. . . Henry James

. . .

Modernist Class

I remember reading to him a German translation from a speech by Radek in which the Russian attacked Ulysses at the Congress of Kharkov as being the work of a bourgeois writer who lacked social consciousness. "They may say what they want," said Joyce, "but the fact is that all the characters in my books belong to the lower middle classes, and even the working class; and they are all quite poor." I know he was a convinced antifascist.
-- Eugene Jolas
Underbred.... the book of a self taught working man....
-- Virginia Woolf on Ulysses
It's sleight of hand, a kind of shell game. A few flourishes of the shells labeled "Modernism" and "Postmodernism" keep us from noticing the writers who have not been shoved into them and from noticing the essential differences between the writers who have.

Class, for example.

Yeats's, Pound's, and Eliot's works were in defense of a dreamlike aristocratic status; they loathed the city, or, more specifically, the city's middle class and the city's poor.

Pound and Eliot first became interested in Joyce as a semi-articulate witness to those urban horrors, a sort of Dublin Dreiser. And they lost interest in him as the serialized episodes of Ulysses left realism behind: he was no longer a witness but a class-climbing eccentric who somehow assumed that the world owed him a living. (Biographers still seem to have trouble with that notion, but one should bear in mind that the world of the time seemed perfectly content to supply Yeats, Pound, Stein, Woolf, and so on with livings.)

By the time we get to Louis Zukofsky and Lorine Niedecker (if we ever do; they're still not part of standard academic curricula), those beastly New York Jews and bestial Midwestern immigrants who so offended Henry James are actually writing, without apology, as if they could possibly fit into some respectable (and quite imaginary, thank the lord!) society....

. . .

Henry James Dept.: The most consistently interesting thing about BBC America is its list of advertisers, which seems to have been bought lock stock and barrel from a late night UHF station in Mississippi (Oxford, maybe?). After years of PBS's white glove treatment of turds like that department store sitcom, it's a salutary shock to see Helena Bonham Carter constantly interrupted by ads for trusses, electric nose hair trimmers, arthritis cures, ginsu knives, and Boxcar Willie retrospectives.

. . .

Nothing ages like senility: A tale of two libraries

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

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

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

+ + +

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

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

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

. . .

The twentieth century established its characteristic tone in 1901 with publication of the two sickest novels the English language had yet produced: Henry James's The Sacred Fount and M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud.

I don't know what to counsel for the former, but patience is counseled for the latter, since it lurches off like Jules Verne or something. Be assured: the mood then sinks like a pearl through Prell, from H. G. Wellsian to Edgar Allen Poetic and down, down, down to a really bad mood.

In the purple cloud, Shiel not only foresaw Prince's classic breakthrough soundtrack album of the 1980s but also the neutron bomb. More than forty years before Little Boy dropped, the novel described what a modern reader can only interpret as world-girdling fallout and radiation poisoning.

And what does the Last Man on Earth do after the proto-neutron-bomb delivers all that prime real estate intact into his hands? Well, what does anyone do with unlimited power? Blow things up real good! As a tribute to the eternal domitability of the human spirit, the book's only rival is Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To...; as a nightmare of premonitory guilt, I don't think it has any rival at all.

Not sure why the Bingo-Bango-Bongo-I-don't-want-to-leave-the-Congo redemptive ending didn't bug me more. Like a lot about The Purple Cloud, it reminded me of Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, which bugged me lots. Maybe it's because Shiel's version of Eve comes by her puddin'-headedness natural, having been raised by wild dust motes. Maybe it's because the relationship is played dysfunctionally enough to fit into the rest of the story. Or because the hero backslides and foreslides so often that I don't have to take his "ultimate" redemption at full CA value.... Had to end somewhere, after all. Everything does.

. . .

If there are any feminist scholars out there who're getting tired of Lacan (phallus phorphend!), they might consider directing their female gaze toward a new edition of Clover Hooper Adams's letters. The only existing collection was published in 1936 and practices, I suspect, something less than full disclosure. Since then, she's gotten a biography, a splashy supporting role in a group biography, and a scurrilous novel, but what's really called for with such an articulate woman is easier access to the primary documents. Otherwise wilfull ignorance like that displayed by some talking heads I saw recently who said that she probably contributed details of fashion and furnishings to the anonymous novel Esther (actually, her husband was much more obsessed with exterior and interior decoration -- "We shall instruct her. She dresses badly," he wrote to a friend about his then fiancée -- while Clover was the household member who could read Greek) too easily continues to work its will.

Besides heading up the nearest thing Washington ever had to an intellectual salon, Hooper Adams was an excellent portrait photographer and a notorious wit; no less finnicky an observer than Henry James considered her one of the most brilliant minds in America, a "Voltaire in petticoats," although his repectful tone wasn't returned in kind:

"At the same minute came Portrait of a Lady, which the author kindly sent me. It's very nice, and charming things in it, but I'm aging fast and prefer what Sir Walter called the 'big bow-wow style.' I shall suggest to Mr. James to name his next novel Ann Eliza.... he chaws more than he bites off."

"Apropos of Jesse, I had a letter from Henry James, Jr., written Tuesday at midnight on the eve of sailing. He wished, he said, his last farewell to be said to me as I seemed to him 'the incarnation of my native land.' Am I then vulgar, dreary, and impossible to live with?"

. . .

I've just read two Henry James stories from 1900 that, it strikes me, may strike certain friends and correspondents as useful correctives to my own rhetorical positions. Counterpoint away, my dear fellow!

. . .

The Death Wish in American Publicity Material: Part 2 in an Occasional Series

Perennial Journal

Those who haven't triggered the proper marketing traps won't be familiar with Levenger -- a stationery store aimed at nouveaux riches -- and its catalog of "Tools for Serious Readers."

Even for yuppie junk mail, Levenger's copy is overripe, redolent of leather everything (including leather manila envelopes -- "rather like changing Eliza Doolittle from East End flower girl to Ascot lady... will burnish beautifully the more it's handled"), splattered with $90 ball point pens, and bedecked with sepia-toned celebrity portraits. Be as happy as Henry James! as suave as Robert Louis Stevenson! as elegant as Sir Isaac Newton!

