. . . Hans Christian Andersen

. . .

A Ticket to Copenhagen

From Hans Christian Andersen's "The Millenium" (1853):

They will come on wings of steam, the young citizens of America will fly through the air, across the great ocean, to visit old Europe....

"There's so much to see in Europe," the young Americans will say. "And we have seen it all in a week, just as the famous guidebook promised we could. Then they will discuss the author of the book which they all will have read: Europe Seen in Seven Days.

. . .

Physics assures us that if the artist is to produce a viable artifact distinct from the artist, external assistance is required. Such supplements of idiot intention we call "the Muses." (Or, equivalently, "radio transmissions from Mars.")

They're often at odds with dignity as well as conscious intent: Van Morrison's dour Ulster affect 1 jerked down hill and up alley by the loping Irish wolfhound of his vocal impulse; Zukofsky backed into La Parfumerie's stacked display of zebra-fragrance by the words, the words, the tintinnabulation that so Tin-Pan-Alley blurts from the words, words, words, words, words, words, words.

Sometimes the top of the head comes off; sometimes the trousers fall down. What inclines the individual toward one startle effect over another?

1. A countryman, rustic, or peasant.
  1563 BALDWIN Mirr. Mag., Rivers xliv, The cloyne contented can not be With any state.

    b. Implying ignorance, crassness, or rude manners: A mere rustic, a boor.
  1848 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. I. 320 Language..such as we should now expect to hear only from the most ignorant clowns.

I've written before about the class lines obscured under the Modernist blanket. "Modernism" was a defense of endangered privilege, but "Modernism" was also an attempt to prove that one could fit into an imagined meritocracy, that one was more than one's slum.

Although I wouldn't claim that the aesthetic is atemporal, by definition it's antitemporal. Attempting to confine such a formulation to a particular range of "modernist" years will make it squirt out between one's fingers and all over one's nice dress shirt. Class trauma had something to do with Joyce's move from solemn epiphany to sarcastic sentiment, yes, but it also helps explain Hans Christian Andersen's risky move from hifalutin novels to the ecstatically naked resentment and shame of his fairy tales. And Jerome McGann argues that John Keats 2 anticipated Frank O'Hara's insolent mingling of low and high diction.

As for "Postmodernism," it's not like verse regained its eighteenth-century position in the cultural mainstream after World War II ended. If you want to be a contemporary countertenor, you'd better have a sense of humor about it.

(Not that I've ever met a countertenor who did.)

1 My favorite example of Muse as obnoxious practical joker isn't anything from Hopkins or Zukofsky, but fireplug Van Morrison advising his "Ballerina" to "fly it; sigh it; come on and diet."
2 In Yeats's indelibly cruel description, "the coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper" "with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window."

. . .

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.


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.

. . .


(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.

. . .


(Also at The Valve)

Variations on a theme by Amardeep Singh

I have always liked Andersen's fairy tale of the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Fundamentally, it is the symbol of my life.
- Thomas Mann to Agnes Meyer
At that moment one of the little boys picked up the soldier and tossed him right into the stove, giving no explanation at all. The troll in the box was most certainly to blame.

The tin soldier stood there, brightly lit, and felt a terrible heat, but whether it was from the actual fire or from love, he didn't know. The paint had worn right off him, but whether this happened on his journey or from sorrow, no one could say.

- Hans Christian Andersen
Every day you see his army march down the street,
Changing guards at the High Road.
He's a tin soldier man
Living in his little tin wonderland,
Very happy little tin soldier man
When you set him on your knee.

In Singh's account, a feminist critic of Toy Story would be pleased that a girl owns toys. A less sanguinely imagined feminist would also note the toys' rigid gender segregation, with girls relegated to support and nagging while character development, plot points, and boffos go to the boys. Another viewer might be nettled by the contrast between a story which merged handmade family toys with imported plastics and a production which contributed to the replacement of hand-drawn original characters with celebrity-voiced 3-D models. Or by the movie's recycling in more concentrated form an earlier era's conformist fantasies, newly trademarking someone else's nostalgia to push "like momma used to buy" security. And leave us let aside those misguided children who for some reason lack access to such lovably life-fulfilling objects....

I believe these reactions to the Toy Story movies are possible since, alongside cheerier reactions, I felt them all myself. And, as with Amardeep's reactions, I think they all suggest stories about criticism. He's struck (or stuck) a rich vein here as Hans Christian Andersen did when he first made the fairy tale a vehicle for meta-fiction.

* * *

"The Steadfast Tin Soldier" isn't an example of Andersen's meta-fictions. (I've made a long list of them and I just checked: "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" isn't on it.) But as the ur-text of Toy Story 1 and 2, it might have something to offer meta-criticism. Let's see!

