The Cloisters Craftspeople
. . .

Heteronormativity is a drama queen

And that's when things are going well for it. When they're not, heteronormativity is a homicidal drama queen. In the 1960s Rod Steiger would have been a shoo-in for the role.

Returning to the good times, though.... Blissful straight couples are surprisingly rare in fiction. Mostly we're shown unpromising beginnings or miserable wrecks.

The first exceptions that come to mind are two movies from the early 1930s. And to justify their bliss Tarzan and his Mate needed fantasy primitivism and The Thin Man needed fantasy alcoholism, and even so Nick Charles had to sock Nora in the jaw.

In 1974 or 1975, I read a music critic who quoted that scene to help describe the delightful chemistry between Ike and Tina Turner. He was righter than he knew.

. . .

Pelican Books

I've said nothing to anyone: what a victory that you know now why I am so "secret", and what you not say for your wuality that I gave some of it up to you, because you so much wanted it? You see now why one must be secret? One must not betray that place, or it will heal up, and you'll know nothing more of it clearly, only to so few, a John, you, and ones secret book that one day becomes public, but still secret if written as it should be. Why did I just say "will heal up"? That's exactly it, it just came out. The wound in the side of Christ?
- Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, 1937 Nov. 30
(via Improper Modernism by Daniela Caselli)

An obscure hurt maintained, sanctified, and iconized by obscurity it's the flipside of that Freudianism Made E-Z which says if we stop fetishizing the mystery of our neurosis, the truth will set us free... to find another fetish. At our age why start a wound from scratch?

(My good friend Copy Editor Bear will have noticed the first sentence's extra dose of obscurity. Like many other obsessive revisers, Barnes [and then her editors] struggled with grammar school basics, in her case partly because she never attended grammar school.)


I suppose a [sic] really would be too heavy-handed in context. And maybe out of context.

. . .

Once feelings become this blatantly mixed, the only thing to do is throw in a little salt, let them simmer a while, and taste again. Eventually they'll coalesce.

If nothing else, into saltiness.


Sounds like wuality eating.

Followed by the wuality check.

or, in taking the tumble, into simmer-salt
which feelings?

. . .

J. Beez Wit the Remedy

For zunguzungu
Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever. Conventional tragedy is too easy. The hero dies and we feel a purging of the emotions. A real tragedy takes place in a corner, in an untidy spot, to quote W.H. Auden. The rest of the world is unaware of it. Like the man in A Handful of Dust who reads Dickens to Mr. Todd. There is no release for him. When the story ends he is still reading. There is no purging of the emotion for us because we are not there.
- No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe

Obi Okonkwo's reference to A Handful of Dust is double-edged: like so much art of its time and place, Waugh's novel depends on a burst of burlesque primitivism. As Jerome Meckier sums it, "Todd represents the breakdown of civilized conduct that humanism was not puissant enough to prevent. Consequently, the half-breed has the literary tastes of a Victorian gentleman and the ethics of a jungle savage." (Oddly, while Philip Rogers describes Obi's allusiveness as alienation and Waugh's hapless Tony Last as a failed idealist, he doesn't mention Last's journey into the heart of Brazilian darkness.)

In the art of my own time and place, I heard this tragedy-plus formula "They wind up wounded, not even dead" expressed by Bruce Springsteen in a song called "Jungleland." And for no verifiable reason, I remember it referring to the non-fatal end of Mean Streets, the inexact retribution which hit after Scorsese's hero scoffed, "Do I know Brooklyn? Do I know the jungle?"

Worse-than-tragedy finds its home in the "primitive," "unchanging," "stone-aged" jungle for the same reason better-than-comedy does: this is the inconclusive place, the place without strong story structure, the heat-death Club Med after the end of the world and Day of the Dead. Beyond catastrophe or happy ending lies mere or pure incident, sensation dropped after sensation; in bookworm terms, the fantasy of post-apocalyptic stack privileges, or even re-readable bookhood itself; in movie terms, spectacle.

