pseudopodium
. . . Delany

. . .

A long survey of recent celebrity stalkings has been added to the Web's own encyclopedia of crime, including a note on recent legislation that "makes it a federal crime to cross state lines with the intent of harassing someone." Bon chance, Michael Moore!

In related news, reports at the last Kokonino shareholders' meeting indicate that our Tuesday Weld neighborhood still receives more than ten times as much traffic as the Vertigo or Samuel R. Delany pages.

. . .

Finishing off my week of Salon-bashing: Mr. Delany read at Modern Times Bookstore last Tuesday to publicize the dual release of polemic Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and (very) graphic novel Bread and Wine, the story of Mr. Delany's now ten-years-solid romance with a formerly homeless man. A fine performance, and Mr. Delany looked downright rosy, but he had a few pointedly bemused remarks for the reviewer who asked, "What have these two impossibly unlike men spent the past decade talking about?"

Now anyone who wonders that can't have lived with someone for any length of time. Living together doesn't depend on intellectual discussions. It's more a matter of "Who'll do the laundry?" and "How was your day?"....

. . .

Nothing ages like senility: A tale of two libraries

The Little Leather Library is a set of teensy-weensy cheaply-bound booklets stored in a plain cardboard container about half the width of a sneakers box, marketed around 1920. My father had a set (presumably inherited from his father), and they made up a large part of my childhood reading.

The "leather" looks like the seal on rotgut bourbon, the paper is the color of burnt caramel, and the smell is pure nostalgia. Aside from that, the Little Leather Library's enduring appeal for me lies in its editorial hand, which rested heavily on "modern classics" (i.e., the fin-de-siècle). Here are some volume titles:

Salome by Oscar Wilde
  1. "Fifty Best Poems of England" (including representative works by Francis Thompson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Georgina Rossetti, and Algernon Charles Swinburne)
  2. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
  3. "The Happy Prince"
  4. "Salome"
  5. "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"
  6. "Bab Ballads"
  7. "Barrack Room Ballads"
  8. "Short Stories of De Maupassant"
  9. "Man Without a Country"
  10. "Sherlock Holmes"
  11. "The Gold Bug" (the volume is filled out with a repeat of the first 30 pages of "The Gold Bug")
  12. "The Tempest" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" (and what other two Shakespeares could they possibly have picked?)
  13. and, for good or ill, most influential of the bunch, "Dreams" by Olive Schreiner
A heady mix for a healthy growing son of the US Navy...

+ + +

... and as a strapping middle-aged man, I was delighted to find the continuing education course that is The Golden Gale Electronic Library: a world-wide distributed database of texts viewable only with the the Golden Gale Book Reader program.

The program is -- well, let the coder without sins throw rocks at it; Greek font or no Greek font, I wish I could extract the whole text into an editor and be done with it -- but what a public service in these texts! Starting from the sizable splash of the leaden Benson brothers' upper-class Anglo-Catholic end-of-the-nineteenth-century public-school boy-mania, Golden Gale has captured over a hundred volumes of otherwise vanished ripples. So far, I've galed along to:

  • "Don Tarquinio: A Kataleptic Phantasmatic Romance" by Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo), a Renaissance adventure that grounds the Baron's personal obsessions solidly and satisfyingly in historical context and beat-the-clock narrative structure.
  • "Stories Toto Told Me, or, A Sensational Atomist" by Baron Corvo (Fr. Rolfe), the most popular of the Baron's work in his own time, and a typically queasy mix of pedophilic exploitation and Catholic aesthete speculation. The next best thing to tertiary syphilis.
  • "Plato and Platonism" by Walter Pater, first recommended to me by Samuel R. Delany.
  • "The Outcry," Henry James's novelization of a very bad Henry James play that attacks those beastly Americans who come over to good old England and start appropriating....
  • "William Blake: A Critical Essay" by Algernon Charles Swinburne: "But if we regard him as a Celt rather than an Englishman, we shall find it no longer so difficult to understand from whence he derived his amazing capacity for such illimitable emptiness of mock-mystical babble as we find in his bad imitations of so bad a model as the Apocalypse: his English capacity for occasionally superb and serious workmanship we may rationally attribute to his English birth and breeding...."
  • ... with more to come, I'm sure.
Toto by Baron Corvo

. . .

What proofs did Bloom adduce to prove that his tendency was towards applied, rather than towards pure, science?
Insofar as wise critics have looked at science fiction, critical wisdom has it that the genre's most distinctive form is the series, and particularly the "fix-up": the novel built up of mostly-previously-published more-or-less integrated more-or-less independent short stories and novellas.

"I do not like that other world"

"More-or-less" being the distinguishing factor here. The close relationship of the pulp magazine and pulp novel industries led to many hero-glued fix-ups in other genres of popular fiction (Dashiell Hammett's and Raymond Chandler's early novels, for example); the short attention spans of protosurrealists, pseudosurrealists, and other artistes-fines led to a number of single-hero multiple-narrative (Maldoror, Miss Lonelyhearts) and single-narrative multiple-hero (As I Lay Dying) assortments.

"After God, [insert name] has created most..."

But what defines sf is not a peculiar approach to character or narrative but a peculiar attention to the implied context of the fiction. This implied context is usually called the work's "world," as in the quintessential sf skill "world building" or the quintessential sf hackwork "shared world" writing. Because the constructed context is what defines a "work" of sf, a single sf "work" can cover a great deal of time-space ground (as in Robert Heinlein's "future history") and incorporate many different lead characters and closed narratives.

"He's dead nuts on that. And the retrospective arrangement."

Given a long enough lifetime, sf authors sometimes start to wonder if all their worlds might somehow be "shared" in the all-in-one person of the author: Isaac Asimov's attempt to combine his Foundation universe with his Robotics universe to make Asimov Universe TM; Samuel R. Delany's multi-decade cross-genre remarks toward the modular calculus....

"...if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book."

Outside the sf genre, what this reminds me most of are Jack Spicer's notion of the "serial poem," Louis Zukofsky's notion that a poet's lifetime of work is best considered as one long work, and James Joyce.

(... further reflections generated by the essays in A Collideorscape of Joyce: Festschrift For Fritz Senn ...)

As Jacques Aubert points out in "Of Heroes, Monsters and the Prudent Grammartist," child Joyce's writerly ambition, like that of many genre workers, was fired by reading heroic adventure stories: "Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes." And, also like many genre writers, Joyce continued (would "compulsively" be too strong a word?) to use the notion of the heroic (alongside the notion of author-as-trademark) as an organizing principle while undercutting it with a self-awareness that ranged from scathingly bitter to comically nostalgic.

In "Dubliners and the Accretion Principle" Zack Bowen very convincingly treats the collection of mostly-previously-published stories Dubliners "as a single unified work... the stories so interrelated as to form a type of single narrative" with a clear structural pattern and a loose but extensive web of inter-episode linkages. (A biographical tidbit unmentioned by Bowen backs this up: Joyce knew "After the Race" was a weak story but felt compelled to include it to save the overall shape of the book: a common architectural problem for the fix-up author.)

On the next hand, Christine van Boheemen's "'The cracked lookingglass' of Joyce's Portrait" makes a case for breaking apart A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, since all the chapters use the same semi-self-contained bump-down-and-bounce-up narrative structure rather than gliding smooth-and-steady towards maturity: "Instead of psychological and emotional growth, the fiction depicts repetition." Each episode imagines itself to be first, last, only and alone whereas it is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.... Van Boheemen's approach would imply that the "final" flight to Paris on the wings of artistic vocation is merely another roundabout to the next repetition. And Stephen's bedraggled comedown in Ulysses, so embarrassing to those who pictured him ascending to glory at an angle of fortyfive degrees like a shot off a shovel, certainly seems to give her approach the edge.

There hasn't been much need to remind readers of the heterogeneity of Ulysses, starting from its serialization episode by episode, each episode a chronologically, thematically, and stylistically closed unit. (Are there any other novels for which we refer to "episodes" by title rather than to "chapters" by number?) Timothy Martin reminds us again anyway in "Ulysses as a Whole" that inasmuch as anything can be said to tie the book together it's a shared context -- implicitly an externally documented day in the world, explicitly the inter-episode allusions and reflections, "many of them added late in the book's composition."

As always, the limiting case is Finnegans Wake, whose compositional history also includes serial publication and last-minute blanket-tucking additions. But here the repetition and fragmentation go simultaneously down and up the scale to such an extent that almost no one ever reads the book except as scattered sentence-to-page-sized episodes semi-explained by references to other episodes: "holograms" and "fractals" became rhetorical commonplaces for Wake scholars as quickly as for sf writers.

Maybe that's why Exiles seems like such a flimsy anomaly: it's a self-contained traditionally structured single work where a revue or a burlesque show might have felt more appropriate....

. . .

From Samuel R. Delany's new book, 1984: Selected Letters

"Thoroughly enjoyed your descriptions of B- A-, though I'm sure you're aware of all the myriad ways academia passively encourages hysterical women -- especially if they truly are intelligent -- and actively discourages level-headed ones, the latter usually by simply saying, truthfully, there are a whole lot of situations other than this one where you'd probably be happier. Underneath the ire that such odd and odious behavior as Ms. A-'s produces in her colleagues, somehow men -- and the overwhelming majority of her colleagues are, certainly, men -- find themselves being protective of this sort of twit. I've had more than one academic woman tell me, with some indignation, that if she tries to play the game by male rules, going entirely on good fellowship and intellectual competence [of course you and I know that someone was just kidding her about those being the male rules! - RD], she's totally ignored -- until one day she decides to get hysterical in a departmental meeting and flees the room in tears from a too-intense reaction to the wallpaper texture or something; whereupon she suddenly finds herself co-chairman of some juicy interinstitutional symposium.

"Somehow university women seldom reap the fruit of prestige and advancement unless the men of these same institutions can feel that they are giving it, graciously, to bright but fragile emotional paraplegics -- otherwise, zilch.... I recently saw a T-shirt that declared, sensibly enough: 'If Reason and Understanding Fail, Bitch!' Well, social evolution being what it is, if you have a situation where reason and understanding aren't given much of a listen, eventually you end up with a small but unprecedented number of bitches."

Although Mr. Delany doesn't specifically address the question, this also explains why so many successful and purportedly feminist women in academia are so horridly rude to their female students and colleagues: people who are convinced that they're being victimized on all sides and are barely able to hold it together -- and are also being rewarded for their loudly expressed convictions -- are very unlikely to give any time, energy, or even sympathy to anyone else in objectively similar circumstances: they're seen as unworthy rivals for attention, not as comrades. Besides, how could someone who feels so barely able to hold it together possibly view (and responsibly behave) themselves as a success?

. . .

The Hero with a Thousand Pages

And a related note on Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, courtesy of Michael Richard on the rec.arts.books newsgroup:

"I was just thinking this would make a great Survivor/BigBrother kind of tv show. Go rent out some burned out city like Grozny, or maybe get a better deal with Kisangani, stuff it full of cameras, and sell tickets to get inside."
Back in the late '70s, me and my college friends used to discuss our dream cast for a movie version of Dhalgren -- Donny Osmond as the Kid, Marie Osmond as Lanya, Mason Reese as Denny, Charles Nelson Reilly as Bunny, and Sammy Davis Jr. as George Harrison -- but I gotta admit, this miniseries idea beats it.
Mason Reese

. . .

Doug Asherman queries: "Here's something probably no one cares about, but....is there a conspiracy to hide all the good music from us? And the good books? Are people in the arts laughing at us for buying their crap? And if so, what can we do about it?"

Meanwhile....

Disclaimer: Ray Davis is a paid contributor to The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.
 
