Tuesday, January 29, 2008

From Paterson, by William Carlos Williams

                              The sun
winding the yellow bindweed about a
bush; worms and gnats, life under a stone.
The pitiful snake with its mosaic skin
and frantic tongue. The horse, the bull
the whole din of fracturing thought
as it falls tinnily to nothing upon the streets
and the absurd dignity of a locomotive
hauling freight—

                          Pithy philosophies of
daily exits and entrances, with books
propping up one end of the shaky table—
The vague accuracies of events dancing two
and two with language which they
forever surpass—and dawns
tangled in darkness—

       The giant in whose apertures we
       cohabit, unaware of what air supports
       us—the vague, the particular
       no less vague

              his thoughts, the stream
     and we, we two, isolated in the stream,
     we also: three alike—

              we sit and talk
     I wish to be with you abed, we two
     as if the bed were the bed of a stream
     —I have much to say to you

              We sit and talk,
     quietly, with long lapses of silence
     and I am aware of the stream
     that has no language, coursing
     beneath the quiet heaven of
     your eyes

              which has no speech; to
     go to bed with you, to pass beyond
     the moment of meeting, while the
     currents float still in mid-air, to
     fall—
     with you from the brink, before
     the crash—

              to seize the moment.

          We sit and talk, sensing a little
     the rushing impact of the giants'
     violent torrent rolling over us, a
     few moments.

              If I should demand it, as
     it has been demanded of others
     and given too swiftly, and you should
     consent. If you would consent

              We sit and talk and the
     silence speaks of the giants
     who have died in the past and have
     returned to those scenes unsatisfied
     and who is not unsatisfied, the
     silent, Singac the rock-shoulder
     emerging from the rocks—and the giants
     live again in your silence and unacknowledged desire—

And the air lying over the water
lifts the ripples, brother
to brother, touching us as the mind touches,
counter-current, upstream
brings in the fields, hot and cold
parallel but never mingling, one that whirls
backward at the brink and curls invisibly
upward, fills the hollow, whirling,
an accompaniment—but apart, observant of
the distress, sweeps down or up clearing
the spray—

         brings in the rumors of separate
worlds, the birds as against the fish, the grape
to the green weed that streams out undulant
with the current at low tide beside the
bramble in blossom, the storm by the flood—
song and wings—

Sunday, January 27, 2008

From Molloy, by Samuel Beckett

Molloy: For to know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters in, to the soul of the incurious seeker. It is then the true division begins, of twenty-two by seven for example, and the pages fill with the true ciphers at last. But I would rather not affirm anything on this subject. What does seem undeniable to me on the contrary is this, that giving in to the evidence, to a very strong probability rather, I felt the shelter of the doorway and began levering myself forward, swinging slowly through the sullen air. There is rapture, or there should be, in the motion crutches give. It is a series of little flights skimming the ground. You take off, you land, through the thronging sound in wind and limb, who have to fasten one foot to the ground before they dare lift up the other. And even their most joyous hastening is less aerial than my hobble.

Moran: That we thought of ourselves as members of a vast organization was doubtless also due to the all too human feeling that trouble shared, or is it sorrow, is trouble something, I forget the word. But to me at least, who knew how to listen to the falsetto of reason, it was obvious that we were perhaps alone in doing what we did. Yes, in my moments of lucidity I thought it possible. And, to keep nothing from you, this lucidity was so acute at times that I came even to doubt the existence of Gaber himself. And if I had not hastily sunk back into my darkness I might have gone to the extreme of conjuring away the chief too and regarding myself as solely responsible for my wretched existence. For I knew I was wretched, at six pounds ten a week plus bonuses and expenses. And having made away with Gaber and the chief (one Youdi), could I have denied myself the pleasure of—you know. But I was not made for the great light that devours, a dim lamp was all I had been given, and patience without end, to shine it on the empty shadows. I was a solid in the midst of other solids.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Frank Bidart, In the Western Night, Stardust

Frank Bidart In the Western NightAlthough I have a different overall opinion, I may as well start out with this quote from a review by Sven Birkerts, collected in his book The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry:
Reading Frank Bidart's poems, I react at first a bit the way that dancer reacted to her role: I do not 'like' them. They do not make use of the sonorous properties of the English language, they do not incorporate the poetic tradition in any obvious way, they avoid the concentrating power of metaphor, they offer none of the tensing satisfactions of meter, and, finally, they seize and explore only what is most frightening, wounded, and compromised in our souls.
I suppose it is difficult to say one likes Bidart's poetry in the same sense one says one likes Rilke, and especially not in the same sense one might say one likes Billy Collins. Bidart eschews the sorts of charms that either possess—his work is self-effacing in a way that threatens (unlike Collins's avuncular deprecations of poetry and/or himself) and passionate in a way that alienates (quite counter to Rilke's very engaging forms of passionate address). Furthermore, it is impossible to identify with or even know Bidart through his poems in the way we think we know Plath or Lowell through their confessional lyrics, even though they too threaten us with their self-effacements and alienate us with their passionate intensity.

But these are historical comparisons, a method of bracketing Bidart by oppositions within the history of twentieth-century poetry. To proceed this way is to assert a uniqueness for Bidart which is, in the end, trivial. No one of stature shares his particular poetic traits or temperament. And?

