. . . Obtuse

. . .

"Pirates of Silicon Valley" kept reminding me of another long poem by Wilmot -- not his best, but memorable -- to which I once referred in a discussion of nonverbal online communication:

When poet John Wilmot whipped off that tribute to Charles II's tiny brain and huge penis which ended: "I hate all kings and the thrones that they sit on / From the hector of France to the culley of Britain," he was banished from court.

Now imagine how much easier things would've been for him if he'd instead only written: "I hate all kings and the thrones that they sit on / From the hector of France to the culley of Britain. :-)"

. . .

Worst ever misuse of the word "obtuse"? (by way of LemonYellow)

"I've never experienced anyone who had the level of sophistication of John Drewe," says Melanie Clore, director of the Impressionist and modern-art department at Sotheby's, which sold 14 of Myatt's forgeries. "He was phenomenal. You're not talking about obtuse pictures that came in with a dear old lady that have no history, and they've been sitting in an attic."
Toothsome. This required not only mistaking the word "obtuse" for "abstruse," but then going on to mistake the word "abstruse" for "obscure." Oddly appropriate, though, in the context....

. . .

Bosley Crowther, thou shouldst be living at this hour: Never trust a guy who says that High Noon is a masterpiece.

Actually, it's kind of nice to know that even the current generation is capable of producing a movie pundit who's script-happy and film-blind. And it makes sense that he'd find a home at Salon, which, with help from Gene-Shalit-on-'ludes Charles Taylor and mirror-lensed Camille Paglia, is starting to make the New York Times look like Cahiers du cinéma.

+ + +

Shtick as Muse:
"Satir, narr technique: Can usually be expressed in the formula: 'Pretend to be stupid.'"
-- Robert Musil, Diaries
Who's pretending? With few exceptions (movie stars, rock musicians...), any action or expression will be stupider than the theoretical limits of the intelligence responsible for taking or making it.
"Americans project irony onto the world.... The subject has lost the battle. He knows that he lacks either the individuality or the reason to defend himself against his opponent.... The subject no longer speaks; he is spoken, cursed by an uncontrollable and parodying tic."
-- Delphine Perret, "Irony," Poetics Journal
(Don't mind me; I spent all weekend writing JavaScript....)

. . .

You're only as old as your acne: I provide this link to the spam-manufacturing Grim Reaper Age Guesser (via Flutterby) under protest. I was disappointed by the Grim Reaper allowing himself such an obvious lower-boundary-setting question as "Did you watch as man first landed on the moon?" (I answered yes), but I was appalled when he nevertheless went ahead and told me I was 19. Why put an ace up your sleeve if you're just going to play checkers?

This confirms the opinion I'd already formed based on his vacant stare, perpetual toothy grin, and habit of shambling around publicly in his bathrobe: Death be not proud 'cause Death be a moron.

+ + +

The widespread confusion between "obtuse" and "abstruse" puzzled me until I realized that it maps to the double meaning of "dense" in "dense writing" and in "dense reader."

When we want to point out inefficiency in the transmission of information (via peterme), we find it more idiomatic to point to the receiver or to the transmitter than to the wire between them. Since it doesn't really matter which of the two we point to, we end up using the same adjective for both.

. . .

Lovely clock Errata: In our fifth year, we often repeated a riddle regarding a little moron who threw his clock out the window. Our answer, although explaining what the little moron expected to see, continued to leave open the question of just why a little moron would wish to see such a thing. We therefore did not completely fulfill our implied promise of clarifying the little moron's motive, leading to possible frustration on the part of our listeners.

It has since come to our attention that a better answer would perhaps have been, "Because he heard that time flies when you're having fun."

We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.

. . .

Sharp as mud

Life decreases logical entropy while increasing thermal entropy: local hotbeds of organization become more complexly organized by expending energy into the tepidbed.

Intelligence and free will can be defined as those forces which introduce randomness into an otherwise predictable system. The number of possibilities increases, and so does apparent logical entropy.

For example, when intelligence creates a new conceptualization of a phenomenon, the existing phenomenon is not erased and continued misunderstandings of that phenomenon are not prevented. On the contrary, a new opportunity for misunderstanding is opened up: to wit, misunderstanding of the new concept.

To put it in terms of information theory: The amount of available information can only be increased by increasing the amount of possible confusion. Thus the main by-product of the evolution of intelligence is stupidity, and, as intelligence continues its work through the millennia, the gross amount of stupidity increases. Intelligence is life's little atonement for its sin against disorder, a back-door way to increase logical entropy after all.