This particular tin soldier "the one who turned out to be remarkable" is disabled a birth defect left him only one leg and immobile. While the other toys gain autonomy and "play" (that is, squabble, jostle, chafe, bully, whine, and put on airs), the tin soldier stays resolutely toylike, moved only by outside forces.

But his immobility has nothing to do with his disability; on the contrary, it's his claim to mastery: No matter what threatens him, no matter who attracts him, no matter how it might benefit him to bend or speak up, he remains "steadfast", silent, at attention until the end, of course, when we find what stuff he's made of.

The troll-in-the-snuff-box curses the soldier for the fixity of his male gaze, its object an immobile paper ballerina en pointe. Misled by his unvaried point of view, he believes her also one-legged, and therefore a suitable match. He learns his mistake only a moment before one of the children decides to put away childish things with a vengeance.

* * *

I don't know how other folks take the "station" in "Playstation". I'm a Navy brat, so I assume it refers to a tour of duty something you're assigned to live through, pleasant or not.

For me, not; maturing seemed a continuous trading up. (Until I got to backaches and ear hair, anyway.)

But then my version of maturity like yours is a bit peculiar.

* * *

Advertising supports and depends on reader identification. This story is your story; this story is brought to you by this product; this product produces your story.

Our story, ours right here, is a story of salvation-through-consumption. No matter how we put it to ourselves, literary readers' status as consumers seems clear enough to publishers and copyright hoarders. What makes us niche consumers is our attachment to kid's stuff stuff we refuse to throw away despite its blatant obsolescence.

For most non-academics, including a number of English majors I've met, all literature is children's literature. Prepubescents get Gulliver's Travels, adolescents get Moby Dick, and college freshmen might be served an indigestible bit of Henry James. Once normal people have a job, they never again bother with such things until they have children of their own. Even if they patiently crate, uncrate, and re-shelve their T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson volumes over the decades, they won't place Amazon orders for A Hundredth Sundrie Flowers or Best American Poetry 2004.

(Which is why "fair use" nowadays tends to get narrowly defined as educational use. No normal adult would want access to a 1930s novel or magazine or song or movie for its own sake.)

In such a world, disputes between proponents of "realistic" and "experimental" fiction seem as absurd as a Federation-outfitted Trekkie snubbing a Dark Shadows fan for his fangs. Grown-ups know the real battles are between the Red Sox and the Yankees or the Christians and Satan, and know the only stories worth reading are True-Life Adventures of themselves. To the vast majority of Americans, all of us here are only marginally distinguishable from the arrested development cases depicted by Chris Ware or Barry Malzberg.

I carry some of their skepticism. It was bred into me, like my bad teeth and whiskey craving. I wince at a poem demanding that this war be stopped right now!, or at a blurb like "You can't spell 'Marxist' without Matrix", or at the ALSC Forum's complaint that community college composition classes stint the Homeric epic, and it's the same wince I made at Ware's "Keeping Occupied" column:

A lonely youth in eastern Nebraska came up with the idea of drawing circuit chips and machine parts on squares of paper and affixing them to his skin with celluloid tape. Hidden beneath his socks and shirt sleeves, these surprising superhuman additions would be just the things he needed to gain respect and awe while changing clothes amongst his peers before gym class.
- Acme Novelty Library. Winter, 1994-1995. Number Four, Volume Three.

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 5

And on a bright fall Saturday there we all were, sipping coffee, bitching under our collective breath, and ready to be indoctrinated in the company's much-vaunted QCEL managerial philosophy Quality, Creativity, Ethics and Leadership.... Several hundred phuds, most in the engineering and science fields and some with international reputations, marched through "creativity" sessions in which a trainer with a master's degree in creativity (no shit) inculcated them in the beauty of "convergent and divergent thinking." Or in which they were asked to work in teams to create that "best" paper airplane (i.e., Quality through teamwork, teamwork through Leadership). Or in which they were instructed in the importance of sound (business) ethics without being asked to consider (e.g.) the ethical impact of divorcing ethics from more bracing issues of morality or politics.
- Joe Amato, "Technical Ex-Communication"

Most people would probably agree that ethical judgments should take actions into account, and few witnesses mistake the actions of writing and reading. Mixing them sacrifices any chance to distinguish good-guy contextual "ethics" from bad-guy universalizing "morality": an artwork can be condemned as equally immoral in deed and in effect, but an artwork can only be referred to as unethical in its making. To say that an act of embezzling is unethical is to say "In these circumstances, you shouldn't have embezzled"; if after seeing a movie, I unethically embezzle, the shame is wholly mine. To say that a movie is unethical is not to say "I shouldn't have watched that movie" but "You shouldn't have made or distributed that movie." And it's hard to picture a good humble Derridean saying such a thing.

So why have we seen such consistent fusing of the two roles?

