Monday, December 31, 2007

"New Year's Day", by Robert Lowell from Lord Weary's Castle

Again and then again . . . the year is born
To ice and death, and it will never do
To skulk behind storm-windows by the stove
To hear the postgirl sounding her French horn
When the thin tidal ice is wearing through.
Here is the understanding not to love
Our neighbor, or tomorrow that will sieve
Our resolutions. While we live, we live

To snuff the smoke of victims. In the snow
The kitten heaved its hindlegs, as if fouled,
And died. We bent it in a Christmas box
And scattered blazing weeds to scare the crow
Until the snake-tailed sea-winds coughed and howled
For alms outside the church whose double locks
Wait for St. Peter, the distorted key.
Under St. Peter's bell the parish sea

Swells with its smelt into the burlap shack
Where Joseph plucks his hand-lines like a harp,
And hears the fearful Puer natus est
Of Circumcision, and relives the wrack
And howls of Jesus whom he holds. How sharp
The burden of the Law before the beast:
Time and the grindstone and the knife of God.
The Child is born in blood, O child of blood.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Music 2007: Some More Forgotten Albums, Songs

Jens Lekman Night Falls over KortedalaI should confess before going further that my tastes are still shamefully juvenile. As you will shortly see, I adore twee pop and my listening knees go weak for most women with attitude, or rather with the Alanis-like faux anger that passes for attitude. I have never been able to like the challenging sorts of artists Pitchfork promotes so zealously.

Of their top ten records of 2007, I like only bits and pieces of Panda Bear, everyone and their mother likes LCD Soundsystem so that hardly qualifies, M.I.A. I am lukewarm about (other than "Paper Planes"), Radiohead is another story, I barely remember anything on the of Montreal record other than the song about mood shifts and the Georges Bataille name-drop, I hatehatehate Animal Collective, Spoon I love but am surprised to find it in their top ten, Battles I was bored by, The Field also bored me, and Burial I almost like more when I'm remembering it than when I'm listening to it. There's something about Burial that slips into your consciousness—actually listening to it becomes a bit superfluous and kind of spoils the experience. As for some other Pitchfork faves, I've only kind of sort of started liking Grizzly Bear, Dan Deacon confuses the shit out of me, and I don't like Justice.

I do like a number of albums on their list: In addition to the obvious (Radiohead, Spoon, Kanye, Jay-Z, Feist, LCD Soundsystem, Iron & Wine) I thought Caribou's Andorra was great, and I became a huge fan of Dinosaur, Jr. this year. They gave faint praise to Arcade Fire's new effort, which I liked a bit more than they, but they probably held Okkervil River's The Stage Names a little higher than I would. I adored the Jens Lekman and The National records (Night Falls Over Kortedala and Boxer). Life Without Buildings I discovered thanks to their inclusion, and am very grateful.

Andrew Bird Armchair ApocryphaBut I like a lot of artists Pitchfork damns with even fainter praise than they gave The Arcade Fire, and that is especially the case this year. I thought Rogue Wave, Josh Ritter, Andrew Bird and John Vanderslice all produced very solid records which were totally overlooked (Asleep at Heaven's Gate, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, Armchair Apocrypha and Emerald City, respectively). The Voxtrot LP kind of disappointed after the unbelievable run of completely perfect EPs they put out, but was still very good. The single off that record—"Kid Gloves"—is as good as anything else they've done.

I never listened to proper albums of theirs, but I loved the tracks I heard from Seabear and Seawolf—another pair of syntactically identical band names (like Deerhoof and Deerhunter), although this pair does kind of sound the same. Both very twee, which delights me. And then there's Patrick Wolf, whose album as a whole I kind of skipped, but whose single "The Magic Position" I probably listened to more than any other song in 2007. Or if not that, I know I listened to "2080" by Yeasayer a hell of a lot, although I didn't like any of their other songs. And a couple of tracks from the Moving Units album Hexes for Exes—"Blood Beats" and "Dark Walls" are brilliant, at least to me.

Then there's Kate Nash and Carrie Underwood—this was what I spoke of when I said I melt before women with attitude. So help me, I recognize how absolutely silly I am, but I love their singles ("Foundations" and "Before He Cheats"). I cannot resist these slick anthems.

A couple incredible covers which were "released" this year: Dr. Dog's cover of Architecture in Helsinki's "Heart It Races" and Division Day's cover of the Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry "More Than This."

Impertinent Question

Do the Brits call Jay-Z "Jay-Zed" or is the zed thing only about the letter and does not pertain to proper names?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Music 2007: Some Forgotten Albums

While I am never going to have the taste or critical acumen (or the listening habits) of my friend Brendon, who every year produces a list of the top 25 albums, many of which I had no idea existed much less were good, I would like to record in a minor way what I was listening to this year.

What did I listen to and like? Well here are a few odds and ends. The following albums haven't gotten much year-end recognition; you can decide if they deserved it.

menomena friend or foeMenomena—Friend or Foe

One of these guys is from Dartmouth, but even if that didn't make me obligated to like them, I would be a huge fan. (I did, however, insist that a friend who ran the arts section at The Dartmouth cover them—they did and it even looks like the band came to Dartmouth this fall.)

The first few listens weren't particularly strong; the jarring shifts in time signatures or syncopation or something put me off a bit. There was, however, a quality in the singer's voice and in the band's sense of dynamics and tone in spite of the experimental elements that led me to repeated listens. I forget when exactly I started playing it all the time, but it was a solid month or so. [ page — go here and look for recent posts to download a couple of tracks]

Deerhoof—Friend Opportunity
deerhoof friend opportunity
I liked and discovered two bands with names created from the word "Deer" and another noun: Deerhoof and Deerhunter. But never fear; listen to one track of each, and you'll never get them mixed up. Deerhunter got plenty of love from Pitchfork (#14 on their Top 50 list), but well, I guess Deerhoof got some recognition too: #31. Whatever. I already went to the trouble of looking for the album art.
[ page for Deerhoof; page for Deerhunter]

kevin drew spirit if...Kevin Drew—Spirit If...

Along with the other residents of Canada, Drew is a member of Broken Social Scene; his songs have always been my favorites on their records, so after hearing another one ("TBTF") that I really enjoyed, I picked up this record. It's probably my favorite release of the year, although I didn't listen to it as much as Menomena, Radiohead, Burial, The Arcade Fire or Spoon. The album has so many different tones and moods—it's a bit dislocating.
Nevertheless, its songs (I think) are consistently wonderful, and Drew's earnestness is incomparably moving. [ page]

Tegan and Sara—The Contegan and sara the con

If for nothing else, I love this record because it was the first album I liked that I found my younger sister (who's very much into The Hills or Laguna Beach or whatever) listening to completely independently. I think I gave her a copy of an older T&S album a few years ago, but never expected it to take root. But riding in her car this Christmas, she turns the car on and there this is—she bought it a few weeks before.

