. . . Joyce

. . .

In production: Homer's Ulysses, with Homer as Leopold ("Hello. Why am I Mr. Boom?"), Marge as Molly, Bart as Buck, Lisa as Stephen ("Usurper."), and Maggie as Milly.

. . .

After a week of gout, Cholly's in the worst of moods -- which makes it the best of times for punditry.

. . .

In production: The recent news that Christopher Walken will star in a musical version of James Joyce's "The Dead" made me thankful once again that Dubliners hasn't gotten the Andrew Lloyd Webber treatment.

Picture the second act curtain: Bernadette Peters in old(er)-age makeup bellowing "I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls" to a lambada beat while the Titanic hoists gigantic sail for Buenos Ayres....

On the other hand, Joyce's much-expressed love of cornball music would give Randy Newman a shot at his best Disney score yet, albeit at the cost of turning all the characters into mice:

Conley ran his tongue swiftly along his twitching pink nose.

-- O, the real cheese, you know....

. . .

Modernist Class

  1. Literature is the study of artifacts made of language. Thus, as a discipline, it asserts the primacy of primary sources.
  2. Labels like Modernism and Postmodernism obscure or obliterate primary sources.
Given the overwhelming variety of international publishing in the twentieth century,
an / era / any / time / of year -- Louis Zukofsky
any attempt to generalize about twentieth century writing -- any attempt to use chronologically-biased labels in anything but a strictly chronological way -- leads to manifest absurdity. I've seen "Gertrude Stein as Postmodernist," "James Joyce as Postmodernist," and "Laurence Sterne as Postmodernist"; in fact, the "Postmodern" label seems to be applicable to any writer with a sense of humor.

These absurdities can only be kept unmanifest through ignorance. And these labels are primarily used in defense of an ignorance clung to through laziness, careerism, or the desire to maintain a restricted and reactionary canon.

If you see that the head of a university English department writes only about T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence, you might guess that he hasn't read very widely or very carefully. (You might also guess that you wouldn't want any of your friends to become sexually involved with him.) But by switching his avowed topic to Modernism (with, of course, Eliot and Lawrence as his sole citations), our prof now pronounces on hundreds of writers.

. . .

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....

. . .

Modernist Class

You can tell by the jarring sound of "Zukofsky" in The Trouble With Genius : Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky that Bob Perelman is better read than most academics. He's also better to read: his observations are sensible and accurate.

But those being observed are "Modernist," and Perelman is "Postmodernist." And, apparently as a result, his tone is one of such versatile hostility that no book could escape censure. He holds the proselytizing rhetoric of critics against the writers' own works, and he's pissy about these four writers in particular 'cause they weren't able to meet the supposed "Modernist" ambition of perfect synthesis of every conceivable human goal. He provides a brilliant short introduction to the unique virtues of Ulysses and then claims that the lovely object he just described is proof of Joyce's ineptitude.

But it's not all that clear that such weirdly individualistic writers as Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky actually ascribed to the dopey ambitions Perelman posits, except inasmuch as any working writer has to deal with them: Sure, we got to try to do the best we can think of doing, right? And that can get pretty inflated before it gets punched down. And what we end up with is never quite what we thought we were doing, but sometimes it's still OK, and we can at least try to have a sense of humor about the yeasty smell.

After that performance, Perelman's sequel book, a collection of upbeat reviews mostly of his fellow Language Poets, is about as convincing as the happy ending the studio slapped onto Face/Off. Despite their own lunatic ambitions, Perelman's compeers don't piss him off the same way Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky did. Why? 'Cause they're "Postmodern" and so they're smart enough to undercut their own claims to textual mastery.

The trouble with that is that The Trouble with Genius spends most of its time showing how those stuck-up Modernists also undercut their own claims to textual mastery. I mean, out-of-control-ness is pretty much what you (and Perelman) notice in the second half of Ulysses or in almost anything by Stein or Zukofsky, and it's pretty fucking arrogant to claim that such a pleasurable (and obviously labored-over) effect is attributable to blind error with those guys any more than it is with Ron Silliman or Susan Howe -- or with Melville, Dickinson, Austen in Mansfield Park, the indomitable bad taste of Flaubert, or the wild line-to-line mood swings in Shakespeare, for crying out loud.

At the end of the book, Perelman says that blanket-statement theorists, snippy critics, and it-is-what-it-is poets are playing an unproductive game of paper-scissors-rock. Probably that's a fair assessment, at least when any of them are responding to professional challenges by the other players. But who except a rhetorically worked-up poet would say that a poem was a rock (let alone say that Ezra Pound was the Alps)? Who but an allegiance-drawing theorist would announce in print that any theorist was in any conclusive fermez-la-porte! sense correct?

What Perelman leaves out of his game and out of his book is the possibility of the reader. And publishing gets to be a pretty sad affair without an occasional appearance by that self-satisfied little cluck.

. . .

It's odd to think of Beatrix Potter in the Blitz.

It also seems odd that 1940s-top-guy Raymond Chandler was only a couple years younger than James Joyce, whose career ended in 1939.

Well, Chandler didn't start writing until he was 45. And since he didn't live in Europe during WWII, he lasted longer....

Maybe it's just WWII that seems odd.

"John Taylor’s compliments and thinks he might pass for a dormouse."

. . .


Before us webloggers got going -- even before Dave Winer -- when readers wanted to watch pompous asses unknowingly humiliate themselves in public, they turned to Charles Pooter's The Diary of a Nobody (ed. and ill. by George and Weedon Grossmith).

Warning: Apparently this was before Jakob Nielsen, too; Pooter's home page is one big hunk of text over 200k long! So download it and look at it offline at your leisure. Since it can also function as a learn-by-example instruction manual on how to maintain self-esteem when you're a clumsy snob with a boring job and friends who you don't like and who don't like you, I found it a great commute read: empowering!

I'm sorry to say that, aside from that 200k+ of bare words, the Web hasn't been particularly forthcoming about the Diary. Virtually every search result I got was just another legal or pirated copy of the Gutenberg text, complete with the obvious OCR typo on the first page ("my clear wife," which makes it sound like a Tom Cruise interview or something). Topics for future research include:

Mr. Pooter
Artist's conception

  1. Weedon Grossmith got full collaborative credit for his illustrations ("AS ORIGINALLY SEEN IN PUNCH!"), but no one's been nice enough to scan any in. The nearest I've found is a hideous still from Ken Russell's TV adaptation.

  2. Although the prose is certainly varnished differently, a lot of the Diary couldn't help but remind me of Ulysses's Bloom episodes. And it was a big bestseller during James Joyce's childhood.... The Grossmiths aren't mentioned in Ellman's Joyce biography, but a link might be documented elsewhere.
To be continued after I get to a university library....

. . .

Only 17 Shopping Days Till Bloomsday

A couple of years ago I wrote, to a guy much smarter than me, about Bob Perelman's The Trouble with Genius:

Perelman's insistence that only English department martinets are interested in difficult work is a blatantly received notion, unworthy of him: as late as the mid-'70s, Joyce and Stein were still the happy huntingground of eccentric amateurs, despised by New Criticism and dismissed by most academics I met. (I suppose the last manifestation of that era would be professional entomologist and amateur Finnegans Wake expert Roland McHugh.) I have yet to meet an English professor who's interested in Zukofsky. Really, that whole line of attack felt uncomfortably like the "Well, I read for entertainment" argument that anyone with eccentric ideas of entertainment gets hit by much too often.
Well, just like garage rock and gross-out right-wing comics, Joycean amateurs keep coming back. Witness your inspiration and mine, Jorn Bargers.

Obsessive, cranky, isolationist, down-at-heels, and prickly as all hell in (mercifully, only) one of the great traditions of the amateur scholar, Barger proves that Joyce studies, web browsing, and flame wars can all still and simultaneously serve as happy huntingground.

--Ten years, he said, chewing and laughing. He is going to write something in ten years.

--Seems a long way off, Haines said, thoughtfully lifting his spoon. Still, I shouldn't wonder if he did after all.

. . .

Mamas, Don't Make Your Babies Executors

It's corporations that have forced the vicious new copyright laws upon us and it's mostly corporations that reap the scattered profits and work the universal havoc. After all, corporations have the rights of an individual, are richer than an individual, but can't be institutionalized for criminal insanity like an individual. But because corporations do define themselves as individuals, the monstrous growth of their "rights" has to some extent trickled down to those individuals who have done individually absolutely nothing to merit control of an absent individual's work: to wit, relatives.

The Astaire widow's vacuum-cleaner-financed defense of posthumous dignity may be the most visible outcome. But, as with corporations, the true cultural danger of these suit-threatening and suit-hiring relatives is loss of the marginal rather than exploitation of the famous. Corporations and corporation-like individuals both prefer the risk of eradication to the risk of losing control.

Thus, word on the rue was that a major delay in bringing Jean Eustache's The Mama and the Whore back into distribution was the heir's hope for a windfall, and that a continued obstacle to bringing Mes Petites Amoreuses to videotape is the same. Since Mes Petites Amoreuses was an international flop as well as my favorite coming-of-age movie, if rue-word is true a windfall is unlikely and the stalemate will continue.

Moving past cinematic rumors to literary documentation, "difficult" poet Louis Zukofsky has gotten still more difficult as incarnated in his son, Paul. Possibly understandably teed off by the tongue-clucking directed towards his father by Lorine Niedecker scholars (after all, Niedecker never complained about her treatment), Zukofsky fils refused to allow the teensiest scrap of père's letters to enter into the otherwise excellent Niedecker and the Correspondence With Zukofsky. But gagging the accused isn't such a hot idea: a writer's best defense is usually their own testimony. Witness how the fuller disclosure of Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky easily snuffs the calumny that Zukofsky sucked up to Pound's anti-Semitism.

(Could be worse, I suppose, and it is in the case of Zukofsky's lifelong comrade, Basil Bunting, whose life and letters remain in darkness due to the mortar-and-brick combination of his estate's reticence and England's Official Secrets Act.)

The granddaddy of such repressers has got to be professional grandson Stephen Joyce, who's redirected the kind of smug never-forgive never-forget selfishness that usually gets expended on family feuds towards all scholars everywhere. In A Collideorscape of Joyce, a festschrift for angelic if plain-spoken Joycean Fritz Senn, Stephen Joyce plays the villain again, preventing inclusion of a new German translation of the last chapter of Ulysses and of a study of the manuscripts of the "Nausicaa" chapter, and, most unforgivably, blocking publication of exactly the sort of calumny-snuff referred to above:

"I'll never forget the moment when Lili Ruff produced a copy of the German translation of Ulysses, inscribed to her father by Joyce, with letters stuffed inside.... I was flabbergasted, honoured (never mind that I would later be thwarted by Stephen Joyce from publishing them). Because among those letters... were Joyce's sentiments regarding the treatment of Jews before the outbreak of World War II, and more evidence of his active participation in helping Jews to escape from Nazi Europe." -- Marilyn Reizbaum, "Sennschrift"

. . .

What selfevident enigma pondered with desultory constancy during 20 years did Davis then, having extinguished natural obscurity by the effectation of electronic enlightenment, silently suddenly comprehend?

I'm very sorry to admit that I no longer remember which of my old Digital Equipment Corporation friends pointed this out to me in a Bloomsday email (Tom Parmenter? Dave Juitt? Mark Eaton?), but of course what Mr. Bloom intended to write in the Sandymount sand was:

I. AM. A. stick in the mud

+ + +

What anagrams had he not made on his name in youth?

Bell mood loop
Bold mole polo
Boop lolled mo'
Doom Loeb, poll
Elm blood pool
Loom, bold pole

. . .

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

"I do not like that other world"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

"The more likely truth is that, by the time he was halfway through Ulysses, Joyce's mind was too far gone to be anywhere near capable of moral judgement - or, indeed, much else." -- Conrad Jameson
You poor poet, you!
Wow, that takes me back... the last time anyone came up with the "James Joyce was just psychotic" theory was probably William Empson fifty years ago....

Nostalgia isn't all that attracts me to this buffoonery. There's my ongoing holy war against journalism (that is, slanderous lies) and biography (that is, self-righteous gossip) to consider: The only way to pull such a delusion over one's readers' eyes is through deliberate obfuscation and deliberate plays on presumed ignorance.

For instance by claiming that a conspiracy of "the so-called New Critics" was responsible for inflating Crazy Jamie's reputation when in fact Empson was entirely typical of the New Critics in his dislike for Joyce. It wasn't academics and critics and journalists but writers and artists and amateurs who stoked the pre-1970 Joyce industrial forges.

".... he emerges as a man of great causes, an anti-colonialist, a pacifist and a feminist who, in Bloom, heralds the new womanly man. As it turned out, none of the things that either set of critics had said about Joyce was true...."
"As it turns out," it's demonstratedly true that Joyce was, albeit passively, a pacifist (and a socialist as well, though the New Statesman seems leery of that awful label) and an anti-colonialist and an anti-anti-Semite (not to be confused with a non-anti-Semite; that category didn't exist at the time): he said so quite openly, and others said it, whether insultingly or approvingly, about him. The "feminist" label I'll grant would be a stretch, but in typical journalistic "I don't need a man, I've got straw, thank you" fashion, Conrad Jameson ignores the hostile reception that Joyce has therefore received from many feminists. (I should know; I've argued with 'em.) What he was not was a propagandist, which is what's driven many a propagandistic writer to fury.

Anyway, the writer's job is precisely to seem better and wiser and wittier than the writer is. When the writer doesn't succeed -- when the writer is, say, Oliver St. John Gogarty -- the writer will be remembered as a character rather than a writer. (And despite Jameson's calumny, characters are the ones who're sustained through imitation and emulation rather than the comparatively depressing and colorless writers: emulating the writers would be too much work for the payback.) If Joyce's writing can convince anyone that he was a feminist, it's as much to his writing's credit as it is to Shakespeare's when readers convince themselves that Shakespeare must've been a lawyer or a doctor or a Duke of Earl. "Mme. Bovary, c'est moi" is a boast, not a confession.

Jameson's least mendacious attack on Joyce is purely personal and based on a very slim selection from Joyce's private letters and biography. There's no point in taking a defensive stand on that slim selection: a careful pinching out of details from anyone's private life (much less a writer's, since anyone who decides to write instead of taking a sensible job has got to be more than half crazy to begin with) would make them sound committable. (Yes, even George Bernard Shaw. Even, I suppose, the swollen parasite at hand.)

But, except in the most blatant miscarriages of justice, commitment papers aren't signed based on selected details but on how one's life is viewed in the context of one's place and time. In Joyce's place and time he might not have been called cuddly but neither was he ever called psychotic. As Virginia Woolf proved, there are more direct routes to self-destruction than neglecting one's health; as T. S. Eliot proved, there are worse attitudes toward one's spouse than brusqueness; as Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound proved, doubts about the later Joyce are not necessarily proof of good politics and coherent writing. And (to veer back to slander and lies for a moment), Pound, Eliot, and Woolf didn't take issues with Joyce's "insanity" so much as with his lack of class.

. . .

Criswell Predicts

Twentieth century == Obscenity trials
Twenty-first century == Copyright trials

And may gods help us all.

. . .

Three Women The 100 Super Movies au maximum: Peking Opera Blues

For a not-very-observant observer like myself, there was King Hu, and Jackie Chan, and any amount of reasonably distracting nonsense, but it took Peking Opera Blues to show that the Hong Kong studio system worked, and that it was working to an extent that hadn't been seen since 1930s Hollywood. A pool of talent placed under immense pressure to produce had somehow been broken down into a primordial soup where genres, techniques, and formulas spontaneously recombined in new (and sometimes even viable) forms.

Unused to genuine movement in movies, first-time Peking Opera Blues viewers often feel at a loss; the opening sequence plunges them into a whitewater of Nashville-style protagonist relay, precision slapstick, satire, and suspense with absolutely no exposition to cling onto. If you can't make sense of it, rest assured it's just because there's so much sense condensed into the can -- albeit well befuddled by English subtitles that have been hacked out in the manner one might expect when English subtitling is dictated by colonial law. [Hint: Distrust pronouns and verb tenses.]

