December  31,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

  Transcendentalism was aware of its own affinities with the Far East; and Transcendentalism’s other affinities are with Whitehead and Darwin and Frazer, and Gestaltists and field physicists, and the synergism of Buckminster Fuller: with the coherent effort of 150 years to rectify Newton’s machine by exploring hierarchic interdependences in nature and in history and in myth and in mind, detecting wholes greater than the sum of parts, organisms not systems, growth not accretion: process and change and resemblance and continuity.
--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner

. . . And a Happy New Year!

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December  25,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Mallarmé learned English that he might read Poe (Poe!), and then supposed the subtleties alembicating in his brain to have boiled up out of Poe’s depths: as they did, when Mallarmé was the reader. Dante’s coda to the Odyssey was made possible by his not having read it: he was able to suppose therefore that Odysseus was driven by lust for knowledge. Is the life of the mind a history of interesting mistakes?
--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner.

Oh, and a very Merry Christmas--God bless us everyone (as Tiny Tim might say). 

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December  24,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

This passage from the third Canto ought to be a Latin Renaissance poem:

                                      Gods float in the azure air,
Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was shed.
Light; and the first light, before ever dew was fallen.
Panisks, and from the oak, dryas,
And from the apple, maelid,
Through all the wood, and the leaves are full of voices,
A-whisper, and the clouds bowe over the lake,
And there are gods upon them,
And in the water, the almond-white swimmers,
The silvery water glazes the upturned nipple,
                                     As Poggio has remarked.

The Panisks, little rural Pans, are from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, the dryas, oak-spirits, passim from the Greek heritage, the maelids from Ibycus, the gods upon the clouds from Poliziano; the lake is Garda, gazed on by Pound from his magical place, Sirmio; and Poggio Bracciolini, papal secretary, observed, A.D. 1451, bathers in a German pool. This is collage, another cubist strategy, and the absence of dew, twice stated, denotes the hazeless light that abolishes planes of distance. Myth, language, poetry, fact, lie disposed in a common reality, and Poggio’s remark, cited as one cites in a work of scholarship, is literature and the validation of literature by a living eye, and the sharpening of that eye in turn by other literature: Roman erotic poetry, which taught the papal secretary to see. Its ultimate source is Catullus 54:18—nutricium tenus exstantes e gurgite cano. Poggio’s phrase has not been located.
--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner.

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December  22,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

On every one of Napoleon’s campaigns following Egypt, Denon was to be found busy sketching battlefields and soldiery for the glorification of the regime, but he was also tireless in seeking out and cataloging artifacts for transportation to Paris, his principal commission, with total indifference to the humiliation of the subject nations that were being robbed (As far as France herself was concerned, Napoleon showed some conscience, issuing, in May 1806, orders for the return of all religious paintings in his possession to the churches ransacked by the revolutionaries.) The Grand Armée nicknamed Denon the huissier-priseur (hardly translatable: perhaps a “confiscating bailiff”?); he was in fact a looter on a scale that makes Hermann Goering look like something of an amateur. Under him, Napoleon’s Paris, the new Rome, swiftly became the greatest art metropolis the world had ever seen—a reputation which would, remarkably survive the ephemeral life of Napoleon’s military conquests. What Denon collected still constitutes the nucleus of the Louvre’s fourteenth-century gallery, and therefore it is perhaps not inappropriate that one of its principal wings continues to bear his name today.
--The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne

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December  21,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

It was in rebuilding the central area of Paris, so worked over by previous rulers in past centuries, that Napoleon particularly was to leave his mark. To achieve this he resorted to draconian measures (as only he could) to take over property. Convents left ravaged by the Revolution were especially vulnerable. Property owners were driven out with little recompense. Creating the new Rue Castiglione, for instance, required the demolition of the ancient Feuillant convent; disappeared also was the historic Salle de Manège, where abolition of the monarchy had been proclaimed. Later on, in his grandiose plans for the palace at Chaillot for his infant son, the King of Rome, he discovered the land there belonged to a former secretary of the cabinet, Philippe Nettement. The unhappy Nettement was told forthwith that he had to sell; his architect estimated the value at more than ff500,000, but—bullied and even threatened with eviction by the police—Nettement had to settle for a price one-third of its value. Remorselessly, Napoleon would raze (in 1808) medieval gems like the church of Saint-André, where Voltaire was baptized, and whose Gothic tower had for centuries dominated its quartier on the Left Bank. Often Napoleon would find allies in the newspapers of the day, which, uninterested in the past, managed to find excellent reasons for justifying his demolitions.
--The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne

[N.B.: As noted by Hillaire Belloc in the still best-written guide to the city, Paris,  the so-called “City of Lights” is a very modern invention with precious little pre-nineteenth century history left to it.  If you enjoy the monolithic forerunner of fascist art with a few curlicues, then Paris is the place for you.  I think it’s called the City of Lovers because everyone in that category is too busy doing more important things than soaking in the grey, monotonous avenues inflicted upon the city by Napoleon and his successor, Baron Haussmann.]