Despite my familiarity with Salon, I was surprised by the Reader's Guide. It's like stooping to pick up what looks like an ordinary mediocre valise only to find that it's been packed full of mediocre lead bricks. According to the official mission statement, "We decided to let our contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be our guides." These guides would seem to share one enthusiasm (the New York Times Book Review), one curiosity (what's on the front page of the New York Times Book Review?), and one path (to the trade paperback table at Borders).

I'm hardly a specialist in late-twentieth-century fiction, but if I'd wanted to provide a service to readers I would've found room for Joanna Russ, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Carol Emshwiller, Jack Womack, Bob Gluck, Barbara Comyns, Thomas Disch, Alexander Trocchi, Wendy Walker, M. John Harrison, Pat Califia, John Crowley, would've asked someone to tell me more about Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett....

In fact the book includes only two authors that really matter to me: Karen Joy Fowler (given a short entry) and Samuel R. Delany (a short entry). Broadening my selection to writers I merely respect would add Elmore Leonard (a short entry) and Toni Morrison (a long entry, because she publishes in the mainstream genre) to the overlap.

And it's not because I haven't heard of the book's choices, which are beautifully (if unintentionally) parodied by John Updike's inset guide to "Timeless Novels about Loving," apparently repurposed from TV Guide:
"Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - A young bourgeois wife seeks spiritual and sexual fulfillment away from the marital bed and runs grievously into debt."

"The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Among the Puritan pioneers of Boston, a promising clergyman falls afoul of a dark-haired protofeminist and her wizardly older husband."

Yeah, my list is idiosyncratic. An idiosyncratic list is what you'd expect to get from a serious pleasure reader. Whereas the Salon.com Guide is what you'd expect to get from a serious follower of publicity.

The depersonalized author selection ensembles beautifully with the reviewers' khaki prose. Dumbed down for ease of swallowing, it's the house style of virtually every free weekly paper: "authority" and "irreverence" and "wittiness" depilated of information or personality or humor. Journalistic blatherers used to flatter their readership by pretending it was full of good taste and morality while somehow simultaneously dumb as a stump. Nowadays the readership's still dumb as a stump yet somehow full of detached ironic wit.

Thus it makes sense that the only writer given full stylistic rein is "Pagliacci Dave" Eggers, who ends his celebrity roast of Kurt Vonnegut:

"So. Vonnegut is good. If you like books, and like to read them even if they are easy to read and frequently funny, you will like the work of Kurt Vonnegut, a writer. Also: He has a moustache."
Robert Benchley, move over! ... Or roll over. Do something, man! ... Guess he's dead.
Even John Clute, one of the most eccentric stylists ever to write a review, is sanded down to transparency here. Which is extra sad, since his argument against the tyranny of the "mainstream literary" genre lances so precisely the core of this book. Restricting yourself to mainstream fiction in the late twentieth century is like restricting yourself to heroic tragedy after 1650. The mainstream's just not where good writing is being done. Unless you crave watery flavorless writing.
How did this awful thing happen? One clue may be found in the opening of the entry for Angela Carter:
"Carter enjoyed little renown during her life, but after her death...."
"Little renown"? Say what? Angela Carter? The only way I can make sense of this is to translate it as "I wasn't assigned Carter in high school and I didn't read the New York Review of Books back then, but after I graduated...." An editor should've caught the gaffe, but since an editor wrote it, it was probably immune.
Someone on the staff did make time, though, to reduce my already undistinguished sentence:
"An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany in 1979 began Return to Nevèrÿon, an archeological fantasy series that was to occupy him on and off through the 1980s."
to complete nonsense by deleting "in 1979." Maybe someone in the publishing business could clear this up for me: Are copyeditors paid more for adding lots of mistakes to a manuscript, like programmers whose productivity is measured by lines-of-code? Or do they fuck things up out of sheer gotta-leave-my-mark egotism, like programmers who work nights and weekends?
Another clue: from what I can gather, my topic was originally assigned to a friend of the editors who decided only when the deadline was nigh that it was too hard to finish the research. These aren't enthusiasts trying to communicate their enthusiams: they're a clique trying to act like grown-ups.

From the mission statement:
"We encouraged our contributors to think of you, the reader, as an intelligent, interested friend or relative who'd just asked, 'So tell me about John Updike. What are his books like?'"
I find it unlikely that your auntie would be asking you such a thing unless she was checking how well you'd learned your lessons.
What we got here is not just smugness, but downright noisy celebration of shared limited knowledge. It's like that guy in the museum painstakingly explaining every perfectly obvious thing to his wife. It's like my geeky friends parroting TV shows. It's what they teach you to do in school. And it's what makes a successful journalism career. Salon.dot critics are they who seek to enjoy, without incurring the Immense Debtorship for, a thought thunk.

See Also: Anyone who enjoys this crap should probably seek out the opinions of more journalists. Those intrigued by my crackpot theories can find them expressed more calmly in a 1998 response to Jonathan Lethem.

Ray Davis will be appearing with other contributors to The Salon.com Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Thursday, September 14, 7:30pm.

. . .

Concluding the Neuraesthetics: Hypnotic Narratology saga... Bookworm or Genius?

Sometimes all it takes to leap to a conclusion is the choice of an article. Whereas calling a communicating-but-unavailable-to-consciousness mental process "a hidden observer" would have brought out its transient nature, calling it "the hidden observer" made it sound like an invincible Masked Avenger, predisposing Hilgard to treat it as more persistent than his evidence would support.

Once on that train of thought, multiple personality disorder may have seemed like a natural stop, but you'd think a clinical hypnotist would be more reluctant to draw attention to a "hypnotist = trauma," "suggestion = repressed trauma," and "hypnosis = serious mental illness" equation.

Anyway, there's no need to board that train. What makes MPD socially and emotionally problematic isn't its modularity per se but its assignment of personalities to the modules. What makes the term "modularity" problematic isn't the notion that the mind is multiply streamed, but the notion that the streams can all be divvied up neatly into things called modules. And what makes Hilgard's hypnosis research interesting isn't how it maps dysfunction but the insight it offers into function.

(Walter Jon Williams's Aristoi takes a similar wrong turn: the novel assumes that modularity makes for efficient thinking, but it takes a trauma-and-MPD route rather than the practice-and-hypnosis route.)
Post-Hilgard hypnosis researchers have been at pains to point out that "hypnosis entails social interaction as well as alterations in conscious awareness"; what they forget and what Hilgard's research underscores is the extent to which conscious awareness is also a matter of social interaction.

One of the noisiest "paradoxes" of the cognitive sciences is that the mind handles tasks faster than consciousness possibly can. But as a paradox, it shows the same kind of naivete as artsy types blathering about quantum theory. Philosophers got over that one in the nineteenth century (and before the nineteenth century, they handled it with stuff like the humours and astrology): we're just talking about the fact that consciousness, by definition, has to pretend to be the boss even when it's perfectly obviously not. Maybe Nietzsche overstated the case when he described consciousness as only a kind of surface froth on the driving waves (Nietzsche exaggerating for effect? What are the odds?), but he was clearly right that the conscious self's usefulness and power get overestimated to justify concepts of legal and religious responsibility.

The corresponding problem is, most folks who latch onto the non-unified-self drop into one of two camps: a New Agey hippyish irresponsibility groovin' on its drives, man, or a Calvinistic morose fatalism where the lucky ones happen to be born naturally more unified (and then fool themselves that it's their super-thick undisturbed froth of will power that's doing the trick) and the rest of us are born permanent losers.

Hilgard's work points toward a less melodramatically binary state of affairs. Rather than a sharp constrast between the self-deceived "self" and the uncontrollable mind-flood, it indicates a constantly shifting array of simultaneous processes, capable of handing off tasks and even of taking over communication. It's not so much that "consciousness" is inherently modular as that modularity is a useful mental technique, with the narrating "consciousness" a specific case in point.

(Man, it's hard to figure out where to put the scare quotes with this stuff. At least I'm leaving sous rature out of the toolbox....)

A narrating consciousness doesn't exclude the possibility of other modules, nor is it invalidated by their existence. When we're all at our best, it's more a matter of efficient mutual support, like in a WPA poster, or like in Hilgard's storyteller story.

When I read it, I thought of Samuel R. Delany, in The Motion of Light in Water:

"... but now what pressed me to put words on paper -- what made me open my notebook and pick up my ball-point -- were comparatively large, if vague, blocks of language that came.... It was as if the whole writing process had finally secreted another, verbal layer. These 'language blocks' were not, certainly, lengths of finished prose, all words in place. But now, as well as the vague images and ideas that formed the prewritten story, I would also envision equally vague sentences or paragraphs, sometimes as much as a page and a half of them -- which was when I knew it was time to write."
The skeptical reaction to Hilgard's work was that since hypnotism research depends on introspection by the lab animals, the research is untrustworthy. In particular, since we know that distraction reduces the affect of pain for less hypnotizable subjects, and since hypnosis reduces the affect of pain for highly hypnotizable subjects, how do we know, first, that the supposedly hypnotizable subjects aren't lying, and second, that the supposedly hypnotizable subjects aren't just distracted drama queens?

So someone compared how well distracted subjects in pain did on a vocabulary test with how well hypnotized subjects in pain did on a vocabulary test. The distracted subjects seemed... distracted. The hypnotized subjects did just as well as if they weren't in pain at all.

The researchers expressed surprise, because surely the limited store of "cognitive energy" (I'm picturing a sort of green glowing fluid) would be even more depleted by ignoring pain and forgetting that you're ignoring the pain than it would be by just taking the pain straight.

As if we have more energy when we aren't doing anything! No, as sensibly evolved organisms, we're more likely to produce energy when there's a reason to do so: when we have an achievable goal and we're achieving it efficiently. Thus the appeal of hypnotism to the hypnotizable, and thus the dismay that Hilgard reports after he revealed her "hidden observer" to a hypnotized woman:

"There's an unspoken agreement that the hidden observer is supposed to stay hidden and not come out. He broke his promise, he's not abiding by the rules..."

. . .

Movie Comment: The Brandon Teena Story

"I wouldn't live there if you paid me to."
- David Byrne
"thinking: I didn't leave them like that! I didn't. It's not real."
- Samuel R. Delany
I went to high school in a crummy small town in rural Missouri. I was a pathetically odd kid, but maybe my flaws didn't glare so much in this setting; anyway, along with bigotry (mostly aimed at the world outside of town) and bored aggression (mostly aimed at teachers and long-standing pariahs), I found deep stores of acceptance, affection, and wit.

The fifty students in my class maintained their allotted Kinsey percentages, but homosexuality by definition didn't exist. The few kids who were active deviants were probably as active as they were only because they were already established as pariahs -- and even they were invisible to all but an inner group of their peers. As a fairly trustworthy peer who'd come from and who was obviously back on his way to "the outside world," I got to talk to a couple of kids whose confusions were particularly pressing. The town seemed (and seems) to me far too dangerous and confusing an environment for either gay or straight sex, and so I always advised caution in leaping to conclusions -- or, for that matter, leaping to anything, though wuddya gonna do? it's teenage hormones.

The kids who later on did get out of town incorporated new experiences and self-definitions in a dazzling variety of ways, some of which involved familiar labels and some of which didn't. The ones who stayed continued to live in a world that included revolving-door marriages, suicides, alcoholism, beatings, and fatal accidents, but not homosexuality. Sexual surveys of the people in town and the people who'd left would give you very different results, but inasmuch as you learned anything of value it wouldn't be about innate sexuality: it would be about the social effects of monoculture.

I believe that a moral imperative for narrative art (including discursive prose) is to present the "strange," the "peculiar," the "monstrous." Not in the professional ooh-aren't-we-naughty fashion that justifies the status quo with supposedly "dangerous" material rather than supposedly "safe" material, but in a way that, whether angry or affectionate or panicked or flat as a pancake, somehow does what it can to prepare its audience for "the outside world."