(The VHS tape fuddles all the more by being neither letterboxed nor exactly pan-and-scanned: instead it's kind of squoze up skinny so's you have to lie on your back under the TV to watch it. If you can't get to a theater showing, get to the DVD.

And then and only then get to the next paragraph, because I'm about to, quite literally, give away the ending....)

Similarly, many first-time viewers are mystified by an apparent lack of closure. There is, in fact, an ending to the film. It's just that the ending is positioned entirely outside the story proper and seems so incongruously dismal that it's easy to overlook. But given the violent shifts in mood and technique that have already been established, the ending, once noticed, is deeply satisfying: The movie gains its power from alternating current, and this is where the plug's pulled out.

The ending's even easier to overlook on the DVD release, because it's been removed, probably for political reasons.

Many 1980s HK productions -- Tsui Hark's especially -- display a cynical pessimism entirely understandable in colonial subjects who are about to be handed over to a dogmacracy. (Compare James Joyce on Ireland....) "The People" are Busby-Berekley-choreographed sheep, and anyone with the hubris to try to save an entire country will soon become a betrayer, a victim, or a tyrant.

Two of the five heroes of Peking Opera Blues are revolutionaries, but they're hopelessly naive and their strategy is pure MacGuffin. When the movie's autocratic General justifies his acceptance of a usurious foreign loan, he's corrupt and villainous but he's also right: "What'll the world be 47 years later [when China's repayment is due]? Who knows?" And when his daughter betrays him to bring democracy to China, she's patriotic and heroic -- but also mistaken. The only sacrifices the film can wholeheartedly endorse are those made for communities small enough to fit in a room: the accidental friendship of the five protagonists, for example; or a theater troupe; or one's family.

The story proper ends with the five friends reluctantly, individually, deciding to split up. They exchange some final reassurances: "After the revolution, meet you in Peking." "See you then." "Take care." "OK!" And the DVD then rests on this very long freeze frame, bare even of the expected "Coming Soon: Peking Opera Blues II - The Charge of the Ticketmaster!":


But the original release, as shown in theaters and on VHS, goes on to explain...

Five months later,
Five months later,
Yuan's conspiracy was exposed
Yuan's conspiracy was exposed
Parliament was dissolved
Parliament was dissolved
Yuan proclaimed himself Emperor
Yuan proclaimed himself Emperor
The country split in two, war broke out
The country split in two, war broke out
Thus the Chinese democratic revolution began all over again
Thus the Chinese democratic revolution began all over again

... before decidedly terminating for good and all in a theatrically demonic laugh:

Kleio, HK style

. . .

"They say he's a genius. I say he's from Chicago. Saul Bellow! Huh." -- Lou Reed on Nelson Algren

Whether we're talking mainstream poetry (as in the New Criterion) or mainstream fiction (as in the New Republic), it can be embarrassingly hard to describe just what offends you in a piece of art as long as you remain entrenched in the offensive assumptions behind that art.

The reason James Wood was able to make such a hash of Saul Bellow's dopey biographer is that Saul Bellow's dopey biographer made such a muddle of attacking Saul Bellow. Since I dislike Saul Bellow -- not as much as I dislike his dopey biographer and not as much as I dislike Robert Hass, but enough to get by -- my own interest in all this is as a cautionary tale: If you can't stand the smell, get to a different kitchen.

If I felt like revisiting the awful smells, my nose might wrinkle first at Wood's persistent equation of Saul Bellow's "exuberance of detail" with James Joyce. Joyce's "high style," like all his styles, was used structurally -- and it was used rarely after Portrait of the Artist. (Probably where Joyce comes closest to all-out Bellowing is in the Giacomo, an unpublished notebook impossible to confuse with a Joyce novel, much less with a mainstream novel.) In mainstream literary fiction, on the other hand, the structural place of "style" is to cover the burnt bits, and Bellow's slather looks like he's trying to build a meringue from Crisco icing. (This is where I start to think of Restoration "heroic drama" and Romantic "poetic tragedy": If the greatest things in theater are noble soul-stirring quotes from Shakespeare, then the best way to write a play is to restrict yourself to noble soul-stirring quotes, right?)

But the idea of such a revisit fills me with inertia. (An irritable inertia, admittedly.) It's like a couple of years back when I got a chance to contribute to an art project about male heterosexuality, and got very interested in the idea because male heterosexuality is so unexamined and undertheorized, and I made lots of notes and rearranged them and stuff, trying to stumble into an organizing principle, and finally decided that all of my feelings and thoughts could be summed up far too effectively in the single sentence: "Heterosexual men seem funny at first but then they get boring."

The Hotsy Totsy Club doesn't need any stupid old organizing principles, though, so, in honor of President George W. Bush, I think I'll dump more of those notes in here and see what develops.

. . .


The Joyce industry's balls-to-the-wall shift from amateur fannishness to academic respectability has dropped a moldy feather avalanche of fluff into journals and books, but that's only a minor annoyance. Now, if I was like Fritz Senn and had to go to lots of Joyce conferences, I'd probably be like Fritz Senn and be really annoyed about it -- I just attended my first Joyce conference this month, kind of hoping for something like Readercon's excellent panels, where some knowledgeable opinionated people knock ideas around with the audience, but instead finding a set up where one academic at a time reads a decidedly non-oral paper aloud, or almost aloud, for fifteen minutes -- what is the flipping point? -- when the heavily-accented guy mumbled a convoluted paper on Finnegans Wake and Lacan, doggedly including every single page reference, it was so over-the-top enervating that I almost had a giggle fit -- but, for good or for ill, I'm not at all like Fritz Senn, and so for me it's just a matter of gentle melancholy.

Gently heartening comes the news that our amateur ranks have just been incremented by the defection of James Joyce Quarterly editor Robert Spoo, who's left the University of Tulsa's English department to become a professional lawyer specializing in defenses of public domain. If it's true that intellectual property trials will be to this century what obscenity trials were to the last, it seems right to put a Joycean in the frontlines.

. . .

What it corresponds to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Earl of Rochester starts a seduction, c. 1675

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

... continued ...

. . .


... later he will tell the story, upstairs in Elvis's private "superstar" suite. Sammy has taken the night off from his own show at the Sands to party with his third wife, Altovise, a handsome black dancer who was once a member of Sammy's troupe, and with Donald Rumsfeld, President Nixon's aide and director of the Cost of Living Council, who is staying at the Davises' with his wife, Joyce.

Tonight is the finale of the Rumsfelds' Western swing that took them from the Republican National Convention in Miami to Los Angeles, to attend the Republican-sponsored party there for prominent entertainers, and then to Las Vegas, to lounge around Sammy's private pool and play a little tennis....

Outside the superstar suite, Sammy pauses in the corridor to do an impersonation of Elvis on stage, mimicking Elvis's catatonic stance and what Donald Rumsfeld calls his "weird" smile. The impersonation is successful; Joyce Rumsfeld takes him by the shoulders, shakes him playfully, asks, "What are we going to do with you, Sammy?"

"Well," he says, "you're stuck with me for the next four years."

- from "Sammy Davis, Jr., Has Bought the Bus" by James Conaway, The New York Times Magazine, 1974,
quoted in The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader ed. Gerald Early

. . .

Papa Was a Wandering Rock

One of the odd aspects of Finnegans Wake -- maybe because it's such a well-established limit case -- is the difficulty of making any statement about it that's not equally applicable to every other literary work:

For Schmidt, in "Der Triton," establishing a reading model is essential to dealing with the Wake.... I, for my part, would like to contradict both Reichert and Schmidt: if one wants to translate, one has strictly to avoid any reading model, any interpretation of what is going on in Finnegans Wake. The translator has to understand nothing. He or she has to look at Joyce's text with as little understanding as possible and to translate Joyce's sentences into sentences that the translator does not understand either.

What I am talking about is not the "tricky problem" referred to by members of the Franfurt Wake group of "how to translate those words that one simply does not understand." Of course, I would like to "understand" every single word -- or, to be more precise, to "understand" what is present in a single word and a given sentence, but, as translator, I do not need to understand why it is present there. Basically, this is the difference between shape and meaning, between knowledge and understanding: the ideal translator of Finnegans Wake knows everything about the text but understands nothing.... On the other hand, the Schmidtian translator -- the one who believes that he or she understands something because of having a reading model -- must inevitably establish a different kind of hierarchy: the one between information that is understood and information that is not understood; between information that supports a reading model and information that does not; between what is felt to be important in Joyce's text and what is felt to be unimportant (or even disturbing). It is obvious that this translator will translate the hierarchy that she or she has established in the text but not the nonhierarchical text that every reader has a claim to....

-- "Sprakin sea Djoytsch?: Finnegans Wake into German" by Friedhelm Rathjen,
James Joyce Quarterly Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 905-916

See also: obtuse/abstruse....

. . .

Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers by Michele J. Leggott

80 Flowers was published in an edition of 80 in 1978, soon after Louis Zukofsky's death, and left at that. I didn't own any of the 80.

I first tracked down a library copy of Leggott's book not long after its own publication in 1989, but I didn't read it, really, just her citations. Like Stuart Gilbert in 1930, under cover of criticism Leggott had smuggled extensive excerpts from an inaccessible work. Although I was grateful, criticism of an unread work needs to be awfully coherent to seem anything more than discardable cover. I discarded it .

In 1997, the Flowers were finally reprinted.

Last month, while browsing another library, I rescued Leggott's book from a misshelving and decided to read it anew.

There are three ways of defending and elucidating a pointedly difficult work. They build on one another: the upstairs neighbor gets access to the downstairs neighbor's heat, but she's on shakier ground.

  1. The close reading

    The thing itself and you yourself, nose to nose, mano a mano, pas de deux, no time limits and no props other than the ones you walked into the room with. Structure is grasped, experience is applied, pleasure is described. When faced with relative transparency, a plot summary might be attempted. When faced with apparent chaos, a celebration of apparent chaos is likely. Rewards are hit and miss, as followers of this site may have noticed over the years.

    Kent Johnson took more or less that approach in his 1996 essay, "A Fractal Music: Some Notes on Zukofsky's Flowers." For hit, he usefully described Zukofsky's 8-line-by-5-word stanza as a grid of multidirectionally associative vectors. For miss, he then vanished into Catchphrase Forest with his fuzzy-wuzzy friends Quantum and Fractal and Noneuclidean. (Few English majors notice that Zukofsky's own mathematical figure for poetry was the frumpish chore of calculus.)

  2. The researched reading

    You maintain the pretense that some ideal reader -- an ideal reader who doesn't trade on any personal relationship with the author but who has fingertip access to all other possibly relevant sources of knowledge -- might have the reading experience you describe. You give up the pretense that it's you. Instead, you seek to become that ideal reader. The work supplies your checklist, your syllabus, your scavenger hunt; assignments radiate from the object and are reflected back again. You report as the person you've become.

    Volumes of the OED circled round him, David Levi Strauss took more or less this approach in the first published criticism of 80 Flowers in 1983 (sadly excluded from this online edition of the book in which it appeared).

  3. The genealogical narrative

    The author-artifact barrier is perforated, leaking special knowledge, special relationships. Work sheets, drafts, charts, conversation, and diaries are brought to bear. As scholarly infotainment in its own right, or as instructive example to those learning a useful craft, this is straightforward enough. As criticism, it seems to assume that if the writer had something in mind and can document it, then it's up to the reader to find it communicated.

    The assumption is flawed:

    • Experience teaches us that intentions often fail to be carried out. Or at least it teaches me that. A lot.
    • If you introduce authorial intention into the game, then the game becomes one of communication. In a communication game, the author must be judged by how clearly intention was communicated. And embarrassment on that point is presumably what led the critic to this pass in the first place.

    Nevertheless, the strategy has proven a useful defense against charges of arbitrariness or sloppiness, Stuart Gilbert being the pioneer here, too.

Michele Leggott took the top floor approach to such heights that Hugh Kenner (who must've encountered any person's fair share of genealogists among the Joyceans) called it a new critical method. Certainly it was a new critical voice -- a combination of Robert Burton and Fritz Senn, I think.

. . .

Reading disorders

Paul Kerschen interrupts and anticipates our recalcitrantly ongoing response to Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers with a response of his own:

I've had similar thoughts about close/researched/genealogical readings in regard to the Difficult Joyce Tomes, since, as you pointed out, Joyce tends to drive scholars like Gilbert and Kenner to the third strategy. It seems clear that Joyce himself encouraged the third strategy; e.g., having Beckett et al. come together and publish those essays in "Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress," in order to demonstrate to the world that he wasn't completely bats and that there were real scholars out there, somewhere, who at least partially got what he was doing.

In the case of Finnegans Wake, I don't think anyone was meant to get it all. There's a passage somewhere, I think in the introduction to the new Penguin Finnegans Wake, that quotes Joyce trying to explain his method to someone: "You understand music, so you'll love this page full of musical puns, whereas your friend who knows nothing about music but is an expert on, say, shipbuilding will love this nautical passage." Reading the Wake is meant to be inclusive rather than exclusive (rather like the three- and four-way puns, which seem like a direct attack on Saussure's idea of signifiers excluding each other). It's rich and sloppy, like life. There's something for everyone, even if the totality is not for anyone, not even Joyce. He'd never know how famous that "three quarks for Muster Mark" passage would become, thanks to Murray Gell-Mann's naming his subatomic particle after it, but that knowledge would have delighted him. There's also that anecdote where Joyce is dictating a passage to Beckett and someone knocks on the door; Joyce says "Come in," Beckett transcribes it, and with a smirk Joyce says "Let it stand." Anyone who didn't know the story would pass right over it, but those few who knew would get a chuckle--and all the Wake really wants to do, in all its scope and silliness, is make you laugh. And woo you with its music.

. . .

My public allegiance is pledged to the researched reading camp, even though, being a lazy kind of guy, I mostly engage in close reading. When it comes to genealogical history, well, I enjoy a good piece of detective work and (being a lazy kind of guy) I have no objection to picking up short-cuts anywhere I happen across them. But I'm uncomfortable with using special knowedge about the author to "explain" a work.

So why is it that Levi Strauss's researched presentation improved my experience of 80 Flowers not a whit, in fact left me completely untouched, while I put aside Leggott's genealogy with an exhilarating new sense of ease?

In one minor way it could be at least partly his fault or my prejudice. Levi Strauss inclines to that rhetorical quirk in which the author is personified as a paternal god (usually some unholy mix of Falstaff and Gandalf) whose slightest gesture fills the critic's doggy-like field-of-vision. This ploy may have began with bardolatry ("He is all in all."), but I particularly associate it with Joyceans and post-structuralists: "With a bawdy laugh and a knowing wink, canny Joyce invites us to join the transgressive free play of signifiers...." (You see it with Joss Whedon fans, too.) It seems kind of creepy and twitchy, like a Jerry Lewis movie with Jerry Lewis in all the parts. I think of myself as a comparatively informal and affectionate person, but I'm put off by the familiarity: that's not Joyce; I've never met Joyce and I doubt that he'd ever want to meet me, much less invite me to his signifier orgy.

But I'm grasping at straw men. In his researched reading of "#56 Hyacinth," Levi Strauss worked that OED hard, made some connections to "A", and even spotted one-word and two-word quotes from Shakespeare. Much better job than I'd've done, anyway.

And maybe because he wasn't writing a Ph.D. dissertation, Levi Strauss touched on some obvious issues that Leggott almost perversely put off, like goals and pleasure, and he voiced some obvious questions that Leggott left unasked.