It could that a mere reader, listener, or viewer who sought to promote mere reading or listening or viewing as a powerfully "ethical" practice might sound a bit swell-headed. Replacing the finished artifact with a personal name allows for a narrative of continuous directed action "Ethical Joyce" and "Ethical James" rather than "Ethical Chants de Maldoror" or "Ethical 'Rape of the Lock.'" And replacing the audience with the artist downplays the none-too-heroic security of transient consumption in favor of drive and risk.

Despite its suspicious convenience, though, I doubt this superimposition was instigated by the ethical turn. It's more likely a matter of habit. Purely formal analysis is generally confined to the workshop; insofar as criticism is a conversation held outside the realm of practice, it includes ethical suppositions, judgments, and re-enactments, and "ethical criticism" so defined would include most of my own scroungy corpus, including the dump around us. ("Bless my soul! I've been writing ethical criticism for over forty years without knowing it, and I'm ever so grateful to you for teaching me that.")

This doesn't mean that artists ignore form or that our critical inventions are always supported by evidence. As we've mentioned before, very few writers or directors or musicians under oath would describe anything resembling the intentions we ascribe to "the author." No, it merely means that justification depends on the vocabulary of intent. I am (it seems to me) fully capable of feeling satisfaction, delight, sorrow, or disgust as self-sufficient experiences. But when my reactions are challenged by a skeptic, I grasp for and wield the intentions and effects of imagined creators, the intentions and effects of an imagined audience, my own intended effects....

* * *

Such analyses (except, of course, done much, much better) would find their proper home in an ethics of literary criticism.

In the stack of books and journals that fed this essay, my most pleasant surprise was "Jazz Improvisation and Ethical Interaction: A Sketch of the Connections" by philosopher-musician Garry Hagberg. Hagberg describes his experience of behaviors encouraged and discouraged within collaborative jazz performance, and then goes on to acknowledge some widely held ethical guidelines which do not apply in this particular sphere.

Pieces similar to Hagberg's could be written about any collaborative venture: migrant farming, garbage collection, a political campaign, whale hunting, a meal, a ballgame, a fuck, an execution. Each area of human endeavor holds characteristic blind spots and expectations. Studying its ethics isn't a matter of proving how much better it is than alternative endeavors but of understanding how it works.

Collaborative jazz performance is one fairly clearly delineated subcategory of artistic production. Is there anything that can be said about the ethics of artistic consumption, or of literature, in general?

As a self-described aesthete, I must suppose so. But after setting my blur-filter to maximum, I see only a message of gray relativism. Social context swamps all:

And so I immediately felt sympathetic to Derrida's appropriation of Levinas. No aesthete could hear a hail-alterity-well-met without thinking of our own oh-so-flexible oh-so-fascinatingly-varied pseudo-relations to artifacts.

But recognition is not identity wasn't that the point? and artifacts are not friends, family, tribe, or strangers: I may pointedly ignore a book for years at a time, lend it out, or hurl it across the room without damaging our relationship in the least. A proven utility of representation is to distance oneself from the thing represented. Last year around this time, the Panglossian researchers at OnFiction summarized and spun some other relevant results:

Djikic et al. (2009a) asked people to read either a Chekhov short story, or a version of the story in a non-fiction format, which was the same length, the same reading difficulty, and just as interesting. Readers of Chekhov's story (as compared with the version in non-fiction format) experienced changes in personality. These changes were small, and in different directions, particular to each reader. In a companion study, Djikic et al. (2009b) found that people who routinely avoid emotions in ordinary life experienced larger emotion changes as a result of reading the Chekhov story than those who did not usually avoid their emotions. We interpret these studies as indicating that fiction can be an occasion for transforming the self, albeit in small ways, and can also be a way of reaching those who tend to cut themselves off from their emotions.

Alternatively, it can be a way to help us continue cutting ourselves off from our emotions: I might prefer reading fiction and poetry and watching films to reading newspapers and watching TV because the former applies a cool damp cloth along my forehead while the latter makes me flush and sputter. It's been posited that sleep evolved as a way to keep mammals out of trouble, and art may anti-serve similar non-ends. The primal proponent of aestheticism in the Victorian imagination was "Mr. Rose," a bugaboo of harmlessness.

To cite a social practice treated with similar piety by practitioners, it's been shown that pet owning can teach responsibility, provide a safe route for caring impulses, and reduce loneliness. Nevertheless, maintaining six yapping dogs or twenty yowling cats has proven no guarantor of fairness, empathy, or even politeness towards members of our own species.


2017-08-15: Seven years later, my irresponsibility still shocks Josh Lukin:

Hey, I spent a lot of time teaching how Ursula and Ted and Octavia warned about the evils of empathy, and now you tell me (to say nothing of Paul Bloom) that it's neutral? It feels like I've been told that Jeff Sessions is a bold opponent of white supremac . . . oh. Oh dear.

