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2004.11 =>

[OCTOBER 2004.]

carver's tradition

 

time is a train

Finding myself in Palo Alto this morning, with class canceled, I took a weird nostalgia trip on the Marguerite shuttle and spent half the day at Stanford. The wing of the library that I remembered as closed for earthquake reconstruction has been restored, and there are beautiful reading rooms there; I also dropped by the bookstore and saw the syllabus for the course my old advisor is teaching (Ulysses, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, the odes of Keats, John Ashbery's early poems, a couple of other books on philosophy and aesthetics that I wasn't familiar with [1] [2]—good work). Inexplicably, they did not have the new book by said advisor in either the Stanford Authors or lit crit section—not that I want to buy a fifty-dollar book, but I would have liked to browse. All the copies are checked out of all the university libraries in California.

I also went up to the seasonal lake I used to frequent when I was eighteen, to see if I could recover my adolescent idealism—and in fact it was right where I had left it, buried under a secret marker rock. I pressed it back into the soil, where it can germinate for another five years or so, and wrote a thousand words. Coming back on BART (I'm learning not to use the definite article) I passed through the southern part of San Francisco that I only ever see from BART because there aren't any restaurants or bookstores—people just live there—and I tried to see it as I might remember it in ten years, after I've taken an academic appointment in a Siberian yurt or wherever I end up: the sunlit rows of houses sliding past one another as the train slides along its track, the city already exotic and half unreal, like a postcard, already ripe for memory.

 

the children's hour

(girls jumping rope)
Lacan, Lacan, your brain is gone!
It's rolling off across the lawn!
It's not that your ideas are wrong,
But where's your brain gone, Jacques Lacan?

 

the miller's tale

Yes, you folks might be right—I'm not sure I could kick the fiction habit even if I wanted to. Anyway, all seems new and sunlit and better. The SOLO BASURA signs on the trash cans inspire me to rumba.

Sólo basura—en mi corazón—
Sólo basura—en cada rincón—
Ay cuantas noches—he querido amarte—
Pero esta basura sólo—quiere—ahogarte—
(cha-cha, cha-cha-cha)

Anyway, I have to get back to the millstone. It must grind exceeding fine.

 

the mileposts slip past the headlights, the numbers too quick to discern

Not apocalyptic thoughts. More like hurricane-shelter thoughts. Did I buy enough plywood?

I've had two weeks off from the book in order to do research and schoolwork. Writing the papers is the real problem here; I could read Seven Types of Ambiguity by day and write fiction by night until the cows come home, but can't mix it up with other kinds of verbal output very well. It isn't just the word count I need to turn out, although that's part of it—they are fundamentally different kinds of thought, and it's all too easy to see how, given enough time to metastasize, the analytic might strangle the creative. (I don't like that word much, "creative," it's so New Age. I'd rather call it something pretentious like "poesis," but the adjective "poetic" is too narrow. Anyway.) You don't even have to ascribe much mystery to the creative process. Put simply: when Nabokov was writing Lolita, he was not thinking of the same things as people who write papers on Lolita, and if he had been thinking of those things, he never would have finished it. Or mourned, mocked Coleridge and his tomes of translated German theory:

And haply by abstruse research to steal
  From my own nature all the natural man—
  This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.

I know you could name me a dozen novelist/critics who didn't end up in sanatoriums; but honestly, most of them were bad critics or bad novelists or both. It's a move between freshwater and saltwater.

But there are fish that can do it. I must be a brave anadromous fish. That "must" isn't hyperbole, either—the truth is that I'm not good enough at criticism to make a career out of it alone, and if I am to continue at all in this field it will have to be on the strength of this weird dual skill set, this possibly incompatible skill set.

Long odds. I've been playing roulette on credit for years now. If this book fails, I don't think there will be another one.

 

paedogogy

Plenty of moralistic types attacked Lolita when it first came out, and funnily enough, they seem to have gotten certain things more right than the book's defenders. Take this cranky paragraph from the New Republic:

There is in reality a shadow, unperceived by most of the serious critics but known to social workers and mental institutions. It is that of the real Lolitas who exist in darkness throughout their lives. And this shadow, among us in the flesh, is what obliges us to differ with our own reviewer who considered that "to dwell on the book's more lurid side is to connive with witlessness."

(first-page editorial, 27 October 1958)

It's true that Nabokov wasn't interested in writing a public-service announcement, but it's easy to take his professed belief in aesthetics above all else much too far and completely ignore the book's moral dimension, such as one well-meaning chap did in the Spectator.

It is further argued that the book records the gratification of a sexual perversion, a charge which is similarly irrelevant, and in addition untrue; the narrator's inclinations are exclusively heterosexual, and paedophilia, while certainly illegal, is not a perversion in the sense which paederasty or heterosexual anal intercourse is.