Tony Last might not have appreciated the breakfast juice Mr. Todd fetched, and Jane Parker might have enjoyed reading aloud to her child-mate. Does recycled stock footage come as welcome eye-candy or as unbearable cheapness? Do we discover David Byrne's exactly-the-same heaven or Dante's obsessive-compulsive hell? It depends on the company.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Soundtrack: "Nothing" by Lazy Susan


Forget it, Jake, it's Chinuatown.

Aaron Bady points to an American Primitive:

... to add to your archive of folk wisdom on the question, Levon Helm's "dirt farmer"

well the poor old dirt farmer
how bad he must feel.
he fell off his tractor
up under the wheel.
and now his head
is shaped like a tread
but he aint quite dead.

that last triple rhyme kills me in the actual song, though it falls a bit flat on the page/screen.

. . .

Movie Comment: Red Riding: 1974

For the most part I endorse Phil Nugent's take, although his typing can be as murky as a Yorkshire mutter. But he doesn't spoil Red Riding's biggest surprise, the same biggest surprise I got from L.A. Confidential: how hokey it is compared to its film school role models.

The 1970s weren't known for big-eyed innocence about human depravity; sometimes a guy might even be braced for the thought that a woman who fell into bed with him could fall into bed with other people. I rarely switch on a garbage disposal without memories of Rolling Thunder, and I never saw a vigilante-vengeance movie reach this level of corn: A bumbling horndog whose chief talent is sideburns gets tortured for days and tumbled onto the highway from a moving car, then without so much as a training montage walks into a bar of ruthless armed paranoids, pulls out a big honkin' gun, cleanly assassinates every oh-so-worthy target, and walks out proud while the survivors cower.

At first I assumed this was a set-up, like the perfect murders of Unfaithfully Yours. But no, afterwards the movie doesn't get funnier intentionally. Instead, it sweetens the ever-reliable apotheosis of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry by adding Paula the Sexpot Ghost:

Paula loves you Paula is with you
Every time a car crashes, an angel gets it on

Forget Don Siegel, this is Frank fuckin' Capra.

. . .

"And I just know she's going to take one look at me and think, Par-a-noid..."

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Good Enough

I'm reluctant to call anything a "cultural universal," even something that pretty much decides whether an archaeologist announces the discovery of "culture," but art-making is certainly more universal than the justifications offered for art-making. Which is not to say that art is best when motivated least but merely to confess that, as with other cultural near-universals (marriage, say), any particular motivation won't suffice for the general case. Or even for the particular.

Thus the let-down. Thanks to the Republican furloughs I finally disgorged the "ethical criticism" essay that lodged between brain and trachea for a year and a half, and to quote Lord Bullingdon "I have not received satisfaction." Not that I could receive satisfaction, I know that much by now. Cross-posting to the Valve would've bought me at most a day or two, and appearing in a print organ would've sickened me for months instead of weeks. The least miserable producers I know avoid hangovers by making sure a new project's underway by the time the old one's facing the public. With this dayjob, though, the best I can manage is hair of the dog.

Of course I am obscure; I am not offering myself but my hospitality. Nor do I hawk my hospitality abroad. I give out indications of my willingness to dispense hospitality on a basis that protects my integrity as a host.
- Laura Riding, letter to the Times Literary Supplement, March 3 1932,
six years before closing her quaint-curiosity-shoppe-with-New-York-deli-service

Given my mood, I wondered why our beloved metameat didn't flourish das Gift, but upon reflection in someone else's mirror I realized that probably once you've learned German and read Finnegans Wake and a shitload of critical theory you'd get a little tired of that particular false friend, even if no false friend was ever better named.