(For example: The only punctuation marks in 80 Flowers are an occasional apostrophe and the compounding hyphens that Zukofsky uses to fudge the word count. In this stripped-down anti-discursive narrativeless context, words bobbing semi-detached from semantics or syntax, what can we make of the frequent italicization? Do italics indicate tonal emphasis? Emphatic citation? Purely lexical signal for some otherwise invisible formal milestones? Levi Strauss admits ignorance, which seems a comradely gesture; Leggott doesn't mention the problem except to point out "the italics that foreground thyme, rose, and thyme as the scope of #75 Thyme.")

All of which I support but stubbornly gained nothing by.

"if I asked him hed say its from the Greek leave us as wise as we were before"

. . .


Hotsy:... and that's how I learned to stop worrying and love 80 Flowers.
Totsy:A pretty story. As pretty a pastoral as alienation from labor might hope to produce.
H.:Thank you.
T.:You've dropped us off at our departure point, since "difficult" writers typically insist that any perceived difficulty is a product of the reader's own depraved refusal of surface pleasures.
T.:And so Leggott's 400 pages finally consummated your espousal? Filled you with the Holy Spirit where you'd emptily professed before?
H.:Oddly put, but OK....
T.:How many pages of Finnegans Wake criticism, geneaological and researched, have you read over the decades?
H.:At least a thousand, I expect. Maybe two.
T.:Then why haven't they set up a similar chemical action in your soul? As Fritz Senn wrote, the Wake is more often opened to support theories about the Wake than for actual reading. Why, for you as for most Joyceans, does the Wake remain more gestured toward and dipped into than engaged with?
H.:The apparent problem is structural, but the structural mystery is due to mysteries of scale and genre. If the Wake was a short lyric rather than an enormous novel, I doubt we'd stumble so. No one has trouble justifying whatever few pages they choose to read aloud.
T.:Then they give up and go to dinner.
H.:Ulysses had shaken off its own early defenders with its structural stylistic shifts, and Joyce's more clued-in contemporary defenders must've thought they were prepared for anything when Work in Progress began serialization. Anything except more of the same. And more.
T.:And more.
H.:At first, early readers were bewildered and excited; as ensuing chapters stayed true to the initial groove, bewilderment won out. In Ulysses, Joyce's gigantism lifted the characters onto its shoulders and stayed within giant-arm's length of a conventional naturalistic narrative. The Wake instead offers us a microcosmic zoom across a panascopic pan. Who has the time?
T.:It makes me want dinner just thinking about it.
H.:Maybe it's just a question of finding the right context for the scale. One typed page of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" could easily be incorporated in narrative or lyric* literature. Four hundred pages of it would become conceptual art instead. How could one approach a 275-hour Stan Brakhage film? As wallpaper?
T.:The Wake might make wonderful background music. Like at dinner.
H.:Or maybe it's just lack of a framing analogy as richly supportive as "flowers" is. I read "A" 22 and 23 more easily than Finnegans Wake but still not with quite the ungrudging pleasure I now take in the 80.
T.:What, "dream of a dead peeping-tom innkeeper" doesn't grab you? I pitched the concept to Schumacher and he green-lighted it ASAP. Anyway, I still think you're full of shit.
H.:Et in Arcadia est.

*A sample stanza (53 of 60) from Jackson Mac Low's "Converging Stanzas":
experience experience experience experience experience
experience experience experience
experience experience experience experience experience experience experience experience
experience experience experience experience
experience experience
paste experience
experience experience experience experience experience experience experience

. . .

My Funny Valentine

        -- The ungainliness
        of the creature needs stating.

Feeling this, what should be the form
Which the ungainliness already suggested
Should take?

        -- Description -- lightly -- ungainliness
        With a grace unrelated to its suroundings.
- Louis Zukofsky

Gob, he'd have a soft hand under a hen.
- James Joyce

Ungainly not only here, Zukofsky's muse. As for grace?

The extent to which you find (for example) "Look in your own ear and read" 1 an infelicitous image 2 must depend on whether you consider gooniness one of the felicities of lyric. 3

Robert Duncan and Barrett Watten have demonstrated two very different ways of reading Zukofsky humorlessly, but why bother? I read Zukofsky because he makes me laugh.

Am I laughing with Zukofsky or at him? Is the humor about a dry pedant being unselfaware, or is it the dry humor of a selfaware pedant?

First reaction

It's not any of our business. Finding out that Thurber was "really" an abusive drunk should make us rightly suspicious of getting married to guys because they make us laugh, but it shouldn't make us stop laughing at them, any more than finding out that name-your-slapstick-favorite was "really" very graceful and athletic. As Barthes pointed out in his immensely influential essay, "The Death of the Clown," one never gets the opportunity to laugh at a performer. Only at a performance.

Second reaction

It's pointless to worry about intentions if the point is that the intention is unknowable. When the absent-minded professor springs out of bed shouting "Zebra-fragrant! That's the answer: zebra-fragrant!",4 the joke depends on our understanding his lack of regard rather than our understanding what he's on about.

Third reaction

Not all laughter is mocking. Laughter is also a reaction to surprise and pleasure. We laugh to free our mind from our mind's bondage. When pundits talk about humor, they often concentrate on the Rush Limbaugh and Camille Paglia end of the spectrum, but George Herriman and Buster Keaton are funnier.

Not that Zukofsky is that funny. We are talking about just poetry, where the competition's not as fierce as in cartoons or slapstick, and the results are weaker. If it's true that twentieth-century poets' humor doesn't age well, 5 that's probably because nothing about twentieth century poetry ages well. The wit has always been sub-Rotarian; the lyricism has always been kitsch; the politics has always been blowhardy; the eroticism has always been braggadoccio; the imagination has always been received. What fades over time aren't its effects, but the personal allegiances and illusions that distracted contemporary readers from its effectual paucity.

Still, Pound's bullying excursions into dialect are clearly enough distinguishable from Zukofsky's homeboy familiarity. One is Collins-&-Harlan; the other is, if not Herriman or Keaton, then at least, say, Milt Gross. 6 On his recordings, I hear a soft-spoken hay-fevered rabbinical Groucho Marx; like Marx, a near-as-dirt-to-perpetual verbal machine requiring just an occasional squirt of impulse -- lyric (Zukofsky) or aggressive (Marx) -- to keep the flywheels spinning.

Whether we react like Margaret Dumont or like Edgar Kennedy is a matter of personal taste. I know to which model of bewilderment I aspire, even if I only ever make it to Zeppo.

1 Speaking of private knowledge, this paraphrases Ezra Pound's advice, "Look into thine owne eare and reade," sent in a letter to Zukofsky in 1930.
2 Cf. "Ars Vini" by Anselm Dovetonsils:
         Look up your nose and blend.
3 Presumably Lorenz Hart, for example, was aware of the consequences should one's cardiac muscles try to twist themselves into even the coyest of smiles.
4 Wasn't it Marianne Moore who described poetry as "imaginary lunch bags with real frogs in them"?
5 But how can you trust the judgment of a guy who writes about humor without mentioning David Bromige?
6 A search for "Milt Gross Zukofsky" lands me at the Hugh Kenner Papers, which isn't surprising. What surprised me was finding the typescript of the Heath/Zenith Z-100 User's Guide there.

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

Movie comment: Fingers at the Window, 1942

This busy little B is powered by ridiculous story and clever script (sole movie credit of Rose Caylor, Ben Hecht's collaborator and wife), enthusiastic acting (notably Lew Ayres, about to be interned as a conscientious objector), and gorgeous urban cinematography.

Holding special interest is a scene in which Ayres crashes a professional meeting of psychiatrists, quickly slips off his hat and slips on wire-framed glasses (the disguise, I fear, is thin), and introduces himself as "Dr. Stephen Dedalus of Ireland. And this is Mrs. Dedalus."

As far as I know, that throwaway is the first reference to James Joyce in a commercial film, with The Third Man a far second in 1949.

It's bound to be the first reference to James Joyce in a commercial film about axe murderers.

. . .

Francis Goes to Pasture

Lawrence La Riviere White follows up:

How much of "actual scholarship" turns out as (to use Kierkegaard's word) chatter?

For example, during the last Cornel West debacle, UC's John McWhorter weighed in against Professor West. Professor McWhorter cited his own current project, some modest essay modestly proposing modest new perspectives on some modest problem in linguistics (& from my small experience w/that field, those folks really can pare down an issue to the thinnest shavings). At this point I say to myself, "Yes, we should all be working hard & earning those paychecks, & I'm sure Professor McWhorter does fine work in his field, & I have no doubts as to his fine intentions, but what are the odds that this essay will make any difference to anything?" Given my own experience trolling through journal after journal, I'm not going to bet my mortgage on it. & I'm not alone in this belief. Professor Wai Chee Dimock, a one-time guest of honor at our school's graduate American Studies conference, advised us to remember that the shelf life for our writing is about ten years. In other words, no one reads this stuff anyway.

What's to be done? Professor Dimock seemed to be arguing for lower standards. Don't get too hung up on anything you're doing just now, because you're going to be on to something else soon enough. If you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes & it'll change. This smacks of rank professionalism to me. Don't worry about the point of the game, just play it. I am too much of a romantic, but also too much over-invested in artifacts, to keep that down. If it's pointless why don't we just skip it? More silence, please. & when we do speak, perhaps a formal recognition of the insubstantiality of our discourse. Essays instead of books. Feuillitons (why I feel that word should be translated as "firecracker"?) instead of essays. If we can't prove anything, why not have fun? Put a bit of sparkle in it!

With specific regard to our earlier attempt at understanding, he goes on to suggest that it's
not that graduate students & professors are dim, but they're not bright enough. As in, these problems are really difficult, & only the best & the brightest throughout our glorious history have made substantial progress on them. Though a recurrence of my chronic nostalgia is undoubtedly muddling me here, I think our current historicism has exacerbated this issue. Back when the problems were timeless, one could (not that many availed themselves of this option) have a certain humility before them. Who am I to claim a solution to the mind-body distinction? But now that it's all ad hoc (today's solutions for today's problems!), what's to stop me from knowing it all?

Okeh I'm getting way too muddled here, but I hope you know what I'm trying to say. Let me say this much: perhaps more explicating what has already been said but not yet understood (how about an exchange of the "always already" (a phrase from Heidegger, which explains the stink of "I know the secret!" about it) for the "never yet") & less theory-making. Or as I'd say to the kids, let's clean up the mess we've already made before we start making a new one.

Yeah, "always already" really gets my goat. Isn't that what "is" is? But for bulk search-and-replace of the phrase, Juliet Clark's suggested improvement seems more practical: "now inasmuch as ever".

I should have made it plainer that I didn't mean any offense to real scholarship. As a blustering blowhard, I'm its dependent. (And as a blustering blowhard, I'm in no position to cast stones at philosophical hubris.) What motivated me was my continuing wonder at finding the grazing land of academic journals so lightly vegetated in comparison with fanzines or little magazines or genre fiction magazines or weblogs.

After, at White's instigation, considering more closely my use of the term "real scholarship" -- in the humanities, that would include transcription and translation and correction, letters and interviews, attention directed to the previously overlooked, re-publication of the currently out-of-print -- that contrast seems slightly less wonderful. Clearly my notion of "real scholarship" is as one with my notion of good fannishness. Again, I think of the amateurish era of Joyce studies, when the bulk of a journal could be taken up by "Notes" -- aperçus, speculations, elucidations, emendations, and jokes -- and its later aridity, talking long and saying little.

Grad school can't alone be responsible for thinning that fannish energy. As proven by the tender verdancy of academic weblogs, the joy of shared discovery continues ready to burst out, given half an opportunity. There's something herbicidal about professional academic publishing itself.

... continued ...

. . .

Flogging the Dead Bardic Mule, concluded

In a work-in-progress, John Holbo applies to contemporary theorists a quote from William Empson, describing John Donne's appeal:

"'Argufying' is perhaps a tiresomely playful word, but it makes my thesis more moderate; I do not deny that thoroughly conscientious uses of logic could become a distraction from poetry. Argufying is the kind of arguing we do in ordinary life, usually to get our own way.... This has always been one of the things people enjoy in poems; and it can be found in every period of English literature."
Holbo, Auerbach, White: What all three of these readers dislike in contemporary academic cultural writing is the stultifying reign of a few approved flavors of argufying. Myself, I think I'd be pleased with any of these outcomes, since I think all of them are capable of producing more of what I enjoy.

The thing about cycles of fashion, though, is that even when you know they're inevitable and fun and all that, you can't really summon up hearty enthusiasm for tight skirts and high heels the third time round. (I mean, not if you like women to be able to walk places.) A dose of Empson might be healthy for kids nowadays, but I associate him with a stultifying effect of his own: snobbish conservatism, with many a dismissal of post-Portrait James Joyce, and medicine-man William Carlos Williams the only barbarian allowed through the institutional gates.

Remembering that Empson was Donne imitator before Donne critic, let's think a bit about that argufication of his.

A poem was once just another way to deliver a message. For some time now, though, a poem has instead been above all else a poetic artifact: the form is the essential thing about it, for reader and writer both. (Have you ever noticed how many twentieth-century-plus poems mention the words "poetry" or "poem"? I recommend that you don't, 'cause once you start, it's irritating as a neighbor who plays the same Rush album every day.) That's a very different experience of poetry. And, like it or not, it's the one we've got. When was the last time that even a poet had their opinion swayed by a political poem, for example?

When Jack Spicer or Frank O'Hara "plead their case" in a poem, they acknowledge (miserably or lightly) the scare quotes: no one will really be swayed by their plea; their case isn't really the case of the poem; in fact, the poem frankly doesn't care about them one way or the other. When the New Critic poets plead their case in a poem, they sound like they expect us to pretend that they hope someone will believe them, and to give them extra credit for attempting the delusion. That's a lot of zombie-raising to go through just to hear some melodious groans.

. . .

Shake a Leg

Predictably, the first request Pseudopodium received was:

Kick Me!

Along similar lines, Juliet Clark forwards this story from the Free Lance Star:

Authorities say the fight started when the victim, Michael Clapp, 38, discovered a bottle of medicine missing from his Townsend Boulevard apartment Wednesday night.

Clapp suspected his neighbor, 27-year-old Rodney Prophitt, and went next door to confront him around 7:15 p.m., city police spokesman Jim Shelhorse said.

When he did, police say, Prophitt knocked Clapp to the ground, then pulled off his artificial leg and struck him with it several times.

"At some point, Mr. Clapp was able to grab his leg back, get back to his apartment and call 911," Shelhorse said.

Clapp was treated at Mary Washington Hospital for a broken nose and other facial injuries. Shelhorse did not know what type of medication was taken or why Clapp has a prosthetic leg.

A reader is puzzled by our "Respond at brief" box:

But where does this go?
To the top, Johnny!

Another asks:

Is The Scarlet Letter a protofeminist novel?

Speaking of old Turks of the deepest dye, pf takes issue:

"Shakespeare's drama individuates rather than inflates." But his poetry does the opposite.
Intensifies instead, I'd say unlike D. H. Lawrence, who really didn't shouldn't have wasted so much time getting to those last five words of his. What a snob he was. As if suburbanites didn't need bombast just as much as anyone else.

In other news that stays news, copyright extension has worked its special magic again; cf. And Mister Pants and Dirk Hine are back and badder than ever. Which would make them superquadruperbad!


The use of courier as a font gives me nightmares involving Charlie Kaufman. Just thought you should know.

And what a burden that knowledge will be. If you have access to ITC American Typewriter, it's a worthy alternative.

Still the nightmares keep coming:

oh god no not stephen joyce pf (ps dh has got a bit of his own empty bombast which is what appeals to me about that poem)

. . .

The Mullingar Heifer

P. Gaynor's public house and community
The family pub, Mullingar, c. 1904
From the collection of Juliet Clark

In Memoriam
Millicent Bloom
15 June 1889 - ?

—Is the brother with you, Malachi?
—Down in Westmeath. With the Bannons.
—Still there? I got a card from Bannon. Says he found a sweet young thing down there. Photo girl he calls her.
—Snapshot, eh? Brief exposure.

