Monday, March 31, 2008

2008 Tournament of Books

For the past few years, The Morning News has hosted the Tournament of Books, a fusion of NCAA March Madness and the NYT 100 Notable List. Novels from the past year are seeded in brackets [pdf], like the NCAA Final Four Tournament, and guest judges weigh the matchups, advancing a book to the next round.

There are upsets, as one might expect, and controversies. In an interesting twist on the bracket system, after the semifinals, a "zombie round" has been added, in which a previously eliminated book can, by virtue of an esoteric selection process, re-emerge to contest the two books which made it through the field. In the end, the winner gets a rooster as a prize.

I'll cut to the chase: this year Junot Díaz won for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, defeating Tom McCarthy's Remainder after re-eliminating Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, which had been ko'd way back in the first round by Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.

I have written about Díaz previously (on Wao and on Drown) and about Bolaño (The Savage Detectives and By Night in Chile, and I'll probably have a post up about his Nazi Literature in America up in a few days—I just finished it). The rooster is a silly prize and so I guess I'm not too upset about Díaz getting the nod over Bolaño, there is no question in my mind that Bolaño is a writer of a whole different magnitude. This isn't a question of writers working on different types of projects, though that is the case, and I don't think it can even be settled as a matter of taste. There is something inherent about authors like Dostoevsky, Melville, Flaubert, Tolstoy that simply overstrides questions of taste or differences between the authors' "projects." I firmly believe Bolaño belongs in this group. Like him or not, there is a spiritual and imaginative depth, an intellectual capaciousness, a vigor and will of Promethean indomitability which he shares with those other writers which sets him apart.

Díaz, though, is very, very good and I'm glad he's being recognized. But the way the judges recognized him puzzled me. Most dwelt on the nerdiness of Yunior and Oscar, and claimed that they enjoyed the novel because they were drawn to that element and identified to some extent with it ("inside each of us beats a tender, geek heart"). Perhaps nerds are new in "literary fiction" but it seemed to me to be less the defining characteristic of the novel than the Dominican history and culture Díaz filled the book with. I mean, leave it to literate white people to grab onto the whitest element of one of the most brilliant immigrant narratives in English literature and run with it, but still. Completely unexpectedly, Nick Hornby was the only judge to really stress how much Díaz's feel for history meant to him while reading it.

This shifting of emphasis—from something non-white (Dominican/Caribbean history and culture) to something that is normally coded as white (nerdiness/geekiness)—is, I think, a very good example of the phenomenon I wrote of earlier this month—the conversion of immigrant narratives into a new "genteel tradition" for moderate white readers.

Is this a tragedy for Díaz's book? Certainly not—if you read the novel, you can tell just how aware Díaz is of what will happen to his story and his characters.

I don't mean to harp on this issue or be sanctimonious about it—I am very prone to the kind of narcissism I see in the new genteel tradition. It irritated me a bit, though, to see it so fresh and so strong.

But I did really enjoy Gary Shteyngart's shout-out to Bellow ("Not since early Bellow, folks, not since early Bellow…"); the man knows whereof he speaks.

Colm Tóibín on Hart Crane

In the NYRB:
In his poems he worked a gnarled, edgy sound against the singing line; he played a language dense with metaphor and suggestion against images and rhythms of pure soaring beauty. His syntax had something hard and glittering in it, utterly surprising. In his best poems he managed to make the rhythms—the hidden nervous system in the words and between the words—so interesting, intense, and effortless that they command attention and emotional response despite their verbal density, basic difficulty, and what Crane himself called "tangential slants, inter-woven symbolisms."
I would like to one time do a study of the way in which extended characterizations are written, how what amounts to an ekphrasis of a career is composed. How does one bottle the essence of a writer and describe her in her own medium? Should one try to match the writer in style, tempo, and personality while describing her? Or should one rather try to translate her into a different idiom? Are these extended characterizations useful to us when thinking about the writer, or are they merely little trinkets of virtuosity flashed by reviewers to draw our eyes away from a gap between the cramped pedestrian nature of critical writing and the untrammeled spriteliness of creative composition? To put it more succinctly, do these things succeed, and if so, at what?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Facebook and Taste

An article in this week's NYT Sunday Book Review about the ways people judge lovers—potential and actual—by their taste in literature. Nothing insightful in the "essay"—really just a collection of things people said to the writer, Rachel Donadio—but it started me thinking about the way Facebook impacts our "search" for potential friends and/or partners.

I spent all last week listening to "experts" on search engines muse about the way social networking sites will interact with regular search, so I suppose the idea of "search" is one I've had on my mind a lot lately.

The silly thing about Facebook browsers (hereafter "searchers") with the intent to find someone whose interests/tastes/favorites align with theirs is that it lends the search process an artificial feeling of efficiency and of progress—you can eliminate undesirables quickly, without the bother of interaction, and you can mine some advance knowledge of a crush's interests for use in future (largely imaginary) conversations/chance encounters. This illusion of progress/efficiency acts as an encouragement to continue searching and actually deters action. Because the progress you feel like you're making is constant but rarely quickens to the point of impulsivity, search never feels like a total waste of time.