Rewriting Julian Barnes
One of my favorite authors, Julian Barnes, has a witty, short interview in last week’s New York Times Magazine titled Rewriting History.  The MacGuffin for the interview is the publication of Mr. Barnes’s new book, Arthur & George, about an incident at the turn of the twentieth century involving the novelist, Arthur Conan Doyle.  It looks like a great read, but too bad for you, my American brethren, since it won’t be published until next year.  Maybe it should have won the Booker Prize so as to speed up publication in these heathen parts—oh wait, then I would have had to wait for John Banville’s The Sea.  Decisions, decisions.  Anyway, here’s my favorite exchange from the interview:

Are you one of those writers who thinks even your grocery list has literary value? Oh, it does! My grocery list has tremendous literary value. I sharpen several pencils in the course of writing it. You have to put the words in the right order, even when it’s a grocery list. Especially when it’s a grocery list. You have to make sure you go to the right shops in the right order.

That’s wit, ladies and gents, something in short supply on these balmy, barmy shores—just look at my last post concerning the glowering Philip Roth.  He’s morose; he’s depressed; he must be a great writer. Heh.

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December  20,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Once with absolute power firmly in his hands, Napoleon wasted no time in pursuing a grand reform of French society, from the top to the bottom. First things first, toward religion his attitude was pragmatic, if not decidedly cynical—asking what God could do for him, rather than what he could do for God. On his deathbed on St. Helena he sent away priests come to administer the last rites. As early as 1800, with consummate clarity, he expounded

How can a state be well governed without the aid of religion? Society cannot exist save with inequality of fortune, and inequality of fortune cannot be supported without religion. . . . It was by becoming a Catholic that I pacified the Vendée. . . . . If I ruled a people of Jews, I would rebuild the temple of Solomon! Paradise is a central spot whither the souls of men proceed along different roads; every sect has a road of its own.

--The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne

The Big Thing
The Guardian published an interview of Philip Roth a couple of weeks ago or so, where he ruminates about the Big Things: literature, history, and, what Mr. Roth describes as Henry James’s remark on his deathbed: “Ah, here it comes, the big thing.”  It seems in American literature that if you asked any literary critic, go ahead, go ask her, she doesn’t bite, at least not with that vodka fizz in one hand and pâté in the other, who is the current Big Thing in American literature, she will almost unhesitatingly reply, “Why, Philip Roth is America’s greatest—oh, excuse me, they just set out the lobster—writer.”  All signs seem to confirm this is the case.  And yet, after reading the Guardian interview, I’m beginning to have thoughts—second thoughts.

Mr. Roth condescends—and that is the apt word—to be interviewed because he is having a new book published, Everyman, about, well, everyman, who, of course, must die, die, die.  Mr. Roth does not wish for such a fate, just look at his glum, dour photo taken during the interview. Indeed, we are treated to this exchange:

“I always use that trick to make people smile,” Flash [N.B.: the photographer, yes, I know, very juvenile nickname, I’m not writing this tripe, mind you] says.
“I don’t smile.”
There is a long, agonising pause.
“Why don’t you smile?” I ask.
“There once was this photographer from New York. ‘Smile,’ she always said. ‘Smile!’ I couldn’t stand her or the whole phenomenon. Why smile into a camera? It makes no human sense. So I got rid of both her and the smile.”

I find that these oblique, off-the-cuff remarks on seemingly trivial topics to sometimes be much more revealing about the speaker’s inner life than ruminations on the Big Things.  It makes no human sense to smile into a camera, to show one’s face, one’s mask, if you’re a bit cynical, in it’s most positive light, using the one expression that newborns naturally turn to with delight and awe?  And what does it say of a speaker to whom this basic gesture is unfathomable?  It indicates, I’m afraid, a limitation of range—an inability to grasp the intricacies of humanity.  It indicates a second-rate mind.  In other words, someone whose oeuvre will not last.

What do you mean Mr. Roth’s works will not last—he just got enshrined in the Library of America.  Heck, they’re publishing more volumes by him than any writer other than Henry James.  There’s not a single volume dedicated to T. S. Eliot or Ernest Hemingway.  But Mr. Roth is getting something like eight of ‘em.  Why, yes, and if the editors of the Library of America chose to publish the collected works of Stephen King, they could do that, too, and, I’d venture that his volumes would exceed the number of those devoted to Henry James.  Quantity is no substitute for quality unless one is purchasing fertilizer.

Enough about fertilizer, for that is assuredly what we all shall become, although just as a transitory stopping point, mind you, to our ultimate destination: grass.  As I mentioned above, Mr. Roth is not too happy about taking this trip:

“Are you afraid of dying?”
He thinks for a long time before answering. Maybe he thinks of something else. “Yes, I’m afraid. It’s horrible.” He adds. “What else could I say? It’s heartbreaking. It’s unthinkable. It’s incredible. Impossible.”

What was that I said about second-rate minds not being able to grasp the human condition, finding it, ummm, “impossible”?  Well, Mr. Roth, also in this interview, has a diatribe against religion, which is pithily rebuffed by another Guardian writer a couple of days later.  I won’t bother to swim in those deep waters—I can just as easily drown in two inches as in two fathoms. But I do find it remarkable that morose, limited writers, tend to have this overweening dread of death which tends to coincide with a revulsion toward religion.

Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Susan Sontag’s son, David Rieff, pens a harrowing account of his mother’s last illness.  When Ms. Sontag is given the bleak prognosis that her leukemia has returned, she screams out, “But this means I’m going to die!”  She fights death with an admirable resolve that her readers have come to respect in her tough-minded essays, but, inevitably, in the end, is her end, her death.  She, too, like Mr. Roth, denounced the vileness of religion.  And she too, like Mr. Roth, dreaded death as the ultimate ending—because after it is no after, no nothing, just fertilizer, oh, and grass.