And The Hotsy Totsy Club is proud to be part of this effort.

. . .

Mud-and-gun-slinging Movie Comment: If they'd only mentioned this particular example of Preposterous Casting in the print ads, I woulda gone seen it!
"... Sharon Stone as a gunslinging mole in Gloria ..."

. . .

I usually ignore my web stats, but an occasional glance at the referrer logs is useful for spotting image-jackers like the Free Republic clowns who've been grabbing our lovely "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt shot. Enjoy the redesign, boys!

. . .

The Gift of Fruitcake

Last week, Paul McEnery bemoaned to me the balkanized states of psychology in America: clinical psychologists ignoring research psychologists ignoring social psychologists when they could so profitably be building on each others' work....

As a layperson who likes snooping around half-understood academic journals, I've wondered about that myself.

For example, when reading a very widely noted report (Joan Freeman knows how to work those publicity machines!) that "emotional problems" and "mundane jobs" are more likely to come to intelligent children who are told they're gifted than to those "told nothing."

"Told nothing"? Enticingly vague, that....

Thus enticed toward a fuller summary, I find that Freeman's study "compared [after 27 years] the lives of pupils whose parents joined a society for gifted children with equally talented students whose parents were not members."

OK, then, what Freeman compared wasn't "children told all" vs. "children told nothing," but "parents who joined a society" vs. "parents who didn't join."

As Freeman herself acknowledges, high-IQ children are more likely to be singled out for special treatment if they already have behavior problems. Otherwise, they'll just be getting along quietly (and easily) in school. (It wasn't teaching myself to read that attracted my guardians' attention; it was acting like a horrid little monster in kindergarten. Only as part of trying to figure out how to calm me the fuck down did a counselor come up with the "gifted" label -- which may well mean that my sole "gift" was that of acting like a horrid little monster. "And what super powers do you have?") Right off, that skews the study to a "gifted" / "disturbed" correlation.

Then there's the question of what kind of parent would be most likely to join the society. Seems likely it would be someone worried about freakiness or about class mobility, either of which would up the tensions at home. As opposed to, like, all the smart-as-a-whip people I met later who came from families where big IQs weren't considered big deals: bohemian or genteelly academic or upper-middle-class or just amazing.

And it seems unlikely that society membership would be felt necessary if there was an obvious route already laid out for the kid -- something like the Bronx High School of Science or the Dalton School, where academic progress wouldn't require a misaligned age -- as opposed to having to decide between jumping grades in a regular old underfunded public school or staying stuck in a regular old underfunded public school.

Freeman's results may be secure as all get-out, then, but their only clear application is "don't think that joining a society for gifted children is going to be helpful for your child." They certainly don't support Freeman's extensive lists of recommendations, some of which seem benign -- don't assume the kid can make mature decisions -- but some of which seem less than realistic. (Despite the lasting inconveniences of that kindergarten badge, I'd have to insist that the most genuinely cheery times I had in school were due to the singling-out counselors and the few teachers not too exhausted to handle special-tracking -- though I still cringe remembering the agonizing opacity of fractions.)

Population studies work fine for spotting problems, but for spotting causes and treatments you can't beat lab work. Such as Mueller & Dweck's 1998 study showing that praise for intelligence or giftedness mimics learned helplessness, lowering both performance and motivation, whereas praise for effort or for the task itself increases performance and motivation.

Mueller & Dweck admitted their study's limits, but it ties usefully into other research, like Dykman's. And they also came up with plausible empathic explanations for the results: My attention having been drawn to myself, my goal becomes maintenance of my self-image by "succeeding at" the task, a starkly win-or-lose approach which hardly entices me to move forward: winning means I'm done, and losing means I lack the innate ability I thought I had. More fruitful is to define the goal as gradually improved competence, with setbacks expected and due to (surmountable) lack of effort or training.

(And, as a "To Be Continued" marker, their contrast of inward and outward attentiveness fits some central neuraesthetic speculations....)

. . .

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....

. . .

Movie Comments Comment

So many folks boiling over with critical insight and political acumen! And post-movie Q&A sessions provide an irresistable opportunity to lance those boils.

