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[APRIL 2008.]

We’re reaching the point in the spring where the enormous juvenile sparrows, molted into adult plumage and quite obviously able to forage for themselves, still hop after their parents making plaintive noises and the “feed me” wing-flapping gestures which are perfectly ludicrous on birds of their size. Presumably their excuse is also that they’re writing dissertations.

I feel better about myself now


This is what goes on; J. and I are minding our business at the café when in walks our local famous gender theorist, followed by a respected philosopher in the Continental tradition who must be visiting from New York. They get coffee and salads and whatever and come sit next to us. The philosopher is speaking very slowly and carefully about his current work on embodiment, and the dignity of embodiment, and the passive body which cannot be controlled; the gender theorist listens attentively and asks if he’s taken Merleau-Ponty into account. Apparently sex is also a part of this, because the philosopher then starts trying to theorize rape, and what does it mean for rape to be an ultimate trauma, still in the slow and careful and sententious voice, and the whole thing was so hideously grating that I had to pack up my computer and go off to the bookstore next door. I suppose in a year or two the completed monograph on dignity and rape and embodiment will appear in that bookstore with an appropriate graphic on the front and some appropriate blurbs on the back, along with a $75 list price.

It’s not a matter of stupidity. Either of those people could argue rings around me on any turf I chose. It was just in terrible taste—and it’s not that the philosopher himself was being especially objectionable. It’s the whole discourse, the whole manner of thinking and living. Whose angels are we? What in the bloody burning world is worth this triumphant moaning?

So yes, apparently I am planning to walk into next year’s job applications with some kind of Little Lord Fauntleroy attitude about the whole institution. Ugh, for people like me they reserve studio apartments in hell.

you shoulda "accidentally" knocked off a cup o' joe in that sententious lap...that woulda been the embodiment of fun.

I disagree with you, in the sense that I agree with you. It means something when rape becomes a critical football, and it isn't a nice thing.

Indeed. The problem with what I wrote up there is that I disagree with myself; I feel bad taking the philosopher's earnest sentences completely out of whatever their context was, but I had my visceral reaction, and it reminded me of how much (say) Elaine Scarry's "work" on torture has done to mitigate my own country's practice of torture... so that gets you, like so much else, to Henry Adams's line about the mere grass-hoppers, kicking and gesticulating, on the middle of the Mississippi River.


Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country

Kawabata, Yasunari. Snow Country (Yukiguni, 雪国). Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Knopf, 1956 (1947).

How long does a novel need to be? Kawabata’s 1947 text runs a little under 200 pages in Seidensticker’s fine translation, and combines a classical compression with a lifelike meandering. In the middle I started to wonder if it was getting too meandering, like them French movies I don’t like, but the last fifteen pages elevate it all. At any rate, Kawabata went back at the end of his life and rewrote the novel in eight pages, taking out most of the incident (including the end) and leaving little beside clusters of images—for lack of a better description, and because Seidensticker himself suggests the connection, I will call them haiku-like, meaning that their emotional content is allusive in a particular shorthand that I’m unused to reading. From my stock of Western models I would want to call this an ascetic practice, but I don’t think that gets the flavor right.


Frequently Asked Questions About Blogging

To take on a task
you must put on a mask.
When the task is done
the mask stays on.
It whispers the themes
you embroider in dreams.

Workers of the world, put down your tasks! If man will strike, strike through the mask!


Saul Bellow

Bellow, Saul. The Adventures of Augie March. New York: Fawcett Premier, 1967 (1953).

Bellow, Saul. Seize the Day. New York: Penguin, 1977 (1956).

Bellow was one uneven writer, and as much as we would like to separate his virtues from his faults it never seems quite possible. On balance Augie March has much more of the former, Seize the Day and what follows more of the latter. The question of Bellow is the question of why Augie March could be written only once, what sort of reality principle had to rise up to discipline that book’s exuberance and tame its prose.

The prose, and not the title character, is the real protagonist of Augie March. On their own, Augie’s speech and action would make him likeable and curious, also hapless and passive, perhaps without many connecting threads to hold him together. What turns him incandescent is the language Bellow grants him. The largeness and catholicity and meticulously worked sloppiness of that language, consistently pitched an octave higher than its actual referents, amounts to a protest against smallness in all forms, against the limits of the world as it stands, and because our primary attachment is to the ghost within that prose, it doesn’t really matter that nothing Augie can do, not even hunting iguanas (!) with an eagle (!!) among the igneous rocks of Mexico (!!!), can meet its demand or fulfill its promise. One of the few points where the book shades into the problematic later Bellow is in Augie’s speech (which is meant to be climactic) about following the axial lines of one’s own ethos—because after all, an axial line is an ideal construction without thickness or breadth, and we don’t read novels for the schematic; we want the particular. At any rate, the end of the book finds Augie married to one of the many winning women he has encountered, but otherwise itinerant and impermanent as always. Finding himself displaced in postwar Europe and helping another of his shady mentors to run another lucrative scam, he insists that this situation, too, is only temporary. Do we believe him? Thankfully we are not required to decide, because it’s the end of the book.