Actually, Mr. Roth, James said on his deathbed: “So this is it at last, the distinguished thing!”   Distinction, Mr. Roth, a trait, I’m beginning to believe, that you may well be lacking.

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December  19,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The Imagist recall of poetic diction to speech was more profound than Wordsworth’s, because speech in 1913 was better understood; Wordsworth had simply thought rural diction “pure” by nearly Augustan canons. But the process which led to Symbolisme, thus to Symons and Yeats, to Eliot and obliquely to Pound, is already stirring when Keats closes a cadence with
…perilous seas in faery lands forlorn,
not omitting to distinguish “faery” [N.B.: bewitched or enchanted] from “fairy”, and then invites us to notice the sound his closing word has made:
Forlorn: the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sad self.
The very word, we may be persuaded, it like a bell, in a language where the syllables of forlorn can enact a grave equable tolling, and where bell rings clear with the l-sound on which forlorn turns. But “Perdu: l’expression même est comme une cloche?” It simply isn’t; which is merely to remark that in another language that particular interactive potential is not available. For the century Keats inaugurated made its poetic effects more and more out of elements so inherently linguistic they will not pass through translation at all. It seems to be about the time of Coleridge that we begin hearing poetry identified with what cannot be translated, a notion which would have puzzled Chaucer and Dr. Johnson alike. Nor were such interests confined to English; Keats’ contemporary Alfred de Vigny was hearing in “son du cor” an echo of “au fond du bois,” the sound of the horn and the deep of the woods responding to one another as they only can in French.
--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner.

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December  17,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“What Confucius has to say about style is contained in two characters. The first says ‘Get the meaning across,’ and the second says ‘Stop’.” And on being asked what was in the character “Get the meaning across,” “Well, some people say I see too much in these characters”—here a good-natured glance at ambient lunatics—“but I think it means”—the Jamesian pause—“’Lead the sheep out to pasture.’”
--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner.

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December  16,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Troy” after Schliemann was no longer a dream, but a place on the map. As his discoveries persisted, more and more Homeric words came to mean something producible, something belonging to the universe of the naturalistic novelist. Each such word is salvage from the vortex of mere lexicography, where of words we learn chiefly what company they keep. When Alice in Wonderland’s father Henry George Liddell, D.D., collaborated on the Greek Lexicon in the reign of Victoria, the work euknēmides meant only “well-greaved,” which is not really English, and nothing more could be said about it except that another word Achaioi (of comparably uncertain scope) tends to draw it into the text, as “sea” draws the word they render “wine-dark,” and “Hera” draws “oxeyed.” So “oxeyed Hera,” we read in the Butcher and Land translation [of Homer’s Iliad], and “wine-dark sea,” and “goodly-greaved Achaeans.” But by the reign of the second Elizabeth euknēmides has acquired particularization from a painted vase, a stele, two sherds of pottery, a frieze from the megaron of Mycenae, a fresco at Pylos and an ivory relief from Delos, “all of the third late Helladic era”: whoever encounters the word in Homer today has reason to know that it designates something in particular, shin guards, of unspectacular appearance, leather perhaps, and distinctively Achaean, never Trojan; one more reality retrieved from amid a din or words.
--The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner.

The Patron Saint of Litblogs: Terry Teachout
I have been told that the litblog community is a fairly small clique that is centered on the East Coast—which is true for most endeavors of an artistic bent.  As you might guess from my posts, given my geographic location in Austin, Texas and due to other demands on my time, I typically am unaware of whatever this community is up to.  I started up this site, quite frankly, in order to engage more deeply in whatever I happened to be reading at the time.  In other words, this is a 21st century version of the lowly literary journal. I’m well aware that such endeavors tend to be of little interest to others, but, then again, no one is holding you by the scruff of the neck to read these scribblings.  I continue to post, however, because I think my goal is eminently achievable and have found that my literary sensibilities, if I may be so pompous, have appreciably deepened.  In other words, in a profoundly solipsistic manner, this site really is all about me.  Most other scriveners, though, who have a litblog site tend to post for other purposes whose achievement I find dubious.

One of these persons, who writes like an angel, is Terry Teachout.  His blog on culture, About Last Night, is the only one that I follow.  He fervently believes that such blogs will be the wave of the future and those persons with a unique voice—which he certainly has—will be able to reap the rewards.  Again, I am doubtful that there will be much in the way of reward reaping.  But let’s keep that to ourselves, shall we, because I certainly would not want to do anything to discourage the likes of Mr. Teachout from blogging on whatever tickles his fancy, culture-wise.

Of course, other things may intervene to permanently discourage him—such as congestive heart failure.  He has just signed back onto his blog after being laid up in the hospital for a couple of weeks with this condition.  Apparently, he is on the high road to recovery and my prayers are with him.  His first post concerning his medical odyssey is particularly moving.  It provides the best précis of why his is such a compelling voice.  Here’s hoping for many more years—nay, decades—of About Last Night.