But beside that, it's a very good record, an immense step forward from the (immensely enjoyable but) simple power pop of previous efforts. [ page]

"Beethoven" and "Christmas Eve Under Hooker's Statue," by Robert Lowell

"Beethoven," from History

Our cookbook is bound like Whitman's Leaves of Grass
gold title on green. I have escaped its death,
take two eggs with butter, drink and smoke;
I live past prudence, not possibility—
who can banquet on the shifting cloud,
lie to friends and tell the truth in print,
be Othello offstage, or Lincoln retired from office?
The vogue of the vague, what can it teach an artist?
Beethoven was a Romantic, but too good;
did kings, republics, or Napoleon teach him?
He was his own Napoleon. Did even deafness?
Does the painted soldier in the painting bleed?
Is the captive chorus of Fidelio bound?
For a good voice hearing is a torture.

"Christmas Eve Under Hooker's Statue," from Lord Weary's Castle

Tonight a blackout. Twenty years ago
I hung my stocking on the tree, and hell's
Serpent entwined the apple in the toe
To sting the child with knowledge. Hooker's heels
Kicking at nothing in the shifting snow,
A cannon and a cairn of cannon balls
Rusting before the blackened Statehouse, know
How the long horn of plenty broke like glass
In Hooker's gauntlets. Once I came from Mass;

Now storm-clouds shelter Christmas, once again
Mars meets his fruitless star with open arms,
His heavy saber flashes with the rime,
The war-god's bronzed and empty forehead forms
Anonymous machinery from raw men;
The cannon on the Common cannot stun
The blundering butcher as he rides on Time—
The barrel clinks with holly. I am cold:
I ask for bread, my father gives me mould;

His stocking is full of stones. Santa in red
Is crowned with wizened berries. Man of war,
Where is the summer's garden? In its bed
The ancient speckled serpent will appear,
And black-eyed susan with her frizzled head.
When Chancellorsville mowed down the volunteer,
"All wars are boyish," Herman Melville said;
But we are old, our fields are running wild:
Till Christ again turn wanderer and child.

[I am told that I am in some not entirely direct way related to General Joseph Hooker, the man referred to in the second poem. Lowell's forebears were poets and notables; mine, it seems, were hookers. Or rather Hookers, but it's funnier the other way.]

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Edmund Wilson, "Is Verse a Dying Technique?"; Mary McCarthy, "Artists in Uniform"

Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthyI read these two tremendous essays while I was home. Very little rests in common between them besides intelligence—which, I suppose, would be a fitting epitaph for the marriage of these two geniuses.

McCarthy's essay, published as a "story" in March 1953 in Harper's, documents her efforts to maintain both poise and tact while insisting on a bluff and fatuous colonel's prejudice and anti-Semitism. Overhearing a soldiers' conversation on the train, McCarthy leaves the car, standing on her principles. Not quite satisfied that her departure made the right kind of impression on the men, she allows the colonel to take her to lunch, where she proceeds to try to draw his venom in such a way that he recognizes his views' own toxicity. She does not succeed, however; the man leaves content in his views, and McCarthy is frustrated by her inability to negotiate the tricky path of the well-meaning liberal.

The essay, which unfortunately I cannot find online, is one of the finest illustrations of the ways by which "well-meaning liberals" avoid committing themselves personally to a cause or even to a strong sentiment, choosing, instead, to plump themselves to a disinterested height of pure and facile compassion. She also provides some keen insights into the frighteningly common phenomenon by which a racist or sexist adopts his views in the pursuit of what he assumes to be greater sophistication. The flabby art of drawing mean distinctions is, for the racist or the sexist, a leap in intellectual subtlety. "I don't mind women; I just hate bitches," would be like in form to many of the things said quite seriously about blacks or latinos or gays or Jews. I find this possibility of attempted sophistication-as-a-major-cause-of-racism more frightening to believe than some theories of racism which posit ignorance as its root, and fear of displacement as its stem. How does one talk to people who believe that racism is okay as long as you only hate a certain (nebulous) subset of the race? What does one say to them, except the obvious—that they are absolutely full of shit? McCarthy wouldn't quite say that to the colonel, but her reticence, so conflict-avoidant, challenges the reader to examine her own evasions and silences.


Distinctions are not, quite obviously, inherently evil or even, in a pejorative sense, discriminatory. And Edmund Wilson is perhaps the master (in American letters, at least) of the well-considered and aptly placed distinction.

If he draws distinctions that ring true, however, he rarely draws blood. Because his lance was never really lowered for a sovereign school or class of thought, it was rarely broken. Edmund Wilson's greatness lies in his being the highest level attainable for cultural introduction; he is, one might say somewhat cruelly, the zenith of a philosophically shallow approach to literature.

Well, not so much shallow as naïve, and not naïve as in ignorant, but as in unsure of the dimensions of the gaps in one's knowledge and of the relative weights and measures of the things one has acquired. Wilson's great talent was his ability to acknowledge the new for the power it contained, and while his erudition was also almost matchless, no one's education is exactly coherent. But Wilson never seems even to grasp at the coherence of something larger than his essay's target; and he is frighteningly good at this game of ad hoc analysis. Wilson's freshness—in his writing as in his tastes—depended on his free agency, his ability to address the material and not some favored theoretical apparatus or hobby-horsical notion of "what literature means or does." Thus, his adroitness at drawing distinctions—he finds the fault lines in the work or in his topic, and not in anything else. And as he says of his well-admired hero Saintsbury,* "He never takes merits for granted."

Which brings us to his unbelievably illuminating essay, "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" If only if only if only this were given to all literature and creative writing majors at the beginning of their studies; had it been given to me, I might have engaged with my studies quite differently. For the distinctions Wilson draws in the first few pages make so many things so very much clearer, I cannot imagine being confused about the place and history of prose and verse again.

Or not very much so, at least. Here is what Wilson says. Perhaps this is elementary to you, but it is a nutritive and necessary element:
The more one reads the current criticism of poetry by poets and their reviewers, the more one becomes convinced that the discussion is proceeding on false assumptions. The writers may belong to different schools, but they all seem to share a basic confusion.
This confusion is the result of a failure to think clearly about what is meant by the words 'prose,' 'verse,' and poetry'—a question which is sometimes debated but which never gets straightened out. Yet are not the obvious facts as follows?
What we mean by the words 'prose' and 'verse' are simply two different techniques of literary expression. Verse is written in lines with a certain number of metrical feet each; prose is written in paragraphs and has what we call rhythm. But what is 'poetry,' then? What I want to suggest is that 'poetry' formerly meant one kind of thing but that it now means something different, and that one ought not to generalize about 'poetry' by taking all the writers of verse, ancient, medieval and modern, away from their various periods and throwing them together in one's mind, but to consider both verse and prose in relation to their functions at different times.
The important thing to recognize, it seems to me, is that the literary technique of verse was once made to serve many purposes for which we now, as a rule, use prose.
And he's off. He offers examples of contemporary prose writers' projects which may have, in Pope's day for instance, been composed in verse. First, he points out, we must remember how unbelievably many were the uses of verse in the classical, medieval and even early modern worlds. Scientific treatises (e.g. Manilius), legal dictates (Solon), literary criticism (Horace) and metaphysics (Lucretius) were expressed in verse. Such work is now done in prose.

