25 February 2005

Tuck this away for the weekend

Dear Grace,

It's all greek to me.

There may come a day when it is not enough to touch you with words. In the meantime, I choose them carefully and recklessly. I look for the curves and the pulse in the language and try to wrap something around you that will warm you and cause your soul to arc, your spirit to spark.

Yours and mine, God knows.

Look deep down your hollow belly inside and ask yourself in the dark if it's true: does any of this really make any difference at all? Is the skin that separates your beating heart from mine really just the smoothest kind of barbed wire?

Wait. Just how alone are we anyway?

So what if I dream about keeping a journal with you? Would that make me your audience and you mine? We would write our secret universes within and so far only love can make me lift a pen anyway.

So here goes.

Write me.

You have to pick up the pen and move it, she whispers.

You have to leave a crumbtrail of words or you'll never find your way back. You have to step out into the words a hungry orphan and hold hands with someone along the way. You have to be as good to words as you know how and some night when you least expect it you'll find them being good to you. Even later you'll learn to trick yourself into believing someone cares.

She looks away. Oh yeah, one more thing. Inspiration comes afterward, not before.

Still ripping handfuls of pages out of my past and calling it music,

Writer's Block #1
Tongue-tied Avenue
The Grey Ghost

Hattie Carroll

Ian Frazier's investigation into the aftermath of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll":

On February 9 1963, William Zantzinger, a rich young farmer, struck Hattie Carroll, a black barmaid, with his cane. She died that night; he got six months. Her story lives on in Bob Dylan's brilliant protest song - but where is Zantzinger now? And did The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll really change anything?


Criticism as conversation

Darren Hughes of Long Pauses on the tired arena of film reviews and the critic's responsibility:

What I do love, though, is to be engaged in good conversation. Conversation that values beauty and curiosity and empathy and intelligence. Conversation that is genuinely interested in the strangeness of human emotion and faith and culture and experience. And that, I think, is where criticism should find its voice. That's my goal, at least. To be in conversation with artists whose creative imaginations are large and complex and varied. And I consider it the great responsibility of the critic to be up to that challenge. Work, brother. Work.

Read his new article on the films of John Cassavetes:

"I am a moralist," Cassavetes once said, "in that I believe the greatest morality is to acknowledge the freedom of others; to be oneself and to not be in judgment." He extends that freedom to his audience as well. It is a powerful corrective to Hollywood’s superficiality.

24 February 2005

Tori's Gardens

My limited edition copy of Tori Amos' new album, The Beekeeper, arrived last Friday. The music saturates my walls on a daily basis, the floors soaking in sound. As ever, the songs construct a rich, dense tapestry of themes and images that relate to one another in sophisticated ways. Her revamped website elaborates on many of the thoughts behind the album:

For Amos, the problems facing America have less to do with the simplistic duality of "red" and "blue" states than with the ways in which power, faith and relationships have been misunderstood and abused. [...]

No surprise, then, that the story within
The Beekeeper has to do with bringing together disparate pieces and attaining wholeness without deferring to hierarchies or power structures.

Of the six gardens, I find myself visiting the greenhouse the most. In the interview portion of the DVD, she discusses the writing of "The Power of Orange Knickers" and all but quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The obliteration of ideas takes less effort than achieving their negotiation. It is much easier to locate evil in other systems or cultures than to recognize our own propensities:

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.
~ The Gulag Archipelago

Somewhere in Barcelona

The Christian Science Monitor has a trio of articles on Spain, beginning with a peek into what happens in Barcelona on 23 April, Sant Jordi's Day:

When spring is at its full power, the Barcelonans and visitors head outside to celebrate a cultural festival that merges a noble dragon slayer with the deaths of two literary lions. The day also offers a potpourri of bookish events and the chance to dance like a Catalan. [...]

More than 300 bookstalls, festooned with the red and yellow of the Catalan flag, honor Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare. Both authors died on the same day, April 23, 1616. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of "Don Quixote," and portions of that classic are set in Barcelona. [...]

UNESCO has designated April 23 as International Book Day, and 400,000 books will be purchased in Barcelona, according to local officials, so there's a lot for booksellers and book buyers to love. [...]

In addition to the open-air bookstalls, the city's publishers and bookstores will host 200 authors and illustrators, many of them available to autograph their work.

If autographs aren't sufficient inducement, many buyers will be lured by discount prices. And street performances will be in abundance. Notable among the many plays, concerts, and lectures is a photographic exhibit, "Who's Who in Catalan Letters." To see it at the Palace Moja, just step off Las Ramblas at Carrer Portaferrissa.

See also:
Columbus in Seville? and a lovely one on "Madrid's majestic Royal Botanical Garden".

Woolf & Mansfield

Amardeep Singh is making me wish I were back in school...

I'm teaching a class on 20th century British women writers this spring. It's a modified version of my standard "British modernism" course. I wanted to try teaching people like Irish Murdoch, Doris Lessing, A.S. Byatt, and Monica Ali, writers I often can't quite make room for. Thus far it's been a lot of Virginia Woolf, and a brief but exciting bit of Katherine Mansfield. [...]