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December  15,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Foucault had also been fascinated by martyrdom and by the idea of self-sacrifice—one thinks of his enthusiasm for the revolution in Iran, and also of his famous remarks about the death of the author. “Writing is now linked to sacrifice, an actual sacrifice of life,” he had declared in 1969. “The work that once had the duty of assuring immortality now attains the right to kill, to become the murderer of its author.” “The negation of self,” he reaffirmed in a public discussion at Berkeley, “is the nucleus of the literary experience of the modern world.”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

[N.B.: Salman Rushdie call your agent—or, better yet, your euthanasiast, your time is assuredly overdue.]

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December  14,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

A few weeks later, Foucault enjoyed one of the most important mystical experiences of his life. It was July, and the philosopher, in quest of “those incredibly intense joys that I am looking for and that I am not able to experience, to afford by myself,” had been smoking opium.
Leaving his apartment, he started to walk across the rue de Vaugirard. That was where the car hit him.
He was thrown to the ground. Time seemed to stop. He saw himself leaving his body.
Entering an orphic dimension that had long ago captured his imagination, he felt enraptured.
Foucault survived. But the accident confirmed one of his oldest convictions: Death was nothing to fear. On the contrary. Approaching the “limit beyond all limits,” he had experienced a rare sort of bliss: dying seemed to be just as “unspeakably pleasurable” as Sade had promised it would be.
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

[N.B.: Note the verb in the first sentence—from this vignette one can draw the plot for J. G. Ballard’s Crash (which was made into a creepy movie with the arch creepmeister, James Spader).  You can read an excerpt—a broken off literary fender, if you will—here.]

The Times Literary Supplement Books of the Year
I’ve just received the TLS Books of the Year issue, the annual cornucopia of praise and bile spewed forth by various literary luminaries and hanger’s on; and this one, too, does not fail to entertain.  As usual, there’s the Burgess epigones, who, following the trailblazing of the indomitable Anthony Burgess, recommend various recondite works that have yet to be translated into English.  The Burgess palm leaf this year goes to one Marjorie Perloff.  Here’s the excerpt that clinched the title for her:

My big discovery of the year is the poetry and fiction of the Japanese German writer Yoko Tawada. Born in Tokyo in 1960, Tawada came to Hamburg in 1982, took a job with a bookseller, and stayed on, soon writing in the language of her adopted country. The great subject—of her poems, short stories, novels as well as her critical writings—is the nature of self-representation in a language so patently unlike one’s own. In an astonishing set of “poetic lectures” published under the title of Verwandlungen (Konkursbuch), Tawada muses on her fixation on the German alphabet, her habit being to regard each letter as an ideogram.

So, there you go, when you’re wondering what to give that favorite uncle who seems to have everything, how about popping into his stocking a disquisition, in German, on the German alphabet written by a Japanese author who compares it to her own Japanese ideograms. Of course, you should address your relative as Uncle Ezra—Ezra Pound that is, Mr. White-Petals-on-a-Wet-Black-Bough.

Another writer, one Craig Raine, uses his space to rail against John Banville for railing against Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Saturday.  Banville took McEwan to task for his ridiculous dénouement, which I have discussed previously, of having the murderously violent antagonist deflected from raping and pillaging the protagonist’s house and family because the stripped and about-to-be-violated daughter recites Arnold’s Dover Beach, twice.  I think McEwan can be defended, but only if one comes to appreciate his well-wrought novel as a work of art in the genre of a fairy tale, a secularist’s fairy tale, if you will.  In other words, it makes perfect sense to highlight the absence of God in this manner—just because He does not exist, does not mean that “miracles” cannot occur in a way that cannot be rationally explained. In other words, it is faithful to McEwan’s theme throughout the book that “there is a kind of grandeur in this kind of life,” i.e., a life without God.  The one flaw in my explanation is that McEwan truly thought he was writing a work of realist fiction and this was a believable scene—but who cares what the author thought?  I believe the critics killed him off awhile back; I’ll need to check my program notes to Act Three to make sure that was the case.  In any event, Mr. Raine has apparently not seen that part of the play since he insists, against all common sense, that it really could have happened that way:

The other summary criticism can be summarized as a joke [N.B.: using two forms of a word like “summary” in two different senses in the same clause, how sloppy]: why bother with a burglar alarm when you can screw a copy of Matthew Arnold’s Poems to the side of your house as a prophylactic against psychopathology? Readers will remember that the murderously violent Baxter is deflected by a recitation of “Dover Beach.” This is neither a surprise nor a contrivance to the careful reader: Baxter experiences violent mood swings because he suffers from Huntington’s Disease. Arnold’s poem occasions one of them—an unpredictability that is predictable enough.

Mr. Raine is correct, in a way.  Events could have transpired in such a fashion—but realist fiction does not deal in possibilities, but in probabilities—and that is its fatal flaw.  Life, as McEwan seems to unconsciously acknowledge, is not probable. Instead, it is, in a wonderful, unexplainable way, downright impossible.  It is the impossibility of life that makes it so livable, a cherished gift which McEwan celebrates throughout Saturday, a wonderful book that, pace Mr. Raine and Mr. Banville, I, too, highly recommend.

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December  13,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Ironically, the more attention was focused on him, the stronger became Foucault’s old urge to vanish from view. He vehemently renounced the philosophical throne left vacant by Sartre’s death in 1980, chiding those who “hanker,” in “the world of ideas, for a little monarchy.” He kept trying to break the Parisian rules. Interviewed by Le Monde in April of 1980, he insisted on remaining anonymous. “I shall propose a game,” he declared with mock solemnity: “that of the ‘year without a name.’ For a year books would be published without their author’s names.” Critics would have to be honest; readers would have to think for themselves—and, best of all, writers would become invisible!”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

[N.B.: Foucault wants to bite that hand so badly.].