Of course, all this only matters because there's more than one "outside world" and more than one "monoculture," and as we make our transitions between them the moral imperative can start to get pretty contorted.

The other night I saw The Brandon Teena Story and saw depicted -- pretty much for the first time in a movie -- the familiar landscape, accents, mannerisms, faces.... About as intense a bad nostalgia trip as could be imagined. Just like going home, too late to stop something.

Mostly I got to see my peers again. They're not wilfully self-consciously evil or hypocritical or stupid -- that cultural imperative I didn't see in full force till I left town and met America's ruling class -- but they do tend to be breathtakingly (in all senses) naive, in the way any monoculture is. It's a naivete that can easily turn hostile, vicious and violent. It can also be ironically self-aware and astonishingly amenable to argument and experience in a way that, for example, trust funded artists don't seem to be.

The transgender-warriors protesting outside the murder trial acted as if they anticipated a Scottsboro Boys travesty, while inside the courthouse justice was being managed with exquisite (if all too American) care. Righteousness external, righteousness internal; the former enraged me, the latter did not; both were too late to stop anything. What I saw in the documentary were my friends, in a monstrous situation: confused, ill-equipped, damaged, but for the most part genuinely trying to survive with a sense of morality. What "the outside world" (that I'm now a part of) apparently saw were monsters.

. . .

I could not love reindeer so much, loved I not Donner more.
DonnerWetter
I don't remember just how I picked up this recipe from NYC's own Santa Claus, Samuel R. Delany, but now you're picking it up from me....

Delany family eggnog
--------------------

Quart of bourbon + one cup of sugar, left overnight.
Beat 18 eggs till smooth but not foamy and dribble into bourbon.
Whip a quart of heavy cream and fold it in.

Treat Yourself

. . .

Updates via updater:

The best Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 interview ever not done with Seymour Glass is available. All is expressed within the music, true; but here all or something like it is explained or something like it:

AE: I'd love to hear more covers. I'd love to hear bands totally make fun of it. Because that's one of things that's given us the most pleasure, totally fucking up our own songs in practice.
...
BH: When we were practicing [in late 1999] we started getting into that, and it was so much fun. I was singing like the guy from the Cure, singing "The Operation" [from Strangers] like that. That felt so good. And I was thinking, "I feel so stupid for not having started doing this eight, ten years ago, just pick someone and sing like them." It's a blast. Suddenly I felt really emotional. I was crying a little bit, like: "Oh, yeah, that's the voice I should have been using all this time. His."
Yes. Exactly. (Or something like it.)

A not-quite-something-like-Seymour-Glass interview also exists. The correct answer to how they sound, by the way, is "po(o)p music." Pronounced "Poeh, open parenthesis, oh, close parenthesis, pee period music."

Why is it that it (or something like it that it) only comes to me now that I never asked to interview TFUL282? Is it for the same reason that I told Samuel R. Delany that

Of course, my idea of a good interview question would be something like "So what does Lou Christie’s speaking voice sound like?" or "Why do you think poets are usually so much funnier in their writing than they are in person?"

. . .

What it corresponds to

Some writers are recognizable in their correspondence and some aren't. (Recognizable to readers, that is; their recognizability as the animals previously encountered by fleshy intimates is an unrelated matter.)

Those writers whose letters cozily nestle alongside their oeuvre -- Henry Adams, Raymond Chandler, Samuel R. Delany, among many others -- rely on a "micro" verbal impulse as well as a "macro"-building one: an impulse to respond to the world and its inhabitants by producing paragraphs, whether those paragraphs are meant to fit into a larger structure or not. Their books may seem colder or crueler or wiser than their letters, but the material comes from the same source. (And, not all that paradoxically, their letters may sometimes seem a bit impersonal: the sausage meat grinds on in a steady stream, regardless who gets the individual link....)

Whereas Dashiell Hammett's letters, like James Joyce's, are purely practical objects (even when their practical purpose is to give their recipients a sense of personal connection), springing from completely different impulses than the writer's book-objects, constructed along completely different lines, and not of much interest except to the addressed or the biographer. For the enthusiastic reader? Well, from one letter where Hammett uses full-out "Hammett style" to describe a day of Army life, I learned that lapidary prose can be a very dull thing outside a structural context; e.g., you can't polish dust. That's about it.

Having now trudged through a Alaskan-sized mud stretch of these letters, I feel the need to revisit some flashier gewgaws, such as those of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. And, look, since they're out of print anyway, how about I pass a few past you as well?

The Earl of Rochester gives some friendly advice, c. 1671

Whither Love, Wine, or Wisdom (which rule you by turns) have the present ascendent, I cannot pretend to determine at this distance, but good nature, which waits about you with more diligence than Godfrey himself, is my security that you are not unmindful of your absent friends. To be from you & forgotten by you at once is a misfortune I never was criminal enough to merit since to the black & fair Countesses I villainously betrayed the daily addresses of your divided heart; you forgave that upon the first bottle, & upon the second on my conscience would have renounced them and the whole sex.

Oh, that second bottle, Harry, is the sincerest, wisest, & most impartial downright friend we have, tells us truth of ourselves & forces us to speak truths of others, banishes flattery from our tongues and distrust from our hearts, sets us above the mean policy of court prudence which makes us lie to one another all day for fear of being betrayed by each other at night. And before god I believe the errantest villain breathing is honest as long as that bottle lives, and few of that tribe dare venture upon him, at least among the courtiers & statesmen.

I have seriously considered one thing, that of the three businesses of this age -- women, politics & drinking -- the last is the only exercise at which you & I have not proved our selves errant tumblers. If you have the vanity to think otherwise, when we meet next let us appeal to friends of both sexes &, as they shall determine, live & die sheer drunkards or entire Lovers. For as we mingle the matter, it is hard to say which is the most tiresome creature, the loving drunkard or the drunken lover.

The Earl of Rochester starts a seduction, c. 1675

If you distrust me and all my professions upon the score of truth and honor, at least let 'em have credit on another, upon which my greatest enemies will not deny it me, and that is its being notorious that I mind nothing but my own satisfaction. You may be sure I cannot choose but love you above the world, whatever becomes of the King, Court, or mankind and all their impertinent business. I will come to you this afternoon.

. . .

Fig. 2: Dhalgren first edition (detail)
Bellonascape
"to wound the autumnal city."
  I obtained the domain name "bellonatimes.com" in August, planning to rename this log accordingly after moving to a new site host.

In Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, the city's newspaper of record is the "Bellona Times": the vanity publishing venture of an arbitrary and eccentric megalomaniac. And, although another Delany novel, Trouble on Triton, is set in a different city also named "Bellona," that was pretty much it as far as the reference went.

But instead it's become another one of those coincidences that look so eery to us now and will look so trivial in the future.

Bellona was the Roman goddess of war.

And Dhalgren's Bellona is a city full of fire and wreckage and ashes, of catastrophe's leavings and rumors of catastrophe -- the familiar recurrent nightmares of late 1960s urban life, assassinations and rioting, but also this, which always seemed oddly out of place:

Someone was shouting, among others shouting: "You hear them planes? You hear all them planes?" (It couldn't have been planes.) "Them planes are awfully low! They gonna crash! You hear --" at which point the building face across the street cracked, all up and down, and bellied out so slow I wondered how....
And so forth.

. . .

Lord knows I'm no Self-Esteem cheerleader: anti-empathic self-righteousness is the longest-running American epidemic by far.

But -- it pains me to say -- the common-sense association of judgment, emotion, and action isn't terribly reliable in real life. What makes depression more problem than opportunity isn't its grip on reality but its stagnation. Self-loathing has no utility except as an impetus to change, and it just as often seems an impetus to confirmation: "I'd rather be right than better." Has Jerry Lee Lewis's long-standing conviction that he's headed hellwards made him a better human being? If his wives returned to life, I think they'd say not.

Tolerance toward others and changes to one's own circumstances can't come about purely through self-contemplation, whether the gaze be smug or apalled. They require outwardly directed attention. What a bother.

Related distinctions have been refined at UFO Breakfast -- "disgust" vs. "dissmell," "contempt" vs. "shame" -- and then applied:

In a culture like ours where shame-triggered contempt is on the rise and quickly becoming normalized, we should be especially vigilant about a certain tipping point where shame-dissmell becomes dissmell pure and simple. Once that point is passed, there may not be an easy way back out of tribal hatreds.
My first reaction was to murmur "How true."

But, true to dialectic paralysis (everything true; nothing permitted), my second reaction was to envision the argument's ancestry -- like when you meet the parents of your college sweetheart you can't help but start calculating the genetic odds -- which seems to include two particularly vicious undisciplines:

Jolly Jokester's Injenious Japes
Hotsy: "Mein Führer has no nose!"
Totsy: "How does he smell?"
Hotsy: "Awful!"
Then there's the role of the "shamed" and thereby redeemed and thereby doubly-intolerant sinner, beloved Special Guest Star of American repressive movements (Prohibition, homophobia, McCartheyism, anti-abortion, anti-porn) and standard out for hypocritical televangelists....

Nietzsche's oversensitive olfactories may have helped endear him to Fascists, but I suspect they had more effect on his constipation than on his politics. And further suspect that UFO B.'s analysis-by-analogy, like most all such, works more usefully as a reminder of possible alternatives than as a psychohistorical formula.

But I still wonder if it's a coincidence that the writers I most often turn to for humane comfort -- James Joyce and Samuel R. Delany -- are both on record as lacking "dissmell" altogether.

... continued ...

. . .

Celebrate

Today Samuel R. Delany is 60 years old.

Delany more than any other writer of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is truly dedicated to and efficacious in building better American citizens, and so this should really be a national holiday and Delany himself subsidized as a national treasure -- with a PBS documentary series, and statues in every city, and appropriate selections publicly taught at each grade level -- it's not like he would stop writing; on the contrary, he would be able to write much more -- but the USA doesn't tend to do such things, so I recommend in default that everyone who reads this go to their nearest bookstore and buy as many Samuel R. Delany books as they can afford and, should they be a Hollywood producer, also buy a good many Samuel R. Delany film rights, and that way maybe he would still be able to write much more. (ATTN Will Smith's agent: The Motion of Light in Water is the EPIC SAGA of a GENERATION shown via the TRUE STORY of a GENIUS who TRIUMPHANTLY OVERCOMES a NERVOUS BREAKDOWN! OSCAR OSCAR OSCAR)

I wanted to find a good summation statement from Delany's out-of-print work to stick here, but even when pressed he tends not to waste time summing up his own work, so here's what I wrote for The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors, although editorial requirements forced me to sorely constrict myself on the nonfiction and the mainstream fiction and actually pretty much on everything:

An ambitious autodidact in the grand tradition, Samuel R. Delany has been called the "most individual of America's individualist writers." For four decades and in a half-dozen genres, Delany has outraged and comforted readers with formally innovative, determinedly eclectic, and uniquely heartfelt work.

Kathy Acker described his fiction as "a conversation between you and Samuel Delany about the possibilities of being human." Unlike many exploiters of "transgression," Delany seems driven by the desire to honestly communicate previously unspoken human experience; even his grungiest material is surprisingly warm in tone. As William Gibson wrote, "I remember being simply and frequently grateful to Delany for so powerfully confirming that certain states had ever been experienced at all, by anyone."

Delany's early work exuberantly cross-bred space opera conventions with linguistic theory, female starship commanders, sexual triads, sword-wielding Orphic avatars, artist-criminals, pop culture, and the emotional complexities of sadomasochism. This phase ended in 1968 with the publication of his super-science swashbuckler Nova and the writing of his first pornographic novel, the Grand Guignol fantasy Equinox.

