pseudopodium
. . . Henry Adams

. . .

Oh great (by way of Robot Wisdom). I just recently got over the appearance about five years ago of a "historical novel but it's really the truth, it's just that I don't want to be bothered with proving any of my ridiculous delusions" dedicated to the theory that Henry Adams killed his wife, Clover Hooper Adams, during her oh-so-convenient suicidal depression. And now there's another one, this time dedicated to the theory that Charlotte Brontë was a criminal mastermind who successfully poisoned Emily Brontë, Anne Brontë, and Branwell Brontë, only to be poisoned in turn by her new husband.

Probably because Charlotte Brontë revealed herself in her writing (unlike Emily Brontë) with a singularly honest viciousness (unlike Anne Brontë), she's often been targeted by simpleminded vulgarizers. In Hollywood's Devotion, Charlotte the flighty fluffy flirt (!) was contrasted unfavorably to the Sensible Sister, Emily (!), played sensibly well by Ida Lupino. In her group biography of the Brontë family, Juliet Barker almost managed to obscure the wonderful thoroughness of her research by the equally wonderful anti-Charlotte chip on her shoulder, going so far as to bury pro-Charlotte evidence in the footnotes.

Was Charlotte Brontë a nice person? She'd be the first to describe in exacting detail why she wasn't. On the other hand, it's hard to find any contemporary reactions worse than bemused acknowledgment that she was too hard on others and still harder on herself.

I don't know who makes a sillier murderer, Charlotte Brontë, whose most unlikable trait was her stranglehold on moral superiority, or husband Whatsisname, whose only noticeable humor was phlegm. I do know that the silliest aspect of the whole business is the BBC reporter's swallowing this Yorkshire pudding whole. Let it be a warning to all of us: self-knowledge is a dangerous thing, at least when combined with self-expression.

. . .

Start to Shine for Thirty-Nine

"It was time to go. The three friends had begun life together; and the last of the three had no motive, -- no attraction -- to carry it on after the others had gone. Education had ended for all three, and only beyond some remoter horizon could its values be fixed or renewed. Perhaps some day -- say 1938, their centenary, -- they might be allowed to return together for a holiday, to see the mistakes of their own lives made clear in the light of the mistakes of their successors; and perhaps then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder."
- "Nunc Age (1905)", The Education of Henry Adams

. . .

Everything I need to know about American politics I learned from Henry Adams.

His History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison diagrams the first of our country's Jimmy-Carter-to-Ronald-Reagan drunken staggers with "How Things Don't Work" clarity. His novels, Education, and letters provide a lifetime's course on the place of the intellectual in American government (somewhere behind the croquet mallets in the back of the garage).

And so, in big election years, I turn to Henry Adams for guidance:

"Everything here creaks and groans like a heavy old Dutch man-of-war in bad weather. Congress is floundering over necessary business and inventing all kinds of excuses for steering nowhere. The single great and controlling political fact is our national prosperity which is stupendous, and covers all waste of force....

I have noticed a general law that our entire political system breaks down in the winter before a general election. The moment a course is adopted, the terrors begin and the votes fall off. The politicians are fleas; they jump just because they are made that way....

The Democrats are clutching frantically for an issue. The Republicans are crawling on all fours for votes. [For Year 2000 conditions, reverse the parties.] The Germans rule the Republicans; the Irish rule the Democrats; and money is the ruler of us all. I see no public measure to care about. There is no real difference of opinion. But they have to talk."

-- Henry Adams, letters from February and March 1900

. . .

Continuing his series of commentaries on Election Year '00, here's Henry Adams with some thoughts about the Microsoft antitrust trial:

"The merits or demerits of the particular interest, -- what Roosevelt calls the good and bad trusts, -- concern particular districts or individuals; but this personal question surrenders the principle; nor can I see, as our society has now fixed itself, any loop-hole of escape. The suggestion that these great corporate organisms, which now perform all the vital functions of our social life, should behave themselves decently, gives away our contention that they have no right to exist. Nor am I prepared to admit that more decency can be attained through a legislature made up of similar people exercising similar illegal powers.

"As long as these people subject me, as person and property, to the arbitrary brutalities of the Custom House Jews in order to make money for private individuals in business, I shall be perfectly willing -- nay! I shall be singularly pleased,-- to see you Spokaners skinned by Jim Hill. None of you dare touch the essential facts. The whole fabric of our society will go to wreck if we really lay hands of reform on our rotten institutions. From top to bottom the whole system is a fraud,-- all of us know it, laborers and capitalists alike,-- and all of us are consenting parties to it.

"All we can hope to do is to teach men manners in wielding power, and I'll bet you ten to one, on the Day of Judgment, that we shall fail."

-- Henry Adams to his brother, September 1900

(Like most turn-of-the-last-century well-to-do non-Jewish Anglo-American intellectuals, Adams uses "Jew" as the catch-all term for anything that he doesn't like about big business, small business, middle European immigrants, bad taste, or urban life. I've never seen him use it to refer to religious practice.)

. . .

Frances Farmer Action Figure

"The gentleman reader cannot fairly be expected to work up a professional interest in a woman who picked up threads and ate them." -- newspaper review of The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
Well, that's obviously changed. The Shutter of Snow must be the twentieth-or-so "woman goes crazy but eventually gets out of the institution" novel I've read. Which is the kind of number I'd a priori only expect from plotlines like "boy gets girl" or "detective solves mystery."

Let's take it for granted that insanity is interesting. Why the gender gap, then? Why the Padded Ceiling?

One obvious reason is that well-educated women are (still) more likely to be institutionalized than well-educated men. As the old formula goes, women are institutionalized, poor men are jailed, and the rest of us pretty much do what we want.

Another (not necessarily unrelated) reason is that story-consumers and story-makers prefer that protagonists who show weakness be female. And going crazy and recovering are both pretty obvious signs of weakness. When I was trying to write fiction about loonies I've known, most of whom have been male, I felt immense internal pressure to turn them into female characters instead. (Like, try imagining Repulsion with a male protagonist. No, I mean it: try. It's good for you.) The standard storylines tell us that women go into institutions because they go crazy and men go into institutions because they're rebels. Women get better and men keep insisting they were right. (Sylvia Plath vs. Ezra Pound; The Shutter of Snow vs. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest....) Men-going-under stories tend to be about addiction rather than madness: appetite, not fragility.

But there's another reason for the twentieth century having produced so many of these stories: the number of untold and unrecoverable stories left over from the nineteenth.

"My mom says that when she was growing up in New Zealand in the Fifties, there were three career options for women: emigrate, become an airline stewardess, or go crazy." -- Juliet Clark
Take out emigration and airlines, and you're left with the options for the nineteenth-century Anglo-American upper class. In feminist-backlash post-abolitionist late-1800s America, good girls had achieved Stendhal's proto-feminist dream: women were being educated but only so that they might be fitter companions to educated men. In the post-feminist era, it wouldn't be tasteful to try to be anything else. A nice New England woman in politics? Laughable. In literature? In art? Etc.
"Any woman learning Greek must buy fashionable dresses." -- Henry Adams regarding his wife, Clover Hooper Adams
The Civil War, with its bandage-making and fund-raising, was the high water mark of usefulness for the Adams/James generation of American women. Afterwards, if you were lucky, you could have children till you died in childbirth. If you weren't lucky, you either (like Alice James) shrunk into a mockingly dense point of invalidism or you found yourself over an abyss.
"We are working very hard, but it is all for ourselves." -- Clover Hooper Adams
An abyss-swimming man might clutch for a job; a woman could only be headed for the bin. And in the nineteenth century they tended not to come back out.
"I shall proclaim that any one who spends her life as an appendage to five cushions and three shawls is justified in committing the sloppiest kind of suicide at a moment's notice." -- Alice James
As a girl, Clover Hooper swapped dark comparisons of the hospitals that swallowed up her female relatives and friends:
"I wish it might have been Worcester instead of Somerville which is such a smelly hideous place."
As an adult, after almost a year of depression, she poisoned herself with her own photo-developing chemicals rather than face institutionalization.
"Ellen I'm not real -- Oh make me real -- you are all of you real!" -- Clover Hooper Adams to her sister, a few months before her death
A hundred years' worth of vanished victims seems to call for at least fifty years' worth of survivor testimony: It is possible to come out of the bin; it is possible to describe it....

Of course, the downside of so much survivor testimony is that the survivors are likely to get fetishized. And then a demand naturally develops, and the supply of survivors has to be periodically replenished....

Step Inside

. . .

In (guarded) praise of irony

A couple months back, a reviewer of that Dave Eggers book wrote something about how she'd never seen such emotional material treated ironically.

That's very sad (sad ha-ha, not sad strange), because the only possible excuse for irony is emotion, and too much of it. "The world is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel"; and irony's all that's been left to the softhearted analytical human being since Socrates at the latest. That's why stupid irony is exactly the same thing as unfeeling irony.

:) I regretfully admit that there's plenty of stupid irony around these days, probably because irony is the easiest thing to fake, its "Oh, I didn't really mean that" an easy refuge for the cowardly fool.

But beware, brother, beware: to don a suit of armor when you're just planning to wash dishes or go shopping is to invite great expense. If not injury. If not both (e.g., "Seinfeld"). Use only as a last resort; believe me, you'll get to the last resort soon enough.

I also admit that at first (or at disgusted and exhausted) glance, irony seems utterly antithetical to art ("art" being best described as "No, I meant to do that").

The trick is to stand firmly behind your transparently hollow words and (except of course when evading legal action) cheerfully admit to fully believing each and every empty idiocy you've recorded.

If you can call that a trick.

For those who have been made self-conscious of hubris in the mere act of expression, irony is pert near unavoidable. Thus, most of the women writers on my shelves are masters of the form in all its moods, from Behn and Austen through Bowles and Barnes to Russ and Fowler, criminy, Brontë & Brontë & Brontë & Olive Moore & Patricia Highsmith & Flannery O'Connor & Edith Wharton, it gets kind of creepy, doesn't it? Thus also the tactic's popularity with such resigned-to-failure types as Stendhal and Flaubert, Romantic rapscallions like Byron and Pushkin, and most sane twenty-somethings.

Here, for example, we actually witness the most beautiful of Nature's tender miracles, the birth of an ironist:

"It is wonderful -- stupendous to consider, how a man who in his own mind is cool, witty, unaffected and high-toned, will disgust and mortify himself by every word he utters or act he does, when he steps out of his skin defenses." -- Henry Adams, age 25
So don't let anyone tell you that irony isn't hip anymore. It's as hip as it ever was.

. . .

And as still more encouragement to the Future Scholars of America: There's something left undone about this compare-and-contrast of Thelonious Monk and Henry Adams (for instance, comparisons and contrasts), but it's nice to see some acknowledgment of the place of ironic distance in the "popular arts" and in instrumental music....

. . .

"a specialized shop, department of a store, etc., usu. catering to fashionable clients"

On Best Behavior Pamphleteer Juliet Clark writes:

Re the Salon.com Guide to Feeling Hip Because You've Heard of John Updike:

I'd like to point out that Eggers misspelled "aficionado," and the copyeditor didn't catch it.

I think your copyediting/programming analogy is apt in a lot of ways. In fact the whole Salon Guide reminds me to a painful degree of startup culture: young people who won't be young much longer demanding to be taken seriously for not being serious; seeking the Big Time while clinging to a fantasy of countercultural identity; using strained irony, self-created urgency, and an excess of spin to mask a fundamental laziness.

All I can suggest is that you sell your author copy and use the money to buy a good book. Wouldn't that be, like, "ironic"?

And David Auerbach weighs in more fatalistically:
I do think that the Salon guide fills a void. We currently have no one to tell us which of the many, many idiomatically similar novels are the real thing and which are the product of overheated middle-class ramblings. The academics can't be bothered with it, since they're too busy keeping their own little flame alive. People like Lewis Lapham hate it all, and people like Michiko Kakutani are either indiscriminate (if you agree with them more often than not) or too harsh (vice versa), and they lack consensus-building skills. The remainder of the book-reviewing populace don't have enough credibility to be reliable. So I think contemporary mainstream book reviews, if there's a strong enough drive to hold people's interest, will go the way of movie reviews and devolve into capsule reviews, top ten lists, and "personality-based" reviewers. I don't think I can blame anyone for this process; it just happens when the collective standards of the producers and the consumers are low enough that the work being produced becomes undifferentiated.

Consequently, tho, Carol Emshwiller will certainly be ignored, and even someone like Disch, who has needed to work his material into ostensible potboilers for the last 20 years. There is a need for something of a unified conception, and Carol Emshwiller may as well be Les Blank for all they care. (Which might make Michael Brodsky Kenneth Anger.) There definitely is a "celebration of shared limited knowledge", but who were the Salon editors to deny those who looked towards them for guidance?

Oh, I don't really blame the Salon editors; I imagine it's pretty hard to resist the temptation to milk the cash cow when it's looking up at you with those big brown eyes. I just wish I hadn't seen the result. And I probably wouldn't have if the usual uncentrifugeable muddle of curiosity, vanity, and sense of responsibility hadn't talked me into becoming a contributor.... Being a critic, of course, although I blame myself, I attack them.

If Auerbach's right about the editors' ambitions, the match was doomed a priori, since I'm even less of a consensus-builder than Michiko Kakutani. (Case in point: For the last twenty years every single time I've tried to read the NYTBR I've ended up throwing it across the room, and so I didn't even recognize her name.) When it comes to art, I don't see that consensus is necessary, or even desirable. That's probably what attracts me to the subject: I wouldn't be so exclusively an aesthete if I were a more enthusiastic politician.

One clarification / pettifoggery as regards "personality-based" reviewing: It's true that I believe a critic can only speak as an individual, and that criticism is most useful when individual works receive close attention as individual works. That means that I consider generalities issued from a presumed position of consensus to be bad criticism. It doesn't mean that I consider class-clown-ism a guarantee of good criticism. In my Salon.com tantrum I emphasized voice because voice was being emphasized by the book's publicity and reviews, but what really set me off was the 400-page-long lack of new insight into individual works: a generic free-weekly voice was just the means to that dead end.

In my own practice I use an overtly performative voice only because I have to. When I attempt a detached tone, I become too stumble-footedly self-conscious to move; when I do the jutht a darn-fool duck shtick, life seems better. That's a personality flaw, not a deliberate choice. Behind the Dionysian mask, I'm ogling those Apollonians plenty: I empathize with Jean-Luc Godard's film criticism but I'm in awe of Eric Rohmer's; Lester Bangs is a role model but I'd be so much more uncomplicatedly proud of something like Stephen Ratcliffe's Campion; my favorite Joycean is eyes-on-the-page Fritz Senn; my favorite historian is no-see-um Henry Adams; I loathe the bluster of Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia....

What matters is whether you communicate anything of what you see. If you don't have to keep twitching and waving and yelling "Hi, Mom!" while you do it, all the better.

. . .

Juliet Clark forwards a familiar analysis from "The Problem of Living In New York," by Junius Henri Browne, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November, 1882:

Why is it, may naturally be asked, that people should continually pour into New York when there is not room enough for half of those already here? Why should they persistently seek to live in a city where, with hosts on hosts of houses, there are no homes save for the prosperous? There is abundant space in most of the towns a hundred miles distant. Why do not people swell the census there instead of crowding into an overcrowded capital where the chances of success, of competence even, are ten thousand to one against them? They come in such numbers because so many have come before them, because New York is the commercial center of the republic, because it is immensely rich and strong, because, in short, it does not need or want them....

Thousands and thousands of men who have no regular employment, and no special prospects, who are materially and mentally out at elbows, whose whole life has been a spiritual tragedy, could not be persuaded to-day to leave the city where they have been so constantly baffled and tormented, where they have suffered so intensely, were they assured of a regular and respectable livelihood in some quiet town of the interior. Myriads of inmates of the squalid, distressing tenement-houses, in which morality is as impossible as happiness, would not give them up, despite their horrors, for clean, orderly, wholesome habitations in the suburbs, could they be transported there and back free of charge. They are in some unaccountable way terribly in love with their own wretchedness.

Oh, what a difference 22 years make! Henry Adams, from a 1904 letter:
The American, like the Russian, has undertaken too much. He does more than anyone else ever did, but he does not keep up with the machine. New York promises to become a first-class tragedy. Life there is a tour-de-force. Rents are fantastic, prices are absurd, conditions are chaotic, but the trouble has hardly begun.

. . .

Everything Is True; Nothing Is Permitted

I first encountered the attempt to pit the dim light of quantum mechanics against the deepest fogs of cognitive neuroscience in a paper sponsored by the Vatican and authored by soul-searcher Sir John C. Eccles. What mostly struck me was the incongruous disproportion between the two-thousand-years-tall edifice of Catholic theology and the subparticular results on which Sir John had wasted such strenuous ingenuity. It all seemed as fascinating, hilarious, and sad as a Buster Keaton routine.

I was reminded of Sir John when I read Henry Adams's 1882 response to William James on receipt of some early essays on religious psychology and societal evolution:

  Fiend Without a Face

As I understand your Faith, your x, your reaction of the individual on the cosmos, it is the old question of Free Will over again. You choose to assume that the will is free. Good! Reason proves that the Will cannot be free. Equally good! Free or not, the mere fact that a doubt can exist, proves that x must be a very microscopic quantity. If the orthodox are grateful to you for such gifts, the world has indeed changed, and we have much to thank God for, if there is a God, that he should have left us unable to decide whether our thoughts, if we have thoughts, are our own or his'n.

Although your gift to the church seems to me a pretty darned mean one, I admire very much your manner of giving it, which magnifies the crumb into at least forty loaves and fishes. My wife is quite converted by it. She enjoyed the paper extremely. Since she read it she has talked of giving five dollars to Russell Sturgis's church for napkins. As the impression fades, she says less of the napkins.

With hero worship, I have little patience. In history heroes have neutralized each other, and the result is no more than would have been reached without them. Indeed in military heroes I suspect that the ultimate result has been retardation. Nevertheless you could doubtless at any time stop the entire progress of human thought by killing a few score of men. So far I am with you. A few hundred men represent the entire intellectual activity of the whole thirteen hundred million. What then? They drag us up the cork-screw stair of thought, but they can no more get their brains to run out of their especial convolutions than a railway train (with a free will of half an inch on three thousand miles) can run free up Mount Shasta. Not one of them has ever got so far as to tell us a single vital fact worth knowing. We can't even prove that we are.

Alas, James seems to have chosen not to pursue the correspondence at that time, although thirty years later he wrote, "I ask you whether an old man soon about to meet his Maker can hope to save himself from the consequences of his life by pointing to the wit and learning he has shown in treating a tragic subject."

. . .

Speaking of pointless sentimentality -- man! I wish we could somehow ship the recent political news over to Henry Adams. Openly partisan intervention by the Supreme Court is, I think, more than even he could have hoped for at this point, and these two months might afford him keener amusement than any others in American history.

. . .

Smile, Darn Ya, Smile

As usual when facing unemployment, I'm feeling as charmlessly chipper as a Bosko cartoon. But my friends aren't all so fortunate. For example, Henry Adams, currently journeying through 1891, writes:

If I were wildly amusing myself by travel, I should feel horribly selfish and heartless, but the single merit of travel is that it offers a variety of ways of boring oneself, whereas at home one is reduced to boring one's friends. I can at a pinch endure my own sufferings, but I cannot bear inflicting them on others. The English, when bored, kill something. I always feel as if I, too, were putting up a grouse or a pheasant when I stalk a friend to inflict my dreariness on him.

