. . . Louis Zukofsky

. . .

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....

. . .

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 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 Indefinite Conversation, cont.

Reader Toadex Hobogrammathon directs our attention to the welcome subject of to rojec tmy ergnaoreys:

thro yr Ardent urgency, have I can come to Z;
accidental Ctrl-b, close window, I wrote a something to Ray, ... ;;;; What may I be writing an Rutgersial anthological comment on Zukofsky, do yo have any bookings to recomment,?? Or articles?? Are you attributed to him?

I mean, I'm drafted by class, to write by an anthology of Rutgers, what Z did and said, and so forth. I got a goddamn refridgerator the last guy had to assault me with some whirr less than buzzing, when one dranks enough to listen.

And before a four days ago, I didnaot know tha te emoeuseic of A24 is H via C, so enough of tracking up and through the left,

good days to you and thakn yuo of all the

Louis Zukofsky was a man, and a big man. Killed him a bar when he was only three, climbed up a mountain without skinning his knee, wrote naw-thing lak po-ee try, and brought home a baby bumblebee. Zukofsky is a legend of the West.

Past these basic facts, the most reliable biographical source I've found is the ever-charming Kevin Killian:

I remember being furious and moping around my parents' house when Time magazine said Frank O'Hara had been killed by a dune buggy on Fire Island.

I was very pouty for weeks & my dad said, "Why don't you write to Louis Zukofsky?" I perkled up & asked him who he was. He didn't really know, but LZ had been on the same TV program (NET) that O'Hara was. "And plus," he said, "he lives in Port Jefferson. And he's always writing letters to the editor" [of our nearby paper, The Port Jefferson "Record"] - "complaining about this or that."

Well I got on my bike, I was like 13 or 14, and headed to Port Jefferson which was about 10 miles away and went to the house of Louis Zukofsky. He would always write letters to the paper about traffic in front of his house, etc.

He was not happy to see me - I don't think he cared for school children. I was about 13. He was a mean curmudgeon, but the garden was beautiful to my eyes. I resolved as soon as I was old enough to get a drivers license, to take a big station wagon and drive right through his hedges, in the middle of the night. I think my brief encounter with Zukofsky colored the rest of my reading of him, ever since. "99 Flowers" indeed! He wouldn't have had 1 flower left if I had had my way! Luckily my childhood anger faded by the time I was 15 or so and started to drive. I didn't meet any other poets until I was about 17 and met Paul Blackburn in New York. But Alex Haley did come to our classroom & told us all about writing the "Autobiography of Malcolm X."

I'm reading this over & I'm, like, stunned at how stupid I sound.

More insight from Killian: "Louis: Harry Dean Stanton. Celia: Kate Nelligan. Paul: Macaulay Culkin."

. . .

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.

. . .

Notes & Queries

Tom rightly modifies our Shock-N-Awe:

Might it depend on whether one is looking at Tommy and the other actors, or at the representations of them served as our daily fare? I'm genuinely unsure of the differences - the game is delimited in order that it can be played so that it can be wagered upon. The war is a "mosaic," says Tommy.

Athleticism is a fine mode - would it include wresting, in which we take comfort in the mismatch and hiss the dastardly ones who break the "rules"?

In my posting I'd obscured an essential distinction between the covert partisanship of contemporary political coverage and the open partisanship of contemporary war coverage. In both cases, specialists often (and understandably) think in terms of "games"; news media have increasingly (and less forgivably) followed their lead by treating both as spectator sports, but with the implied viewer identification shifting from "gambler" to "fan." The partisanship is just a matter of degree, of course, since talking about the game rather than the consequences of government implicitly gives preference to those who are out for personal gain (the other side being hypocrites or fools -- whether they in fact lose or not), and talking about the game rather than the consequences of warfare implicitly gives preference to the strong aggressor (the other side being a bunch of losers -- whether they in fact lose or not).

Wrestling is an appropriate analogy for the requisite vilifying, but their video technique seems drawn more from inspirational NFL documentaries....