Or was it? Maybe we can't trust it even that far. A perfect false friend, like a perfect rhyme or perfect pun, should be the product of miraculous chance. Whereas Gift is poison because poison is something given:

[Com. Teut.: OE. ghift str. fem. (recorded only in the sense 'payment for a wife', and in the plural with the sense 'wedding') corresponds to OFris. jeft fem., gift, MDu. gift(e) (Du. gift fem., gift, gift neut., now more commonly gif, poison), OHG. gift fem., gift, poison (MHG., mod.G. gift fem., gift, neut., poison), ON. gift, usually written gipt gift (Sw., Da. -gift in compounds), pl. giptar a wedding, Goth. -gifts in compounds.... The two words 'gift/Gift' in English and German both have the common germanic ancestor geban 'to give'. The rest is separate development through many centuries. The word for 'to poison' used to be 'vergeben'', but it went out of use because of its homophone meaning 'to forgive', and became 'vergiften'.]

It's a gift a present rather than a presentation because, like it or not, no matter how loudly we protest our detachment, in a (falsely?) friendly act the giver is there, is implicated. The detective calls his suspects to dismiss them: the victim was poisoned by herself, in a single dose from a table service blunder, or absorbed over a lifetime of serial killing.

Speaking of etymology:

[< Anglo-Norman poisoun, Anglo-Norman and Old French poisun, puisun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French poison, puison, puisson, Old French poisson, pouson, Middle French poyson (French poison) drink, draught (end of the 11th cent.), poisonous drink (1155), potion, medicinal drink (c1165), poisonous substance (1342) < classical Latin potion-, potio (see POTION n.). Compare Old Occitan, Occitan poison drink, draught (c1150), potion (c1200), poison (early 13th cent.).]

So maybe "Name your poison" isn't such an impressive joke either.

SCOTTIE: "Here, Judy. Drink this straight down, just like medicine."
JUDY: "Why are you doing this? What good will it do?"
SCOTTIE: "I don't know. No good, I guess. I don't know."


you sayin it ought to be the gifted Mr Ripley?

Now there was an artist without regrets!

Jonathan Mayhew kindly writes:

I love that idea that "art-making is certainly more universal than the justifiications for art-making." That encapsulates something I've been trying to get my head around for awhile.

. . .

What's so great about being "stone free"? "New Cocoa Pebbles Now Stone Free!" I could understand it if Jimi Hendrix had been French. Then he would've been singing about stone fruit.


Ask a kidney!

. . .

Our Motto

Typically of Pavese, he seeks to recover self-esteem through the exercise of writerly control, fielding more and more succinct, aphoristic analyses that aim to combine the darkest pessimism with the greatest aplomb.
- "Stop It and Act" by Tim Parks

I can't resist also quoting Parks's translation of Pavese's suicide note

I ask forgiveness and forgive you all. OK? Keep the gossip brief.

not because I feel unusually suicidal but because I'm still irked by not having found a way to fit the word forgiveness into the text of my "Gift" post. I wouldn't have published it at all if I hadn't been able to squeeze in marriage.

Not everyone writes prose this way, I know. In 1993, during a close-reading critique by Kate Wilhelm, I explained that removing a particular bit of dialogue meant finding some other way to deploy the idiom "of two minds" or "half a mind to" and from across the room came the alarming wheeze of ancient laughter, and Damon Knight, sunk in a corner armchair, caught his breath, rubbed his eyes, and said, "I'm sorry. I just... I never saw one quite like you before." (That and the note under a mediocre grade from M. Dufaux "A+ pour la beauté de tes idées; C- pour la grammaire et le vocabulaire" are among the proudest moments of my life. Sad, isn't it?) Although my accent may be that of the undisciplined American autodidact, my most distinguished critic correctly noted that my elliptical logic and micro-verbal fetishism (and, although he couldn't know this, my editor-exasperating tendency to rewrite proofsheets) are pure Walter Pater.

Of course it's as ultimately destructive for a writer to seek le mot juste as for a technophile to seek efficiency. By these repeated swellings and collapses, we hope to mimic the layered texture of puff pastry and only achieve its indigestibility. But if, as Peli Grietzer claims, it's a question of who is to be master, I'm afraid the contest was decided long ago. Words are older than me, outlive me, and take my memories down when they go. They own my ass. My ass has become mostly comfortable with that.


I mean this as a compliment and hope you can take it as such; I think I see your critical approach as an unholy cross of Guy Davenport and Alastair Fowler.

