal of post-Portrait James Joyce, and medicine-man William Carlos Williams the only barbarian allowed through the institutional gates.

Remembering that Empson was Donne imitator before Donne critic, let's think a bit about that argufication of his.

A poem was once just another way to deliver a message. For some time now, though, a poem has instead been above all else a poetic artifact: the form is the essential thing about it, for reader and writer both. (Have you ever noticed how many twentieth-century-plus poems mention the words "poetry" or "poem"? I recommend that you don't, 'cause once you start, it's irritating as a neighbor who plays the same Rush album every day.) That's a very different experience of poetry. And, like it or not, it's the one we've got. When was the last time that even a poet had their opinion swayed by a political poem, for example?

When Jack Spicer or Frank O'Hara "plead their case" in a poem, they acknowledge (miserably or lightly) the scare quotes: no one will really be swayed by their plea; their case isn't really the case of the poem; in fact, the poem frankly doesn't care about them one way or the other. When the New Critic poets plead their case in a poem, they sound like they expect us to pretend that they hope someone will believe them, and to give them extra credit for attempting the delusion. That's a lot of zombie-raising to go through just to hear some melodious groans.

. . .

"Easily"

OKI is "easily of the importance of moveable type, the alphabet, and printing," says Ed Walker, CEO of the IMS Global Learning Consortium....
MIT Enterprise Technology Review

. . .

Fair to Middling

"So what if they have millions inherited from the profits of manufacturing or something? It's the freaking American dream, right?"
- Peevish
American dreams differ. Mine was to become middle class rather than to produce the Bush girls as great-great-grandchildren.

With government assistance I achieved my American dream. And it's wonderful, it's everything I hoped for. I'm sorry that home ownership is no longer a given, but still —I eat good food, I drink OK wine, I have a nice library, I share one pet....

I can even very occasionally afford to visit where rich people go. And, you know, they don't seem to be getting seven thousand times more pleasure than me. At best, three or four times as much. But mostly they seem desperate, sullen, or stupid-drunk, and I can manage all those on my income.

More fortune than fills a champagne glass is a waste. After all, what can rich people do that middle-class people can't do, except influence the government? And who wants to do that? We're supposed to hate politicians, aren't we?

Leaving our dreams' relative merits aside as a matter of taste, more people achieved my American dream with progressive taxes than achieved Ronald Reagan's American dream without them, whereas, so far as I can tell, my American dream never interfered with his. The kind of rich kids who fund good stuff didn't stop funding good stuff during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when their taxes were highest. The kind of rich kids who push for elimination of progressive taxes are instead, logically enough, the kind of rich kids who want to retain as much property as possible. No one incapable of generosity with two hundred million dollars suddenly becomes generous with two hundred and fifty.

+ + +

What interests me in the quoted weblog entry, probably tossed off (as advertised) in a peevish moment, is how thoroughly Reaganesque class-war rhetoric has pervaded even non-Republican discourse. A few more examples:

"... taxing someone just because they didn't spend everything they made while they were alive..."
Who is this "someone" who is no longer alive?
"... not all people who inherit wealth are unworthy..."
Here we see the assumption that a tax is some kind of moral judgment. Bad rich people don't get charged extra for badness (although bad poor people certainly do, courtesy of sin taxes), and I don't say they should be. The government needs money and rich people have money and that's all there is to it. If they don't like their country enough to support it, let 'em move to Russia. When I make more money, I pay more taxes and I don't kick; if I can't maintain the land I've inherited, well, there are plenty of other people who can't maintain the land they've got right now. Small family farms aren't going to be saved by increased concentration of wealth and fewer federal services any more than the cattle industry is going to be saved by fewer inspections.
"... what about the guy... who spends 20% or more of his annual income on charitable concerns?"
Nice guy unbelievably nice guy, especially if the "charities" aren't run by Pat Robertson but charitable donations were deductible even in the highest brackets of the progressive tax, so I'd say he's taken care of.

+ + +

I have no problem with Reagan's portrait on currency. His historical role is pretty similar to Andrew Jackson's. But by rights shouldn't he be restricted to denominations of $1,000,000 and up?

. . .

Errata

The Terror of Yakutsk, pf, reports from the front:

Hi. I dreamed I was in a mock trench war last night, and we threw clumps of dirt at one another, instead of grenades. I hit Bryusov, Victor Serge, and whatshisname, the 19th century anarchist B something several times. You were standing among them in a violet, velvet dinner jacket and a red cravat about your neck. I threw dirt balls at you as well. I believe languagehat may also have been mixed up in all this. I think I agree with you more than Haspel, but I'm impressed how he sticks to his guns.
We accept pf's dirt balls with gratitude and humility.