+ + +

And Anselm Dovetonsils mixes a bitter cocktail using equal parts George Clinton, Daffy Duck, and the National Enquirer:

 
BOY TRAPPED IN REFRIGERATOR EATS OWN FOOT
Everybody's got a little light under the sun.

And wuddaya know! The little light? It goes off!

. . .

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.

. . .

Henry Adams responds to yesterday's buried-in-FDR's-clenched-jaws pipe dream, via his 1870 essay, "The New York Gold Conspiracy":

"Nevertheless, sooner or later the last traces of the disturbing influence of war... will disappear in America, as they have sooner or later disappeared in every other country which has passed through the same evils.... Yet though the regular process of development may be depended upon, in its ordinary and established course, to purge American society of the worst agents of an exceptionally corrupt time, the history of the Erie corporation offers one point in regard to which modern society everywhere is directly interested. For the first time since the creation of these enormous corporate bodies, one of them has shown its power for mischief, and has proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check. The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than the Erie -- swaying power such as has never in the world's history been trusted in the hands of private citizens, controlled by single men like Vanderbilt, or by combinations of men like Fisk, Gould, and Lane, after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption -- will ultimately succeed in directing government itself. Under the American form of society no authority exists capable of effective resistance. The national government, in order to deal with the corporations, must assume powers refused to it by its fundamental law, -- and even then is exposed to the chance of forming an absolute central government which sooner or later is likely to fall into the hands it is struggling to escape, and thus destroy the limits of its power only in order to make corruption omnipotent. Nor is this danger confined to America alone. The corporation is in its nature a threat against the popular institutions spreading so rapidly over the whole world. Wherever a popular and limited government exists this difficulty will be found in its path; and unless some satisfactory solution of the problem can be reached, popular institutions may yet find their existence endangered."

+ + +

Speaking of Henry Adams, please welcome the latest addition to the Bellona Times Repress. By way of introduction:

The book variously titled in its two small self-published editions Tahiti, Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, or Memoirs of Arii Taimai was a collaboration between the American historian Henry Adams and two Queens of Tahiti: Arii Taimai (positioned as the first-person narrator of the work) and her daughter, Marau Taaroa.

After his wife's suicide in December 1885, Adams lost himself in the massive job of finishing his history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. After it was done, he came close to losing himself in nothing at all.

In 1890, he set out with a friend, the fashionable painter John La Farge, for an indefinite voyage into the Pacific. His purported list of goals included tracking down and sampling the legendary durian fruit, following his friend Clarence King's example and falling madly in lust with exotic nekkid native girls, and attaining Enlightenment.

Professional
John La Farge, "Afterglow, Tautira river," 1891
Literati
Henry Adams, "Afterglow in the Tautira valley," 1891

Predictably, all these pseudo-hopes were frustrated: the durian was a "shameful disgrace to humanity" (although the mango and mangosteen comforted), and intellectual bemusement ran stronger than either bodily or spiritual lust. But the unspoken purpose -- to somehow re-learn survival -- was gained: Adams started the trip in an almost catatonic depression and ended it sparkling with bitches and moans in high pissant form.

During the travellers' five months in Tahiti, Adams grew bored with passive tourism:

Lovely as it is, it gets on my nerves at last -- this eternal charm of middle-aged melancholy. If I could only paint it, or express it in poetry or prose, or do anything with it, or even shake it out of its exasperating repose, the feeling would be a pleasant one, and I should fall in love with the very wrinkles of my venerable and spiritual Taïtian grandmother; but when one has nothing else to look at, one rebels at being forever smiled upon by a grandmother whose complexion is absolutely divine, and whose attitude indicates the highest breeding, while she suggests no end of charm of conversation, yet refuses to do anything but smile in a sort of sad way that may mean much or mean nothing. Either she or I come near to being a fool.
After searching the coral reef for confirmation or refutation of Darwin, he became close friends with the family of "the last Queen of Tahiti," Marau Taaroa:
... she is greatly interested in Taïti history, poetry, legends and traditions, and as for ghost-stories, she tells them by the hour with evident belief.... She always seems to me to be quite capable of doing anything strange, out of abstraction; as she might mistake me for her small child, and sling me on her arm without noticing the difference, such as it is, in size.
... and especially attached to Arii Tamai, described in an early letter as "the hereditary chiefess of the Tevas, the grandest dame in Tahiti, the widow of Salmon, the London Jew." (The psychologically speculative might wonder whether Adams was attracted by the contrast between her warm-heartedness and the frankly cold aggression of his own family of faded nation-rulers.) On May 10, 1891, he wrote:
By way of excitement or something to talk about, I some time ago told old Marau that she ought to write memoirs, and if she would narrate her life to me, I would take notes and write it out, chapter by chapter. To our surprise, she took up the idea seriously, and we are to begin work today, assisted by the old chiefess mother, who will have to start us from Captain Cook's time.
And a week later:
Luckily I am rather amused and occupied. My "Memoirs of Marau, Queen of Tahiti" give me a sort of excuse for doing nothing. Whenever Marau comes to town, I get from her a lot of notes, which I understand very little, and she not much; then I write them out; then find they are all wrong; then dispute with her till she becomes energetic and goes as far as the next room to ask her mother. The dear old lady has been quite unwell. The other evening I was taken in to see her, and found her sitting on her mat on an inner verandah. When I sat down beside her, she drew me to her and kissed me so affectionately that the tears stood in my eyes.... La Farge is not in love with her as I am; he takes more to Marau and the girls; but I think the Hinarii is worth them all.
At the beginning of June:
Marau is to go on with her memoirs, and send them to Washington. So she says, with her ferocious air of determination, half Tahitian and half Hebrew; and if she keeps her word, I shall have a little occupation which will amuse you too, for I have begged her to put in all the scandal she can, and the devil knows that she can put in plenty.
And on leaving Tahiti a few days later:
... we had a gay breakfast; but I cared much less for the gaiety than I did for the parting with the dear old lady, who kissed me on both cheeks -- after all, she is barely seventy, va! -- and made us a little speech, with such dignity and feeling, that though it was in native, and I did not understand a word of it, I quite broke down. I shall never see her again, but I have learned from her what the archaic woman was. If Marau only completes the memoirs, you will see; and I left Marau dead bent on doing it.
The work did continue after Adams's return to America -- part of a letter from December 1892 survives in which Adams presses Marau at scholarly length on dozens of points of genealogy and geography -- finally achieving what would be its final form in a privately printed edition of 1901.

It's a decidedly odd form, certainly not the personal memoirs originally described: Marau shows up not at all, and the supposed narrator has turned into Arii Tamai. The mix of scholarly history, ethnographic reportage, and primary source material hasn't been worked into a organic voice or structure.

The book wouldn't make a good introduction to Henry Adams, then. But as the first history of Tahiti, written with the full support of the family at the center of the island's annexation as a French colony, and as an attempt to give full attention to both sides of the confrontation between "civilized" and "primitive" cultures, it deserves wider access than it's attained to date.


Tahiti - Marau Taaroa & Henry Adams

. . .

Instructions to a Painter, second

Henry Adams to Mabel Hooper, 21 June 1895:

  Your pictures adorn my wall, so that I look them all over every morning while I meditate on getting up. Don't be disturbed if you occasionally feel a disgust for paint and drawing. You would feel the same for the limitations of sculpture or architecture, or poetry or prose, if you tried as hard to express anything in them. There is nothing new to say -- at least in our formulas. Everything has been said many -- many -- many times. The pleasure is in saying it over to ourselves, in a whisper, so that nobody will hear, and so that neither vanity nor money can get in so much as a lisp. I admit that this unfits one for one's time and life, but one must make some sort of running arrangement on every railroad and even in every school; and if you are to stop five minutes for refreshments in the Art Station, you must have those five minutes clear, as much as though you were a Botticelli. I should say the same of Religion, or Poetry, or any other imaginative and emotional expression.  

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Henry Adams, 1

That the effort to make History a Science may fail, is possible, and perhaps probable; but that it should cease, unless for reasons that would cause all science to cease, is not within the range of experience. Historians will not, and even if they would they cannot, abandon the attempt. Science itself would admit its own failure, if it admitted that man, the most important of all its subjects, could not be brought within its range.
- Henry Adams to the American Historical Association, 12 December 1894

History saw few lessons in the past that would be useful in the future; but one, at least, it did see. The attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000, must be even blinder than that of the Congressman of 1800, except so far as he had learned his ignorance. During a million or two of years, every generation in turn had toiled with endless agony to attain and apply power, all the while betraying the deepest alarm and horror at the power they created.... the mind would continue to react. All the teacher could hope was to teach it reaction.

... Evidently the new American would need to think in contradictions, and instead of Kant's famous four antinomies, the new universe would know no law that could not be proved by its anti-law.

- The Education of Henry Adams, 1905

Social studies are an excellent idea; social sciences less so.

The problem springs (and I mean springs) from the confusion of description and prescription, the impulse to apply "knowledge" lickety-split to "practice," a confusion and impulse so built into human nature that only us kinda screwed-up people even perceive it, much less perceive it as a problem. If we try to study "how unhappiness develops," financial pressure will quickly switch us to the more profitable question of "how to prevent unhappiness": psychology turns into therapy, philosophy turns into self-help, sociology turns into genocide, and economics into utter insanity; pro-republic Machiavelli barely advanced into a science of politics before his research became funded and repurposed by Medici Technologies. Sure, everyone wants to be an authority, and that's harmless enough; the trouble is that people expect authorities to give orders.

Luckily if unprofitably, virtually all attempts at formalizing a "humanity" into a "scientific discipline" crumble -- such a relief after straining to hold it together! -- unless one assumes a static monoculture. Historical narratives demonstrably overlap without strictly determining each other, and therefore what's defined as history depends on the observer's chosen focus. Predictive history is impossible because both the facts and their interpretive framework are in the future. Even within a monoculture, even for a single interpeter and for a safely past-and-gone event, newly discovered facts (as Adams often mentions) can completely overturn an interpretation. As a result, the new and glorious science can only be defended by outrageously know-nothing rhetoric -- which hardly makes it a safer foundation for action.

History can only react. It doesn't tell us what to do; it only tells us "I told you so," and that's precisely its value. We need it not because we need prescience but because we need narratives. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fewer and dumber ways of interpreting the present.

. . .

The Blue Party Candidate

Midway through my much-aided private college education, the Reagan administration started making Academe a gated community. The results were apparent by the time I graduated, but I always figured, well, at least the state university systems are available.

Talking to younger folks, though, I've hit plenty of anecdotal evidence that even state universities are now available only to those lower-class compeers who are willing to assume crippling -- I mean, legs-chainsawed-off crippling -- debt while simultaneously working like a dog and trying to study full-time. And reports like "Losing Ground" and "Unequal Opportunity" provide the stats: college has become an impossible choice for many Americans, no matter how many sacrifices they're willing to make.

But a good deal of the resulting journalistic attention has been focused not on the destruction of upward mobility, but on scolding those middle and upper-middle class parents who aren't sufficiently greasing their childrens' way.

A memory from the Revolution: At Joe's Digital Diner in 1994, surrounded by chatter in which the phrase "power to the people" kept surfacing, I sat next to Sally, a very nice sincere lady who gave me a card that read "Hey Kids Let's Put on a Show": "In fact, wherever it says 'company name' on a form, I always put 'Hey Kids Let's Put On a Show'."

Since it was a revolution, we naturally bitched about work. Her new job was at an all-girl preparatory school which charged eleven thousand dollars a semester. Sally was trying to get the parents to understand the importance of "the new technology" so that they'd pay more for her classes; she planned to show them the QuickTime movies produced by "the city kids" at the Digital Media Center.

"I'll tell them, 'They have access to all this equipment. Do you want your kids to fall behind them?"

Let the answer be yes, I silently prayed.

Meanwhile, even purely vocational-training jobs like computer programming now require a college degree from applicants.

Obviously it's a lot easier to freeze the upper class if the lower class is kept in its place as well. This complete blocking-off of upward mobility helps explain how the complete blocking-off of downward mobility -- which has puzzled me on and off over the years -- has been made possible. You know how it used to be that fortunes and incomes could (given enough tenacity) be lost? But after decades of Golden Parachutes, the subtleties of an Old Boys Club aren't needed: a rich guy can be openly incompetent for years, or even openly criminal, losing vast amounts of money for stockholders and ruining thousands of lives, and still sit on top of the world, dumping.

I can't tell you how depressing all this is. So I can only hope you share my depression without need of description or explanation.

I've never -- not even during my own upwardly-mobile scramble -- felt so trench-stuck in class warfare.

Or class massacre, I guess, 'cause it's not like there's been much fuss being made.

It would be nice to think this state of affairs can't last. But it can, for generations. Henry Adams, who had no trouble predicting the rule of "wealth individualised," couldn't help but assume a socialist backlash would follow. Instead, it sometimes seems to me that we've just been living for decades, barely, off the ever-more-rolled-back leavings of the New Deal and G.I. Bill.

Hell, I'd even consider joining MENSA if they were working to give their poorer brethren and sistren a chance at a better life. But nah, I just checked, and they're still glued to their fucking quizzes.

OK, sorry about the dyspepsia. I'll go back to sticking my head in the sand looking for diamond digestifs tomorrow.

. . .

Sheepskins & Skin-the-Goat

One of the nice things about not dying young is instead of regretting all the things you never accomplished, you get to see other people accomplish them. Like, you can imagine my relief that Patricia Highsmith's reputation has advanced to the point that a critical biography is being written without me having to lift a finger. And the nicest thing about weblog memes (jargon for "dogpile on the topic") is that it takes less time for someone else to say what you're trying to figure out how to say.

Thus I've stayed on the sidelines of the world-wide town-gown rumble long enough that notorious gown-wearer Alex Golub beat me to the punch, and punched way better than I would've. (Besides being lazy, I'm a feeb.) What follows is merely supplemental:

I know of people who treat academia as a day job (the way I treat software engineering, say), but I haven't met many. Most of the academics and ex-academics I've befriended come in one of the following easily distinguished forms:

Both have the best of motivations (love) and both seem admirable characters. Both also seem intelligent enough to realize that equally admirable characters can have very different experiences and suffer very different outcomes. What's struck me most forcefully in my limited sample set is the overwhelming extent to which one's status as sheep or goat seems to have been determined by a single factor: the relationship with one's doctoral advisor.

That's not so much the case in the day-job world. A beginning software engineer may have a bad manager first time out and soldier badly on. But even aside from disillusionment with the Community of Learning, the power of the advisor is so absolute, and modifying a post-graduate study program is so difficult, and the amount of debt thrown down the school's maw (in the present USA, at any rate) is so horrifying, that a callous, narrow-minded, self-serving, deceptive, or simply incompetent advisor can do decades of damage to a life with astonishing ease.

For me, it's never been an issue. I'm with Harvard apostate Henry Adams: tying the collaborative role of teacher to the punitive role of judge drops us into a pit of corruption; associating the sacrifice of youth and money (nowadays more money than the youth is ever likely to see again) with bell curve competition elbows our brightest ideals into a drainage ditch. Undisciplined and openly hostile toward authority, I barely achieved a B. A. -- and that only for purposes of class mobility. I live for scholarship, but much of the research I've depended on and virtually all of the learning and teaching I've done were free of institutional ties. When I wish I could make a living by scholarship, it's like wishing I had fifty million dollars, or wishing I was ruled by the just. In short, I'm no academic.

But I depend on the academies for their libraries (and now, surprisingly enough, for my paycheck) and to supply my academic friends with worthwhile happy lives. So I wish the academies well. And in that spirit I offer the following advice:

WATCH OUT FOR ADVISORS.

  Dat GOD DAMN HAT, that SHIT FAKE WIZARD!! I been his aprentice over a year an he NEVER done a trick, he never taught me nothin' but ABUSE an PAIN! Advisor damage

. . .

Historical Imperative

Cardinal Richelieu, instead of being an innovative modernizer of France's military system... in fact failed to initiate effective reforms in military administration, and owed what limited success he had in expanding and strengthening the French army to improvised expedients and the cultivation of the great nobles and existing clientage networks.... funded not by a streamlined fiscal system, but through high taxes and short-term borrowing managed by officials whose corruption was encouraged by the system. Most of the armies' successes, moreover, were the product of decentralization and delegation of authority to military commands and officials, and what limited attempts Richelieu made to concentrate power in his own hands or those of his own clients produced a backlash that threatened to destroy the monarchy a few years later.
- Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. LV, No. 4, Winter 2002
James R. Smither review of
Richelieu's Army: War, Government and Society in France, 1624-1642 by David Parrott

But France made out OK for a couple years, so it's easy to see how the story of Richelieu's prowess spread. What was he going to do? Deny it?

There are as many perspectives as there are human souls and once again I’m learning that no easy conclusions can be drawn, and that what was called History in school was worse than watered-down fairy tales.
- Gail Armstrong

It's not precisely true that history's always written by the victor. Only losers write anything, much less history books. (Burning them's another matter.) But it's true enough that the notion of victors grounds the historical genre.

The historian's job is to build a coherent narrative from whatever source material's available, with memory of hearsay usually providing the initial plot outline. Narrative prefers willed action with willed effects. And so we tell about someone planning this and gaining that, and someone else making a mistake and losing. And the winners (if any) tend to be the protagonists, unless we're playing weepy reactionary, in which case it's going to be awfully hard to avoid bathos.

When sources abound, our fiction becomes untenable, no matter how much the active parties might've clung to their own fictions for the sake of career and sanity. To write coherent post-literate pre-library-burning history is to ascribe motives glibly in the text and dispute or overturn them in the footnotes. (Which is why footnotes are often where the most interesting writing is.)

[That same narratological impulse has kept torture multiculturally acceptable for millenia. Torture produces a known story, and therefore it produces a coherent story, thus re-affirming the value of torture. (Those of us raised to abhor torture should bear in mind that we rely on grossly inaccurate eyewitness accounts for similar reasons.) It's no surprise that the Bush administration, with its faith in the confidently stated lie and in Matthew 25:29-30, should be the first American administration in some time to suggest bringing torture back into the legal system. Footnotes to be shredded before publication.]

When they link local weather conditions to a monarch's virtue, classic European and Chinese histories seem quaint to (most) contemporary humanities students, who know that weather is actually caused by butterfly wings. Could be, though, we maintain some quaint assumptions of our own....

Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I read a book (this was before I kept a journal about anything other than my sex life, so I don't have the title at hand) that brought two bits of research together. The first polled military scholars to determine who were the greatest military leaders in history and what determined that category; it turned out to be something like winning six major battles. The second collected a database of major battles and relevant commanders and calculated, based purely on chance, what the likely distribution of wins would be. The most likely number of winners of six battles was identical with the number of most-agreed-upon major military leaders.

Although the coincidence is merely suggestive, I've found the suggestion clarifying when brought to bear on questions like how did Grant turn from a drunken loser to a drunken winner (producing a narrative of growing wisdom and maturity) and then (as President) back to a drunken loser again (producing very confused narrators)?

Almost a century before that book's publication, confused Grant-watcher Henry Adams bid farewell to history when, after decades of mulling the elaborately unreliable allegiances of English-American diplomacy during the American Civil War, he found by reading memoirs and diaries that they'd been generated semi-randomly by the combination of an aging pathological liar, an airhead who took orders from his morning Bible reading, and a self-confessed bungler who hadn't thought through the consequences of his actions:

All the world had been at cross-purposes, had misunderstood themselves and the situation, had followed wrong paths, drawn wrong conclusions, and had known none of the facts. One would have done better to draw no conclusions at all. One's diplomatic education was a long mistake. His whole theory of conspiracy,— of policy,— of logic and connection in the affairs of man, resolved itself into "[a mistake of] incredible grossness."