  1. My Brother's Wedding at Pixar, Emeryville, CA

    Lots of great Qs here, including "Does the director know Martin Scorsese? Because [long demonstration that if you've never seen a Cassavetes movie, you'll think that anything with talkative city dwellers is ripping off Scorsese]" and the always popular "How much did it cost?" (Wrong answer, guessed at by the hapless host of the evening: "I'm not sure -- one point five million?" Right answer: $80,000.)

    Best of show:

    "You always hear about how African-Americans have absent fathers and single-parent families. But that didn't seem to be a problem in this film. So I can't help wondering: Just what is the real story here?"
    Which reminded me of someone at DEC who was talking about some political dispute in the news and concluded, "How can black people expect to get anywhere? They can't even agree on a candidate!" Except that guy at least had the excuse of being from New Hampshire and I at least got the relief of answering him. At Pixar, I was the guest of a nonprofit institution hoping to impress potential donors, so decorum was called for. And was maintained by my companion hustling me the fuck out of there.

  2. What Have I Done to Deserve This? at New Directors / New Films, NY, NY

    1985. Pedro Almodóvar's first movie in the States. Disgruntled director on stage, dressed to the nines and stoned to the gills. An extremely wealthy, old, and frail-looking lady in the audience, with a grandmotherly smile:

    "You wouldn't have been able to do this when General Franco was in charge, would you?"
    ... I have nothing to add to that.

  3. Prelinger Archives selections, and other movies, and songs, and books, and TV shows, and paintings, and photographs at PFA, Berkeley, CA, and other places

    A young academic male:

    "Paradoxically, though, I feel that [artifact] actually is subversive in a way, since [earnest explication of some detail of the artifact]..."
    This may be unheimlichly gauche of me to admit, but not all pleasures are, strictly speaking, subversive.

    For example, you know that warm feeling you get from someone agreeing with you? Or when you feel clever for working something out? Well, that's not actually called subversion.

    In fact, as a fellow comfortable guy, I'd say that the only context in which it makes sense for a comfortable guy to apply the word "subversive" to anything is when he's trying to have it banned.

. . .

Not to be confused with the good USS Catastrophe, 'cause I did and that's why I clicked on Aaron's link

Can you spot a difference between talk about the evil of "Arab culture" or "Arab nations" and talk about the evil of "aggressively intolerant fundamentalist theocratic governments"?

[Hint: Which terms correspond more closely to "Vichy France" or "the Axis," and which to "Europeans"?]

. . .

"But Miles..."

According to novels, middle-aged men spend a lot of time thinking about some woman they saw in the street twenty years ago but never met. Me, I've been thinking a lot about this cartoon I saw in a magazine but haven't been able to find a copy of:

                                    A MAN
                                   WITH AN
                                   GRIN AND
                                   A CHEAP
    WORRIED PIG:                   OPEN A
That's a poke, I tell               LARGE
 you! I know a poke                BULGING
   when I see one.                  SACK
             WIDE-EYED PIG:        ACROSS
               But Miles,           THE
          it's full of garbage!    GROUND

. . .

The Blunderer (via GoryDetails)

What can be learned from Emmanuel Carrère's obtuse telling of a story that combines elements of Edith's Diary, This Sweet Sickness, A Suspension of Mercy, People Who Knock on the Door, and the Ripley novels?

A renewed appreciation of Patricia Highsmith's maligned, malignant prose.

That amour-propre is the enemy of artifact.

That introspection with one eye kept on the public is unlikely to lead anywhere.

That human opacity is not clarified by polish.

Not even spray-on Lemon Pledge.

. . .

Flogging the Dead Bardic Mule, cont.

Lawrence La Riviere White again:

Regarding Auerbach's response to my response, I will cop to the charge. I have made my project (if something pursued so diffidently could be called a "project") exactly that, mind-independent poetry and language. Or rather, the limits of mind-independence in poetry and language, just how far can that hypothesis, that the poem comes from "Outside," that writing creates rather than communicates meaning, go. But before sentencing, I would like to make two comments in my defense:

1) I believe I come by my declaration of mind-independence honestly. My attempts to think about writing anteceded my attempts to write. & I began as a very mind-dependent, or to be more explicit, ego-dependent poet. Suffice it to say that my poetry hero was Robert Hass. I know what you think about that. But somewhere a switch took place. At the start I had come to poetry wanting something from it (I wanted to become through poetry a voice of wisdom, someone who sounded deep & therefore attractive (it was California!)), but then poetry started wanting things from me. One of the first things was wanting me to write better poems. (Other poems showed me how bad my poems were.) Which would require more understanding of what poetry is. (I needed to focus more on my instrument and less on the feelings I wanted to express.) There's the Yeats line about "the supreme theme of art and song" which flickers between the genitive and the substantive, between the great romances that poetry writes about (e.g. Motley Crue's "Girls Girls Girls") and the great romance that is poetry itself. I know I have a weakness for romantic claptrap (that Yeats-peherian rag, so transcendent, so grandiloquent), but it felt as if poetry told me its concerns, its needs, were greater than mine. Ask not what poetry can do for you, ask what you can do for poetry.