But we may see this as a natural progression—our association of prose with pedestrian, non-artistic, non-soulful functions is strong (hence the term 'prosaic'). But what about those higher callings of the poets of old—are they now written in prose as well?

Shaw, for one, wrote plays which a century prior may very well have been given in blank verse. O'Neill, he might have added, is Sophoclean, but in prose. And, Wilson asks, "would not D.H. Lawrence, if he had lived a century earlier, probably have told his tales, as Byron and Crabbe did, in verse? Is it not just as correct to consider him the last of the great English romantic poets as one of the most original of modern English novelists?" Of course, Lawrence did write poetry in the common sense—little lines dropped one by one down a page. But Wilson is ignoring his lyric poetry for a reason; Lawrence's contribution to poetry in the larger sense is in his novels, which, if we follow Wilson, would have been formatted in blank verse or heroic couplets had Lawrence been a Romantic in period as well as in temperament.

As for Flaubert (not quite a contemporary, but a critical juncture), "one who has come to Flaubert at a sensitive age when he is also reading Dante may have the experience of finding that the paragraphs of the former remain in his mind and continue to sing as the lines of the latter do. He has got the prose by heart unconsciously just as he has done with favorite passages of verse; he repeats them, admiring the form, studying the choice of words, seeing more and more significance in them."

This is easy to read as a simple equation of two greatnesses—Flaubert's nonpareil prose with Dante's incomparably fluid lines. But it is more than that—Wilson is saying that the search for spiritual perfection in literary art, once expressed almost exclusively in metrical feet arranged in ordered lines, is now continued by modern prose writers in paragraphs of rhythmic precision. "If, then," Wilson trumpets "we take literature as a whole for our field, we put an end to many futile controversies—the controversies, for example, as to whether or not Pope is a poet, as to whether or not Whitman is a poet. If you are prepared to admit that Pope is one of the great English writers, it is less interesting to compare him with Shakespeare—which will tell you something about the development of English verse but not bring out Pope's peculiar excellence—than to compare him with Thackeray, say, with whom he has his principal theme—the vanity of the world—in common and who throws into relief the more passionate pulse and the soldier art of Pope."

And where does that leave verse? Desiccated, Wilson says, dried out and crippled, at least after Yeats. Lyric poetry, Wilson affirms, was booming (and it still is, I think). And there are torchbearers who shield verse's flame from being completely extinguished—great poets still write in the old forms. But their great works forsake verse for the most part. Geoffrey Hill, I would say, is a contemporary exception; his conscious workings-against Milton are exquisite.

If this is not clear enough—and it may not be—I only gradually came to relinquish my stubbornly muddled distinctions between 'poetry' and 'prose' for his more rational (and historically correct) differentiations—I would recommend trying to find this essay. It is either in the volume of essays called The Triple Thinkers (1938) or in the new Library of America edition of his Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s.

Apart from, and more important than, the intellectual content of the essay, however, is the way it opens you up to appreciate writers like Milton or Virgil or Pope for what they are—masters of verse. One ceases to read them as if they were lyric poets who lack any principle of concision. Wilson's essay ended with a plea that the new masters of prose be read with the same kind of reverence as his audience read the old titans of verse. That is no longer the danger, but rather the reverse; we, as scholars or lovers of literature, could well abandon reading verse because we judge it by standards formed by a false dichotomy—poetry vs. prose.

I wish I had read this essay sooner; I could have enjoyed my brushes with those titans of verse more.

* He has this to say about Saintsbury in a much later essay: "he gave himself up to literature in a way that was very different from the way of the ordinary scholar, with his tendency toward specialization and his ambition for academic prestige. It was as if he had transferred to literature his whole emotional and moral life, so that presently he appeared as an artist whose contacts were all with books instead of with places and people. One may even say "athletic life," for he has travelled in literature, too, and climbed mountains and done long-distance swimming. Saintsbury must have come as close to reading the whole of English literature as anyone who has ever lived, and he knew French literature almost as well. Academic fashions and categories, conventional assumptions and beaten trails, meant very little to him: he had to explore every inch for himself, see everything with his own eyes and formulate his own opinions." If you do not read a touch of fawningly envious self-description in Wilson's description (and in my quotation of that description), I suppose you should read more Wilson.

Later [12/30]: This 1991 essay by Dana Gioia ("Can Poetry Matter?") addresses different points, but references and is in many ways indebted to Wilson's "Is Verse a Dying Technique?"

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Assistant, Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud The AssistantMalamud has been in the book pages a bit this year. The release of the "last" Zuckerman novel brought critics back around to examining Malamud's influence on Roth, particularly through the character E.I. Lonoff, supposedly based on Malamud. And then there was Lee Siegel's front-page review of the new Malamud biography from a week or two ago in the NYTBR.

Siegel's review is vintage Siegel: slightly misleading plot summaries, unmeasured use of adjectives ("he attended Brooklyn’s legendary Erasmus Hall High School, graduated from the equally legendary City College and went on to get a master’s degree in English from Columbia"—is Columbia not legendary, too? Apparently he has to draw the line somewhere),
and a deep sensitivity for readers who think slowly. (One wants to shake the page and get the words to fall out of Siegel more quickly.)

If Malamud is enjoying a small renewal of attention, it is almost certainly not the groundwork for a revival. I doubt Malamud will ever be brought up to the stature of other mid-century writers whose neighborhood he somewhat shares—Bellow, Mailer, Roth. Some may argue this is unjust, incommensurate with his achievement. Perhaps it would be nice to have him standing next to those others for contrast: an Apollonian next to their Dionysiac energies, or something like that.

But what is perhaps more disheartening than his second-tier status is that all analysis of his life or work devolve into considerations of the justness of his position in the second rank. Siegel is fairly indicative, speaking of "Malamud’s faded status among the Jewish writers and critics who made the reputations of Bellow and Roth. Like an embarrasing old uncle, Malamud is barely referred to these days. On those few occasions when he is publicly admired, tribute usually comes in the form of sentimental commentary from younger, self-consciously Jewish writers, whose parochial picture of Malamud ironically confirms the denigrating comments Roth made a generation ago. Far more frequently, however, you find critics celebrating Bellow and Roth, above all, for their intelligence, and never mentioning Malamud." A large part of the new Zuckerman novel's plot centers on Zuckerman keeping the (now deceased) Malamud character's secrets out of the hands of a snooping young biographer. This upstart is looking to dig up a few sordid biographical details, revelations which can restart critical interest in Lonoff and jump-start the biographer's career. Zuckerman hopes to keep Lonoff's secondary status intact and unbesmirched, although like any Roth character, the ulterior motives are the real story—Zuckerman's status is threateningly bound up with Lonoff's legacy.

