|. . . Hans Christian Andersen|
|. . . 2000-10-28|
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.
|. . . 2003-09-22|
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?
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."|
|. . . 2004-09-22|
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 inspiring—and 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."
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:
* * *
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.
|. . . 2005-06-16|
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,) ...
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.
|. . . 2005-10-07|
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.
Every day you see his army march down the street,
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.
|. . . 2010-01-17|
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.
|. . . 2012-05-06|
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....
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.
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.