A thematic reading of Bidart is similarly nugatory; after reading a handful of his major poems—the extant parts of the ongoing Hours of the Night sequence, "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky," "Ellen West," "Confessional"—one can make a perfunctory and quite likely accurate checklist of his major themes, preoccupations and tropes. (Or one could read this or the Birkerts essay mentioned above.) And if nothing else, Bidart speaks very explicitly about his method, his themes, and their history in a very good interview appended to the poems in In the Western Night.

What is left for me to say then? When one talks about poetry, one typically discusses the themes or character of the work, but Bidart is so definite about both that it seems superfluous to belabor them. Which is not to say his themes and the formal means by which he expresses them are facile or obvious, but rather that the effects and themes I could describe in this space are visible, and readily so, and while there is much more complexity and philosophical depth to them, discussion of this depth would not be well served by a blog post.

If I were to make one comparison, it would be to Blake, whose themes and effects are also readily picked up by merely looking at the page, and yet whose complexity—even in metrically and lexically simple poems like "The Tyger"—can swallow dissertations whole. Like Blake, there is a charge of intellectual challenge and adventure in Bidart's work made more enticing and thrilling by the fact that the poems are so obviously predicated on struggle and force, and that in that predication is offered to you the terms and intensity of your experience with the poems.

While Blake, however, expresses this struggle and the terms of its reading in primarily visual terms, Bidart is only secondarily visual—of primary importance is the voice, and it is the reader's main objective to hear the voice of the poem in a way that resonates with its appearance on the page. The elements which are most indicative of Bidart's creative force and agenda—the capitalization, scattered alignments, double punctuations, italics—are those which are meant to convey most directly the sense of an active voice but which most obviously point to the presence of a passive eye. The ensuing struggle for supremacy (or primacy) of eye and ear is the soul of Bidart's poetry.

This is, however, one of those obvious things I said I wouldn't write about, so I'll stop to encourage you to discover the others for yourselves.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt, Part II

Andre Kertesz readingAn interesting dialectic animates The Last Samurai, propelling its characters through the plot and you, the reader, through its prose.

On one hand you have impulsiveness—mad, bad, dangerous to know frivolity of action and desire.

On the other, obstinacy, stubbornness, persistence. Pertinacity.

Both sides are forms or modes of obsessive reading, and as obsession and reading are both categories which naturally overwhelm, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether DeWitt values impulsiveness and obstinacy differently or even sees much difference between them. The Last Samurai, after all, is less about modes of obsession than about the way obsessions—any and all—can be diverted.

But the modes which obsession can occupy is a fascinating question, especially within the context of the novel, which is to say, especially within the context of reading.

Both Sibylla, the mother, and Ludo, the son—as well as Sibylla's mother and father and the whole host of surrogate fathers Ludo interviews—possess both ends of the dialectic—DeWitt does not set them as representing opposite forces, or really oppose anyone to them. DeWitt loops impulsiveness and obstinacy into one another in a sort of Gordian knot which each principal character toys with fitfully, often finding this combination as much of a weight as a puzzle or challenge.

Ludo throws himself about from one language to another, learning them almost frivolously, but as we see and likely know from experience, it takes a great deal of perseverance to undertake even one such project, much less the twenty or so Ludo claims. Sib herself is much the same way, although with perhaps more impulsiveness in terms of her leisure reading than Ludo and more obstinacy in terms of her "work"—transcribing back issues of dusty British mags with titles like "Carp World" or "The Modern Knitter."

It seems evident that for DeWitt, or at least for her genius characters, initial impulsiveness is the fundamental condition for developing the obstinacy required to complete the sole task of genius—to become more of a genius. Sibylla even refers to this relation directly—she calls Ludo a "miracle of obstinacy."

The miraculous and the obstinate are not usually conjoined, even if they are not exactly antithetical. But a methodical impetuosity does seem a bit paradoxical, although that would be a very good way of describing Ludo's regimen of self-education.

A wrinkle is added, however, with the central trope of the novel—Sibylla's compulsive re-watchings of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. This repetition is neither impulsiveness—the frequency with which Sibylla sees the film makes it more of a reflex than an impulse—nor obstinacy—it becomes not a project requiring gritty determination, but an escape offering relief. Telling is the fact that although Sibylla is always watching the film she never learns the lines in Japanese, even though she knows quite a bit of the language. This element of repetition may be the true antithesis to the miracle of obstinacy represented by Ludo, although it must be said that it is only one part of Sibylla's character and that largely she too is a miracle of obstinacy.

These three elements, though, present the three main forms of obsessive reading—repetition, impulsiveness, and obstinacy. As passionate readers, we tend to assume one or more of these forms—the compulsive re-reader who will turn again and again to the same page or the same chapter, seeking a duplication of past pleasures. Or we grab at random books off an arbitrary shelf, selecting based on spine design, if not something even more trivial. Breadth and eclecticism rule our rationale; we can be interested in anything, so long as it is written to engage. Or we read assiduously a list of ready-made orders and rolls, canons and their bastard Southern cousins, the top ten lists. Many of us rotate through these modes; as few of us read with a steady perseverance as read with a truly frivolous eclecticism.