And for the most part the photographed samples of what's achievable with a little intellectual leverage from Levenger are what you'd expect given such heady role models. On "the BMW of folios" someone's noted that "Each new product will be involved in a series of meetings from concept to final update"; "Monumental Letters with Pedestals" construct the message "ASPIRE"; the "lighthearted Innovation gel pen" has written "Discuss strategy with Internet group," "Confirm flight reservation" is written on "a delicious temptation of color and texture" (i.e., notepad), and "5 year plan - Goal?" is written with "Rotring's impeccable style"....

But in The Perennial Journal ("a luscious cream stock... with gilded edges for lasting beauty"), the target consumer's mask slipped:

"One less bell to answer. One less egg to fry. Isn't that how the song goes? Not that I fried eggs anyway. Too much fat and cholesteral. But I digress... I'm just trying to keep my mind busy with other thoughts, I suppose. I'm not meant to live alone, to have everything to myself. Some would say I am lucky now, but all I can do is cry." I am lucky

. . .

Make the voices stop

At a similar literary salon about, oh, maybe seven or eight years ago, the favorite first lines game was played, and I quickly realized that I didn't have any.

Partly that's because so much of my favorite writing occurred before the late-twentieth-century vogue for hooky opening sentences; partly it's because I dislike that vogue, which will seem as eccentically simplistic to future readers as an earlier era's focus on moments of moral sublimity seems to us. Grabbing the reader by her arm and yanking seems a rude way to initiate a conversation, and when I remember particularly enthralling beginnings, I remember their structural effects rather than the wording of sentence one: the early and peculiar disappearance of Madame Bovary's initial narrator, for example. (Back at that salon, the only opening line I could recall right off was a condensed version of the Bovary gambit, as played by Beckett in Mercier and Camier: "The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time." The rest of the book being I-less.)

On the other extremity, I'm a sucker for endings that snap close with a satisfying click, and I recall (and re-read) a good many last lines, with special fondness for those whose persistent startle ripples backward through the entire work, restructuring it retrospectively into something far richer than one had even dared to hope for as one kicked joyfully up surfacewards holding one's perfectly timed-to-the-last-page breath.

(Oddly, few of the examples I'm about to offer really count as "spoilers": to understand their defiance of expectations, one must have developed those expectations in the first place. The truly itchy can feel free to request story-wrecking explanations from me.)

Such an ending is more likely to speed the traveller on with a slamming of the door than with a gentle swinging to, treating readerly expectations so aggressively that they could almost be called rebuttals to their own books. (Ulysses is one such rebuff after another.) Closure is, after and above all, a refusal of further story.

Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.

"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédéric.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.

I remember them all with such happiness.
I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it.
[The first remains the most chill-enducing and daringly experimental ending I've ever read, as befits Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the pinnacle, in English literature, of characterization through narrative voice: The plot is resolved in the imperative! or, more accurately, via the narrator's very use of the imperative! Aided by the unemphasized selectivity of her seemingly conventional last paragraph wrap-up! (I think we can agree that exclamation marks are called for here, given the tightrope-acrobat precision of the performance.)

The second concludes Flaubert's most brilliant closing movement: that of the infinitely self-undermining Sentimental Education -- whose influence can be clearly seen in my third entry, from M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, and perhaps also in Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (as cited in Eclogues).

Next, and speaking of characterization through narrative voice, the befuddled detective of Henry James's The Sacred Fount finally manages to reach a conclusion. Fifth is Dashiell Hammett's last word on the murder mystery genre (or perhaps on fiction in general) in The Thin Man, and lastly Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl abruptly becomes non-Highsmithian -- and freezes.]

Some end with a flourished signature:

And by what I have written in this document you will see, won't you, that I have obeyed her?
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.
Having seen this time what I needed to see, I started writing; and in time wrote all that you have read.
"You and Capablanca," I said.
[Janet Frame's Faces in the Water throws mental health into our eyes like vitriol; Virginia Woolf's Orlando shoots its arrows of desire right through the temporal barrier; Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone goes home; Raymond Chandler's The High Window gives everyone a fucking break.]
Some with a gleeful or furious or heartbreaking -- but perfectly definite -- denial of closure:

That is said nowadays by the most modern of the physicists. If that is true, then that is how it is with Pooch and with Carmen and with all the others.
I'd always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I'd never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn't long to wait.
Something further may follow of this Masquerade.
Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes.
[Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog; Barbara Comyns's Mr Fox; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man; and the devastating final sentence of John Crowley's Engine Summer, whose subject (in several senses) might be said to be the tragicomedy of incompletion.]
And some are simply, disturbingly or delightfully, accomplished:

"Nothing, Mamma. I was just thinking."

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother's corseted waist.

He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.
The beautiful weather was compared with the Great Disappointment of '44, when Christ failed once again to appear to the Millerites.
[Robert Musil's Young Törless enters sentimental grad school; Djuna Barnes's Nightwood pays tribute to Aphrodite; Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon lights out for the hills.]

2015-06-21 : Guy Lionel Slingsby kindly directed my attention to this trimmer and more Twitter-friendly approach.

. . .

"Night They Missed the Horror Show" by Joe R. Lansdale

I hadn't felt much need to comment on the videos and photos from Iraq. We all understood what must be happening, and the youngsters do love their souvenirs. Even the most cursory acquaintance with the last century of global history teaches how easily humanity can be repositioned on the bonobo-chimp-baboon continuum. And if you haven't studied history, you can always study the local frat or court house.

Combine the right circumstances and you're near guaranteed a community feast of sadistic crime. That's why stable democracies attempt to block such combinations. Whereas Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft swear to arbitrary exercise of power, eternal lack of accountability, and self-righteousness as absolute principles, and, undisciplined as any stoner, acknowledge no constraint but personal straight-from-Jesus impulse. The results were predictable from the get-go.

And yet the faces and voices of my friends express not just anger and disgust but surprise, even shock. Where must they have been raised? A Henry James novel? 'Cause I've been at colleges with preppies and at offices with yuppies, so I know for a fact this ain't about class. It's about deniability.