After a long silence, Delany re-emerged in the mid-1970s with three startling novels: Hogg (unpublished until 1995), a clear-eyed depiction of professional rapists and sexual exploitation of children, and perhaps the most effectively offensive work in American literature; Dhalgren, the portrait of a bisexual drifter in a late 1960s city, and a massive hybrid of era-summarizing ambition, hyper-naturalist technique, science fictional motifs, poetics, urban gangs, and structuralist theory; and Trouble on Triton, an "ambiguous heterotopia" which seamlessly blends interplanetary warfare, Jamesian character-determined prose, and feminist satire while describing a blond hetero hero's imagined victories and true defeats.

An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany published in 1979 the first volume of his archeological fantasy series Return to Nevèrÿon, a "Child's Garden of Semiotics" (complete with slave revolts,women warriors, dragons, bondage, an alternative Genesis, and the invention of writing) that was to occupy him on and off through the next ten years. The disarmingly straightforward approach of the series contrasted with 1984's rococo Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a tragedy of intercultural-interspecies communication and sexuality which remains to date Delany's last science fiction novel.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Delany devoted himself to criticism, autobiography, and studies of interracial and interclass urban relations. Often the strains are intertwined, as in The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction in the East Village, a beautiful and moving account of the early 1960s. The effect of AIDS on the sexual cultures and industries of Manhattan became a focal point in Delany's writing with the fantasy-journalism layering of "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," and continuing in his pornographic mystery The Mad Man (in which a young African-American scholar finds true love with a homeless redneck and true satisfaction with a considerably wider range of partners), and in a forthcoming book on Times Square.

. . .

How different was this letter from the other! Though perhaps not so well written; for one does not shew so much wit in suing for pardon as in venting reproaches, and it seldom happens that the soft, languishing style of a love-letter is so penetrating as that of invective.
I think I understand what Visible Darkness is getting at with links. I wish I didn't.

It's more relaxing when I can pretend that it's just you (out there) and stuff (out there) and my function is to point -- or, more precisely, to place a marker and leave. I'm happiest (happy in a secure stable confident way; not most gleeful or most driven) lending people books or showing them movies or playing them music that they like, and as much as I may strive to instigate and encourage their enjoyment by my own overbearing example, I'd be betraying the Code of the Autodidact if I denied the value of a library card and time alone in the stacks. (Not that linkin'-logs have much in common with libraries -- they're more like kids trying to impress each other with what they got for Xmas. A weblog's sidebar [or sidepage] list of favorites provides a closer equivalent to browsing someone's bookshelves than do the links in a weblog proper.)

And when I feel especially sickened by the tawdry deceits of "expression," as I occasionally and currently am, that's what seems safest: publish, point, disappear.

[Naturally, I've turned for publishing relief to someone who's not at all bothered by melancholy or guilt, or even by tawdry deceits. Grammont's introduction to the court of Charles II is challengingly crowded with new characters (and just as densely packed with notes). But the introductions are not without Hamiltonian charm; for example, to "Montagu, no very dangerous rival on account of his person, but very much to be feared for his assiduity, the acuteness of his wit, and for some other talents, which are of importance, when a man is once permitted to display them."

And with the next two chapters, we find ourselves comfortably settled on the high plateau of cheerful self-satisfied amorality whereon the remainder of the Memoirs will amiably amble.]

For better or worse or richer or poorer, I can't maintain dignified silence for long. A call (no matter how illusory) for response will rarely call in vain, and while I've lately preserved a model pout here, I've written plenty in email, comments, and mailing lists.

Even responding, I'd rather point to already published sequences of words than generate new ones; for example, by drawing a line from "Words' true work is to restore life itself to order" to "Sharp as mud." But, as a critic who prefers an informal style and primary sources close at hand, I may well find myself tempted into more active engagement against Ricoeur's formula that "Conversational speech presents; writing represents"....

. . .

I got my act together and it closed in Boston

My characteristically glum affect skewed yesterday's scattered reflections, but that's what happens with scattered reflections....

. . .

Grin & plummet

  That's what I've always felt about nervous breakdowns, if you're not really whacked out, or schizophrenic; basically, you're making a decision that is so hard that you need the excuse of neurosis. I think nervous breakdowns were much more common in the late '50s and early '60s, and the world is more hip about those things today, so that people can make decisions without claiming that excuse. But it works both ways; it was a great advantage having nervous breakdowns.
-- Thomas M. Disch

Possibly related: Samuel R. Delany's mild dismay when noting that depression is often a sign that one's life should change in some drastic fashion, and that the blanket prescription of antidepressives some-subset-of-often delays that necessary change, some-further-subset indefinitely.

Not entirely unrelated: This present mental institution's third (of a projected five) anniversary approaches.

. . .

Admission Statement

Alongside calamondin, Geegaw, and (soon) metascene, this venture enters its fourth year.

Over the past twelve months, the trends here have been toward fewer gags, longer (often serialized) texts, more political and philosophical pomposity, more inter-weblog discussion, and more online editions of rare print material. Without rigorous supression, they'll probably continue. An anonymous reader recently asked:

How long does it take to hold a dwarf bunny?
And I aim to find out.

Speaking of anniversaries, I just today realized that Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren is now twenty-seven years old.

  Chester Brown's Late Night Snack
Holding a dwarf bunny

. . .

Non serviam

Since Kraft-Ebbing first entered the adjectives "sadistic" and "masochistic" into play, the world has persistently confused the practices of S&M or B&D with the very convenient metaphors to be drawn from such practices. Whether arising through ignorance or willful laziness, this confusion results in bigotry, misdirection (e.g., "Hitler was evil because he was kinky"), and lots of really awful movies.

The happy ending of Samuel R. Delany's Hogg comes when the young protagonist untangles sexual degradation from its philosophical and political associations; if the ending doesn't seem all that happy, that says more about our narrative expectations than about the wisdom of his choice. But such untangling seems unlikely to spread: confusion is too useful for instigating self-righteousness on the one hand (upraised to strike) and self-promotion on the other hand (chained to the bed).

Those aggrandizing misconceptions have helped disseminate bondage gear through pop culture as an all-purpose marker for "perversion," and even for the sexual impulse itself. From my quiet cove here in the Vanilla Straits, they seem reminiscent of the monotheist publicity agents for Satan, a figure of no great appeal or import until he's positioned as the solitary alternative to an omniscient omnipotent God.

I suppose that's why they call it "demonizing."

. . .

Huey Freeman thinks profound thoughts ---king Elvis

"Hey, Copperhead, why you think they're so anxious to get us after each other."
- Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany

Twice a year, one bunch gestures jocularly at Elvis Presley and another bunch quotes Public Enemy. Most of them, that seems to be the only time they do quote Public Enemy.

A subset throws in that "shine my shoes and buy my records" calumny, which I knew was absurd even before doing any research: not because Elvis ever took a stand against segregation, but because Elvis was always polite and polite boys don't talk like that. (This rumor-monger deserves special recognition for going on to credit Willie Mae Thornton with authorship of "Hound Dog" and to call Nat King Cole a "subservient negro.")

Chuck D makes perfect sense. Still, I'm like most. Elvis is a hero to me. Not someone to admire or emulate. Just a real American hero the same way Heracles was a real Greek hero: a larger-than-life pig-ignant touched-by-divinity guided-by-conmen figure strung up snug and poisoned in a tangle of tragedy and low farce.

Elvis didn't kill near as many people as Heracles, but like I say: polite.

. . .

Juliet O'Keefe derives a better world:

My favourite definition [of love] is still from Delany, as found in The Spike's fuck-off letter to Bron: When you love someone, you want to help them any way you can. I'm just kind of fond of that, as it takes ego and obligation out of the equation.

And bhikku derives a greener:

When Thurber was asked, 'What do you believe?' he said, 'I believe in the sudden deep greenness of spring.'

. . .

Just like medicine

I have two friends who, like me, have derived serious pleasure from poststructuralist writings. We three are easily told apart, and in terms of relative accomplishment I'm easily at the bottom. But I think we would all agree, more or less enthusiastically, with any of the following assertions:

  Un altro elleboro nero
Instead, we commonly enounter the assertion: And being all three of us sworn to defend our pleasures to our deaths, up goes the dander, flying goes the fur.

But I've finally come to realize that such a reaction replenishes the venom sacs of the poisoners I find most fearsome: canons and labels.

  Elleboro bianco
A kiss-off to the abstract blob game, then:

The only commonality I can find in my personal poststructuralism reading list is a tendency to complicate thought (if not necessarily writing; Delany and the sorely-missed Jardine write perfectly lucid American prose): to split hairs and splinter branches and seed beams with termites and combine bicker with blather.

My friends and I have little enough in common ourselves. But I think I can say that for all of us, the appeal wasn't a matter of being frozen, or being seduced, or being betrayed, or having our deepest beliefs called into question, or even being particularly influenced.

More a relief at seeing what we'd already sensed receive acknowledgment and elaboration. Self-conscious complexity is the net that's saved us all from drowning. ("Drowning," figuratively. "Dying," not.) In the nineteenth century, we would've been Kantians; in the eighteenth, what, Viconians maybe? Wherever was foggiest, that's where we'd be. In the fog with a lantern, searching for more fog.

None of us would've been Swift. I think you need to assume a certain height and distance before you can speak down like Swift.

When the world is known to be foundationless, it's pleasant to see that foundationlessness mirrored and elaborated, just like when we ache with anger and disappointment, it's pleasant to see a George Romero movie. But for anyone to force that on someone else for personal aggrandizement or gain, or to wave it as a liberating banner or as a pass card to an exclusive club -- yes, that would be monstrous.

That fucking pharmakon again.

. . .

In May 2009, Josh Lukin responded:

Seems to me that there's a big area in which a critic can "prove" something: the game of refuting sweeping generalizations. Girard asserted that "Every novel has all of these features"; Toril Moi "proved" that some don't. Now, I personally would not use that verb, opting instead for "Moi's convincing challenge to Girard . . . " But if I had to edit a submission claiming that she'd proven him wrong, I don't see how I'd argue that it was an infelicitous construction.

Girard: "Well, then, those are not a novel." But yeah, counter-evidence is something criticism can handle very well. Sometimes I think it's all that criticism's good for.

. . .

Advertising Supplement

Jake Wilson resolves one old issue:

  I considered writing to you a couple of months ago when you were looking for sources of the Rotwang/Dr Strangelove archetype. I was going to suggest that one source might be the Poe tale The Man That Was Used Up, but then from your phrasing I wasn't sure if you'd already made that connection.
That damned phrasing stuff trips me up every time! I responded:

  That was, in fact, the grotesque that I vaguely thought might be Poe or (if post-Civil-War) Twain or even Crane. (When I browsed through Poe collections, I became distracted by "Maelzel's Chess-Player".)

And to balance things out, Jake Wilson introduces one new issue: Senses of Cinema No. 26, with excellent background on the Hong Kong woman warrior, a Stan Brakhage tribute appropriately split between formal and personal concerns, enticing overviews of Ned Kelly stories and Italian movies that I'd probably hate, a pointer to the near-future sf film None Shall Escape, and the usual much much more.

My other favorite web-based movie periodical, Bright Lights Film Journal, has also served up a fresh batch of fine reporting, reviews, and meditations. But would you think badly of me if I admitted that my favorite part was the Holly Woodlawn interview? 'Cause if you would, I admit nothing.

Elsewhere on the web, Dr. Justine Larbalestier has provided a preview of "A Buffy Confession," her spirited defense against (and equally spirited surrender to) nattering nay-Slayers. "For those who haven't seen the finale yet don't read the coda at the end."