A question occurs to me: what would happen if we were to find someone whose interests and stated tastes were precisely ideal—perhaps even better than our own! Would we feel impelled to email them, "poke" them, at least friend them? Write a gnomic reference to an abstruse text on their wall, declare our existence somehow? I think we'd keep on searching—not for something better, but for inertia's sake. The logic of search is self-perpetuating; we fear its end more than we relish its success. Secretly we know that a successful search result isn't a perfect match, but rather a surprise, and a surprise is always forthcoming.

On the other side—what search engine people call the "publishers"—what we add to our interests follows a necessarily different logic: searchers are terrified of an ideal match/result, but publishers dream only of the ideal searcher. Searchers desire surprises, but publishers desire matches. Why else put anything down? To add any interests at all is to say "I want a searcher who will pause in recognition and interest at these names/jokes/quotes/things, who will be so drawn to this list that they will seek me out." Doing this lends to the publisher as well an illusion of efficiency and progress; as items are added, the publisher refines his/her ideal searcher and disqualifies non-ideal searchers.

The fact that the goals of the searcher and the publisher are not aligned—that they are in fact, opposed—insures the prolongation of activity on the site and inhibits action off-site.

Of course I am only speaking of those people who have highly specialized interests and favorite fields. There are (we've all seen them) persons who actively pursue banality in adding interests—"anything but country" is a common one, or "Friends" or "Da Vinci Code" or "The Bible." These non-discriminations do tell us a great deal about the person—they tell us that they don't read much or much care what they listen to, that taste itself is not something they seek to develop. It also tells us that they don't like leaving things blank, that they feel required to fill in the field despite their having nothing to add. I will let you psychoanalyze that one yourself.

Then there are the people who are cryptic, ironic or disjunctive in their statements of interest—their activities are witticisms or non sequiturs, and rather than listing favorite bands or books, they offer facetious meta-statements about their listening or reading habits (e.g. my favorite books field is "ones with big words"). Are these people—am I—being cagey or coy? Is it an attempt at being slightly enigmatic or at least charmingly droll? Aren't we really just saying, "I am so much more interesting than even the most interesting books, authors, bands, tv shows or films that I've consumed and liked."

I suppose given my inclusion in this group, it is difficult for me to say. I would say that this habit is in most cases not a statement of disinterest in literature or music or what have you, but rather a note of anxiety about the artificiality (and immaturity) of this whole search process.

But what do I know? At one point I thought putting "Sex and the City" in my favorite television field would show that I was a sensitive guy.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Two apparently untitled poems by Elizabeth Bishop

Close close all night
the lovers keep.
They turn together
in their sleep,

close as two pages
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.

Each knows all
the other knows,
learned by heart
from head to toes.


***

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightning struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one's back
All things might change equally easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Changes as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

I would like to examine Lahiri's volume of short stories in the light of an old American idea, a notion which describes a very old American ideal.

In 1911, George Santayana delivered an address before a Berkeley audience entitled, "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy." In that speech, and in many of his writings that followed it, he gently indicted American culture for being a "young country with an old mentality… [but] not simply [that]: it is a country with two mentalities, one a survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers, the other an expression of the instincts, practice, and discoveries of the younger generations. In all the higher things of the mind—in religion, in literature, in the moral emotions—it is the hereditary spirit that still prevails… The truth is that that one-half of the American mind, that not occupied intensely in practical affairs, has remained, I will not say high-and-dry, but slightly becalmed; it has floated gently in the backwater, while, alongside, in invention and industry and social organization the other half of the mind was leaping down a sort of Niagara Rapids." Elsewhere he described this split as "a curious alternation and irrelevance… as between weekdays and Sabbaths, between American ways and American opinions."

Santayana drew the outlines of the genteel tradition in broad but bold strokes: "The chief fountains of this tradition were Calvinism and transcendentalism. Both were living fountains, but to keep them alive they required, one an agonized conscience, and the other a radical subjective criticism of knowledge. When these rare metaphysical preoccupations disappeared—and the American atmosphere is not favorable to either of them—the two systems ceased to be inwardly understood; they subsisted as sacred mysteries only; and the combination of the two in some transcendental system of the universe (a contradiction in principle) was doubly artificial. Besides, it could hardly be held with a single mind."

Santayana's disdain for this guileless duplicity is, in these quotes, considerably restrained, but the genteel tradition as he saw it, and as many other writers (and particularly literary critics) saw it, was an anchor around the neck of American culture.

Indictments (however gentle) and disdain is definitely not where I'm going with this comparison, but I do not think the disdain is a necessary corollary to the analysis anyway, so with that said, I'll proceed to the comparison itself.

Doubleness is the most common and most universal American experience. For Santayana, it characterizes the dominant New England culture of Longfellow, Emerson, the Atlantic Monthly. He may not have been entirely fair to this tradition (or at least not to Emerson), but his account of the "cool abstract piety" of genteel America resonated with those who felt hemmed in by the dominant culture, and their break with it was largely on the grounds Santayana laid out.