Another reader remains unheard and unidentified:

I am not going to say a damned thing.
Not everyone is so inarticulate, thank goodness. Juliet Clark passes along a pointer to a genuinely responsive news agency:
In a time of crisis, is looking at the big picture. At the top of their listings page, they ask the question on everyone's mind right now:

How will the War in Iraq affect my TV Listings?

How, indeed?

Doug Asherman may supply an answer:
The quote that I was looking for -- a little context first. Krazy is reading the "Krazy Kat" strip in the paper, and is quite confused...

Krazy "But, if *I* are *here*, and you is here, *HOW* come I are in the paper, and you also -- ansa me that."

Ignatz: "Because, Fool, how could it be aught were it not thus -- you answer *that*".

Waggish kindly writes:
I appreciated your entry on dissertation advisors, and I'd add that since those relationships aren't based on need or symbiosis but on pure charity towards the grad student, there exists a fundamental neurosis that can only be alleviated insofar as the relationship can be recast as collegial friendship. This is what I've seen, anyway.
And some stray merchant peddles his wares:
The Poet's Poet: Louis Zukofsky Reads From His Uncompromising Works. (PHONOTAPE-CASSETTE).

. . .

If you were going to say "I'm a tree,"
here's how you'd say it.
- some guy on a plane

       When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
  do not admire what
  we cannot understand
- Marianne Moore

I like a tune and I feel that one should be as clear as one's natural reticence allows one to be.
- Marianne Moore

Jaron Lanier is a smart dude, but I must take issue with his statement about how scientists and technologists are "often enchanted with the beauty we see in nature beauty that's harder for nonspecialized people to appreciate." As if his scientifically informed view of the natural world somehow means he's better equipped than the rest of us to appreciate it.
- Abbi

          wind flower

- Louis Zukofsky

. . .

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.

. . .

The Real McKee

It's true that "authenticity" generally signals snobbery, racism, or willful ignorance up ahead. That it drags the Elmer Fuddish hunter into holes they wot not of. That it marks the hoarder and attracts the forger. And that I've built dudgeons high agin it. Why attempt to judge the Bushes by the authenticity of their bark when the poison of their fruit's so evident?

But I feel Jiminy Heartworm stir. Despite (and through) my open distaste with the term, haven't I, in my own ways, profited from it? When I starved, haven't I played it up to cadge a meal? or get the loan of a book? or of an ear? When I lack even a (birth) certificate of authenticity?

And the double-edged crutches my own criticism leans on terms like "organic", or "grace", or "attentive", or (borrowing from the young Louis Zukofsky and the young Sal Mineo) "sincere" if I was forced to systematize them, if I reaped occasional rewards by dropping them in the nickel slots of academia or reviews or NPR, would they be any better than "authentic"? Truly?

Well, maybe a bit, if they address the workings of the song between us rather than denigrating-through-idealizing the singer.

Leave the art's conscience to the art. The only "authenticity" that should concern critics is their own.


True masks speaking through real veils

AKMA has a follow-up thread.

Ray Davis adds:

I won my first programming job over (probably) more qualified and (certainly) better groomed candidates because (the boss told me later) I'd "looked more like a programmer."

That's one reason I support affirmative action. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems unlikely that a similarly sullen, ill-prepared, shabbily dressed black kid would have "looked more like a programmer."

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Adolf Heschl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

... to be concluded ...


misanthopic trees never bloom

. . .

Nothing Personal, 6

Pop music makes a horrifically misleading comparison point. English song and poetry in English have diverged too much since Campion's day, and as much as I love the lyrics of Chuck Berry, Lord Melody, Smokey Robinson, Tom Verlaine, the Coup, Mos Def, and Slug, none would fit a little magazine or chapbook.

A closer demotic relative of contemporary lyric is stand-up comedy, with its definitional dictions, its canonical revolutionaries, and its School of Quietude.... They're different forms with different capabilities, but there are examples from both who'd fit either.


Ask Ron Silliman about the Russian edition yoking him with Louis Zukofsky and Woody Allen.
"a something along these veins .."
And while we have for decades been told that the lyrics of Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith et al (rarely however is this said about Slug) can be read without music as standalone poems, the same is never claimed for the work of Richard Pryor or Eddie Izzard.