Creators are always gonna outpace critics, but at least I got in my two cents before Bloom got in the New Yorker. (Isn't attacking empathy at TED carrying climate disaster to Newcastle?)

We* spend so much time rebutting prima facie nonsensical claims such as "Attention to literature makes you a better person" or "A text's meaning is its writer's intention" or "All grass is green," and we're left to hope that in the course of buttressing such theses as "omgno" we've illuminated some interesting connections or experiences, and that something more may come of this masquerade.

*"And how are we feeling today?"

. . .

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.


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.

. . .


(Attention Conservation Notice: As previously confessed, this three-plus-part series is a grossly distended remake of a more reasonably proportioned essay from 2013.
Some people claim Peli Grietzer's to blame, but I know it's my own damn fault.)

3. Adaptive Manifold Learning

I sometimes feel as if I've never had a single relatable experience. Like, whenever I try to tell a story, it degenerates into a series of explanations and everyone gets this face like they're doing math.

With apologies aforethought

Being the product of a body embedded in history, my writing frequently passes through drizzles of autobiographical asides or illustrative anecdotes. But attempting to narrate "personal life" tout court calls on an internal voice I trust considerably less far than I can throw it. I'm not fond of memoir as a genre, I think "creative nonfiction" was just a way for academic-workshop fiction to become more formulaic, and I'm not so crazy about myself either.1

Moreover, my story-as-told-by is even drabber than existence-as-lived-by: my memory maintains a spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child bias, and my greatest pleasures have been literally unspeakable. Even after trimming to what's most germane to this topic, reserving other polyps of sad-sackery for use in other cans of dogfood, the prospect remains unappetizing.

The last vivid image I retain from my father's deathbed is his reflexive wince-and-glare as I tried to reassure him. I sometimes see that expression of pained disgust on my brother's face, and I sometimes feel it on my own. Much of this draft seems to beg for the editorial query "Well, boo fucking hoo."

Still, meat was promised, and if you're willing, I guess I am. Take a an oxygenated breath from Charles Kerns's posts now and then, though.

1  "A souse divided cannot stand himself." - G. W. T. F. Hegel, attrib.

1959 1964

(After all, the word "infant" means, literally, "unable to speak," and as my efforts to describe them reveal, experiences of love and art are also intrinsically nonverbal.)
- Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began by Ellen Dissanayake 1

This here particular scrap of meat was a mistake incurrable only before abortion became legal and prolongable only after doctors could prescribe effective antibiotics. (One of which permanently darkened my teeth, but hey, you win some you lose some.)

My brother might disagree, but I believe our adoptive parents genuinely (if standoffishly) cared for us. Unlike some of my sissy peers, I wasn't shipped to military school or routinely beaten at home: our mother was too clueless for homophobic panic, and our father was basically a tolerant sort. Aided by progressive taxation, they kept us fed, clothed, sheltered, doctored, and schooled; they bought Christmas and birthday presents after consulting our obsessively curated wishlists.

But despite the lengthy and thoroughly conscious labor required to adopt, neither had much feel for parenthood.

Mom came from a large rural family low on sentimentality and high on feuds. In a movie she would have played the vain sister, unwilling to do chores and coming to an instructively unpleasant end after some terrible romantic decisions. In life, after a failed marriage or two, she escaped to the Navy.

Dad's father died or disappeared early on; his "mother" (or possibly his aunt, it's all very Southern Gothic) was a vicious tobaccy-spitting bible-thumping racist; his stepfather was a physically abusive drunk. Dad ran away several times, dropped out of high school, joined a street gang, and finally lied about his age to enlist.

The Navy was good for both of them, but its training didn't include childcare. They were able to hold things together so long as I remained in the company of books and tolerant adults. Once I was forced to associate with other children, my poor brother first and foremost, they (and we) were quickly swept out of their depth.

Kindergarten was so disastrous as to call for public intervention. Nowadays such a disruptive five-year-old might be arrested or drugged or both. Instead, Mrs. Nickerson, the first of many female saviors, diagnosed my severe myopia and suggested an IQ test.

1  Not sure what to make of this, but I'll note that Dissanayake's "rhythm" and "mode" sound a lot like Grietzer's "groove" and "vibe."

Sit Down

Behind things
or in front of them,
always a goddamn
adamant number stands

up and shouts,
I’m here, I’m here!
— Sit down.

- Hello: A Journal,
February 29–May 3, 1976

by Robert Creeley

The Navy trained my father as an electronics technician and deployed him accordingly: Adak on his own; then, with us, Karamürsel, Bremerhaven, sunny Guantanamo Bay, and, on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, Northwest Radio Station. A few years before my birth, Dad was on one of the many teams tracking Sputnik's progress and wondering what the hell the Russians were up to this time.

By scaring the bejezus out of everyone, Sputnik successfully initiated what may have been the least anti-intellectual period in American history. Well done, Commies! In 1964, New York City public schools had just decided to drop IQ testing, but interest continued to run high elsewhere. (And in some sad circles of Hell apparently still does.)