W.E.B DuBois famously described black culture as "gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

The "Immigrant Experience" is likewise characterized almost uniformly by a sense of duality, and its origins are obvious and unsurprising: to experience many and sometimes most moments both in their particularity and in their difference from other particular moments, real or imagined, is to live life partially in parallel with oneself. Every adjustment to a new culture exposes a retention of other ways, other thoughts, other things.

I would suggest, therefore, that insofar as literature, film, or theater about Black Americans or immigrants foregrounds this "two-ness," mainstream white American culture will consume it avidly precisely because it reflects the experience they/we have created for ourselves and in which we continue to live, placidly and rather soporifically. And I would even go so far as to say that, in the past decade's absence of very many "genteel" white American authors (or at any rate very many good upper-middlebrow ones), immigrant narratives—Jhumpa Lahiri, Khalid Hosseini, Julia Álvarez, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Ha Jin, Chang-Rae Lee, Sandra Cisneros, Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, Michael Chabon's Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—have become a new Genteel Tradition.

What marks these authors—not all of them, but many of them—is an aversion to the types of two-ness, the types of dualisms that produce the sense of the uncanny. For Freud, the uncanny is the realm of doubles asymmetrical by a menacingly few degrees, of parallax, of things familiar but unplaceable.

Rather than the uncanny, their doubling draws on the tension inherent in mimesis. Reproducing in art what appears to our eyes creates a proliferating set of problems, well known to most people who have read more than one book and have perhaps reflected upon them for a moment. The fact that mimesis fails—inevitably—in its ostensible goal—to, as Auerbach has it, "represent reality"—fortifies the foundations of art. Offering a basic set of judgments and appreciations to the reader, mimetic works engage them in stable ways, or at most in unstable ways that occupy mostly permanent positions within a stable system. The uncanny ignores this system and strikes at instability directly—apart from the stabilities which ground mimesis. The depiction/creation of the uncanny is not a form of failed mimesis, and its presence in a work of art ejects the mimetic stabilities from their places as guarantors of the reader's decisions of taste and judgments of quality.

Lahiri's stories lay their juxtapositions before you so gently, prepare their metaphors so meticulously, fashion their character arcs so cleanly that when shocks come (as in the first, beautiful story, "A Temporary Matter") they are absorbed without residue into the events, the pace, and the words that came before. Which is not to say that you turn the page and lose the characters, the plot or the effects of the story, that Lahiri's neatness in storytelling results in an emotionally sterility. Quite the opposite; her stories are alive and stay well with you. Yet their life is a different kind from a work like Melville's Bartleby, say, or Henry James's Aspern Papers, both of which stood (as did most of their authors' work) directly athwart the Genteel Tradition.

This is not a complaint, an accusation that Lahiri or the others I mentioned are a part of a moribund tradition. What may be moribund—and I think quite likely is—is the white culture of consumption that appreciates these books and lauds them with Pulitzers and sales. Santayana's critique was directed at the artistic culture of his time; that was a tactical mistake and was repeated quite often throughout the 20th century. What he should have loaded his guns for was the bigger game—the affluent, languidly moderate consumer culture of well-intentioned white liberals that continuously fed the lukewarm flames of the Genteel Tradition with fame and money. That culture continues apace today, and is just as worthy of critique and disdain.

More Intelligent Life

The Economist's new(ish?) culture mag, More Intelligent Life, is giving us "the reviewers reviewed"—offering us a guide to the best book, film, music, dance and art critics (aka a Meta-Metacritic). They haven't linked these together very well, so here is
That seems to be it for now, but they may put up a section for television and hopefully one for food.

Since it is The Economist, it is quite transatlantic, but it is also very narrowly limited to New York and London. Not that this is a debilitating limitation (the good reviewers do tend to congregate in the metropoles), but one might hope they'd look a bit further afield and be a bit more diligent in their research.

Among book critics some they have left off unfairly are (I actually added a comment to this effect) Dan Chiasson and Adam Kirsch. I should have also thrown in James Longenbach, Sam Anderson, Daniel Mendelsohn and James Wolcott, not to mention the n+1 Fab Five (Marco Roth, Benjamin Kunkel, Mark Greif, Chad Harbach and Keith Gessen).

In film, I think they missed the boat on the writers of Reverse Shot and... well actually I dislike most film critics who write for major papers or magazines. Their tastes are fundamentally glib, with small variations—a meager passion for innovation, a shallow interest in the cultural valence of a film. Their opinions and, more destructively, their emotions seemed confined to what flies in a column-length expression.

UPDATE [3/18]: The Guardian comments on the lists and points me to this TONY survey from 2006.