Dearest Papli,

Thanks ever so much for the lovely birthday present. It suits me splendid. Everyone says I'm quite the belle in my new tam. I got mummy's lovely box of creams and am writing. They are lovely. I am getting on swimming in the photo business now. Mr Coghlan took one of me and Mrs. Will send when developed. We did great biz yesterday. Fair day and all the beef to the heels were in. We are going to lough Owel on Monday with a few friends to make a scrap picnic. Give my love to mummy and to yourself a big kiss and thanks. I hear them at the piano downstairs. There is to be a concert in the Greville Arms on Saturday. There is a young student comes here some evenings named Bannon his cousins or something are big swells and he sings Boylan's (I was on the pop of writing Blazes Boylan's) song about those seaside girls. Tell him silly Milly sends my best respects. I must now close with fondest love

Your fond daughter

P.S. Excuse bad writing am in hurry. Byby.
Over against the Rt. Hon. Mr Justice Fitzgibbon's door (that is to sit with Mr Healy the lawyer upon the college lands) Mal. Mulligan a gentleman's gentleman that had but come from Mr Moore's the writer's (that was a papish but is now, folk say, a good Williamite) chanced against Alec. Bannon in a cut bob (which are now in with dance cloaks of Kendal green) that was new got to town from Mullingar with the stage where his coz and Mal M's brother will stay a month yet till Saint Swithin and asks what in the earth he does there, he bound home and he to Andrew Horne's being stayed for to crush a cup of wine, so he said, but would tell him of a skittish heifer, big of her age and beef to the heel, and all this while poured with rain and so both together on to Horne's.
Gazing upon those features with a world of tenderness, Ah, Monsieur, he said, had you but beheld her as I did with these eyes at that affecting instant with her dainty tucker and her new coquette cap (a gift for her feastday as she told me prettily) in such an artless disorder, of so melting a tenderness, 'pon my conscience, even you, Monsieur, had been impelled by generous nature to deliver yourself wholly into the hands of such an enemy or to quit the field for ever. I declare, I was never so touched in all my life. God, I thank thee, as the Author of my days! Thrice happy will he be whom so amiable a creature will bless with her favours. A sigh of affection gave eloquence to these words and, having replaced the locket in his bosom, he wiped his eye and sighed again. Beneficent Disseminator of blessings to all Thy creatures, how great and universal must be that sweetest of Thy tyrannies which can hold in thrall the free and the bond, the simple swain and the polished coxcomb, the lover in the heyday of reckless passion and the husband of maturer years. But indeed, sir, I wander from the point. How mingled and imperfect are all our sublunary joys. Maledicity! he exclaimed in anguish. Would to God that foresight had but remembered me to take my cloak along! I could weep to think of it. Then, though it had poured seven showers, we were neither of us a penny the worse. But beshrew me, he cried, clapping hand to his forehead, tomorrow will be a new day and, thousand thunders, I know of a marchand de capotes, Monsieur Poyntz, from whom I can have for a livre as snug a cloak of the French fashion as ever kept a lady from wetting. Tut, tut! cries Le Fecondateur, tripping in, my friend Monsieur Moore, that most accomplished traveller (I have just cracked a half bottle avec lui in a circle of the best wits of the town), is my authority that in Cape Horn, ventre biche, they have a rain that will wet through any, even the stoutest cloak. A drenching of that violence, he tells me, sans blague, has sent more than one luckless fellow in good earnest posthaste to another world. Pooh! A livre! cries Monsieur Lynch. The clumsy things are dear at a sou. One umbrella, were it no bigger than a fairy mushroom, is worth ten such stopgaps. No woman of any wit would wear one. My dear Kitty told me today that she would dance in a deluge before ever she would starve in such an ark of salvation for, as she reminded me (blushing piquantly and whispering in my ear though there was none to snap her words but giddy butterflies), dame Nature, by the divine blessing, has implanted it in our hearts and it has become a household word that il y a deux choses for which the innocence of our original garb, in other circumstances a breach of the proprieties, is the fittest, nay, the only garment. The first, said she (and here my pretty philosopher, as I handed her to her tilbury, to fix my attention, gently tipped with her tongue the outer chamber of my ear), the first is a bath — But at this point a bell tinkling in the hall cut short a discourse which promised so bravely for the enrichment of our store of knowledge.
(in tattered mocassins with a rusty fowlingpiece, tiptoeing, fingertipping, his haggard bony bearded face peering through the diamond panes, cries out) I see her! It's she! The first night at Mat Dillon's! But that dress, the green! And her hair is dyed gold and he...
(laughs mockingly) That's your daughter, you owl, with a Mullingar student.
(Milly Bloom, fairhaired, greenvested, slimsandalled, her blue scarf in the seawind simply swirling, breaks from the arms of her lover and calls, her young eyes wonderwide.)
My! It's Papli! But, O Papli, how old you've grown!
Then out there came the jew's daughter
And she all dressed in green.
“Come back, come back, you pretty little boy,
And play your ball again.”
Had this latter or any cognate phenomenon declared itself in any member of his family?
Twice, in Holles street and in Ontario terrace, his daughter Millicent (Milly) at the ages of 6 and 8 years had uttered in sleep an exclamation of terror and had replied to the interrogations of two figures in night attire with a vacant mute expression.
What other infantile memories had he of her?
15 June 1889. A querulous newborn female infant crying to cause and lessen congestion. A child renamed Padney Socks she shook with shocks her moneybox: counted his three free moneypenny buttons, one, tloo, tlee: a doll, a boy, a sailor she cast away: blond, born of two dark, she had blond ancestry, remote, a violation, Herr Hauptmann Hainau, Austrian army, proximate, a hallucination, lieutenant Mulvey, British navy.
What endemic characteristics were present?
Conversely the nasal and frontal formation was derived in a direct line of lineage which, though interrupted, would continue at distant intervals to more distant intervals to its most distant intervals.
What memories had he of her adolescence?
She relegated her hoop and skippingrope to a recess. On the duke's lawn, entreated by an English visitor, she declined to permit him to make and take away her photographic image (objection not stated). On the South Circular road in the company of Elsa Potter, followed by an individual of sinister aspect, she went half way down Stamer street and turned abruptly back (reason of change not stated). On the vigil of the 15th anniversary of her birth she wrote a letter from Mullingar, county Westmeath, making a brief allusion to a local student (faculty and year not stated).
Did that first division, portending a second division, afflict him?
Less than he had imagined, more than he had hoped.
What did the 2nd drawer contain?
Documents: the birth certificate of Leopold Paula Bloom: an endowment assurance policy of £500 in the Scottish Widows' Assurance Society, intestated Millicent (Milly) Bloom, coming into force at 25 years as with profit policy of £430, £462-10-0 and £500 at 60 years or death, 65 years or death and death, respectively, or with profit policy (paidup) of £299-10-0 together with cash payment of £133-10-0, at option:
still its the feeling especially now with Milly away such an idea for him to send the girl down there to learn to take photographs on account of his grandfather instead of sending her to Skerrys academy where shed have to learn not like me getting all 1s at school only hed do a thing like that all the same on account of me and Boylan thats why he did it Im certain the way he plots and plans everything out I couldnt turn round with her in the place lately unless I bolted the door first gave me the fidgets coming in without knocking first when I put the chair against the door just as I was washing myself there below with the glove get on your nerves then doing the loglady all day put her in a glasscase with two at a time to look at her if he knew she broke off the hand off that little gimcrack statue with her roughness and carelessness before she left that I got that little Italian boy to mend so that you cant see the join for 2 shillings wouldnt even teem the potatoes for you of course shes right not to ruin her hands I noticed he was always talking to her lately at the table explaining things in the paper and she pretending to understand sly of course that comes from his side of the house he cant say I pretend things can he Im too honest as a matter of fact and helping her into her coat but if there was anything wrong with her its me shed tell not him I suppose he thinks Im finished out and laid on the shelf well Im not no nor anything like it well see well see now shes well on for flirting too with Tom Devans two sons imitating me whistling with those romps of Murray girls calling for her can Milly come out please shes in great demand to pick what they can out of her round in Nelson street riding Harry Devans bicycle at night its as well he sent her where she is she was just getting out of bounds wanting to go on the skatingrink and smoking their cigarettes through their nose I smelt it off her dress when I was biting off the thread of the button I sewed on to the bottom of her jacket she couldnt hide much from me I tell you only I oughtnt to have stitched it and it on her it brings a parting and the last plumpudding too split in 2 halves see it comes out no matter what they say her tongue is a bit too long for my taste your blouse is open too low she says to me the pan calling the kettle blackbottom and I had to tell her not to cock her legs up like that on show on the windowsill before all the people passing they all look at her like me when I was her age of course any old rag looks well on you then a great touchmenot too in her own way at the Only Way in the Theatre royal take your foot away out of that I hate people touching me afraid of her life Id crush her skirt with the pleats a lot of that touching must go on in theatres in the crush in the dark theyre always trying to wiggle up to you that fellow in the pit at the Gaiety for Beerbohm Tree in Trilby the last time Ill ever go there to be squashed like that for any Trilby or her barebum every two minutes tipping me there and looking away hes a bit daft I think I saw him after trying to get near two stylishdressed ladies outside Switzers window at the same little game I recognised him on the moment the face and everything but he didnt remember me yes and she didnt even want me to kiss her at the Broadstone going away well I hope shell get someone to dance attendance on her the way I did when she was down with the mumps and her glands swollen wheres this and wheres that of course she cant feel anything deep yet I never came properly till I was what 22 or so it went into the wrong place always only the usual girls nonsense and giggling that Conny Connolly writing to her in white ink on black paper sealed with sealingwax though she clapped when the curtain came down because he looked so handsome then we had Martin Harvey for breakfast dinner and supper I thought to myself afterwards it must be real love if a man gives up his life for her that way for nothing I suppose there are a few men like that left its hard to believe in it though unless it really happened to me
In Dublin's fair city where fine people dwell
Their fortunes would take me too long for to tell
There's one millionaire in the city, 'tis true
But he isn't Irish, he's only a Jew
There was an elopement down in Mullingar
So sad to relate the pair didn't get far
"Oh fly," said he, "darlin', and see how it feels!"
But the Mullingar heifer was beef to the heels

. . .

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

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

Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:

—That is God.

Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finnegans Wake would be the sneeze.


The real is what the king's foot measures.

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

David Auerbach writes:

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

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

Speaking of Rudy, another reader traces another ghostly presence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

    And the critics disapproved right off. Waste of talent.

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

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

    The fucker had guts.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

* * *

A strong misweeding of Negative Capability Brown

Whether meant as brickbat or bouquet, I thank you.

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

. . .

Do you think that you could make it with Frankenstein?

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

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

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

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

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

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

  3. It's chancy to generalize about particularities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

Thinking of Cluny Brown: Part 1

[Revised & re-assembled & relocated to Senses of Cinema,]


J.D. would lead off with "deferantial".

Under the title "between thought and expression", Josh Lukin sent:

Well, according to some taxonomies of affect, what you're crediting Boyer with *is* expression --or one of the more interesting modes thereof. As Charles Altieri said last Wednesday, one of the categories which we can use to discuss affect if we aspire to a non-cognitivist take thereon is *mood* --moods are modes of feeling where the sense of subjectivity becomes diffuse; where influence pulls against resolving action --the subject of moods, poised between the active and the passive, can be seen as a contemplative agent or as a subject so large as to lack room for action. "Moods are forms of ontological weight in which we feel our dependency on external factors and don't resist, attending to the actual possibilities of relishing our embodiment. That's good --I wish I had written it down." Now, Altieri, to my mind, was being very abstract here and could have benefited from illustrating his point with, say, something from Emerson. Instead, he used the conclusion of "The Dead" as the climax of his whole riff on affect, suggesting that Joyce creates or invites a "generous irony" in which we do not have to repudiate all the intimacies the text has offered in the way that a more bitter irony would suggest, but we can still avoid the self-congratulation (something CA evidently knows about) that accompanies settling on an ethical identity of the self. Such a position insists that the intellect attuned to the aspect of lucidity allows, after one's expectations are chastened, for us to project a wary trust and allows affect as a challenge to the structures of belief and their rules. At which point one auditor suggested that Altieri's "irony" owed more to Frye than to Wellek, and that he was engaging in some rhetorical contortions to avoid invoking the cognitivist view that he associates with Nussbaum. "As Altieri spoke, my mind kept veering of into thoughts of René Girard and Francis Barker and all the other writers who'd addressed the same subjects far more interestingly," quoth a colleague. But heuristic tools are where you find them, and I find Altieri's schtik, my colleague's critique of it, and your description of Boyer mutually illuminating,

Me too, and I expect even more illumination as I fill the opsimathic blanks represented by those names. But oh, dear, I worried about the ambiguity of "expression", and you're right, I should've worried more. When Boyer's good, he's not affectless, or inexpressive in that sense (although when you start cataloging, it is remarkable just how few configurations his facial muscles support). He's not shy. He's just inactive.

To forestall another confusion: Of course he acts, being a professional actor, but what he acts is someone who takes no action. He conveys high intelligence and high passion, those highnesses seem always to be in perfect accord, and yet they stay plunked together at the bar, commiserating and shrugging. Dedicating heart, mind, and soul to one true love, he doesn't fuck; hating his spouse, he doesn't strangle; and in a political cause well, there we have Confidential Agent and (less directly) Cluny Brown.

I think you're right to associate this ironic quality, made so attractive by Lubitsch, with Altieri's talk: he sounds smitten. But in Joycean terms it seems to me exemplified less by Gabriel's contagious swoon than by Giacomo's "Write it, damn you, write it!"; like most seductions, the results are problematic. Try challenging machine guns with affect and see how far it gets you. Heck, try challenging your boss with affect! In sneers begin life sentences.

Since, as a practical matter, narrative artists promote confusion of acting for action and affect for effect we can't be blamed much when we fall for it. But I think you're also right to suspect the motives of anyone so quick to celebrate their own enlightened generosity. That's Heaven Can Wait. We want Trouble in Paradise.

. . .

Blogging W. N. P. Barbellion

My confessions are shameless. I confess, but do not repent. The fact is, my confessions are prompted, not by ethical motives, but intellectual. The confessions are to me the interesting records of a self-investigator.

. . .

What I like is Joyce's candour and verisimilitude. I have tried that, but it's no good. The publishers rejected two splendid entries about prostitutes and other stuff. That is why I think, in truth, 100,000 copies will not be sold. My diary is too unpleasant for popularity. It is my passion for taking folk by the nose and giving them a wigging, my fierce contempt for every kind of complacency. Stephen Daedalus. Butler started the fashion with Edward Pontifex. Then there is Wells' George Ponderevo. Pontifex is a good name.

. . .

Of course the novelists are behind the naturalists in the recording of minutiæ: Edmund Selous and Julian Huxley and others have set down the life of some species of bird in exhaustive detail every flip of the tail, every peck preceding the grand drama of courtship and mating.

- W. N. P. Barbellion, A Last Diary

In March 1919, The Journal of a Disappointed Man by "W. N. P. Barbellion" was published. As promised, the absurdly pseudonymed author seemed disappointed and male; also brilliant, autodidactic, obsessive, explicit, self-lacerating, and dead.

The blend of naturalist and Naturalism naturally appealed to H. G. Wells. The blend of conventional tragedy and titillating dirt appealed to a larger audience. And "Barbellion"'s disappointment struck an introductory chord with those more fortunate members of his generation who'd survive to call themselves "Lost".

The book was therefore a success.

It was also a puzzle. The presumable source material wasn't presented raw; it had clearly been labored over. But the result was far from flattering, and hardly as sensitive to family feelings as one would expect from an executor.

Some doubted its veracity (as I've doubted Plain Layne and Belle de Jour). Speculation centered on Wells as the author. Again, unlikely. Although the book's power was cumulative and structural, that thudding, cyclic, organic, and anticlimactic structure matched no existing model of the novel.