2) Given Auerbach's evidence against me, I would gladly roll over on the ring-leader, Marjorie Perloff, but as I always say (& I do repeat myself more & more), you can't fight dumb with dumb. & generalities are dumb, much dumber than (most) of the people who use them. I don't believe, & neither do many (not all, perhaps not even most) true Wittgenstein scholars (that is, people who really know, unlike me), that he had a "concept of a language not being able to contain a meaning intended by the speaker." I think what he did have was an aversion to hypotheses such as "the meaning of language equals the intention of the speaker." Which seems to be what Auerbach is saying (although I could very well be wrong here) when he says, "logic and rationality being the writer's intention, not an intrinsic property of the writing." Analytic philosophy (which is one sector of the humanities that has fiercely quarantined itself from the rest) is a graveyard of such hypotheses.

& to bring a little focus to my oh-so-vague notion of "grammar," I would never consider any useful grammar to be purely self-referential. Useful grammars glom on to problems, that is, resistance points. Things that have eluded all previous formulations, that constantly call for new formulations (grammars being generative). Now I'll admit that tenure is a problem, but such a tedious one! Not nearly romantic enough for my taste.

Yes, there are few good arguments in the humanities. But perhaps we could find a virtue in this (can I get any fuzzier? As I have said from the start, I am guilty!), or at least we could become virtuous enough to stop pretending we're arguing, stop claiming the kind of conclusiveness, the kind of judgmental righteousness, that is the just reward of a good argument. Am I just applying more fuzz-tone & vaseline on the lens? Consider this: my introduction to the humanities was through analytic philosophy. Now those people are sticklers for argument. & what does it get them? Remember the joke from Annie Hall, how his mom couldn't think about suicide because she was too busy putting the chicken through the deflavorizing machine? That's analysis for you. One big deflavorizing machine. For all their rigor, they don't end up, at the close of the year's accounts, having contributed any greater number of interesting or useful essays than the cultural critics.

When I said I'm guilty, I meant (my intention!) I agreed w/most of what he said. I let the criminal trial conceit carry me away a bit, or rather I let the conceit reveal more of my defensiveness, resentment, & meanness than I care to show. After all, I write to create a better (smarter, more graceful & considerate) persona than I communicate in the day to day.

As for our agreement, when he says, "I don't feel especially happy about talking about this stuff," I take it for a different version of "dumb can't beat dumb." Not that he's calling himself dumb, but his unhappiness in the engagement reminds me of my own, & my unhappiness comes from not being able to figure out the right answer, to figure out the new way of thinking about the problem, the answer that will solve our troubles (& "our" includes those inside & outside the academy). As if it were all janitorial work & you couldn't ever get the grease off your hands.

In closing, let me say the single phrase "In the Shadow of the Oversexed Women" is better than everything I've ever written you. That's the kind of joke I admire. I have been thinking ever since, but not productively, about how translation is ripe for such jokes. (The tag that keeps ringing in my head is Eliot's "hot gates" for Thermopylae, the low for high substitution.) The Proust-work feels like it's on to something profound. (There's a type of deflavorizor, the guy who always wants to explain the importance of the joke.)

Here's all I've come up w/so far: translation is an example par excellence of applying a grammar to a problem & how that problem has the resources to ceaselessly resist the grammar. The deconstructive lesson (what gets taught as deconstruction) is all about vertiginous glee (nobody knows nothing), but that blankets over certain palpable sharpnesses i.e. the words "strapping, buxom, oversexed" all have nice edges to them. The joke is on us & not the French, but it took Proust to bring it out.

& hints of a vision of a pluralist utopia form on the screen. Starring the Marx Brothers making their translation from borscht to blue-bloods.