Jessie Ferguson caps a dead mule:

the only thing i have to say is that i realized most of what i liked about lyn hejinian's poetry was that it was a bit like good conversations i've had in the past, although not much like good poetry, exactly.
I realized even at the time of posting that I should have made a place for poetic diction in my little critical fable, but I was too lazy.

Reader Coyu points out that I'm also too dumb:

Marshall McLuhan, southern? Last time I checked, MM was a known Canadian. I mean, *really* Canadian. We're talking Northrop Frye, Robertson Davies levels of Canadian-ness.
Hoo boy, that was pretty dumb, all right. Thank you, Coyu.

One would expect the next reader to be pointing out that I'm ugly and my mother dresses me funny, but I guess pf already took care of that. Instead, Renfrew Q. Hobblewort sends "with great alacrity" this "Pictorial Evidence of Grave Misdeeds":

Sirs:

I draw your attention(s) to the following illustrations which I believe may be useful in future issues of the Bellona Times.

(1) A 19th-Century Medical Illustration used as evidence in the architecture of the present administration's policy on stem cells, steroid use by high-schoolers, life support systems research for missions to mars, etc.

(2) A snippet from the papers of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill used by the President's speech writers in explaining his reasons to give up strong drink at the tender age of 40.

Your kind attention to these matters, or ignorance, will be graciously studied by the organs of this institution.

Ignorance it is! My treat!

. . .

Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon: A Note on Method

"As a corollary, then, historical inference can only take us back to the furthest-past extension of the principles that now govern the world. A time when 'everything was different' is in principle not reconstructable, i.e. not available to history."
- On Explaining Language Change, Roger Lass
"That's not where I want to be."
- The Ramones
"If it's not all about me, she might have said, why does everyone watch everything I do? Lucky she didn't. Who would complain of this to Mrs. Pleasant, about whom the whispers never hushed?"
Sister Noon - Karen Joy Fowler
"On the one hand, in effect, one must want the greatest good for the friend -- hence once wants him to become a god. But one cannot want that, one cannot want what would then be wanted, for at least three reasons...."
Politics of Friendship - Jacques Derrida
"Here discretion lies not in the simple refusal to put forward confidences (how vulgar this would be, even to think of it), but it is the interval, the pure interval that, from me to this other who is a friend, measures all that is between us.... It is true that at a certain moment this discretion becomes the fissure of death."
- Friendship, Maurice Blanchot

Most good fiction set in the past achieves its brief rapprochement between history and story by avoiding any names that might rouse mutual interest. But let an old beau be brought up and the holiday is ruined: "Well, if you'd only listened to Aaron Burr —" "Aaron Burr! Aaron Burr! Always she throws Aaron Burr in my face!"

Name-dropping historical fiction, whether researched-sincere or postmodern-bratty, may sell well, but it withers quickly. Even Flaubert couldn't lift John the Baptist to the same level as Frédéric Moreau, and a Michener or Vidal, or worse yet a James Tully or Sarah Booth Conroy, seems irredeemably presumptious. History originally comes from story the rushed and slanted newspaper report, the misremembered self-serving memoir and if I'm going to give up the illusion of certainty, I might as well just return to those primary sources. Their half-truths will most likely provide more surprises than a contemporary fiction writer's could.

You could easily argue with that opinion. Me, I just hold it. And it was with no small confusion that, in the dazzle of my first reading of Sister Noon, I looked down and found it still there in my unattended hands, a commute-worn hat from which a table-filling bouquet had been produced with a show of perfect ease.

Well, one of the critic's tasks is to figure out how the trick's done. It doesn't begin to make the magic easy, but it's what we do. And after a few years of slow-mo-ing through Fowler's performance, I think I might've done it.

Rather than confusing gossip and slander with knowledge, Sister Noon eyes that confusion's source and the hunger that feeds it. Its hero isn't the ascertained celebrity, but the half-reluctant, half-fascinated hanger-on. Its plot isn't a schematic rise to power and fall into disgrace, but a journey into the sucking bog of schemas and back out again.

With "poor, fanciful, inconsequential little Lizzie," we learn how one's unattended, unkempt life becomes stuctured into narrative by a brush with celebrity, or a dream of celebrity, or a memory of celebrity. Suddenly that's what people know about you, that's what people think about you, that's what they want to hear, that's what you want to tell them. You find yourself with a story, even if it's a pale distorted reflection of someone else's story, even if that story itself distorts the celebrity's own unattended, unkempt life.