Woolf and Mansfield are especially close in their shared vision of the ephemerality (or collapse?) of the big concepts that form the bedrock of 19th century literary individualism –- the distinction of the self from others, the ability to know and understand that self, and the ability to respond to crises rationally and intentionally. But where Woolf wrote monumental philosophical novels about the dissolution of the self, Mansfield makes the point in small, impressionistic passages in short stories whose themes seem trifling in comparison to Woolf’s. And yet the point is no less real, and no less admirably expressed.

A fascinating analysis of Mansfield follows.

Also, Alex Gregoire examines Mansfield's review of Woolf's "Kew Gardens" for insight into "The Garden Party," then concludes by quoting Mansfield on "her own intentions [...] from an excerpt of a letter she wrote to William Gerhardi in 1922":

...the diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura's age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn't like that. We haven't the ordering of it. Laura says, "But all these things must not happen at once." And Life answers, "Why not? How are they divided from each other?" And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.

23 February 2005

Derrida and the law

Scott McLemee in yesterday's Intellectual Affairs column, "Defending Derrida":

His goal [in "Force of Law"], in effect, is to point to a notion of justice that would be higher than any given code of laws. Likewise, in other late writings, Derrida seeks to define a notion of forgiveness that would be able to grapple with the unforgivable. And, he asks, might it be the case that Levantine traditions of hospitality (of welcoming the Other into one's home) transcend more modern conceptions of ethics?

For someone constantly accused of relativism, Derrida often sounds in these late works like a man haunted by the absolute. There is a sense in which, although he was an atheist, he practiced what a medieval scholar might have recognized as "negative theology" -- an effort to define the nature of God by cutting away all the misleading conceptions imposed by the limits of human understanding.

The implications were political, at least in some very abstract sense. In his keynote talk at the American Academy of Religion in 2002, Derrida proposed a notion of God that, in effect, utterly capsized the familiar world of monotheism by stripping it of all our usual understandings of divine authority. Suppose God were not the all powerful king of the universe (the image that even an atheist is prone to imagine upon hearing the name "God"). Suppose, rather, that God were infinitely weak, utterly vulnerable. What then? What would it mean that human beings are made in His image?

It's an excellent article--I strongly recommend it.

"Law school depressed him," as Goodrich put, "both the environment and the inhabitants." Perhaps it was, at best, a distraction from the philosophical pursuit of pure justice, in all its impossible beauty.

(You're in good company, Mol.)

See Jane wince

Jessa at Bookslut alerts us to the UK's new Jane Eyre stamps, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Charlotte's death.

I was thrilled at first, but...uh...erm...well... I'm not quite sure they "lay bare the passion and repression of the book." See for yourself.

The six Jane Eyre stamps went in front of the council of the Brontë Society yesterday and have been welcomed by at least one of their number. 'It is wonderful', said Bob Barnard, chair of the society. 'The paintings are slightly strange, but are unsettling in a way that will promote a lot of new interest in Charlotte's writing.'

At least one of their number or only one of their number?

22 February 2005

Hearing voices

John Harwood on Eliot:

But the contrast is equally striking: Kafka discovers his voice in his story; Eliot finds a voice in Laforgue. All writing may be rewriting, but not equally so, and in this regard, Kafka and Eliot are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The mature Kafka can certainly be equipped with precursors, but only in the most paradoxical fashion. Borges goes to the heart of the matter in two pages:

At first I had considered him to be as singular as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after frequenting his pages a bit, I came to think I could recognise his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods.

The half-dozen instances offered are as eclectic as can be imagined. 'If I am not mistaken,' he concludes:

the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other....In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist....The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

The last sentence is accompanied by a footnote referring us to 'Tradition and the Individual Talent.'

The fact is that very few writers create their precursors in this sense; Kafka (like Borges) remains as singular as the phoenix, whereas in the best of Eliot we have a poet in whom we can hear, from one angle, nothing
but the voices of his precursors. This is not intended as a value-judgement, but as a distinction in kind. Eliot did not create Laforgue; Laforgue created Eliot. Again with no pejorative intent, we might reverse Eliot's terms and say that, as a poet, he was metamorphosed from a person into a bundle of second-hand sentiments--and that this, though in a costly and ultimately self-defeating way, was the making of him. (122)

I'm still figuring out to what extent I agree with this. Although Harwood is careful not to comment upon questions of "greater" or "lesser," he seems to be distinguishing between two forms of originality. Is it a matter of innovation vs. drawing on a tradition? Or which types of "disparate experiences" are "amalgamated...forming new wholes"? Is it because Eliot "found his voice" in literary sources whereas Kafka drew on himself? Is that even a fair question?

Favorite rant

Maud relates how Disney is walking on eggshells with their Narnia adaptation, frightened of alienating the "Christian fan base" by their more "secular" slant. (Nevermind that I'm wondering what the hell that means. Will they simply remove the climax of the book?)

She goes on to point out:

Leaving aside the fact that the film will almost certainly butcher all that is unique and good about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there's no question that the Narnia books appeal to more Evangelicals than the Harry Potter series.

She's right, and it's a blatant double-standard.