Siegel and most other critics can't stop debating the justice of Malamud's JV pantheon position. Roth writes a novel ostensibly returning to his relationship with Malamud, this time acting like a protector of an awkwardly meager and threateningly dear inheritance from the man. What is it, then, about Malamud that seems to trigger a status anxiety attack almost invariably?

Despite what seems to be a consensus decision that The Assistant is Malamud's best novel, I'm not sure it has an answer to that question. Its shadow would seem to be short, meek, and easy to evade. Its grip on the imagination is felt, but in such a way as to produce little anxiety.

It may produce a little frustration, however. The Assistant provokes its reader into a set of questions which lead well beyond the text, but in a way that does not make this provocation or the consequent withdrawal from the text seem necessary or strictly worthwhile. This goes, I believe, for Jewish readers as well as for non-Jewish readers, though for different (and likely complementary) reasons.

Siegel refers to an essay Roth wrote in 1957 which implied that The Assistant was a lesson in "Malamud’s Christianizing emasculation of Jewish vitality... what some regarded as Malamud’s psychologically dubious fetishizing of victimhood and pain" (the words are Siegel's, not Roth's). Roth, for obvious reasons, objects to this facile association of Jewishness with suffering and Christ-like forebearance. He is frustrated by Malamud's stern and constricted morality; Malamud's provocation seems hollow because he believes it to be untrue or at least terminally incomplete.

I find Malamud's provocation hollow because the text does not create it internally; the novel is pressed unevenly until it yields this bitter taste. The text operates such that the reader has to accept Malamud's equation (Jewishness = suffering) before she can accept that his character's lives are constrained by its terms. Like children of a grim father, the characters seem to have a secret surplus of life or liveliness which must be kept from their parent's notice.

It does not seem unlikely that these characters would suffer so unremittingly; Malamud's characters act in natural ways given their situation and what we know of their character. It is a natural irrationalism that possesses them when they embrace suffering. But Malamud seems to confuse and conflate the meaning of their suffering with the meaning of their lives. That is to say, although their lives may be caught up in a pattern of (often self-abetted) suffering, that pattern is not its own ordering principle, and Malamud seems unwilling to absorb that fact. That unwillingness may be a purposeful obtuseness rather than an inadvertent blindness, but the point remains that Malamud's apparent insists on treating his characters as if they believe something less—less true, less real—than what their actions suggest they believe in. This insistence rankles the reader greatly.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Ignoble Origin of Criticism

One of the nice features of Bloglines, the aggregator I use to read blogs, is that it allows you to save posts to read in the future. I have a silly number of saved posts, but every once in awhile I try to cull by reading a few of them and then unsaving them. Unfortunately often in this process, I find posts that I truly want to save and feel bad about discarding.

One of those is this excerpt from Helen Vendler's essay "The Function of Criticism," posted on the NBCC blog, Critical Mass. In the excerpt, Vendler contrasts two origins of criticism: "the pleasure of refutation" and the pleasure of discovering "the laws of being of a work of literature." (If that's awkward, it may be a typo: Critical Mass is unevenly edited, and many of their transcriptions feature obvious errors.) Vendler calls the first origin ignoble:
criticism is the revenge of the student who once, perforce, sat silent while things that seemed untrue were said unrebuked, and poets who loomed large in the mind were ignored in the classroom. In this sense, every generation of young critics refurbishes lapsed reputations and corrects the misperceptions of the generation that taught them. The social function of the aggressive component in criticism is to restore the neglected and discover the new.
Certainly things can get out of hand, but is this really so ignoble? Isn't this merely a way of saying that criticism is a historical function, invested in the particular times and places in which it is composed? I get the sense that this is principally what Vendler would deny, although I must confess I haven't read her work.

At any rate, I like this excerpt for its description of the "ignoble" origin of criticism—it sounds like a goal to strive for.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad Lord JimSo about that Orientalism thing...

Well, seriously, Lord Jim exemplifies what is, I think, a bit misdirected about the postcolonialist discourse, at least as it's packaged for American undergraduate students.

Here is part of the introduction to the Postcolonial Studies section in the Rivkin-Ryan theory anthology (which I believe to be the most commonly assigned anthology—at any rate, it was the one I used):
Scholars began to take note of the fact that many great works of English literature promoted beliefs and assumptions regarding other geographic regions and other ethnic groups... that created the cultural preconditions for and no doubt enabled the work of empire. The promotion of such beliefs and assumptions in literature, Edward Said noted in his pathbreaking Orientalism (1978), was just one part of larger process of discursive construction in a variety of forms of writing, from novels to scholarly treatises on geography and philology, that represented other peoples... as less civilized or less capable and as needing western paternalist assistance. Any attention to processes of domination usually spurs an interest in counter-processes of resistance, and an interest in colonial and post-colonial literature increased in the 1980s, attention turned... to the complex interface between colonizer and colonized, an interface that Bhabha found characterized as much by a subversive work of parody and mimicry as by straightforward domination.
Later, in an essay by Ania Loomba also included in the anthology ("Situating Colonial and Postcolonial Studies"), we are told that,
If the term postcolonial is taken to signify an oppositional position or even desire... then it has the effect of collapsing various locations so that the specificities of all of them are blurred. Moreover, thought of as an oppositional stance, 'postcolonial' refers to specific groups of (oppressed or dissenting) people (or individuals within them) rather than to a location or a social order, which may include such people but is not limited to them. Postcolonial theory has been accused of precisely this: it shifts the focus from locations and institutions to individuals and their subjectivities. Postcoloniality becomes a vague condition of people anywhere and everywhere, and the specificities of locale do not matter. In part the dependence of postcolonial theory upon literary and cultural criticism, and upon poststructuralism is responsible for this shift.
First we have "any attention to processes of domination usually spurs an interest in counter-processes of resistance" (italics mine--note the inconsistent level of assertion)—a simple binary of domination and resistance—this is the way the field works on a macro-level. Simple cause, simple effect. It becomes, as Loomba points out, more about a stance—a personal or personalized stance. This stance is assumed to follow the imperialist/colonialist stance of domination as naturally (or "usually") as the new field shifted its focus from domination to resistance. Life imitates criticism, apparently, and art does too.