Anyone who wouldn't take that as a compliment is not someone I'd want to talk to except to find out what the hell was wrong with them. I especially appreciate the use of "unholy" as a euphemism for "undereducated." Thank you!

. . .

The Death Wish in American Publicity Material : Fahrenheit 70

Part 10 in an Occasional Series

From "Restoration Hardware Home, Introducing the Spring Collection":

Library Media System $3745

What's that you say? "Yes, I desperately want to look like the illiterate dead end of an inbred aristocracy, but my parents were only investment bankers"? Well, we've got you covered, you should pardon the expression:

NEW - Set of 4 Antiqued Uncovered Book Bundles $29

. . .

Movie Comment: The Philadelphia Story

Philip Barry didn't lack for pretenses, and the pretense of his Story is that Tracy Lord's disapproval of alcoholism was responsible for her ex-husband's alcoholism as we know, unconditional forgiveness is the only cure and Tracy Lord's disapproval of fucking around on her mother was responsible for her father fucking around on her mother. This menace must be humbled!

The first ten or twenty times I watched the movie, such clamshell packaging was easily discarded in favor of the good stuff. But by the eleventh or twenty-first time, the good stuff has spent decades in mental rotation, available for instant play at any moment. And so what attracts attention when re-watching the artifact itself is the garbage: while moments-as-recalled maintain their on-call identity, movie-as-experienced becomes a jabbing skeleton of patriarchal hysteria.

Neatly enough, the comedy of re-marriage relies on the opposite mechanism: its protagonists have dwelt so persistently, so tediously, on aversive memories that their ex-partner's in-the-flesh attractions strike with renewed, or even intensified, force. (Which bodes ill for the couple after movie's end, but most comedies don't go there.) What I feel instead is the alienation of reunion.

Which lends me hope that if I write this complaint and stew over it for a while, The Philadelphia Story will again become a guilty pleasure or, more succinctly, a pleasure.

. . .

Last Exit to the New Bloomusalem

Continued from ads without products commenting
on David Foster Wallace's Kenyon College commencement speech

Most of all, Wallace's goals and methodology resemble the little stories Mr. Bloom tells himself in Ulysses to self-medicate his choler (I use them for road-rage myself), or to win some illusion of control or contact, or simply as distraction.

They doesn't much resemble Ulysses, though. Joyce's preeminent quarries probably are having "the worst days of their lives," but they're embedded in so much stuff-of-life that it's difficult to keep that in mind (or even to see it clearly). To the continued consternation of readers who expect only a stylish makeover, the book snubs the epiphany-crazed heart of high-mainstream narrative.

And while that's all very entertaining it doesn't suggest any advice for the graduating class beyond "You might enjoy Ulysses."


Which one do you think was cooler? Ulysses or Infinite Jest?

"We're all pretty, Snow White."

Referring to my comment at ads, an eager researcher asks:

What breast-beating SF are you talking about?

Well, my use of the word "cliché" was meant to indicate that I didn't have a particular case in mind. I seem to remember empathy-overload scenes in Ellison, Silverberg, Sturgeon maybe, some short stories, some TV shows.... In And Chaos Died, Joanna Russ gave it a nasty twist, as was her wont.

Josh Lukin offers scholarly assistance:

The spectrum runs from Zooey Glass to Octavia Butler's heroines, with Dying Inside right in the middle. Sturgeon? I remember a Sturgeon story in which the telepaths can't cope with a kid who uses vocal communication, but that's not the same.

So how come Charles Xavier and Martian Manhunter are so jolly by comparison? Rhetorical question: I know questions of verisimilitude in Silver Age comics aren't your forte.

Power? Or rather, utilization of power? As when propagandists and con artists are jollier than Henry James?

Afterthought: Poor contrast there, since Henry James was comparatively jolly, everything considered, and attributed his comparative jollity to his vocation. Far more to the point is Alice James, that articulate witness to power denied expression. And I remember back in the 1970s deciding that Dying Inside allegorized writer's block so slavishly that it should have dropped the genre trappings.