All this was indifferent. Granting, in spite of evidence, that Gladstone had no set plan of breaking up the Union; that he was party to no conspiracy; that he saw none of the results of his acts which were clear to everyone else; granting in short what the English themselves seemed at last to conclude:— that Gladstone was not quite sane; that Russell was verging on senility; and that Palmerston had lost his nerve.... How should it have affected one's future opinions and acts?

Politics cannot stop to study psychology. Its methods are rough; its judgments are rougher still.... The problem would have been the same; the answer equally obscure.

- The Education of Henry Adams

Even in the presumable limit condition of fiction labeled as such, on the presumable author's own authority, we often find confusion, second-guessing, or admission of surprise ("I meant to make God the hero, but Satan kept taking over"). How much more murkiness might be expected from a Real Life Adventure with the cross-purposed interference of multiply improvising and scatterbrained plotters?

Does this mean history has nothing to teach us?

Even to this non-historian, it seems very insistently to teach lessons of (in no particular order) tolerance, skepticism, humor, and panic.

Those were never very popular lessons, however, and, except for the last, they're less popular now than ever.

. . .

Francis Joins a Feral Herd

Does it seem to you that there's been a distinct lowering of tone round here lately?

Well, it's not going to get any better for a sentence or two, as one of my favorite readers, Lawrence La Riviere White, encounters one of my favorite writers, Henry Adams:

I have been reading Education for about a year now as my bathroom book (a format that certainly effects one's interpretation). One quick thought on the foibles of academic literary criticism. I am now in the chapter on the Dynamic Theory of History & finding it the least interesting part of the whole thing. I agree w/your assessment of the main lesson of the book, something like the life-long development of a comportment toward one's ignorance. I think it relates to what Adorno and/or Benjamin might have (it's a memory fragment I have yet to patch) called "hopeful pessimism": despite the truth snapping you in the face (or worse, in the case of Benjamin) at every turn, keep trying. Adam's point seems to have occurred as well to Emerson: "The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness."

But as I read the dynamic theory chapter, I think of the thousands of students preparing for PhD exams who made a precis of that chapter's argument their main notes for the book. Because it's the one thing he spelled out. & professional academic lit-crit has to go w/what's spelled out. When you have so many books to account for, you have to fall back on shorthands.

It's true: Adams's weakest point was misunderstanding science as requiring some "rule" or "law" of history. I can forgive it because it sets up the heartbreaking conclusion of The Education and because an intelligent person's foibles can be instructive in themselves.

It's harder to forgive the later writers (also often a little wobbly on science) who build on such weak points. The weight of the work is in passing insight and self-limiting aphorism while what gets cited is the grandly gassy theory, with Adams as with Nietzsche -- and, come to think of it, as with many poets and novelists foolish enough to wax pundit once or twice in their lives. (One word for Joyceans: "epiphany." He didn't even publish that one himself.)

Similar inclinations are shown by anthropologists of my own (that is, popular) culture. How many more university-funded volumes will be devoted to The Matrix than to Pirates of the Caribbean just because The Matrix speaks in familiar soundbites? Madonna strapping herself into a whalebone corset has less to do with either sexuality or transgression than with Madonna's none-too-revolutionary preconception of what her public thinks of sexuality and transgression, and in that, she's thesis-friendly. As I've demonstrated here many times, it's easier to launch a discourse on preconceptions than on the needle-pointed hæcceities of object, person, and experience.

I've sometimes expressed surprise at so much attention being devoted to that which needs neither elucidation nor perpetuation. But it makes evolutionary sense that monkeys should prefer low-hanging fruit and that we don't feel compelled to scrape our evolutionarily-valuable groins up the tree to the hard-to-reach stuff.

To switch totem species, having been trained by stick and low-hanging carrot-fruit to publicly confirm, as quickly and directly as possible, the learning of a lesson, why should the student turn against that training and insist on a slow, indirect, and uncertain route?

Some mules are just born bad, I reckon.

. . .

"peculiarly dull reading; yet, for some, the most interesting history there is, 114, 116"

It's a wonderful thing how our solitary pleasures and interests, left long unspoken for fear of boring our friends, offer through the web the solace of community. When I see in my stats searches such as today's "propaganda of durian fruit," "rose caylor," and "symptoms bipolar elvis presley," all the effort seems worthwhile.

Myself, I had no idea that any other folks sought out eccentric indexes. My own most recent catch, Sketches for the North American Review by Henry Adams as edited by Edward Chalfant (Archon Books, 1986), attracted my attention by the three line entry:

English, the. See also Historians, English
obviously mad, 100
twice conquered & held in subjection,
79

This turned out to be a model specimen, exhibiting such markings as the unpredictable alphabetization:

India, ancient. See History, a survey of
Ireland. See History, a survey of
(Meaning "History, a survey of,
ancient India," under "A" for "ancient"
rather than "I" for "India.")

And the redundant citation:

ancient India
evidence of women's losing original
rights to life & property, 93-94
inevitable inference that archaic rights
of women were liberal, 94

The discomfiting conjunction:

Harvard College
best school in U.S.; decidedly interest-
ing to small circle of readers, 5, 13
confused with railway or banking cor-
poration, 10

And the footnote irruptus:

1 Users of this entry are advised that Adams's writings show evidence of fairly consistent
accuracy, in combination with occasional apparent hesitation, doubt, or confusion in
the use of terms. The following terms may be differentiated, interchanged, or confused
on the indicated pages: ancient, 94, 123; still more ancient, 166; very ancient, 93; archaic,
89,92,94, 103, 114, 116, 124, 161-62, 167; early, 87, 112, 117; very early, 45; oldest, 93, 166;
original, 89, 93; pagan, 114; prehistoric, 86, 89; primeval, 179; typical, 92; & unde-
veloped
, 45.

And the covert thesis, here represented by the two-thirds of a column devoted to extracting every term of praise or demur from Adams's book reviews. (I can't help but anticipate the index of "Cinematic virtues" in the Collected Criticism of Peter Travers.)

Indeed, the whole sequence, from:

Adams family, hardly a family, 148

to:

Yearning of unrest; almost despairing im-
patience, 55-56

is worth the connoisseur's while.

. . .

In 1870, the political career of Henry Adams detoured into academia.

Characteristically, he made himself at home on his new perch by sawing at the limb. Having become a Harvard professor and the editor of a leading scholarly journal, for his first major article in that journal, he ransacked his distinguished grandfather's diaries and printed, with acidulous glee, the most embarrassing notes he could find from John Quincy Adams's two years at Harvard College:

However that may be, the syllogists all got together this evening and drank till not one of them could stand straight, or was sensible of what he did. A little after 9 they sallied out, and for a quarter of an hour made such a noise as might be heard at a mile distant. The tutors went out and after a short time persuaded them to disperse. Mr. —— had two squares of his windows broke.... Borland, it seems, was the most active of them all; he collared Mr. —— and threw an handful of gravel in his face, and was rather disrespectful to Mr. ——.
This excerpt may help to explain the hostility:
May 3d, 1786
We had after Prayers a Class meeting, about making a present to our Tutor. It is customary at the end of the freshman year to make a present to the Tutor of the Class: but it has been delay'd by ours to the present Time, and many would still delay it, and lay it wholly aside. The Custom, I think is a bad, one, because, it creates partialities in a Tutor, because it increases the distinction between the wealthy, and the poor Scholars, because it makes the Tutor in some measure dependent upon his Class, and because to many that Subscribe it is a considerable expence, but the Salaries of the Tutors, being so low, and it having been for many years an universal custom, I am sorry to see our Class so behind hand, and several, who could well afford it, and have really subscribed, meanly endeavouring, to put off the matter from Quarter to Quarter, till they leave College.
Here are a few additional Harvard memories which escaped publication in 1872:

May 16th, 1786
After commons as Hale, was going through the alley, an universal hiss, was heard from the juniors. This is almost the only way, that the Students here have, to keep the Tutors within any bounds. With all their pedantic despotism, they affect Popularity, and I believe the fear of hissing, or shuffling often prevents them from being so arbitrary as they would otherwise be.
August 17th, 1786
Drank tea with Mead in his Chamber which is contiguous to mine. The Club are quite in a Dilemma, how to do since the boys are sent off. They are unwilling to send Freshmen, and think it beneath their dignity to go themselves for what they want. At about 10 o'clock this evening, Stratten, a crazy fellow came, and knock'd at my door; just as I was going to bed; I opened it, and he ask'd me for some water; I told him I had none, and shut the door upon him: "Damn you, says he, do you refuse a man a little water." After thumping two or three minutes at the door, he went away, knock'd at all the doors in the entry; ran up and down stairs, came again, to my door and stamp'd at it, and finally ran to the window in the entry, push'd it up, and leapt immediately out of it. I instantly got out of my bed, went to my window, and saw him lying on the ground. After 3 or 4 minutes he began to groan "Oh! I've broke my leg." Charles had not gone to bed; I desired him to go and call up Dr. Jennison; who immediately came out. The fellow complain'd in the most doleful manner. However, after examining his leg, (for he was not at all hurt any where else) the Doctor said, there might be a bone crack'd but that none was displaced. It was with a great deal of difficulty that we were able to get Stratten, into one of the lower Rooms which is empty. He persisted for two hours in attempting to walk, for in addition to his State of mind, he was then as drunk as a beast.
November 24th, 1786
This evening, just after tea, at Chandler Ist's chamber, we were all called out by the falling of a fellow, from the top to the bottom of the stairs. He was in liquor, and tumbled in such a manner, that his head was on the lower floor, and his feet two or three steps up. When we first went out, the blood was streaming from his head, his eyes appeared fixed, and he was wholly motionless. We all supposed him dead. He soon recovered however so as to speak, and was carried off, about an hour after he fell.
May 30th, 1787
Election day. About two thirds of the Students went to Boston. Those of us who remain'd pass'd the day, in amusement; I was at Cranch's chamber the whole day. The Sophimore Class with their civil Officers at the head march'd in procession to the Hall, and as soon as they came in a pistol was fir'd by their governor. The same ceremony was repeated after commons were over. In the evening they were at Thomas's chamber, much intoxicated and very noisy. Dr. Jennison paid them a visit at nine o'clock, and sent them all to their chambers.
May 31st, 1787
The Sophimores are very fearful that their yesterday's conduct has brought them into difficulties. Mr. Reed, who found his door broken through, when he return'd from Boston, is very much incensed and will probably, take measures to discover the persons who offered the insult. Mr. Williams gave us a lecture upon a number of optical instruments. I trifled away this day.

The younger Adams claimed that his goal was to help the reader "obtain a correct idea of the gradual steps by which the standard of high education in America has been slowly raised," and I suppose I must have something similar in mind.

. . .

Pull in Your Head - We're Coming to a Transvaluation

It's a foundational narrative fallacy: If I know only a few things about a situation, and those imperfectly, I'll assume they're essential and sufficient. We know that Sappho was a woman, and so a few pullquotes from an unknowable context epitomize the feminine voice. We know that Shakespeare's sonnets mention a dark lady and a sexy young man, and so this tragic triangle molded his (or the Earl of Oxford's) career. We know a monster and we know the name Frankenstein, and so the monster's named Frankenstein.

You rigored turd, you has been to a orgy wifout me!
Critic prepares a psychoanalytic reading for the MLA

We know the following about Lewis Carroll:

From this, we realized he was an emotionally arrested pedophile whose heart snapped after his obsession with Alice Liddel was discovered by her appalled parents.

However, from this we were supposed to have realized that Lewis Carroll was a very nice man who would never think about anything as scandalous as sex.

What we didn't know (via The Little Professor) is that he also liked spending time with, writing flirtatious letters to, and photographing teenage girls, young women, and mature women, and that he was as likely to worry husbands, brothers, and employers as parents. The reputation-driven repression of his executors was taken for Lewis Carroll's own perversity-driven repression.

Lewis Carroll's "little girls" might then be along the blurry lines of Henry Adams's "nieces," a social category encompassing non-relatives, adult women, and even some men. And his biographies would then be along the lines of a reticence farce like Charley's Aunt or La Cage aux Folles or, with corpse as lead dummy, maybe more like The Wrong Box or The Trouble with Harry.

Responses

In a recent issue of the TLS there's a decent article that excoriates those (and another TLS writer in particular) who would claim that Dodgson was only tangentially interested in young women. Somewhat orthogonal to your argument (more a question of degree than one of polar opposites), but worth a look.

. . .

What Goes On

It was exactly as if she had been there by the operation of my intelligence, or even by that in a still happier way of my feeling. My excitement, as I have called it, on seeing her, was assuredly emotion. Yet what was this feeling, really?

The Sacred Fount made Henry James's friends fear for his sanity. (Henry Adams offered the cheery consolation that "most of the rest of us" would be institutionalized with him.) James himself seemed taken aback by the tumorous growth of the novel. It remained his most extreme experiment: a postmodernist parody of a country house mystery avant la lettre; a mad (social) scientist in a meet-cute(-and-go-nowhere) romantic thriller; a locked room containing the foully-played corpse of realism. (Possibly a suicidal frame-up.)

And it's my sentimental favorite. But I've never tried to work out a way to write about it. The Sacred Fount scares off analysis by example. Some critics express bafflement or disgust; others take short simple pleasure in their manifest superiority to James's first-person.

So I doff my Santa cap to Michael Wood for "The Museum of What Happens", a compact essay which takes the risk of taking the book's problems seriously, starting with the infamous unreliability of its narrator.

Responses

Peli tweaks my bruised conscience:

"**postmodernist** parody of a..." - You feeling ok? Never thought I'll see the day and so on.

I'm sorry we both saw it and so on. The adjective was laziness pure and simple; a cynical carnival barker move. And you can see by the comments the entry's drawn at the Valve just how successful a carnival barker I'd be.

Dr. Lukin diagnoses the lack of response:

I think it's that one doesn't fuck w/Shaviro or be a party to a fucking w/Shaviro. He'll cut off yer feet, like Coppola did to Fred Astaire. Or, I dunno, christen you "Kal-El."

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 3

Early Darwinian historians simply swapped Nature's will in for God's: Nature evolved homo sapiens, and then Nature evolved late nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans, and now it's just a matter of mopping up the kitchen.

Brooks Adams knew better. Biological evolution describes a process, not a project; by analogy, any rules governing human culture would continue to grind through the Gilded Age. Anyone who thought they'd reached the end of history hadn't understood history.

Relinquishing the throne of creation freed Adams to found a different lineage of errors.

Take, for example, his assumption that biology and culture conserve a constant quantifiable "energy" which is divvied out across each generation. Or his asides about a force of history which can no more be argued with than gravitational acceleration. In both cases, he seems to misunderstand evolution as (singular) survival of the (winner-take-all) fittest under a (singular) law rather than as an intention-free account of species diversification. He mistakes Darwin for Newton.

He's hardly alone. Because technology depends on reliably replicable results, non-scientists tend to picture science as a matter of finding trustworthy laws and formulas. But that doesn't cover even all laboratory sciences: Medical and psychological journals describe barely distinguishable correlations rather than universally valid laws, and the pressures of research funding encourage flexibility in what's considered significant. In the twentieth century, physics itself became probabilistic.

Most drastically, the characterization doesn't cover historical science. Historical sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology study contingencies, not eternal verities. What makes them scientific are the materiality of their problems, their evidence, and their suggested explanations.

Darwin's problem was the appearance of new species over time. His solution was divergent descent driven by material means.

What's the historian's problem? It doesn't seem to be divergence. Like later scientizing historians, Adams rummaged through the polymorphic transtemporal promiscuity of human culture and found cycles. But evolution isn't cyclical.

Biologists in the tradition of Darwin should not speak of the coming into effect of selection if:

1. Already disappeared characters suddenly re-appear in subsequent generations (= false negative selection).
2. Characters which seem to have been positively “selected” during ontogeny never re-appear in subsequent generations (= false positive selection).

Usually, genes, genomes, characters, individuals, populations, and species never do come back once they have been negatively selected, and that is eliminated by Darwinian selection. This is the very simple, but fundamental essence of Darwin’s idea of “natural selection” which, in that respect, was a clearly materialist one....

The situation in operant learning – and, by the way, also in conceptual change in science and culture – is even more revealing. Cases 1 and 2 are in this view not rare exceptional cases, but rather they constitute more or less the rule.

- Adolf Heschl

And the problem's certainly not species. Although biological taxonomy may be fuzzy in spots, it's brick solid compared to what we grasp and mold from the blooming buzzing muck of human chronicles. So far as history is conceived as anything but a chronological collation of citations from unreliable sources, history is nothing but variations on observer bias, and misanthopic pessimism isn't enough to correct our myopia.

After only 110 years, Adams's biases seem sharp, and his (to him) clean abstractions seem (to us) to morph and merge. His towering account is stabilized by the shiftiness of its foundations. Even the line between "civilization" and "barbarism" is blurred by his fascination with torture.

Living where and when he did, Adams restricts the purview of his general law of "civilizations" to Western Europe and, occasionally, their colonies. The barbaric Crusaders contacted the Saracens at the peak of their civilization but what laws governed that civilization? China, Japan, Persia they were out there, we suppose; unchanging, decadent....

Living where and when he did, Adams's idea of "economy" focused on the movement of precious metals. But the "money" of contemporary wealth is as imaginary, as reliant on the power of orthodoxy and law, as any kingship or priesthood: a shared nightmare from which we're afraid to wake up.

Living where and when he did, Adams pictured religion and finance as opposite extremes. Protestantism had won because conscience is cheaper than icons. Taking what would seem and would continue to seem, among the elite, for some decades the natural next step, Henry Adams pointed out that "Atheism is still cheaper than reformed religion."

But then again Henry also pointed out that the leaders of the Catholic church appear to have accumulated more wealth than Luther, Calvin, and Fox. And then again, Brooks represents the Anglican capitalists who consolidated lands and lowered the value of productive labor as more economically evolved than the Puritan farmers who were thereby forced into exile. And then again, as the economic power of those exiles grew...?

Well, living where and when we do, none of it makes sense. If capitalism and religious faith were ever in conflict, they made up by the time of the Spanish Civil War. For those of us who've survived into the 21st century, it's hard to picture them as anything but allies. The age of expensive miracles isn't past. It's just that the expensive miracle cures consist of selfish murdering assholes getting to feel good about themselves. Taking the long view, though, is that really so novel?

And then there are his easy personifications of "race" and "breed". In their rush to scientize, even skeptics like Brooks and Henry Adams stayed blind to the flaws of these selectively weighted non-random outliers-scrubbed sample sets. They knew many more WASP millionaires than they knew Jewish bankers Jay Gould was as American as apples with razor blades. But that hardly registered, they'd known so few Jews who weren't bankers.

Maybe it wouldn't have mattered if they had. Young Louis Zukofsky's stubborn refusal of either "all you Jews" or "unlike most Jews" gambits rolled off Adams fan Ezra Pound with as little effect as every other non-artifactual experience. I'm-rubber-you're-glue is a hard game to lose.

* * *

The reader may wonder why I feel compelled to exhume and whump the peaceful corpse of Brooks Adams.

The point isn't he was an idiot. While he was alive he was smarter than me, possibly even as smart as you.

But now that he's dead, we have a bit of an edge. And I think this is a fairly common pattern.

Adams couldn't escape his time and place. That's not a mistake we've grown out of.

... to be concluded ...