Which is why Joe Lansdale's "story that doesn't flinch" should be added to the curriculum of every American school system. (Maybe while we're putting Intelligent Design in the textbooks.) Some reviewers call it splatterpunk, but it feels like home to me.


Not responses but independent anticipations that I've only now caught up to: Pedantry and (even earlier) inanis et vacua. I should stick to aesthetics.

A reader of my own writes:

Moral codes as sewer grates. Not as platinum standards of behavior, where anything not covered is oky-doke. A moral climate where anything not explicitly verboten in the book goes, is where this is went. Whereas nobility says the law is the nether point. One looks up, the other down, for guidance. That big cast-iron pot, some see as cauldron for witches' brews, some as missionary ragout. We've been filtered out, the best curtailed, the worst made comfy.

"The law"? Laws are just another tool of blackmail, resorted to when nothing more reliable is available. The Bush administration is always willing to either throw the book away or throw the book at. What they're not inclined to do is study the book.

Slow Math found the Lansdale online. If it'd been a snake, it've bit me. Here's a reader who bit back:

Redneck ebonics written by a pussy. Richard Farina did that "mind of the enemy thing" in scary spades long ago. So deep in the bacon-fat it seemed channelled and probably was. Lansdale is a coward and his dialog and exposition sound like shit.

We regret any inconvenience.

. . .


You wouldn't imagine the life of a cynical newspaper reporter a congenial match for Henry James's late style, and Henry James's imagination concurs. Having been lured or coerced into the subject, it spends the entire length of "The Papers", hampered by age and weight, trying to find its way the hell back out. Recommended to those who expected His Girl Friday to end with Walter and Hildy in an Albany retirement community.

. . .

The Launderer's Hand

Continuing the discussion:

As has been pointed out many times before, "genre" is not a simple compound, or even a clear formula, and its assorted aspects of publishing, writing, and reading are only loosely interdependent. Some writing, it's true, affirms generic coherency, snug and compact in a neatly labeled bundle. But much of what I'm drawn to seems badly wrapped, corners rubbing against frays and duct tape.

It always comes marked, however. No matter how much writer or reader idealizes invention from whole cloth, there'll be some natural discoloring, someone to see a pattern, and someone to apply a dye. Even the launderer's hand grows red with wringing.

To drop the metaphors:

  1. My favorite writing is sui generis.
  2. It was (and is) all published (more or less antagonistically) within a generic context.
  3. Assuming that one particular genre has special access to the sui generis greatly reduces the chance of actually finding it.

Which is why, as I wrote earlier, plowing cover-to-cover through some 19th century volumes of Blackwood's or Harper's, or High-Modernist-era New York Times book reviews or High-Hollywood-era movie reviews, would be salutary for most English and creative writing majors. Someone who refused to look at smut would have missed Lolita (fittingly, Nabokov himself first received Ulysses as an exemplar of smuttiness); someone who refused to look at sea stories (or flop gothics) would have missed Melville; someone who refused to look at cornpone humor would have missed Twain; and so on. And someone who refused to read academically canonized writing would miss all the same books now. For we who love to be astonished, it's worth attempting to read Hammett's and Thompson's (or Fitzgerald's and Faulkner's) prose the same way whether behind pulp covers or a Library of America dustjacket.

To take a limit case, there are (and have been) an astonishing number of readers who treat everything written by women as its own genre, resulting in a comedy of re-interpretation when misattributions are corrected and as the purported "genre" is denigrated or celebrated.

All this from publishers and readers. For a writer, genre may considered a conversational context, with one's social circle not necessarily restricted to one's neighbors, or even to the living. Since the literary mainstream's "discovery" of Patricia Highsmith began, I've seen a number of bemused references to the influence of Henry James, but this isn't an unusual phenomenon. The work itself is always more (or less, if truly "generic" work) than whatever genre it's in.

Carol Emshwiller, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Jack Womack, and Kelly Link write the sui generis they write and publish in whatever genre welcomes (or allows) them. But a contemporary may find it useful to learn that they all began publishing within the context of the science fiction genre, whether they themselves started as genre readers or not. And although I seek out Dalkey Archive and Sun & Moon Press spines in the bookstores, I enjoy knowing that the past decade of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has shown more lively variety than any university-sponsored or trust-funded fiction journal.


Lucius Shephard also

God, yes. There are, oh, let's not start feeling guilty about not mentioning M. John Harrison, there are lots more. And then all the great writers who are publishing mysteries, thrillers, romances, Y/As, and including, sure, the literary mainstream and the poetry presses, but all of them, now ignored or long forgotten or even deservedly noticed, should get more than just a for instance, and I just meant for instance.

A welcome update, fourteen years later, from Josh Lukin:

Well you know my fave bemused reference to the influence of Henry James . . . although I'm sure Baldwin's Jamesianity too incurred some bemusement (to say the least) in his day, of the "'Notes of a Native Son'? What does this guy think he is?" sort (I don't at the moment have the wherewithal to turn to my Marcus Klein and Maxwell Geismar and Irving Howe and see if that was among their beefs).

I've been reading some James stories and am struck by their reliance on Ideas (pace T.S. Eliot). And I mean Ideas in the way SF writers mean Ideas: premises that one can quickly pitch to an editor (or to a writer, if one is that kind of editor I did have a pair of cats named Horace* and Campbell). It's an unoriginal insight that post-Chekhovian litfic doesn't make for good log lines the way that older stuff does; but I wonder whether pitchability has an economic origin or not: did Maupassant**, whom James might have gotten it from, write for magazine editors?

*Horace is still with us, but he doesn't like me to read the New York Edition. He will plop himself on it or gently close it or try to eat "Daisy Miller." I had to get hold of the first book editions of the stories so he'd leave me alone.

**Did anybody else pan their influences as interestingly as James? Not Wilde, not Nabokov, not Alan Moore . . . the list isn't as long as Harold Bloom led me to believe . . .

. . .