And another of our favorite doctors, Josh Lukin, brings us the welcome news that paper-based periodical Paradoxa is finally unleashing FIFTIES FICTIONS: Chester Himes! Patricia Highsmith! E.C.! Richard Matheson! Samuel R. Delany! Judith Merril! People I don't even know! Get your order in early; you know how ephemeral paper-based periodicals are, and this looks like the best issue of Paradoxa yet. (I'd say "the best issue yet of any magazine ever," but I can't be sure till I track down a copy of that Vanity Fair with the picture of Tuesday Weld in the back. [Update: That Vanity Fair issue stunk.])

Yeah, I kid the academy (those nuts!), but when its component parts are given half a chance, the combination of publishing venues, deadlines, and job reviews can be mighty productive. Out here in the boonies, I've been blowing hot air about "doing something" on Highsmith for more than a dozen years; with sharp and decent folk like Lukin and Earl Jackson Jr. on the case, the world might live long enough to see some results.

. . .

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."

. . .

KICK ME HARD
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.

. . .

To The Happy Tutor, in continuation and continuation

Wish I could locate our disagreement, if any, so we could keep up the conversation.
Your question inspires you to look for an answer; your question inspires me to look at the question. Naturally that leaves us not quite disagreeing.

Blake found America in his imagination and so he etched it, but not in a way that would influence British colonial policies. He might be suprised to find his visions yoked with Swift's polemics. What conceivable writing would take both as role model? That, I'd submit, is the question you're really wrestling with. (And the obvious answer would be "Your own.")

Having assumed some commonality among such public-domain genre workers as Swift, Blake, Goya, and Dickens, you go on to extend it to the insularities of the contemporary high art world rather than to contemporary genre workers. From such a hodgepodge of heroes, the only moral I can abstract is the one I drew before:

To my mind, a person, whether "artist" or not, produces a positive political effect by engaging honestly with the polis. By being attentive to human experience and humble about preconceptions, and by working as one worker among many. Basically by not being a dope or a jerk.
But "not being a dope or a jerk" seems enough non-goal to keep anyone busy for an difficult lifetime. Reinforcing prejudice is good business; good citizens rarely retire in comfort.

Repeatedly since the New Deal, we've seen the knowledge that the personal is political diverted into a fantasy that the individual is the political, as if the goal of political action is to feel good about oneself. If the goal is instead to change (or defend) government, that goal can only be achieved by explicitly political work. It may mean diverting a little money or time from more enjoyable parts of our life, or, as things worsen, distributing reportage or joining an army or hiding fugitives. It rarely means a clean conscience. It certainly doesn't mean issuing the fraudulent papal bulls of "political art."

Similarly, the knowledge that art is personal has been diverted into a fantasy that the individual is the point of art. As if a human being's profoundest goal should be to attain the status of Brand Name, trademarked into immortality. "Have you seen the new Star Wars?" "No, but have you read the new Dave Eggers?"

Art isn't politics. But bad art and bad politics have this disengagement in common.

Philip Guston re-engaged in the mid-1960s:

"The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything -- and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?"
And he changed his art to fit his knowledge.
"I have never been so close to what I've painted. Not pictures -- but a 'substitute' world which comes from the world."
Where "the world" is decidedly not "the art world" (or so the art world decided) and what he's painted is not quite "political art."

Nick Piombino (poet) and I (fanboy) have recently exchanged email about poetry and politics: the easy slide from "politics" (as in government policies) to "politics" (as in intragroup grudges, snubs, and favoritism); the pressure to confuse internecine warfare with craft. In the egalitarian world of weblogging, even poets can experience non-competitive non-solipsistic give-and-take. Although hit counts and blogrolls comfort those who can't picture life without zero-sum games and contested territory, I think Nick has good reason to hope for more positive engagement, especially given dedicated cross-community linkers like yourself.

So, if your big question is "What Is to Be Done?", I'm afraid my piddling answer is "Carry on."

Best,
Ray

. . .

Intermediate Hedonics

I wish they wouldn't call me “a hedonist”; it produces such a bad effect on the minds of people who don't know Greek.
- Walter Pater to Edmund Gosse

International Masturbation Month having just ended, we're well acquainted with the limitations of solitary pleasure. Among more social pleasures, bullying and torture often predominate. George W. Bush displays the lineaments of gratified desire more plainly than Allen Ginsberg even did, and I dislike him more as well.

So, no, hedonism is not enough. There's a reason humanity went to the effort of developing concepts like responsibility and shame. It's less a philosophical foundation than an empirical corrective.

Lingered over, sought out, often emphasizing what we'd do anyway, pleasure doesn't necessarily surprise us. Nevertheless, being above all else a signal, pleasure performs individuating and anti-systematic functions. It humanizes the humanist, puts the spring in Springfield, wakes the drowsy and dopes the knotted. Regular dosages are particularly recommended for guilt-ridden bible-thumping natural twisters such as, to take the example closest to hand, myself: in George Harrison's beautiful phrase, "a stuckup, up-tight, tight-assed asshole."

If my profile is at all typical of those whose life was saved by rock and roll, we deserve our poor reputation. Still, it's not like we'd be less creepy without our little inanimate friends. Hedonism is what's missing from Adorno's jeremiads, and he seems no more simpatico for its absence.

* * *

As Lawrence White has already commented, where there's pleasure, desire follows. And aesthetic desire, like all desires, can turn bad in a hurry: a regent who dungeons the prince. Of all the "there but for the grace of pleasure go I" monsters that torment my dreams, the collector may be the scariest, what with the full weight of corporate capitalism pushing aesthetes toward that reassuringly simple, communal, and self-destructive role. Again, close attention to what's attracting our attention is the best (or at least the cheapest) prophylactic I know.

Responses

That scene in 'Deliverance' where they're in the canoes and Reynolds' character Lewis yells "...Drew was shot!"? That's us too. And the Ned Beatty incident as well. And the church even, jacked up and lifted to higher ground. That Dickey was a diabetic isn't pertinent exactly, though it may have some relevance I can't get to right now. Used to have a mint set of Django Rheinhardt 78's from the 'Hot Club of France'. Now it's 'Third Watch' reruns shared communally with the rest of America.

Mikarrhea has anticipated me.

. . .

For who is there who anything of some significance has apprehended but is conscious that that exterior splendour may be the surface of a downwardtending lutulent reality

—The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.

Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:

—That is God.

Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

For most people, the real is what cannot be argued with (it partakes of a transcendental authority); for me (and those who agree with me), the real is what cannot be avoided, what must be dealt with, what must be interrogated, acted on, argued with. (Again, it's synonymous with the political.)
- Samuel R. Delany
STEPHEN
Here's another for you. (he frowns) The reason is because the fundamental and the dominant are separated by the greatest possible interval which...
THE CAP
Which? Finish. You can't.
STEPHEN
(with an effort) Interval which. Is the greatest possible ellipse. Consistent with. The ultimate return. The octave. Which.
THE CAP
Which?
(Outside the gramophone begins to blare The Holy City.)
STEPHEN
(Abruptly.) What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself. God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller, having itself traversed in reality itself becomes that self. Wait a moment. Wait a second. Damn that fellow's noise in the street. Self which it itself was ineluctably preconditioned to become. Ecco!

Pound's and Eliot's Ulysses is a depressing impoverished book by a quirkily upstart Irish-Catholic Zola. I don't know if they could've produced a plot summary, but it would've supported their view: This is the worst day of the protagonists' lives, and there's no reason to think next week or year will get any better.

Whereas my Ulysses has been a reliable pick-me-up Wonderworker for 25 years.

What the book does is much stranger than what the book tells.

As we learn more bewilderingly more details about the characters and their context, the text we know them by becomes more bizarrely more distant. This long dolly-zoom effects a vertginous ambiguity of scale. The clowns swell to heroic, archetypal, even divine proportions: Aristophanes on Olympus.

We lose all sense of perspective. We might even come to believe that there was some innate possibility for beauty and joy in the mere inescapability of human limits and plasticity of human vision. Almost like we wouldn't mind being one ourselves.

Near as Human, as Theodore Sturgeon almost might've said.

Like the best science fiction, a genre developing at the same time under similar pressures, Joyce's writing refuses either to evade the real or to take it as a given. Unlike science fiction, Joyce keeps his fire scrupulously within the confines of the whale.

Finnegans Wake would be the sneeze.

Responses

The real is what the king's foot measures.

Except in the court of Charles II, when the yard was the measure of man.

David Auerbach writes:

So what is your take on Milly's presence in the book, in light of your tribute to her? I probably have tended to underestimate it in favor of Rudy, but despite the light presence she has in the later parts, maybe she does seed the way for Bloom's tentative recovery. And on the subject of the text/story relation, it certainly has an alienating/distancing effect; you say that the text becomes more distant, but leaving aside the mythological aspects, the struggle to assemble the many, many constituent pieces as forces of abstraction and prolixity (a la Stephen) weigh in against piddling detail after piddling detail (a la Bloom) takes on its own significance. For me, it provokes a more interventionist attitude of reading since I was considerably more aware of the process of triage and simple elision when reading the thing. Reaching something that seems like closure (even when its not) was like finishing some video game and seeing the 1 minute cartoon at the end, which would have held no significance whatsoever but for what you go through to get there. (Again, when I wonder about the flow from Bloom to Stephen, which is less clear than that from Stephen to Bloom, this seems to resonate.) But Ulysses has lots of short cartoons... Maybe the metaphor isn't exact, but I couldn't resist.

I'm uncertain about Milly's part in any recovery (particularly if Bloom unwittingly supplied the condom that'll deflower her), but Milly's absence from the book seems to me to play an essential role in Bloom's marital crisis and paternal peregrinations.

Speaking of Rudy, another reader traces another ghostly presence:

Joyce's not-yet institutionalized daughter standing in ahead of the crowd for Bloom's and for Stephen's mother. "...by algebra that Hamlet's grandson is Shakespeare's grandfather..." The eternal seen in pieces. A refusal to bend any knee in any direction, home or away; he says time is disjunct and reconfabulated, but we don't believe him; it makes the story more fun though, and increases the grandeur of its scope.

He's dead nuts on that. And the retrospective arrangement.

A few weeks later, David Auerbach adds to the matter of the condom:

I guess I'm not much of a Joyce scholar, but the supposed passage providing the "evidence" seems so obscure I can't believe anyone would claim to know for certain. On thinking about this bit this time, it actually doesn't seem quite so grim, that whatever debauchery she engages in, it's ultimately a sign of progression (relative to Gertie Macdowell) that she's grown up and has survived childhood and the Bloom family and is at least reasonably a success.

Insofar as Ulysses is a well-constructed realistic novel, skepticism wins out. But insofar as Ulysses is a self-conscious experiment in the limits of well-constructed realism, there's one solid argument for gullibility: It is a formal rule that no chance to misinterpret Bloom will be passed up. To invalidate Bloom's explanation for coming home so late, Molly plans tomorrow to see if he has that French letter still in his pocketbook; therefore Molly must discover it missing; therefore he must have donated it to young Bannon. Between twosofars I'm content to doubt.

I'm surer you're right that I wrote too glumly about Milly's prospects. Although her ending's iffy (which Joyce would hardly consider exceptional), Bloom has at least given her a happier starting point than any other young person in the novel.

. . .

"Critique & Proposals" by Chandler Davis

By far the best available introduction to the nonmathematical work of Chandler Davis is Josh Lukin's interview with him in Paradoxa 18. Among many enticing but unavailable texts, it mentions an informal piece of argumentation from 1949. Hearing of my curiosity, Dr. Lukin very kindly lent me a copy. And, hearing of my interest in sharing the work, Professor Davis very kindly lent me permission to publish it online. I thank them both.