From "Clepsydra," by John Ashbery

Hasn't the sky? Returned from moving the other
Authority recently dropped, wrested as much of
That sever sunshine as you need now on the way
You go. The reason why it happened only since
You woke up is letting the steam disappear
From those clouds when the landscape all around
Is hilly sites that will have to be reckoned
Into the total for there to be more air: that is,
More fitness, read into the undeduced result, than land.
This means never getting any closer to the basic
Principle operating behind it than to the distracted
Entity of a mirage. The half-meant, half-perceived
Motions of fronds out of idle depths that are
Summer. And expansion into little draughts.
The reply wakens easily, darting from
Untruth to willed moment, scarcely called into being
Before it swells, the way a waterfall
Drums at different levels. Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment: but
The sky has pleaded already and this is about
As graceful a kind of non-absence as either
Has a right to expect: whether it's the form of
Some creator who has momentarily turned away,
Marrying detachment with respect, so that the pieces
Are seen as parts of a spectrum, independent
Yet symbolic of their staggered times of arrival;
Whether on the other hand all of it is to be
Seen as no luck. A recurring whiteness like
The face of stone pleasure, urging forward as
Nostrils what only meant dust. But the argument,
That is its way, has already left these behind: it
Is, it would have you believe, the white din up ahead
That matters: unformed yells, rocketings,
Affected turns, and tones of voice called
By upper shadows toward some cloud of belief
Or its unstated circumference. But the light
Has already gone from there too and it may be that
It is lines contracting into a plane. We hear so much
Of its further action that at last it seems that
It is we, our taking it into account rather, that are
The reply that prompted the question, and
That the latter, like a person waking on a pillow
Has the sensation of having dreamt the whole thing,
Of returning to participate in that dream, until
The last word is exhausted; certainly this is
Peace of a sort, like nets drying in the sun,
That we must progress toward the whole thing
About an hour ago. As long as it is there
You will desire it as its tag of wall sinks
Deeper as though hollowed by sunlight that
Just fits over it; it is both mirage and the little
That was present, the miserable totality
Mustered at any given moment, like your eyes
And all they speak of, such as your hands, in lost
Accents beyond any dream of ever wanting them again.
To have this to be constantly coming back from—
Nothing more, really, than surprise at your absence
And preparing to continue the dialogue into
Those mysterious and near regions that are
Precisely the time of its being furthered.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Two by John Ashbery

From "Illustration"

II
Much that is beautiful must be discarded
So that we may resemble a taller

Impression of ourselves. Moths climb in the flame,
Alas, that wish only to be the flame:

They do not lessen our stature.
We twinkle under the weight

Of indiscretions. But how could we tell
That of the truth we know, she was

The somber vestment? For that night, rockets sighed
Elegantly over the city, and there was feasting:

There is so much in that moment!
So many attitudes toward that flame,

We might have soared from earth, watching her glide
Aloft, in her peplum of bright leaves.

But she, of course, was only an effigy
Of indifference, a miracle

Not meant for us, as the leaves are not
Winter's because it is the end.


"Some Trees"

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

Impertinent Question 2: John Cassavetes and Faces

john cassavetes faces lynn carlinWatched John Cassavetes' Faces last night. Loved it. But I couldn't help thinking, how much of the script was dictated by the fact that Cassavetes had shitty recording equipment? I mean, a solid 85% of the film's lines are delivered at havoc-level volume, which meant that I caught about 78% of the dialogue (I have a crappy television). Now, if Cassavetes were, proleptically, a mumblecore filmmaker, would this film even have been possible? Not a chance.

I don't mean to say that Cassavetes is unique in having to adapt to the technical constraints of filmmaking, but I do find it interesting how singularly determining this one aspect of filming might have been on the development of the story, the characters, and the acting.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

From "Dimensions for a Novel," by Elizabeth Bishop

To requote again {from Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent"}: "The existing monuments [read moments] form an ideal order among themselves. . ." and "The existing order is complete before the new work arrives. . ."

Almost, it seems to me, one is born with a perfect sense of generalities. At five years one looks around the dinner table at the cumulative family with as great a sense of recognition and understanding as ever comes later on. There is always an absolute pitch, a perfection to the understanding which may shift, branch out suddenly, or retreat, and yet can never be "improved on." The existing order is complete; every other is absorbed into it. When you see someone for the first time, in the blank moment just before or during a hand-shake, this knowledge of them slips into the mind and no matter what you may learn of them later this is always the first fact about them: a knowledge of recognition which when compared to the things you may learn of them later is much the more amazing. The connection between this and my idea of the interplay of influence between present and past may seem at first a little obscure, but in reality the latter depends directly upon it. I can think of the existing moments which make up their "ideal order" as existing first of all as these moments of recognition. From a vacant pinpoint of certainty start out these geometrically accurate lines, star-beams, pricking out the past, or present, or casting ahead into the future.

***

We have all had the experience of apparently escaping the emotional results of an event, of feeling no joy or sorrow where joy or sorrow was to be expected, and the suddenly having the proper emotion appear several hours or even days later. The experience could not really have been counted chronologically as having taken place, surely, until this emotion belonging to it had been felt. The crises of our lives do not come, I think, accurately dated; they crop up unexpected and out of turn, and somehow or other arrange themselves according to a calendar we cannot control. If, for example, I have a "feeling" that something is going to happen, and it does, the the feeling proper to that experience has come too early—its proper place was afterwards. If I suffer a terrible loss and do not realize it till several years later among different surroundings, then the important fact is not the original loss so much as the circumstance of the new surroundings which succeeded in letting the loss through to my consciousness. It may seem that when a novelist talks about such things he is giving them the credit they deserve, but it seems to me that the fact of experience-time can be made of use possibly in its own order, in order to explain the endless hows and whys of incident and character more precisely than before. Again, I do not believe this in any way contradicts my belief in the expression of the constant re-adjustment of the actions within a novel—rather, it only helps to bear it out. Events arriving out of accepted order are nevertheless arriving in their own order, and the process will be just as true, no matter whether 2:4 :: 4:8, or 4:2 :: 8:4.