(Also at The Valve)

Variations on a theme by Amardeep Singh

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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.


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."

. . .

Cavil, Foragers again

But regret is one thing and resentment is another. Seeing one morning, in a shop-window, the series of Mornings in Florence published a few years since by Mr. Ruskin, I made haste to enter and purchase these amusing little books.... it was difficult to sympathise, for the simple reason, it seems to me, that it savours of arrogance to demand of any people, as a right of one's own, that they shall be artistic. "Be artistic yourselves!" is the very natural reply that young Italy has at hand for English critics and censors. ... "One may read a hundred pages of this sort of thing," said my friend, "without ever dreaming that he is talking about art. You can say nothing worse about him than that." Which is perfectly true. Art is the one corner of human life in which we may take our ease. ... One may read a great many pages of Mr. Ruskin without getting a hint of this delightful truth; a hint of the not unimportant fact that art after all is made for us and not we for art. ... Differences here are not iniquity and righteousness; they are simply variations of temperament, kinds of curiosity. We are not under theological government.
- Henry James, "Recent Florence", 1877

This seems simpatico, and true, and cruel. Henry James all over.

What creeps me out about it about early James in general is the genial air of contempt, of exclusive access to "the real right thing." Yes, if we stay smart and aware, passive analysis can get us somewhere. But the active objects of our gaze ain't hearing nothing they don't already know. They also think who don't just stand and wait.

By the time young James wrote this put-down, old Ruskin had already made the decision to forsake art history for an attempt to (re-)create the sort of theological government which would make us "artistic ourselves." His effort may have been delusional, but it at least demonstrated self-awareness.

"First, do no harm" is a more difficult injunction than it seems at first. Maybe that's why I prefer the later James: just as ineffectual but less smug about it. The decades of bruised conscientiousness built up their protective layers of silk (if you like the style) or numb callus (if you don't), and the voice became its own padded cell.

. . .

The Sacred Fount and Some Vladimir Nabokov Novels Are Similar Yet Different

For PK

(This would be more convincing if May Server's last name was "Serjhen".)

. . .

Household Seers

"Omniscience for Atheists: Or, Jane Austen's Infallible Narrator"
by William Nelles, Narrative 14.2 (2006) 118-131

Nelles first demonstrates the critical power of statistical methods, then demonstrates their critical shortcoming: we can only maintain "distant reading" by maintaining our assumptions about what's being read. He launches from a bit of received wisdom: Although all Jane Austen's novels feature godlike omniscient narrators, Austen matured from an openly intrusive and manipulative authorial voice to a disciplined use of third-person-limited and free indirect discourse. From Samuel Johnson to Henry James, as the trebly cited formula goes. Stats don't back it up:

Just as a play has a certain number of speaking parts, so an Austen novel has a certain number of what we might call "thinking parts," characters whose consciousness the narrator reveals to us. Given the critical narrative outlined above, one might expect to see that number start out very large and narrow down to a single central consciousness. If one measures omniscience quantitatively, as Booth suggests, counting how many minds the narrator has access to, then Persuasion, in which the narrator reveals the consciousnesses of ten characters, is no different from Emma, in which she also reads the minds of ten characters. But not only is there no progression from Emma to Persuasion in this regard, there is no pattern of progression at all in Austen's novels: Northanger Abbey has ten thinking parts, Sense and Sensibility twelve, and Mansfield Park thirteen. Only Pride and Prejudice, with nineteen thinking parts, stands out.

Rather than resting on this uphoistery, however, Nelles takes it as a guide to closer reading, and finds a circular map to accompany his flat graph:

Oddly enough, an Austen narrator can only read minds within a radius of three miles of her protagonist; this is specified as being precisely the distance from Longbourn to Netherfield and also from Kellynch Hall to Uppercross Cottage. And even this level of privilege occurs rarely. Normally the narrator can only read the minds of characters within sight or hearing of the protagonist. Austen's narrator is under house arrest, and the protagonist of the novel is her ankle bracelet.... In every other case of telepathy in Pride and Prejudice and these are numerous the character whose mind is being read is within Elizabeth's audiovisual field. This degree of spatial restriction hardly seems consonant with handbook definitions of omniscience.

Just how mortal is Austen's storytelling voice?

An Austen narrator is not just bound by a "now" at the end of the story that she can't see beyond; she is also bound by the "now" of the action she is narrating moment by moment, and is prohibited from looking ahead to future events even if they will occur before the narrator's final "now".... Furthermore, an Austen narrator also has limited access to past events, seldom extending beyond the protagonist's childhood....

[Wayne Booth protested] "One objection to this selective dipping into whatever mind best serves our immediate purposes is that it suggests mere trickery and inevitably spoils the illusion of reality. If Jane Austen can tell us what Mrs. Weston is thinking, why not what Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are thinking?"

My response would be that it's easy to tell what Mrs. Weston is thinking, and difficult to tell what Frank and Jane are thinking. Within about twenty pages we learn that Emma has long since figured out Mrs. Weston's thoughts.... Not only does Emma know what Mrs. Weston is thinking, everybody who knows them knows what she's thinking, and Emma knows what all of them are thinking. Indeed, Mrs. Weston only hopes to conceal her thoughts "as much as possible".... Not every person is so easily read, however. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are good at blocking telepathy. When Emma tries to read Jane's mind during an evening at Hartfield, she is forced to concede, "There was no getting at her real opinion. Wrapt up in a cloak of politeness, she seemed determined to hazard nothing. She was disgustingly, was suspiciously reserved." Knightley is similarly stumped, because she does not have an "open temper." Recognizing that Jane's manners are designed to prevent her mind being read, Emma says to Mrs. Weston, "Oh! Do not imagine that I expect an account of Miss Fairfax's sensations from you, or from any body else. They are known to no human being, I guess, but herself," and our human narrator is of course included....