I am unsure what my larger point is here (that readers differ from their past and future selves as much as they do from other people? that's inane), but I found the brief taxonomy I laid out here to be a greatly enriching aspect of DeWitt's work. I have a great deal of trouble being disciplined enough (or frivolous enough) to read what I feel I need to; it sometimes bothers me a lot, and DeWitt's novel lifted that from me for awhile.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Art Garfunkel, Reading Wonder

The New Yorker this week is very good—I thought all three poetry selections were strong (particularly Les Murray's), and the Adam Gopnik piece on Sarkozy and Carla Bruni was incisive and highly enjoyable.

But what was perhaps most amusing was a Talk of the Town piece on Art Garfunkel and his habit (devotional activity?) of recording the titles of all the books he reads. This reading log is a part of the official Art Garfunkel website (although I discovered it is a little bit hidden, at least from the front page—to save you the trouble, the page is here). Garfunkel began the list in June 1968, and has kept it (apparently) faithfully ever since, amassing 1023 books. It's a qualitatively impressive list, but it has some fun quirks too—most of which seem to have been covered in the New Yorker article. But explore for yourselves!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt

The Last Samurai Helen DeWittIf we lived in a better, more literate society, I would not have to preface this post with the caveat, "This book has nothing whatsoever to do with the execrable Tom Cruise film."

Sometimes I find myself caught in a moment of naive optimism when it comes to these same-title-different-works things. When I saw a poster for 2005's milquetoast Michael Keaton horror film "White Noise," my first thought was, "I wonder how they're going to film the Airborne Toxic Event." Looking at the poster again, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. But then again, how would you design a movie poster for a DeLillo novel?

You would think I would have learned, though, after "Underworld" turned out to be about werewolves or something and not J. Edgar Hoover, B-52 installation art and Bobby Thomson.

At any rate, Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai is, as I've said, not in any way related to Tom Cruise. However, it is in many ways related to Don DeLillo. It shares with his novels many of the traits which have been identified with (and, I think, consolidated around) the aesthetic James Wood notoriously dubbed "hysterical realism."

In DeWitt's novel, information is a pervasive, animating presence, operating inside the novel with a character's force and function—namely, to move the plot along by virtue of its qualities and its quirks. Plot details and characterizations do not defy realism or possibility, but rather dangle off the outer edges of plausibility and persuasiveness. And they do so not in a challenging way, but with an affable degree of condescension; the bounds of realism are not expanded; they are jocularly nudged.

More importantly, density of feeling is avoided—not intensity, which is intermittently present, but density, which is flattened into thinner sheets when it threatens to consolidate. Emotions are displayed as complex in the novel, but they are simplified in the reader; emotional calibrations are meant to be challenges for the characters, but not for the readers.

***

Geez, I'm ripping on this novel as if I loathed the time I spent reading it. Not true! I enjoyed it a lot, and would unreservedly recommend it. Why? Well, here's the rub: The Last Samurai, and most other hysterical realist novels, are books for people who enjoy enjoying books. This type of novel gives the reader lots to do, and many different types of things to enjoy. It gives the reader exactly what they want—the knowledge that they are enjoying the book as they are reading it. Not the story, not the characters, not the jokes or the emotions or the constitutive ideas or themes of the book, but the book itself—and not the material book, but the idea of the book, the idea of the book as a whole entity, to be enjoyed.

It is puritanical and perhaps a little daft to say that this is a bad thing (although clearly too much of it is a bad thing), but I do not believe Wood is saying that it is a bad thing to have books like this existing in our literary ecosystem. I believe what he has always decried about this type of book is the type of writer it creates—a writer of hysterical fiction. Yes, he's saying that a book like White Teeth is inferior to a book like Moby-Dick, but that's not really contested, is it? What Wood's point in critiquing the genre was—and subconsciously, his critics have picked up on it, for this is precisely what enrages them—that Zadie Smith is (or was) less of a writer than she could be because she uses these hysterical realist strategies only when she's evading something in her novel that might be harder and more real, more dense, than she wants to handle in the text. That is not to say that there is nothing hard or real or dense in White Teeth, but that what is any of those things is permitted (and sometimes even wedged) in, while many other of these things which might be there are dropped or sidestepped.

I do not believe there are very many cases of sidestepping in The Last Samurai—mostly because DeWitt is skillful in not requiring very many. The novel and its characters are so competently generated and fitted together that no moment threatens to disturb their smooth working order. The Last Samurai is a tremendous example of what hysterical realism can be about and do, and it is an extraordinary achievement for the author. I say that not because I believe DeWitt to be incapable of doing something other than what she has done, but because it is clearly so incredibly difficult to do what she has done well.

***
I didn't end up talking about the things I had intended to discuss, so I may post again tomorrow with those thoughts.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Academic Books Unlikely to Be Written

  • 7 (or Maybe 8) Types of Ambiguity (or Is It Ambivalence?)

  • The Interpreter of Anxiety, or How Large Is Harold Bloom's Ego Really?

  • There’s No Such Thing as Stanley Fish and It’s a Fantastic Thing Too.