Roger Shattuck, R.I.P.
Roger Shattuck, one of the last, great, old-fashioned men of letters, as Harold Bloom puts it, “in a good sense,” has passed away at the venerable age of 82. The NYT has a good obituary about his life and lively literary output.  Being from Austin, I have a chauvinistic interest in noting that he was one of the great English professors making up the humanities department at the University of Texas back in the day (‘50s to early ‘60s) when U.T. had one of the preeminent humanities faculties in the country.  Shattuck was also unusual in that he had nothing more than a bachelors degree.  And yet, somehow, he managed to write several books of penetrating criticism of various literary figures, including three books on Proust—one of which, a biography, won the National Book Award.  Here’s the money quote from the obituary:

Mr. Shattuck, who also wrote poetry and short stories, never earned a master’s degree, much less a doctorate. But he taught at Harvard, the University of Texas, the University of Virginia and Boston University, from which he retired in 1997. In retirement, he served for four years on the school board of his Vermont village, where he continued to press for a firmly traditionalist curriculum.

Note the faint whiff of condescension, as if he won a gold medal four years in a row at the special olympics: “In spite of his severe handicap of not having the requisite degrees, still he soldiered on . . . to become a member of the local village school board.”  Let’s pat, pat, pat Shattuck’s curly-haired head.  Shattuck did soldier on, though, specifically, as a bomber pilot in WWII (that’s the big ‘un, folks) where he flew over Hiroshima just weeks after the dropping of the atomic bomb (that’s the big ‘un, folks).  This event led him to ruminate, decades later, on whether certain knowledge, although obtainable, should still be forbidden to mankind on prudential grounds.  From such experiences sprang his last great work, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography.   Go forth and pick one up; I highly recommend it.

I noted earlier this month how MFA writing programs are systematically ruining American letters.  In my view, it doesn’t matter how the durn things are taught.  The problem is that they stunt budding writers by violating the cardinal rule of not getting out of the house and fooling around in the backyard.  We'd have a lot more good writers if we had more bomber pilots and fewer pencil jockies.  Unfortunately, the die is cast--the Roger Shattucks are to be shunned in favor of the degreed practitioner of the precious first-person narrative whose prose is studded with lots of quirky adjectives that "show, don't tell" how our tortured protagonist is struggling with his drug addiction due to a distant father and a controlling mother.  At least in 1984, Orwell could think of nothing more horrible than a cage strapped to one's face containing a ravenous rat.  He had not yet seen the Wicked Witch of the West.

Roger Shattuck, even if the Scarecrow did better than you in receiving a degree produced by the great and powerful Oz, still, your like will not pass this way again. Can one imagine an English perfesser today fighting in a war rather than railing against it? [N.B.: Which reminds me of Jimmy Stewart, who was also a bomber pilot during WWII—can’t you just see Alec Baldwin in the cockpit? No? Oh well, let’s move along . . . .]  The mind boggles.  In any event, rest in peace, sweet prince.

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December  12,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“What happens," Foucault explained to a German interviewer in 1983, “is that a fairly evolved discourse, instead of being relayed by additional work which perfects it (either with criticism or amplification), rendering it more difficult and even finer, nowadays undergoes a process of amplification from the bottom up. Little by little, from the book to the review, to the newspaper article, and from the newspaper article to television, we come to summarize a work, or a problem in terms of slogans. . . . . It took fifteen years to convert my book about madness into a slogan: in the eighteenth century, all mad people were confined. But it did not take even fifteen months—it only took three weeks—to convert my book on the will to know into the slogan ‘sexuality has never been repressed.’”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

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December  9,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Merely removing the various legal and social sanctions that regulate and restrict outward sexual behavior would (among other things) leave intact the iron cage of guilt, its foundations laid deep in the unconscious, its cruel mnemotechnics silently (de)forming our somatic universe of impulses and desires, driving us, like it or not, into paroxysms of interminable self-analysis revolving around sexuality. . . . Foucault summed up the main problem as he saw it: “How is it that in a society like ours, sexuality is not simply a means of reproducing the species, the family, and the individual? Not simply a means to obtain pleasure and enjoyment? How has sexuality come to be considered the privileged place where our deepest ‘truth’ is read and expressed?”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

Hacking Away
I try to keep my hectoring with respect to a particular topic—not my general hectoring on many topics, mind you—within modest limits.  I rail; I move on.  And so, I shall not repeat the litany of offenses that I have described in such loving detail in prior posts regarding the great blight—indeed, the great, spreading kudzu—that is sapping the strength of contemporary American literature: the university writers’ workshop.  The only reason I mention the offensive topic now is that there is a delightful evisceration of  Ye Olde Writers' Workshoppe by one Sam Sacks, that has been recently published by the New York Press, titled The Fiction Machine.  Mr. Sacks makes several valid points, which I won’t bother to repeat.  The key insight is that the fiction machine is broken and churns out an endless, grey mush of mediocrity.