Ah, but Steven Wright...?

Peli writes:

First thing they teach you in Narratology school is in the face of a literary theory scrutinize the selection of evidence. I counter with: Brian Eno, John Cale, 'Berlin' David Bowie, Early and mid Beck, Destroyer, Jonathan Richman, Pavement, MF Doom, Li'l Wayne, Ghostface Killah, and a bunch of Israeli stuff. Not that their lyrics are in anyway better or more interesting than your batch, just that they're all both a) very good, b) modern poetry is a somewhat relevant frame of reference to their work either historically or theoretically or both.

. . .

Christina La Sala and "Petrified Forest"

May 8th - June 5th, 2009
ampersand international arts
1001 Tennessee Street (at 20th. St.)
San Francisco, California 94107

In writing, it's called "a strong voice." Across materials, across moods, a sense of continuous engagement with another. Maybe not quite the human being you meet at the reception, the reading, or the party, but not a pose or a persona, no formula. Something wholer than that, someone you recognize when you enter the room.

In the voice of Christina La Sala, there's wit and inwit, with no hint of smirk. There's painstaking elegance, insisting on beauty even in shabbiness and loss. Art is what this voice does, and making art is necessarily making do.

There's a sort of dyslexic synesthesia, modal wires crossing at a dreamlike concept both reasonable and uncanny: Braille chewing gum, for example. ("'Well, I've tried to say How doth the little busy bee, but it all came different!' Alice replied in a very melancholy voice.")

There's a poised sense of confrontation: a dare to make the first move, to cross this line, tip this balance, pop the bubble, eat me, shatter me.... We're being asked, I think, to make a decision: to consume and have done, or to live with the experience. To live at all is to live with one's decisions and actions and circumstances.

Which is to live with one's art. The least escapist of artists, La Sala affirms without flurry or bluster, but hour by hour, week by week, over what Louis Zukofsky called "a poem of a life": the work of a life in work. Duration itself becomes preoccupation: the times that bind, as in the obsessive stitching of La Sala's "Stay Awake" bedsheet, with its dare to fall asleep.

When these characteristics coincide, there's nothing anecdotal about the result, but we're tempted to narrate, to put this perplexing artifact in its place in some known story. The voice resists us. The Rapunzel-length hair-and-steel-wool braid of La Sala's "Straw into Gold," for example, intertwines aging's fairy-tale transmutation of brown-to-gray with our age's science-fiction transmutation of organism-to-machine. Its weave is clean; the tangle is in the yarns we spin.

A return to glasswork after many years, "Petrified Forest" carries La Sala's voice at its strongest. In writing, it would be called a serial poem, a unified work made up of sets of paired individual works:

There's a row of large glass panels etched with various patterns floral garlands, diamonds diamonded, curved boxes, pinstripes made more elaborately decorative by shadow-play as each leans against the wall from a painted wooden platform which, in turn, has been marred by carved tally marks.

There's a column of squat glass strips, smeared by tally marks, as if by a fingertip dipped in acid. Each bar is held flush close against the wall; the shadows turn them into a trompe l'oeil of greasy icicles or streaked unguents.

Naturally, I'm tempted into narrative. I recognized one pattern from gift wrap or wallpaper of my childhood, and then I thought of cargo cults and Renaissance reliquaries: how the fragmented kitsch of one culture, after everything falls apart, inspires the high craft of another culture. And a prisoner in the ivory tower leaves marks which, preserved and honored after everything falls apart again, become reproduced in their turn. As Alan Squire said in The Petrified Forest, "I've formed a theory about that that would interest you. It's the graveyard of the civilization that's shot from under us."

But my ramshackle construction, full of plot-holes, hardly matches the piece's confident coherence. Perhaps I should be thinking instead of natural history and microbiological cultures: a science museum with brittle slabs impressed by ancient ferns, flowers, floods, and crystals, and with slide mounts demonstrating, oh, the effects of antibiotics?