  • The Work of Morning: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective French Philosophers

  • On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction: An Academic's Guide to Small Talk

  • The Postmodern Conditioner: Haircare in an Uncertain World

  • The Prolix View: The Selected Works of Slavoj Zizek

  • The Well-Bought Urn: Collected Essays on Antiques Roadshow

  • The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: Illustrated Edition

  • Ick und Doo: A Study of Scatological References in German Romantic Poetry

  • Course in the Positive Philosophy, or AJ Ayer Wasn’t as Morose as You May Think

  • Discipline and Punish, and Other Lively Ideas for Themed Faculty Parties

  • Blender Trouble: A Fix-It-Yourself Guide for the Academic

  • Homo Slacker: Undergraduate Existence and Bare Life

  • Glace: 5-Minute Desserts from Jacques's Kitchen

Thursday, January 17, 2008

More From "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," by Wallace Stevens

IV.

The plainness of plain things is savagery,
As: the last plainness of a man who has fought
Against illusion and was, in a great grinding

Of growling teeth, and falls at night, snuffed out
By these obese opiates of sleep. Plain men in plain towns
Are not precise about the appeasement they need.

They only know a savage assuagement cries
With a savage voice; and in that cry they hear
Themselves transposed, muted and comforted

In a savage and subtle and simple harmony,
A matching and mating of surprised accords,
A responding to a diviner opposite.

So lewd spring comes from winter's chastity.
So, after summer, in the autumn air,
Comes the cold volume of forgotten ghosts,

But soothingly, with pleasant instruments,
So that this cold, a children's tale of ice,
Seems like a sheen of heat romanticized.

XIII.

The ephebe is solitary in his walk.
He skips the journalism of subjects, seeks out
The perquisites of sanctity, enjoys

A strong mind in a weak neighborhood and is
A serious man without the serious,
Inactive in his singular respect.

He is neither priest or proctor at low eve,
Under the birds, among the perilous owls,
In the big X of the returning primitive.

It is a fresh spiritual that he defines,
A coldness in a long, too-constant warmth,
A thing on the side of a house, not deep in a cloud,

A difficulty that we predicate:
The difficulty of the visible
To the nations of the clear invisible,

The actual landscape with its actual horns
Of baker and butcher blowing, as if to hear,
Hear hard, gets at an essential integrity.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Es ist für mich": The Ugly Politics of The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others Das Leben der AnderenDas Leben der Anderen, or The Lives of Others, has already received some flak, but for reasons decidedly tangential to its politics. In an already pinhole-sized niche for foreign films in America, some felt that the solemn recognition which Leben has received is excessive for a thoroughly middlebrow and rather flaccid melodrama. Some were a little astonished that it beat out Pan's Labyrinth (which is a worse film, but also politically weak-hearted) for the Foreign Language Oscar last year. And somehow Leben has gotten itself lodged near the top 50 films as ranked by IMDb. 29,000+ people there say they've seen it—or 29 times the number that say they've seen Jafar Panahi's magnificent Offside or about 8 times the number that say they've seen the Dardenne's L'Enfant.

But my quibble with the film's exposure is not about it edging out aesthetically better films; it's about the strange way that Leben and Goodbye, Lenin, another recent film about Communist East German, present the past. In an era where the politics of memory has become, for better or worse, one of the most contested battlegrounds of ideology, no two films have mounted hollower attacks or leveled featherier blows at the ostensible villains of history.

At one point in Leben, two Communist Party officers—Wiesler, our protagonist, and Grubitz, a half-villain—are eating in the Ministry cafeteria just down the table from a group of junior Stasi (State Security—the secret police) recruits. Another recruit comes bouncing blithely up, fliply tossing out the opening line to a joke about Erich Honecker, the East German head of state from 1971-1989. His mates point out the officers down the table, and the young man freezes. Grubitz laughingly urges the recruit to finish the joke. He does, and then, once Grubitz has finished laughing, is told that his career is over and some other ominous things will likely befall him. Then Grubitz laughs again, says he was joking, and tells a joke about Honecker himself. I cannot be sure, but I believe we see the young recruit toward the end of the film, steam-opening envelopes in a dingy room, a position which we have been told is a punishment for insubordinate or insufficiently zealous Stasi officers.

This is Stasi at its absolute most menacing, if you believe Leben's director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Another character completely and methodically sabotages a high-priority surveillance mission, and he too, ends up steam-opening envelopes. Hauser, a journalist, publicly insults Bruno Hempf, an influential minister, and finds himself being followed rather amiably by a man he jocularly calls 'Rolf.' Another man, a gifted director, is blacklisted because of his political views. He commits suicide, apparently in melancholic frustration. The Stasi ransack the playwright Dreyman's apartment looking for a contraband typewriter, but do so almost gingerly, delicately paging through Dreyman's book to shake out incriminating letters. They apologize for the mess when they leave. This is as bad as it gets in the DDR, apparently. Oh, and they keep people awake for too long. For an excellent article regarding this complete evisceration of anything approaching actual political critique, read this by Zizek.

However, my point is considerably different from his—he argues that the political evasions of the film are really about the protagonist's latent homosexuality (oh, Zizek). And it is also more than just a demand for historical accuracy.