Seize the Day finds Bellow playing Flaubert to his own Balzac, with a much tighter rein on the sentences, but without the extravagance of sauce one soon tastes the leanness of the meat. Bellow is a little older now, his protagonist much more so, and this one change in the formal setup reveals how much of Augie’s rhetorical claim depended on youth. The difference between Tommy Wilhelm and (say) Arthur Miller’s washed-up salesman is that Wilhelm is not a holdover from an earlier time but someone who never found a fit in any decade. Like Augie he has both a weakness for being enrolled into other people’s systems and a passive stubbornness that keeps his from properly assuming them; but now too old to pull off Augie’s rhetoric of integrity, he stands before the reader as an undisguised schlemiel. His world does not permit the exercise of virtue. Even his estranged wife and children are only mistakes at the other end of a telephone line, duties that cannot be discharged. In sum it is steely naturalism, and quite well done over the book’s first half; it is the second half that gets tired of naturalism and edges toward the anxious conceptual ping-pong that presumably won Bellow the Nobel and which I’ve never been able to warm to, that perpetual half-turn toward qualified and insufficient emblems of redemption which over a novel’s length becomes perfectly maddening. To refuse your characters any public reckoning is to leave them the sole recourse of private catharsis. And as for that—well, you have to take the writer’s word for it, don’t you?


Robert Graves, No More Ghosts

Graves, Robert. No More Ghosts: Selected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1940.

These vary a lot, but here are two of the best, in very different modes, to give you an idea of the range.

Warning to Children

Children, if you dare to think
Of the greatness, rareness, muchness,
Fewness of this precious only
Endless world in which you say
You live, you think of things like this:
Blocks of slate enclosing dappled
Red and green, enclosing tawny
Yellow nets, enclosing white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where a neat brown paper parcel
Tempts you to untie the string.
In the parcel a small island,
On the island a large tree,
On the tree a husky fruit.
Strip the husk and cut the rind off:
In the centre you will see
Blocks of slate enclosed by dappled
Red and green, enclosed by tawny
Yellow nets, enclosed by white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where the same brown paper parcel—
Children, leave the string untied!
For who dares undo the parcel
Finds himself at once inside it,
On the island, in the fruit,
Blocks of slate about his head,
Finds himself enclosed by dappled
Green and red, enclosed by yellow
Tawny nets, enclosed by black
And white acres of dominoes,
But the same brown paper parcel
Still untied upon his knee.
And, if he then should dare to think
Of the fewness, muchness, rareness,
Greatness of this endless only
Precious world in which he says
He lives—he then unties the string.


The Advocates

Fugitive firs and larches for a moment
Caught, past midnight, by our headlight beam
On that mad journey through unlasting lands
I cannot put a name to, years ago,
(And my companions drowsy-drunk)—these trees
Resume again their sharp appearance, perfect
Of spur and tassel, claiming memory,
Claiming affection: ‘Will we be included
In the catalogue? Yes, yes?’ they plead.

Green things, you are already there enrolled.
And should a new resentment gnaw in me
Against my dear companions of that journey
(Strangers already then, in thought and deed)
You shall be advocates, charged to deny
That all the good I lived with them is lost.


The young people of Stanford are still doing good work; scrawled in one of the library cubicles, next to the W.A.S.T.E. muted trumpet, is

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne


One of the women's rooms at the University of Munich had a "Toilette für Englische Philologie"


Salvador Espriu, La Pell de Brau (The Bull-Hide)

Espriu, Salvador. La pell de brau. Trans. Burton Raffel. Marlboro, VT: The Marlboro Press, 1977 (1960).


Little by little we forget
And our dances
End, and our songs,
Out of the ancient earth
And sky of the plains
Of Sharon. Because fear creeps into
The beat of our dance,
Fear of wild bears around us.

The circle turns, there is no stopping.
The sun comes out, the sun sets
And there is never anything new
Under its light.
And everything will seem
Easy to understand:
He who wants to deceive himself
Is free to deceive himself.
Now we say “later,”
And later we’ll say “tomorrow,”
But we never go astray forever
All in one night.
Men are all different, different,
Thoughts are all different,
We go on living the dream
Of a unique love
And death is quick
To ripen us, death is quick.


While the meaning machine continues its interim rumbling, you will want to know that my alternate career as a piano technician is moving apace. The piano’s 88 hammers are made of felt layers wrapped around a wood core, and if you happen to own a spinet from the 1950s that has been serviced rarely if ever during the intervening decades, you will discover that the felt has become grooved and compacted from the pressure of the strings, and that striking certain keys now produces a sound like Beethoven dropping his beer stein. The solution, we learn from the internet, is to grip a needle right proper in a pair of pliers and poke some infinitesimal holes in the felt just above and below the striking surface. I am dumbfounded at the change produced by a mere four holes per hammer—I have not turned the spinet into a baby grand, and it is still not the easiest instrument to play pianissimo, but the bass half of the scale is no longer attempting a hostile takeover of the treble. Anyway, once I get the vegetable garden back in action I will roll back the division of labor entirely and never need one of your damn jobs again.


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