Later in 1919, the controversy was somewhat settled when a second "Barbellion" book appeared: Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains, an awkward assemblage of odds and ends with a forward by the author's brother. Some pretense of disguise was maintained the forward was signed only "H. R. C." but the scientific papers reprinted there were little harder to trace than a domain registration would be these days.

The next year a slim sequel to the Journal appeared, a Last Diary in which the protagonist, undead without comment, quickly went on to die again. No further resurrection was forthcoming.

* * *

Maybe you've guessed where this is heading?

Barbellion's books anticipate (and epitomize) a kind of contemporary writing not my kind, certainly, but a kind I like. Pepys wrote only for himself (if that), Pooter and Dedalus and Pontifex had the benefit of being fictional, Kafka and Powell and Musil were principally known for other work, Anaïs Nin comes closer, I suppose, but sprawls....

If Barbellion is the first English writer to consider short chronologically arranged excruciating self-revelations his lifework, serialization seems an appropriate approach. I plan to post regular entries to the hideously named Barbellionblog. (Dating can only be approximate in some cases.) As each book comes fully online, I'll repackage it in its original form at the Repress. For now, I leave you with the first page of the first volume:

‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the
race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the
strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet
riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour
to men of skill; but time and chance
happeneth to them all. For man
also knoweth not his time; as the
fishes that are taken in an evil
net, and as the birds that are
caught in the snare; so are
the sons of men snared in
an evil time, when it
falleth suddenly
upon them.’

. . .

The Perfecting of a Love

(Written for The Valve)

Not many people share my interest in the contingency of canons and the fluidity of genres, but nearly everyone enjoys seeing bad reviews of (now) acknowledged "masterpieces". Either you get the warm satisfaction of mocking the (now) powerless for their stupidity, or you get the warm satisfaction of shared iconoclasm.

I'm not knocking the simple pleasures of the snide especially when the reviewers survive to eat and regurgitate their words, like those movie critics who slammed Psycho, within a decade had it on their Tip-Top 100 lists, and continued slamming newer misanthropic thrillers using the exact same series of tuts. (Reading the below, can you truly picture Anthony West's strictures on "good writing" having let, say, the "Cyclops" chapter of Ulysses pass?)

But the unprescient review is a multi-purpose tool. For example, it could remind bookbloggers and other suckers at journalistic teats that solid food's to be found elsewhere. With the light of (now) conventional opinion tucked under a critic's chin and nose, our characteristic blemishes stand out like our bluffing deployment of "in fact" and "the fact is", or our tendency to indict originality as a failed attempt at imitation: we grab at the first resemblance we can imagine, 'cause that's our job, and then find fault with the likeness.

And anachronistic harshness sometimes recovers some of the strangeness of the work itself, its indigestible singularity. On the scraped surface, recrystalization; through hostile eyes, a renewal of love.

Robert Musil's work reached respectability by the usual route. Rare blips of publicity during his lifetime; a small but insistent cult bringing him back into print, and then into circulation; a slow siege of the establishment and a slow capitulation, fading into decades of scattered sniping and griping.... The bumper crop of bad reviews comes mid-summer, after the cultists toss their earliest missiles, when sneers are broadened at the expense of those misguided enthusiasts, "we regret to say however" and so forth, sending the insurrection underground again till the harvest....

The most startling American response to the first translations of Musil may have been Newsweek's, June 8, 1953, where, under the heading "Confident Novelist", a confident reviewer told readers:

Actually, Musil was an almost intolerably bad writer. But he had scientific training and, as a result, became a sort of jet-powered literary no-good....

But the meatiest was Anthony West's in The New Yorker, July 25, 1953, subtitled "Out of Nowhere", where "nowhere" presumably meant the Austro-Hungarian empire. Break open the barbeque sauce:

... There is not the slightest reason for comparing it to the work of either Joyce or Proust. It belongs, in fact, to an earlier literary epoch, and it is the work of an imitator and not an innovator. "The Man Without Qualities" is modeled, not far short of plagiarism, on a group of Anatole France's novels, of which "The Wicker-Work Woman" and "The Amethyst Ring" are perhaps best known. They describe the adverntures of a M. Bergeret on the fringes of the Dreyfus case and of the secular political maneuvers of the various candidates seeking appointment to the vacant bishopric of Tourcoing.... [Other unconvincing similarities are listed.]

It was bold of Musil to attempt to tell such a large story, but in literature mere good intentions are worth nothing. The fact is that Musil was not much of a writer. The non-functioning simile, in which things that have no similarities are compared, is a sure sign of bad writing, and Musil goes as far with it as it is possible to go: [Several damning examples are given. Many more could be.]

His arrogance enabled him to botch even the almost foolproof technique he borrowed from France; he continually elbows his characters off the page, and nearly every chapter of his novel reveals a diagonal drift away from fiction into philosophic essay writing. [...] Even allowing for the translators, who are capable of devising "seated, lolling cows in the field, gazing towards the dawn," it must be said that the great Musil revival will not do, that there is no spark of of vitality in his work to keep it from its well-deserved obscurity.

And from a long way off as children say of their poor meatball that it was lost when somebody sneezed, or of science: That's so gay I see and know the image of my love.


philosophical ESSAY WRITING?! oh NO!!!!

It's all right, it was all a bad dream, go back to sleep....

And from a long way off this reader sees and knows the image of my feet:

Well then there now

. . .


(Pumped out for the sake of The Valve)
The use of the essay, for example, a kind expressing liberal interest at first, began with Humanism in the sixteenth century; and one of its forms, the miscellaneous familiar essay, ceased to be popular after the crisis of Humanism in the 1930s.
- Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature

At 9 PM on Saturday June 18, the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley is showing a revisionist Western from 1972, Dirty Little Billy. All later muddy streets seem thin in comparison: puddled with New Age puke or John Ford horsepiss. Given its timing, a few of the Billy demythologizers may have benefited from personal experience of frontier communes.

Was the movie intended as history or satire? To some extent, whether you're mocking or creating is decided later, by who notices what and how they respond. Artmaking is largely about being distracted from your original purpose; sometimes you even wake up in a new neighborhood. If you want to explain Robert Browning's influence on Ezra Pound, you could start worse than with a Browning parody like "The Cock and The Bull":

I shoved the timber ope wi’ my omoplat;
And in vestibulo, i’ the lobby to-wit,
(Iacobi Facciolati’s rendering, sir,) ...

That's a recent addition to an ongoing retrospective of a Century of Imitation, along with Calverley's "Proverbial Philosophy":

A maiden’s heart is as champagne, ever aspiring and struggling upwards,
And it needed that its motions be checked by the silvered cork of Propriety:
He that can afford the price, his be the precious treasure,
Let him drink deeply of its sweetness, nor grumble if it tasteth of the cork.

Also Thomas Hood Jr.'s Poe, worthied by its expiring exclamation!, and Swinburne's "The Person of the House", which literalizes Victorian reticence as "That Only a Mother" later literalized pulp science fiction reticence and to similar effect, as well as another online copy of Swinburne's magnificent "Nephelidia".

In other serialization news, Paul Kerschen has just begun serializing a free translation of Franz Kafka's diaries, alongside the original German. And if you aren't already following the lifework of W. N. P. Barbellion, 1910 is the year his journal completes its transition from dissection of other species to vivisection of our own. As the few remaining years go by and he consults and reconsults his own archives, we'll see Barbellion develop a craving for precursors or peers. He'll read Portrait of an Artist and decide he and James Joyce have struck the same vein independently. Later still he'll excitedly decide he's just like Marie Bashkirtseff.... "Is there one who understands me?"

But once your isolating eccentricity does turn out to be a community, new issues arise. I believe Djuna Barnes said everything worth saying about surveys: "I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public." Yet since Mr. Waggish is a compatriot to whom I owe the deepest respect, if Mr. Waggish requests something, I must assume Mr. Waggish has good reason, and therefore:

Total number of books I've owned: I buy books because of not always having had access to a good library ("I will never go stupid again!"), but I winnow them because of moving fairly often in the past, but I still want to re-read more books each year so the collection does grow, and because I've lived in one place with access to a good library for a while I've been buying fewer books but unread bought books are piling up. So maybe four times the number of books I have now? Roughly. Within a factor of ten.
Last book I bought: It was a group. A translation of Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, the new Hans Christian Andersen translation, Ron Silliman's Under Albany, and Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness.
Last book I read: This must mean what I'm in the midst of reading since the next query is the "Last book I finished"? Mostly right now Kinds of Literature by Alastair Fowler.

It's free of nonsense, and, for all its easy style, extremely concise: virtually every page of this library volume is mostly underlined, the table of contents bears a jot by each chapter title, and I found there a improvised torn-paper bookmark with the scrawled note "BUY WHOLE BOOK?" (It's out of print, of course.) Two-thirds of the way through and Fowler's heroic attempt to revive the form of the Anatomy became a worthwhile drama of its own.

In 1982, I would've argued against Fowler's low opinion of the works recovered by feminist critics, but, hey, by 2005, I bet he might argue against himself. I'm possibly more skeptical that something fixedly "literary" can be found in all the works that drift in or out of literature, but that disagreement means less in practice than I thought at first. I may know a bit more about contemporary American genres, but that's to be expected; Fowler is sensible with the parts he knows, and he has a far wider and more detailed grasp of literary history than my autodidacticism has managed. His biggest difficulty may be the usual academic one of distance from working artists. Genre doesn't just happen between books; it's also a way for the author to feel less lonely for a bit (before feeling betrayed). Publishing isn't just to make money; it's also to make contact (before getting an unlisted number).

Fowler's book was recommended to me by Wendy Walker. If Wendy Walker is a new name to you, for the love of god, drop that copy of Emma Brown and hie ya. I'd like to tell you how I came to get a book recommendation from Wendy Walker. I commuted daily between Nashua NH and Cambridge MA, and I read something about Samuel R. Delany appearing at some convention between, so I stopped there. Formal emphasis was placed on the most ambitious class of science fiction and fantasy, but participants also included small press publishers, readers of contemporary poetry, and listeners to contemporary music. Our conversations were intriguing enough to bring me back the next day. I kept in touch with some of the people I met that weekend, and one of them, Don Keller, kept suggesting I write down some of what I spun in conversation. I started doing so, and the practice eventually became habitual.

Wendy Walker's work is sui generis. But some genres are friendlier towards the sui than others. Her novel The Secret Service seemed to me one of the great books to be found in the 1990s, but who would find it? I browsed shelves randomly and was fortunate enough to live by shelves which included Sun & Moon Press, most of whose other contemporary authors were poets poets I admired, but whom I knew to be a sadly insular group. I gave copies to friends, recommended it, and wrote about it. Independently, so did Henry Wessells and Elizabeth Willey. Walker's cult was small but fervent, and, fearing that neither the writer nor her publisher had any clue as to its existence, I dropped him a note to suggest that an audience awaited.

The note was passed along. In a few weeks, Wendy Walker will be attending that uniquely ambitious conference in Massachussetts. It's a small world.

Or a big sign.

. . .

Salomé, What She Watched

(Written for The Valve)

Fenitschka and Deviations by Lou Andreas-Salomé, tr. Dorothee Einstein Krahn
The Human Family (Menschenkinder) by Lou Andreas-Salomé, tr. Raleigh Whitinger
Looking Back by Lou Andreas-Salomé, ed. Ernst Pfeiffer, tr. Breon Mitchell

Two-and-a-half stories into Menschenkinder (timidly Englished as "The Human Family") and I'm pleasantly surprised by their oblique viewpoints, the suggestive opacity of their sweeping gestures. By eight-and-a-half, my cracked fingernails are pawing the door while I whimper for air, air....

The last book to dose me like this was No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 by Kenneth Goldsmith, three years' worth of noticed utterances ("found texts" understates its inclusiveness), sorted alphabetically and by number of syllables. Against the author's advice, I read it front to back. (Not at one sitting, but still.)

For all I remember, two-thirds of the way through someone in Goldsmith's circle discovered true love and a revitalizing formula for social progressivism. If so, the next two hundred pages of advertising, trash-talk, and D. H. Lawrence warhorse scribbled them away. Goldsmith's big white volume flattens all layers of a life that seems not to have been unduly dull, solitary, or settled into solid shallowness as far as the mechanically-aided eye can reach. No there there, or anywhere else either; no under; no outside. Nothing but an unbreakable but by no means scuff-free surface. The discursive universe as the wrong side of a jigsaw puzzle.

I wouldn't imply any aesthetic affinity between Lou Andreas-Salomé and Kenneth Goldsmith. But the horror conveyed by both is an emergent formal property whereby the self-traced boundaries of a free-range spirit are established as crushingly limited.

Twelve stories by Andreas-Salomé have been translated into English. All were originally published in 1898 and 1899 and probably written in the same two-year burst. About half the stories have a male point-of-view; about half a female; some split down the middle. Although some include long letters or soliloquies, only one is in the first person. Elements and settings and character types and plotlines appear and re-appear trains, hospitals, mountain walks, hotels; doctors, artists; older men, slightly less older men; seductions, spellbindings, disillusionments, untrustworthy re-affirmations in never exactly replicated configurations, with just enough variation to convince us that a solution won't be found.

The puzzle is constant: There's a singularly intelligent and beautiful woman. (The traits are inseparable in these stories.) And all human value is placed in slavish idealization of the (almost always) gender-defined Other. Whether it's a case of male worshipping female, female worshipping male, or (rarer, dismissable) female worshipping female, such idealization is shown as irresistable but unmaintainable, thrashing between the fetishized parties —"I must sacrifice all for you!" "No, I must sacrifice all for you!"— and usually snapped by a sexual outburst.

(I confess that two of the twelve stories do offer "solutions", but both are so absurdly inept that the effect's more revolting than reassuring. According to one, a woman [or Woman] finds fulfillment only in childbirth; transparently the appeal of the theorized child is its strictly theoretical state as inseperable Other. Otherwise, the stories show far less interest in children or mothers than in fathers. Mothers aren't bright, or ambitious, or heroic. At most, they're embarrassing. And one such mother embarrassingly points out the egotism of the second "solution" offered: wait until the imperfect Other is safely dead, produce an idealized portrait, and rest content in mutual [but not consensual] redemption.)

As an exercise in spritual discicpline, I'd wanted to avoid gossip while reading Andreas-Salomé's fiction. But these exercises in objective solipsism are so clearly trying to work something out that my resolve crumbled, and I found, in the autobiographical essays she wrote more than thirty years later:

In the dark of night I didn't just tell God what had happened to me that day—I also told him entire stories, in a spirit of generosity, without being asked. These stories had a special point. They were born of the necessity to provide God with the entire world which paralleled our secret one, since my special relationship to him seemed to divert my attention from the real world, rather than making me feel more at home in it. So it was no accident that I chose the material for my stories from my daily encounters with people, animals, or objects. The fairy-tale side of life hardly needed to be emphasized—the fact that God was my audience provided adequately for that. My sole concern was to present a convincing picture of reality. Of course I could hardly tell God something he didn't already know, yet it was precisely this that ensured the factual nature of the story I was telling, which was why I would begin each story, with no small degree of self-satisfaction, with the phrase:

as you know

[After losing faith in God] I continued to tell my stories before I fell asleep. As before, I took them from simple sources, encounters and events in my daily life, although they had suffered a decisive reversal as well, since the listener was gone. No matter how hard I tried to embellish them, to guide their destiny along a better path, they too disappeared among the shadows. [...] For that matter, was I even sure that they were true, since I had ceased to receive them and pass them on with the confident words "as you know"? They became a cause of unconfessed anxiety for me. It was as if I were thrusting them, unprotected, into the uncertainties of the very life from which I had drawn them as impressions in the first place. I recall a nightmare—one which was often retold to me—which occurred during an attack of the measles, when I was in a high fever. In it I saw a multitude of characters from my stories whom I had abandoned without food or shelter. No one else could tell them apart, there was no way to bring them home from wherever they were in their perplexing journey, to return them to that protective custody in which I imagined them all securely resting—all of them, in their thousandfold individuality, constantly remultiplying until there was not a single speck of the world which had not found its way home to God. It was probably this notion which also caused me to relate quite different external impressions to one another. [...] It was as if they belonged together from the first. This remained the case even when the sum total of such impressions gradually began to overload my memory, so that I began to use threads, or knots, or catchwords to orient myself within the ever more densely woven tapestry. (Perhaps something of this habit carried over into later life when I began to write short stories; they were temporary aids in getting at something which was after all a much larger coherent whole, something which could not be expressed in them, so that they remained at best makeshift.)