My argument is not that Donnersmarck is insufficiently realistic in his portrayal of the East German Secret Police—that is clearly not his goal. His goal is to create a fairy tale about human nature, one that uses the backdrop of East Germany to add a little intensity and piquancy to a grossly schematic narrative of personal redemption demonstrating yet again the inherent goodness of humankind. A party-goer tells Georg Dreyman, the aforementioned playwright, that he tries to view humanity as no different from the characters he writes—they can always change, and they always do, and always for the good. If you don't think this is Donnersmarck at your elbow telegraphing the whole stinking plot, well then you haven't seen very many movies.

Dreyman's view of human nature—completely mutable, but only insofar as they change to become more like the good people they are inside—is upheld by the film. The only characters who remain unredeemed are petty bureaucrats, whose ambition supersedes their natural sense of compassion. This is indeed a fairy tale of a sort—and in regards to more than its specific forms of historical unreality.

Let me pause to say that, while I have tried to avoid giving direct spoilers, they become necessary now to let me finish my argument.

The film's view of human nature, coupled with the fate of the protagonist—the principal Stasi spy, Wiesler, who ends up steam-opening letters after he purposely sabotages the surveillance of Dreyman, then becomes a regular, drearily quotidian postman in the unified Germany—is a specific type of fairy tale.

You have likely heard of socialist realism, with its often silly deformations of reality in the service of communism and its leaders. Leben is a grandiloquent work of capitalist realism, preaching the gospel of redemption through integrity and hard work. Wiesler's fate—a life of drudgery, a meaninglessly selfless, dead-end job—is the iconic capitalist trope for penance and redemption. In the mythology of capitalist realism, the relinquishment of ambition is the greatest sacrifice; Wiesler does more than give up his life to protect Dreyman—he gives up his career! And he is rewarded, because he is a good worker, pure at heart.

But here is where socialist realism and capitalist realism diverge, for they both glorify the pure-hearted worker. Socialist realism glorifies the worker who is purely devoted to the party; capitalist realism glorifies the worker who is purely and exclusively devoted to his job. Wiesler begins to think insubordinate thoughts when he learns that his assignment—to surveil Dreyman—is not about "protecting" the party or the state; it is a pretense for Minister Hempf's whims and lusts. Hempf is in love with Christa-Maria, Dreyman's girlfriend, and he wants his rival eliminated.

Wiesler rebels at this corruption, but his devotion to his work goes one step further: it is obvious that he becomes besotted with Dreyman and Christa-Maria, but Zizek's reading—latent homosexuality—or the one the film seems to proffer—overt heterosexual longing for Christa-Maria—are equally off-target. Wiesler is in love with his job, with his assignment, and he wants it to continue. That is why his sabotage of that job is poignant—because he knows that he is sacrificing any future assignments like this one; he is renouncing any future loves in favor of the perfect memory of this one. When he is finally able to hold once more his job in his hands—in the form of a novel written by Dreyman about the time of his surveillance—what does he say? "Es ist für mich"—this is for me. His love has returned. The Lives of Others is The Notebook, for capitalists.

Why is this problematic? Apart from an enormously valid critique of capitalism that could result from analyzing the ethics of sacrifice when skewed to these odd dimensions, it would be worthwhile to note that what Donnersmarck's film really accomplishes in the spirit of historical revisionism is this: in addition to the subtle insinuations of nostalgia (which is more powerful when it is latent, as it is here, rather than overt, as in Goodbye, Lenin), Donnersmarck's film transforms the former East Germany into a more or less shady capitalist state—one that occasionally harasses its dissidents and has drab interior design. There is no sense of communism other than its name; one could dub in "Labour" for every mention of "socialist" or "communist" party, and one would hardly notice a difference.

My point might easily be taken to be that communism should be criticized more, that its flaws need more coverage in popular media products, that we should never forget the atrocities of the communist party worldwide.

But that's not what I mean at all. The elision of actual communism from the collective memory of the West and its replacement with a drabbed-down form of capitalism (with sprinkles of repression) is destructive for the left and for any hopes of imagining an alternative to the capitalist system. The belief that capitalism triumphed over communism because it is the only viable method of distributing economic and civil rights is almost unquestioned, and it is enforced when the communism of memory is basically a less effective but more repressive form of capitalist democracy. Donnersmarck's film may be politically problematic because of its soft treatment of East Germany's past and the scale of its citizens' collusion with the horrors of that past, but its wider political danger is that it could be taken to depict something other than a grayer form of capitalist realism.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

From 'An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,' by Wallace Stevens

I.
The eye's plain version is a thing apart,
The vulgate of experience. Of this,
A few words, an and yet, and yet, and yet—

As part of the never-ending meditation,
Part of the question that is a giant himself:
Of what is this house composed if not of the sun,

These houses, these difficult objects, dilapidate
Appearances of what appearances,
Words, lines, not meanings, not communications,

Dark things without a double, after all,
Unless a second giant kills the first—
A recent imagining of reality,

Much like a new resemblance of the sun,
Down-pouring, up-springing and inevitable,
A larger poem for a larger audience,