It sounds as if White's post-adolescent poetic tastes changed in a way somewhat like my own. Not uncommon, I think, and resembling the common move from "readerly" fiction to "writerly" fiction. In both cases, we exchange some of the mixed pleasures of heroic identification for the mixed pleasures of ethical socialization (or, if you prefer, of obtuse alienation -- or, if you prefer, of an even more pathetic form of heroic identification). I maintain John Berryman and James Wright as more-than-usually mixed pleasures from the bad old days, but Yeats plays well enough in both camps.

+ + +

Regarding yesterday's entry, here's bhikku:
...which reminds me of the joke about the two Irishmen passing the forest and seeing the sign saying Tree Fellers Wanted. "Isn't it a shame", says Pat, "that there's only the two of us."

... to be continued ...

. . .


Welcome back to the only web journal where errata outnumber entries! As you can see by this illustration of my earliest exercise in community building, it comes natural.

Donald O'Connor! thou should'st be living at this hour. Yes, Francis walks again, and it's all my fault for tying everything up in red ribbon. Next in line to unknot the bow with a single tug is Jake Wilson, The Hardest Working Co-Editor in Online Film Journals:

As a sucker for general aesthetics I've been following your recent series with interest, but while people are jumping in I thought I might as well say a word in defence of William Empson, who wrote sympathetically about Ulysses on several occasions, and as far as "stultifying conservatism" goes was no Eliot, or Winters for that matter.

Also, for the sake of argument, or argufication, I don't know if I agree that "a poem was once just another way to deliver a message." This bypasses the difficulties of separating message and medium - Sam Goldwyn said you could send a message by calling Western Union, but a declaration of love made that way might miss its mark. In any case the idea of poem-as-artifact rather than propaganda is at least as old as the lyric. It doesn't seem to me that Donne's "arguments", which are fanciful in the extreme, are meant to be taken any more literally than Frank O'Hara's; his rhetoric seduces better than it reasons, and typically the extravagant nonsense of the reasoning (e.g. in "The Sun Rising") is part of the seductive charm. That isn't "thinking" in the sense that Kant is a thinker, but viewing abstract system-building as the only legitimate mode of thought is like believing in I.Q. tests; wisdom takes many forms, and it's obtuse to maintain that the only people we learn it from are philosophers.

Empson, by the way, said somewhere that he didn't think poems were made of words, but rather "from the sort of joke you find in hymns". I'm not sure what he meant, but I still think he could have been right.

It was a mistake to drag twentieth-century poetry wars in as a mere argument capper a very pretty thought, but, you know, (sotto voce) not very B-R-I-G-H-T, poor thing.

Also I shouldn't talk any more trash about Empson till I'm ready to do it to his face.

PF managed to find time on the way to his appointment with doom to decode my Sister Noon non-review:

But you'll admit Flaubert did a hell of a job with Saint Julian and Saint Antoine.
I will admit it! Good lord, PF, how did you know?

I'll also admit that I tried to fit both into the piece, but decided it was already too lumpy and squirmy to hold any more digressions. (The digression would've been that neither are recognizably part of the historical fiction genre, "Julian" being fairy tale and Antoine being my favorite single New Wave SF Postmodernist Screenplay [ideally realized by Raul Ruiz, Harry Dean Stanton, and a 94-million-dollar budget].)

Finally, an anonymous reader summed affairs up nicely with the single comment:

its all very well its just not very good

I could live with that as an epitaph.

. . .

Time of the Season

That a certain excitement of the intelligence is necessary even to revivify ideas we have already had is amply demonstrated whenever open-minded and knowledgeable people are being examined and without any preamble are asked such questions as: What is the state? Or: What is property? Things of that kind. If these young people had been in company and for a while the subject of conversation had been the state or property they would by a process of comparison, discrimination and summary perhaps with ease have arrived at the definition. But being wholly deprived of any such preparation they are seen to falter and only an obtuse examiner will conclude from this that they do not know. For it is not we who know things but pre-eminently a certain condition of ours which knows. Only very commonplace intellects, people who yesterday learned by heart what the state is and today have forgotten it again, will have their answers pat in an examination.
- Heinrich von Kleist

I've enjoyed delivering my couple of guest lectures and teaching my couple of adult ed classes. But knowing that students are there by coercion rather than desire? and then, after slowly torturing these unfortunates, having to punish them for their lack of interest?