I've never felt like reexamining those early tests, but I take for granted that their makers wouldn't get far comparing five-year-olds on their retention of trivia from AP History or Chemistry. Instead, the "general" aptitude being measured likely coincided with my little pony's forever one-and-only trick.

Besides exaggerating the importance of my signature cognitive strength, such a test would tend to miss my signature cognitive weakness: a near pathological aversion to habituation. Before a single onion is chopped, I'll have veered from sous-chef to Norman Bates; language drills induce increasingly bizarre variations in grammar and vocabulary; any daily exercise regimen will be interrupted by prostration of one sort or another....

To compensate I interject consciousness; what would normally become near-autonomous actions must be continuously re-invented if they're to be kept in place. Hooky phrases fill my noggin with lint and clothe my discourse in flannel, but more "arbitrary" symbols companions' names, historical dates, distances and measurements, the Java runtime library simply vanish because I have no way to reconstruct them from scratch.

By Taylorist notions of efficiency, I'm not so much an Optimizing Function as sand in the gears. And so, once again, the Navy got ripped off.

But back in 1964 neither it nor I had an inkling of all this. For myself, the testing and follow-up discussions and tasks simply kept me happier than I'd been for several years. Reasonable arguments! Interesting conversations! With a lady! What sport!

The one frustration in these prized outings, the one game in which I felt the familiar shadow of a trouncing, was mathematics. The abstraction of quantity, OK; addition, multiplication, exponents, sure. But I sat slack-jawed before the Pythagorean theorem, unable to learn the trick no matter how often I requested a replay. Fractions were a mean-spirited practical joke and the irrationals?

Between intuitive verbal logic and unfathomable geometry was a gulf I couldn't imagine crossing.

[Once we give up] the myth according to which certainty relies only on sequence matching and formal induction, then any work based on the ordered structure of numbers, on the geometric judgment lying at the core of mathematics, can go smoothly. Incompleteness shows that this judgment is elementary (it cannot be further reduced), but it is still a (very) complex judgment. [...] A mathematician understands and communicates to the student what the continuum is by gesture, since behind the gesture both share this ancient act of life experience: the eye saccade, the movement of the hand. [...] What is lacking in formal mechanisms, or in other words their provable incompleteness, is a consequence of this hand gesture which structures space and measures time by using well order. This gesture originates and fixes in action the linguistic construction of mathematics, indeed deduction, and completes its signification.
- Mathematics & the Natural Sciences by Giuseppe Longo & Daniel Bailey

Or, as revealed to a brat more precocious than myself:

Eternity was not an infinitely great quantity that was worn down, but eternity was succession.

Then Joana suddenly understood that the utmost beauty was to be found in succession, that movement explained form it was so high and pure to cry: movement explains form! and pain was also to be found in succession because the body was slower than the movement of uninterrupted continuity.

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector,
translated by Alison Entrekin

1964 1969

And this speech the goddesses first of all spoke to me
The Olympian Muses, daughters of Aegis-bearing Zeus:
"Shepherds of the field, base, shameful things, mere bellies:
We know how to speak many falsehoods which are like verities,
And we know, whenever we wish, how to utter truths."
- Theogony by Hesiod, as translated by Shaul Tor
in Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology

A book is a projection of higher-dimensional structures onto a three-dimensional sheaf of two-dimensional planes. A handily compact thing, but decompressing that projection requires some sense of those higher dimensions.

I spontaneously began to read at age three. Unlike many hyperlexics, I also seem to have been an early talker; like most, however, I was comfortable with a certain level of incomprehension, and that level increased after I learned that the very best people were expected to speed-read.1

Like Mowgli was raised by wolves, like Estella was raised by Miss Havisham, I was raised by books. Being a Dickens character, Miss Havisham stays reliably on model; say what you want about wolfishness, at least it's an ethos. The intention of books en masse is harder to read. Sometimes I'd be convicted for not living up to the instructions laid out by Dennis the Menace 2 or Boy's Life or Robert Heinlein; other times for failing the tests of Hans Christian Andersen or Madeline L'Engle or Lloyd Alexander. And if I was so smart, why wasn't I solving crimes? Or the Four-Color Theorem? Or finding some way to not get beaten up all the time?

Why, the Bible alone provided an inexhaustible spring of fresh accusations. Should all else succeed, I could always be convicted of pride, that most pernicious of weeds.

If Doctor Aquinas had treated me to his Explanation of Everything, I would have made fine priesthood fodder. If I'd been raised Calvinist, I could at least be certain of my fate. As was well, consider Nietzsche's normative:

The spirit's power to appropriate the foreign stands revealed in its inclination to assimilate the new to the old, to simplify the manifold, and to overlook or repulse whatever is totally contradictory just as it involuntarily emphasizes certain feature and lines in what is foreign, in every piece of the "external world," retouching and falsifying the whole to suit itself. Its intent in all this is to incorporate new "experiences," to file new things in old files growth, in a word or, more precisely, the feeling of growth, the feeling of increased power.