In a selection from Edward Saïd's Culture and Imperialism, also included in the Rivkin/Ryan reader, Saïd rebukes postcolonialists who take the critique of orientalism to mean the excision of orientalist texts from study:
It would be silly to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave. Yet what I have called the rhetoric of blame, so often now employed by subaltern, minority, or disadvantaged voices, attacks her, and others like her, retrospectively, for being white, privileged, insensitive, complicit. Yes, Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but do we therefore jettison her novels as so many trivial exercises in aesthetic frumpery? Not at all, I would argue, if we take seriously our intellectual and interpretative vocation to make connections, to deal with as much evidence as possible, fully and actually, to read what is there or not there, above all, to see complementarity and interdependence instead of isolated, venerated, or formalized experience that excludes and forbids the hybridizing intrusions of human history.
I think there are fewer postcolonialists who clamor to "jettison" colonialist texts these days compared to 1993, when Culture and Imperialism was published, but Saïd's point, I think, is still somewhat descriptively valid. The rapid shift of emphasis from studies of domination to studies of resistance assumed the continuation of a critique of domination while avoiding the actual study of it (or so it seems to me). There is a sense in which academics seem to crave a consonance between the politics of the writers they study and the politics they hold; some critics of the academy suggest that this desired consonance is also an excuse for what is, in effect, a proxy form of activism. Terry Eagleton, in a 1999 review of Gayatri Spivak's A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, makes just this criticism:
[Post-colonialism's] birth... followed in the wake of the defeat, at least for the present, of both class struggle in Western societies and revolutionary nationalism in the previously colonialised world. American students who, through no fault of their own, would not recognise class struggle if it perched on the tip of their skateboards, or who might not be so keen on the Third World if some of its inhabitants were killing their fathers and brothers in large numbers, can vicariously fulfil their generously radical impulses by displacing oppression elsewhere. This move leaves them plunged into fashionably postmodern gloom about the 'monolithic' benightedness of their own social orders. It is as if the depleted, disorientated subject of the consumerist West comes by an extraordinary historical irony to find an image of itself in the wretched of the earth. If 'margins' are now much in vogue, it is partly because a generation bereft of political memory has cynically abandoned all hope for the 'centre'. Like most US feminism, post-colonialism is a way of being politically radical without necessarily being anti-capitalist, and so is a peculiarly hospitable form of leftism for a 'post-political' world.
Targeting the rhetoric of "resistance" more particularly, Eagleton goes on to say, "in familiar post-colonial style, [Spivak's] emphasis is less on transformation than on resistance. Resistance suggests militant action, but it also implies that the political buck is always elsewhere. It is a convenient doctrine for those who dislike what the system does while doubting that they will ever be strong enough to bring it down."

Eagleton's criticism is keen, but his target may need to be emphasized: he objects not to the premise of a long-standing and thorough-going project of orientalizing the other (cf. this defense of Saïd against a recent attack by a British orientalist) nor does Eagleton reject the necessity of studying and unmasking this phenomenon as it persists today. What Eagleton objects to is the potential (and frequently actual) reversion of this critique to a more self-centered and frequently adolescent politics of authenticity. Noting the penchant of postcolonialists in particular to declare their bad faith before it can be declared for them, Eagleton grumbles,
Nothing is more voguish in guilt-ridden US academia than to point out the inevitable bad faith of one's position. It is the nearest a postmodernist can come to authenticity... The post-structuralist emphasis on 'subject position' is oddly akin to the existentialist obsession with authenticity: what matters is less what you say than the fact that you are saying it. Liberalism, rather similarly, tends to believe that what is chosen is less important than the fact that I choose it, and is thus an ethic peculiarly fit for adolescents.
In other words, the actual, on the ground "project" of resistance to hegemony (in this case, imperialist/colonialist hegemony) becomes less important than my understanding of its truth and my self-inclusion in its ranks, my adoption of the postcolonial "stance" of resistance, a stance that, as Loomba points out, is assumed to be universal among post-colonial peoples.

Moreover, if I follow the habit of carefully strewing caveats about my bad faith as a First World white man, I am really adopting a mode of re-centering the politics of resistance around my qualifications or disqualifications to analyze the "discourse" surrounding it. I am framing my analysis by its effect (or lack thereof) on me.

What does this have to do with Lord Jim? Quite simply this: the focus on authenticity and resistance in the transmission of postcolonial theory to undergraduates (at least) makes a text like Lord Jim virtually meaningless within the discourse of postcolonial theory. An attempt to read it in the context of a politics of authenticity and resistance will be foiled by its pointed inauthenticity and the fact that its lines of resistance emerge from, rather than converge upon, the white man. Jim is most certainly in the middle of a postcolonialist discourse—and not just a colonialist one—but his position frustrates even, I think, a Bhabha-like reading of "the instabilities and ambivalences inherent in any attempt to impose domination on another people." (Rivkin-Ryan's intro to Bhabha's essay, "Signs Taken for Wonders")

This is not because such an analysis of these instabilities and ambivalences wouldn't work—there are marvelously many of them in Jim—but because ultimately these instabilities and ambivalences close in on themselves. Rather than revealing a rhetoric of dialectical domination and resistance, Lord Jim suggests that both forces terminate in the same place—Jim himself. This is a solipsism of the romantic hero that supplants and precludes the solipsism of the postcolonialist reader, who is effectively trying to form his or her own solipsism by insisting on reading the book in the name of their own (in)authenticity and resistance.

The misdirection I spoke of earlier, then, lies in the fact that the terminus of postcolonial studies still seems to be the reader of the text rather than the text itself. I believe Lord Jim frustrates this reflex of self-centering, or at least lays it bare.

Additionally, while I chose to write this post about postcolonialism, I could just as easily have written it about gender politics and gender studies—the criticisms would mostly be the same, and this novel has, I think, the same effect. The book does not allow so easily the kind of self-first reading so common with gender studies; the pertinacity of its issues and Conrad's elegance in articulating them simply seem stronger than the reader's bad faith or her qualifications or disqualifications in examining the issues which the novel raises.

Later [12/29]: Interesting essay from the Guardian on Conrad in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Donald Pease and the New Americanists

I assume that a significant percentage of the readers of this blog are in some way familiar with Dartmouth professor Donald Pease. I had the privilege of taking a class with Professor Pease, and I was very glad to run across this very interesting interview with him in The Minnesota Review. The interview focuses on the development of the New Americanists, the tradition against which they were reacting, and the effects of that conflict.
The New Americanists worked against the ideology of consensus that, at that time, had been given a powerful buffer by Sacvan Bercovitch's notion of "the rituals of assent," where even dissent was construed as a ritual formation. In so far as it rebelled in terms that ratified pre-existing presuppositions, it simply renewed the pre-existing consensus. The New Americanists problematized the very notion of renewal and undermined the notion of what I would call "surplus consensus formation," which also appropriated dissent as a version of formal consensus that ratified liberal individualism. The dissent was producing an instance of consensus that could not be included within the dialectic of renewal—which was, in the deepest sense, an end of ideology.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"Elms" by Louise Glück, from The Triumph of Achilles

All day I tried to distinguish
need from desire. Now, in the dark,
I feel only bitter sadness for us,
the builders, the planers of wood,
because I have been looking
steadily at these elms
and seen the process that creates
the writhing, stationary tree
is torment, and have understood
it will make no forms but twisted forms.