. . .

Make the Voices Stop, addendum

Despising all other grandiloquent nonsense, I will always respect scruples. I will always enjoy seeing highly scrupulous people obeying rules that they cannot articulate and of whose origins they know nothing.
- last sentences of Three Women: A Novel by the Abbé de la Tour,
by Isabelle de Charrière (tr. Emma Rooksby)

. . .

Loin du Toronto

Long-time readers won't be surprised to learn that my day job began boiling over a couple of months ago. But long-time readers will also understand why I must attempt to draw the great world's attention to (finally!) a collection of Chandler Davis's fiction and essays. Go and do thou likewise, only better.

* * *

Update: And fast upon the book's heels comes the Chandler Davis Online Archive, also edited by Josh Lukin, with five essays and three short stories.

Chandler Davis

. . .

High, Low, & Lethem

Unprinted (with minor revisions) from Genre XLII (Fall/Winter 2009), edited by Joe Moffett and Josh Lukin, here's my first certified-academic publication: "High, Low, & Lethem" (with RTF for those who prefer their footnotes footed).

This post, like the previous one, owes its existence to the efforts of the good Doctor Lukin, who first suggested that I try submitting a piece to Genre, and who then helped guide me through a most pleasant peer review process. Although I doubt I'll make a habit of it, I hugely enjoyed updating and re-configuring 2007's blog serial for a discursive context which relies on the fiction of reasoned argument rather the fiction of friendly conversation.

. . .

One is an other

The majority of poems one outgrows and outlives, as one outgrows and outlives the majority of human passions...
- T. S. Eliot, 1929


So are you and Tom friends now? --Peli

I had done with cursing the Possum five years ago. But it takes two to be friends.

For clarification, see next post. For background, something you wrote a couple of months ago reminded me of something Eliot wrote somewhere. Last weekend was my first chance to find it, and when I did it seemed interesting enough to pass on.

Oh, Right! "People who outgrow T.S. Eliot are the fucking worst."

. . .

Collage is not (always) enough

To be plain, that last quote did not imply assent. One does not outgrow human passions; one represses or avoids them. One does not outgrow T. S. Eliot's poems; one outgrows T. S. Eliot's pose.

Don't one?


Yes, and at my age I reckon the mermaids sing to me more than to most people.
romantic sublimation is a pocketful of poses

. . .


From "The Theatre" by John Lahr, The New Yorker, May 10, 2010:
Johnny finds drugs; Tunny finds himself in the military and then an amputee; Will, who never actually leaves home, gets a girl pregnant and finds himself a couch potato.

. . .

John Marston reflects on a closed comment stream, 1601

Shall he be crest-fall'n if some looser brain,
In flux of wit uncivilly befilth
His slight composures? Shall his bosom faint
If drunken Censure belch out sour breath
From hatred's surfeit on his labour's front?
Nay, say some half a dozen rancorous breasts
Should plant themselves on purpose to discharge
Imposthum'd malice on his latest scene,
Shall his resolve be struck through with the blirt
Of a goose breath? What imperfect born,
What short-liv'd meteor, what cold-hearted snow
Would melt in dolor, cloud his mudded eyes,
Sink down his jaws, if that some juiceless husk,
Some boundless ignorance should on sudden shoot
His gross-knobb'd burbolt with "That's not so good,
Mew, blirt, ha, ha, light chaffy stuff"


Do you think "mew" is a trochee? I can't get it to scan otherwise.

You come to a site named "Pseudopodium," you gotta expect faulty feet.

(If I was an adequate reviewer or a decent friend to humanity, I would have by now found time to recommend Wit's Voices: Intonation in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry by John R. Cooper, which after I'd spent decades blathering about "music" finally convinced me that such lines could be analyzed metrically: each of the bizarre exclamations consumes an iambus with an off-beat of silence. Also, John Marston is fucking awesome.)

. . .

Working in a fishbowl makes less difference than you might think. Fish are too boring to attract much attention.


I suppose that would bother the fish more if they possessed long-term memories.

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