Responses

misanthopic trees never bloom

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 4

But simply because it is possible to model a process in Darwinian or quasi-Darwinian terms does not necessarily imply that it is useful to do so. Darwin himself invoked natural selection to explain the existence of adaptation in nature – a phenomenon which cries out for scientific explanation and was conspicuously lacking one until Darwin’s own theory. But in many of the recent attempts to discern Darwinian processes at work in other domains, for example, in the realm of human culture, there is no comparable phenomenon which clearly requires, but totally lacks, a proper causal explanation.
- Samir Okasha
We feel as though we ought to be able to tell the "story" of anything that changes over time like America, or the vertebrates. But the things about which we can tell stories must either possess individuality, or they must be prepared to have individuality and all it entails like ontogeny and closure imposed upon them by the force of narrative.
- Bob O'Hara
That may be, but it's all pretty unsatisfactory.
- Nora Charles

Given how blatantly history and culture don't map the concerns of evolutionary biology, what attracts humanists to the rhetoric of evolutionary biology?

Darwinian evolution proposed to solve an otherwise unexplained mystery. In contrast, human history has too many explanations.

Somehow, though, on close inspection, they always seem to dissolve into a mist of unknowables, tautologies, unlikelihoods, and impossibilities.

Miasma in, miasma out. History amalgamates human actions into a reasonable narrative; human actions aren't rational. We intuit causality and teleology from our own experience of agency. But, fast talker though it is, human agency never quite finishes explaining things. Its story doesn't hang together.

In response, we might cook the books: haute cuisine chefs such as Objectivists and behaviorists eviscerate, blanch, bone, shred, filter, and pipe experience into occasional lever pushes by a mascaraed Gary Cooper.

Or we might find some supplemental force to fill the gaps of decision: gods, God, demons, spells, universal dialectic, conflicting drives, false consciousness, interfering modules, the selfish genes of our extinct ancestors.... But in describing them as "forces", we've only shifted the burden of teleological paradox on to where we hope it can't be questioned further, like a subpoenaed CEO's The Girl.

The principled skeptical historian, like the English professor who's sick of literature, would like to sweep the tainted debris of personality out of sight. "Evolution" appeals as a magically unliftable materialist carpet. But its magic material is Emperor's New Cloth. The explanations offered by evolutionary biologists are usually presented as not-disproven; the explanations offered by historians usually aren't presented in disprovable terms. The carpet can't be lifted because there's nothing there. Nothing except that same irritating multiplying dust-bunny.

Satisfaction will not be received. The scratch is just the itch's way of making another itch.

... what startles me in these paragraphs is the self-satisfied assumption of the finality of my conclusions. I posit, as a fact not to be controverted, that our universe is an expression of an universal law, which the nineteenth century had discovered and could formulate.

During the past thirty years I have given this subject my best attention, and now I am so far from assenting to this proposition that my mind tends in the opposite direction. Each day I live I am less able to withstand the suspicion that the universe, far from being an expression of law originating in a single primary cause, is a chaos which admits of reaching no equilibrium, and with which man is doomed eternally and hopelessly to contend.

- "Preface to New Edition" of
The Emancipation of Massachussetts: The Dream and the Reality
by Brooks Adams (1919)

Responses

We (or our claustrophobia-enducing tiny little comment box) seem to have finally driven this dedicated reader round the bend:

This is fine and good mindwork. Excellent. It seems important for reasons I can't get my fingers on to recognize everything Darwinian movement happens to is already there. The growth medium having its own day in court, sort of thing.

And speaking of our comment box and evolution, today marks this primitive email-based response system's first instance of bot spam:

[Link removed] would any guy here do anything sexual with a girl in front of your friend Like your best friend? I don't know if I can do anything like that.
That evolution happens to stuff, that what is evolving is stuff that's been here since either:
a. an origin only describable by dogmatic mumbo-jumbo and requiring blind faith e.g. bigbang superstring fries-with-that; or,
b. It's always been here. If it's always been here, the room for conjecture as to further and as-yet unobserved attributes is very great.

Scott McLemee commented:

Come to think of it, the whole idea that each society consists of a certain mass of energy seems awfully Herbert Spencer-ish, and I'd bet the ranch that is where he got it. It takes some doing now, really, to grasp just how gigantic a figure Spencer was at the time.

Oddly, though, Spencer doesn't really show up in the Adams material I've read. (Henry Adams mentions him once in a late letter as an English affliction to match the German Kant and French Comte.) For whatever guesses are worth, I'd guess that the two brothers thought of him more as symptom of the times than as personal inspiration -- which, of course, doesn't rule out unacknowledged influence....

. . .

Cavil, Foragers

For the Happy Tutor

In January, 1870, John Ruskin began Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, issued near-monthly through early 1878 and more spasmodically between 1880 and 1884.

  1. As a zine, it seems worth its tenpence. Collected?

    Tastes have changed in 130 years, but the book remains weak, and weakens as it goes. The first and last frontispieces illustrate the progess from Giotto to ick.

    Between them, we're whiplashed between fulmination and namby-pamby; we plod through dull fiction, eccentric introductions to geology and entomology, a few close moralizing readings of paintings, histories, and saints' tales, bad-tempered quarrels with the well-meaning and mostly good-natured, daydream descriptions of imaginary coinage, comment-larded translations of Plato's Laws and the Bible....

    The arguments I found most cogent thin with repetition; pages dissolve into a welter of cross-references: "Let her read the account of our modern pastoral music, at page 90 of my fifth Letter,— of modern Venetian 'Barcarolle,' page 245 of Letter 19, and 257 of Letter 20..." And, as Ruskin himself points out, they only restated more bluntly what he'd written prettily before.

    It doesn't even excerpt easily: Ruskin was a manic monologist, not an aphorist.

  2. Why plod then?

    The serial started forcefully enough, engaging a still-live issue: the moral and ecological costs of capitalism. And suspensefully enough while I waited for the author to reveal his plan.

    Post-revelation, the grounds of suspense changed. Now I wondered how long it would take for his plan to fall apart, and how completely it would fail before he admitted defeat.

    And then, a while later, how long it would take for him to become certifiable, and how that would show up in the "letters"....

  3. The suspense of authorial decline.

    Oh, I've encountered successful works shaped by and incorporating their artists' mental collapse. Not here. Here I was drawn on by pure, if sympathetic, morbidness.

    It's not my favorite way to read a writer; it's not how writers prefer to be read. But after finishing the book, curious, I found that even its greatest champion, Tim Holt, reads it that way. He says that's why he likes it most.

    That's the best Ruskin's biographer can fish from the man's life work.

    From political prophet and model prose stylist to human interest story the degradation's ours as much as Ruskin's.

  4. I was surprised when I hit the bit about Whistler.

    All these decades I'd hosted Whistler's version of the story: a victory of wit and art over the opressive Establishment.

    But Whistler wasn't the only presumptious upstart in the case. Ruskin had climbed far in life, it's true; so far that, without realizing it, thrashing in the upper foliage, he'd left behind anything which could support his weight.

    In context, Ruskin's insult was a singular throwaway in an ever less coherent and ever more discountable flood of attacks on enemies much more Established than either disputant. Whistler was flogging a lame horse. The target of his suit would collapse into complete delirium long before the trial took place.

    This revision teaches a lesson worth learning. (Although I needed it more at eighteen.) Our license to rave isn't a sign of fear or respect, but of our fecklessness. Milords, miladies, & Most Reverend and Right Honourable Archbishops needn't soil their gloves chastising the fool. Sooner or later, some other thin-skinned desparate clown will do the job for them, unpaid.

  5. It's the familiar place of the political poet:

    Unseated at the foot of the table, splattered with drumstick grease, wine dregs, and worse.

    And Ruskin's yen for the early Renaissance, his execrations of usury, his frantic vehemence, and the sad curve of his career all forced thoughts of Ezra Pound. (Some people even compare Fors Clavigera with the Cantos, although Pound's post-1930 prose seems a much closer match.)

    Both were convinced they stood on unassailable dignity even when hopping, frothing, screaming mad. They were both very fond of the word "Master". And they shared an abusive pedagogy: Disgusted Ruskin describes himself hammering a nail into our thick skulls; disgusted Pound describes slamming a dick into the passive vulva of London.

  6. The terms differ, though.

    A dirty job that somebody's gotta do: Carpentry or rape?

    Pound wants credit for suffering through a purported source of pleasure.

    And one difference between Ruskin's and Pound's late madworks is who they're aimed at and how: discursive prose for the working class vs. high art for the perceptive elite.

    Both men were pushed off the path of pure aesthetism by the same conviction: Great art can only be created by a great culture, and so a great society must be remade.

    But Pound circles the argument around again to shape and keep a cozy bed. How does one set about creating a great society? Why, by making great art, of course.

  7. Ruskin tried that; it hadn't worked.

    Fors wasn't written as literature or criticism; it documents an attempt to achieve more than words alone achieved, and to actualize fantasy by less comfortable means than continued fantasizing.

    Ruskin's choice was Quixotic, literally. With Quixotic results.

    But Quixote was at least a principled man.

    And, in the end, restricting himself to purely verbal labor protected Pound neither from guilt nor retribution.

  8. Fail fast and principled, or fail slow and loose?

    Best not even go there.

    And so another American I think of's Henry Adams.

    Ruskin was a conservative Christian communist; Adams a "conservative Christian anarchist".

  9. "Conservative."

    The adjective falls oddly against those nouns.

    Ruskin and Adams opposed it to a just-as-obsolete usage of "liberal": "rule by free-market capitalism."

    Outside of academia, it's been obsolete a long while. By Ruskin's time, all major Anglo-American political parties accepted capitalism as a given, and the only economic dispute between "conservative" and "liberal" was, and remains, whether government should provide welfare exclusively to the wealthy or to others as well.

  10. "Christian."

    Although I haven't filled in the spreadsheet, Ruskin directed perhaps his most sustained and violent abuse against church leaders.

    Adams didn't, being more interested in politicians than in evangelicals, and there being, back then, a difference.

    Pound, of course, was a pagan.

    Yet Ruskin, the only fanatic gospel reader of the three, was the only one not to fall into the idiot trap of anti-Semitism. Deluded, he was at least able to clearly see the capitalists two feet in front of him and what churches they attended.

  11. "Communist" or "fascist" if you can imagine a way out.

    "Anarchist" if you can't.

    Despair drives us mad; hope flies there. When Adams referred to himself and his friends as instutionalizable, the joke had teeth. He was careful to restrict his ravings to private letters.

    And he proposed no plan but to watch.

  12. Ruskin's plan:

    Set up an inner nation to survive the crash. Bit by bit, donated acre by unmortgaged acre, volunteer serf by volunteer baron, neo-Medieval economy, religion, culture, and technology would re-establish themselves in England's green and pleasant land.

    The scheme anticipates Hari Seldon, but its goal anticipates the post-apocalyptic pastoral. Over and over, we've imagined the development of low-tech pseudo-feudalism after the big blow-up. Ruskin just wanted to have it ready to pivot into place early on.

  13. No big blow-up's managed the job so far.

    The land which turns swords into ploughshares is always beaten by the land which turns swords into money.

  14. And, although the Guild of St. George manifestly failed to meet its goals, no big blow-up's done it in.

    What Ruskin could build was ridiculously trivial next to his dreams. But he built its trivia soundly, and trivially it still stands.

    In the long disastrous history of attempts to make over society, Ruskin's fiasco counts as success. He managed to erect a molehill instead of a bomb crater.

  15. The pure products of anywhere go crazy.

    Geography's not the issue. The conflict's between purity and productization.

Responses

The Tutor graciously acknowledges the razor-bladed apple on his desk.

. . .

When life makes you a lemon, give lemonade

SPOILER WARNING, but I felt Barbellion finished the Journal properly. (And capped it with the best hiatus announcement in proto-blogging history.) Exclamations and expletives aside, odds are high that "Self-disgust" will be my last thought as well. Although of course one tries to avoid directly addressing a topic that forces polite bystanders to dredge up ineffective protests: it's dull and egocentric and even deadlier to conversation than say dreams or SAT scores or incomes.

The need to not quite express oneself leads I guess to writing but that hardly settles how much is not quite enough. Witness the "careers" of Barbellion or Henry Adams or Jean Eustache or so many others.... Three days ago for example I finished Dickinson's Misery despite the title. (Its true name is Dickinson's Genre. Virginia Walker Jackson justifies "Misery" as a generic metonym, like "Stars" or "Trillion Year" on a book about science fiction , but "Arch Playfulness" marks the same genre just as well, so tush.) While its argumentation may be knotty, it's not the usual loopy; anyway, the real joy's in the archival contextualizations and complications which re-establish Dickinson as unknowable: an Open and therefore Shut Case.

Yesterday for another example I finished an iffy novel by B. S. Johnson, an experiment marred by sloppy procedure, a eulogy uninterested in its subject, instead that imitable B. S. Johnson self-loathing, very understandable too, or "surprisingly accessible" as the critics say, it's the Malcolm Lowry problem, ha, he follows on Joyce and Beckett, but without the grasping or the distancing, we're flipping pages in his head, a fine fat one, still no room to breathe, we know how that ends.

Back to me though, about eighteen years ago for example I emerged upon a new plateau of despair and not long after began to write and then to publish. The triggers are clear enough; the motives are questionable. Just a week ago for example while I was in a frenzy of fatuous blundering the question arose. I have two pat answers and this being a social occasion I deployed the social one: I write to meet people. Now clearly that's false: I wrote before I met people, I write without meeting people, if these are advertisements for myself then they're the sort of ads that never mention what the product does. No, the primary motive must be my other pat answer, to get verbal structures "out of my head." But as I commented to Mr. Waggish ten days ago "out" is a vague word, and what I mean by the pat answer I used I guess is that meeting people is the only reward I receive from writing, which in turn determines the particular type of "out" I'm in: commercial writing pays too little, an academic position would make me go Stanford, and the thrill of seeing my name in print lasts thirty seconds to be followed by years of sore regret over my inability to edit the bylined piece, the unnecessary expense for readers who won't like it, and the unlikelihood of it ever reaching readers who will. Not that I don't suffer sore regret after meeting people but, you know, it's by far the best of the lot.

In conclusion then, The Unfortunates is another, Dickinson's Misery is good, Barbellion is better, and give me a call.

Responses

Call?! I'll see you and raise you!
next time I'm in California, I will.

Holy crap, it works!

. . .

Henry James talks himself into a good mood

Henry Adams to Elizabeth Cameron, 8 March 1914:

I've read Henry James’s last bundle of memories which have reduced me to dreary pulp. Why did we live? Was that all? Why was I not born in central Africa and died young. Poor Henry James thinks it all real, I believe, and actually still lives in that dreamy, stuffy Newport and Cambridge, with papa James and Charles Norton and me! Yet, why!

Henry James to Henry Adams, 21 March 1914:

I have your melancholy outpouring of the 7th, & I know not how better to acknowledge it than by the full recognition of its unmitigated blackness. Of course we are lone survivors, of course the past that was our lives is at the bottom of an abyss if the abyss has any bottom; of course too there’s no use talking unless one particularly wants to. But the purpose, almost, of my printed divagations was to show you that one can, strange to say, still want to or at least can behave as if one did. Behold me therefore so behaving & apparently capable of continuing to do so. I still find my consciousness interesting under cultivation of the interest. Cultivate it with me, dear Henry that’s what I hoped to make you do; to cultivate yours for all that it has in common with mine. Why mine yields an interest I don’t know that I can tell you, but I don’t challenge or quarrel with it I encourage it with a ghastly grin. You see I still, in presence of life (or of what you deny to be such,) have reactions as many as possible & the book I sent you is a proof of them. It’s, I suppose, because I am that queer monster the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility. Hence the reactions appearances, memories, many things go on playing upon it with consequences that I note & ‘enjoy’ (grim word!) noting. It all takes doing & I do. I believe I shall do yet again it is still an act of life. But you perform them still yourself & I don’t know what keeps me from calling your letter a charming one! There we are, and it’s a blessing that you understand
I admit indeed alone
Your all-faithful Henry James

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 2

Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James by J. Hillis Miller

Working at the top of his game, Miller explicates "beautifully," to use the Master's own term for such blends of caution and engagement. (Which is to say "carefully," if, unlike the Master, one prefers ambiguity to vagueness.) I happily recommend Miller's celebration to any non-Jamesians in the mood to understand what they're missing and to any Jamesians in the mood for intelligent companionship.

Even in our contested territory, Miller behaves with probity. When Martha Nussbaum delineates the ideal James reader (and by extension the ideal to which all citizens should aspire), she seems unaware how neatly her terms fit Fanny Assingham and The Sacred Fount's Nameless One. Miller meets both head-on:

We are not all that much better off than Maggie or than the narrator-participant of The Sacred Fount, except that we are permitted by the narrative voice to juxtapose several different perspectives. We have several different acts of reading the signs elaborately presented to us, most notably Fanny's and Maggie's. The Sacred Fount, however, focuses primarily on what is problematic and dismayingly unverifiable about the passive/active event of reading signs, making a global interpretation of a presented social scene, and then establishing a law of interpersonal exchange on that basis. The Golden Bowl focuses more on the way a reading of social signs can be performatively felicitous if others can be got to believe it or to act as if they believe it.

The book achieves its goals and cannot step outside them without rupturing genre boundaries. Miller must leave one strand dangling:

When her husband asks what will be his punishment, Fanny answers, somewhat contradictorily: "Nothing you're not worthy of any. One's punishment is in what one feels, and what will make ours effective is that we shall feel." ... If we are unimaginative readers, we can escape responsibility, but only by being grossly irresponsible. Either way we have had it, in a painful double bind that might lead one to conclude it would be better not to read The Golden Bowl at all.

I believe that conclusion should be taken seriously. For one thing, it reflects social reality: most people have not read The Golden Bowl at all. Even literate English-speakers of James's own time tended to leave James's novels unread; some did so with great vehemence. Is there anything to be said for someone (not our dear selves, I hasten to add) who refuses to become "the thoughtful reader of The Golden Bowl. I mean the reader who sees reading literature as James in the preface sees writing it, that is, as a particularly exigent and responsible part of 'the conduct of life'"?

Testimony isn't lacking should the unthoughtful reader seek it. James is dithering; James is timid; James would rather risk incoherence than risk coming to the point. James is a grotesquely pompous peeping-tom, unwilling to assume the responsibility of physical contact and unable to stop nosing around others' sex lives. James is an un-American sissy.

(That last would be Theodore Roosevelt's critique, and yes, I find it offensive. But given his offensive starting point, I can't argue with it any more than I can with the tastes of a later Roosevelt. Henry James and the Roosevelts aimed at different lives and different afterlives. They also serve who don't just stand and wait.)

Having admitted the possibility of refusal, let's tot up the benefits accruing to our own more enlightened status. We can begin with James himself; although he lacked Harlan Ellison reflexes, occasionally an attack did sting him into the indignity of self-defense. I've already had the pleasure of transcribing two examples; here's a very brief third, to his brother:

I’m always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, and always hope you won't you seem to me so constitutionally unable to ‘enjoy’ it, and so condemned to look at it from a point of view remotely alien to mine in writing it, and to the conditions out of which, as mine, it has inevitably sprung.... And yet I can read you with rapture

Written to three very different skeptics, they all follow the same course: James points to his absolute certainty that he, Henry James, experiences life in a certain way and had no choice but to write what he wrote, that the only way for him to not do these things would be to not be Henry James, but that, as Henry James, he's not restricted to a diet of Henry James but delights even in the work of naysayers. Henry James was often sad and often disappointed, but Henry-James-ism was enough to provide inexhaustible and inextinguishable comfort:

If one acts from desire quite as one would from belief, it signifies little what name one gives to one's motive. By which term action I mean action of the mind, mean that I can encourage my consciousness to acquire that interest, to live in that elasticity and that affluence, which affect me as symptomatic and auspicious. I can't do less if I desire, but I shouldn't be able to do more if I believed. Just so I shouldn't be able to do more than cultivate belief; and it is exactly to cultivation that I subject my hopeful sense of the auspicious; with such success or at least with such intensity as to give me the splendid illusion of doing something myself for my prospect, or at all events for my own possibility, of immortality.