And later:

[...] nothing can affect the significance of any thing, neither murder, nor destruction, unless it be to fail to show this final reverence to the weight of its existence, which it shares with us, for, at the same time, it is us. In saying this I've let slip the word in which one may well be inclined to see the spiritual residue of my early relationship to God. For it is true that throughout my life no desire has been more instinctive in me than that of showing reverence—as if all further relationships to persons or things could come only after this initial act.

It's easy enough to guess why such a person would have felt attracted to Freudian methods.

To return to her fiction, for those who'd prefer not to commit themselves, one Menschenkinder story is online. The books' most representative highlights might be "Maidens' Roundelay" (with a full double cycle of other-idealization and self-disillusion) and "Fenitschka" (which begins with near date-rape and ends years later in an ambiguously liberating act of forced voyeurism).

Having suffered the effects of full committal, I'm inclined to favor the two least representative stories. "On Their Way" is a black comedy of criss-crossed class incomprehension in which a young couple fail at romantic suicide but succeed at idiotic boyslaughter. "At One, Again, with Nature" stares aghast at the iciest of Andreas-Salomé's girl geniuses. Inventing California-style boutique organic produce, mocking country cousin and sugar daddy, romping with colts, kicking poor pregnant servants out in disgust, and anticipating the final solution of Ethan Edwards, Irene von Geyern escorts us out of the sequence into a harsh and welcome winter's wind.

These two don't solve the problem of Andreas-Salomé, but they do solve the problem of Story: an Other given the small mercy of The End.


peli grietzer asks:

How come all these large scale radical textual experiments operating by a linguistic rather than representational principal (No. 11...., Sunset Debris, etc.) end up being lauded for their sense of suffocation, melancholy and quiet hysteria?

I also like them for this very reason, it's just that it seems like all technically referential works guided by a non-mimetic logic end up being prized for the same emotional effect, that doesn't seem to have much to do with the actual specific non-mimetic logic they operate by.

I've noticed a similar trend among reviewers. (It may be just the default establishment mood in which to take any odd and encompassing work: the earliest defenders of James Joyce similarly treated him as a conduit of Waste-Land-ish moping.) But, for me, one of the meta-interesting things about radical textual experimenters, as with twelve-tone composers or free jazz musicians or three-chord garage bands, is that they don't all sound alike. Trying to articulate how that magic's managed may be among the most amusing challenges available to contemporary critics. Can we do any better than "voice"?

For the record, I wanna say that all of Silliman's work (including Sunset Debris) leaves me pretty cheerful, and the same goes for Gertrude Stein and Jackson Mac Low. On the other hand, the carefully crafted movies of Jean Eustache distill the bitterness of human limits into something finer than either Goldsmith (intentionally) or Andreas-Salomé (unintentionally) do by "accident".

For that matter, Goldsmith himself credits the development of his technique (and this message) to the influence of Andy Warhol, whose movies and fine art don't really effect me that way although maybe the Factory novel a would if I could stand reading it.

peli responds:

What I was really reminded of by your description of "No. 11.... "is the experience of watching season 2 of, let's say, Buffy when you're already a veteran of all seasons + Angel. Know what I mean? Knowing the resolving of the big point of narrative interest which just took place is going to be trivial from the perspective of five seasons later, not by a grand artistic architecture utilizing this trivialization, but just by everything moving on to different narrative interests that negate earlier ones (Oz and Willow being great great greatest love, later Willow and Tara being far more great greater love).

The obvious analogy with life actually devalues the poignancy of this, I think : in art we expect climaxes not to be retconned away meaninglessly, so it hurts more.

. . .

Mystery Macintosh, My Darling

(Also at that other world)

"The M'Intosh Murder Mystery" by John Gordon,
Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2005) 1

All right-thinking people agree that The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism's most unconscionable omission was James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery", and so I'm certain John Gordon is a right-thinking person.

Except in this case.

[For the non-Joyceans in our audience, here's the story so far.

Aside from its status as early science fiction, Ulysses represents advanced evolution of the detective story, with each incident a visible and meaningful clue. Having played so fairly, Joyce could dispense with the handwaving detective hero, and instead left handwaving in the laps of the readers. And a jolly time we've had of it, too!

As early Joyceans gained confidence in their ability to tie every detail to every other detail, the few remaining danglies gained weightiness. (Weightiness to a Joycean, mind you; the centrality such nits assume in the secondary sources can sadly mislead a first-time reader of Ulysses. "When do we get to the word known by all men?")

Some of these puzzles, I think, weren't originally meant as puzzles. The (scanty) evidence suggests that "U.P. Up." delivered a clear message to nineteenth-century English and Irish urbanites but happened to escape documentation, becoming a hapax legomenon of popular culture. Numeric errata seem best explained as Homer nodding. Or shrugging. Come on, you ask Homer "How many fingers am I holding up?" what's he gonna do?

The Man in the Macintosh, however, emphatically riddled from his first appearance:

"Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I'd like to know? Now, I'd give a trifle to know who he is."

A lot of scholars have tried to earn that trifle over the years, and Gordon deserves an "A" for assurance:]

"I have lived with [the proposed solution] for a while and have come to think of it as a solid and upstanding reading which improves on acquaintance. I believe in it. It can come to dinner; it can date my daughter."

Gordon proposes that M'Intosh is the ghost of Bloom's father, who committed suicide after the death of his young wife. And (so confident is he) this proposed solution is used only as a tee-off from which to approach another, less often asked, riddle: What killed Bloom's mother? (So's not to steal Gordon's thunderclap, I'll just say Joyce may have anticipated the misogynous hard-boiled dick.)

But I do not think his proposal makes a solid and upstanding tee-off. I do not believe in it; I do not want it to date my daughter. (I am, however, prepared to buy it a drink some time.) Because the character who inspects M'Intosh most closely is Leopold Bloom.

Now I admit it's a wise son that knows his father. But even a flibbertigibbet like Hamlet was able to recognize Hamlet Senior's form straight off. And clear-sighted Bloom doesn't note a family resemblance? In a graveyard?

No, I'm afraid all the lovely circumstantial evidence Gordon's gathered just shows how irreconcilable the lyric and the narrative finally are, even in Ulysses. Poetically, his argument's airtight. Prosaically, it won't fly.

(And who do I think M'Intosh is? Well, since I ask, personally I think he's the fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.)

1 I also recommend from this issue "Remembering Race", where Sergio Rizzo documents the dependents of that Red Wheelbarrow, and "Repulsive Modernism: Djuna Barnes' The Book of Repulsive Women" by Melissa Jane Hardie, who so neatly associates revision and repression that I think Freud should take over my dishwashing duties.


A bhikku writes:

Tell you what. Rudolph Virag? Lankylooking? Galoot? Doesn't sound like the Bloom physique, does it? No, Gordon's looking for a counterpart to Stephen's Hamlet thoughts, isn't he.

Apparently JJ used to ask cocky Ulysses readers who they thought the fellow was anyway, go on then.

. . .

Reference Work, 1

For JL & JL

Two artists in dudgeons, one low, one high:

And every single person in the real world looks at this, and that's why we make our films the way we do. Because you don't have the freedom, you don't have the integrity, you have to remake everything we've done anyway. I go to see Martin Scorsese, and I say, Don't you think I should tell you about the lenses? And he says, What do you mean? And I said, Well, you're remaking my film, which is Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs was probably written in one week, we shot it in a month and you're going to remake it! Ha ha, good luck! What the fuck is this about? I mean, come on. In other words, if you read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then you'd actually have a very clear idea [laughs] about what's really happening in the U.S. right now. So what do we do? You tell me. [...] If Martin Scorsese can make a piece of shit called The Aviator and then go on to remake a Hong Kong film, don't you think he's lost the plot? Think it through. "I need my Oscar, I need my fucking Oscar!" Are you crazy? There's not a single person in the Oscar voting department who's under 65 years old. They don't even know how to get online. They have no idea what the real world is about. They have no visual experience anymore. They have preoccupations. So why the fuck would a great filmmaker need to suck the dick of the Academy with a piece of shit called The Aviator? And now he has to remake our film? I mean this is bullshit. This is total bullshit. I love Marty, I think he's a great person. And the other one is Tarantino. Oh yeah, let's appropriate everything. Are you lost? Yes, you are lost.
- Chris Doyle
Let's see, if we chide the writer who makes reference to low-brow material, who appropriates cultural material because appropriations are a bit like sampling in rap, really borderline plagiarism, everyone knows this we'll have to roll back to T.S. Eliot. Oops, we have to throw Eliot on the scrap heap, too apparently he risked some high-low mixing, and some appropriations. Forget Joyce, of course. We'd better go even further back. Once you begin looking at the underlying premise a blanket attack on the methods that modernism uncovered the kind of bogus nostalgia for a pure, as opposed to an impure, literature, what you really discover is a discomfort with literature itself. [...] It's not about reading. That's the problem. It really is about I'm repeating myself class anxiety. Once you have an eye for this you spot it in odd places. I read a review in Book Forum where a critic, quite incidentally, in attacking Michel Houellebecq, said in an aside, "But then again, the French regard Hitchcock as art." Well, now, wait a minute! These battles were fought and won. These victories were decisive ones, fifty years ago. There's no rolling that back. Hitchcock is art. So if you pin Hitchcock's scalp to your belt: "Not only have I seen through Michel Houellebecq, the charlatan, but in fact I'm going to tell you that the auturists were wrong and Hitchcock is low-brow and unsavory," you've discredited yourself so absolutely that you deserve to read nothing but Trollope for the rest of your life.
- Jonathan Lethem

OK, first, Trollope worked a day job for the fucking post office, so let's leave Trollope out of this fight.

Otherwise, it's a fight I felt like starting myself when I read this shallow attack on shallowness two years ago. (Why didn't I? Well, I work a day job, see....) For John Leonard, the difference between profundity and immaturity comes down to name-dropping:

Is it so unreasonable to want to know more of what he thinks about Julio Cortázar and less of how he feels about Obi-Wan Kenobi? [...] Superpowers are not what magic realism was about in Bulgakov, Kobo Abe, Salman Rushdie, or the Latin American flying carpets. That Michael Chabon and Paul Auster have gone graphic, that one Jonathan, Lethem, writes on and on about John Ford, while another Jonathan, Franzen, writes on and on about "Peanuts," even as Rick Moody confides to the Times Book Review that "comics are currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is," may just mean that the slick magazines with the scratch and sniff ads for vodka and opium [sic] are willing to pay a bundle for bombast about ephemera.

This approaches J. Jonah Jameson levels of wrong-headedness. As if Ulysses would've been improved by more of Lohengrin and less of "The Low-Backed Car". As if John Leonard ever actually took time to honor Alfred Bester for referencing Joyce or Patricia Highsmith for referencing James and Camus.

He asks me, "Do you care how many times I have seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or what's going on in my head while I watch Sara Evans sing 'Suds in the Bucket' on the country music cable channel?" And I answer: "No more than I care what's going on in your head while you watch Carol Burnett. I don't even care what you think about books. Moreover, if you were a movie critic or a music critic, I still wouldn't care about your renting a Demy video or your pseudo-ironic celebrations of Evans but you'd tell me all the same. What matters in our relationship isn't whether I care; all that matters is what the NYRB and New York Magazine will publish."

In Leonard's horror at public lapses of taste, this professional book-and-televison critic failed to notice that his subject is not a professional critic of anything and The Disappointment Artist is not a collection of criticism: it's a linked collection of autobiographical essays whose hooks happen to be American cultural artifacts. Lethem could hardly have been more explicit about it. In his long tribute to the The Searchers, the "critical" argument is confined to two paragraphs terminated by the sentence "Snore."

Sure, some generic ambiguity exists: there's that strain of criticism-as-New-Journalism which was domesticated down from mutants like Meltzer and Bangs into the cage-raised free weekly strains. But those conventions presume a like-minded community, whereas Lethem peddles his wares to a middlebrow camp unlikely to have any interest in his ostensible topics. Therefore the focus stays on Lethem-as-character.

So let's imagine our successful young novelist writing a similar autobiographical essay about reading Kafka or Cortázar:

"And suddenly I realized: I write fiction too. Just like him."

Yeah, there's news.

Equally newsworthy:

"Professional pundit publishes asinine remarks; bloggers rant."

But god damn it, I can't seem to let it rest at that. What irks me is the feeling that I share some aspect of some response with Leonard and, in a different way, or a different aspect, with Lethem, too. And again, Lethem's admirably blatant about it: he put Disappointment right there in the title for us.

... to be continued ...


Even if you don't care for my stuff, I recommend this essay by tomemos which starts from Leonard but goes in a very different direction.

Can't speak for Leonard but my celebrations of Evans are strickly appreciations of artistry.

My guess was that Leonard admired Evans but threw "the country music cable channel" in for distancing thus the "pseudo-" of his irony.

. . .

Reference Work, 2

You read a story and suddenly there's a part that becomes just words because you know nobody ever did it like that, or said it that way but you have to pretend just to find out what happened. What I am describing is like that, too. Everything flattens out and isn't real.
- The Captain, Equinox
My challenge was to not point out how our friendship, or Ian's encouragement of my artistic ambitions, or, for that matter, the laughter we shared watching Godard's Alphaville at the Bleecker Street Cinema, expressed possibilities of connection that our daily orgy of nihilism denied.
- Jonathan Lethem, "The Beards"

I agree with Leonard that there's a thinness in much highly-praised contemporary fiction. But the thinning agent's not foreign blood.

In serious mainstream prose it's easier to incorporate John Wayne as a villain than to reproduce his attraction as a lead. An ambitious story or novel must make Ignatz genuinely destructive and Krazy purely female. The sensitive protagonist has no siblings; the jolly uncle is a child molester; superhuman privileges bring no joy and improve nothing.... These are generic conventions. They're integral to the story being told, but when I strike them my stride falters. I don't slip, but I slide a bit.

What disappoints Leonard are Chabon's, Franzen's, Moody's, and Lethem's references. What disappoints me is the familiarity of their disappointments. It isn't specific to these novelists, or to subjects like soul music or comic books. The same story's been told of painters and boxers, poets and actresses, gypsy fiddlers and twelve-tone composers: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.

Artists like Herriman, Hawks, and Gaye delight through the thrownaway (even if well rehearsed) gesture that transfixes. By nature, they're anti-plot or at least anti-character-development. When narrative attempts to depict such lyric effects, they can only be given too little or too much attention. If it's made the point of the story, the point of the story must be loss. It only takes a few minutes to hear a song by Schumann or Mimms and then where's the hero? Even as articulate an artist as Smokey Robinson can only tell us that rich guys love cocaine.

Alternatively, the writer may try to suggest some aspect of the experience in passing, using the critical equivalent of free indirect discourse, or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, flatly cite brandnames.

In any case, narrative is saved: life is only interrupted. The choice has nothing to do with the referent itself, nothing to do with "high" or "low". Wagnerian opera was as bad for John Jones as hip-hop was for Arthur Lomb.

It may, however, say something about the referrer. Across media, a downward turn indicates depth. Chris Ware, like Lethem, started in high-art institutions, became revulsed by academic pretensions, was attracted by genre practitioners, established himself as a star in the most conceptually daring end of low-art publishing, and then (with a success that stunned his new peer group) was welcomed into the market covered by the NYRB&TBR. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment was a vehicle.