The template for the narrator in Austen is not at all a Godlike omniscience, but a very human skill: the ability of a perceptive and thoughtful person, given enough time and sufficient opportunity for observation, to make accurate judgments about people's character, thought processes, and feelings. Austen's protagonists are markedly less fallible by the end of the novel as they narrow the gap between their growing reliability of judgment and the infallibility of the narrator. Conversely, the narrator shares many of the characters' limitations of mobility. Like her protagonists, she can observe and analyze, but not foresee or control, social and personal outcomes; like them, she cannot really act upon her knowledge possessing it must suffice. At the risk of making my conclusion too simple and obvious, the model for Austen's infallible narrators is not God in heaven, but Jane Austen, more or less as she describes herself in a letter to Cassandra, written about the time she begins working on Emma: "... as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like."

Austen moved beyond open parody and Johnsonian discourse by returning to the novel's epistolary roots, writing as a friendly-but-detached on-the-scene reporter. In the fiction of Richardson and his direct successors, the most reliable narrators are either villains (who know the score because they're manipulating it) or tragically ineffective (guessing at events without being able to change them). Austen abstracted the pleasing activity of first-hand gossip from the distracting husk of the at-hand teller.

. . .

Go, Pursued by Bears

Born and bred a concern troll, I combine the firm clarity of a Henry James with the nuanced teamwork of a Yosemite Sam. The only political value I ever delivered was standing sullenly in one spot, and even there my peak performance is long behind me. Not then as a particpant but as a spectator and so inexpert a spectator as to be uncertain whether any goals were scored in a racoon coat I wave my pennant and flask and agree the Big Game was well played.

. . .

"Thea's main objective in life seemed to be to make her contemporaries feel awful."

Since I'm a long-time champion of Patricia Highsmith, my friends have naturally asked me what I thought of the new biography. Well, when I gave up the idle fantasy of writing a critical biography I also seemed to lose interest in reading one, and so I haven't read it. But of the opinions formulated by people who have, I commend with pleasure Jonathan Lethem's, and would only add to his suggestions two novels of particular import to biography readers: the alternate-history life-of-Highsmith Edith's Diary, dedicated to the unlikely proposition that Things Could Be Worse, and Those Who Walk Away, which narrates the healing powers and jarringly hard limits of empathy in a way and in settings that Henry James might recognize without quite endorsing.


Dave Haan differs:

Betty Noir's not my thang, but it seems a shame to overlook the Sunday Times' appreciation in its lit-quotes of the year, under the VS Naipaul award for most repellent author:

"[Patricia Highsmith] kept 300 snails as pets. She drank a quart of gin a day. She considered robbery worse than murder. She left the United States to live in Europe because of what she called 'the Negro problem' by which she did not mean discrimination against Negroes, but the civil rights movement that had Negroes demanding their rights. A houseguest once left her window open; she threw a dead rat inside. She took tips left on restaurant tables. She'd drive 60 miles to get a cheaper spaghetti dinner. She called Hitler's extermination policy a 'semicaust' because only half the world's Jews died."

The rest of Kornbluth's take

and Joan Schenkar has a couple items up there as well.

Oh, and for heaven's sakes how did I leave The Price of Salt out of my additional recommendations "of particular import to biography readers"?

. . .

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

JEFF MARKHAM: "We owe it all to José Rodriguez. I wonder if he'll ever know what a bad guide he really was."

Two Anglo-American academic disciplines recently took their aesthetics on an "ethical turn," although their turns share little other than a fondness for Henry James and a professionally useful handle. (As Sheriff Peter B. Hartwell once put it, "You mean we could have our pictures taken together?")

Literary criticism's "cognitive turn" and "evolutionary turn" have introduced oversimplifications, misunderstandings, and the most puerile of observations. The ethical turn operates at a higher level entirely. Close reading, introspection, historical and biographical tidbits, the canonical vocabulary of Theory, and consumer studies from surveys or labs all the proven tools of the critical trade remain at reach within a sturdy and compelling perhaps even compulsory frame.

Why do I so loathe the trend, then? Why does bile choke even the expression of my loathing?

And why should you care?

Ethically-turned critics promise inestimable rewards if you'll take time to closely attend the articulation of a spiritual struggle, no matter how privileged the protagonist or how idiosyncratic the circumstance. They describe it almost as your duty.

Friends, I fight for your right to ignore me.

... to be continued ...

. . .

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.


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?"

. . .

Last Exit to the New Bloomusalem

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

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

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

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


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

"We're all pretty, Snow White."

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

What breast-beating SF are you talking about?

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

Josh Lukin offers scholarly assistance:

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

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

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

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

. . .

The Diddly Bow of Ulysses

While following three different strands of research, I've recently tripped over three different frustrated academics grappling with the use of "fugue" (meaning, roughly, some contrapuntal form which we don't fully follow) to describe texts by Joyce, Pound, Zukofsky, &c., none of them noting the most fruitful interpretation: Written language, like a violin but more so, is not a polyphonic instrument, and therefore it can only imply complex harmonies and simultaneous lines through anticipatory or reflective aberrations which the mind weaves across paragraphs and pages, as when weaving the implied melodies of Bach's works for solo strings. The term "fugue" appeals by emphasizing the mental effort without which intended polyphony remains apparent disorder.

(Kenner or Senn or someone must've sounded off about this sometime, but I can't find the reference. Can you?)


I agree, Ray, some academics should learn to play a few fugues before they play around with the term.

A serious issue, and not confined to the campus: for example, I myself can barely fake a power chord and yet listen to me chatter. However, these particular three academics are likely expert fuguers, capable of fuguing round the clock. Their fugues of choice, though, were keyboard works which (as they pointed out) were not closely imitated by the solo vocals of the poet or novelist. I don't dispute that; I merely wanted to counterpoint that word-sorters and bow-scrapers must rely on more skeletal or subliminal or fragmented approaches.

Fugue and counterpoint in Ulysses have of necessity to be in linear form as we are trapped in a narrative - so Joyce uses various methods to build in the semblance of parallel occurrences. But then he moved on: Thelonious Monk used to play two adjacent piano notes to imply the quarter-tone between; could it be that in Finnegan's Wake, Joyce was hoping to spark the mind to run all possible meanings of his portmanteau words simultaneously?