"The White Lilies" by Louise Glück, from The Wild Iris

As a man and woman make
a garden between them like
a bed of stars, here
they linger in the summer evening
and the evening turn cold with their terror: it
could all end, it is capable
of devastation. All, all
can be lost, through scented air
the narrow columns
uselessly rising, and beyond,
a churning sea of poppies—

Hush, beloved. It doesn't matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson

Per Petterson Out Stealing HorsesI must confess I find a certain rather inexplicable poignancy in the process of aging and, more directly, the depiction of this process in fiction and poetry, particularly if it's done with a sense of grave restraint and slow loss that draws near but does not touch nostalgia. John Banville's The Sea was a revelation to me; Bellow's Herzog even more so. Henry Perowne of McEwan's Saturday is perhaps one of my favorite characters in a novel ever; Larkin's "High Windows" one of my favorite poems. I'm sure I will adore the new film Starting Out in the Evening and may even end up reading the book. I dislike Philip Roth, but I have reasons to dislike his particular take on the aging process.

Per Petterson's most recent novel was billed as running very much in this poignantly geriatric vein, and, swayed by the raves it has received, I picked it up. I was disappointed.

I suppose I could lay my disappointment on the imbalance of recollection and present-tense narration. The narrator lives very little of the novel in the present tense, and his struggles with aging are mostly ones he anticipates and not ones he confronts. Well he does confront them—aches and unsteadinesses—, but the meanings he derives from them hang on what they will become—they are annoyances he senses will turn into debilitations, but for now his worries are theoretical.

However, I would argue that this is not just a problem for me and my odd tastes, but for the novel. The theoretical nature of his fears mean they will remain inert in the narrative and do not propel either reflection or action in any cohesive way. The novel's cohesion comes instead from a drama that is, in this case, rather static. The narrator's father left his family many years ago, and now the narrator has absconded into the backcountry of Norway—not far from a hideout he and his father shared a summer in—without the knowledge of his daughter. The novel is built on this simple logic—a single repetition of an escape or, alternatively, a single return replayed. This bifurcates the novel's material: there are memories of the narrator as a son, and there are his present actions as that son grown up, now also a father. The novel does not so much fuse or intertwine (except on a formal level) the two as it sets up a relay system such that a line is drawn from one thing in the past to one thing in the present to one thing in the past to maybe two things in a row from the past to... There is no ramification of memory, no wide turns nor regressions—and that is not memory. Memory is not a line, and neither is a good novel.

Out Stealing Horses is by no means bad, but its simplicity—which I do consider to be otherwise a virtue—is in this case detrimental to its development and its execution.

A Letter from Bellow

Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation stumbled across and transcribed a letter from Saul Bellow. The letter is fascinating, of course, especially because it sounds so youthful. Even in his first novel, Bellow's prose could gray into the outlook of a much older man. Here, and perhaps it is just the misspellings and the sense of a writer still struggling to start out (financially, at least—Augie March came three years earlier with a National Book Award), Bellow sounds younger than he is. If Sarvas is right and this is 1956, that would put him at 41, but he sounds early thirties at best.

But what really caught my eye was the mention of an article that he wrote or was supposed to have written:
I had a disappointing bust up with Holiday. The editors told me first to write the Illinois piece in my own way and then were appalled by my long discussion of boredom in the Midwest. They wanted me to cheer things up a little, like a true native-son. But I couldn't do that. Like Lincoln, I was a lousy immigrant.
Bellow's descriptions of and comments on the Midwest appear in a number of his books, but this would be a real find.

I'm not sure, though, what "Like Lincoln, I was a lousy immigrant" could mean. Kentucky was already a state when he was born there; Indiana became a state shortly after his family moved there, but it was definitely a territory; Illinois was a state by the time the Lincolns settled there. Anyone have an insight?

"The Beginning," from The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück

I had come to a strange city, without belongings:
in the dream, it was your city, I was looking for you.
Then I was lost, on a dark street lined with fruit stands.

There was only one fruit: blood oranges.
The markets made displays of them, beautiful displays—
how else could they compete? And each arrangement had, at its center,
on fruit, cut open.

Then I was on a boulevard, in brilliant sunlight.
I was running; it was easy to run, since I had nothing.
In the distance, I could see your house; a woman knelt in the yard.
There were roses everywhere; in waves, they climbed the high trellis.

Then what began as love for you
became a hunger for structure: I could hear
the woman call to me in common kindness, knowing
I wouldn't ask for you anymore—

So it was settled: I could have a childhood there.
Which came to mean being always alone.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Theft of the Quirk

juno quirk quirkiness
"We're drowning in quirk."

"The quirk-mongers of Indiewood... have drained the words 'eccentric' and 'weird' of all meaning. They have accomplished what mainstream culture normally does: they have banalized the marginal and the offbeat."

The first quote is from a September essay in The Atlantic Monthly by Michael Hirschorn, and is referenced in the Reverse Shot review of "Juno."

Neither statement can really be denied, and I'm not sure anyone wants to. The reaction against quirk is about as unifying among the "with-it" set as quirk itself used to be.

However, are these statements accurate—accurate in the sense that they really get to the heart of the matter? Is it really quirk we're drowning in, and has it been co-opted by the mainstream from (presumably) some out-lying area of actual cool (or actual quality)? I think the answer in both cases is a tentative no.

Hirschorn defines quirk as "an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream. It features mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions... and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits. Quirk takes not mattering very seriously." Sounds like the American perception of Canada.

Elbert Ventura corrects a small part of Hirschorn's definition ("it’s not the embrace of odd that he was railing against, it’s the dumbing-down of it") but I would imagine by and large, their irritations coincide.

Other buzzwords get tossed around throughout the two pieces: eclecticism, sentiment(ality), self-indulgent, self-satisfied, posing, preening, irresponsible, mannerism, etc.

But one word that stood out in Ventura's review was the curious modifier "contemporary"—"contemporary quirk has become less about opposing the mainstream but being accepted by it." Common to both the essay and the review (and most of the reviews I've read of other quirksome films—Rocket Science, Thumbsucker, Little Miss Sunshine, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and particularly the last two Wes Anderson films) is a pervasive sense of a briefly fun thing gone sour, overtaken by its success and viciously damaged by mainstream acceptance.

I would imagine that, as in my case, a great many critics—especially young critics—were seriously attracted by the first three Anderson films and were to some degree drawn into an interest in film largely on their strengths. As such, there is the need to narrate the history of "contemporary quirk" as a downfall of some small degree. It's not that those films—Ghost World, Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums, and —were so great to begin with (although I think some people still hold onto Tenenbaums as a masterpiece), but that their present-day successors are so atrocious.