Which is to say that your objections would vanish if you could become "that queer monster," Henry James.

Well! This is an admirably modest argument which establishes an enviable position. But it has one flaw: most of us will not become Henry James. And that may be just as well. A world full of Henry Jameses, or even a summer house full of Henry Jameses, sounds a bit stifling. As Paul Kerschen once said, you need at least one dangerously naive young lady as leaven.

Henry James himself, of course, had no choice but to speak exclusively for himself; he was too polite to subpoena character witnesses. The curious thing is that Miller's defense also occasionally relies on muddling just who's doing what: "the reader who sees reading literature as James in the preface sees writing it" will surely be disappointed by her royalty statements.

We'll encounter this muddle again, but for now let us instead assume that reading Henry James will not make us Henry James. How else might we be influenced?

We cannot successfully "be one of the people on whom nothing is lost" because there will always be something going on outside our focal range, and a good thing too. Instead, James suggests trying to be such a person; that is, attempting to lose nothing of our particular small slice of existence. As role models, Henry James's late protagonists do almost nothing but look at and think about occasions that have been carefully selected and arranged for their benefit. As role players who are reading Henry James, we will look at and think about James's pages, carefully selected and arranged for our benefit. Monkey see, monkey sit.

And so to the extent that an ethics is directly derivable from Henry James, it happens to be the ethics of academic criticism and academic philosophy. His novels lend the characteristic activity of scholarship the glamor of narrative. But when his reader is "put on trial," it's merely play. The ethical difficulties of fiction are to the ethical difficulties of life as Tabasco sauce is to firefighting.

Let's look up from our book and imagine a common everyday example of inaction like ignoring a crying child. We may be exhausted, resentful, and drunk. We may be an Objectivist who knows that indulging our sentimentality would bring disaster upon the adult-to-be and perhaps the world! We may be a devout Christian who believes it up to the Lord to decide the little angel's fate. We may be a novelist, finishing our thousand words for the day. Or we may be a critical pedagogue intent on settling questions like "Did Maggie do right? Did she act justly? Was her perjury an efficacious speech act? Was it 'felicitous'?"

Should one consider "conduct" not merely a matter of interpretive protocols but also a matter of how one behaves, one should go on to consider that the loudest champion of James's late work was Ezra Pound.

Responses

Josh Lukin writes:

"the indignity of self-defense" -- you mean, writing stuff like "Limited Inc a b c"? Derrida certainly had "Harlan Ellison reflexes," thanks no doubt to a similar background . . .

The translator must've left out the part about breaking Searle's kneecaps.

To misquote a prof of aesthetics, "Beware of ethicists, they always want to bend at the knee."

Wendy Walker writes:

I have always remembered the injunction "Try to be...." as "A writer is someone upon whom nothing is wasted." Either James wrote that somewhere else, or I have amended it in my very creative memory. I do remember his saying this in conjunction to the relation of a a scene from his childhood-- He was playing with a little girl who was a friend and her father came to get her and tell her it was time to go. She started to fuss and cry, because she wanted to keep on playing with little Henry. Her father admonished her strictly, "Lizzie (or whatever her name was), don't make a scene!" James dates his understanding of what "a scene" is from that moment.

The importance of this in the context of your essay rests upon the nuance of the word "lost"-- "wasted" implies recycling, whereas "lost" does not, and I do wonder if James didn't mean "lost" in the sense of "wasted" rather than in the sense in which you interpret it. It is one thing to use a book or experience to become a "better person" but quite another to use it to make another book. I have always assumed that he meant the latter.

Although my prose hopelessly obscures the point, I agree with you as to James's intent: he explicitly addressed the novice writer rather than the general public. My quarrel is not with James's words but with Nussbaum's and Miller's interpretations, which erase any such distinction.

2017-08-13: The always welcome Josh Lukin afterthinks:

A scholar of radical sympathies, bouleversé by a colleague's reverence for Nussbaum, once asked me, "Whom is she *talking* to?" "Uh, Richard Epstein and other Chicago Libertarians?" "And has she persuaded them yet?"

. . .

The Price of Admissions

Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon; translated by Michael Lucey
Sketch for a Self-Analysis by Pierre Bourdieu; translated by Richard Nice
The Bachelors' Ball: The Crisis of Peasant Society in Béarn by Pierre Bourdieu;
translated by Richard Nice

I came to Sketch for a Self-Analysis via

now, why would anyone feel compelled to begin in such a fashion? Do I presume that you (assuming you exist at all) care much, much more about me than you do about Pierre Bourdieu? Do I consider my trivial consumer decisions a "STORY THAT MUST BE TOLD!"?

Partly, I guess, I want to limit the implied context of the particular experience being described, so as to deny any pretense of authority drawn from a broader, less private context.

Of course that excuse-making dragged us even further from the point not yet at hand. As friends have sometimes informed me, apologizing at length for the nuisance of one's existence merely compounds the crime. Vanishing from view while signaling lack-of-authority (vice-signaling?) poses a knotty formal problem. Maybe that's why collage offers such a satisfying approach to the lyric-discursive.

Not for the particular experience I'd like to describe, however, and so, passing by that garbage strewn over the front yard, here we are (assuming you're here).

I came to Sketch for a Self-Analysis via references in Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon, which I came to because it had been recommended by someone somewhere at some time and I'd gotten that far down the recommendations list. By the time I reach an item I usually retain no memory as to why it's there, but a few pages of Eribon were enough to tell me it earned its place due to his status as what we call hereabouts a "first gen student" or elsewhereabouts a "class traitor."

Eribon's earlier book, Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, described the process of claiming identification with a label previously only applied as (and for) punishment how one might escape from a familial world of violent intolerance to an affinity-based world of volition while still carrying tools and scars (not always distinguishable) from the Bad Times.

In contrast, Returning to Reims attempts to re-claim (or at least acknowledge) identification with what he'd escaped: the racist, homophobic, unschooled, barely-scraping-by world of his childhood and adolescence. The phrase "coming out of the class closet" toddles easily to mind, but the two processes differed wildly in costs and rewards: by the end of this outing Eribon may have become able to see his mother and drop the posh accent more often, but he's not going to stop reading books and start working seventy hours a week at a precarious chain of shitty service jobs, pausing occasionally to be assaulted by drunks. His "return" sanely doesn't entail reimprisonment.

The book is fine, it achieves its intentions with reviewer-friendly smoothness. Unantagonizing; unrevelatory. Except, for me, in revealing two unsuspected bits about Pierre Bourdieu.

First, that Bourdieu was another issue of less-than-higher-educated stock: in his case, the agricultural peasantry of Béarn; in Eribon's, the factory workers of Reims. I'd presumed a securer home base for Bourdieu: I'd taken offense at his character-type of The Oblate the character-type who, under a pound of pancake makeup and a flattering pink spotlight, finally got its big break as John Williams's insipid Stoner and surmised it the product of snobbery along the long lines which stretch from Byron and Arnold to Yeats and Woolf. I should have recognized the extra tincture of venom in Bourdieu's portrait for what it was.

Secondly, and of more immediate interest, that Bourdieu's final book took himself as subject despite his loathing of autobiography. You see, for two years now I've struggled with a project whose goal sounds awfully autobiographical even though the idea of an autobiography sounds awful to me. Even the Henry Adams gambit sounds awful to me. Did Bourdieu find a swipeable way around that dilemma?

* * *

Sadly for both of us, Bourdieu did not. He put up a brave front, that's certain enough. "I do not intend to indulge in the genre of autobiography" opens the text; "This is not an autobiography" headlines the back cover. But as Jesse Carlson wrote in a well-judged review:

Bourdieu’s intention is to be both unconventional and genuine. It does not take an unusually exercised critic to note that such a claim could not be, for the genre of autobiography, any more conventional.

His most strenuous attempts to avoid the "personal" translate as interminable "professional" grousing: humble-brags, catalogued slights, the grossly preferential treatment given name after name I've never heard of none of which sits comfortably with Bourdieu's unacknowledged but thoroughly evident fame and power. The most successful pages of the book are instead the most straightforwardly autobiographical, and they come close to providing a Unified Bourdieu Theory.1

Unlike Eribon, young Bourdieu wasn't driven to upward mobility by desperation: he and his father clearly loved each other; he even uses the phrase "childhood paradise." Offered the chance of a definitive break with his past, he chose near the beginning of his career to instead re-declare (in his own mind) allegiance with it albeit a resentful allegiance, which granted him assured pride in his own down-to-earth hands-on no-fucking-round "sociological" fieldwork while somehow continuing to envy blowhards who engaged in the type of "philosophical" showboating that makes him sick. Even his notoriously ugly prose style begins to look deliberate, an attenuated version of that familiar counteroffensive against prejudice, the hyper-confirmation of stereotype: camping it up; shucking and jiving; the sub-Gomer yokel gawking at skyscrapers; the droning engineer and clumsy peasant. As a position, it's incoherent, but as a flavor mix I recognize good old home cooking.

The conflict itself manifested well before he found a way to more-or-less resolve it. Like Eribon, Bourdieu exhibited behavior which would be called "biting the hand that feeds you" by those who consider us dogs:

Perhaps because I loved it too much, the ambiguous alma mater provoked a violent and constant revolt, springing from debt and disappointment, which manifested itself in a whole series of crises, particularly at the time of examinations or in situations of academic solemnity, [...] which, by triggering the unease provoked by the tacitly imperative expectation of the signs of submission (what Spinoza called obsequium, the pure respect for institutional forms that institutions demand above all else, of which people say, in reproachful tones, that ‘it costs nothing’ and which costs me an infinite amount), bring out my hankering for dissidence, the temptation to spoil the game. And how can I not include in that series the refusal to submit to the unthinkable rite of the submission of a thesis, which I justified to myself with Kafka’s axiom: ‘Do not present yourself before a court whose verdict you do not recognize’? [...]

It is not the only time in my life when I have had the sense of being constrained by a greater force to do something that cost me dearly and the need for which was felt only by me.

Given this two-out-of-two sample population, and the sample population I've seen elsewhere, I wonder why Bourdieu's portrait of the oblate wasn't evil-twinned by a portrait of the smart-kid-bad-student, eager to sabotage himself so long as he can bring a bit of the institution down with him. Like his self-conscious burial of grand theses and celebrity critiques in footnotes or parenthetical remarks, it seems more an assertion of control than of humility. He is the boy that can enjoy invisibility.

Until this book, that is. The honest self-effacing work of interviews and number-crunching find no justification in a "self-analysis," or even a "self-socioanalysis." Bereft of that protective armor, Sketch is an unhappy, unsatisfied work, missing steps and lumbering under the weight of Bourdieu's discomfort. The mood brightens only when it memorializes the three ethnographic studies, published across three decades, of Bourdieu's home province, the Béarn.

Their personal associations triggered his characteristic guardedness "which led me to refuse to this day any republication of texts whose appearance in scholarly journals with small circulation protected them against malicious or voyeuristic readings" but at the end of his life he must have reconsidered, because they were collected and published as his next-to-final book, The Bachelors' Ball.

* * *

And yes, after l'emmerdement of the Sketch, The Bachelors' Ball comes as blessed relief. In the initial, novella-length 1962 article, you sense his simultaneous embrace of habitus-past and habitus-future, bringing the fiancé back home for one triumphant final visit with the folks before emigration it almost bounces (in a thudding Bourdieu sort of bounce) with energetic engagement.

Like most of the ethnography I've read, it's also melancholic: acknowledging the rigidity of the old ways; mourning the loss of the old ways. But in this setting at least, Bourdieu seems glad to be unhappy. For someone you adore, it's a pleasure to be sad.

The quietly criminal pleasure of self-exposure by proxy is familiar enough from, oh, pretty much all types of writing? The bruise-kneading comfort a displaced person draws from ethnographic situating of that dissed place is a more specialized thing, but not unheard of or (in this case) unviewed.

The solidarity between inhabitants of the same neighbourhood was also expressed at the time of collective labours houdjère (from houdja, to hoe) and liguère, the hoeing and binding of the vines in the course of which the groups of workers alternated their singing from one hillside to the other, pélère, the slaughter and processing of the pig, ...

I find no evidence that Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Eustache ever met or even heard of each other, which just goes to show. Both spent childhood in rural areas: Eustache's Pessac is 120 miles north of Bourdieu's Béarn. Both were uprooted at pubescence and replanted in hostile ground: Bourdieu at age eleven to a boarding school in the nearest "big city" (Pau, population about 40,000 at that time), Eustache at age twelve to his not-noticeably-maternal mother and her lover in Narbonne. And both revisited their lost Edens early in their chosen careers and returned again a decade later: Bourdieu with the papers of The Bachelors' Ball, Eustache with the short films La Rosière de Pessac of 1968 and La Rosière de Pessac of 1979.

Like Eribon and Bourdieu, Eustache was a bright kid raised in anti-academic surroundings; unlike them he received no scholarship: Eustache was forced out of school at age 14 and never returned. He was never gifted the luxury of bourgeois arriviste guilt; instead he took lateral class mobility into low-budget-libertine bohemia.

In conclusion Jean Eustache was an unhappy man who made unhappy movies. Funny as hell sometimes, but with the humor of a miserable fuck.

You read a one-line summary of a one-hour cinéma vérité documentary devoted entirely to showing a communal hog slaughter followed by sausagemaking, in a chilly bleak landscape, with human speech represented by grunts in an unknown and unsubtitled dialect, and you'd anticipate the usual ghastliness but more so.

Certainly the hog looks aghast. And yet Le Cochon strikes me as by far the least miserable of Eustache's credits I might even call it comforted.

I used to think that was another sign of Eustache's perversity. Now it seems only-to-be-expected. The comfort, like the concept and the homecoming, might originate with co-director Jean-Michel Barjol. Nevertheless its survival means Eustache felt able to share it.

* * *

Having established "your" interest in my trivial consumer decisions and producer obstacles, "you'll" be fascinated to learn that I've struggled to write about Jean Eustache for twenty-five years, and that to one extent or another all of Eustache's work is autobiographical.

But I don't want to swipe his gambit, either. Too many suicides.

1   Not that close, though. A centrally-placed pimple-sized singularity interrupts Bourdieu's Sketch:

But I cannot not say it here — all these reasons are in part only the relay and rationalization of a deeper reason or cause: a very cruel unhappiness which brought the irremediable into the childhood paradise of my life and which, since the 1950s, has weighed on every moment of my existence, [...] This means to say that, without ever being mendacious, the descriptions and explanations that I have so far given remain inaccurate and partial inasmuch as all my behaviours [...] were overdetermined (or subtended) by the inner desolation of solitary grief: [...] And what I have said here of the causes or reasons of each of the experiences described, such as my Algerian adventures or my scientific enthusiasm, also masks the subterranean impulse and the secret intention that were the hidden face of a double life.

If this tease of a confession had been written before 1930 or so, it would be easy to decode as homosexuality or masturbation. It may refer to his six years in boarding school, although Bourdieu waits another twenty pages before describing them and never makes the connection explicit. As is, what it most clearly conveys is the desire to hide his heart and eat it too.

. . .

Contraction : 1973 1976

Thus further constraints need to be applied to attempt to separate useful information (to be retained) from noise (to be discarded). This will naturally translate to non-zero reconstruction error.
- "Stacked Denoising Autoencoders" by Pascal Vincent, Hugo Larochelle, Isabelle Lajoie, Yoshua Bengio, Pierre-Antoine Manzagol

Braymer C-4 High School offered no advanced placement classes and no foreign language instruction. (Although librarian Mary Margaret McAllister could've taught French, doing so would have forced the school to raise her salary.) The irresistibly caricaturable math teacher, Duane Clodfelter (affectionately called "Felter" after he forbade us to affectionately call him "Clod"), only rehashed what I'd already learned, but did so well enough to fetch yearly trophies from the state mathematics championship. (Yes, there was such a thing.) The English teacher's favorite works of literature were Mandingo and Gone with the Wind; most of the other teachers were far worse. Aside from one touch-typing course, formal education had come to an end and I was left to my own devices.

Devices were thin on the ground. The bulk of the school library was assembled at the turn of the century, as close to a heyday as Braymer ever got Artemus Ward and William Dean Howells; Thomson, Cowper, Whittier, and Longfellow although somehow one paperback of Leonard Cohen's pre-crooner verse had slunk in; I read the sauciest bits aloud to prove that Poetry Is Cool.

The nearest public library was in Chillicothe, population 9500, about forty minutes away, and I relied on my parents' occasional shopping trips to get there. They were usually willing to drop me off for an hour or more, though, the collection was surprisingly ambitious,1 and the person responsible, Ms. DesMarias, became a supportive friend, gifting me with castoffs and lending Finnegans Wake unstamped from a locked cabinet. (Because local book-burners relied on a list last updated in the 1930s, filth-monger James Joyce needed to be kept off shelves where Berger, Pynchon, and Updike were safe.)

My own collection lacked funding. The queue for a grocery store job was years long, and the only farm chore I could handle was slapstick comedy: set the hook in the bale and get yanked off the flatbed; set the hook in the bale and get yanked off the flatbed.... The year before it closed for good, I picked up some cash as a substitute projectionist at my uncle's and aunt's movie theater. (A kid with a tremor maintaining a carbon-arc projector was probably more suspenseful than anything on the screen.) Then I pitched a local history column to the Braymer Bee.2 None of these ventures brought in much.

Walks or cycling offered little escape, since the town was empty of scenery but rife with untrained, unleashed, unfenced dogs. If I wasn't in the back yard with our own unleashed and unfenced dogs, I could sit with Grandma next door while she read her stories (True Confessions) or watched her stories (General Hospital, Beverly Hillbillies, All My Children). On a weekend, I might play chess with a friend at his family farm. Or, and mostly, I could pace my basement bedroom.

In short (ha!) I'd been sentenced to four years in a minimum security prison. And as a prisoner I now had two duties:

  1. To survive until I could get out.
  2. To resist to the furthest extent compatible with my primary duty.

For the first time, then, my ambitions coincided with those of my classmates. Bullying dwindled from a minute-by-minute concern to an occasional issue in gym.


I'd tried to keep my musical tastes on the can't-wait-to-grow-up straight-and-narrow classical, lounge, and show tunes but Braymer wasn't reached by the necessary radio stations. No matter how I studied Conrad L. Osborne in Chillicothe discards, I couldn't listen to what I couldn't hear, and I needed to hear something other than my chorus of inner hecklers.

The early-1970s rock market welcomed cynicism, petulance, and gossip. Since satire was a traditionally mixed genre with wide allowances for crudity and sketchiness, I wisely advised myself that satirical top-of-the-pops entries made aesthetic sense even if the rest of it was garbage.

After a few months living with that constraint, the "satire" label having already directed my geek gaze away from (or through) artifacts as pure virtuosic-thingies-in-a-vacuum and towards a shared outside, I widened it to include more of their implied worlds: jealous songs ethnographically sampled the alien workings and sales of jealousy, boastful songs demonstrated the alien workings of confidence, and so on.