On the other hand, prose fiction can embody its own sort of lyric effect. Lethem's "Sleepy People" is an example whose lack of critical regard shows how low beauty places in most readers' and reviewers' criteria. Although in some ways the career of Karen Joy Fowler anticipated Lethem's, her preference for comic structures puts her in constant danger of being reshelved from high-middlebrow to chick-lit or YA. And the most enthusiastically referential of storytellers Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.

... to be continued ...

. . .

When life makes you a lemon, give lemonade

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

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

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

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

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


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

Holy crap, it works!

. . .

The Purloined Plotpoint

When reading Gene Wolfe, I never think of Joyce or Nabokov or Coetzee: Empson's poetry seems more to the point. Like the New Critics, Wolfe's admirers have fetishized one aspect of reader-text interaction into its goal. And if one fetishizes the task of detection, what could be more attractive than the Clew lost to all but its creator, a forever unattainable mistress berating us blind and clumsy worms?

Not that there's anything wrong with fetishes! I'm not immune to the spice of a M'Intosh or two, and the Wolfe-fan's fetish does little harm compared to, say, James Wood's. I merely believe it's wise to negotiate terms early in a relationship.


When assessing my own terms of engagement, it may help to know that one of my favorite Wolfe novels is an apotheosis of sexual befuddlement.

Just a Smack at Odin?

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 3

Ethical Joyce by Marian Eide

With the aid of Levinas, Derrida, and Irigaray, Eide tidies the Feminist Joyce, the Post-Colonial Joyce, and other Joyces beside into a unified Ethical Joyce. Psychoanalytic theory, l'écriture féminine, smirks about homosexuality, expressions of solidarity with racial stereotypes, genetic textual studies, family biography, puns, coincidences, misunderstandings all, all engage alterity.

As one might expect, Eide cites Joyce as often to illustrate summaries of French theorists as she cites French theorists to prompt explications of Joyce; she handles both tasks splendidly. (I'm particularly grateful for her analysis of Mr. Deasy's coin collection and her correlation of Finnegans Wake revisions to changes in Lucia Joyce's condition.) Neither will the experienced reader be shocked by an occasional hint of partisanship, as in this note on the structure of Exiles:

Joyce refuses an audience's scopophilia, the possibly prurient interest that might be satisfied by witnessing the love scene or failed love scene between Bertha and Robert in the cottage. As in so many of his other works, Joyce draws a curtain before a woman's body and her love (readers never, for example, directly witness Molly Bloom's assignation with Blazes Boylan), granting women characters a privacy that resists the prurience of mimesis and its claims to full revelation.

Few would agree that the last chapter of Ulysses respects Molly Bloom's privacy, and surely Joyce's reason for avoiding the Bloom home was to reserve Mrs. Bloom for his big finale. Similarly, the "moral dilemma" presented to the Exiles audience might be taken as a (generally unsuccessful) attempt to maneuver us into an attitude not far from Richard's scab-picking jealousy.

Special pleading and bardolatry are hardly new to the Joyce industry, and Eide is far from being the worst offender. But with "Ethical Joyce" she explicitly intends to raise the stakes even if she must also hedge her bet: "Ethics, as I am defining it... is an engagement with radical alterity or difference within the context of ultimate responsibility (in the sense of responsiveness) to the other."

Having gone against Levinas in applying his intrapersonal ethics to the production and consumption of artifacts, Eide goes further by treating dead texts as stand-ins for human subjects: "Rather than testing moral vision through ethical dilemmas within the text, I argue that the interpretive facility, that relation between text and reader, itself provides both an ethical dilemma and opportunity." "Perhaps the least obvious, though most immediate, example of this paradigm is the relation between text and reader." (Although I understand the impulse, it does remind me of the court decisions that granted American corporations legal personhood.)

Since Joyce lived before Levinas et al, Eide explains how he achieved his signature values without their aid:

For example, his realization that his mother had provided him with his first habitat and sustained his life through adolescence and yet fell victim to the very system that nurtured his own success, altered Joyce's understanding of his obligation to women both in his literary representations and in his private relations with Nora Barnacle and later with his daughter, Lucia.

This smooth pass between the general and the personal amounts almost to (unintended) sleight of hand. It's hardly rare to find sexists who except their daughters or their wives from condemnation. Moreover, heterosexual male masochism doesn't guarantee feminist sympathies: dominatrices work in a clearly prescribed role, sometimes not of their own volition. Around the time of Exiles, Nora Joyce complained that her husband pushed her to "go with other men so that he would have something to write about," and Joyce's conversation bristled with a misogyny that anticipates that later skinny obsessive, Robert Crumb. Here's an unusually good-humored example:

His lips tightened, he moved in his chair with annoyance and said, "I hate women who know anything." But Mary Colum, not to be put down, said, "No, Joyce, you don't. You like them, and I am going to contradict you about this in print when I get the chance." He fumed silently for a few moments, then abruptly detached himself from his anger and let a half-smile show on his face. Mrs. Colum thought she had converted him, but the poem he recited to her a few days later about his women friends was scarcely corroborative evidence:
As I was going to Joyce Saint James'
I met with seven extravagant dames;
Every dame had a bee in her bonnet,
With bats from the belfrey roosting upon it.
And Ah, I said, poor Joyce Saint James,
What can he do with these terrible dames?
Poor Saint James Joyce.
- Richard Ellman, James Joyce, New & Revised Edition

Eide's Viennese-schooled treatment of incest ignores the very germane use of Aquinas in Joyce's own fable of artistic development:

Saint Thomas, Stephen smiling said, whose gorbellied works I enjoy reading in the original, writing of incest from a standpoint different from that of the new Viennese school Mr Magee spoke of, likens it in his wise and curious way to an avarice of the emotions. He means that the love so given to one near in blood is covetously withheld from some stranger who, it may be, hungers for it.

Joyce rarely welcomed fresh company or confrontation; by his own admission (and by others' critiques) he boasted neither broad experience nor power of invention as conventionally understood: "my foot strikes something, I look down, and there is exactly what I'm in need of." Instead, he took the risk of assuming that his sexuality could stand in for any man's sexuality, that (a caricature of) his wife could stand in for the whole of womankind, and finally that his own clutch of singularities could stand in for all the world through all history. He plotted the heavens through a microscope. His risk paid off, but not without losses along the way. It does us and his work no harm to acknowledge them.

To the pay-off, then. How, exactly, does Joyce perform his ethics?

"For Joyce the first ethical consideration is the experience and expression of sympathy within the preservation of difference. In other words, ethical response makes possible a communion that does not obscure necessary separation." "Ethical representation cannot unambiguously endeavor to mirror or shadow one's own consciousness; rather, an ethical representation carefully delineates a sense of one's difference from an other while at the same time registering sympathy and responsiveness to the other, in other words, partial identification."

In the literary realm, such performative ethics have been discussed under other names: "negative capability," "free indirect discourse," "rounded characterization," or simply "realism." "Locating his ethics in the interpretive space between opposites, Joyce would of necessity, to paraphrase Derrida, oppose racism, nationalism, and xenophobias of various kinds." And similarly, by locating his ethics in dramatic dialogue, Shakespeare would of necessity oppose anti-Semitism. But insofar as both chose ethics of art-making, such "opposition" became unlikely to influence personal habit or communal action. One can say "Joyce labored to recognize multiple subjectivities in his fiction" without indexing the statement as "ethical." "Artisanal Joyce" works just as well, I think.

If I'm correct that the book's chosen epithet is unnecessary, why should I treat it as undesirable?

Although Eide wishes to avoid intentional and biographical fallacies, I think we can call "Red light!" at the point when our interpretation of a seventy-year-old novel depends on weighing the pros and cons of a long-dead couple's treatment of their daughter. It seems impossible to mount an ad hominem defense without admitting the validity of ad hominem attacks. And Eide's assertion that "ethics" must be taken as technical jargon convinces me no more than a soft-Lacanian's insistence that the Phallus mustn't be confused with a penis: if you wave a huge pink sex toy around while you talk, it's disingenuous to tell listeners not to look at it. I fear the chemical reaction which would be set up in our critical discourse by a false homage to an abstraction behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration:

The Objection from Creepiness asks us to imagine an artwork whose aesthetic value is only available to ethically flawed people or, as I shall call them for brevity's sake, creeps. [...] The problem is not just the work's limited appeal to a highly specific audience. The artistic value of James Joyce's Ulysses, for instance, is only fully accessible to those who can read Greek, Latin, Italian, and French, and who are well versed in Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, to name only a few, but the novel is not thereby aesthetically defective. This is perhaps because doing whatever it takes to get inside the novel would be good for us; it would help us realize our potential as human beings. What's special about the creepy case is that we have to do something that's bad for us in order to get inside the work; we would have to become creeps, even for just the moments that we spend with the work, and this is contrary to our flourishing.
- A. W. Eaton, "Where Ethics and Aesthetics Meet: Titian's Rape of Europa"

With apologies to Eaton, Greek and Latin are scarcely the major stumbling blocks of Ulysses, and "creepiness" was precisely the objection of Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and many other early readers yea, unto some of my own undergraduate faculty.

As it happens, I do believe Joyce's books are distinctively and genuinely good in both senses of the word. And although third-party corroboration may be limited, I feel I become a better person when I read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

This sense, however, has little to do with some unique "engagement with radical alterity," nothing to do with avoiding "creepiness" I also feel I become a better person when I watch George Romero movies and much to do with humor, honesty, technical chops, and formal innovation. While the reductionism of "What else were they invented for?" cannot be redeemed, it is in some sense balanced by the open self-pity and self-loathing of "Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?" And Joyce's mortar-and-pestling of Flaubert's determinist realism, Flaubert's spectacular phantasmagoria, and Flaubert's idiot burlesque sets up a most un-Flaubert-like chemical reaction in some sore souls.

Writers aim to create something which is better at least more persistently articulate than they themselves; readers aim to have some experience otherwise unavailable to them, which may well include the experience of an ethics which remains within reading. If in some sense it's true that a Europe which took Finnegans Wake to performative-heart would have experienced a very different sort of 1939, it's just as true that a James Joyce who took his own work "seriously" would never have cut off friends, threatened law suits, drank to excess, sponged or possibly written at all. If I took my Joyce reading "seriously," my life would be something better than a quotidian wreck (Prius, pass by!) I might even limp through it without the balm of re-reading Joyce. Sadly, happily, and all other sensations besides, life cannot be a book.

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

*"And how are we feeling today?"

. . .

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.

. . .

Zoning outward

Even the most immersive consumption bleeds into the world. We exit the movie theater and blink at the street's new lights. We close the book and reconsider the motives of our nearest and furthest.

And likewise on the production side we sometimes take our immersion out of its cone of isolation for a walk.

Of course, it may decide to interrupt the real-world just as rudely as the real-world interrupts the Zone. We're trying to take a break, take care of business, reconnect, recenter, while the unresolved worries at us like a bone spur.

But it doesn't always drag us back to the kennel. Our evil darlings might instead prefer to scavenge and mark, most ravenously among the village-explainers: systematizing philosophers, psychologists, fundamentalists, essentialists, political and conspiracy theorists, and so on. And though their pack includes astrologists and voodoo economists, there's nothing occult about its appetites: mundanity is their goal, and even the most unforeseen connections predictably arrive as confirmation rather than revelation. If Thomas Friedman go forth tonight, it is towards a flat-screen his steps will tend; let Plato open his door, he shall find Platonism lining his driveway.

Then there's the sort of production which barely requires immersion at all. Journals, blogs, a certain type of essay, a certain type of lyric, all rely more on establishing a habit than on designated locked-down Zones. As Serengeti, I think it was, said, "All things can tempt me to this craft of verse"; the foraging's opportunistic, more or less selective, more or less hungry, depending on taste and appetite and the neighborhood.

A world with unpredictable pops, sparks, and fizzles beats a world without. But it lacks the smooth reassurance of a whole, should we find such a notion reassuring. What I miss most from the very brief periods when I was writing fiction (as opposed to the longer period when I tried to be writing fiction) isn't so much the Groove itself as what happened on the breakaway walks, when new ingredients, new doings and sayings and settings, would drop down and trot over like cats, sometimes almost swarming for attention. "Chance furnishes me with what I need. I'm like a man who stumbles; my foot strikes something, I look down, and there is exactly what I'm in need of." And then those journals, those blogs, shed their own pretense of shoddy randomness and reveal themselves as indispensably fated allies: "Memory is imagination."

James Joyce, being James Joyce, sometimes groused about needing to fiddle the pieces so, but he plainly enough understood that the glamor of A (colossally conceived and laboriously hammered-out) Vision tarnishes while the unearned rewards and punishments of superstition keep their magic. For writers of fiction (and of big baggy poems starting at least from Whitman), the signature superstition is kledonomancy, placing the oracle of the shout in the street that is God.


Peli kindly reminded me of Erich Auerbach's "Figura":
... there is no choice between historical and hidden meaning; both are present.The figural structure preserves the historical event while interpreting it as revelation; and must preserve it in order to interpret it.

. . .

James Joyce as generative procedural writer

SUPERSTITION. 1. ... religion without morality. ... 4. Over-nicety; exactness too scrupulous.
- A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
A view held in late antiquity is that the use of the words superstitiō ‘superstition’ and superstitiōsus ‘superstitious’ with reference to religion derives from the idea that such practices were superfluous or redundant.
- Oxford English Dictionary

January 31, 1930: At last J.J. has recommenced work on Work in Progress. The de luxe edition by ? soon to come out about the old lady A.L.P. I think. Another about the city (H.C.E. building Dublin). Five volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on his sofa. He has made a list of 30 towns, New York, Vienna, Budapest, and Mrs. Fleischman has read out the articles on some of these. I ‘finish’ Vienna and read Christiania and Bucharest. Whenever I come to a name (of a street, suburb, park, etc.) I pause. Joyce thinks. If he can Anglicize the word, i.e. make a pun on it, Mrs. F. records the name or its deformation in the notebook. Thus ‘Slotspark’ (I think) at Christiana becomes Sluts’ park. He collects all queer names in this way and will soon have a notebook full of them. The system seems bad for (1) there is little hope of the reader knowing all these names most seem new even to Joyce himself, and certainly are to me. And supposing the reader, knowing the fragment dealt with towns, took the trouble to look up the Encyclopedia, would he hit on the Joyce has selected? (2) The insertion of these puns is bound to lead the reader away from the basic text, to create divagations and the work is hard enough anyhow! The good method would be to write out a page of plain English and then rejuvenate dull words by injection of new (and appropriate) meanings. What he is doing is too easy to do and too hard to understand.

April 28, 1930: His method is more mechanical than ever. For the ‘town references,’ he scoured all the capital towns in the Encyclopedia and recorded in his black notebook all the ‘punnable’ names of streets, buildings, city-founders. Copenhagen, Budapest, Oslo, Rio I read to him. Unfortunately he made the entries in his black notebook himself and when he wanted to use them, the reader found them illegible.

- Reflections on James Joyce: Stuart Gilbert’s Paris Journal,
ed. Thomas F. Staley & Randolph Lewis

Joyce lost his faith but kept his superstition. And proselytized. By constructing reality effects which transform from red herring to vital clew on research and re-reading, Joyce fed the generic allures of puzzle-mystery and conspiracy theory into formalist realism, and thereby trained a generation of Joyceans into an everything-connects superstition of their own.

But while in the midst of serializing those carefully cross-wired diagrams of sub-sub-trivia across Ulysses, he began to immerse them in pointedly redundant anti-reality effects. "Cyclops" may be scrupulous about something, but whatever it is ain't "meanness." And after his increasingly bouncing babes were carted to the printshop and carted back again, he would improvise riffs across the proofsheets, snatching any chance to strengthen the scribbly cross-hatched fabric of the book or merely to, like the god of creation, wake up bleary-eyed and say Fuck me what was I doing last night?