But that hardly conveys the piece's aggression, humor, and endurance. I might as well take the etymological approach: Arizona's fossilized trees are extinct members of a botanical family that includes the Chilean monkey-puzzle tree, named Araucariaceae for the Arauco people who live in the region. "Contrary to popular belief, the Quechua word awqa 'rebel, enemy', is probably not the root of araucano: the latter is more likely derived from the placename rag ko 'clayey water'." Yes, clear as mud.

Or maybe it's best if I pass this to the strong voice of Alice Notley, a poet born in Bisbee, Arizona, about 300 miles south of Petrified Forest National Park:

" This is distinction, says a voice,
Your features are etched in
ice so everyone can see them"
" Poverty much maligned but beautiful
has resulted in smaller houses replete with mysteries"
" there's the desert beyond them that I try to keep housed from
no thin flesh there no coursing fluid no thought"


I am eagerly awaiting the future retrospective or permanent wing to be entitled The La Sala Room. Not that it's any of my beeswax, as it were.

. . .

52 Pickup

Yesterday was my fifty-second birthday, my forty-second having occured ten years ago. Today is Daniel Johnston's fiftieth birthday. Tomorrow is Louis Zukofsky's hundred-sixth birthday. What better way to mark these occasions than with the latest melancholy seepage from Anselm Dovetonsils, as scraped by the indefatigable Renfrew Q. Hobblewort?

Don't get me started.

Footnotes from the Modern Russian Reader for Intermediate Classes:
Chapter Three Re-translated From English Because I Could Not Find the Original Text

Misha. Under everyone's feet. Mother, father. Used almost exclusively when addressing one's own parents. In his study. A very common diminutive of book. But there is nothing pretty about him. Interfered with their work. Suppose you take.

You will keep a diary. How could I know? I never thought anything out myself. Was he. Papa had. Let me. Leaned on the back of his chair. Is spelled with. Leave me alone. What else should I write?

Whose. No one's. As poets do. What he could write. What a day! But he is not allowed to go there. A quarter after nine. Clock. Used only in the plural. He was so happy about. Nevertheless. But what shall I do?

About what? He thought of what...Couldn't think of anything else. Ink. Used only in the plural. Was terribly bored. As soon as. He became very cheerful. An exclamation of fatigue or relief. What a sly man! My compliments. Misha felt deeply hurt.

Even more than mamma. He should talk! The one that sings. He became so sad that he was ready to cry. He felt sorry (for). How to treat him. Looked like. Diminutive of feet, legs. But this too. You only have to. Must not brag.

And in rhymes, too. and the like. If you are not interested. Why do you look so sad? She should still. What is wrong with you? Diminutive of cheeks. Diminutive of hands. I must not say.

About that. Let her leave me alone. I don't care. At night. I don't care at all. What a child! This must be shown...

You told on me. About everything. Popular for come. Affectionately and familiarly for brother. In his eyes. Diminutive of pillow, cushion. As though from. For no reason. You pay no attention to me.

Let us. Came out silly. Is no good. Oneself. Let's forget.

Holding each other's hand. No matter how it looks. For life. Little face. Affectionate form. Unless so used, the word is vulgar.

. . .

Four Freedoms by John Crowley

Historical fiction with no magical props (and no lack of unlikelihood). Like Buster Keaton entering the Civil War, like Abbott & Costello meeting Frankenstein, the John Crowley Novel transplants to a new setting and thrives.

There's a feckless horndog protagonist, of course, under the entirely characteristic name of Prosper Olander, but here his fecklessness carries an objective correlative: crippled legs in a world without ramps or lifts. The home front compensates him with the sexual access American heterosexuals later came to associate with college, and Prosper may be the least embittered disabled hero ever to visit high-mainstream fiction.

Four Freedoms is a rare bird, a war-industry pastoral, and the task of raising Arcadia from the dry and Dry state of Oklahoma lies far beyond the means of a John Crowley Hero. Playing Prospero is an airplane manufacturer who combines the benign shrewdness of George Arliss, the bulk of Eugene Pallette, and the ideals of Charles Fourier. (I suppose it reflects the prejudices of my own notoriously not-so-great generation that I find this throwback more acceptable than the Superhippie who killed Ægypt's buzz.)