As if the crude collops came together as one,
A mythological form, a festival sphere,
A great bosom, beard and being, alive with age.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Another Country, by James Baldwin

Another Country James Baldwin"The bar was terribly crowded. Advertising men were there, drinking double shots of bourbon or vodka, on the rocks, college boys were there, their wet fingers slippery on the beer bottles; lone men stood near the doors or in corners, gleaming with ignorance and mad with chastity, made terrified efforts to attract the feminine attention, but succeeded only in attracting each other. Some of the men were buying drinks for some of the women—who wandered incessantly from the juke box to the bar—and they faced each other over smiles which were pitched, with an eerie precision, between longing and contempt. Black-and-white couples were together here—closer together now than they would be later, when they got home. These several histories were camouflaged in the jargon which, wave upon wave, rolled through the bar; were locked in a silence like the silence of glaciers. Only the jukebox spoke, grinding out each evening, all evening long, syncopated, synthetic laments for love."

Because Another Country is so intent on evoking a very specific milieu—which means a very specific time—one cannot read Baldwin's novel without the pressingly conscious thought, "My god, what could they have thought when this was published!" Its open treatment of bisexuality and interracial love and lust would perhaps today be solid if "edgy" airport reading, but this was 1960, with a civil rights movement still nascent and a gay rights movement yet virtually unconceived [later note (11/17/2008): I knew these assertions about the civil rights and gay rights movements were wrong when I wrote them, but I also thought they were approximately right, in the sense that they told part of the story, but reading the introduction to Nikhil Pal Singh's Black Is a Country showed me that they did not at all.]

But immediately after the sheer wonder of how something so incendiary managed to find an audience, one questions what its contemporary envelope-pushings offer us today. Or, more generally, how are we to read, exactly, a novel which once derived its power from shock, but which today seems... well still a little "exotic" perhaps (Village bohemia is not the typical milieu of most of Baldwin's readers at present), but not wild or disturbing. Because society has fewer reservations (and we have none) regarding the core issues the novel explores, doesn't it lose some of its moral ambiguity? Not being challenged into outrage or even ambivalence, how does the reader of a once "racy" novel react except retroactively—placing herself in the mind of one who read it when the ink and the action still felt gritty and fresh and real?

The audacity of the novel is so palpable that this retrospective frisson is not without its satisfactions. And anyway this is not a question merely of whether or not Baldwin's novel has merits aside from its significance or insignificance as a once-shocking novel. The novel does have merits, but to enumerate them will only sound like a salvage attempt—like pinning a few merit badges on an aging radical to cover up his obsolescence. The shock was the thing, and it must remain the thing as we think about the novel today.

But how to go about this without reverting to some dull form of anteriorism or reverse-presentism? Already in this entry I have given far too much credit to the present day for being progressive enough to blithely read frank depictions of gay sex and sex between a black man and a white woman so rough the man thinks it might be rape. Reading an "edgy" novel of the past entices us to read our present more generously, to insist on the distance that anterior moment of prudery is from our present time of racial and sexual equanimity.

Conceivably we could read the novel in a manner indifferent to the time of its publication or the time of its action—read it still as a critique of the present. Few want to do this because for some reason it seems square. For some reason to study a novel of the intermediate past—not remote enough to be properly "prescient," but not recent enough to be recognizable as the present moment - a gap that at this time falls approximately between the late Gilded Age and, say, Don DeLillo—encourages the appearance of an identification of the scholar with the time. And when that time now looks rather prudish or stiff, well who wants to be that guy? There is an awkwardness in arguing for the relevance of a newly decommissioned avant-garde; one who does seems to be stuck in the past, rather than reaching out to it.

So how may we read a novel like this? We can read it for aesthetics, but unfortunately, Baldwin's aesthetics are a little on the flat side. His prose is not flabby or inflated, but it is not quick or lean. But his work is not really intended, it seems to me, to be read for its sentences. And anyway, an aesthetic reading pulls us away from what I said must remain our target—the shock.

The method of reading I would like to suggest is suggested by a passage about a third of the way into the book:
On a Saturday in early March, Vivaldo stood at his window and watched the morning rise. The wind blew through the empty streets with a kind of dispirited moan; had been blowing all night long, while Vivaldo sat at his worktable, struggling with a chapter which was not going well. He was terribly weary—he had worked in the bookstore all day and then come downtown to do a moving job—but this was not the reason for his paralysis. He did not seem to know enough about the people in his novel. They did not seem to trust him. They were all named, more or less, all more or less destined, the pattern he wished them to describe was clear to him. But it did not seem clear to them. He could move them about but they themselves did not move. He put words in their mouths which they uttered sullenly, unconvinced. With the same agony, or greater, with which he attempted to seduce a woman, he was trying to seduce his people: he begged them to surrender up to him their privacy. And they refused—without, for all their ugly intransigence, showing him the faintest desire to leave him. They were waiting for him to find the key, press the nerve, tell the truth. Then, they seemd to be complaining, they would give him all he wished for and much more than he was now willing to imagine.
Later, at the end of the novel (this isn't really a spoiler, I promise):
The coffee pot, now beginning to growl, was real, and the blue fire beneath it and the pork chops in the pan, and the milk which seemed to be turning sour in his belly. The coffee cups, as he thoughtfully washed them, were real, and the water which ran into them, over his heavy, long hands. Sugar and milk were real, and he set them on the table, another reality, and cigarettes were real, and he lit one. Smoke poured from his nostrils and a detail that he needed for his novel, which he had been searching for for months, fell, neatly and vividly, like the tumblers of a lock, into place in his mind. It seemed impossible that he should not have thought of it before: it illuminated, justified, clarified everything He would work on it later tonight; he thought that perhaps he should make a not of it now; he started toward his worktable. The telephone rang.
It is one of my least favorite critical or scholarly tricks to turn everything into an allegory of authorship, and that is not my intention, but I do think it is valid (and distinct from converting the novel into an allegory of authorship) to read the novel—or any novel, really—in much the same way that Vivaldo is describing his project—as a set of obstinate limits or restrictions on the author's intentions and desires.