As for having a good beat and being able (or at least eager) to dance to it, I'd always bobbed like a parrot to Gould's Bach and Toscanini's Beethoven, so no issues there.

Aside from any immediate and intermediate gains, the general method search for an unlocked window or easily jimmied door; enter; make yourself at home; start dropping in on the neighbors was applicable to other new territories, even if, for political reasons or out of pure cussedness, I didn't always apply it.

And a few months later still, I found discursive models in the Meltzered/Bangsian school of rock-crit, which acknowledged celebrated, even, in its morose or desperate way the triune of historical context, tenacious artifact, and fleshly encounter: indissoluble in itself; remixable as fresh context.


While pacing through my third year of exile, I had what might be described as an original thought, the first of my life and the most rewarding:3

The time capsule of my high school library established that America's nineteenth-century canon as currently defined differed in almost every respect from the canon chosen by the nineteenth century itself.

And in my limited wandering through the realms of what I'll call for convenience "Modernism" and "1970s New York Times Book Review recommendations," I repeatedly felt a deflation of energy, of risk, of interest in the latter, a diagnosis that even its practitioners sometimes admitted.

Rather than contemporary literature having attained a unique and history-ending exhaustion, what if it was merely the latest in a long sequence of self-inflicted delusions of exhaustion? In the twentieth century, the nineteenth century canon had been sweetened by sources distrusted or inaccessible in their own time: failed or trivial genre exercises; self-published, barely published, or manuscript-only oddities. What would I find if I looked for their contemporary equivalents not in search of "lively junk" or "mind candy," not with the condescension of Leslie Fiedler's nod to science fiction or Gilbert Seldes's nod to jazz, but instead by granting ambitious practitioners their self-awareness?

Would-be-vocational pride 4 suggested poetry as a starting point, but gathering a critical mass of publications smaller-pressed than APR was impossible from central Missouri. (In fact, I didn't find an opportunity until life placed me and disposable income within walking distance of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop.) Westerns, romances, spy thrillers, and porn were almost as daunting. It seemed more efficient to survey one of the genres I'd read in prepubescence, mysteries or science fiction, since I already had some idea (even if inadequate) of the lay of their lands, both were well represented in the Chillicothe library, and both were widely available in relatively affordable paperbacks.

From mysteries, I remembered a noticeable mid-career shift in my childhood favorite, Ellery Queen, towards to overstate the case in the way of latter-day superhero comics maturity, realism, complexity, and relevance.5 That didn't give much to go on, though, and it would be another year before I bought a battered copy of The Long Goodbye (from the same garage sale as a battered copy of The Golden Hits of Leslie Gore; that garage had good taste), and another decade before I first read Patricia Highsmith.

On the other hand, my junior-high transition from science fiction had carried over more than one intriguing oddity Dangerous Visions and Fun With Your New Head, for example and its anthologies were easy to find and easy to track leads from.

As it happened, the world science fiction convention was being held in Kansas City later that year. If I could arrange transport, that might make a nice follow-up to the summer session classes I'd gotten permission to take at Mizzou.

Timing was good in another way as well: for sf as well as film, broad distribution of experimental work crested in the mid-1970s, and both New Waves would soon meet breakwaters engineered, in part, by some other MidAmeriCon attendees.

1  An error long since rectified.

2  When I reached the only interesting thing that had ever happened, I strove to maintain journalistic/scholarly objectivity, and succeeded so well that Mormons slimed me with grateful letters for years afterward. Thus I learned that journalistic/scholarly objectivity is really not my thing.

3  Directly or indirectly it brought me good reading, a social media presence, a lover, admittance to college, and, twenty years later, a shortlived (but paid!) monthly column.

4  I presumed that anyone as word-obsessed as myself must be a poet, following a line of thought similar to Lord Wendover's "Any gentleman with an estate and ten thousand a year should have a peerage."

5  Later I learned that this shift occurred around the same time the partnership behind "Ellery Queen" began farming their pseudonym to other artisans, including Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson.



Expansion : 1976 1977

And that we are of Love's generation
There are manifest manifold signs. We have wings, and with us have the Loves habitation;
And manifold fair young folk that forswore love once, ere the bloom of them ended,
Have the men that pursued and desired them subdued, by the help of us only befriended,
With such baits as a quail, a flamingo, a goose, or a cock's comb staring and splendid.
- "Grand Chorus of Birds from Aristophanes,"
attempted in English verse after the original metre by Algernon Charles Swinburne

When I and another dorm resident pilgrimaged to the Columbia Anarchist League that summer, we found it sharing quarters with a naked woman who avoided conversation and with a member (or possibly the entirety) of the local Communist Party, who jovially assured me that Come the Revolution my sort would be first in front of the firing squad.

I saw both their points, and still do.


This is intended to be the origin story of an "image," not a Pooteriad, a Real-Life Top Ten-Zillion, an Apologia Pro Vita Mea, or My Life & Loves. It concerns the development of a survival tactic rather than what I did while surviving. Accordingly I'll knapp the wantons down.

Even if I don't inappropriately-touch on sexual practices, though, I at least need to skirt them. As lawyers and reviewers used to say, they are "essential to the storyline."

When my first lover launched herself at me in reassuringly unambiguous (if inexplicable)1 fashion, I anticipated some sort of relief. But solo training hadn't prepared me for the immersive expanse of that relief: a hitherto unknown knowledge of acceptance, affection, and communication, both verbal and not; an anything-fits-anywhere! security as incontestably Real as a low-hanging ceiling or an unexpected step and yet not painful. Love served as shelter and shield even from a distance: my final oral surgeries were far less nerve-wracking than earlier installments.

Most unexpectedly, love brought silence. Throughout my life, my skull's been occupied by a 24-hour-theater unspooling and respooling an ever-extended can't-stop-won't-stop shuffle play of blooper reels with commentary every private or public shame, every slight whether deservedly received by me or unjustly given by me, every mild embarrassment or grievous crime or grevious mispronunciation sometimes deafening, sometimes subsiding to tinnitus, but always, always ready to intrude. And for the first time, rather than drowning it out or yelling over it, I could walk away.


In my senior year, Braymer C-4 dropped even the pretense of education. Mr. Clodfelter tried to prepare me and a few other students for calculus, an effort which proved about as effective as Charlie Chaplin's pre-fight warm-up. Otherwise it was gym and four study halls. I read, or I chatted with Mary Margaret McAllister, or we mocked the white-supremacist propaganda sheet someone had subscribed the library to, or I wrote letters to my lover or to zines, or I searched for a college.


My slot for a grocery job had finally come up, providing some financial relief. Even so I could only afford two final-application fees for out-of-state schools. I winnowed the target list to Haverford (as a twofer with Bryn Mawr) and Vassar.

Vassar's alumna decided on a group interview and hosted an afternoon garden party of applicants, most of whom dressed in some indefinably alien fashion, kept their hands steady near the glassware, and (I later came to understand) attended private schools. I suppose she meant to learn which of us would be "a good match," who would best "fit in" at Vassar, and I suppose she did so.

The Haverford alumnus met me at a diner, and then drove us around the neighborhood to extend the conversation. Topics ranged widely, but included a compare-and-contrast between modes of feminist satire in Russ's Female Man and Delany's Triton.

In his congratulatory letter after acceptance, the alum hoped I'd be able to sustain my idealism. In turn I hope that good-hearted man never found out.


The summer of '77 was glorious: I'd escaped high school, I'd finalized financial aid for Haverford, and I attended summer sessions in my lover's home city, just a bike ride away from Planned Parenthood. A survey class which included Chekhov and Ibsen was particularly enjoyable, even when its teacher tried to guilt-trip me about intellectuals who deserted their homeland in its hour (or centuries) of need.

In contrast, I don't remember I and my lover worrying much about it. Her parents were academics, mine were military, and so the thought of extended separations was maybe less alien than it would've been to our neighbors. I hadn't yet read enough Burroughs to predict what symptoms might accompany abrupt cessation of a universal anodyne. And neither of us could have imagined the grotesque mash-up of Goodbye Columbus and The Rocky Horror Show at our relationship's terminus. We were far too clever to risk anything so humiliating.

1  Turns out she was a Bud Cort fan. More generally, this was the era when Woody Allen and David Bowie were male sex symbols, and body-builders were considered asexual freaks created for the delectation of gay guys. "Golden Years" indeed....



The Philosopher's Calculus, or Stone : 1977 1980

Fear of the irrational undoubtedly feeds on our lack of knowledge, but above all on those points of omission, on a certain impatience that keeps us from penetrating to the heart of the operative by confusing learning with the talent for rapidly consuming an "informational content." But to learn is to prepare oneself to learn what one in some way already knows. and to put oneself into such a state where the connection between things reverberates in the connection of the mind. The operation is not at first given as an arrow that links a source to a target, but rather emerges in the places where variables become merged and get tangled up without being policed by parentheses.
- Figuring Space (Les enjeux du mobile) by Gilles Châtelet
Have I no weapon-word for thee some message brief and fierce?
(Have I fought out and done indeed the battle?) Is there no shot left,
For all thy affectations, lisps, scorns, manifold silliness?
Nor for myself my own rebellious self in thee?
- "To the Pending Year" by Walt Whitman

The next few years were the most intellectually transformative, emotionally mercurial, and socially toxic of my existence, which I suppose is only to be expected when an eighteen-year-old autodidact is removed from years of rural seclusion (but not the gentlemanly sort) and deposited in two of America's finest colleges and near one of America's largest cities.

In that despised and now inconceivable final phase of public support for education, financial aid flowed but first-gen student advising did not. Ten years after I graduated, I discovered that my fellow students considered collaborative reverse-engineering of textbook-and-chalkboard proofs as essential for mathematics as language drills were for French or German classes. If I'd known, maybe I wouldn't have squandered so many opportunities.

On the other hand, who am I kidding? I was a stubborn cuss, and my introduction to the mores of prep-schooled young men the differences money made and the differences it didn't had started me on the cynical foot, a stance reinforced when Haverford's presidency passed from two-fisted activist Jack Coleman to dispiriting English toad Robert Bocking Stevens. Told what could be gained from a study group, I'd have said, "Who wants to hang out with math majors? It's bad enough I have to hang out with myself."

As was, I envisioned "college" as that phase of life in which massive blunders incur relatively minor penalties, and I behaved accordingly.

The result was the Great Work advertised by my self-assigned Yeats-and-Joyce-centered curriculum (pursued alongside a full externally-assigned course load): mortared and pestled; flamed and boiled in shit; buried to ferment; seasoned to taste. The most practiced of my little loves once confided on our way out of bed that she'd described me to her mother, a research psychologist, as "probably psychotic," and what shocked me about that was the idea of anyone disclosing their own life to their own parents.

If only to warn young people against the dangers of unsupervised reading, I suppose I should mention the precipitant of my greatest tumble, after which I saw only a choice of downhill slides: an all-out unrequited amour fou, an experience never to be repeated and best avoided in the first place. It's not that the Tudor poets and Baudelaire and Dowson and Yeats and the Confessionals and so on made the idea sound exactly desirable; more, I think, that there are only so many times you can rehearse a part before you put on the show.

Let's keep the rest on ice; there's way too much here for one meal. As a placeholder, though, and because COVID-19 isolation's got me nervy, and because I'm sick to death of writing without any identifiable human beings other than "I" and "me," and most people skip Acknowledgments anyway so no harm done, I'd like to cite some names. Bless this bed that I lie on.

Over away from Dane
Axe Edge sends down the Dove,
gathers the Manifold
and lets it slip
through complexity;
the hills in their turns tantalise

and instruct, then the learning
dissolves. There's no
holding it all.
- A Furnace, by Roy Fisher


Graduation : 1980 1982

No more education was possible for either man. Such as they were, they had got to stand the chances of the world they lived in; and when Adams started back to Cambridge to take up again the humble tasks of schoolmaster and editor he was harnessed to his cart. Education, systematic or accidental, had done its worst. Henceforth, he went on, submissive.
The Education of Henry Adams: a Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity

As my dropout year drew to its close, I took inventory:

This was as soft as a hardscrabble bohemian life was ever going to get. And I had not found the experience productive; it was not conducive to inspiration. All I'd achieved was that list of unpleasantries.

There was no way around it. Insofar as I had anything to offer existence (and we'll set that question aside for the nonce), I'd need a steady income.


Entry to the allegedly non-capitalist sanctuary of Academe was barred by its Customs department: I considered grades and required classes cruel mockeries of education, and had resolved never to become a perpetrator.

Thanks to my tremor and lack of sustain, physical labor was out, as were (due to different uncorrectable flaws) most of the worthwhile jobs open to mouthy intellectuals. (Nowadays I guess I might find hire as the concern troll equivalent of an agent provocateur, but that sounds even less attractive than grifting throwaway money from a venture capitalist.)

I was rarely picked for retail positions, and when I won one, I'd be fired within the month. Having been cursed with a rubber, stage-ready face that exaggerates any fleeting emotion, I couldn't hide contempt and hostility well enough to keep any other sort of service job, either.

It would have to be some sort of clerical position, then, and I'd need a degree to paper over my too-evident defects. Petite bourgeoisie or bust!

And to obtain that degree, I'd need to clean up my act for the sake of the kiddies, stop flinging my Sad-Harpo-Marx seduction technique at all and sundry, buckle down more and under less.

But before and beyond all that, I needed then as I needed later, as I need now to invent some "justification" is too presumptuous a word some motivation which could be reconciled with my life as stubbornly lived: one which has always compulsively extracted, deformed, misapplied, modified, inverted, ripped, and generally not-left-the-fuck-alone abstract verbal models which then, in their own right, tend to go all Frankenstein's monster on my sorry ass.


Before the fiction grew threadbare, announcing myself as poet was meant to signal harmless redundancy. If asked to elaborate, I'd declare an ambition to be a minor poet not a prophet, not a School-of-Me founder with a job at the Post Office 1 and an apartment which could host friends. Downscale Eddie FitzGerald, not shitkickin' Al Tennyson.

Later, stripped of laurel and intimates, I sought guidance in others from that narrow intersection of people I admired and people I felt akin to: the exceptionists, the easily ignored; those who pursued eccentric interests or contributed to essential goals in oddly irrelevant ways; amusements or annoyances to more important names.

But I anticipate. Returning to 1980:

I'm only of use as a persuasively dissenting voice, but I must never be so persuasive as to dominate.2 If I couldn't talk I had nothing to contribute, but left unmuzzled I was a menace to the community. Well! A short leash, then, and a fenced yard for exercise. Try to avoid battlegrounds which might incur meaningful casualties. Reserve untrammeled discourse for nearest-and-dearests, preferably as I decided not long afterward, post facto, based on new evidence, per SOP preferably within the safe all-accepting bounds of a monogamous sexual relationship, where static build-ups and short circuits could be grounded by bed.

I didn't necessarily want to be worthless, but if that was the price of pointlessness, so be it.


The advent of this story's shaggy "Rosebud" dogsled, the "image", wasn't memorable. As previously admitted, it's been a cheap sturdy utilitarian thing for daily use, like my father's CPO mug, not a major purchase or knock-me-down Damascan reveal.

I know for certain that by the fall of 1980 I was keeping it within reach: an easily graspable and transportable geometric reminder of the insufficiency of logical discourse, and geometric hint as to how that insufficiency might be addressed and deployed, and then subjected to reminder. A surveying tool for local maxima.


I re-entered college and lightened my course load.

With fewer sins to confess, there was less impetus to poeticize, and I diverted attention to my role as lyricist and lead vocalist in my friends' rock band. (I was lead vocalist because I had the least semblance of talent and the most brazen disregard for public humiliation. It was a very traditional rock band.)

Early in 1981 I wrote a song paying homage to my new lover. In honor of those of her friends and family who quite reasonably doubted my worth as boyfriend material, I also drew imagery from those exemplars of disappointing promise, Orson Welles and John Barth. That referential weave kept the lyrics memorable, and on long walks the happy yowl of its third verse still sometimes sets my pace:

After she hits the end of the funhouse or gets lost in the road,
The mirrors will be dusted and the ditches will be mowed.
Oh, but anything worthwhile must be empty, base, and vain!
Extremities are foolish. Even fools get paid.

1  Reagan's cuts erased those dreams, along with some of my friends.

2  Fellow Delanyites may here be reminded of the double-bind of Bron Helstrom's female destination in Trouble on Triton. And I've never denied the resemblance. Identity is not endorsement.



Publishing the dissertation : 1989 2020

There must be no cessation
Of motion, or of the noise of motion,
The renewal of noise
And manifold continuation;

And, most, of the motion of thought
And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitaires,
Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.
- "The Place of the Solitaires" by Wallace Stevens

Eight years later the naysayers were proven right. In our last meeting, my newly-ex cheerfully remarked, "I feel like it's been years since I did my own thinking" (a hot roar flooded my ears) that's not true!
how had I broken so much?

Predictably enough, I fell apart substance-abused, fecklessly self-harmed, shucked my duties, composed formal verse, rock-n-rolled all night (well, occasionally past midnight, anyway), re-entered social media (now including a new medium), made some friends, and received far more comfort than I gave.

But this new cycle of breakdown and crawl-from-the-wreckage didn't weaken my faith or smash the icon of my "image." It merely persuaded me to modify some expectations and some habits.

One of the latter modifications brought us together here today.

Hi. How are you?

All those diversions,
The years and decades, the manifold span of life
—These were the dialectic of a fold
Formed out of almost nothingness, a fold of hours
In a space where the “hour” is eccentricity.

- The Astropastorals by Douglas Crase
Kat eats Manifold, 1935-07-07

. . .

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. : Most Annoying Adams Ever?

(Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from Charles Francis Adams by his son Charles Francis Adams, published in 1900 as part of the American Statesmen series.)

The story is not lacking in interest; but it has already in main been told both by Henry Wilson, himself an actor in it, and by Edward L. Pierce, not only an actor in it, but subsequently an untiring investigator of it. Upon it Mr. Adams’s contemporaneous record throws much additional light. The period was, too, not only important, but, as revealed in his papers, extremely interesting. It has its distinctly humorous, as well as tragic, side. [...] It is absorbing, as well as impressive; but the narrative attains almost the dimensions of a history, and will not be compressed into a sketch. Its salient features only can here be referred to.
The as yet unwritten history of this gathering can here be no more than alluded to, though it still has an interest, and, at the moment, was of great historical significance.
The manner in which the wily and really good-natured Prime Minister, acting after his wont in such cases through the skillful cooperation of Lady Palmerston, subsequently, when he thought desirable so to do, renewed social relations, was interesting and eminently characteristic; but to recount it is beyond the scope of the present sketch.
The episode of the Howell-Zerman letter now occurred. Altogether a very entertaining and characteristic incident, the letter referred to caused at the moment great commotion, and for a brief space threatened gravely to compromise Mr. Adams; but the affair soon passed over, leaving no trace behind. Reference only can be made to it here.
Meanwhile a new contingency arose, and, to his own great surprise, Mr. Adams suddenly found himself a prominent candidate for a presidential nomination. The history of the movement which culminated in the Cincinnati convention of May, 1872, and the nomination of Horace Greeley as the opposing candidate to President Grant in the canvass of that year, is curious, and not without its humorous as well as interesting features. It can, however, here only be alluded to.