On reading a letter from his daughter Milly, who had just turned 15 on 15 June, Bloom says ‘Fifteen yesterday. Curious, fifteenth of the month too.’ More to the point, Joyce’s revision in proof gives the letter 15 sentences. But every editorial attempt to ‘correct’ Milly’s adolescent syntax and punctuation, by reverting to earlier versions, has of course changed the count and obscured the point. So too, the passage in which Bloom reflects on the rate at which an object falls to earth (‘thirty-two feet per second’) is heavily revised in print to make it the 32nd sentence in the paragraph, where reversion to earlier readings, as in the 1984 edition, obscures that convergence of sign and sense. On page 88, Joyce added in proof a sentence of eight words to expand a newspaper death notice. It reads: ‘Aged 88, after a long and tedious illness.’ To page 77 he added in proof the phrase ‘seventh heaven’; and on page 360, Bloom meditates on cycles.
- Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts by D. F. McKenzie

What this showed McKenzie and John Kidd was that James Joyce thought his books too brittle to survive a page break. What it shows me is an unquenchable thirst for suspicious coincidence. Such details might have struck some unknown peculiar reader of the first edition, as they happened to strike the first edition's known peculiar writer; peculiar readers of later editions will presumably be struck by plenty of details of their own. Throw enough and someone will be struck. And who knows but that many of the belated recognitions of 1950s and 1960s Joyceans were just as casually opportunistic? If Joyce considered each precious intersection vital, wouldn't he have included them in his first drafts and poured them into the ears of his authorized explicators?

The contingent and ephemeral hold all we can reach of the necessary and eternal; we mold meaning from the pleasantly stinking loam of chance such Good News can't be carried in rice-paperish porcelain; its vehicle should be built to survive chipping; should, ideally, become self-healing....

Or so I gather from the cheerfully incorporated bloopers and wide-world-of-kitchen-sinks ("Frightful stench, isn't it? Just too awful for words") method of Finnegans Wake, and from Joyce's remarks when questioned by a friendlier sort than Gilbert: his hope that a random reader in some far-off location would trip across a regional reference (my own muddy MO! my own K.C. jowls, they sure are wise!) and feel peculiarly addressed. In this work, at least, the readerly goal writerly assumed doesn't seem to have been full mastery mulching libraries and and acquaintances so rapidly, odds are slim that Joyce himself would recall much source material after a month but frequent recognition.

(Why a lad or lassie from Baton Rouge or Bucharest should bother to position themselves so as to encounter these happy accidents would be an unfriendly question to ask any author, I think, and at any rate went unanswered.)

Absolute control remaining unreachable, the artist might endeavor to maximize happy accidents. During my first reading of Finnegans Wake in 1980, I found a history of the Beatles, and, if we choose to take auctorial intention into account, this would be as the author intended. Most attempts to adapt Joyce's works to other media have been miserable things. The relative success of John Cage's slick and cheesy Roaratorio depends on chance, but isn't happenstance.

James Joyce as cartoonist

Flaubert's invention of detached formalist realism had the (possibly unanticipated) effect of rallying readerly sentiments against the all-powerful know-it-all artificer and toward his deluded, destructive protagonists. Eventually, in Trois Contes, he worked out of this particular bind by letting his protagonist retain her delusions (with Joyce following suit in "Clay"). But his less detached-realistic works avoided the question altogether. We can easily picture the endearingly idiotic tenacity of Bouvard and Pécuchet as a one-joke comic strip like "Little Sammy Sneeze" or "The Family Upstairs" or "That's My Pop!" Lines on paper don't sense pain as we know it.

Joyce found a way to join forces with himself. Even on my first, unaided reading, I felt rightness in the increasingly grotesque gigantism of Ulysses, and when I return to the book, that (possibly unanticipated) affective response is what I want to relive: an alliance with breathing ugly-as-life almost-humans repeatedly smacked down under floods of mocking inflation and bouncing up again ignorant as corks and damaged as new. Yes, the two male leads are having one of the worst days of their lives, presumably at the behest of some author. But because The Author in Our Face has directed our attention to his louder, noisier, and impotent assaults, the result is less like a vivisection than like a mixed-animation heroic epic of "Duck Amuck" starring Laurel and Hardy.

I've never managed a similarly direct response to Finnegans Wake, although I keep hoping. It looks like giants all the way down. Faced with a foundational secular religious document, I want Krazy Kat and I get Jack Kirby's New Gods.

James Joyce as boring old guy

James Joyce and Louis Zukofsky share an odd career pattern: a hermetic retreat into and outrageous expansion of the nuclear family, attempting to fit all space-time into an already crowded apartment.

The "cocooning" idiom bugged me from the start. A cocoon isn't a cozy retreat or celebration of stasis. By definition, cocooning occurs with intent to split. Maybe it's appropriate for them, though?


Previous vocational guidance: Joyce as science fiction writer; Joyce as life coach.

. . .

Ba-lue Mun-deii Ba-lues-Are : I walk a little lame

"September Song"

- by Kurt Weill & Maxwell Anderson
for Walter Huston, Knickerbocker Holiday, 1938

But it's a long, long while from May to December
And the days grow short when you reach September
And I have lost one tooth and I walk a little lame
And I haven't got time for the waiting game

And the days turn to gold as they grow few
September, November
And these few golden days I'd spend with you
These golden days I'd spend with you

When you meet with the young men early in Spring
They court you in song and rhyme
They woo you with words and a clover ring
But if you examine the goods they bring
They have little to offer but the songs they sing
And a plentiful waste of time of day
A plentiful waste of time

But it's a long, long while from May to December
Will the clover ring last till you reach September?
And I'm not quite equipped for the waiting game
But I have a little money and I have a little fame

And the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I'd spend with you
These precious days I'd spend with you

QUESTION: In terms of the director-actor relationship, how did it feel directing your father in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? How did it feel to be directed by, say, Roman Polanski in Chinatown?

HUSTON: Well, on the set, the director is the father image. So I was my own father's father. And as I appeared in the The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I was my father also, so that made me my grandfather. It's like the play on Shakespeare in Joyce's Ulysses.

- "Dialogue on Film with John Huston",
The American Film Institute, 1984

Walter Huston's original 78 of "September Song" sold respectably in 1938 and even better in 1950. But "September Song" could only go on to become a standard for self-pitying horny old crooners by standardly shedding the toothless-and-lame money-and-fame couplets. Which, aside from its loss of Brechtian piquancy, sadly undercuts the subliminal-marketing promise behind word-choices like golden, precious, and spend.

A memory of Walter's short-term-investment pitch might have helped suggest John's casting in Chinatown:

Evelyn! How many years have I got?

. . .

Tender and Private
from the back cover

as stuffer or stuffing

The Lovely Horrible Stuff
by Eddie Campbell

Everything goes from grand to paltry. Given long enough the human being can destroy anything, even the planet he lives on. Destroying a system of equitable exchange is child's play.
- Eddie Campbell

The Lovely Horrible Stuff was published in 2012. Following on the full-color mysteries of The Fate of the Artist and the house-museum of Alec: The Years Have Pants, it was odd looking and oddly structured, marketed as a book "about money" but disconcertingly apolitical, and, to reappropriate Jonathan Lethem's phrase, "very quietly received."

That doesn't mean it didn't land an impact here and there. It just meant landing in a soft place.

And now aw shit.

* * *

I have a similar soft spot for 1993's Graffiti Kitchen. After a decade of charming groove, Graffiti Kitchen was a "departure," as the critics say. The King Canute Crowd's scrappy Zip-a-Tone vanished along with grins, pratfalls, and pubbish inconsequence. Instead, Campbell scratched the page till it bled.

The departure was permanent. Starting with his next personal work, Campbell changed "Alec"'s genre, marital status, profession, homeland, and (before long) name. That new groove spooled over the next two decades and there at the end of the spool lies The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

* * *

On the explicit face-and-title-page of it, "Lovely Horrible Stuff" refers to money, but most readers easily spot family squirming under that label, too. Either way,whether enthusiastic or not-so-much, whether amateur or professional, reviewers saw the book as another slice of a familiar cranked sausage. A plurality of Campbell's post-Canute work depicts the unresolvable conflict between

  1. a professional livelihood which can only be sustained by vigilant hunting, scavenging, and hoarding
  2. and

  3. a professional practice which can only be sustained by free-floating reverie and temporary delusions of omnipotent control,
and since at least The Dance of Lifey Death the conflict's been iconized as an obscuring thought balloon. Domestic squabbles and worse, in the grand tradition of newspaper comics and stand-up comedy, were there from the start of "Alec"/"Campbell"'s marriage. Furious dunning letters had been a mainstay gag since Shakespeare started penning them in 1992's The Cheque Mate. Campbell's discursive impulse had already digressed into informal research and documentary across a multitude of single-pagers and one-offs over the years. So, not much new.

In particular, The Lovely Horrible Stuff clearly "builds on" seems inappropriate; let's say led from the gorgeous full-color artwork and interstitial fumetti of The Fate of the Artist. Most bizarrely, Fate's metafictional TV adaptation became a metafactual attempt at something like "My World and Welcome to It" with James Thurber playing the role of William Windom.

The one novelty everyone noted was that Fate's photography and hand-crafting had digitally merged into something well, reactions ranged from masterful to amateurish. My own was, if I had to pick a word, "worrisome." Not the failed reassurance of CGI's uncanny valley; not with that Photoshop-airbrush applied like mascara in a Kuchar movie. Something sadder, more Cronenbergian....

In other ways, too, Stuff seemed to me like a business-as-usual brim shading some sort of breakout, or breakthrough, or breakdown.... Yes, "Campbell" had dunned before, but never so close to home:

Jack, my father-in-law, one of the six or seven truly marvellous individuals I have met in my life
Jack vs. balloons in 1988, The Dead Muse
You have given no thought to our interests in this matter so obsessed are you with
... & in The Lovely Horrible Stuff

Even when The Fate of the Artist's domestic violence drew blood, it was more or less successfully played for laffs. But the staging went awry this time round: Stuff's most physical conflict lacked any hint of slapstick, and Campbell's dash towards the safety of a gag pointedly flopped. The closest thing to nuptial comfort is confined to one page of such nakedly intense nostalgia that I avert my eyes whenever I reach it.

Despite its egocentrism (in the sense of heliocentrism), frets, and blunders, the Alec series never seemed neurotic or despairing. Even at the end of one's rope, you (almost) always reached stabilizing humor. The previous first-person installment kicked that stool aside. In Stuff, it's liable to tip over, and the failures convey self-loathing with more conviction than anything R. Crumb or Joe Matt ever mustered: as comics characters, at least, "Matt" and "Crumb" are mercifully numb to personal responsibility, much less responsibility for three children.

Structurally, The Lovely Horrible Stuff is an odd book out as well, almost two books, scored down the middle for easy snapping:

First a pacing round "Campbell"'s loathings, delusions, and losses, punctuated by brief vocational escapes into Cloudintellectualpropertyland. In this half of the book, we don't see his memorable fancies for ourselves; they're drawn as simple icons or fogbanks. "Campbell" has left the building, and like other characters we're stuck with his blind and deaf husk.

The second half shows one place he went: a continuously engaged topic-and-travel documentary (as opposed to the memoir documentary of How to Be an Artist). "Campbell" looks happiest here, in the inflated non-ego of not-painstakingly-verified research and formal control, semidetached from the ground while remaining firmly of the world, floating/sinking by his clutch of stone balloons....

* * *

I itched to write about The Lovely Horrible Stuff after my first half-dozen readings or so. But even a childless self-serializing essayist must deal with some family and finance concerns, and you see how things have gone around here.

The artist's own blog froze at March 2012. As years went by with no Campbell news other than reprints, illustrations, and, more recently, a scholarly book, the topic started to feel a bit taboo, as if the book's toxicity had leaked into the environment.

Because, like Graffiti Kitchen, it did taste toxic, or (depending on the taster) bracingly medicinal. Graffiti Kitchen put paid to the King Canute sequence; a new sequence began. Apart from the hero's signature look, what made this second, longer, sequence part of "Alec" was Campbell's faith that a world of omnipotent imagination might be built on the unscrupulous details of the real. Unlikely sounding, maybe, but certainly not unheard of.

Aestheticism-and-reality as vocation, meanness-and-dreaminess as motif, material-and-virtual as technique: three knockabout marriages of stubborn antitheses. If it was true that, after a quarter-century, the series had again scorched its own earth, where would it migrate next?

I'd still be wondering if I'd continued to look for word: the aftermath's been described only in audio. Campbell-the-artist killed his series hero off before The Fate of the Artist began. Having resurrected him in good American comic book fashion, what could the artist do for an encore? The solution was straightforward, if not exactly satisfying.

First, and barely able to get a word in edgewise:

EC: I've kind of put my own voice in storage right now. I'm applying myself as a craftsman to someone else's stories. [...] I was very driven. I felt I'd got hold of something important to say about life
FT: Heh-yes!
EC:And I was driven to
FT: To say it!
EC: ... to get it down on paper, and build
FT: Hmm!
EC: — upon it and investigate it in all its nooks and crannies and facets and variations. And I'm not feeling that at the moment
FT: No. [a spew of fucking twittery]

And then a Comics Journal podcast with room to lay down his weary voice:

Q: What's the closest you've come to quitting cartooning?

A: Recently. What I was talking about before, having lost this context. I've spent three years doing this book about the history of cartooning. But the same time I'm not creating new cartoons myself. There's probably a couple of years there where I just hadn't created any new comics work. The last thing I did was the book I did with Neil Gaiman. [...] Recently I've been drawing myself out of this funk. I've been illustrating illustrating the stories of my wife, Audrey Niffenegger. A quick catch-up there: I got divorced four years ago. And this year I married Audrey Niffenegger, the novelist. And for some time I've been working on a book where I'm illustrating her short stories. [...]

The money book, The Lovely Horrible Stuff I think that book took a lot out of me. I think it left me, I think I wrestled with so much realer stuff in there I kind of dislodged myself out of my comfort zone, [indecipherable]. I kind of left myself stranded on the beach of that sandy island in the South Seas, like O'Keefe in the story. I felt a bit wrecked after that one. In fact it was shortly after that book that I got divorced.

Q: I'm obliged to ask how was the

A: I'm kind of playing out in that book the disintegration of my own family life in a metaphorical way. The whole money arguments were really arguments for a disintegration of a harmony in my life.

Q: Was the creation of the pieces about your stepfather, even at the time of the creation, was that more taxing emotionally than the traditional Alec comics?

A: I didn't think so at the time but I think probably, in retrospect. I think in the end my feeling was that I shouldn't have done a comic about this. I shouldn't be... I think I kind of wrecked my own concept of what I was doing, by thinking "Now, how far can I push that?" Have I pushed this too far? Should I be putting real people in here in such a raw form, where they don't get a chance to give their side of the story? I-I, you know, and so many comics today are maybe going too far and you know Alison Bechdel's another one, Roz Chast's we're treading a fine line of propriety.

Out the window it goes...

. . .


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

3. Adaptive Manifold Learning

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

With apologies aforethought

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

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

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

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

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

1959 1964

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sit Down

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

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

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

by Robert Creeley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1964 1969

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elevenses : 1970 1973

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

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

- Face to Face, BBC, 1959

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4  From last night's insomniac reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

Contraction : 1973 1976

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1  An error long since rectified.

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

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

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

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

Expansion : 1976 1977

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

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

I saw both their points, and still do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Philosopher's Calculus, or Stone : 1977 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graduation : 1980 1982

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I anticipate. Returning to 1980:

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

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

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

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

I re-entered college and lightened my course load.

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

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

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

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

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

Publishing the dissertation : 1989 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the latter modifications brought us together here today.

Hi. How are you?

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

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


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.