And to end all, an All-American Tempest.... The John Crowley Novel intends (and this time achieves) the effect produced in some by Shakespeare's romances, the effect Pericles had on Louis Zukofsky and The Winter's Tale had on Eric Rohmer. (I'm left untouched by both plays, but not by Rohmer and not by Crowley.) A comic cast in a tragic set-up with a comic resolution, unpleasantries drowned in mellow amber, a happy ending from a lost world. Opened, close, closer, and closed.


Addendum for Joyceans: the fabulous company town is named "Henryville".

The other romance (implicitly stated) that is a huge influence on Crowley: Orlando. It's helpful to me to think of Crowley as an author of "romances" in general, because it's a framework in which he can have emotion be trumped by "magic" in one form or another, a theme which seems universal across his work.

. . .

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.

. . .

An Integral

Gypsy by Carter Scholz, PM Press (2015)

The enormous weight of the waft which was quite light was the thing that kept me contained in my perfect state which was as good as the state of any other thing before it is broken.
- Madeline Gins
Hold on to what you got but don't let go. Don't let it go.
- Bo Diddley

This is a soft time to write future history. Our post-1980 vector's so well defined and so evenly accelerating; we've so clearly passed "If this goes on" and entered "As it will be."

Too soft to support hard science fiction, or at least too soft to support the supersized undertested battleships which have served as its principal transport since, oh, say 1980. What's your rusty debris worth without a hero's journey? Where's your rotting corpse's character arc? And the three-act structure? Where are the next eight hundred pages?

There were once other ways to make the trip, still choosable if not necessarily profitable. For his first hard science fiction publication Carter Scholz went old-school.

By his own account, he was old-schooled. Like me, Scholz "grew up and was educated during the Cold War, when math and science education were priorities." There was a certain fogginess about utility then, before our rulers successfully separated education-for-maximal-exploitation from the chaff of pure-science truth and high-culture beauty I think they call it "rationalization"? Those were the irrationally unexuberant years when, as mentioned on the fourth page of Gypsy, someone like Louis Zukofsky could find a stable day-job at Brooklyn Polytechnic.

Passing references to poets are themselves a bit old-school in fiction: Shakespeare or Eliot for titles; Dickinson or Blake for epigraphs; Villon or Rimbaud for stock characters. Louis Zukofsky is an unusual choice, though.

Zukofsky's poetry wasn't widely available until the late 1960s. Back in 1978, the year of his death and the year his long "poem of a life," "A", was published, niche readers like myself and (I suppose) Scholz still thought it likely Zukofksy's brand of difficulty would follow the Modernist course of things and become, if not widely known, then about as widely known as twentieth-century poetry gets. It never happened. His niche readership now is probably no larger than his niche readership in 1978. Rather than poetic heroism triumphant, Zukofsky exemplifies th'expense of spirit in a waste of craft, sloughed off by posterity as insufficiently instantaneously rewarding.

At any rate, Louis Zukofsky's name does not appear after the fourth page of Gypsy.

* * *

Before turning even to the first page, readers will know Gypsy as a throwback by sheer lack of heft. Classic science fiction's markets were magazines and cheap paperbacks. A novella sells either/both, and novellas like Scholz's therefore became the classically approved dosage of mindblowing science fiction. (Longer volumes such as Asimov's Foundation trilogy would be constructed from semi-autonomous novellas and short stories, an assemblage known as a fix-up and carrying its own stylistic markers.)

As for three-act structures, an equally viable narrative strategy is available in hard science fiction's native version of the picaresque: one-damn-thing-after-another whack-a-bug-make-a-bug problem solving, drawing straight from the genre's turpentine-soaked roots in hobbyist magazines. Hollywood itself recalled that formula into service for two of its best recent spectacles, and that's how Carter Scholz builds Gypsy.