As docudrama's smugness resembles the lower forms of biographer or journalist, Fowler's fond respect resembles The Quest for Corvo. What's offensive about those other ginks is their wilfull, even spiteful, ignorance. The finer stuff of Fowler and Symons gracefully incorporates its own limitations. Symons begins his biography not with an unpromising birth but with the author's curiosity, and ends it not with an overdue death but with the author's satisfaction. In Sister Noon's first chapter, the protagonist is brought into the circle of the most infamous name of her time and place; in its last, they definitively separate, and, satisfyingly, that's the only thing made definitive.

Fowler's choice of protagonist neatly solves another generic problem as well, that being how to convey the alienness of another time or culture with the techniques of realistic fiction. If reader identification takes for granted a shared notion of what's natural, how can what's "natural" become an issue? Of course, this is also a foundational problem for science fiction, and in both genres a frequent solution is to make the novel's protagonist a first-time visitor to the novel's setting. Fowler instead leverages the insight that alienation from one's mundane surroundings is a familiar shared experience (albeit not one that's necessarily taken for granted). Lizzie Hayes exhibits the same dully baffled irritability towards spiritualism, white slavery, and the Doom Sealers that I feel towards Burning Man, multi-player shooters, or the Great Anthrax Scare. We all occasionally find ourselves stranded on Mars or in a suburb of Carthage.

The ambiguous and disputatious sources of history aren't different in kind from those of the present. To resolve them is to falsify not just "what really happened" but also "what really happens."

And we readers, gossipers, hanger-ons make up part of "what really happens," unattended though we might be even by ourselves. A close look at an entrepreneurial multi-millionaire may confirm our unconfessed contentment in the tweedy middle class. Long-standing acquaintance with a successful author may reduce the shame-facedness with which we prefer self-publishing. On the sinister hand, our growing identification with a target of scandal may weaken our own restraints: having seen the worst, the fears that hemmed us in seem tawdry things, low-grade cotton rotted and easily torn.

There's a reason the fiction was put into this historical fiction. Lizzie Hayes isn't merely a passive conductor, capacitor, or resistor of the social current. When she has reached this realization or rather more actively has realized it, in the most humane and engaged way imaginable the tension between perfectly known fiction and permanently unknowable history is released, and the characters are set spinning out of the name star's orbit, from the documented fantastic to the unlimited mundane, cycling around once, four years later, to be glimpsed in the novel's first paragraph, and then (re-)lost to view.

Not that Lizzie Hayes would genuinely vanish, much as she might like to. Duties, if not heavens, forbid. She and her new-found (or rather more actively new-founded) family drive away, quite as material as they ever were, into what would appear to be a most distinctive narrative of their own.

But that's another story.

. . .

A Note on "Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon: A Note on Method"

You do realize, right, that an entire novel took place behind me while I blathered about abstractions? (Mysterious orphan, kidnapping, drugging, plague, daring rescue, and plenty wicked men —I'd call that an entire novel.)

. . .

That's All, Folks!

Apparently, while I've been focusing on issues such as Elvis and the irrelevance of academic prose, Howard Dean has been declared unelectable due to his use of an overly directional microphone. Juliet Clark: "They interview Dean and his wife and they sound perfectly reasonable, and then the anchor comes on and says, 'But his campaign just can't seem to escape the memory of that scream because we're about to show it again!'" So unlike the demure behavior of our own dear Texas queen.... Just imagine the gleaming array of cutlery being polished for John Kerry!

This is why it's best to control both intelligence gathering and mass media. The rule is "Repeat." That rule again: "Repeat." You need a repetitive medium for that. Intelligence gathering is just gravy.

It's an old gag. Moustached phrenologist Bugs or Daffy feels (squeegy-squeegy) Elmer's head, and —"No bumps? We make some!"

That's how it works. How to break it is a tougher problem. As I recall, Termite Terrace usually resolved things with a big explosion and everyone waking up in Hell.

. . .

Errata

Welcome back to the only web journal where errata outnumber entries! As you can see by this illustration of my earliest exercise in community building, it comes natural.

Donald O'Connor! thou should'st be living at this hour. Yes, Francis walks again, and it's all my fault for tying everything up in red ribbon. Next in line to unknot the bow with a single tug is Jake Wilson, The Hardest Working Co-Editor in Online Film Journals:

As a sucker for general aesthetics I've been following your recent series with interest, but while people are jumping in I thought I might as well say a word in defence of William Empson, who wrote sympathetically about Ulysses on several occasions, and as far as "stultifying conservatism" goes was no Eliot, or Winters for that matter.