I'm glad the author was at least willing to share the curious and eminently characteristic reaction, not without continuing interest, of the London Times to the Emancipation Proclamation:

If the blacks are to obtain the freedom he promises them, it must be by their own hands. They must rise upon a more numerous, more intelligent, better-armed, and braver community of whites, and exterminate them, their wives and children, by fire and sword. The President of the United States may summon them to this act, but he is powerless to assist them in its execution. Nay, this is the very reason why they are summoned.... Mr. Lincoln bases his act on military necessity, and invokes the considerate judgment of mankind and the judgment of Almighty God. He has characterized his own act; mankind will be slow to believe that an act avowedly the result of military considerations has been dictated by a sincere desire for the benefit of those who, under the semblance of emancipation, are thus marked out for destruction, and He who made man in His own image can scarcely, we may presume to think, look with approbation on a measure which, under the pretense of emancipation, intends to reduce the South to the frightful condition of St. Domingo.... In the midst of violent party divisions, in ostentatious contempt of the Constitution, with the most signal ill success in war, he is persisting in the attempt to conquer a nation, to escape whose victorious arms is the only triumph which his generals seem capable of gaining. Every consideration of patriotism and policy calls upon him to put an end to the hopeless contest, but he considers the ruin is not deep enough, and so he calls to his aid the execrable expedient of a servile insurrection. Egypt is destroyed; but his heart is hardened, and he will not let the people go.
* * *

To be fair, Charles's fashionably obese prose was never built to carry conflicting emotions. He was bound to wheeze under the load.

Charles Francis Adams, Sr., had four sons, but the eldest, John, wrote nothing ever (and seems to have been by far the happiest):

As I look back upon the Uncles, I see them as always writing Uncle Charles in a nice square house just below his own on President's Hill, which he had bought to provide space for his books and to insure him peace from the distractions of a growing family, and which he called the "Annex." Uncle Henry when he was in Quincy commanded undisputed possession of the Stone Library, while Uncle Brooks reigned in John Adams's study on the second floor of the Old House. It used to puzzle me what they all found to write about, for my father never seemed to write at all but when I asked him about it, he said "I suppose it amuses them!"

[...] Uncle Brooks often told me how jealous he had always been of my father for possessing those social qualities of charm and conviviality which he himself so painfully lacked, adding in the same breath that John was far too lazy ever to make effective use of them.

- Education by Uncles by Abigail Adams Homans

The three writing brothers described their relative charmlessness as something passed through the Y chromosome, an unamiable rectitude which both determined and curtailed the social utility and historic importance of each generation's males. Charles Junior, in particular, associated this cursed inheritance with the familial habit of diary-keeping, a compulsion friendlier to future historians than to siblings and children. Here, for example, he writes about Charles Senior's earliest discernible achievement, publishing a life-and-letters of his grandmother Abigail:

Deeply gratified as he was at the success of this his first literary venture, Mr. Adams would have been more gratified yet could he have read his father's contemporaneous diary record; for J. Q. Adams was not a demonstrative man, and rarely, except when communing with himself, gave expression to his inmost feelings. So now, on Sunday, September 27, 1840, he wrote that, attending, as was his wont, divine service in the afternoon, whereat a certain Mr. Motte preached upon the evidences of Christianity from the text, John xx. 31, “my attention and thoughts were too much absorbed by the volume of my Mother's Letters which my son has published, and of which he sent me this morning a copy. An admirable Memoir of her life written by him is prefixed to the Letters, and the reading of it affected me till the tears streamed down my face.”

And Charles Junior, in particular, associated it with their father:

The sympathies of the aristocracy were distinctly on the side of the slaveocracy of the South, as against the democracy of the North; and this the American minister had been caused to feel with a distinctness almost peculiar to London, where the shades and phases of social coldness and incivility have long since been perfected into a science. Fortunately, Mr. Adams, by nature and bearing, was in this respect exactly the man the occasion called for. When the Englishman was cold and reserved, Mr. Adams was a little colder and a little more reserved than the Englishman. He thus played well the game to which he found himself called, for the very good reason that the game was natural to him.

Charles Junior only wrote the biography because John T. Morse, the editor of the American Statesmen series, asked him to, and because like the rest of the family he thought his father's Civil War diplomacy, which against very long odds stopped England from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation, had been unjustly forgotten by the ingrate Union. In his writing, however, this shared resentment had to contend with his own Adams-ish righteousness and with his more peculiarly Charles-ish resentments, both displayed in the letter he wrote to his brother Henry in the project's early stages:

I may respect the young man, as a young man; but I neither admire nor like him. The first thing I notice is the absence of anything large, human or sympathetic.... He took to diary writing early, and he took to it bad; and the disease grew in him as he grew older. It was just the thing he ought not to have done. Naturally reserved and self-centred, his nature required when young,— that is for its full development,— active contact with the world and social life; but at 22 he became a married hermit with a diary for his confidant and familiar friend. He wanted no other. Actually, he never was educated. This might not have been so bad, had there been the elements of warmth, humor, imagination in his intellectual make-up,— the geniality and friendliness among persons or the sympathy with nature,— which insensibly make what some persons write worth writing for themselves or worth reading to others. In his diaries there is nothing of the sort,— not a touch of humor, no power of description, no eye to the dramatic, no love of gossip, no touches of sympathy or fun....
- Charles to Henry, 15 April 1895

On paper, it would have made more sense for Morse to ask Henry, who held the unique advantage of having been present on their father's English mission, while Charles Junior had stayed home and joined the Union Army.

Off paper, Morse had rejected Henry's submission of an Aaron Burr biography fourteen years earlier, and would not have expected forgiveness or forgetfulness. And on Henry's side, after Clover Hooper Adams's suicide and the cheerless delivery of his contractual obligations, he considered himself done with American history and, so far as possible, with any public life whatsoever. When Charles asked him to serve as backup biographer, his answer was clear:

If you fail to carry out your plan for our father’s biography, do you think much loss will result? I do not know; but if you depend upon me to redeem your failure, I fear that you will make about as bad a miscalculation as you ever set to the score of the uncalculable. I should never touch it. Sad as this collapse may be, I am by no means sure that our honored parent might not be a greater figure for the shadows that would be left about his name.
- Henry to Charles, 26 April 1895

But Henry otherwise approved of the commission, and tried to talk Charles into a more lenient mood:

In the remote atmosphere which surrounds me, this debased and degraded race seems to care about us or our friends as little as they do for a Periplaneta Orientalis; and, to judge from the supreme indifference of this generation, that insignificant coleopter will be far more important than we, to the generations which may follow the present. Nevertheless I suppose we are bound to behave as though the universe were really made to glorify our works, so I heartily approve your proceedings. Pray make any use of me that you like, just as though I were real.

As for the governor, the world has little use for him, now that he is dead, and not much more, while he lived. Judging from the intolerable dulness ofthe various Lives already published: Seward, Chase, Sumner, Motley, Longfellow, &c—in fact, of all, except Lincoln and the Generals—I should say that the less we insisted on exhibiting our papa, the better. He stands on the merits of his course and speech in one session of Congress, and his diplomatic papers and conduct. For those two results, his character, mind and training were admirably fitted. His defects and limitations were as important, and as valuable, to him, as his qualities, within the range of those fields. Had there been a little more, or a little less of him, he would have been less perfect. As he stands, he stands alone. No other public man of his time begins to compare with him, within the range of his action. He is almost like a classical gem. From the moment he appeared anywhere—at Washington, London, Geneva—his place was never questioned, much less disputed. Russell, Palmerston, Disraeli, Bright, Cobden, Gladstone, Seward, and all the Americans, were bunglers in work compared with him, as his state-papers show. [...]

Of course you cannot expressly say all this, but this is really all that the public wants to know, and your business is to make them feel it. Sons are not the proper persons to do such work, but I know of no one better suited, so we may as well try.

- Henry to Charles, 16 April 1895

While the older brother worked at his old-school history, Henry became increasingly engaged by younger brother Brooks's more novel attempt to scientize history on a firm intellectual foundation of economics and antisemitism. His later replies to Charles were terse.

Still, Charles must have been eager to hear his opinion of the finished book. Henry certainly had one, and expressed it in a couple of diary-like letters:

Charles’ Life of his father, in the statesman series, is out, and I am making myself a martyr trying to read it. Thank my miserable cowardice that I did not write it! [...] At any rate, I have, at awful cost, learned to hold my tongue, except in letters, and am getting nervous even about them. No man that ever lived can talk or write incessantly without wearying or annoying his hearers if they have to take it in a lump. Thanks entirely to our family habit of writing, we exist in the public mind only as a typical expression of disagreeable qualities.
- Henry to Brooks, 4 March 1900
I’ve been trying to read my brother Charles’s Life of our father, and it makes me sick. Now I understand why I refused so obstinately to do it myself. These biographies are murder, and in this case, to me, would be both patricide and suicide. They belittle the victim and the assassin equally. They are like bad photographs and distorted perspectives. Luckily no one knows the difference, and the modern public is as dead to the feeling of historical atmosphere as it is to the color of the Chartres windows. I have sinned myself, and deeply, and am no more worthy to be called anything, but, thank my diseased and dyspeptic nervous wreck, I did not assassinate my father. I have also read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letters with much the same effect on my mind. Cabot Lodge thinks them the best letters ever written. To me they rouse again the mystery of the hippopotamus and the dinner; they never leave enough for us. They exaggerate all one’s bigness, brutality and coarseness; they perpetuate all one’s mistakes, blunders and carelessnesses. No one can talk or write letters all the time without the effect of egotism and error. They are like a portrait by Sargent; they betray one’s besetting vices in youth, and one’s worst selfishness in middle-life, and one’s senility in Joe Choate.
- Henry to Elizabeth Cameron, 5 March 1900

(Despite his gift for irony, his frequent claims to mad senile laughter, and his generally successful attempts to circumnavigate despair in front of the children, Henry Adams never seems to have felt the power of deflationary comedy, or to have realized that something more than disillusionment might result when the virtue ethics of traditional history confront mere shared humanity.)

He wasn't so forthcoming with Charles himself. The excellent editors of Henry Adams's letters briskly summarize:

CFA2 and his family had been staying in Washington for the winter. On Feb. 28, after dining with HA, he noted in his diary that “not by word, look or line has he recognized the existence of my ‘Life.’” On March 25, after again dining with HA, he recorded the evening as “pretty dull and very restrained,—not a reference even to the ‘Life.’” On April 8 he recorded his “farewell call on Henry,—to the last dumb as an oyster on the ‘Life’” (CFA2 Diary, MHi).

Charles, Jr., never expressed pleasure in the labor of this biography, and no one was clamoring for more. And so, with true Adams doggedness, he immediately, and for most of the rest of his life, began working on a massive expansion which would, as a matter of course for a completely objective historian like himself, sadly necessitate many more acknowledgments of his father's inadequacies.

The youngest Adams sibling, sister Mary, saw some of the work in progress, asked him to reconsider, and called on Brooks and Henry for backup. Both demurred, claiming (reasonably enough) that interference would only make Charles more determined. But it's likely that Henry also preferred to maintain the "don't ask, don't tell" status quo. So far as I can gather from published records, the only opinion he ever offered his brother was the extremely indirect one of The Education of Henry Adams in 1907:

Please bear in mind that I don’t mean any harm. The motive of the first part is to acquit my conscience about my father. That of the second part is to acquit my conscience about Hay.
- Henry to Mary Cadwalader Jones, 11 April 1907,
sent with a copy of the book

Nine years later, Charles had the last (indirect) word with his posthumously published Autobiography, a long purge of regrets ("Few things do I envy the possession of in others more than the faculty of remembering faces or placing names") and recriminations: He wasn't given a bicycle. Harvard hadn't offered a course in chess. A hastily assembled mix of slaves and freemen given a few weeks of ten-foot-pole's-length cavalry training had failed to establish him as a brilliant military leader. And, most startling, and possibly unique in the annals of filial resentment, a complaint that his parents did not ship him away to a bullycratic boarding school: "I would so much have enjoyed it.... It might have made me 'a good fellow.'"

He gives his father credit for one good decision, though:

The common schools my father did not care to send his children to; and I have always been glad of it. I don’t associate with the laborers on my place, nor would the association be agreeable to either of us. Their customs, language, habits and conventionalities differ from mine; as do those of their children. I believe in school life; and I believe in the equality of men before the law; but social equality, whether for man or child, is altogether another thing. My father, at least, didn’t force that on us.

Detached from the manner of its telling, as Charles himself admits at the end, it would seem like a reasonably pleasant and successful life. Accompanied and sometimes overwhelmed by its drone of frets, chafes, and carps, it's a reasonably recognizable one. A dull book; a human document.

Oh, and to answer my initial question:

On paper, when writing about himself or his father or the pristine white manliness of Robert E. Lee, Charles Junior is hard to beat. But off paper everyone agrees that Brooks Adams was the most annoying by far even Brooks:

He used to say, plaintively, "As soon as I join a group of people they all melt away and disappear," which was all only too true.
- Education by Uncles by Abigail Adams Homans

Responses

"Curious" is the word. Shades of Ogdred Weary.

. . .

Plunger

For the drain doth not drain every day Shakespeare
The grate is strait; I shall not be there. Swinburne

Descended from the plaguey polis, we see stretched before us an expanse of flyblown Hot Takes baked and blanched by the sun, while patchy ungroomed Long Tails twitch and glimmer beneath the rainless orange horizon like a great lake of fuzzy caterpillars. By the barren banks of Babylon, let us sit down.

In this round of Pin the Longer Tail on the Caterpillar, I shall weep of Algernon Charles Swinburne, carrier of the Swinburne verse which infected a broad swathe of English speakers during the late nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth, herd resistance was achieved, and recent studies confirm that a fresh outbreak is unlikely.1

1. What's the deal with Swinburne?

Fifty-five years ago, my eye first passed over Swinburne's peculiar name atop "The Garden of Proserpine," the penultimate of the Little Leather Library's Fifty Best Poems of England (followed by that ne plus ultra in ultra-moderne verse, Francis Thompson's "Arab Love Song": "And thou what needest with thy tribe's black tents / Who hast the red pavilion of my heart?"). It should've made a fine introduction: characteristic in mood and music yet uncharacteristically easy to parse. But until puberty I had no notion of oral pleasure, and I feared sleep (and immersion in cold water, and cats, and children, and beatings pretty much all the Swinburnean goods really), and I preferred the cod-Ecclesiastes of Olive Schreiner's Dreams.

In maturity, however, I was impressed by Henry Adams's introduction to the not-yet-famous poet, at a small dinner hosted by Monckton Milnes:

The fourth was a boy, or had the look of one, though in fact a year older than Adams himself. He resembled in action [...] a tropical bird, high-crested, long-beaked, quick-moving, with rapid utterance and screams of humor, quite unlike any English lark or nightingale. [...]

That Swinburne was altogether new to the three types of men-of-the-world before him; that he seemed to them quite original, wildly eccentric, astonishingly gifted, and convulsingly droll, Adams could see; but what more he was, even Milnes hardly dared say. They could not believe his incredible memory and knowledge of literature, classic, mediæval, and modern; his faculty of reciting a play of Sophocles or a play of Shakespeare, forward or backward, from end to beginning; or Dante, or Villon, or Victor Hugo. They knew not what to make of his rhetorical recitation of his own unpublished ballads "Faustine"; the "Four Boards of the Coffin Lid"; the "Ballad of Burdens" which he declaimed as though they were books of the Iliad. [...]

The idea that one has actually met a real genius dawns slowly on a Boston mind, but it made entry at last.

Then came the sad reaction, not from Swinburne whose genius never was in doubt, but from the Boston mind which, in its uttermost flights, was never moyenâgeux. One felt the horror of Longfellow and Emerson, the doubts of Lowell and the humor of Holmes, at the wild Walpurgis-night of Swinburne's talk. What could a shy young private secretary do about it? Perhaps, in his good nature, Milnes thought that Swinburne might find a friend in Stirling or Oliphant, but he could hardly have fancied Henry Adams rousing in him even an interest. Adams could no more interest Algernon Swinburne than he could interest Encke's comet. To Swinburne he could be no more than a worm. The quality of genius was an education almost ultimate, for one touched there the limits of the human mind on that side; but one could only receive; one had nothing to give nothing even to offer.

(Fifty-four years later into his own life, Adams still mumbled Swinburne's tenacious word-tunes:

Today, the death of Harry James makes me feel the need of a let-up;2 I must speak to some one.... Not only was he a friend of mine for more than forty years, but he also belonged to the circle of my wife's set long before I knew him or her, and you know how I have clung to all that belonged to my wife. I have been living all day in the seventies. Swallow, sister! sweet sister swallow! indeed and indeed, we really were happy then.
- Henry Adams to Elizabeth Cameron,
1 March 1916)

Then, in late middle age, I was moved by Jerome McGann's career-long efforts from 1972's Experiment in Criticism through 2004's massive (and discriminatorily priced) selected works to rehabilitate Swinburne's reputation. I encountered his parodies, which displayed self-awareness and made a pleasing noise, and was encouraged.

And so, upon senescence and retirement, I resolved to figure out what was up with Algernon Charles Swinburne anyway huh?

2. What's the deal with Swinburne?

I started as usual: top of the body of the text, subvocalizing down the lines, letting them dictate the pace. It quickly became manifest that Swinburne, like the Stooges, wanted to be played loud, and so I and my new playmate moved outside, where occasional bursts of muttering or worse would cause less disruption.

Pace presented a stickier problem. Each afternoon I'd set out well, with a measure of swing, and then, within a page or two, go off track. As one who seeks the spiritual renewal of a scenic walk, and ventures into a monotonous landscape in which every second step skids against ice or flat-foots into a sinkhole of slush, and who pauses again and increasingly again to reconfirm the obstinate distance yet to travel before one's targeted landmark, and who finally gives way and retreats, unrefreshed and a bit demoralized, so was I before Major Poems and Selected Prose.

This went on for weeks before I found the problem.

Swinburne's poetic themes are few. Swinburne's poetic vocabulary is slightly archaic, mostly monosyllabic, and very limited. (All soft things are snow-soft; snow has no attributes other than softness.) Swinburne's verbal music rhythms, alliterations, rhymes, elaborate set patterns, the whole shebang and shboom is in your face and all over the place; more insistent than Yeats, than Spenser, than Edgar Allen Poe or Vachel Lindsay for chrissakes. And Swinburne plays that music long; once he got started, the guy would not stop; he just keeps blowing, good stanza, vapid stanza, pivot-on-an-ambiguous-pronoun stanza, doesn't matter so long as they're coming.

All of which encourages the clueless reader to accelerate. And that's how the clueless reader stumbles, because Swinburne allowed himself one complexity amidst all this simplicity: sentence structure. While the syntax stayed transparent, I'd drift into the warm fuzz of noise, start to nod off, then be jolted awake and realize I'd completely lost my way.

Other Swinburne readers have struggled in similar fashion, and some would have warned me, given half a chance. I'll cite Morse Peckham's 1970 account at length since it's otherwise inaccessible:

Swinburne is at once an extraordinarily seductive poet and an extraordinarily difficult one. Because of this his charm has been dismissed over and over again, an untold number of times, as simply a matter of “word-music”: in Swinburne, it is alleged, there is nothing but a leaping rhythm that hurls you along and a completely irresponsible use of the various devices of euphony (or more precisely, phonic over-determination), particularly alliteration. He is recognized to be the greatest virtuoso of sound in English poetry, but that prodigious technique, it is asserted, is entirely without foundation or justification, for Swinburne says nothing.