In other words, I think the best—i.e. most fruitful, most interesting—manner of reading this novel that still focuses directly on the element of shock is to analyze the way the novel forms and deforms the author's will and ideas. How the novel, its plot, its characters, its style resists the author's shaping hand—and what it reveals about the forces and the vectors coming from that hand—that is, in my mind, anyway, the method most likely to generate questions (and some answers) which cover the most ground and which make the novel both continuously relevant and yet potentially shocking.

How does Vivaldo think he has solved his narrative problems? What is that solution? From what did he derive its answers? Did he remember the "key" and is it present in Another Country somehow? These questions strike to the heart of the book and by their implications preserve, I think, the ability to shock which Baldwin intends.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Firstborn, The House on Marshland, The Triumph of Achilles, Ararat, The Wild Iris, Vita Nova, The Seven Ages, Averno, by Louise Glück

Louise Glück AraratIn "Invitation and Exclusion," one of the essays collected in Proofs and Theories, Louise Glück compares T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens in terms of their relationships to their readers. Eliot, Glück demonstrates, "craves a listener, a single listener who becomes, by virtue of his absorption, Eliot's collaborator." Although one is often baffled by the complexity of Eliot's symbolic order, the reader is also invited to participate in its knowledge; that's why Eliot gives footnotes to "The Waste Land."

Stevens, on the other hand, is not offering any hints. The reader is not the resting place of a Stevens poem; it passes through virtually unchanged. As Glück puts it (more eloquently):

Stevens' meditative poems are not addressed outward; they are allowed to be overheard. That is the nature of meditation: the speaker and the listener are one. But to overhear is to experience exclusion; reading Stevens, I felt myself superfluous, part of some marginal throng. This capacity to efface is not a function of high language; neither is there an assumption of broad audience which emphasizes the inadequacy of the solitary reader. The difficulty to the reader is a function of the poem's mode, its privacy: to be allowed to follow is not to be asked along.

Later she says she experiences his poetry thus: "The song is sung, and it is impossible not to stand in awe of a process so majestic, so exhilarating, so conspicuously private."

The phrase "conspicuously private" does not, in the Facebook era, arrest our notice. We understand it intuitively based on our experiences. We are used to thinking of privacy mainly in terms of our ability to limit, rather than suppress, access to our personal information. (It should be said, to speak of one's private life in a poem is, after all, a way of limiting its dissemination: not everyone reads poetry, clearly—certainly fewer than are checking their Facebook mini-feed at this moment.)

Yet Glück's phrase does not refer to a limitation or suppression of personal information; what it refers to is something that should strike us with some force of unfamiliarity. Stevens's poems, Glück is saying, consist of the impersonal internal memos of a consciousness to itself, and we happen to read them as they're being shuffled by Stevens on his desk. Suppression or limited access is beside the point; these poems are conspicuously private because they need be neither conspicuous nor private in the common sense (which is something like "personal").

Glück, it may be said, neither fully invites nor fully excludes her readers. While Glück rarely uses direct address or a rhetorical question (or other participation inducing devices), her selection of detail, metaphor and myth are consistently and demonstrably aware of their presentation in an overt, rather than an internal manner. Glück seems to anticipate the reader's reactions and experiences in a way Stevens rarely accounts for. This is not merely a question of opacity or abstraction; Glück can be both these things, but her choice of abstractions seems related to their presence in the poem, while Stevens's abstractions seem related to their presence in something else. That is, the world of a Glück poem is a subset of a larger world of myth and experience, and therefore the parts of that larger world are in the subset of the poem because they were placed there. The world of a Stevens poem is coterminous with this larger world, and therefore the things that are in the world of the poem are there not because they are in the poem, but because they are in the larger world.