Although Scholz gives "Earth's first starship" every reasonable break, it finds (as it reasonably must) problems sufficient to his purpose. By way of comparison, consider our national attempts at an oceanic habitat, summarized by Ellen Prager in Chasing Science at Sea:

The U.S. Navy's first undersea laboratory, Sealab I, sank twice and filled with water before a successful launch in 1964 in the Bahamas. A tropical storm then halted the Sealab mission after only eleven days, although it was supposed to have lasted for three weeks. [...] Hydrolab also had its share of problems in the beginning, including one 25-mile (40-km) trip out into the Gulf Stream after breaking loose in a storm. [...] During decompression, when the air pressure inside the habitat was decreased, the internal air inside the toilet's holding tank not only expanded, it literally exploded, splattering its contents all over the entry trunk of the habitat.

A breathable atmosphere was within reach of Sealab; Gravity had Earth (and video-game physics); The Martian had NASA (and public funding and international good will). Scholz takes hard-science-fiction's nominal rules at their word, and so Gypsy has, at best, in its hoped-for sequence of events, seventy years of nothing. Pulp self-sufficiency could hardly desire a more congenial home. It is therefore, of course, populated by a secret band of brilliant, dedicated, rebellious, rationalist-if-not-necessarily-rational brethren and sistren with hands-on can-do attitudes; there's even Heinleinisch intervention by a left-behind robber baron.

There's not much Hawksian teambuilding chatter, though. Sustainability requires redundancy for backup; constraints of mass and energy require as quiescent an organic load as possible. Therefore at most one crewmember at a time can be conscious. The book's chain of puzzles must be linked in, as writer Juliet Clark put it, a game of exquisite corpse played against actual corpses.

These P.O.V. transitions provide Scholz ample opportunity to mimic fix-up novels' stock three-asterisk-separated gestures towards excyclopediac range and cosmic sweep, weaving flashbacks, expository passages, back-stories (almost aways of refugees, almost tautologically: anyone who reaches adulthood must have survived something to get there) and monologues, of course, monologues: little self-pep-talks, little cries-on-one's-own-shoulder, simulated second-guessing, checking off the list, working shit out....

As decades pass, and glitches and kludges accumulate like a hoarder's maze of newspaper stacks, first delimiting paths and then blocking them, and the spacecraft-and-story Gypsy nears its destination, characters are given more time for reflection, and their monologues shift register. They abstract; their rhetoric is shaped. They become arias of anger, arias of despair, arias of nostalgia. They fit 2016, yes, but to some extent they'd fit 1917, or 404 BC, or 586 BC.

* * *

Gypsy's closing lamentation may not be instantly recognizable even in 2016. I don't know if the initial Locus reviewer saw the same printed letters pass her eyes; we certainly didn't read the same page.

Myself I found it most effective; it led me to write this to you. But how can I explain the effect without snuffing its already-slim chances of replication?

Tossing another kludge on the pyre, then:

That last chorus is a reference but not a quote. A collaboration of sorts between dead author and not-yet-dead writer, but also between immersion in books and immersion in the melting shards of a human-free but human-welcoming world. Its import will be missed entirely by most readers and missed deeply by a very few. "The Happy Few," I want to say; happy in the Stendhalian sense, as in "Happy to have met you" no one would claim we're distinguished by our cheeriness, or by our good fortune, or by much other than our reluctance to trade up.

Even when we're offered sweet fuck-all to trade up to, to return to future history. In his deauthorized transtemporally award-winning story "The Nine Billion Names of God," Scholz editorially queried "That is the real last question: Do we need fiction? Do we need science?" and introducing those two interrogative sentences as a single question was no mistake. The triumphalism of art is as beside the point as the triumphalism of science: Two Cultures, one boat, no Coast Guard.

Going old-school one older, Gypsy brings grounded technophilia's sense-of-wonder back to its source in the Sublime of terror and pain. While a surplus of Big Dumb Objects may have calloused over our shock at the infinite scale of the universe, shock at the infinite scale of our loss snuffs out only with us. Science fiction still has one vacuum-packed export for the stars.


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.