It is not always recognized that the major Victorian poets are in fact difficult poets. To be sure, everyone knows that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ work is difficult; so difficult that many think of him still as a “modern poet,” though what of his technique he did not learn from Browning he learned from Swinburne. Arnold is admittedly quite transparent; Tennyson seems to be transparent to the point of simple-mindedness, but in fact is an exceedingly subtle, devious, and baffling writer. It is obvious that much of Browning is very difficult indeed, but the most difficult works of Browning are, for the most part, unread even by Victorian specialists, and are generally, though quite unjustifiably, dismissed. But the advantage of Browning over Tennyson is that he looks difficult, and over Swinburne that it is obvious that he is saying something. Swinburne, by contrast, seems to be almost contentless. Yet he is not. Quite the contrary . The difficulty of Browning, like the difficulty of Hopkins, is a difficulty of syntactic compression and distortion. Swinburne also offers a syntactic difficulty, but one of quite a different order. The effect of monotony comes not primarily from the unflagging splendor of the rhythm or the obviously beautiful sound, but rather from the fact that Swinburne constructs his sentences by building them up of long syntactic sub-units; the first sentence of Atalanta, for example, is sixteen lines long. What he exploits are the possibilities of parallel syntactic structure. The effect is that the unpracticed reader loses control over the syntax. In Hopkins and Browning the extreme use of elision and syntactic distortion confuses the reader. There is not, so to speak, enough syntactic redundance to keep the reader oriented. But in Swinburne there is too much syntactic redundance. In this he resembles to a certain extent Milton; but the difficulty of reading Milton comes from trying to follow a syntactic style of dependent syntactic units, while Swinburne exploits the possibilities of disorienting the reader by presenting him with parallel structures so far apart that it is difficult to remember and grasp their syntactical relationship. The consequence with all four of these poets is that the reader untrained in their syntactic styles loses semantic control. Yet he knows, at least, that Hopkins, Browning, and Milton are saying something; but Swinburne further confuses him by offering a continuum of beautiful sound which seems to have no relationship to anything at all. The result is that for the first three, the unpracticed reader, though baffled, is at least aware that he is not understanding what is before him, but with Swinburne he rapidly comes to the conclusion that there is nothing to understand.

To learn to read Swinburne it is necessary, therefore, to resist with all one’s power both the seductiveness of the rhythm and the seductiveness of the phonic character. One must read him slowly, very slowly. The mind must always remain focused intensively on the task of comprehending the syntax, of grasping how the parallel syntactic sub-units fit into the larger sentence construction; and it must do this as they come along, in the order in which the poem offers them. It may be said that there is at every cultural level an upward limit to both the complexity and the length of the syntactic structure that may be comprehended. Obviously, the higher the cultural level, the greater the complexity and the length of the syntactical structure that can be grasped. But the fact is that today the general simplification and deterioration of the cultural milieu have meant that most people are not exposed even in prose to much opportunity for extending the range of their syntactic grasp. The power to extemporize extremely long and complex syntactic structures with an extensive use of parallelisms is rapidly disappearing, and has been for some time; and at the higher cultural levels the sentence fragment, which presents precisely the opposite difficulty from Swinburne’s, has long been a standard device in both verse and prose. The first task, then, of the reader of Swinburne is to train himself by extending very far indeed the upward limit of his range of syntactic comprehension. The problem is analogous to that presented by Bruckner’s symphonies, which seem too long for people who have trained themselves on shorter symphonies, but are not a moment too long for those who have developed their capacity to maintain their attention span during a symphonic movement that lasts half an hour.

But when the reader who wishes to come to terms with Swinburne has conquered this difficulty—and it takes both time and a great deal of rereading to do so—he is faced with still further problems.

- Morse Peckham, "Introduction" to
Poems and Ballads / Atalanta in Calydon

Although Peckham describes the issue well, I can't recommend his proposed remedy. For myself, so long as I stubbornly maintained my straight stride down the path of the pages with no retracing of steps, reading "very slowly" proved ineffective: I became just as lost but even more exasperated.

Instead, at the start of each new syntactic unit, I began glancing ahead, silently, at its end, to get some notion of the terrain before blundering into it.

Success!

Reward?

3. What was Swinburne's deal?

My life has been eventless and monotonous; like other boys of my class, I was five years at school at Eton, four years at college at Oxford; I never cared for any pursuit, sport, or study, as a youngster, except poetry, riding and swimming; and though as a boy my verses were bad enough, I believe I may say I was far from bad at the two latter. Also being bred by the sea I was a good cragsman,3 and am vain to this day of having scaled a well-known cliff on the South coast, ever before and ever since reputed to be inaccessible. Perhaps I may be forgiven for referring to such puerilities, having read (in cuttings from more than one American journal) bitterly contemptuous remarks on my physical debility and puny proportions.
- Swinburne to E. C. Stedman, February 20, 1875

Swinburne understated the case. He didn't just swim: he swam outrageously, fearlessly, alarmingly into the coldest, deepest, most treacherous waters he could find. He didn't just ride: he galloped like a Dionysian centaur and had the broken bones to prove it.

And, because he was writing to an unknown American instead of an old crony, he also undercounted: he was notoriously just as "far from bad" at being whipped and getting drunk.

As Swinburne himself suggests, these high-risk behaviors are all ways by which a small tremulous slightly-built countertenor might assert his masculinity. But more to the point, I think, they're also all recognizable ways to (in present-day jargon) self-medicate a painfully manic case of ADHD by forcing focus upon the here and now.

As I expressed it at thirty years old, I really did want to get away from fiction and into something real. I'd spent ten years writing fantasy and I wanted to be in some kind of situation whereby if you made a mistake, what would happen to you would be real. That was the way I expressed it to myself: that if you fall off a rock climb above a certain height, something very real will happen to you. [...] The greatest thing about rock climbing is that if you suffer anxiety it gives you a reason. You know, your day really fires up when you're eighty feet above the ground and things are going wrong and you suddenly think, Wow, I've got a reason to be worried for today. It's a fantastic relief to have a reason to feel anxiety.
- M. John Harrison in conversation with Mariana Enriquez

The applicable jargon of Swinburne's own time comes to us through an at-fourth-hand diagnosis of his uncontrollable twitching, trembling, and jerking:

It made me unhappy to see what trouble he had in managing his knife and fork. Watts-Dunton told me on another occasion that this infirmity of the hands had been lifelong had begun before Eton days. The Swinburne family had been alarmed by it and had consulted a specialist, who said that it resulted from ‘an excess of electric vitality,’ and that any attempt to stop it would be harmful. So they had let it be.
- And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

While essential tremor is no longer explained by "electric vitality," it remains untreatable, and marks the spazz as a social oddity from childhood on. Any initial awkwardness would have been intensified by Swinburne's other difficult-to-diagnose ailment, early-onset deafness. And that eventually overwhelming self-consciousness seems to have been what triggered Swinburne's near-suicidal binges (as well as his marathon monologues): when cozily secured with intimates or left to his own devices, Swinburne stayed sober; moved into urban sociality, he quickly got blotto.

No matter how we choose to clump these personal traits, their aggregate is familiar enough. Born into similar privilege a hundred years later, Swinburne would've raced cars or tested planes or OD'd. He needed to drown the unspeakable noise in his head, needed to drown the unparsable noise from outside it, even at the risk of drowning himself. What distinguishes Swinburne from fellow jitterbugs, and from the canonical poets who scorned him in the twentieth century, was his reliance on incarnate versifying whether recited or improvised as the most sustainable of his high-risk behaviors.

Outside the Modernist canon, I find some context even for that. Masters of freestyle will emit occasional sonorous ambiguities or nonsense; maximalists of flow never know when to take the horn out of their mouth. As Swinburne swam beyond his depth, climbed above his height, drank himself past consciousness, and was flogged within a quarter-inch of his life, so he needed to write too much if he was to write at all.

4. What wasn't?

Outside books I've hardly heard anything about Swinburne, and when I did it was dubious.

Anyone expecting a hero of gay pride will be disappointed, or awfully selective in their reading. Swinburne's only definitely established sexuality consisted of masochism, and although as a practical matter it didn't matter much who swished the birch, a preference for male beauty doesn't seem to have been one of the marks left by Eton: his published fantasies put women in charge, his privately expressed polite demurrals and homophobic slurs sound genuine enough, and his "actual admiration of Lesbianism" is hardly counterevidence. Poetically he positioned himself with Baudelaire, Gautier, Hugo, and the Rossettis rather than Symons, Whitman, Pater, or Wilde.

Nor, so far as accessible evidence takes me, did Swinburne quite follow the reactionary path laid down by Southey and Wordsworth. It's true that his first-written (but second-published) book caused a scandal and his third called for bloody revolutions, whereas later collections were far more soothing to his family and the rest of the British establishment. But his anti-colonialism had never extended to British colonies; he always idealized English military action, particularly at its most disastrous; he was always drawn to babies and children; he always idolized Shakespeare. The shift in his publications didn't reflect changes in his beliefs or preferred themes so much as which of those themes found expression at any one time.

Even those switches of filter or booster weren't the result of independent evolution. Despite his vehemence and bellicosity, Swinburne was eminently pliable.4 You could pick him up, plop him down in a different direction or location, and he'd accept it as readily as a good zombie or a good dog. When he was so drunk as to risk arrest, a cab would deposit him at Ford Madox Brown's, the servants would toss him into a bathtub and then into bed, and he'd receive all as his due. When Theodore Watts-Dunton transplanted him to the Pines for the rest of his life, he took the change for granted. Oh, we're sharing a house now? It's very nice here. Water, not whisky? Lovely. You won't mind if I scrape some toast in for flavor?

Thus, during the period in which Baudelaire and the Pre-Raphaelites were his peers, Swinburne scandalized; when Swinburne met Giuseppe Mazzini, he revolutionized; and at the Pines Watts-Dunton encouraged sedate respectability.

Watts-Dunton only stifled so much, though. Swinburne's sex-positive Tristram of Lyonesse may have represented a more fundamental assault on Victorian mores than any vampiric femme fatale, and, around the time his name was proposed for a post-Tennyson laureateship, he publicly called for the assassination of the Queen's cousin:

God or man, be swift; hope sickens with delay:
Smite, and send him howling down his father's way!
Fall, O fire of heaven, and smite as fire from hell
Halls wherein men's torturers, crowned and cowering, dwell!
- "Russia: An Ode"

And from first volume to last, Swinburne attacked the church any church.

He fell into facile writing, and he accepted a facile compromise for life; but no facile solution for his universe. His unbelief did not desert him; no, not even in Putney.
- "Swinburne versus his Biographers" by Ezra Pound

5. What's the big deal?

In 1918 Pound very judiciously wrote that "No one else has made such music in English, I mean has made his kind of music [...] At any rate we can, whatever our verbal fastidiousness, be thankful for any man who kept alive some spirit of paganism and of revolt in a papier-mâché era, in a time swarming with Longfellows, Mabies, Gosses, Harrisons." However, many things can be unique without seeming worth the cost of extraction, and we're no longer threatened by Longfellow and Gosse, much less by whoever "Mabie" and that not-M.-John "Harrison" were.

Peckham promises we can learn "why for sixty years or so people of intelligence, learning, and exquisite taste thought Swinburne a great poet, and why a few people think so today," and is likely to meet similar objections.

Mark Scroggins proposes "the intensity with which Swinburne evokes erotic desire and the conjunction of pleasure and pain," and his poetry's "lush, hypnotic music, its ever-shifting deployment of a fairly restricted vocabulary, leading us through a series of emotional states, laying out in shimmering overlays a series of symbols that can induce in us a new relationship to the 'real' world of objects." (Or, as Yeats wrote and McGann later quoted, "hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.")

I have no inclination to argue with any of that, but neither do I feel the same responses. I stubbornly remain as untransfigured by his symbols as by Blake's or Yeats's, and although young Swinburne's scandalous ditties are catchy and funny, their wicked ladies and sweet sweet dead-leper lovin' strike me as received fantasies; I'm not even sure he'd fully grasped the mechanics of the thing. (Do humans really need their lips bitten through to reach orgasm? Isn't that otters or something?) He'd worked the details out by Tristram, but it's harder to quote Tristram.

In 2004 Jerome McGann found a way to reformulate some of Swinburne's self-evident flaws as virtues:

a type of phenomenal awareness that is perhaps unique in English literature [...] a drama of poetic subjectivity diffusing into the language as such [...] as in life, its meanings spread and mutate and transform under our own pursuit. To read him is to be reminded that a full awareness of even the simplest human experience is unachievable. [...] The dissolution is scarcely to be observed, however, lest one imagine that it could be understood by being seen. It is understood, rather, by being undergone. To read these poems is necessarily to be swept away by tactile and auditional immediacies

Back in 1972, dropping into his own voice for the epilogue to his academic drama, McGann sounded less detached:

Swinburne has not merely given his thought and attention to all disastrous things, he has given them his heart. His world, moving though its ruinations, is a disaster redeemed only, but always, by an equally disastrous love. For Swinburne, the fidelity of such a love is witnessed most eloquently in art, where the presence of beauty is man’s best witness of the deep care in which he holds everything that is lost to him and to all men. [...] Such passages haunt one not merely for their exquisite beauty, but for the fact that they are about being haunted. At the center of both is a heart which forgets nothing, no matter how swiftly things pass or how long they are gone; and which forgets nothing not because he cannot but because he would not.

Share his sentiment or not, that added risk, the risk of sounding heartfelt, seems key. No one who thinks poetry should be written like Strunk-and-Whited-out prose, without repetition or ambiguity or grammatical irregularities no one like Ford Madox Ford, who straightforwardly confessed to disliking all English verse written before Pound and Eliot will ever feel, or have, a need to wrest pleasure out of this stuff, and "bully for them."

More generally he'll never be for the cool, laid back, or dignified. I heard a good writer call him a "clown car." That's fair. Swinburne was a weirdo, and although his poems stopped being scandals they're still embarrassments. After everything changed in 1910, he would never be taken up communally, was always only going to be an eccentric taste. If I (not "we") want to describe the attraction, I have to get personal.

Writing/speaking as a particularity, then, I've come to appreciate the corporeal experience of the reading itself, and two of Swinburne's most persistent and distinctive themes: his championship of mere mortality, and his passion for the sea. As John D. Rosenberg says, those two themes meld. Swinburne's love for the sea was carnal, spiritual, all-consuming; his devotion demanded full-body contact. Other poets pay tribute from shore or shipboard; none writes so approvingly of ocean-eroded cemeteries.

Although I won't follow Swinburne into literal deep waters, I can enter (not necessarily comfortably) his resentment of theistic abstraction, his inability to represent material particulars, and his reliance on the materiality of voice to gesture at their ecstatic (or agonizing, or embarrassing, or irritatingly repetitious) effects. Writing/speaking from a myopic body which meets the world nose first and mouth open, I warmly and wetly second Rosenberg's introductory remarks:

Swinburne is a poet not of natural objects but of natural energies of winds and surging waters. His scale is macrocosmic, his focus [...] less upon things seen than forces felt. At times he is nearly a blind poet, all tongue and ear and touch.

What else seems germane? I don't play video games, and if I did, they'd incapacitate me quicker than rock climbing. I'm retired and can spare the time. I'm oral/aural and can feel the noize. I'm a socially awkward humanist and head-in-the-clouds materialist who can use a hymnal. As I pace within our vermin-blasted garden, mouthing off the verses, their current pulls me offshore; the weave of breath and stroke begins to snarl and splash; the rhythm gallops apace and faster, a bit too fast; I jerk at the reins; I even break a mild sweat. For a second or so I inhabit Swinburne's experience of verse, an immersive adventure sport in words.

Or maybe it's the plague; I haven't been tested in a while.

Next: J. Gordon Faylor!

1.   Davis, "Scanners vs. Swinburne", Bellona Times Science Supplement, 13 October 2020. Subjects were selected based on self-attested tolerance for poetry. A concentrated dose of Swinburne was filtered of generically aversive content (paeans to infants and British imperialism; doggerel about flogging; particularly redundant stretches) and distributed. Only two subjects expressed willingness to consume the sample. Both reported initial mild discomfort followed by swift and complete elimination.

2.   I pray that Henry James's spirit had attained sufficient detachment to enjoy Adams's tribute:

Mr. James when he had occasion to mention Mr. Swinburne would do so with positive sparks of indignation welling from his dark and luminous eyes, his face rigid with indignation.... I do not know what the poet of the Pines can have done to him; Mr. James would be almost speechless with indignation. I never heard him otherwise be immoderate. And with real fury he would imitate Swinburne’s jerky movements, jumping up and down on his chair, his hands extended downwards at his sides, like a soldier at attention, hitching himself sideways and back again on the chair seat and squeaking incomprehensibly in an injurious falsetto....

No! I never knew what so excited the Old Man, though I have often reflected on the subject. [...] I cannot imagine that Mr. James ever cherished a secret passion for Adah Menken!

I have come to the conclusion that it was the natural antipathy that the indoor man of tea-parties must feel for the outrageous athlete, clean-boned, for ever on the seashore or longing to be there. Mr. James indeed exploded with an almost apoplectic fury when I once raised my voice and said that Mr. Swinburne was one of the strongest the most amazingly strong swimmers of his day. I remember recounting, to rub it in, my anxiety on the shores of the Isle of Wight when Mr. Swinburne had disappeared in the horizon on a rough day, amongst the destroyers and battleships and liners and tramps... disappeared and then reappeared hours after, walking with his light, swinging step over the sand dunes a mile behind my back.... Yes, he could swim... and be made a wonder of....

- Portraits from Life by Ford Madox Ford

3.   "Cragsman" is clearly the proper word and should have become standard English usage, even if it's a bit too spot-on for M. John Harrison's magnificently abraded Climbers.

4   Swinburne's many tributes to prepubescents suggest a sense of fellowship with their own lability, their look of being perpetually overwhelmed, and perhaps their inability to maintain a civilized conversation.

Responses

FWIW, I wouldn't have self-reported my clinical outcome as "complete elimination"; Algy and I disagree on a lot, but anyone who defies the odds like that writing Greek tragedy in English can come to my party if he wants to. Thanks for giving me the chance to temper my earlier assessment of "another goddamn Pre-Raphaelite." -pk

Way to bum my low, dude. But I'm glad you got something out of it. After all, a lot of eminences found Keats embarrassing, too. Maybe Swinburne, even, since he mostly wrote about Blake and Shelley. An apparent (from this angle) oddity that I didn't look into much was Swinburne's championship of Walter Savage Landor, Matthew "NO SHAKESPEARE! NO KEATS!" Arnold, and young Thomas Hardy, none of whom seem (from this angle) like natural pairings.

If I live long enough (a modifier which might call for Blakean amendment) I do intend to launch a similar assault on Christina Rossetti. Everyone who can stand to read her (including Swinburne) claims her music is lovely.

Write a line? Ritalin!

A lady came in for some stimulant.
    I asked her what kind she'd adore.
"Adderall, please," so I added 'er all.
    Now I don't count there anymore.

Heh, actually I love Christina Rossetti! It's just the dudes (esp. painter dudes) in that circle. I mean, singsong.html#ifam -pk/metameat

As I suspected, Christina Rossetti does a better job with children, just as Kipling's a better jingoist and Shelley and Bryon better revolutionaries. On English nineteenth-century secular masochism, though, Swinburne's hard to beat.

Ford was crazy about Christina Rossetti, even if he disliked all other English verse from before his time. (But where did he say that?)

He labors to give that impression in the Swinburne chapter of Portraits from Life, which splits between youthful reminiscences of the man and bluff dismissals of the poetry, but I gather that Ford's discursive prose like Swinburne's, and Pound's and Eliot's, and, hmm, an awful lot of writers' could cheerfully exaggerate for effect. Earlier in the volume, he proposes a list of Desert Island Books in which Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson are the only poets.

 

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.