This does not, it must be said, equate to a smaller or more constrained vision; on the contrary, Glück's poetry enjoys an enormous freedom of vision but it also possesses an extraordinary clarity—clarity not in the sense of an antonym for difficulty, but in the following sense, given by Helen Vendler in a review:
the aesthetic of Glück's verse—or part of it: the acquiring, by renunciation, of a self. Denying itself the possession of the sacred object, the soul finds identity. Acquiring an object means absorbing it into the soul and losing it from view; renouncing it, the soul keeps it in view forever, and is able to see it clearly, free of projection. The sacred object is exposed, its underlying body visible, its form known in the x-ray vision of desire, which by renunciation is enabled into perception.
Glück, describing the work of another poet (George Oppen), illuminates her own along similar lines in the essay "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence": "The poem refuses to project its informing intelligence... This is not insufficiency of feeling, but absence of vanity." Later she says something I believe to be similar: "When poems are difficult, it is often because their silences are complicated, hard to follow. For me, the answer to such moments is not more language."

Silence, absence of vanity and self-renunciation are not the same thing, to be sure, but all three involve a refusal to project oneself—project, remember, can imply both one's voice or one's image—onto the poem, to turn the poem into an echo chamber or a mirror for the poet. Glück's resistance to projection—the displacement of the self onto a foreign body—requires a steady distance between that object and herself, a distance which is not detachment, which would free the object to move at varying distances, but rather a stable level of intimacy. Vendler describes Glück's poetry in these terms exactly: "they have the intensity of a chain of emblematically significant moments, fixed in time." Intimacy cannot change if time is fixed; we grow or diminish in intimacy with someone only by the jostlings of time. Fixity of time is stability of intimacy.

A stable level of intimacy is also what is known as tact, which transcends time (and place), and we see Glück praising Oppen by saying, "It is rare, almost, in my experience... to find such tact in combination with such intensity."

Tact combined with intensity is a perfect characterization of Glück's poems, although it is possible to stress too strongly Glück's apparent coldness (a stress which is usually placed in order to set up a contrast to Plath's hysterical fire, a reading which Glück obliquely corrects in an excellent appreciation of Plath in the aforementioned essay "Invitation and Exclusion). Glück, at times, does not fight this characterization ("I feel / no coldness that can't be explained" is, well, chilling because of its simple eloquence). At other times, however, she warns us (in the critic-alerting poem titled "The Untrustworthy Speaker") "In my own mind I'm invisible: that's why I'm dangerous." Her tact, the stability of her intimacy with and to her poems (and consequently her readers) causes her to drop out of sight herself; the fixity of her distance allows, after a time, no fine calibration of her dimensions or position.

The way she does calibrate these things is through birth order. Like Hass's Field Guide, the choice of title for her first book is baldly revealing of her deepest concerns. It is called Firstborn, a reference (obviously) to its birth order, but also deeply wrapped up in Glück's family history. Glück, I believe, had an older sister who died before she was born or before she was able to know her. Glück also has a younger sister. Glück is therefore not the firstborn, but is the eldest child in her family, a position which is, as many poems show, a constant but unstable tension.

Indeed the logic of family, and of sisters perhaps as the highest or most intense example, is one of unstable and inconsistent levels of intimacy: the coldness of rivalry, the flash of burning jealousy, the warmth of a moment of comfort. There is no tact within a family, but there is intensity; Glück's family is the antithesis of her poetry. But because it is the antithesis, it is also its progenitor; out of its inconsistent intimacy, Glück establishes the rules of her balance of tact and intensity.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Remembrance of Things Purchased

Sex and the City shoesAn interesting paper on Sex and the City and feminism.
While these critiques of SATC [that the show contains an "implicit promotion of a late capitalist value system" or that "The characters blithely reap the benefits of second-wave feminism without ever acknowledging its existence"] are certainly compelling, implicit in these interpretations is the notion that cultural representations of women should serve a corrective or “wish-fulfillment” function, dismantle dominant constructions of gender and class, and forward socially progressive and prescriptive messages. This is a critical stance common to cultural and feminist studies which, while based on a sincere and impassioned desire to effect social change, is nevertheless highly problematic. Too often, materialist feminist readings fail to acknowledge the political instability of consumer culture, instead relying on a leftist orthodoxy that sweepingly characterizes consumers as passive receptors and capitalism as a totalized entity. Such a premise masks the circulation of contradictory discourses and the potential for subversion that are constitutive of the culture itself. In addition, rather than dismissing SATC’s elision of feminism as a sign of its retrograde politics, it might be more productive to consider the show’s silence as a reflection of the ways in which feminism has perhaps failed to address the stereotypes about itself that circulate within dominant popular culture. It is my contention that SATC’s engagement with the often contradictory nature of late capitalism is in fact one of the more realistic and subversive aspects of the show. Given the instability inherent in consumer culture, commodifications of various identity categories have the potential for both resistance and concession...
And if that's not apologetic enough, consider that according to some, Sex and the City is the Recherche of late capitalism.

Friday, January 4, 2008

From "Introduction to The Best American Poetry 1993," by Louise Glück

Watching the returns from Iowa last night, I was also reading some essays by Louise Glück, and ran across this:

I preferred the cleanliness of powerlessness, but the refusal of power differs from lack of power; it places one among the elect to whom a choice is given. This particular mode, this life on the sidelines, preferably the very front of the sidelines, with the best view of the errors of others, promotes feelings of deeply satisfying moral rectitude combined with an invigorating sense of injustice: the particular limitations and insufficiencies and blindnesses of one's own preferences are never exposed because those preferences are never enacted.


New Year's resolution: Leave the sidelines this year.