That may be an accurate narrative, but it also, I think, misses the bigger picture.

First off, what is this "contemporary quirk" business about? We all recognize that the quirkiness of Juno differs from the quirkiness of Ghost World not in kind, but in quality. So there is presumably a form of quirk that preceded the middle Nineties? What precisely would that be? Hirschorn posits David Byrne as the grandfather of quirk; I'm skeptical.

Perhaps looking at Wes Anderson's musical choices would be a good place to start—The Kinks, The Zombies, and David Bowie. Are these "quirky" artists? If so, quirk would have to occupy some middle position between tweeness and glam or camp—which is a definite possibility, but I still am skeptical.

I am skeptical because I think the problem is precisely that "contemporary quirk" has no true antecedents—neither in the avant-garde nor in the mainstream. Which is not to say that it is a new phenomenon, but that it was born illegitimately on both sides, and perhaps purposefully so.

Despite its illegitimacy, quirk holds itself captive to an imagined and incoherent past which is both idealized and displaced—the artistic correlate to the vintage fashion aesthetic. The problem is not so much that oddity and banality are conflated, but that timelessness and ephemerality have become virtually the same thing.

This is not pure eclecticism—the quirk aesthetic is crafted—half-baked, but crafted. It is not, when one thinks about it, all that inclusive. (If it were, how could we mark it so easily?) But to be selective does not mean that one's selections are coherent, and that incoherence is really the origin of the complaints about self-indulgent eclecticism.

Alongside this incoherence, however, lies a reluctance to re-situate cultural citations in anything approximating real creativity. What passes for creativity is setting two very literal citations next to one another or on top of one another—a Portuguese singer and David Bowie songs in Life Aquatic, for instance. Compare that to the work of Todd Haynes in I'm Not There—these are completely different levels of creativity at work.


Hirschorn compares the easiness of quirk to the facileness of Nineties irony ("Like the proliferation of meta-humor that followed David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld in the ’90s, quirk is everywhere because quirkiness is so easy to achieve: Just be odd … but endearing"), but that comparison is closer than he probably intends. The "irony" of the Nineties was actually in most cases extreme literalism. Seinfeld (and Curb Your Enthusiasm) builds its irony on excessive devotion to the literal, exhausting the humor of a joke and making that exhaustion the subject of the next joke. David Letterman's routines worked in exactly the same way. The basic thinking was that playing up the literalness of mundanity exposes its oddity, that earnest attempts at earnestness are funnier than earnest attempts at humor.

Does quirk operate any differently? Quirky authors like David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs are always literal even when they're not factual; Juno's central problem is actually treated far more literally than 2007's other comedy about an unwanted/unexpected pregnancy, Knocked Up. This American Life could really not be any more earnest.

We are not, I think, drowning in quirk so much as we are drowning in literalness. Quirk is just the by-product of an overwhelming trust in the saving power of self-awareness—that letting your audience know that you know you or your film or your book is probably coming off as narcissistic or clichéd or insecure or self-indulgent somehow makes it the audience’s fault if they don’t end up liking you, your film, your book, or your routine. ‘If I know I’m being narcissistic, and I know you think I’m being narcissistic, aren’t we basically in the same position, and then don’t you have to like me?’ – that is the basic message.

Being earnest about being earnest—or being literal about being literal—is therefore not just a strategy for provoking laughs, but for ingratiating itself by lowering expectations.

The problem, therefore, isn’t, as the critics would have it, that quirk (or excessive literalness) “banalize[s] the marginal and the offbeat”—or in other words that it tries to make squares feel hip, that it tries to provide a “crowd-pleaser for people who like to think they’re above crowd-pleasers but are actually not.” Quirk doesn’t even exist in the dialectic between the margins and the center, between crowd-pleasers and crowd-provokers. Its audience, like its sense of time, is intentionally dislocated, scattershot, and incoherent. The point of irritation shouldn’t be who its audience is, but how it relates to the audience it ends up attracting.

Quirk wasn't stolen by the mainstream, and it doesn't raid from the "truly" offbeat and marginal to please the tasteless masses, and while that's not really the point of either the Atlantic Monthly essay or the Reverse Shot review, I think it is a fairly common complaint.

But do we really want the early Wes Anderson back? I don't know—I like to think I've grown out of identifying with Max Fischer.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

From Roland Barthes, Sade/Fourier/Loyola

Nothing is more depressing than to imagine the Text as an intellectual object (for reflection, analysis, comparison, mirroring, etc.). The text is an object of pleasure. The bliss of the text is often only stylistic: there are expressive felicities... However, at times the pleasure of the Text is achieved more deeply (and then is when we can truly say there is a Text): whenever the "literary" Text (the Book) transmigrates into our life, whenever another writing (the Other's writing) succeeds in writing fragments of our own daily lives, in short, whenever a co-existence occurs. The index of the pleasure of the Text, then, is when we are able to live with [the author]. To live with an author does not necessarily mean to achieve in our life the program that author has traced in his books (this conjunction is not, however, insignificant, since it forms the argument of Don Quixote; true, Don Quixote is still a character in a book); it is not a matter of making operative what has been represented... it is a matter of bringing into our daily life the fragments of the unintelligible ("formulae") that emanate from a text we admire (admire precisely because it hangs together well); it is a matter of speaking this text, not making it act, by allowing it the distance of a citation, the eruptive force of a coined word, of a language truth; our daily life then itself becomes a theater whose scenery is our own social habitat... once again, it is not a matter of taking into ourselves the contents, convictions, a faith, a cause, nor even images; it is a matter of receiving from the text a kind of fantasmatic order: of savoring with Loyola the sensual pleasure of organizing a retreat, of covering our interior time with it, of distributing in it moments of language...

The pleasure of the Text also includes the amicable return of the author. Of course the author who returns is not the one identified by our institutions (history and courses in literature, philosophy, church discourse); he is not even the biographical hero. The author who leaves his text and comes into our life has no unity; he is a mere plural of "charms," the site of a few tenuous details, yet the source of vivid novelistic glimmerings, a discontinuous chant of amiabilities, in which we nevertheless read death more certainly than in the epic of a fate; he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body... For if, through a twisted dialectic, the Text, destroyer of all subject, contains a subject to love, that subject is dispersed, somewhat like the ashes we strew into the wind after death (the theme of the urn and the stone, strong closed objects, instructors of fate, will be contrasted with the bursts of memory, the erosion that leaves nothing but a few furrows of past life): were I a writer, and dead, how I would love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer, were to reduce itself to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections, let us say: to "biographemes" whose distinction and mobility might go beyond any fate and come to touch, like Epicurean atoms, some future body, destined to the same dispersion; a marked life, in sum, as Proust succeeded in writing his in his work, or even a film, in the old style, in which there is no dialogue and the flow of images (that flumen orationis which perhaps is what makes up the "obscenities" of writing) is inercut, like the relief of hiccoughs, by the barely written darkness of the intertitles, the casual eruption of another signifier...