You'll have your own reasons to find it interesting. Here are a few of mine:

Responses

Kip Manley notices:
You're back!

Which means I get to spend some time, at least, musing on how comics does something similar to SF (yet again)--

"From birth, science fiction has been defined (and bounded) by a community whose ambiguities of consumer, critic, and producer more resemble philosophical schools or high art movements than commercial publishing genres."

Though there's far more of a distrust of the critical enterprise in comics than in SF. --Artists, you know?

Anyway: there's as vibrant if more brief a history of APAs in comics, too. Scott McCloud lists his inventions in the field of comics, which include such notable creations as Five-Card Nancy and the 24-Hour Comic; he used to include the Frying Pan, a comics APA he founded back (I think) in the early '80s. But he doesn't anymore, because who knows from APAs?

I think he's still got them in a box somewhere in Thousand Oaks. At least I hope so: lots of comics history in there, in a raw, unfiltered form. But formalists are lousy packers, and they've moved a lot in the past few years.

I should feel ashamed that mere dayjob (backed up by a bit of illness and hardware trouble) kept me offline longer than a hurricane and homelessness have Tom Matrullo. But I'm too relieved to build up a good head of mea culpa.

Yes, the critical distinction is why I didn't mention comics myself. But it's true that American comics are another "commercial art" built on uneconomically passionate emulation and argument, with similar adolescent fans, similar reliance on self-publishing, and Dan Pussey as son of Jonathan Herovit. And I suppose one might make a case for some ambiguity even in the realm of criticism, albeit more among the pros than the fans or one could bring up the ambiguous role of the collector....

That ol' renegade Tom Parmenter is interested too, although I suspect he has stories of his own to tell. And I see that during my recent exile from good fellowship, The Mumpsimus appreciated Phil Klass.

The Happy Tutor reunifies compliment and complement.

David Auerbach returns, and very welcome he is, too:

I guess what I think of is how, with the regularly occurring exception (what comes to mind is that EC comics story where the astronaut takes off his helmet at the end and...he's black!!!) specifically designed to appeal to racial and cultural issues, science-fiction went for a casual universalism, at least in its "golden age." What I remember of reading old-style genre sf were characters with purposefully vague or unnatural names (Jermbo Xenthos, e.g.), which had little to no bearing on their position in the story. Since genre sf tended to revolve around the conceptualization of a single (usually recycled) idea, attendant aspects of character were incidental at best; I haven't read it in years, but I believe this even applies to the Asian protagonist of Delany's "Babel-17". Even something like Heinlein's racist "Fifth Column" is not "about" the race of its characters qua characters. The Asians might as well be aliens (and the story would have had slightly firmer scientific grounding if they had been).

With gender, it only partly applies. The same dichotomy--women are either indistinguishably "one of the guys" with their anatomy switched around, or else a brainless love interest whose role is determined wholly by their gender--usually applies, but the love interest is considerably more common and incidental because of the more common presence of a secondary love story. I remember thinking this when I read Asimov as a kid. It also seems that as male authors grow older, the ratio gradually tilts away from the former. I got more compelling portraits of, for instance, farmers (in Clifford Simak) and manic-depressives (in Theodore Sturgeon) from sf than I ever did of women or minorities.

This is evidently not what Davis wanted, as he says, but the failure of sf to meet his expectations seems more grounded in the agreed-upon restrictions of the genre rather than the failed imaginations of the authors. The generic restrictions of plot, character, and ideas would have made a socially progressive agenda stick out like a sore thumb. I always found "Stand on Zanzibar" very difficult to get through precisely because he approaches Davis's issues from the standpoint of problems to be solved through ideological architecture rather than areas meriting in-depth exploration. In the same way, you wouldn't go to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" for a revelation of the social relations of the immigrant community. They're just too goal-directed.

Chandler Davis himself provides some additional thoughts:

I think it's true that the spirit of our APAs lives on electronically, without the health effects of inhaling hektograph solvent. As to my then simplified spelling, if that doesn't live on I won't mourn it.

My post mortem on my essay of 55 years ago is just what I told you I thought it would be: it's not all just what I would say today, but it was worth saying.

I don't think I told Josh or you one of the striking responses to my essay. Isaac Asimov remarked that when he wanted to make his character Preem Palver as harmless as possible (so that it would be a surprise when he turned out to be the most powerful guy in the galaxy), he gave him the accent & mannerisms of his father, an East European Jewish immigrant. (Didn't call him Jewish, though, I guess.)

. . .

What I Learned from Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager

  1. I knew the fairy tales weren't Andersen's first publication. I'd somehow assumed, not really thinking about it, that he'd bummed along more clearly marked literary routes and got run off each by their rent-a-cops before being forced down this low-prestige path.

    He certainly started with a diet of humiliations. Crow for breakfast, crow for tea, crow for in-betweens. Maybe a few early worms in season, you know, while hunting crow.

    But in fact he didn't take the risk till he had something to lose. He waited till he had an internationally successful inspirational poem anyone can be inspired, the real money's in inspiringand an internationally successful mainstream inspirational novel before he started writing oblique colloquial self-defeating stories whose only excuse were they were for kids.

    And the critics disapproved right off. Waste of talent.

    "It is not meaningless convention that one does not put words together in print in the same disordered manner as one may do quite acceptably in oral speech."

    It's as if after winning the National Book Critics Circle Award Jonathan Lethem began scripting superhero comics. Or if after attaining some stability in academia, Samuel R. Delany started writing niche-market porn.

    The fucker had guts.

    "Of course I shan't enjoy the experience in this world."
  2. Andersen had to meet Dickens; Dickens had to meet Andersen. In the newspapers, they were twin urchins of different dead mothers. Smile on their lips, tear in their eye, lectures in their circuit, and the kids love 'em.

    The meeting was excruciating. Much worse than Proust meets Joyce. Neither Proust nor Joyce were clingers.

    Andersen was a poet who wanted to be a dancer; Dickens was a pro who wanted to be a pro. Andersen was sentimental; Dickens deployed sentiment. A Dickens reading was scripted; an Andersen reading was the original recreated. Andersen was a drama queeen spaz; Dickens was a charming smoothie. Andersen didn't realize how annoying he'd been till Dickens stopped answering his letters.

    You know who Andersen really should've met in England, though? John Keats. Keats was nine years older, but they were equally enthused by an ideal of aesthetic community, and when they found it gated, they shared public abuse for their pretensions and developed similarly perverse attempts at guardedness.

    The only hitch would be that Keats died age 25, and Andersen hit his stride age 30. But if Keats had lived to hit his own stride, and then lived a decade or two more, I bet they would've gotten along real good.

Responses

Kierkegaard got his start jumping on HC Andersen, and I can't find it on the web, but there's a marvellous grovelling letter extant from A to K thanking him for not attacking him as much as he might have or not attacking him in some later publication, I forget which. -- PF

"Grovelling" seems a little strong, if we're thinking about the same thing. Some years after Kierkegaard attacked his novel, when the younger man was a little better established, Andersen sent him a newly published volume of fairy tales with the note:

"Either you like my little ones Or you do not, but they come without Fear and Trembling, and that in itself is something."

Looking back at what I wrote, a couple of clarifications might be useful:

  • I at first avoided reading Wullschlager's book because the reviews and auxiliary journalism led me to think it committed the contemptible and common sin of contempt for its subject. Instead I found an intelligent and scrupulous biography which incorporated the best Andersen criticism I've seen.
  • Pretty much any characterization I've applied to Andersen might also apply to myself, aside from the ones relating to courage and genius.

* * *

A strong misweeding of Negative Capability Brown

Whether meant as brickbat or bouquet, I thank you.

Grovelling may have been strong, or I am misremembering completely - I do have in mind something like dear mr kierk thank you so much that my little thingums are not chewed up by you and spat out again that was so nice. I read it years ago of course and so can't quite remember right.

. . .

Do you think that you could make it with Frankenstein?

A question at the end of one of Jeff VanderMeer's recent posts has been nagging at me -- "Do writers of experimental fiction need to prove they can tell a good story before they start experimenting?"
- Mumpsimus

Conclusions elude us. It could be there are none to be drawn without distortion.

  1. The laws are ambiguous and the judges are prejudiced.

    Matthew Cheney and I both seek out the tang of the unexpected problem; we welcome obstacle. And so, faced with increased experimentation, we're likely to tilt our camera eye to make a narrative of progress where others may tilt a decline. Whenever Joyce published, he lost a former supporter. Gardner Dorzois, among others, regrets the "squandered promise" of Samuel R. Delany's maturity. And I'm sure there are some who wish M. John Harrison had never put Viriconium through its literary retcon.

  2. Outside a historical context, terms like "craft", "good story", and "experimental" are little more than Whiggish fertilizer.

    Nothing I've read in the past few years can compare with the experimentation of Tom Jones or Wurthering Heights, but we don't see Mark Amerika giving them props. Me, I don't think Beckett ever again wrote anything as brain-droppingly new as Watt; I think of his last thiry years as laying down a very good groove and think of John Barth's later career as safe shtick. Make Barth as hard to find as Barbara Comyns or Bob Brown and I'll reconsider.

  3. It's chancy to generalize about particularities.

    Was Orlando more or less experimental than To the Lighthouse? How about positioned between To the Lighthouse and The Waves?

    Flaubert started out with wildly uncontrolled blurts of fantasy. Were those stabs in the murk less or more experimental than Madame Bovary? Was Salammbo less experimental than The Temptation of St. Anthony? Bouvard & Pécuchet?

  4. What seems blandly normal or tediously artificial to the reader may have been a coltish celebration of new skills for the author.

    If Melville chafed against the limitations of the autobiographical sea story while writing Typee, it doesn't show. The sincerity of Modernist poets' juvenilia is hardly its besetting problem.

  5. In conscious transitions from "expected" to "peculiar", what matters may be the sheepskin, not the education.

    That is, the trigger is being granted permission to experiment, either from the publishing industry or oneself. If you write to make a living, there may not be much of a distinction. The Glass Key wouldn't have been Hammett's first publication, if only because he couldn't have afforded it.

    The most startling such transformation I've personally witnessed was at Clarion 1993, when a workshop member who'd slaved over unconvincing Analog filler realized that such an apprenticeship wasn't required, and suddenly began producing beautifully polished and balanced works of ambiguous speculation. (Like most good artists, he seems to have eventually decided that artmaking wasn't worth the effort, but that doesn't dim the thrill of witness.)

Responses

Discussion continues at Mumpsimus, at Reading Experience (with a clumsy, verbose response of my own), and at Splinters.

And does Dan Green's hospitality know no limits?— still more at the Reading Experience.

Update: Dan weeded and discarded his initial post in 2006. Here was my comment at the time:

I'm prone to note resemblances, which is fine, but then rhetoric sometimes tempts me to go too far. So I might talk about a "tradition" of presumptious lyric, and in that jumble together some unaristocratic Tudors, some Restoration satirists, Keats, the Objectivists, the New York School, and Language poets. I suppose somewhat the same impulse determines Oxonian anthologies and encourages such after-the-fact categories as film noir, nationalist canons across the world, and women's writing.

In your brief overview of "experimental writing," there's a temporal gap between "Tristam Shandy" and James Joyce's career. Do any books fit in there? I ask partly because I think I'd like them, and partly because explicit experimentation *as a tradition* would seem to require a firmly established norm, and I'm not sure when the particular narrative conventions being fought became firmly established, or how long it took before insurgent tactics became narrative conventions in their own right.