An education consists of observing, thinking, and doing, with dialog. What do grades have to do with that? Nothing, directly and nothing indirectly after the trick's known. Grades are there to balance those in school for reasons other than education. As is the way with our breed of ape, we expend immense labor (or labor compacted as money) thumbing that balance. Which is its own learning, I guess, and I guess probably more valuable in the long run.

I remember Tom Parmenter writing that you do best on tests such as the SATs by consciously playing the part of the sort of person who'd do well on those tests. (I think his exact words were "a boring white guy.") And I remember people saying that was nonsense. But I remember it was always how I managed, when I managed, despite my lack of education, despite my lack of discipline. It is not our knowledge that does well on tests but pre-eminently a certain role of ours which scores.


The one thing I was ever consistently good at - SAT's, Wechsler-Binet, Stanford-Binet, and, in another less conditional but far more exciting modality, the MMPI - attacked, attacked, rendered moot spurious and no-account. It was all I had, pretty much.

If there are any no-'counts in this post, I'd say they're me & the Von. "Do best" in Parmenter's formula means "do better than I'd do otherwise", not "do better than anyone" he's talking, I think, about what in other sports is called "game face". Me, I don't even like Trivial Pursuit.

The question of grades is different from the question of tests, anyway. The ability to score high on intelligence tests shows a quirky talent of some sort (I have a bit of that one myself), and the ability to score high on tests of knowledge is something I look on with awe. But to make them the singular point of education, something to train for and haggle over, as parents, governments, and a sclerosing class system increasingly do, misses what's valuable in education.

Joseph Duemer points out that "students" need to be on that list as well. Silly of me to leave them out, since that was my jumping-off point....

Tom Parmenter himself:

Yep, that was me all right. I was giving advice to my Number One Son about the SAT's, etc. I told him not to use any imagination, whatsoever, because it would lead to wrong answers. With imagination, any one of the multiple choices can be made to fit the question. Thus, go for the answer that would be given by a boring white guy. He received a full National Merit Scholarship without actually becoming a boring white guy. Number Two Son, on the other hand, was so disgusted by the process, he only applied to schools that didn't use the SAT.

I sussed these things out when I took the PSAT as a junior in high school. A joke played by sort of smart people on other sort of smart people. I placed on the National Merit too, but no scholarship. To hear people brag about their SAT's . . . well, ha-ha-ha! See the book None of the Above. The author so completely groks the way the tests are put together that he manages a high score on the French test without knowing any French.

It's all reminiscent of the story about quizzing junior-high students on how to use a barometer to measure the height of a building. One non-boring kid supplied twenty or so answers, such as:

- Use the barometer as a measuring device. Get the height in barometers.
- Drop the barometer from the top of the building and use the formula for gravitational acceleration to determine the height of the building.
. . . and so on, winding up with the final suggestion:
- Knock on the door and tell the person who answers, "I will give you this fine barometer if you will tell me how tall this building is."

Kid got an F (even though, in fact, it is not likely that the answer the teacher wanted would have returned a useful figure for the height of most buildings).

. . .

The Liebestod of the Author

(Started as a response to John Holbo at The Valve before it merged into another piece & became ridiculously long, but the original, its sequel, & their comments are at least as worth reading as this)
"And it does no good knowing certain biographical and historical facts about Wagner, or facts about his sources and influences, or even about his own before or after the fact and outside the score comments."
- sounds & fury
"Our acts, you might say, are always improper in the sense that they are never our property."
- Patchen Markell, Bound by Recognition

Truffaut said the auteur theory stopped making sense to him once he started making movies. And many critical homilies became doubtful to me as I became better acquainted with the process of fiction writing.

The solid ground of intentionality, for example, grows fuzzy and falls apart when we sincerely try to follow through and find that intention.

Most writers aren't particularly obsessive readers of their own books: indifference or disgust are more conducive to production of new material. When we turn to biography, we usually find it less effective as interpretation than as dismissal: "Well, she was drunk when she wrote it." (Or, in Jamesonian mode, "What do you expect from a bourgeois sexist imperialist?")

In a reminiscing mood, the writer may tell us they began a work with intentions that were overturned along the way. Characters speak for themselves. The form has a mind of its own. Something happened on the walk to the grocery store; it seemed to fit. Simple boredom incites revolt. And yet what we're given to interpret is a whole and entire object rather than the process of making.

Then there's "style", best defined as that characteristic stink we're unable to cover up or scrub away. Our experiences and reactions aren't products of a sovereign will. At seismically active bedrock, the structures and accidents of our language are a given.