(Bernard Levin, 9 January 1959)

Ah, so anything goes, so long as no anuses are involved. And there's no buggery in the Royal Navy.

PJ Harvey, The Warfield, Friday 22 October: Rock and fucking roll. She brought the voice, the hair, the spike-heeled red boots. None of us had heard the new record prior to the show, which turned out to be all right, because she did an excellent sampler from the whole catalog. (I personally wouldn't have minded another cut or two off Is This Desire?, but we can't have everything.) In particular I might need to reconsider To Bring You My Love: that record has never been a favorite of mine, but "Meet Ze Monsta," which always sounded flat and monotonous on the stereo, came alive onstage like you wouldn't believe. "Plants and Rags" from Dry got a similar turbocharge. Occasionally the sound got incoherent when there were two simultaneous guitars—the rhythm on "50ft Queenie" never quite came through as it should have—but I had awfully little to find fault with. I'm breaking out the old records again.

 

cephalopod terror from the deep

Seriously, arguing with Roland Barthes is like punching an octopus. It has eight arms and no bones, and you never actually land any blows. After a while you just have to give up and go play snooker instead.

 

jardin des plantes

I was interrupted in the heyday of this soliloquy, with a voice which I took to be of a child, which complained “it could not get out.”—I look’d up and down the passage, and seeing neither man, woman, or child, I went out without further attention.

In my return back through the passage, I heard the same words repeated twice over; and looking up, I saw it was a starling hung in a little cage.—“I can’t get out—I can’t get out,” said the starling.

I stood looking at the bird: and to every person who came through the passage it ran fluttering to the side towards which they approach’d it, with the same lamentation of its captivity.—“I can’t get out,” said the starling.—God help thee! said I, but I’ll let thee out, cost what it will; so I turn’d about the cage to get to the door; it was twisted and double twisted so fast with wire, there was no getting it open without pulling the cage to pieces.—I took both hands to it.

The bird flew to the place where I was attempting his deliverance, and thrusting his head through the trellis, press’d his breast against it, as if impatient.—I fear, poor creature! said I, I cannot set thee at liberty.—“No,” said the starling—“I can’t get out—I can’t get out,” said the starling.

—Sterne, A Sentimental Journey

Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.
Hair: brown. Lips: scarlet.
Age: five thousand three hundred days.
Profession: none, or "starlet."

Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze?
Why are you hiding, darling?
(I talk in a daze, I walk in a maze,
I cannot get out, said the starling.)

—Nabokov, Lolita

 

starry vere

Well, I'm certainly not going to talk about how my first real paper that is not a sort of practice report is due tomorrow, how the argument is unclear and may in fact contain several buried crypto-arguments, none of which are sufficiently justified, how my ability to say anything new or relevant about Joseph Andrews seems somewhat questionable, how culling it down to seven pages is a Herculean task in itself as I could easily go on for twenty pages about all this without actually getting anywhere, how actually typing out the sentences is unexpectedly onerous and requires the surmounting of an enormous inhibition threshold because I am looking at each word, phrase, syntactical unit through the eyes of the professor and finding it puerile, pompous, wanting—

Well, I'm certainly not going to talk about that.

R.E.M., Greek Theater, Fri 15 Oct. Everyone seems to agree that the new record is a sanded-off, adult-contemporary version of R.E.M., and certainly the new songs were not very exciting, but they played enough oldies to keep me happy. Especially since we were again using the expedient of camping out on the hill behind the auditorium in order to hear and "see" the show for free. I got "These Days," J. got "Cuyahoga," everyone got a few between-song speeches from Michael Stipe that seemed to have political content, though it wasn't clear where he was going with it. I suppose he didn't think Berkeley needed any convincing.

Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten, San Francisco Opera, Sun 17 Oct. Winston Churchill once described the Royal Navy as "rum, sodomy, and the lash," and indeed the gay theme was prominent enough to be completely obvious to us, while just eqiuvocal enough that your average retiree operagoer might have been able to convince himself or herself that something else was going on. I'm told that it's present enough in the Melville text as well, which I'll buy—I haven't read it in ten years, and I certainly didn't get it at all when I was seventeen. "Why is Claggart so angry? Why does he keep talking about how handsome Billy is? It doesn't make any sense!" The libretto was not very subtle about the good/evil distinction (as I recall, neither was Melville) but the music was simply glorious, and can those men ever sing. The three main soloists were all superb, but I must also praise the chorus of "sailors, powder-monkeys, etc." whose massed voices sounded like avenging angels, and whose choreography was by turns inspiring and terrifying. Heave ho, me lads.