An apparently opposite drive serves this same will: a sudden erupting decision in favor of ignorance, of deliberate exclusion, a shutting of one's windows....

[It is explicitly no coincidence that placed immediately after this are several sections devoted to misogyny.]

- Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche,
translated Walter Kaufmann

Disgraceful though that sounds, what would the alternative look like? Whatever you choose to call it, "the feeling of growth, the feeling of increased power" would not be prominent features. Presuming the coherence of my authorities, "studying them as if cramming for a test on how to be the most lovable child in the world," I diagnosed incoherence in myself, and prescribed the traditional course of repentance and purgation, followed by inevitable backslide.

1  My tolerance for incomprehension decreased during puberty's Great Slow-Down, and finally became a strategically managed resource, enabling straight-through structural runthroughs to support "real" re-readings.

Peanuts provided the relief of confirmation but lacked attainable role models. Isaac Asimov's Susan Calvin was attractively relatable but the relation I desired was not precisely identity.

Although this art of logic has manifold utility, still, if one is learned only in it, and ignorant of aught else, he is actually retarded, rather than helped to progress in philosophy, since he becomes a victim of verbosity and overconfidence. By itself, logic is practically useless. Only when it is associated with other studies does logic shine, and then by a virtue that is communicated by them. Considerable indulgence should, however, be shown to the young, in whom verbosity should be temporarily tolerated, so that they may thus acquire an abundance of eloquence.
- "Chapter 28. How logic should be employed"
from The Metalogicon of John of Salisbury

When caged with my brother, I bullied him without mercy and he just as mercilessly tormented me. When alone with my mother, she'd ask advice on clothes, finances, and reading,1 which was pleasant if sometimes a bit nervous-making. My father preferred to note my frauds and outrage my primness, although once, after one of Mom's elaborately sadistic jokes pitched my anxiety to the point of boycotting my own seventh-birthday party, he entered our bedroom, removed his belt, and announced, "I know you're smarter than me, but" (a hot roar flooded my ears) that's not true!
how had I broken so much?

In classrooms, I strove to reach my imagined potential until halted by overreach and collapse, a cycle which helped convince my parents to keep me on the standard academic track rather than pushing graduation forward a few years. (Given how weirdly underaged I looked, this may have been the healthiest course available at the time. When I consider high school, though, I'm tempted to second-guess.) And I remained "bad at math," which is to say better than average but not ridiculously better than average. Not a good look for a Young Scientist, and at odds with my enthusiasm for puzzle collections, One Two Three... Infinity, and Martin Gardner's columns.

From kindergarten through elementary school, fear and loathing occupied waking hours at school, home, and "playing outside" (i.e., evading my peers), and my sleep was broken by guilt-laden nightmares (I fail to save my family from fire, flood, famine, or freezing; I fail to save my family from a volcano; I fail to save my family from The Bomb). Yet life in the lap o' luxury was not complete misery.

In television-free Bremerhaven especially, the dark brown cobblestones and dark green foliage soothed eyes and mind, as did my father's copies of Playboy (watercolor cartoons! ladies with fascinatingly varied interests!). And there were Saturday movie serials, my favorites being the circus melodramas (ladies in tights! horses!), and matinees, my favorites being the colonialist/wildlife adventures (elephants! but not enough ladies 2). One morning I opened our door and faced a precisely vertical wall of snow stretching far above my head; I was equally awestruck by the orchestra and lit scrims on my class's field trip to the opera house, and by the forest where my Cub Scout troop camped until I was demobbed by mumps, painfully reminding me (and my weary parents) of the strep throat which had curtailed the family's attempt to visit Istanbul.

More reliably, in Germany, in Cuba, and then in Virginia, there was the comfort of books books were fine; I was a mess but books were fine from the library, of course, and from our monthly trip to the dump (where with luck I might garner a textbook reeking of garbage-smoke), and within strict limits the twice-yearly-authorized Scholastic sale (soon replaced by careful gaming of the Science Fiction Book Club's loss-leaders, followed in my teens by gaming of the Book of the Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club).

Just as reliably but less explicably, there was, serially, one adult friend. By some mechanism which remains mysterious to me, the universe contrived that on each military base there reside one bookish, pleasantly disputatious Navy Wife who would be willing to host a peculiar little boy and converse for hours. Did my parents post a classified ad? Did there just happen to be that many bookish Navy Wives starved for company?