I also wonder about the conceptual gap between a single book and a career. "Tristram Shandy" stays just as wonderful but becomes slightly less startling positioned between the "Sermons of Mr. Yorick" and "A Sentimental Journey"; Sterne-as-career becomes slightly less startling positioned between the polyphonic digressions of sixteenth and seventeenth century English fiction and the sentimental, didactic, and political novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Even before an "oppositional" tactic becomes group property, it may be a personal habit. Is a writer who attempts something drastically new in each new publication only as "experimentalist" (to use Steve Mitchelmore's word) as a writer who challenges narrative convention the same way every time? (I'm not denigrating the latter, by the way; I believe in the power of the groove.)

Conversely, early Joyceans proved that it was easy to miss the formal ambitions of "Dubliners" and "Portrait" without "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" to foment suspicion. One might read "Moby Dick" as a (failed) conventional narrative, but can one say the same of "The Confidence Man"? 150 years after "Madame Bovary", we might take it as conventional, but I believe Kenner is right to draw Joyce's artistic ambitions directly from Flaubert: "A Simple Story" to "Dubliners", "Sentimental Education" to "Portrait", "Temptation of St. Anthony" to the later episodes of "Ulysses", "Bouvard and Pecuchet" to Leopold Bloom -- and, on a different trail, to Beckett's "Mercier and Camier".

And there's that final gap between the isolated heroic figures of the modern canon and a contemporary American school of writers who share some publishers, make livings in academia, and swap blurbs, bridged by the pulp-sprung and compulsive Burroughs.

Well, I'm afraid all this gap-minding sounds both more detached and more combative than my feelings justify. You yourself call it a "pragmatic" distinction. I suppose my uneasiness truly comes down to worrying just what use our pragmatisms get put to. Provisional categorization can work as a portal of discovery. (Jerome McGann's championing William Morris as the first Modernist is a delightful example of what can be done with hindsight genre.) But windows require walls, and human beings do seem to love their wall-building. Once we have our categories up, it may be hard see around them. If I'm not mistaken, a similar uneasiness stirred your "Don't Change" entry of September 22.

I suppose I sound as if I'm trying to eradicate distinctions, when what I'd like is to make them finer.

. . .

Affirmations

- in memoriam Karl Kraus, H. L. Mencken, Olive Moore
  1. Why I Read Such Benign Books: The single Nietzsche passage I think of most often is the one in which he's listened to Bizet's Carmen twenty times through and become a better person each time.
  2. Another reason: I believe Nietzsche's philosophical system was aphorism. Not his strategy, his system.
  3. There's no Sally Rand Truth to find behind the fans and bubbles. Take "fan" and "bubble" away, and away goes "Sally Rand", just as removal of "brick" and "jail" vanishes "kat".
  4. Before going to work, the aphorist pushes into long flopping shoes, and buttons, studs, ties, and cummberbunds into a monkey suit smelling of real monkey. The shoes expensively gleam and pinch; the suit is tailor-made. Still, the nature of the job is clear enough.
  5. Reading Heidegger on Nietzsche is like watching a snowed-in prospector twirl boiled bootlaces on a fork and chew and chew and chew and swallow them. Directed by G. W. Pabst, starring Gibson Gowland.
  6. Aphorists hate liberals for their earnest argument. Bible-thumpers hate liberals for their skepticism. But the enemy of the aphorist's enemy is not the aphorist's friend. The aphorist depends more directly on the existence of the comfortably tolerant than the bible-thumper depends on the existence of the heretic.
  7. Those who admire aphorists judge a tree by the tenacity of its branches. Wherefore by their thorns ye shall know them.
  8. I was too sickly to attend ag school, but I doubt you can sow fields with thorns.
  9. An aphorism is a scenic rest stop between an unsupported argument and an undesired consequence. On day trips, we wage slaves make it to the state park and turn back.

Responses

2. Only Nietzsche's? Or even moreso?

What strikes me is the blatancy with which Nietzsche's practice is ignored by his elucidators. But his work is hardly alone in that regard, you're right. Maybe if I started thinking of the process as something like Hollywood adaptations not pretending to get at any better understanding of the material, but at least publicizing it and occasionally providing entertainment of its own it wouldn't seem so odd to me....

they ALL ignore ALL the formally and methodologically and practically idiosyncratic writers' and thinkers' schticks. even when they don't ignore they don't ignore by writing monographs in which they don't ignore.

Whatever I'm selling, Turbulent Velvet's not buying.

And if you think he's wrong, look closer before you leave the shop. All aphorisms are nonrefundable.

Josh Lukin comments:

I always thought somebody must have been insisting on Nietzsche's system's aphoristicness for Thomas Mann to have worked so hard at challenging that view (in fifty years, people will be substituting "Wilde" and "Hitchens" for those names). Or am I missing your point?

And "Hollywood adaptation" criticism (beautiful analogy) can do a lot. Where would we be if Delany or Butler had understood Althusser correctly?

Plenty of unsystematic Nietzscheans and anti-Nietzscheans around, true. We aphorists don't pretend to novel insights, just to novel phrasings. My point or more accurately my initial motivation was to understand a certain shared limitation, or flaw, across a range of aphorists.

And of course I'm grateful to any scholar who will defend the use-value of misinterpretation.

. . .

Heathcliff, Come Home

(Written for The Valve)

I suppose many readers of The Valve eventually get around to The Yale Journal of Criticism on their own, but if un-lit blogs can point you to the New York Times front page, it must be OK for me to point you to "Petted Things" by Ivan Kreilkamp, starring the Brontë sisters as animal rights pioneers.

Kreilkamp's essay pleasingly draws from history, the authors themselves, and recent Derrida in the service of (to me) a novel, amusing, and evocative association of realism with anthropomorphism. The critic even shows good reason for having treated "the Brontës" as a group rather than as individual novelists.

Potential Disney adaptors of Jane Eyre should especially note the story of Clumsy, A Dog:

"Tell how he grows ugly in growing up;... Madam's disgust for him; the rebuffs he suffers.... Clumsy, for that is what she calls him now, banished to the yard; his degradation; detail his privations, the change in food and company."

Everyone else should especially note that Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog carries far more entertainment value than its equivalent in Lucas-movie-and-junk-food.

+ + +

Afterthought: The Brontës as potential writers of noble-dog stories reminds me of one of my own favorite alternate-literary-history scenarios: What if, rather than giving up their shared fantasy worlds, the Brontë sisters had successfully brought their mature styles and concerns into Gondal and Angria, weirdly anticipating Joanna Russ's Alyx, M. John Harrison's ret-conning of Viriconium, Samuel R. Delany's Nevèrÿon...?

Pointless, I know, but at least it's a break from imagining the rest of Emma.

. . .

Occasioned

(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.

. . .

Addenda

I'm very pleased to announce a new (and nomenclaturally significant) addition to our Bellona Times Repress: a short biography of Samuel R. Delany by his pseudonymous third-person researcher, K. Leslie Steiner. My thanks go to Josh Lukin for bringing the document to my attention, and to Delany for permission to post it.

Elsewhere, the never-out-of-style Lisa Maira brings news of cultural rebirth:

The web is cool again. The orginal Mr. Edible Starchy Tuber Head is back.

That eminent researcher, writer, and producer Chris Albertson handles intros for the Boy! What a Girl combo:

Cast includes musicians Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis (tenor sax), Beryl Booker (piano), John Collins (guitar), and John Simmons (bass).

Responses

Renfrew Q. Hobblewort, a man either of or four or thirty-four days ahead of his time, wishes us all:

Happy 40th anniversary of the Velvets' Summit High debut gig! - RQH

Isn't it nice? We're number one and so forth.

Speaking of mysteries, another reader has reviewed the entirety of our web-published career and sums it up like so:

murderer

We regret any inconvenience.


2005-11-21 - Another piece of Delany history just went up: his 1967 radio drama, The Star-Pit. Enjoy!

. . .

A Generic Response

At The Valve
"It is worth adding a few notes about how early modern critics thought about genre. Most importantly, they defined many kinds at least partially by their forms, but their dominant tendency was to define kinds by their social functions."
- Matt Greenfield

That still sounds right. Genre is what we call it when function is perceived to delimit or prompt form. The difficulty is that functions vary over time while texts stay set.

Since literary scholars by definition have greater access to texts than to writers, editors, publishers, or audiences, some confusion is inevitable. I've heard academic responses to genre range from puzzled to puzzling to apalling. (English department head to Samuel R. Delany: "I don't read that science fiction shit.")

But the problems can be worked against. In a less moribund genre, the scholar can actually seek out its social context, at the risk of being absorbed.

Even in historic genres, it's possible to make a conscious effort to switch imaginative contexts. I'm guessing that's what Matt wants to do with his class. Along those lines, I liked Fowler's book more than I expected. Genre markers are (sometimes unintended) signals to a community. Spotting the markers isn't enough to tell us what they're doing there. Fowler seemed to get that.

A more recent good example is Richard A. McCabe's "Annotating Anonymity" in Ma(r)king the Text. Rather than just describing the archaisms and explanatory apparatus of The Shepheardes Calendar as pastoral conventions, McCabe shows how they took advantage of (and sometimes had to work against) the specific model of Servius's Virgil commentaries.

I'm now finishing Memory in Oral Traditions by David C. Rubin.1 (Thank you, forgotten person who recommended it to me.) Rubin explains certain generic conventions of epic, ballad, and counting-out rhymes as directly molded by the mechanisms of multi-generational verbal transmission, and backs it up with evidence.

On a more negative note, Franco Moretti's "Graphs" and "Trees" are strictly parasitic on texts which he keeps strictly at arm's length. Not what I'd call a healthy relationship. More successful 2 interdisciplinary materialist approaches go beyond the confines of the English department. And although the nora project limits itself to textual analysis, it's with the reasonable aim of noticing textual aspects missed by received opinion.

Books don't compete with each other in a closed bibliosphere. Popularity and genre are social, not strictly textual. They can only be understood by looking outside a text itself. And when you do so, I think you find something more like chaos theory than like biological evolution.


1.

Although Rubin acknowledges that his book's body can get a bit dull and repetitive, he has a winning way with an endnote. Here's my favorite from Chapter 9: "The one inconsistency in order indicates that the pattern was not always followed. It is not an error in the epic. The claim of a fixed-order script is mine, not the poets'."

2.

"More successful" by my lights, that is; obviously not more successful in terms of public attention.

. . .

Nothing Personal, 4a

John Rastell reminds me that alienation and appropriation are near-synonyms:

Alienation, is as much to say, as to make a thing an other mans, to alter or put the possession of lande or other thinge from one man to another.
- An Exposition of Certaine Difficult and Obscure Wordes and Termes
of the Lawes of this Realme
, 1579

Alice Notley reminds herself of one occasion and me of another.

Once, in London, I got so tired on
New Year's Eve, Chip Delany cooked
the leg of lamb for me, & still I
got so tired I was just me
now in America no matter
what. And Chip said, So
what? If your friends are
heroes, then of course the
years aren't. America
is where the Block is but we don't
care so we just live there, because
that's where they get to have us,
us heroes of the non-book part
So Bless your heart & try to
get into the book too, if you
want to.

(This is the middle stanza of five. I wish I felt comfortable quoting them all. They're nicely linked, and the end of the last one would strengthen the illusion that I know what I'm talking about. But the collection is readily available, and she's fucking lazy unskilled and deserves your money.)

Responses

Josh comments:

As the years go by, I get less and less excited by the fact that America is where Block is: the only work of his that I return to is that song on Dave Van Ronk's second album.

. . .

Flaming while Rome fiddles

The hardest and most important lesson I learned early in online life was to walk away from a fight after I'd had my say. It's the interpersonal equivalent of "Just pay the five dollars, George."

Or maybe of "I been thrown outa sweller joints than this." No need to scrawl toilet stalls with the Troll of Sorrow so long as Mr. Waggish or Dr. Lukin remain willing to call me on BS. To use the elegant formula which first crystallized at age nineteen, "Why am I standing here arguing with this shmuck about Dhalgren when I could be back at college getting laid?"