Paul Celan, Schneepart, "Ich höre soviel von euch"

Ich höre soviel von euch,
daß ich nichts mehr höre
als Hören,

ich sehe soviel von euch,
daß ich nichts mehr sehe
als Sehen,

soviel rennt mich an
mit Gerede,
daß ich zuweilen spreche
wie einer, der redet,
spreche wie einer,
der schweigt.

Ich lebe, stark.

I hear so much of you
that I hear nothing more
than hearing,

I see so much of you
that I see nothing more
than seeing,

so much assails me
with talk
that sometimes I speak
like one who talks,
sometimes I
speak like one who is silent.

I live, strong.
(trans. Ian Fairley)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

From "Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer," by Robert Hass

This was a time when,
in the universities, everyone was reading Derrida.
Who'd set out to write a dissertation about time;
he read Heidegger, Husserl, Kant, Augustine, and found
that there was no place to stand from which to talk about it.
There was no ground. It was language. The scandal
of nothingness! Put cheerfully to work by my colleagues
to dismantle regnant ideologies. It was a time when,
a few miles away, kids were starting to kill each other
in wars over turf for selling drugs, schizophrenics
with matted hair, dazed eyes, festering feet, always engaged
in some furious volleying inner dialogue they neglected,
unlike the rest of us, to hide, were beginning to fill the streets,
'de-institutionalized,' in someone's idea of reform,
and I was searching in the rosebed of a rented house
inch by inch, looking under the carseat where the paper clips
and Roosevelt dimes and unresolved scum-shapes of once
vegetal stuff accumulate in abject little villages
where matter hides while it transforms itself. Nothing there.
I never found it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Robert Hass, Field Guide, Human Wishes, Sun Under Wood and Time and Materials

What is Hass's obsession with nipples?

I'm sorry, but I can't get past that question. Nipples recur in his poems with more than noticeable frequency. I don't know why, and frankly any attempt at a gloss will inevitably end up being hopelessly obtuse. The long poem titled "My Mother's Nipples" doesn't so much explain his fascination as extend it.

But more than nipples, Hass is concerned with the connection of man to nature. Yet I do not think it appropriate to call him a nature poet. Unlike John Clare, for instance, Hass's familiarity with the natural world seems second-hand, a little too directed—it is not for nothing that his first volume was called Field Guide. (A quintessential example of this second-hand feel is "The Woods in New Jersey" in Sun Under Wood.)

Possibly this distance is created by the softly cerebral pulse of his poetry—a smoothness that eschews visceral emotion even while it lacks the evasiveness of certain other post-confessional poets.

But I think rather it is a spatial question: Hass's poems use the natural world as a surface—beaches, fields, paths and streams. Humans exist on these elements of nature like skaters on ice. Men and women do not exist in nature; nature exists under them. Commingling of the two worlds are, therefore, the results of intrusion, as we see in the section of "In Weather" I posted earlier and in another poem describing the nocturnal infiltrations of small creatures, "Iowa City: Early April" in Sun Under Wood.

Hass's poetic genre is therefore more properly the eclogue—acknowledging this, Hass titled one of the poems in Human Wishes "Berkeley Eclogue." And like Vergil, Hass's Eclogues have political meaning. However, Hass also is clearly in a position which, unlike the imaginary swains which populated older instances of the form, allows him to be more indifferent to the natural world. Or to put it more finely, he is able to be intermittently attentive to the natural world, and he seems to value this ("It must be a gift of evolution that humans / Can't sustain wonder. We'd never have gotten up / From our knees if we could." "State of the Planet," Time and Materials).

The archness of these lines is more reminiscent of Horace than of Vergil, and Horace is indeed one of the poets Hass imitates in Time and Materials. Yet Hass does not write satires; an attempt ("Bush's War," Time and Materials) meanders far, far afield and never really touches its titular subject.

However, Hass's understanding of the relationship between the human and natural worlds as being a series of mutual intrusions is automatically politically active along three lines. Firstly, war as the intrusions of one nation (the US) into other nations. Secondly, capitalist environmental negligence as the intrusion of human values and rationality into a pristine "beauty unconscious of itself." And lastly, the invasions of white European settlers in the already populated lands of America, and particularly of California. The intrusions of animals or nature into the human world are puzzling but amusing to Hass, but the intrusions of humans into the natural world or into other parts of the human world are ineluctably deadly. Well, intrusions other than sex, apparently, although Hass still often configures the act as an intrusion, and that configuration, as with his position relative to nature, makes the subject seem to come at some distance, as if reconstructed and not remembered.

novel in three lines

I walk by an old man sitting at a card table, selling lemonade.

'Jesus Christ,' I say, and pass.

'No, son,' he catches me with his voice. 'Television.'

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Call Me by Your Name, André Aciman

André Aciman Call Me by Your NameA professor of mine once said, wisely, that Wodehouse's work is the last word on the aesthetic possibilities of the cliché. Aciman's novel may not be the last word on the aesthetic possibilities of the adolescent fondness for rhetorical questions about love, desire, and self-exploration, but I can't recall anyone who explores the territory more deftly.

More deftly? I can't recall anyone who is actually able to bring grace to the histrionics inherent in this mode of expression. The perfect negative example is Carrie Bradshaw: her narration of Sex & the City is execrable on its own demerits, but also because of the efforts of the Jimmy Choo generation of young women to think, apparently, in her voice.

Perhaps there are not, numerically speaking, that many actual rhetorical questions in Call Me by Your Name. The key one is "if not later, when?" which is, along with the title, a fit synechdoche of both the spirit and plot of the book. But even if there are not that many rhetorical questions strewn in its pages, the novel is canted as if it were itself a rhetorical question, an open-ended meditation not meant to be answered or even struggled with. It resides, one resides with it or in it, it fades softly but persists. Not meant to be answered, its role is to reset the field or frame of the topic, to show the tendentiousness of both real questions and real answers pertaining to its subject.

It would probably be a smart thing to say that this is a very Proustian feature, as Aciman is a—even theProust scholar, but to be frank, I haven't read more than 100 pages of Swann's Way and I don't think I am qualified to say such a thing.

I may sound disappointed in the novel; quite the contrary. I am astounded. The strength of the writing is so pure that one feels Aciman could say nothing that would be banal or formulaic. That is not a sensation one feels while reading a minor author, or even a major author at less than his best. Aciman is a major author, and this is a major work.

Here is a passage to demonstrate what I mean. I don't know if, displaced from its context, it will retain its power; it might come off as a weak bromide in isolation. If that is the case, let me assure you that, in its proper setting, it is neither weak nor platitudinous:
In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don't snuff it out, don't be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we'd want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!