This is very plainly related to my original conviction that each successive part of a novel should somehow illuminate the preceding parts for us, that the whole should grow together. A belated emotion points back, of course, to whatever caused it, which was experienced in two different ways, each way exerting its own influence, the two seeking to eradicate or supplement each other.

***

In a recent little book called Acting, by Richard Bolislavsky, rhythm is defined as "the orderly, measurable changes of all the different elements comprised in a work of art—provided that all those changes progressively stimulate the attention of the spectator and lead invariably to the final aim of the artist." This definition, plain enough when applied, say, to the music of Mozart may seem rather obscure when applied to the loose form of the novel. But just possibly everything I have been saying could be set down under the heading of rhythm. The "ideal order," the relation of present to past in the novel naturally arises from "the orderly, measurable changes of all the different elements comprised." And my belief in the peculiar cross-hatchings of events and people also amounts to a feeling for rhythm. A superstition or coincidence, even, is "rhythmical" in that it achieves a motion between two things and a balancing of them. And what is "experience-time" but a more careful, exact method of looking at the materials to be used, and perhaps a means of marshalling them more rhythmically.

From Natural History, by Dan Chiasson

XII. Pliny (II)

I became a tiny eye to see into the eye of a sparrow,
a cricket's eye, a baby's eye; when I looked

at the night sky, I made my eye as big as history, for
the night sky is a kaleidoscope of past times,

as noted astronomer Carl Sagan said. I watched TV and
made my eye a TV: lidless, rash gazer at whatever happens,

casting shadows of what happens for the neighbors,
whose eyes are the size of windows, my windows, and sharpen

their sight to voluptuous desire, voyeur voyeur
pants on fire. Anything half-seen becomes what's on,

becomes the neighbor's newscast, lotto drawing, rerun.
How do you know a child has died except by watching

trays of casseroles brought in, the old sit-down,
peoples' bodies doing as bodies will against the wall?

Two by Hart Crane

"Possessions"

Witness now this trust! the rain
That steals softly direction
And the key, ready to hand—sifting
One moment in sacrifice (the direst)
Through a thousand nights the flesh
Assaults outright for bolts that linger
Hidden,—O undirected as the sky
That through its black foam has no eyes
For this fixed stone of lust. . .

Accumulate such moments to an hour:
Account the total of this trembling tabulation.
I know the screen, the distant flying taps
And stabbing medley that sways—
And the mercy, feminine, that stays
As though prepared.

And I, entering, take up the stone
As quiet as you can make a man. . .
In Bleecker Street, still trenchant in a void,
Wounded by apprehensions out of speech,
I hold it up against a disk of light—
I, turning, turning on smoked forking spires,
The city's stubborn lives, desires.

Tossed on these horns, who bleeding dies,
Lacks all but piteous admissions to be spilt
Upon the page whose blind sum finally burns
Record of rage and partial appetites.
The pure possession, the inclusive cloud
Whose heart is fire shall come,—the white wind rase
All but bright stones wherein our smiling plays.

***

From "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen"

I
The mind has shown itself at times
Too much the baked and labeled dough
Divided by accepted multitudes.
Across the stacked partitions of the day—
Across the memoranda, baseball scores,
The stenographic smiles and stock quotations
Smutty wings flash out equivocations.

The mind is brushed by sparrow wings;
Numbers, rebuffed by asphalt, crowd
The margins of the day, accent the curbs,
Convoying divers dawns on every corner
To druggist, barber and tobacconist,
Until the graduate opacities of evening
Take them away as suddenly to somewhere
Virginal perhaps, less fragmentary, cool.

There is the world dimensional for
those untwisted by the love of things
irreconcilable ...

And yet, suppose some evening I forgot
The fare and transfer, yet got by that way
Without recall,—lost yet poised in traffic.
Then I might find your eyes across an aisle,
Still flickering with those prefigurations—
Prodigal, yet uncontested now,
Half-riant before the jerky window frame.

There is some way, I think, to touch
Those hands of yours that count the nights
Stippled with pink and green advertisements.
And now, before its arteries turn dark
I would have you meet this bartered blood.
Imminent in his dream, none better knows
The white wafer cheek of love, or offers words
Lightly as moonlight on the eaves meets snow.

Reflective conversion of all things
At your deep blush, when ecstasies thread
The limbs and belly, when rainbows spread
Impinging on the throat and sides ...
Inevitable, the body of the world
Weeps in inventive dust for the hiatus
That winks above it, bluet in your breasts.

The earth may glide diaphanous to death;
But if I lift my arms it is to bend
To you who turned away once, Helen, knowing
The press of troubled hands, too alternate
With steel and soil to hold you endlessly.
I meet you, therefore, in that eventual flame
You found in final chains, no captive then—
Beyond their million brittle, bloodshot eyes;
White, through white cities passed on to assume
That world which comes to each of us alone.
Accept a lone eye riveted to your plane,
Bent axle of devotion along companion ways
That beat, continuous, to hourless days—
One inconspicuous, glowing orb of praise.