Aside from incidental bits of knowledge, these dates taught me:

  1. Social interactions could provide something better than terror, hatred, or intense boredom.
  2. Much as dodgeball justified terror and hatred or card games justified intense boredom, books could serve to justify these better interactions.
  3. Intelligent, interesting, and trustworthy people were most likely to be female. (I presumed, based on the evidence of author names, that some worthwhile men or, to be slightly less snotty, men who seemed worth emulating must exist somewhere, but it wasn't until age seventeen and a brief audience with pixilated Wilson "Bob" Tucker that I encountered one.)

The most ardent and formative of these friendships was the first, with Mrs.— I remember her eyes and her smile (and her relentlessly friendly Siamese cat) but her name I've lost... Mrs. Kubelik? Or am I thinking of Shirley MacLaine? Mrs. K (to give her for the nonce her new misnomer) collected and lent paperbacks of science fiction and pop-science (on which ground we met), and also parapsychology, reincarnation, astrology, and UFOlogy, on which ground we debated.

I took Con, under the unwieldy banner of rationalism, scientific positivism, religious orthodoxy (insofar as the military's deistic Protestantism could sustain such a concept), law-and-order, and patriotic tolerance: Truth, Justice, & the American Way. Although I hadn't checked those terms for completeness and consistency, they carried a full load of conviction, in both senses of the word.

1  This stopped at age ten after she asked whether Portnoy's Complaint was worthwhile and, based on reviews, I said "Sure."

2  At age twelve, this long-standing debt would be settled with interest by the miraculously not-for-mature-audiences-only rating granted Walkabout.

Elevenses : 1970 1973

JOHN FREEMAN: Can I take you back to your own childhood? Do you remember the occasion when you first felt consciousness of your own individual self?

CARL JUNG: That was in my eleventh year. There I suddenly, on my way to school, I stepped out of a mist. It was just as if I had been in a mist, walking in a mist, and then I stepped out of it and then I knew, I am. I am what I am. And then I thought, But what have I been before? And then I found that I had been in a mist, not knowing to differentiate myself from things. I was just one thing among many things.

- Face to Face, BBC, 1959

After seven years overseas, in 1970 we left Gitmo and landed stateside. Virginian high spring was so verdant my eyes watered.

One day that summer, doing nothing much, probably while sitting on the porch of our base housing, I felt something happen to me, in me, between me and not-me. My surroundings suddenly (it was quite sudden) snapped into focus and into depth, and I awoke, as if all I'd known until then had been a twilit coma and I'd become fully conscious. There was no other immediate revelation: only the pure sensation itself. And then I started to move and perceive.

Very slowly over the next few years I came to understand that my spirit's nosebleeds and broken toes and assflops weren't exclusively the product of clumsiness that I'd sometimes been walking into plate-glass windows or funhouse mirrors or at any rate prison walls not strictly of my own making.1

For example, it seemed as if I might not be the only sinner so tainted as to be shunned by the Voice of God. To an alarming extent, what most adults and children professed was faith in hearsay rather than replicated experiment. Even more alarmingly, few of them felt shunned. (Ten years later, the personal touch of Jayzus would become epidemic among my people. We were better off with hearsay.)

Somewhere in there I also began to notice that the demand for truth was asymmetrical: it could be safely made by those in power but not safely reciprocated by the powerless. Which seemed, against my grain, to lend the powerless (my brother, for example; or myself, as I ventured into less approved adolescent waters) some strictly limited moral justification to prevaricate.2

Somewhere in there I also became obsessed with mid-century American depressive celebrity-wits Oscar Levant, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber...— my introduction to our native species of Romantic Irony.3 "Teacher's Pet," Thurber's clumsy thrash against a riptide of resentful self-loathing, pushed Shock of Recognition into Sublimity of Terror. It didn't cure anything, but it surely counted as a treatment.

Somewhere in there I also learned why reading Playboy interfered with urination.

I entered sixth grade that fall. Because the Chesapeake public school was much larger than overseas base schools, or maybe because my cohort was older, for the first time I made some (three, to be precise) friends my own age. Bullying maintained its accustomed level but at least there was someone with whom to play chess and commiserate.

Also that fall, the local library received Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, placing me in an awkward position. An Asimov completist, I'd easily downed the big-gulps of his Guide to the Bible as a summit meeting between authoritative voices. But in conversations with teachers, librarians, and Navy Wives, I'd already staked a claim that Asimov was indubitably better than Shakespeare insofar as Shakespeare had small physics and less biochemistry. Asimov's introductory tribute clarified nothing. The Little Leather Library's Tempest and Midsummer Night's Dream had always baffled me. Where was the appeal?

I used King John as the test case (why King John? beats me; I don't think my presumed bastardy played a part), refusing to move past it until I cracked the secret. And after increasingly brake-pumped re-readings, I more or less did. It turns out (stop me if you've heard this already) that patterns of sound and mouth-feel are more than disposable cartons of discovery; as portals they could be revisited, and replenish with fresh discovery.4 Moreover, this seemingly crazy, previously unsuspected reading technique could open other closed volumes, particularly volumes of poetry, and support thrift by extending their lifespans.