Tellingly, the writers most notoriously insistent on conscious agency also notoriously refuse help to critics: "But Mr. Hicraft, what does lie behind this passage if not subconscious compulsion?" "The page speaks for itself." "But Ms. Locraft, why that particular phrase?" "Because I have to make a living." These remarks aren't useful except insofar as they keep us from prattling nonsense, and at that they don't seem to have been very successful.

Even given access to the ideal a perfectly conscious close writer who's also a perfectly articulate close reader what do we hear when we press for the meaning of a passage? "As far as I can remember, I intended this effect on the reader, and this effect, and a nuance of that, and an echo of this previous effect, and a set-up for this later one and this even later one. [Pause. Politely:] Did it work?"

The problem, of course, is that a writer is not trilling sweet song direct from uncluttered soul to unpolluted air. The writer is trying to write. And so as we apply ourselves to realizing the author's intent, we move away from reading and towards the writing workshop. At Clarion '93, when Kate Wilhelm executed a one-on-one paragraph-by-paragraph line-by-line analysis of my most recent story, the experience was unforgettable, but it was the unforgettable experience of an expert mentalist act: "At this word you started trying to do this, but you gave up because you couldn't see a way out of the bind there, and so you tried to fake it with...."

Literature is art in language, and language is a medium in which we try to deliver messages. But literature is art, and only visible as art insofar as we perceive something other than message. (To take a simpler case, when we say "Programming is an art," the only people who'll understand us are its practitioners, because only practitioners of programming see anything but the results it delivers.)

I'm not saying "anything goes" in scholarly criticism. (Anything certainly does go in pleasure reading or utilitarian reading.) Although the literary experience can't be reduced to message, messages (intended or not) build the layers of tissue that make these bones live. We want to know the game we're in, a frame for the artifact. Some people seem satisfied to know its current context ("commercial junk" or "canonized profundity"); for others, alternative contexts add welcome nuance.

Dan Green, for example, can't find a position in his game for Middlemarch, which seems sad to me. I can easily find a position in my game for Lost in the Funhouse, but it's a far less rewarding position than in Dan's, which probably seems a little sad to him. Our difference may at least partly derive from the extents to which our preferred interpretive games include the deployment of multiple game schemes.

Found poetry, cut-up poetry, generated poetry, or mocking quotes in the New Yorker or Harper's aren't examples of non-intentional art, but they do help clarify the aestheticizing process. When we read appropriations, we usually don't feel fully satisfied until we're able both to guess at the original context and to guess at the point of the displacement: "Oh, I get it it's a nonsense parody of Wordsworth!" But satisfaction rarely requires us to verify our guesses. Much.

We attempt some comprehension of authorial intention, and, if possible, put it to use. But that attempt comes from the same analytical toolbox as historicism or genre studies: a collection of opportunities to widen the constraints of close or sentimental readings.

* * *

On the other side of the critic-creator divide, I've encountered offended authors who believe that Roland Barthes's most cited title was calling a fatwa. At ninth- or tenth-hand, they'd gotten the impression that the Critic had been hoisted onto the pedestal from which the Author'd been dragged.

Well, Barthes was a French intellectual, and they do seem inclined to present even their most benign insights in a "Grr! Grr! I'm a paper tiger!" tone. Maybe it's part of showing up on TV more often or something. But as I understand Barthes (and what's he gonna do, say I'm misinterpreting, hyuck-hyuck?), he merely meant that authors have better people to talk to than critics, and merely asks (in a grating nasal voice) that critics not obscure a text with rude presumptions about the text's writer. In critical terms, such presumptions are "The Author," and that's why "The Author" should be buried and replaced (when necessary) by the dessicated-but-dignified "Scriptor", who I picture as looking like William S. Burroughs.

As for the juicy bundles of meat who write or read texts, they're still entitled to all the imagination and experience they can manage to collect. I don't wish my friends harm when I declare that their writings will survive them. What higher goal do authors profess? What Barthes adds is that the work becomes posthumous even while the author's living. He may sound unduly cheerful about that, but very few ambitious writers would gladly argue that their success depends on a cult of personality. Our own (apparent) disappearance from the causal chain is what we labor at.

Having read too many biographies and critical works which insult the constructors of extremely skilled and subtle narratives by shanghaiing them into outrageously obtuse and trite narratives, I'm only sorry that Barthes's typical post-millennial tone was, as usual, unfounded. As long as Juliet Barker remains at large, The Author is alive and miserable and being force fed through a tube.