Monday, March 3, 2008

God and Man at Yale, by William F. Buckley

william f. buckley god and man at yaleI had actually borrowed this book from my local library a few days before Buckley died, making this post somewhat awkwardly apposite.

I don't really wish to deal with the many obituaries and salutes that have been written; I wish to deal simply with this book.

Buckley promotes his views coherently, if tediously. The fact that his premises are absurd (and that he never argues for their validity—"this essay will not attempt to prove either the divinity of Christ or to defend the advantages of conducting our lives with reference to divine sanctions. Nor shall I attempt to demonstrate the contemporary applicability of the principal theses of Adam Smith. Rather, I will proceed on the assumption that Christianity and freedom are 'good,' without ever worrying that by so doing I am being presumptuous") is taken in stride. Buckley is not in the least interested in convincing those who dispute those premises that his thesis has any worth; his sole audience are those men who agree with him on the inviolability of Christianity and free-market fundamentalism, but are less sanguinary when it comes to forcing those inviolate orthodoxies upon others. His point is to convince his fellow travelers that they need to get moving, and not to convince his opponents that his is the right direction. As I count myself among the latter group, the book is not for me.

It is rather revealing, though, on one core point which nicely illuminates much broader issues in modern conservatism. Buckley insists that the academic marriage of research and teaching is an innately adulterous one, or rather that it is a marriage of economic convenience: "since the scholar, like his fellow-man, must earn his keep, tradition has it that in the afternoon he will utilize the university's libraries and laboratories, generally to satisfy his own desires, while in the morning he will use the classrooms to satisfy other people's desires." Buckley takes this dubious division and runs with it, using it to argue that "the researcher must satisfy consumer demands during those hours of his working day during which he earns his income. Research may occupy him as an avocation, as it has so many scholars. More likely, far-sighted individuals will continue to contribute funds to autonomous research. We can assume, or at least we can hope, that there will continue to be 'consumers' of 'untrammeled research.'" Because that's what "untrammeled research" is there for, after all—to be consumed.*

Buckley's sharp division of research against teaching allows him to assert that research alone has been the motor of intellectual progress, in isolation from teaching. And this segmentation process, coupled with Buckley's desired marketization of both research and teaching that you can see above, allows him to cast research—and therefore progress—out of the academy proper and into the dim netherworld of grant-writing and midnight-oil hobby-horsing. Nice job, Bill.

But the fascinating aspect of this line of argumentation is the dynamics of change it presumes: Buckley believes that only research initiates change because he sees research as a peripheral activity. Indeed, for him change always starts as a peripheral force which succeeds only by displacing the previous "truth," and displacing that "truth" cleanly, as a simple substitution, like a new homeowner who doesn't do much with the place—maybe repaints a few walls, puts in a new bookcase. In some cases, Buckley acknowledges, the new "truth" merely is subletting and will be gone soon.

The deficiencies of this view should be clear, and one can find in them the seeds of a great number of failings in American politics (like Iraq, where we would supposedly take up residence smoothly, a neat substition—and tremendous upgrade at a discount!—over Saddam) as well as much of its appeal. The remarkable ending of the Cold War, which played out (at least on television) in spectacular fulfillment of this philosophy of change, gave conservatives a whole world of vindication. The fact remains that the ostensible smoothness of the fall of Communism was both anomalous and the result of numerous highly contingent forces, but try telling that to a National Review reader.

The origin of these deficiencies is the unwavering confidence Buckley and those like him have in the governance of both historical and mundane actions by rational choice (a good term for what it really is—the rationing of choice—some get big bowls of choice, others a spoonful). Buckley (and others, notably Allan Bloom) see choice—and therefore change—as discrete. Buckley refers obsessively to "value alternatives," and to a very large degree, "alternative" is the word (and the reality) he prefers to "choice." While the word "alternative" can refer to "two or more" choices, its force comes from its insistence on natural limits to the number of options that exist (cf. "select" vs. "choose") and discreteness in terms of the divisions between options. One can't select one of a number of alternatives and get part of another just by sloppiness. "Alternative" also calls to mind "alternate" (the verb), "to perform or do in succession or one after another," which suggests that change is carried out linearly, along one axis of selection or action.

But change is not discrete and it is not naturally limited and it is not linear. Change is messy, and it doesn't always work steadily from the outside in. I'm going to guess that as world and national events begin validating this view of change, Buckleycons will fade away, although that change too will not likely be smooth.



*And there's this great quote too: "It is of the essence of freedom that citizens not be made to pay for what the majority does not want, and there is no exception to this rule that does not entail a surrender of freedom and a substitution of minority for majority rule." So corporate-perpetrated environmental degradation is the biggest abridgment of freedom imaginable? After all, what majority wants to pay for sulfur-water? Or super-hurricanes? Could the market... fail... to account for... this? Egad.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Molloy and Malone Dies, by Samuel Beckett

samuel beckett trilogy molloy malone dies unnameableA blurb on the back of the edition you see at the left states, " In the trilogy, Beckett is creating his own death in prose, quarrying right down to the subterranean country of his heart. . . What remains is a terminal vision, a terminal style and, from the point of view of possible development, a work at least as aesthetically terminal as Finnegan's Wake."