 

the genealogy of the mire

By the autumn of 1770 Hume was engaged in the building of "a small House," as he informed Strahan; "I mean a large House for an Author: For it is nearly as large as Mr. Millar's in Pall-mall. It is situated in our new Square," that is, St Andrew Square, one block north of Princes Street. During the following winter and spring, Hume actively supervised the erection of the dwelling-house, coach-house, and stables. As the North Bridge was not yet open, he customarily took the short cut to the New Town left by the draining of the Nor' Loch. On one of his daily trips to St Andrew Square during this period, Hume slipped from the path and fell into the bog, where he struggled in vain to extricate himself. In time, he was able to attract the attention of an old fishwife who, as she recognised "Hume the Atheist," doubted the propriety of helping him.

"But my good woman," expostulated the helpless man, "does not your religion as a Christian teach you to do good, even to your enemies?"

"That may well be," she replied, "but ye shallna get out o' that, till ye become a Christian yoursell: and repeat the Lord's Prayer and the Belief." Much to her astonishment Hume readily complied and was forthwith pulled out of the bog. Henceforth he was ever ready to acknowledge that the Edinburgh fishwife was the most acute theologian he had ever encountered.

—E.C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume.

Philosophy: what good is it? [1] [2]. It's true that I'm more comfortable with literature, or simply with the telling anecdote, that doesn't venture to say more than "certain people, in certain situations, act like this"—and then we chuckle or weep, depending on what happened. Beyond that I'm leery. I always assumed that I disliked the "novel of ideas" because it's an oil-and-water mixture, but it might actually be that I don't like ideas, period.

So how good to discover, at this late date, that philosophers can be just as uneasy with them. Sure, the Wittgenstein Group is an odd place to begin looking at the discipline, but it's either that or Socrates chasing pretty boys, right? I don't know; I don't know anything, and I'm hungry.

 

I left Guatemala [City] for my town very short of money, but by the grace of God, a little content. In Sololá I bought Prensa Libre, which had a lot of commentary about the election of the president of the United States. It says that according to the forecast, Ronald Reagan will be reelected and meanwhile Mondale will obtain 47% of the votes of the North Americans. Also it says that Mondale is not interested in winning [doing anything about] the election because the next Thursday, a day after the voting, he has planned a trip with his family to celebrate his defeat. This is the way it is when there is understanding. He who wins, wins; and he who loses, loses. One always has to accept it. For certain I liked a lot the declarations of Señor Mondale, thanks to the intelligence that he has.

But I'm going to talk a little about the politics in Guatemala. When they lose an election, they begin to think about bad intentions of killing the winner. Never do they accept that he won. The Prensa says that Señor Mondale knows that Ronald Reagan wom, and he saluted him by telephone. How good that the loser congratulated his adversary by telephone! But in Guatemala they congratulate with bullets. For this reason I say that wickedness rules more than friendship in my Guatemala.

—Diary of Ignacio Bizarro Ujpán, 6 November 1984

 

langue, parole, canards

Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74. Of pancreatic cancer, no less; that's a nasty one. Death so instantly drapes an aura of somberness and respect around the deceased—I agreed with none of the man's tenets, insofar as I understood what those tenets were, but he was still one of us, still fighting the good fight for culture. He took his work seriously. And even if plenty of his followers muddied their language to the point of incomprehensibility in order to disguise their lack of insight, I never thought he was guilty of this. Whatever he was trying to say, he truly believed it could only be expressed through the means he had chosen. So, Derrida est mort, vive Derrida—not in the sense, God knows, that I wish deconstruction a fruitful continued life in the academy, but for good or ill he's taken his place in the Tradition (how you like that New Critical term, y'all?). We'll have to remember what he did, and account for it.

 

united europe

And this year's Nobel goes to... Elfriede Jelinek. "Austrian," "fiery," "controversial," uh huh, uh huh—
[scrolls down]
Oh dear God! She wrote The Piano Teacher!
[hides under bed]

I admit I have only seen the movie. (If you haven't seen the movie and want to, get it from Netflix or someone, not Blockbuster; they cut it down to an R rating, and there's no sense in doing it halfway. On the other hand, don't watch it alone at night.) I have thought before this that I ought to read the book, but have been stymied in this, as in so many things, by the sense that I'm a grown-up now and should not be reading books in translation any more, at least not books written in Major Modern Languages From Western Europe. In practice this means that lately I haven't read much foreign literature at all, but damn it, enough is enough. I still have eleven Guatemala books to read:

Heart of the Sky
Heart of Heaven, Heart of Earth
Long Life, Honey in the Heart
Secrets of the Talking Jaguar
Ignacio
Joseño
El Señor Presidente
Leyendas de Guatemala
Viento Fuerte
El Papa Verde
Torotumbo

Nos. 3 and 4 are about shamanism and probably New Age and foofy, but they'll be quick reads. The last five are fiction by Miguel Ángel Asturias, and aside from rounding out the research they ought to be a good primer for the next big project, which is to read Don Quijote, and somewhere in there I need to restart the German lit program with Der Prozeß and Paul Celan and Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, and one fine day in the future I'll stumble through something straightfoward like L'Étranger, and after that Proust (ha!). Big ideas, big ideas; but my English department defines language "proficiency" as being able to scratch out a translation with the help of a dictionary, and that's actually a little embarrassing. Or I could put it more simply and say that reading foreign-language literature is an easy way to feel like a valid intellectual without having to do anything impossible; like writing an essay anyone actually cares about, or publishing a novel.