I could care less what the actual pedagogy of such writing programs might be—they could slow-cook the students in whisky for all I care—as long as the program produced writers I would look forward to reading.  Unfortunately, given the set up of the modern university and publishing industries [N.B.: yes, Virginia, the university is an industry, and one of our most profitable ones, all in a non-profit manner, you understand], any program, regardless of its structure, is almost certain to lapse into the kind of machine described by Mr. Sacks.  Hence the reason that Great Britain, which has lagged behind Ahmurrica in this area, has a number of great authors under the age of 60 who I look forward to reading. And who are the Ahmurrican authors? Crickets chirping—oh, and David Foster Wallace humming in the background.

I think the only possible solution is to test entrants for genuine writing ability—no, I have no clue how that would be done, perhaps a multiple Joyce test would suffice [N.B.: I’m so sorry, I understand that was not punny; maybe it should be a Yeats or Noh exam]—and the top scorers would be barred from entry into the writing program.  Instead, under the auspices of their college, they would be incarcerated in prison for a year and then be required to work in a string of colorful jobs for no more than three months at a time—lumberjack, bar tender, medical technician, youth pastor, etc.—before spending their last year or so locked in a room with a word processor.  I have a hunch that whatever came out of that process would have a much higher chance of producing something I’d find worth reading.  But that’s just me--different drummers, it takes all kinds, cheese and chalk, and all of that guff.

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December  8,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Ironically, Deleuze himself—in this respect, as different from Foucault as one could imagine—betrayed little visible interest in actually doing many of the daring and risky things he so vividly conjured up in his lectures and writing. Married, with two children, he outwardly lived the life of a conventional French professor. His most conspicuous eccentricity was his fingernails: these he kept long and untrimmed because, as he once explained, he lacked “normal protective finger prints,” and therefore could not “touch an object, particularly a piece of cloth, with the pads of my fingers without sharp pain.” Despite his fascination with wandering tribes (he fancied himself a “nomad” thinker), he rarely traveled. As had happened with Hume, the apparent discrepancy between the boldness of his beliefs and the mild equanimity of his personal existence aroused hostile criticism. “If I don’t move, if I don’t travel, I have had, like everyone, trips sitting still,” Deleuze once replied. “What difference is my relationship with homosexuals, alcoholics, drug addicts if I obtain for myself similar effects with different means?”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

I’ve been stumbling about as of late through the detritus of Christopher Woodward’s little book, In Ruins.  It received rave reviews when it came out last year, but slithered into oblivion anyway (once again proving the omnipotence of that rag-tag band of tatterdemalions, otherwise known as book reviewers). I picked it up on a whim—an appropriate enough motivation since there’s a chapter concerning the eighteenth-century craze of his British lawdship constructing fake ruins as a folly on his grand manor so as to add some picturesque whimsy to the scene of starving peasantry being throttled by the gamekeeper for pheasant poaching.  Woodward is a competent enough writer and keeps the reader moving about at a brisk pace, much like a Roman tour guide: “Watch your step there on the broken pediment concerning Shelley’s obsession with ruins and his great sonnet, Ozymandias; this pile of bricks over here used to be the waterworks for the Diocletian baths which now serve as a convenient backdrop for various literary figures to contemplate to the transience of mankind’s glory; oh, and that’s the foundation for Nero’s Golden Palace, which is haunted by various Henry James characters; chop, chop, we need to see the Forum by lunchtime.”  But, oh, I don’t know, this kind of literary endeavor I find unsatisfying, leaving me still peckish for more meatier fare.

It seems that, as of late, there has been an efflorescence of various smallish history books concerning some mundane object or another which turns out to have been THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER USED BY MANKIND. You have Salt.  You have Cod.  You have Coal.  For all I know, you may even have Salted Cod or Coal Cod (not to be confused with the history of being cold-cocked by someone with a stuffy nose).  Given that these authors are working with what appears to be at first, second, third, four and ad infinitum glances as a particularly unrewarding subject for the book-buying public--
Bookseller Berkeley:  Ah, the great Cham. I see you are dining on fish and chips without any mental refreshment. May I offer you this learned tome on the history of the most important fish ever used by mankind?”
Samuel Johnson:  “Sir, you wish me to spend several evenings ruminating upon the subject of cod? I refute you thus.” [He proceeds to kick the importunate gentleman in the hindquarters].
--one would expect a bit of understandable exaggeration by the authors concerning the true importance of their otherwise lowly subject. [N.B.: How did you like the Shandian syntax of the preceding sentence? I’ve been meaning to blog on Sterne’s grammar for some time—I think it might be the secret to extricating us from the malaise of Hemingway’s most long-lasting work: Simple Sentences for Simple People.]

 The problem, then, for Mr. Woodward lollygagging about in the ruins is that, well, they’re ruined.  It’s hard to argue that ruins, after all, are the most important thing ever used by mankind.  Sure, you can break the arm off the Venus de Milo and use it as a backscratcher.  And who hasn’t laid out on the great pyramid and found that it made an excellent tanning bed?  But such trifles simply can’t compete with cod, for goodness sakes.