Oh, I remain thin-skinned, quick-tempered, and gullible, and so I can still forget that lesson when anxious and exhausted, just like I might forget to use a knife and fork when I'm very hungry, except scarfing hurts less in the aftermath; yes, even if a cayenned finger wanders to my eye it pains me less. There's less collateral damage, for one thing.

As for needing to set the record straight, the record's advice is unambiguous: Forget it. If history teaches us anything, it's that historians will treat us like dirt. A subject who attempts to stage-manage his reputation is handled with special contempt by biographers. (Who then mail scathing corrections to the biography's bad reviews.) Stopping first is not an admission of defeat: it's an admission of maturity.

Responses

I for one was arguing with schmucks about Delany when you were in short pants. And your spelling of "collateral" is as loose as your logic.

... or my short pants, for that matter. Anyhow, thanks for the spellcheck!

If you're trying to get the last word, you're too busy to get the last laugh.
It
Oh

. . .

Personal

We wake from a dream to enter, clearly, a daydream.
- Nick Piombino, 1980, as reprinted In the American Tree

I balked a bit at that last, writing about something I don't particularly understand or want to research for the sake of readers who don't particularly care. I've never acted suave with a fake ID I forget what my last name's supposed to be, all that.... So it's not by chance that I opened by asking you for correction and closed by advising you not to argue with a fool, or that mid-balk I went priggish over expertise, or that I began it around the anniversary of my resignation from the Valve.

Or that I've been thinking of Nick Piombino, who wrote discursive lyric prose decades before blogs provided a medium, who avoids fruitless debate, and who, I suspect, has sometimes been prompted towards more recognizably generic approaches.

Or that I've been reading his book, and noticing how easily this peculiar form moves between paper and browser, so that I can desire both the bound Eeksy-Peeksy and the re-clicked-through fait accompli with no hunger pangs, just a drowsy anticipation of surplus.

Or that I've been looking through my own notebooks, which, like Nick, I've mixed in promiscuously from the start, albeit without dates, not having noted them in the first place, and thinking I've prompted myself too far from those impulses, and it's time to renew promiscuity. How did Delany put it? "On the smell of old effort, new effort bloomed"?

Responses

Nick Piombino provides relevant contradicta and a gawjuss re-selection from In the American Tree.

. . .

Cholly on Software : The Signifying Code Monkey

There are benefits non-financial, obviously to working for an institution of higher education. But in a 27-year career I remember only four people with whom I couldn't establish some sort of working relationship, and I met three of them after leaving what's oddly called "private industry." Similarly, two of the three pieces I've regretted publishing were written within the context of a (mostly) academic website. Maybe it's true that there's something peculiarly toxic about this environment? Or maybe this particular pachyderm happens to find my own blend of tones and pheromones peculiarly noxious? For whatever reason, I've spent a painful number of turns playing the wrong side of Whac-a-Mole.

Responses

Josh Lukin suggests another hypothesis:

The experiences you had in a milieu different from "private industry" occurred, as you note with your "after", at a time (in your life and that of our society) different from the era when you worked in that industry. That's not an insignificant parameter.

It occurred to me that I might have gotten crankier with age. But given the crankiness of my youth, that's hard to credit. What with one damned thing after another, though, you're right that I might be a bit clingier these days, a bit less likely to exit-stage-left at the earliest possible cue, and therefore a bit more handy for thumping.

Josh follows up:

Note the "that of our society": I wasn't so much focusing on (or at least, I wasn't only addressing) the "crankier with age" possibility. Maybe people are meaner. I just read a blog comment from a guy who left the U.S. in 1998 and says that every time he comes back to visit, he sees more anger. Scheler said ressentiment is greatest in societies that make false promises of equality (he was arguing in favor of feudal attitudes, I think, but still . . . )

Mr. Waggish kindly writes:

I think you said it yourself already. Academia tolerates and even fosters antisocial behavior in various forms, while the private sector is much more strict in its codes of behavior hewing to some practical norm. Coders who work in academic nonprofits tend to be those who were "too weird" for industry, by their own account. Much of this may have to do with the ultimate bottom line of the holy dollar asserting itself far more incessantly in the private sector. (The exceptions like Bell Labs, which also attracted the types of people you simply could not deal with, have gone under precisely because they would rather spend their time perfecting an IETF RFC than writing server monitoring scripts in Python or (god forbid) Perl. So given an insufferable, ambitious, and/or dogmatic person, that person will either have the good fortune to rise to a management position in the private sector that he (occasionally she, mostly he) will then use to attempt to realize his treasured, pure vision of paradise, and fail repeatedly; OR, that person will be thrown aside by the capitalist machinery and will seek refuge in locations where the almighty dollar holds less immediate sway. See Albert O. Hirschmann's "The Passions and the Interests" for what I genuinely believe is the dynamic at work.

And adds:

I see what you were talking about as an extension of this Delany letter you quoted long ago.

Hmm. Now that, I don't see. Maybe it's because all four of my impossible-relationships were with men, and fairly stereotypical men at that?

. . .

If on a springtime's blog a blatherer...

I've been thinking about two types of metafiction, or at least metafictional moments: the type we're all too familiar with in recent years, where the metafiction is the point, and the (what to call it?) target fiction is in its service, and another more common, more exhilarating type (as I have come to think), where metafictional moments are actually in service of the story itself....
- balaustion

As Balaustion's examples suggest, there is a history, a lifespan, to apparently unmediated narrative or lyric. Thackerey and Trollope notoriously lack that goal, Byron (and then Pushkin) contested its triumph, and by the time we reach Bouvard & Pécuchet and Huysmans it's devouring itself. The perplexing disruptions of Ulysses simmered down into a signature sauce for Beckett and O'Brien, and then dessicated into spice jars for postmodern fabulism and swingin'-sixties movies. If Nabokov is a chess problem and Perec is a jigsaw puzzle, John Barth and Robert Coover are search-a-word.

Even more specifically, the desire for unmediated narrative is linked to genre Mark Twain and William Dean Howells were contemporaries, after all and therefore self-congratulatory metafictionality is also linked to genre. When, back in 1976 or so, I sought goods fresher than those provisioned by the oxymoronic experimental mainstream, I found them labeled as science fiction or fantasy. And they included a generally more relaxed use of metafictionality. Not Dick, of course; Dick is Barth haloed by sweat-drops. But Disch and Russ in the 1970s, and then in the 1980s and so on M. John Harrison and Fowler and Emshwiller and Womack and so on.

What I really wanted to blather about, though, was a rare third type of metafiction, neither the recircling of an already-overworked puzzle, nor the matter-of-fact surfacing of one discursive mode in a cove of splishy-splashy discourse, but instead doing something an emotionally engaged and affectively effective metafictionality. I likely first encountered that possibility in Warner Bros. cartoons and Hans Christian Andersen. But a lot of Updike passed under the bridge before I reached Delany's Dhalgren: a unique three-decker in which every tool of realistic fiction attempts to portray structuralism from within. It's like Zola as Fabulist, or Sergei Bondarchuk's seven-hour adaptation of an original story by Frank Tashlin. And about fifteen years later, Crowley's Engine Summer delivered a similarly visceral charge by embodying romantic loss in a closed roman.

Responses

Josh Lukin differs:

Honestly, I think the sweaty Barth is Gaiman. Dick is, I dunno, Philip Rieff with a Crawdaddy subscription? Tough one.

And I think Gaiman is Mary-and-Charles-Lamb-going-to-a-Police-concert, so go figure.

. . .

W. lived in a small ugly city whose night life was distinguished by the emptying of a nearby insane asylum. He prepared cuisine classique a few times a year but otherwise subsisted on fast food followed by scotch and a cigar. Once, when I'd been totting up the come-hithers and stay-thences of a mutual friend, W. told me, "Just fuck her." It remains the only time I've heard the word hissed.

My problem was lack of faith, W. told me in spring of 1991. I still thought I might find a way to be happier. I had not fully learned my place. We are miserable and meant to be, said W.

We stopped speaking after I moved to California. It was one of those close friendships which last only until someone does something.

Like that of Hester Lynch Thrale and Frances Burney: my fellow blitherer Thrale, raised as a child star and hoping to raise child stars, very much the little boy's dog sitting up and begging to divert a company, compulsively open and rawly needy, trapped in a world without Facebook

and Burney, a born writer: the "little dolt" of the family, slow to speak, slow to read, kept at home; flattened between the good-cop of her conniving father and bad-cop of her bristling stepmother; shy, prudish refusing to open anything titled Les liaisons dangereuses, dropping Werther when she discerned its "evident tendency," shuddering at the touch of her disgraced stepsister clueless and scarily observant:

He was frightened out of his Wits, at me, he said, lest he should do any thing improper! [...] This always much vexes me, but I know not how to conquer so unfair a prejudice, while I never can get sight of these folks, except through an opera-Glass!—In which way they most assiduously view me in return, whenever I am in Mrs. Fitzgerald's Box.

In 1781 Thrale predicted "we will be Friends these forty Years." In retrospect they look doomed from the start (but what doesn't?). Freed from a loveless marriage which had surrounded her with loveless children, facing the first mutual attraction of her life, Thrale very naturally threw herself in, even if poor Signor Piozzi might as well have been Mount Stromboli so far as friends, family, and press were concerned.

Burney's disapproval did more harm to herself than to its target. Hester Lynch Thrale had been her closest female friend and her first female mentor. Samuel Crisp, her emotional support since childhood, died the year before Mrs. Thrale's re-marriage; Samuel Johnson died five months after. Aside from an increasingly preoccupied sister, Burney was left only the ultra-respectable role model of her post-Cecilia acquaintance Mary Delany. Through her, and to the gratification of her father's snobbery, Burney was locked into the anti-intellectual isolation ward of George III's court for six years. When Burney made her own completely unsuitable marriage to a penniless Catholic, Mrs. Thrale was a decade in the past.

What interests me most about the story, though, isn't in the story. It's in the way the story's source material stays not-a-story. The living friendship was face-to-face; we can't share its excitement or comfort. But Thraliana and Burney's letters convey its death more vividly than any novel or biography could: a slog through hints, asides, petty annoyances and vehement pledges, apologies and ambiguous backchat and tiresome melodrama and well-meant betrayals and unexplained gaps, and a trailing train of increasingly relaxed wish-her-wells...

In the presence of a narrator, that sort of pacing would seem undisciplined and pointlessly arbitrary. Endurance tests like La maman et la putain come close, but the experience is best communicated through remnants of the process itself.

. . .

Realism : An Anthology

An appeal to an artwork's realism, its roots in reality, is an appeal not to its accuracy at registering facts but to the depth of its claim upon us. The claim is not, 'this is the real world', but rather, 'this is your world'.
- Josh Kortbein, josh blog

Career tip: flatter your readers by telling them they're "made of stories".

Some days I wake up sick to death of language.

As for fiction.

99.999999% of the "conversation" is rhetoric so bad you don't know whether to choke or laugh.

You look around in despair for some state that doesn't include the use of language.

"Made of stories." Bland, meaningless crap.

Noncommunicative actions, impossible to to turn into language & thus not subject to constant mild but slimy abuse. Where are they?

- M. John Harrison, Twitter

“Oh, I’ve said, ‘You can't describe it. You'd have to be there.’ But that’s my first wife telling her mother-in-law about the time we went to Persia. And that isn’t what I mean.”

Kid smiled back and wished he hadn’t.

It isn’t his moon I distrust so much, he thought, as it is that first wife in Persia.

- Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

Responses

That last can do double duty as our review of Gravity (2013).

 

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.