 

distemper

Why is it always so reassuring to see sexual frankness in documents from other eras? Maybe we just want to refute Philip Larkin's declaration that sexual intercourse began in 1963.

A more voluptous night I never enjoyed. Five times was I fairly lost in supreme rapture. Louisa was madly fond of me; she declared I was a prodigy, and asked me if this was not extraordinary for human nature. I said twice as much might be, but this was not, although in my own mind I was somewhat proud of my performance. She said it was what there was no just reason to be proud of. But I told her I could not help it. She said it was what we had in common with the beasts. I said no. For we had it highly improved by the pleasures of sentiment. I asked her what she thought enough. She gently chid me for asking such questions, but said two times.

—James Boswell's journal, 12 January 1763

We were in high glee, and after summer threw out so many excellent sallies of humour and wit and satire on Malloch and his play that we determined to have a joint sixpenny cut [satirical pamphlet], and fixed next day for throwing our sallies into order. The evening was passed most cheerfully. When I got home, though, then came sorrow. Too, too plain was Signor Gonorrhoea.

—James Boswell's journal, 19 January 1763

 

i think i'll have the veal

I am far from knowing just what I thought of The Black Rider. As a fan who has owned the Tom Waits album version for years, I must grouchily insist that a Tom Waits song is no such thing without Tom Waits singing it. Sometimes the actors seemed like they were attempting to channel Tom Waits, with mixed results; more often they elected to play it safe and go another route. Somehow I was expecting the show to have a fairly straightforward plot that would support the familiar songs and synthesize them into a larger whole, but I had forgotten that William Burroughs and Robert Wilson (of Einstein on the Beach, etc.) were involved here. Avant your garde!

For the first fifteen minutes I had grave doubts; after that I started to get into it. In the white face paint and stylized acting and emphasis on motion over words I saw shades of kabuki, but J. more sensibly placed it in the realm of German expressionist theater, about which I know nothing. The whole German element of the show (Faustian folklore, occasional lines auf Deutsch, which no, I didn't understand) is one of many puzzles I haven't really glossed. As far as overall theme, the Burroughs stamp is almost parodically clear—it's about addiction, and about accidentally shooting your wife. The magic-bullet-as-drug extended metaphor worked pretty well, though at one point the protaginst shouts something to the effect of "I'm reaching for the magic bullets like a junkie reaching for skag!" which was unnecessary; we'd already picked up that much, and in any case Burroughs was sharp enough to understand that the "algebra of need" (his phrase) applies to areas beyond the pharmacological—junkies are just especially naked examples. The horrible denouement is clear from the beginning, I think, even if you hadn't gotten the story years ago from the album liner notes. It's not about dramatic tension in the sense that you wonder what's going to happen; it's about seeing just how fate will be enacted.

In a lot of places it was enacted damn well. The minutely detailed use of body movement synchronized to music was particularly effective; characters tiptoe around in time with percussion beats or pizzicato strings, like a sinister mirror of those old Disney shorts. Marianne Faithfull as the devil actually reminded me of Bono during the later legs of Zoo TV, when he would do encores as Mr. MacPhisto. Intentional or not, it was an effective set of mannerisms and made for a restrained and elegant devil. Again, not what I had expected from listening to Tom Waits, but I certainly must credit her with putting her stamp on it. The lighting and set design were all thoroughly disorienting and quite beautiful in a harsh, schematic way. Basically, it was episodically brilliant. I don't know that the episodes cohered into anything larger, but it was a spectacle worth seeing.

 

tradition and the individual talent

I am a can with a hole in it. Everything pours in too quickly, drains back out before I can catch hold of it. I can't give any of it to you. If you want to know about the Mahler last night, I should just send you to the review. I got the piano tuned and the action regulated; it's been needing the latter for about twenty-five years. It sounds like a new piano. I also will weave myself into something new. Reading Brian Boyd's biography of Nabokov makes me feel exactly as I felt reading Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce in my faunal nineteenth year. They are hagiographies to me, and plenty of people would rightly take me to task for this. But I am already developing a nice schizophrenic divide between my critical self, which is appropriately skeptical and concerned with class and power and literature as a social construct and whatever else is comme il faut around here; and my dirty little secret artistic self, which still sympathizes with Matthew Arnold and (gasp!) The New Criterion more often than you might think.

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.

Nabokov wrote that, but it could have been any of the old dowdy critics we like to laugh at these days. I haven't stopped listening.

 

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