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December  6,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“In every culture there exists a coherent series of gestures of division,” Foucault writes, reiterating a central theme of Madness and Civilization. But “gestures of division” like “the delimitation of madness” and “the prohibition of incest” are inherently ambiguous: “the moment they mark a limit, they create the space of a possible transgression.” This is a timeless possibility: there is no limit that cannot be breached, no law that cannot be broken. Yet the field of possible transgression is always historically specific: every epoch “forms what one can call a ‘system of the transgressive.’ Properly speaking, this space coincides neither with the illegal nor the criminal, neither with the revolutionary, the monstrous nor the abnormal, not even with the sum total of all these deviant forms; but each of these terms designates at least an angle.”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

[N.B.: You can say this for Foucault, he at least practiced what he preached in terms of limits. Of course, it killed him, which, although not contradicting his diktat that there is “no law that cannot be broken,” does require the corollary that the breaking of certain laws shall lead to the extinction of the lawbreaker (a result he was more than happy to embrace).  As pointed out by James Miller in his introduction describing the myriad difficulties involved in penning Foucault’s biography:  “Consider, for example, the dilemma of trying to write a narrative account of someone who questioned, repeatedly and systematically, the value of old-fashioned ideas about the ‘author’; someone who raised the gravest of doubts about the character of personal identity as such; someone who, as a matter of temperament, distrusted prying questions and naked honesty; someone, finally, who was nevertheless inclined to see his own work as, on some level, autobiographical.”]

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December  5,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

To the end of his life, Foucault defended “everyone’s right to kill himself,” as he cheerfully told a startled interviewer in 1983. Suicide, he wrote in another essay, published in 1979, was “the simplest of pleasures.” One ought to prepare for the act of suicide “bit by bit, decorate it, arrange the details, find the ingredients, imagine it, choose it, get advice on it, shape it into a work without spectators, one which exists only for oneself, just for that shortest little moment of life.” Admittedly, it “often leaves discouraging traces. . . . Do you think it’s pleasant to have to hang yourself in the kitchen and to leave a blue tongue dangling? Or to leave a tiny bit of brain lying on the pavement for the dogs to sniff?” It would be better, of course, if society properly valued suicide: “If I won a few billion francs in the national lottery,” he said in the 1983 interview, “I’d set up an institute where people who wanted to die could come and spend a weekend, a week or a month, enjoying themselves as far as possible, perhaps with the help of drugs, and then disappear. . . .” In his 1979 essay, he imagines “suicide-festivals” and “suicide- orgies” and also a kind of special retreat where those planning to commit suicide could look “for partners without names, for occasions to die liberated from every identity.” That dying is sensuous (just as Sade, for one, had said) Foucault insists: to die, he writes, is to experience the “formless form of an absolutely simple pleasure,” a “limitless pleasure whose patient preparation, with neither rest nor predetermination, will illuminate the entirety of your life.”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

[N.B.: These remarks take on added significance when one reaches the postscript to Miller’s insightful biography.  Miller decided to write Foucault’s biography based on a scurrilous rumor he heard that, “knowing that he was dying of AIDS, Michel Foucault in 1983 had gone to gay bathhouses in America, and deliberately tried to infect other people with the disease.”  Miller set out to prove the falsity of this urban legend; and this crusade led to writing the biography.  Unfortunately, at the end of his research, Miller concluded the rumor was not scurrilous.  Which, I think, is what makes this book so insightful, so full of gusto, and, yet, so full of regret and mourning.  Miller has true affection for his subject.  But, he has second thoughts, as well—and he does not let the former trump the latter.  Within his powers, Miller endeavors to write a biography that is a faithful, multi-faceted art object representing, in (always) a flawed form, something of Foucault’s life.  It is a symphony, then, with some allegro, but mostly adagio, passages—a biography I highly recommend regardless of one’s views of Foucault and his milieu.]

The Stripping of the Alice
The December 5, 2005 issue of the New Yorker contains a short story titled Wenlock Edge. Now, let’s play “let’s pretend.”  Here’s a synopsis of the story’s plot (with one crucial element removed):

It’s the 1950s’ or 1960s’ in a far North urban setting.  A young woman, majoring in English philosophy at the local college, is staying at a boarding house when she has foisted upon her by the landlady a new roommate.  This roommate is auditing some courses at the college.  She has had a colorful history:  two kids by one man and a third (who dies in her arms of fever) by her current boyfriend.  This roommate is constantly watched by an older, platinum blonde woman, Mrs. Winner, who tails her in an ominous black car, at the boyfriend’s direction.  The young woman has an older cousin who keeps in touch with her and to whom she eventually introduces her roommate who decides to run off and live with him.  The roommate makes her escape by having the young woman go and dine at the house of her boyfriend (a very expensive modern joint:  lots of windows, concrete, and even an elevator).  Mrs. Winner picks up the young woman who is whisked in the black car to the boyfriend’s house where she has an elegant meal with him and afterwards is taken to the library where she reads to him poems from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, until he gets tired and is ready to go to bed.  He thinks her for a wonderful evening and retires.  She is driven home only to discover that the roommate has left.  Later, the roommate leaves the young woman’s cousin.  The story ends with the young woman, in a fit of spite, sending to the boyfriend the new address of the roommate.