The word "terminal" is the modernist's plaudit par excellence, though it is a strange thing to praise something for coming to an end. The term neatly captures the ambivalence of a society in the grip of thanatos; its employment demonstrates a contempt for construction and a passion for depletion.

But if it attests to the death-drive prevalent particularly in the arts, the ambiguity inherent in the word also illuminates other facets of the modernist sensibility. For "terminal" is not just an adjective—think also of the noun. One cannot have a solitary terminal, but only a series, a system of disjunctures in a path. A terminal is the endpoint of a journey, but systemic motion continues. The distinction of creating a terminal point comes not from one's effect on the direction of the larger system, but from the demonstration of the impossibility of further movement in any direction other than the main one. You may always pass through to the next terminal and the next, but there is no chance of progress once you pause and set your foot tangential to that path. The Lost Generation, for example, proved to no one that American life was exhausted, but that expatriation—a divagation from the mainline of American life—was a dead end, was terminal.

It would be easy to read Beckett's famous, frequently quoted expressions of resignation ("I can't go on. I'll go on" "
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.") as an affirmation of this latter sense of terminality. But I do not think that is the case. Neither Beckett's skepticism nor his resignation are derived from a sense that all tangents from life's mainline are fruitless and doomed to failure, but rather from the recognition of how weak that mainline is. For Beckett, language, the most crucial element of the human being, is the expression of that weakness.

Language represents for Beckett the inevitability of persistence—the key characteristic of it is that it goes on, often indifferent to our desires for dynamics and drama, always at pace with itself and its inertia. This is persistence not in an active sense of perpetual effort, but in the passive sense of modest continuance. Sisyphus is not the right myth for humanity, nor Atlas—the defining characteristic of life is not, as we would like to believe, heroic struggle, but rather the fact that it continues, as long as it continues. That is a tautology, but I do not think Beckett much cares. Simple persistence in the face of the slow attrition of living—that is Beckett's core truth, and one that excludes the modernist glee in the face of "terminality."

Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

jay mcinerney bright lights big city

You have just finished reading Bright Lights, Big City and what strikes you the most about the novel is not the parlour trick second-person narration (which you have all too obviously adopted in composing your thoughts on the novel) nor even the glamour and raciness of the slice of life you just consumed, but rather the geographic dynamics of the novel, particularly with regard to a Midwest/NY dyad integral to the plot and the personality of the novel. You realize that this line of thought is merely a consistent preoccupation with you, almost independent of what you read, but you also know that there is something definite to your thoughts, that there is a reality to your sense of a strong Midwestern presence in the novel.


Bright Lights does, of course, have an actual Midwestern presence—the protagonist's wife is from Kansas City, and he had been in a sort of sojourn there, working as a reporter before he moved to the City. But you feel there is more to it than that. Often read, as is a great deal of literature set in New York, as an insider's depiction of the city and its culture (or a segment thereof), the strangeness of New York, the alienness of it to the protagonist (and to a subtler extent, to the narrator) is often ignored. But more than that, what is most defining about the novel is the instability of the constant effort, displayed by nearly all characters you encounter, to displace this alien quality onto another. No one in the novel is definably a New Yorker, yet everyone is one in relation to someone else; everyone is more a New Yorker than their neighbor, co-worker, or friend.


The title gives it away—"Bright Lights, Big City" is an outsider's view of New York, but it is also the reaction New Yorkers ascribe to those emigrants fresh to New York. Derived from an old blues standard by Jimmy Reed, we see the meaning of the title quite clearly in the song's lyrics:


Bright lights, big city
Gone to my baby's head
Bright lights, big city
Gone to my baby's head
[...]
I still love you baby
Cause you don't know what it's all about

Bright lights, big city
Gone to my baby's head
Bright lights, big city
Gone to my baby's head


Although the singer is the one disoriented by his lover's actions, the bright lights have gone to her head—the disorientation is displaced. While this parallels the protagonist's experience (and psychological defenses) neatly and exactly, it is also the precise model of the novel's own narrative strategies. The second-person narration (which you really enjoyed) is an overt strategy of displacement, although not in the terms one would assume.


The second-person ploy is so un-coy, so (purposely) unconvincing in its effort to displace what are clearly very personal experiences onto you-the-reader that its real effect is not so much to separate the sentiments and the plot from an identification with the author, but to induce you to read the novel as if it were written in free indirect discourse, despite the pronouns. The displacement achieved by the second-person narration is indistinct from that which Austen achieves in Mansfield Park—you are given the sense that the author is wiser than his or her protagonist, but only by a bit, only enough for a limited evaluation of their actions and emotions. This often-vanishing margin of omniscience is, of course, captivating, taking you close enough to the characters to feel with them, to allow you to project your feelings onto them, but far enough away that you don't need to feel their sentiments projected onto you. You can see yourself in Fanny Price, but you never need to see Fanny in you. Similarly, because of the stylistic distantiation integral to modernist works playing with consciousness (e.g. Portrait, Sound and Fury) you do not need to see Quentin's or Stephen's foibles in yourself, but you can see your own nobility, pathos or intelligence in them.