Also that fall, Miz Johnson made me good at math. She was the sort of teacher who transforms lives (and I do not fucking want to hear a whisper about Jean Brodie): charismatic, clear-sighted, articulate, and inexhaustible, at least by us. After a few observant weeks, Miz Johnson shifted me and one of my friends to a far back corner of the room, gave us new textbooks which included some basic proofs, and somehow contrived to guide us through high school algebra while simultaneously managing the rest of the sixth-grade class.

In the vocabulary favored by this current narrative, she demonstrated how one might approach mathematics as the exchange and extension of abstract verbal models of social reality. I was enthralled; I was absorbed. I was triumphant.

For example, if one be bird-witted, that is, easily distracted and unable to keep his attention as long as he should, Mathematics provides a remedy; for in them if the mind be caught away but a moment, the demonstration has to be commenced anew.
- The Advancement of Learning by Francis Bacon

Later that year, Miz Johnson improvised an equally powerful lesson in American political science when some kid's remark triggered an account of her path to the front of our classroom: the bribes, threats, and extortionate debts her grandparents and parents faced to retain a bit of land and a restaurant business; the extended family's decades of extended labor, waking when farmers did and reaching bed when bars closed; how their place became favored by the white elite at the cost of shucking and jiving and, when all else failed, a nails-spitting grovel only partly repaid by petty revenge served hot from the kitchen all to grant her and her siblings a chance to work their asses off with at least a shred of dignity.5

Seventh grade brought a follow-up lesson when one of my three friends announced he could no longer associate with us: accused of acting white, he needed to spend time with his own people. Another one, my fellow algebra student, the smallest and most eccentric of us when I first watched Rebel Without a Cause, Sal Mineo brought him to mind vanished between semesters; military school, I heard.

By eighth grade I'd negotiated a truce with base-housing bullies through neighborhood football: although I couldn't pass or receive, and never learned the rules, I made a fearlessly tenacious tackle. Harassment stayed the norm among my academic cohort but paused for a daily bus ride to high school, where I took trig and sub-pre-introductory French. In English class I had my first lesson in writing down to an audience; in social studies, I discussed McCarthyism with my equally-Republican teacher, eventually retaining respect for him but not for the Republicans.

Then my father retired from the Navy and decided to move us to my mother's home town, Braymer, Missouri, population 880, SAAH-LUTE!

1  It would take a few more years and a few ruined friendships for me to further understand that my prison staff shouldn't prop rifles beside them on their commute or bring their truncheons to the dinner table.

2  Which didn't train me to tell convincing lies any more than recognizing the moral justifiability of surgery made me a competent surgeon: I've only gone unbusted when functionaries lacked incentive to press the issue. Another reason to keep me out of your revolutionary cell.

3  In maturity I came to prefer the more abstractly lyrical defeatism of Robert Benchley.

4  From last night's insomniac reading:

Schopenhauer employs the laterna magica as a metaphor [...]:

“We can know everything only successively, and are conscious of only one thing at a time.... In this our thinking consciousness is like a magic lantern, in the focus of which only one picture can appear at a time.”

[...] Proust’s famous discussion of the metaphor in Le Temps retrouvé may be read as an answer to this contention. This passage on metaphors starts with the sentence, “Une heure n’est pas qu’une heure” [An hour is not merely an hour]. Genetic research shows that originally this sentence was slightly different: “Une lueur [shine, light] n’est pas qu’une lueur”, which is more than merely a textual curiosity since the form of time is compared to the projection of a magic lantern. This minor, yet remarkable, change illustrates how the internal rhymes analyzed by Jean Milly and Adam Piette not only figure within one version, but also between versions, so that they serve as a reminder that it is not so much the projected image that interested Marcel Proust, but rather the act of development. [...] In this Cahier 57, the paragraph ends as follows:

“Truth can be attained only when the writer takes two different objects, states the connection between them, and encloses them indestructibly in an indestructible link [lien], an alliance of words. The connection may be of little interest, the objects mediocre, the style bad, but as long as that is missing, there is nothing [rien].”

- Textual awareness: a genetic study of late manuscripts by Joyce, Proust, and Mann
by Dirk Van Hulle

(Earlier that evening I had read some similarly illustrative Swinburne, but Swinburne may be an embarrassment of portals.)

5  The US Navy was unforgivably late, even if relatively early, to re-integrate during the long death of Jim Crow, but enforced such a don't-ask-don't-tell approach that until we came stateside I truly believed such distinctions had been erased. Along similar lines, although my family had Jewish friends and I was deeply impressed by their reverence toward the Book, it wasn't until I was in college that my mother discovered that Judaism was not, technically speaking, a Christian sect.


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.