Aye, 'tis a dang'rous craft, it is that.

Brian R. Hischier writes:

It is a topic much on my mind lately, one which I felt was worthwhile to consider, while at the same time being at the height of worthlessness---my intention as of this moment is merely to write well (and what of the authors whose intentions are to write in a mediocre vein?). Barthes' text always seemed much too proud of its title, blinding its author to the real problem---that in the modern days the author will not die. He is either sunning himself on the beach or comatose, and neither state is good for the next text. I think too often our texts become our muses and after they've shunned us, we batter them with wishes and gifts until they finally give in, wrecked.

Bharat Tandon has reminded me of two favorite examples of ambivalent authorial death wish, both from John Keats:

our bodies every seven years are completely fresh-material'd seven years ago it was not this hand that clench'd itself against Hammond. We are like the relict garments of a Saint: the same and not the same: for the careful Monks patch it and patch it: till there's not a thread of the original garment left, and still they show it for St Anthony's shirt. [...] 'Tis an uneasy thought that in seven years the same hands cannot greet each other again.


This living hand, now warm and capable
Of eanest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine heat own dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm'd see here it is
I hold it towards you

Update, 2017-03-04: George Saunders distinguishes living writer from Intentional Fallacy.

. . .

Lazybones (1925)

This film is the world, really, in an hour and a half, in eighty minutes, it shows us the world. And manages the job without donkey torture.

In most other ways, though, Borzage's titular saint anticipates Bresson's: patient, gentle, a bit obtuse, stubborn, and above all passive. What makes the difference isn't so much the leading man's species as the filmmaker's spirit. For all the catharsis he provides, Borzage is not in the least tragic. His waterworks run at full capacity in happy endings, and even in his unhappiest endings which can be very unhappy suffering's redeemed by a gain so vast that its loss still counts as treasure.

Lazybones, in particular, keeps to the cornball comic mode as closely as it can while circumventing a suicide attempt, casual cruelties, meticulous soul-crushing deceit, and the Great War. At least one writer associates that circuit with 1930s generic mélanges like Borzage's screwball-thriller-disaster-romance History Is Made at Night, but the tone isn't that much darker than the Americana of Will Rogers, or, later, The Strawberry Blonde and Meet Me in St. Louis, even if its final import seems more global.

Lacking the body-and-soul lust that propels Borzage's other transcendences, what power propels this one?

Not the characters or incidents or hoary gags of the script, certainly; types and tableaux wheeled atop and off the stage, they could have been drawn as stick figures, almost, in their unadorned familiarity.

The performers are wonderful, but never this wonderful with any other director. Dithering Zasu Pitts? Cowboy Buck Jones? (But then Borzage himself began as a movie cowboy.) Even the five-year-old engages us.

The conceptual audacity of centering a movie on a good, decent man has something to do it, but Borzage made other conceptually audacious movies kids invent fascism; Jesus harrows a prison break which never fully send us.

What makes Lazybones effective, for those affected by it, is all of the above: the unfussy performances, the drifty protagonist, and the parabolic simplicity they enable. Lacking the prefab Hollywood structure of goal and conflict and resolution, the film marks time by what marks it most forcefully in life: the growth of a child.

Young Agnes
Mature Agnes
... and Agnes
Distraught Ruth
Sick and distraught Ruth
... and Ruth
Mature Mrs. Fanning
Mother Fanning
Old Mrs. Fanning
... and Mother Fanning
Young Steve Tuttle
Veteran Steve Tuttle
... and Steve
Kit in infancy
Kit at five, comforting Uncle Steve
... and Kit

The only parental role accessible by Steve Tuttle is that of peer: a patient, gentle, and slightly obtuse peer.

Kit in her early teens
... and Kit

Understandably, if disturbingly, the pose deceives him more than her. There are reasonable limits to a child's playacting; to an adult's, none.

Kit all growed up
... and Kit

"Rip van Winkle" is mentioned in dialog only as an example of extreme age, but in retrospect the film embodies the sense of the tale itself, in its hero's life-long doze and occasional perplexing rouses, and in an audience who blinks across three decades into the sort of moments we recognize even at the time as memorable, instantly nostalgic or rueful or both. Moments which reduce us to points on a trite plotline. The moments we recognize we'll be left with.


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.