Yes, I agree, although again he couldn't quite sustain the feel of simultaneous voices we tend to search for a "base" meaning to provide the rhythm of the prose, with the other meanings connecting in a more staccato and less linear way, forming (as we remain immersed) sequences of characteristic mists or fogs whose effect may not be so far removed from the free-indirect-discourse with which Joyce began. Cage's "Roaratorio" does a splendid job of conveying this musically, but it couldn't be described as fugal.

Fiction-writer and songwriter Paul Kerschen writes:

Auguste Bailly registered this as a complaint back in 1928:

"The necessity of recording the flow of consciousness by means of words and phrases compels the writer to depict it as a continuous horizontal line, like a line of melody. But even a casual examination of our inner consciousness shows us that this presentation is essentially false. We do not think on one plane, but on many planes at once... At every instant of conscious life we are aware of such simultaneity and multiplicity of thought-streams.

The life of the mind is a symphony. It is a mistake or, at best, an arbitrary method, to dissect the chords and set out their components on a single line, on one plane only. Such a method gives an entirely false idea of the complexity of our mental make-up."

That's quoted in Stuart Gilbert, who made the very sensible response that perhaps giving a verisimilar picture of "the life of the mind" wasn't actually Joyce's first priority... and then everyone forgot that point for fifty years. My own view is that Henry James has sympathies much closer to Bailly's, and that his various experiments with time-loops and periphrasis are an attempt to get at something like Bailly's symphonic mind (though then again, this has nothing to do with polyphony in Bakhtin's reigning sense). This is all done to death in chapters one and four of "The Modernist Novel Speaks Its Mind" (PhD dissertation, UC-Berkeley, 2010), which I think might be up on ProQuest now.

Fiction-writer and composer Carter Scholz writes:

Though I revere them and their works, I have faint respect for Joyce's, Pound's, or Zukofsky's practical knowledge of fugue, or of musical composition in general. All had matchless ears for sonority and rhythm. But what they knew about "fugue" as a practice could be put on a postcard. It got waved around as an impressive magic word; hence the confusion and frustration.

You can legitimately try to get something remotely like that effect in prose or poetry, but it looks as much like antiphony as "fugue" or "counterpoint". It's like trying to dance architecture; only annoys the pigeons. Maybe I'm one.

It seems to me that the Bach solo string works imply harmony rather than melody, but that's a more interesting discussion. Do the voices dictate or follow? Cage's Roaratorio doesn't care -- it's heterophony.

Update: I picked it up from Basil Bunting! (Not a bad T-shirt slogan, that.) Bunting mentioned the analogy in interviews, letters, and lectures; viz., from Basil Bunting on Poetry, lecture 12:

Pound, however, and Zukofsky after him, was fascinated by the close texture of the fugue and by its somewhat spurious air of logicality. They wanted to know whether the design of the fugue could be transferred to poetry. A short but incomplete answer is that it can't. A fugue is essentially contrapuntal, several voices imitating each other, yet free of each other, all talking simultaneously, whereas poetry is written for one voice at a time or, at most, for voices in unison. But Bach had set an example. He wrote at least two fugues for unaccompanied violin. Of course they are not really fugues. No amount of double stopping can get three or more voices to sing simultaneously on the violin. The entries in Bach's unaccompanied violin fugues wait till the last entiry is done or nearly done before they start. Yet he manages to convey a rather teasing sensation of a fugue, never really satisfied. Similar sequences of notes are thrown up time and again, but they never mesh together as those of a true fugue do. Zukofsky wrote a fugue of this sort for unaccompanied voice. It's Part 7 of his long poem "A". It is not a fugue, but it does suggest one, suggests it very strongly.

Jeet Heer adds:

You might want to listen to the Bob Perelman lecture here -- he stars with a critique of the modernist poetics that draws facile parallels between poetry and music.

. . .

The View Down Eccles St.

Soundtrack by The Navarros

The Dubliners flinch at the moment a camera snaps them into paralysis. Portrait's wins are serially deceiving, each end-of-play a bump to the next game level. Exiles is interminable. All the suggested stories of Finnegans Wake collapse in a bright overnight eruption of slime mold. And all the episodes and parallels of Ulysses try closure on for fit and discard it.

It's fun to imagine an offended Mrs. Bloom fetching a badly cooked egg to a puzzled Mr. Bloom. Even if that scene did take (some other) place on the morning of June 17, though, it would hardly be the start of a second honeymoon, and, given the unlikelihood of separation, homicide, or suicide, their marriage was never in real danger of ending. It would continue as it had continued if it had ever continued. Some days will be better; some days will be almost as bad; one day all days will be unreachable.

For years Mr. Bloom's chief emotional support has been his daughter. Her absence pointedly suspends in working holiday.

The most stinging loss is the fate of Stephen Dedalus. Insofar as a nice normal high-mainstream storyline can be extracted from Ulysses, it must lead to Stephen's rest chez cher Bloom. And Joyce explicitly refuses both rest and explication. With nowhere left to go, to where does Stephen go? Does he hop a steamer, stoke his way to London, bed H. G. Wells and Henry James, invent a time machine, and return as the Man in the Macintosh? Does some unforeseeable encounter guide the fictional character onto a fictional path in which he'll someday write a fictional version of the book we've just read? Or have universes diverged too far to ever rejoin? Maria Tymoczko justly compares his exit to that of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The only thing we know's that Stephen Dedalus has left the house of fiction, and good riddance.

+ + +

The View U. P.

Courtesy of that evil plunderer of dead authors' royalties
"One Squire Mornington's, they told me; and somebody said they supposed it would be all u—p, up. Well, it will make him know what it is to be a poor man, for once in his life."
"If so, it's all U—P, up, adjective, not down, as the worthy Mr. Squeers said."
"Then," growled Goldsmith, with a note of desperation in his deep-sea bass, "it's h, a, double h'ell h'all, u, p h'up, h'all h'up, bullies."
'Never mind, Dick, old man,' said Harry kindly; 'it's all U. P.'

'All up,' cried Dick.

. . .