Also, for the sake of argument, or argufication, I don't know if I agree that "a poem was once just another way to deliver a message." This bypasses the difficulties of separating message and medium - Sam Goldwyn said you could send a message by calling Western Union, but a declaration of love made that way might miss its mark. In any case the idea of poem-as-artifact rather than propaganda is at least as old as the lyric. It doesn't seem to me that Donne's "arguments", which are fanciful in the extreme, are meant to be taken any more literally than Frank O'Hara's; his rhetoric seduces better than it reasons, and typically the extravagant nonsense of the reasoning (e.g. in "The Sun Rising") is part of the seductive charm. That isn't "thinking" in the sense that Kant is a thinker, but viewing abstract system-building as the only legitimate mode of thought is like believing in I.Q. tests; wisdom takes many forms, and it's obtuse to maintain that the only people we learn it from are philosophers.

Empson, by the way, said somewhere that he didn't think poems were made of words, but rather "from the sort of joke you find in hymns". I'm not sure what he meant, but I still think he could have been right.

It was a mistake to drag twentieth-century poetry wars in as a mere argument capper a very pretty thought, but, you know, (sotto voce) not very B-R-I-G-H-T, poor thing.

Also I shouldn't talk any more trash about Empson till I'm ready to do it to his face.

PF managed to find time on the way to his appointment with doom to decode my Sister Noon non-review:

But you'll admit Flaubert did a hell of a job with Saint Julian and Saint Antoine.
I will admit it! Good lord, PF, how did you know?

I'll also admit that I tried to fit both into the piece, but decided it was already too lumpy and squirmy to hold any more digressions. (The digression would've been that neither are recognizably part of the historical fiction genre, "Julian" being fairy tale and Antoine being my favorite single New Wave SF Postmodernist Screenplay [ideally realized by Raul Ruiz, Harry Dean Stanton, and a 94-million-dollar budget].)

Finally, an anonymous reader summed affairs up nicely with the single comment:

its all very well its just not very good

I could live with that as an epitaph.

. . .
Bergman, Camera, Men

Two Years Before the Mastiff

"What I was going to say is that the other thing Hitch had in mind for us to do was fun but insane. He wanted to take a John Buchan novel, and he was going to rent a yacht, and Alma and he and my husband and I and my dog were going to sail around the world, going from port to port, doing research for this John Buchan novel, and we were going to take two years doing it. It sounded great, but as Hitch was an old Turk of the deepest dye, he loved working with women, but he really didn't like their husbands. Lewis was so excited about the boat, and I said, 'You fool! You'd be the first to go overboard! Before the dog!'"
- "An Interview with Jay Presson Allen" by Richard Allen

In Notorious, a table of well-fed well-dressed men discuss, in perfect comfort, plans for the lifelong degradation of a young woman, Alicia. (They're the good guys.) One who spent the previous night with her protests. But he's an emotional coward, his protests are weak, and he quickly deserts the field.

Then Alicia enters the room, and their detached contempt shifts to avuncular concern as smoothly as if they'd trained from birth to handle the transformation.

Squirmingly recognizable, that scene remains film's clearest-eyed depiction (as opposed to manifestation) of how sexism works.

In the (mercifully hypothetical) Demi Moore remake, Alicia would tell the old farts off and go get the job done her own damn way. Here, Alicia suffers all the degradation the good guys hoped for and more, and her stoically endured terrors fill all but the last few seconds of film.

What might we infer was the filmmakers' intention?

  1. To expose the workings of sexism.
  2. To linger over the pain of a young woman.
  3. To apply social insight to the narratological problem of isolating and endangering a protagonist while increasing tension on her sole lifeline that is, to revivify the gothic form by finding contemporary equivalents for the moribund sexist institutions that originally powered it: wives and daughters as property; restricted civil rights and employment; acceptability of rape....

Check all that apply.

But please, don't then publish essays with titles like "Hitchcock the Feminist" and "Alfred Hitchcock: Misogynist or Feminist?" As a collective name for five decades of collaborative work, "Hitchock" is much too large and slippery for such personal labels to be meaningful. ("Random House: Vegan or Murderer?") All we're likely to establish is that the movies partake somewhat of experience, where misogyny and feminism find their common source.

As for Alfred Hitchcock the human being, more appropriate than a false dilemma like "Hitchcock: Misogynist or Feminist?" might be a conjunction like "Hitchcock: Artist and Laborer".

Or "Hitchcock: Fat Ugly Sissy and Heterosexual Man".

Or, more generally, "Hitchcock: Observer and Manipulator".

. . .

The site is being reorganized (minus that slippery little purplish bit that didn't seem to be attached to anything) and sutured. To break the ominous silence while waiting for bandages to be unwrapped and gags to be loosened, here is a song.

(By the way, did you realize that the little picture at the top of each Bellona Times issue often links to a larger picture? Neither did I! Try strolling back through the archives for minutes of fun.)

The Scythian Lamb (Martyn's).
The Scythian Lamb (Sir Hans Sloane's).

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

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2004 Ray Davis.