Hmmm, a bit clichéd, don’t you think?  What, with that mysterious black sedan and the wealthy, mysterious boyfriend cloistered in his modern house reading A Shropshire Lad [N.B.: my spellchecker recommends for “Shropshire,” “trashier”; emendation rejected].  Not much there, eh?  Indeed, this seems to be just the kind of tired effort that one would expect from a New Yorker story in the 1950s’ or 1960s’.  Ahh, but this is the modern, razzy-jazzy, spiffy and modern New Yorker, just like the boyfriend’s bachelor pad.  So let us replace that one element to the above synopsis which I have omitted:  The dinner the young woman has with the boyfriend, well, she has it with him only after she has removed all of her clothes at the request of Mrs. Winner who accuses her, upon an understandable initial hesitation (it’s made clear in the story that the young woman is a bit of a prude), of being a “bookworm.”  The boyfriend, of course, is fully dressed.  Now, imagine that a man wrote this story.  What would you think about him?  Yes, yes, calm down, I understand.  But it wasn’t written by a man—it was written by Alice Munro, who Jonathan Franzen praised a few months ago in the New York Times Book Review as probably the English-speaking world’s greatest living writer.  Well, somebody doesn’t have any clothes on.

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December  2,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Georges Canguilhem, born in 1904, would become, after 1961, one of Foucault’s closest intellectual friends and allies. Primarily interested in biology and medicine, Canguilhem was in many ways an heir to Bergson’s vitalism. Life, he thought, was an unstanchable force of transcendence, a turbulent stream of vital energy, marked by instability, irregularity, abnormality, and (as Bichat before him had pointed out) morbidity. “It is the abnormal which arouses theoretical interest in the normal,” Canguilhem declared in his most important work, an Essay on Some Problems Concerning the Normal and the Pathological, first published in 1943. “Norms are recognized as such only through infractions. Functions are revealed only by their breakdown. Life rises to the consciousness and science of itself only through maladaptation, failure and pain”—sentiments that Foucault would later implicitly echo in his understanding of the epistemological significance of “limit experiences.”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

Attack of the Fabulously Small Reviewer
Joseph Epstein, in the latest issue of Commentary, has decided to try on the giant clodhoppers of one Dale Peck, he of the renowned critical Hatchet Jobs.  At least Peck went to work whittling on such blockheads as Rick Moody.  But that’s just a small chip off the old block for Mr. Epstein.  He’s hunting for a redwood, specifically, Edmund Wilson.  Unfortunately, Wilson fell on him.  Which raises the philosophical question:  If a bad review falls on deaf ears, does anyone care?  No.

Under the sobriquet, Forgetting Edmund Wilson, Mr. Epstein engages in the tired rhetorical gambit that, of course, in his callow youth, he “was once a member in good standing” of the Edmund Wilson “cult,” but now, he can see Wilson for what he really is: “a bald, pudgy little man with a drinking problem and a mean streak.” Oh dear.  Of course, Mr. Epstein has no such mean streak.  He is the soul of sobriety, a veritable bouquet of wall-flowers, a sunset of blushing violets.  Why, just listen to his rapturous description of Edmund Wilson’s marriage to another great writer, Mary McCarthy:  “the union of a true bitch and a genuine bully.”

Mr. Epstein does have one telling insight: “The sad fact is that, for a capacious and lively mind, literary criticism, the job of regularly registering opinions of other persons’ work, is for the most part an insufficient activity.”  Mr. Epstein, j’accuse! [N.B.: interestingly, my spellchecker here suggests the word, “jackass”; emendation accepted.]  Oh, and what has Mr. Epstein published?  Here’s some selections from his recent oeuvre:  Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins and Snobbery: The American Version.  Satire must retire to its corner and remain silent in the face of such irony. Adieu.

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December  1,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Nothing is negative in transgression,” he declared in his 1962 essay on Bataille, explaining (and implicitly defending) a form of extreme erotic experience that is simultaneously “pure” and “confused.” By letting its most agonizing impulses run wild in an erotic theater of cruelty, a human being might “recognize itself for the first time”—and simultaneously feel the transformative force of “the transcendens pure and simple.” “Transgression,” Foucault writes, thus “affirms this limitlessness into which it leaps,” opening a space of possible transfiguration and offering us moderns our “sole manner of discovering the sacred in its unmediated content.” Because this was the occult prospect conjured up by Bataille’s books, Foucault was exaggerating slightly when he described them as a kind of “consecration undone: a transubstantiation ritualized in reverse”—an unholy communion with uncanny daimonic forces, “where real presence becomes again a recumbent body.”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

[N.B.: And who says that Foucault was not religious? Pshaw. I especially like his [its?] reference to human beings as “it.”]

His Master’s Voice
There’s been a bit of snickering over the years (centuries) regarding Britain’s archaic post of poet laureate.  Most of the sniggering concerns the poet’s semi-official duties to offer up some ode every time one of the royals manages to embarrass his or her heinousness.  Of course, you probably thought this post was held by Elton John who has done so much to commemorate the People’s Princess (I forget the exact lyrics to the song, something about lighting a candle to his wind, or a mighty wind won’t blow out a candle, or, maybe, setting a rose on fire, help me here, folks, I’m getting lost in his gusty metaphors).  But, all guffawing aside, Britain’s current poet laureate, Andrew Motion, has single handedly redeemed the institution. As reported on the BBC news, he has created the Poetry Archive which features famous (oh, all right, and obscure, too—which means, nowadays, just about all of ‘em) poets reading their own works.  And it’s all free.  Ain’t the internet mighty nifty?  Okay, we can all return now to the regularly scheduled Elton John concert—not that it matters if one wanders off for a few minutes since all his songs sound alike anyway.  Goodbye Norma Jean and all you poetry lovers out there.

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