The Death & Rebirth of Criticism out of the Spirit of Improv

Forgetful Muses: Reading the Author in the Text
by Ian Lancashire, Toronto, 2010

Fearing another polemic, I flinched at the opening Barthes joke. No need; the point is that Barthes and Foucault helped make room for scholarship like Lancashire's own.

Barthes's target was a particular sort of Critic (James Wood or Jonathan Franzen or Allen Tate, say) who allows only a particular sort of Work (a well-wrought urn full of well-burned ash), the titular "Author" being the Critic's implausible prop. With Critic and Author removed, Franco Moretti recently went on to elbow Reader, Theorist, and Work out of the Howard-Roark-ish Researcher's spotlight.

More generous, Lancashire instead invites another figure onto the stage: the Writer Writing. His book directs the tourist's attention to the distance between conscious intent and the actuality of creation, both as living process and in posthumous analysis in two words, muse and style.

Comfortably switching between the roles of researcher and reader, Lancashire can treat the "General Prologue" as Chaucerian Work or as bundle of characteristic tics; he can study Shakespeare as Author and as tic-bundler; he can turn Agatha Christie's pageturners and then winnow them for symptoms. To show his peaceful intent, he goes so far as to intersperse goofy monologues from his own first-draft stream-of-consciousness, who proves as insulting towards his fister as any other vent dummy. And again I marvel at how free discourse flows to bicker.

Even more more again I marvel at how, gathered at the Author Function, we collectively manage such both-ands. When Lancashire uncorks his inner Jerry Mahoney, by what magic do the undergrads believe that communication has occurred?

The accuracy of that belief is questionable, yes, but not its transient certainty. I still recall the shudder with which Henry James's overstuffed suspension settled into clear solution, counterpane into windowpane. And farther back in adolescent memory how the fraudulent assemblages of T. S. Eliot and cheesy pop musicians gathered warmth and depth and breath. And, more near and less pleasantly, watching in embarrassment Jean-Luc Godard's miraculous constructs scurf, slough, and collapse into scrap. How do the imprecise and formulaic grunts of Homer or Dan Brown transform, in the susceptible listener, into vividly imprecise and formulaic experience?

A question which may animate a less particular sort of Critic.

. . .

Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

The Warm South by Paul Kerschen

“God knows how it would have been — but it appears to me — however, I will not speak of that subject.”
- John Keats to Charles Brown, November 30, 1820

Fiction begins in mean-spirited gossip, and the fictional career of “John Keats” began in 1818 when Blackwood’s Magazine cast him as little Sirrah Aguecheek, sticky sidekick to Leigh Hunt’s insolent Master Belch. Three years later, Keats’s death provided Percy Bysshe Shelley with Adonais, whose preface described a fluffy duckling skewered mid-peep, ne’er to reach full-fledged quackery.

These two accounts largely (and inaccurately) agreed on the facts of the case, differing by the tone in which they pronounced it “pathetic.” The magazine’s Keats was a bad poet who published bad poems, received bad reviews, and died badly; Shelley’s Keats was a promising poet who did the same. As Blackwood’s and Lord Byron feared and Matthew Arnold lamented, Shelley’s deflected self-pity won undisciplined hearts and minds, and the Martyrdom of Saint Mawk supplied a low-impact model for sad underbred poetic youths until punk duckling Rimbaud finally edged it out.

In post-Victorian fiction, Rudyard Kipling’s Medium-is-the-Medium short story “Wireless” transmitted Keats’s voice to 1902, but all it could find to do was recite a bit of “The Eve of St. Agnes” before fading into static. At much greater length at the other end of the century, Dan Simmons used Keats as the props department for a series of super-science space sagas, and a Keats-shaped token made the midpoint shit-is-getting-real sacrifice in The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers’s Lives of the Poets with Vampires. Anthony Burgess’s more delicate reinterpretation of literary history, ABBA ABBA, hung a series of elaborate set-pieces from Mr. Finch’s account of the dying Keats’s uncooperative mood and the dying Keats’s own account of compulsive punning. More recently, Andrew Motion mulled a drowsy muddle of reincarnation and/or transmission and/or alternative history in The Invention of Dr. Cake.

None of these “Keats” characters resembled the “Keats” in my head; none of these Keats stories satisfied me as storytelling. And that bothered me not at all; I didn’t particularly expect or crave a believable Keats in a satisfying fiction. Writers are people so extraordinarily dull that they need to put themselves through the ridiculous fuss of writing and publishing merely to make anyone notice them at all. Why should we turn to a pillow-bellied mimic of Henry James when the original had so much more incentive to hold our attention? Gluing a fake nose on Nicole Kidman is its own reward; why drag poor Virginia Woolf into it?

The Warm South taught me what was missing from the previous two hundred years of John Keats stories and why I should have missed it.

All of them shared at least one characteristic besides the nominal presence of “Keats”: immobility. Their Keatses consist of funeral orations, Royal Academy paintings, quotations, checklists, and holographic freeze-frames of that-living-hand. Blackwood’s goofus was hopeless from the start; the hottest action in Adonais was Shelley flipping the Mourn / Don’t-Mourn switch. Tim Powers drew a loopy narrative line, but it connected the dots which had been printed long before. And Motion’s heavy concentric Victorian frames unleashed all the narrative force of an after-dinner speech at the Keats-Shelley Association. To repurpose Jeffrey C. Robinson’s summary of a hundred verse tributes, they were “driven not by Keats’s life or by his poems but by his death; Keats is that poet who by definition died young.”

It’s true enough that John Keats was besieged by death from childhood, and in good sad underbred poetic youth fashion he indulged occasional suicidal fantasies (Chatterton being the definitionally dead poet of his generation). But he was never une nature morte; allowing for the constraints of wealth, health, and family, he careened and caromed as wildly as Byron or Shelley, and, lazy though the Keats children might have been by nature, he refused to stay still when it would be the wisest course of inaction. You might be certain that he wouldn’t follow good advice or accept assistance gracefully, but past that all bets were off. “He would not stop at home, he could not quiet be.”