What free indirect discourse and modernist stylization create is the grounds for controlling the circulation of identity that is a constituent part of the reading experience. Their particular conceits establish the framework for a particular kind of voyeurism. The second-person narration of Bright Lights, Big City establishes a similar circulation of identity, but one with a bit less control and with a bit more anxiety. The one-way mirror of free indirect discourse has become intermittently permeable—at times the second-person address is more real than others. Most of the time you are reading the novel indifferently with regard to pronouns (this is true for most reading, you think), but occasionally, the "you" strikes you as more direct. The smoothness of the narration is disrupted, and you notice the pronouns as something strange, disorienting. For that moment, you experience the novel as an exercise in displacement and the narrative displacement feels like your own actions as a reader.


This is not all that distinct from your experience as a person who has lived in, or at least in the orbit of, New York. Most of the time, you live with careful attention to your identity as a New Yorker, but indifferently to the appropriate pronoun that identity might take. Are you truly assertive to use the first-person pronoun when referring to New York in all situations? Don't you occasionally slip into the third person—"New Yorkers do x or think y"—perhaps when you feel tentative before someone who may have a stronger claim on New Yorker-ness or, conversely, who has a more solid claim on a non-New York identity. Describing to someone who is definitively not a New Yorker, don't you feel somewhat awkward simply assuming the first-person position in relation to the City? You can't always say "we do x or think y," can you? Although you do, sometimes, especially when in the company of others whose claim to New Yorker-ness is approximately equivalent with your own—you have all moved there after college or you have all gone to college there and are visiting once more, or you have all lived there for a time before college.


New Yorker-ness, therefore, is something you can achieve or perform only in a setting of equality, or approximate equality; you can only be a New Yorker without being conscious of it when you are among others who have equivalent claims to New Yorker-ness. When you are in a position of holding a greater claim of New Yorker-ness (say, you're riding the subway with someone visiting for a weekend from New Haven) or when you are in a position of holding a lesser claim to New Yorker-ness (say, you're talking to a Columbia grad who now lives in Soho, while you just moved there after college and live in Queens), you are made equally conscious of the claim you have in reality, and that consciousness disrupts your performance of simple identity as an "I/we" equivalent to "New Yorker."


The anxiety this disruption produces is managed by circulation—rather than engineer or accept an intense and universal hierarchy of New Yorker-ness, you buy into a system wherein everyone understands and acts as an "I" in constant motion, an "I" that waxes and wanes in New Yorker-ness depending on your present location in the city (Harlem? Chinatown? Financial District?) and your present company (bankers? writers? hipsters?). Your identity as a New Yorker is multivariate, not linear; you calibrate your own identity not by bracketing yourself with someone who is more and someone who is less a New Yorker than yourself, but by measuring yourself against your immediate environment, your companions, your past, your occupation, your clothes and your interests. The bar-hopping scene central to Bright Lights is simply the socio-physical manifestation of this circulatory identity.


This process is, of course, not very different from how you perform, among other things, gender or nationality. Or at least it isn't now, in your specific age range, class, and educational background. Although I think it is changing, identity is still largely a bracketing process, linear and hierarchical, non-circulatory. And here is where I see the Midwestern influence on McInerney's novel. There are pockets of simple bracketing, mostly related to the protagonist's ex-wife, Amanda, from Kansas City. These come together in a simple object present in Amanda's childhood home—a souvenir Statue of Liberty, a token which incontrovertibly establishes a binary identity of New Yorker/non-New Yorker, which in this instance (and, I would argue, in most instances) is re-written as New Yorker/Midwesterner. In the novel, Midwestern identity—outsider identity—is focused in that souvenir. "It's my mother all over," Amanda says of it, already trying to displace her own Midwesternness onto her mother.


Her efforts to deracinate herself are integrated into her modeling career—she is notably referred to as "plastic," not in the sense of "artificial" (although she is that), but in the sense of being able to assume any posture—"temptress, businesswoman, girl next door," as one designer says. As she scales the ladder of couture success, she does so not by forming an identity, but by shedding it, leaving behind the Midwest but not joining New York. But without this conversion, the novel leaves the Midwest as a simple opposite to New York, an inert dichotomy. It is there, briefly, but inactive.


However, its presence is critical, an outlet to prevent the novel from wallowing in a bath of pure New Yorker solipsism, just as the second-person narration is not really functional but is still necessary to diffuse the intensity and anxiety of the very personal plot and emotions.


There is, of course, the famous New Yorker cover which illustrates this necessary insignificance perfectly:Solipsism is incoherent, even for a New Yorker, and thus you must have the small, homogeneous, greenish patches to achieve a proper view of your city (or at least part of it). Although New Yorker-ness is circulatory, it is yet dependent on the assumption that there is someone out there to look at New York, someone who will see it and admire the bright lights, big city, and be a little dazed.