The Keats in my head was, if anything, that poet who by definition made mistakes. Of course, many of us have made more and larger mistakes than Keats could manage. But Keats seemed unusually enthusiastic about the prospect and more determined to be content with the result. It was a way to go adventuring on the cheap, to elevate unprovisioned circumstances into self-earned manly independence.

“I refused to visit Shelley, that I might have my own unfettered scope.”

“I will write independently. I have written independently without Judgment. I may write independently, and with Judgment, hereafter. The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself.”

“I feel that I make an impression upon them which insures me personal respect while I am in sight whatever they may say when my back is turned.”

Paul Kerschen’s Keats convinced me by making Keatsian mistakes in a Keatsian manner. And although it might sound odd, his Keats carried even more conviction for having changed. Death should be, after all, a life-changing experience, and one rarely survives one’s mid-twenties without some self-definitional trait being revealed as ballast; it’s the age when, for example, most sad poetic youths stop writing poetry.

In pre-posthumous Keats’s letters and his circle’s memoirs, we encounter an instantly charming young man: warm, forthright, engaged, generous, even pretty in a peculiar way. Byron and the Keatses’ icy guardian, Richard Abbey, were immune, or allergic, to his appeal, but more appear to have been susceptible. And we also encounter a moody, thin-skinned abandoned child: distrustful, paranoid at times, misanthropic and misogynistic, and quick to break his most fervent attachments.

During his last summer, Keats began to note his own role in this repeated drama: “I am in the wrong, and the world is in the right, I have no doubt. Fact is, I have had so many kindnesses done me by so many people, that I am cheveaux-de-frised with benefits, which I must jump over or break down.”

The benefactors responsible for his Italian trip and Roman residence would have piled such chevaux past overlooking or misinterpretation. But rather than letting this new clarity break his established cycle, the novel’s post-posthumous Keats redirects his distrust inward: he’s not so manic, not so prone to gush puns and bouts-rimes and fill all available verbal space to sustain engagement between those abrupt retreats.

Environmental changes, also, would put adaptive pressure on Kerschen’s subject. Rebirth drops Keats into an impoverished, repeatedly conquered and divided land, with little command of the language, no family, no funds, and a great deal of debt — albeit the countable debts of a middling sort rather than the transfinite debts of the rich. Counter-revolutionary reaction blankets Europe; science is sedition; incarcerations and executions are frequent and fast; and by year’s end democratic movements in Italy and Spain are as dead as Napoleon. The insecure upper crusts fail to imagine how life might be managed without servants; on the other side of that unfathomable gulf, the division between those who hire laborers and those who wait to be called, between beggars and those who pass by beggars, is very thin indeed.

One might reasonably ask if this is the sort of world to bring a new (or renewed) life into. The novel’s most experienced resurrectionist, Mary Shelley, was less than sanguine about the procedure’s prognosis. Having tended the deathbeds of mother, brother, and utter strangers, Keats himself rejected heroic measures, and the final horror of his short nonfictional life came when Joseph Severn overrode his advance directive.

Presume then, for the sake of review-reading, that Kerschen’s machinery works and Keats Lives. Should Keats live?

A third into The Warm South, we reach a “Is he really...? Did he really...?” sort of passage and feel generic ground shift a bit. Nothing that breaks the surface, mind; Keats doesn’t don a domino to thwart the reactionary terrorism of the Scarlet Pimpernel, or collaborate on a prophecy titled Content-Purveyor “K” Anno CCXXVII. Aside from one spontaneous remission of end-stage pulmonary tuberculosis, Kerschen sticks to the rules of well-researched historical fiction; the closest we come to meta is Lord Byron’s public denunciation of well-researched historical fiction.

Instead, as pages turn and narrative focus glides, an increasing sense of artifice rises from the arrangement of incidents. Some situations which might find simple resolution instead become more complex — which, I admit, in the context of the Lives of the Second-Gen Romantic Poets remains strictly naturalistic. Less predictably, situations which might resolve tragically do not always do so, and some tragedies we vaguely recollect seem delayed, or have we passed them by entirely?

And mistakes? Mistakes all the way down. In certain times and places — maybe most times and places, maybe even all — success is out of the question. At best, we might have a choice of failures.

Which tempts us to call any move, any sign of life, worthless, pointless. But having been placed in a game whose outcomes exclude lasting worth, its non-attainment can’t reasonably be considered a loss of points: by definition, we can only lose what’s at stake and build with what’s available. Therefore the game at hand, overhead, underfoot, in our blood and in our bellies, beyond reach of resignation, calls for a different scoring system. How well were our failures intended? How immediately damaging were our attempts? In the past, or elsewhere, what happened when failed attempts were not made?

Closing a fannish review, twenty-two-year-old Keats apostrophized Edmund Kean, “Cheer us a little in the failure of our days! For romance lives but in books.”

Unlike our days, our books have the benefit of choosing their end. Adjust the trim, and a self-cast Hamlet or Timon might be revealed as Telemachus, or Viola’s brother. And The End may determine the genre: death delimits a proper biography, for example.

A proper comedy begins in sorrow and ends with a hat trick of happiness. As for its sequel — well, we learned how that goes when John Marston checked in on the rom-com marriage of Antonio and Mellida and found the bridegroom on a killing spree. We know the chorale of forgiveness which ends The Marriage of Figaro won’t prevent further transgressions and retaliations, and if we didn’t, Beaumarchais reminded us in a third play. To reference the lore of my own rustic childhood, when Luft Stalag 13 survivors convene, they don’t analyze Colonel Hogan’s fatal sexual drives or Frenchie’s Algerian atrocities — they retell that time they really put one over on Klink.

The Warm South ends, in a chorus of forgiven indebtedness, where its characters would have ended their retold story.

I’m grateful to Kerschen for telling it the first time. It comes as a balm in the failure of our days; not a cure, but a welcome tonic. As Edmund Kean, I think it was, said, “Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool.”


I wrote the above to work some things out. For Music & Literature, I wrote this review. I thank editor Daniel Medin for the opportunity and his guidance.

. . .


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.



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.


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.