But Disney and Kehr may not realize that the Lewis fables, although conscious Christ allegories, enrage many members of the Left Behind set -- my mother included.

Then she includes some tragically funny examples (such as "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first in this 'Christian' series of occult books for children. The title, itself, should be a tip off to a discerning Christian. How can a Christian book have such an occult label?").

Even the most faithful adaptation of the novels would highlight the White Witch and magic, and enrage a fair number of Potter-shunning Christians who don't know or have forgotten about these plot elements.

So while some Evangelical Narnia fans will continue to see a distinction between Rowling's books and Lewis', many won't.

Disney might as well just brace itself for the shitstorm. It's always pretty entertaining. Unless you grew up with it.

For the record, there is no "distinction between Rowling's books and Lewis'"--Christians who pick and choose simply because Lewis later admitted to allegorical aspects (which were Tolkien's pet peeve) either don't know or choose to ignore the fact that Lewis and Rowling draw on the same source material of myth, legend, and magic. Also, he did not set out to write a Christian propaganda piece for children:

Some people seem to think [when I wrote The Chronicles of Narnia] that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age-group I'd write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out 'allegories' to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.

The images came first and were his chief interest and priority. The Narnia books are good because they are creative works of literary art, not products of a preconceived agenda. If you're going to burn Rowling's books, you may as well toss in books by Lewis, Tolkien, Travers, Milne, Barrie, MacDonald, Dahl, Carroll, Lang, Nesbit, and Grahame as well. It's one thing to be a myopic religious fanatic, it's quite another to be a hypocritical one.

(See her original post for all of the enlightening links.)

21 February 2005

The quirks of genius

Maud calls our attention to the fact that today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen--and links to a funny article:

A hypochondriac and super-sensitive, he was so terrified of being buried alive that on his travels through Europe, he slept with a note -- "I only seem dead" -- by his side. He was snobbish, insecure and self-obsessed, never able to judge his impression on others.

When his fame was at its height, he turned up, unannounced, at the home of the Brothers Grimm -- and was met by Jakob with blank incomprehension. Invited for a holiday with Charles Dickens, previously one of his admirers, he so outstayed his welcome that Dickens put up a note which remarked unkindly that "Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks -- which seemed to the family AGES!" Dickens never communicated with him again.


Spurious on Cat Power:

What gives us an performer like Chan Marshall also takes her away from us; if she seems to present in her music what echoes in response to a future that has not yet come about it is the same future which seems to withdraw her from our presence. Even she seems to feel it, which is why, perhaps, when I saw her live, she demanded the house lights be turned on and the stage lights be dimmed to blackness. I asked myself: where are you, Chan Marshall? Where are you, behind the songs you refuse to play, beyond your yelps and chatter?

I could say seeing her perform live was a disappointment – she was, as Cat Power, the performer I wanted to see more than any other at All Tomorrow’s Parties. But something else happened, which I would say was fascinating if it were not also marked by frustration and a kind of sadness: she was, I think, too close to that uncanny place from which her music seems to arrive. I remembered, watching her, the obscure piping of Kafka’s Josephine. But also I remembered Gide’s account of seeing Artaud speak at the Sorbonne: Artaud who, at that time, had already disappeared into madness. Artaud was not as pathetic as Chan Marshall, and Josephine was not as enlivened. The audience, in the brightness of the house lights, chatted and catcalled. Chan Marshall, in the darkness – just her, I think, though there may have been another playing with her (it was too dark to see) - played only three songs in a set of one hours duration. And when she played them, they appeared in the midst of her tomfoolery, which meant their profundity was as though adrift, as if Chan Marshall were ashamed of what she had made, as though she could bear what she could sing and play only by laughing at the uncanniness to which strange genius exposed her. Her tomfoolery, then, appeared in the midst of songs which Chan Marshall was given to be able to sing, to play and this was not by chance. For what gives us her music also gives itself as the unbearable.

Chan Marshall falls below the level of her songs – how can she not? But in seeking to rise to the level of those songs, performing them, she breaks against them as against the heaven which will not admit the crows in Kafka’s aphorism. Heaven means: the impossibilty of crows. Chan Marshall’s songs mean the impossibility of Chan Marshall. Her performance: the fluttering of a crow already broken against heaven.

It may be self-indulgent of me to reproduce the entire post, but this is the best description of her I have read yet. (If Spurious ever finishes that book, I'll be at the front of the line for a copy.)

I remember talking to a friend about an interview with her I had read, and how she slyly evaded the pointed question, "Is 'I Don't Blame You' about Kurt Cobain?" Her response was something along the lines of, "That's an interesting thought, but no, it's not"--and she refused to say who it was about. My friend instantly responded, "It's about her. She's singing to herself."

I was struck by her matter-of-fact insight. Wow. Of course. Even if it isn't true, it makes a lot of sense.

Reading Spurious' post, I am reminded of the via negativa--the mystic route of apophatic theology--which strives for knowledge of God by describing what he is not. This is a way to get closer to the heart of mystery--through negation.

Does art at times betray the artist? Does the work and the creator sometimes cancel each other out? Can this negation reveal more than is originally intended? What is the difference between art that fills the disconnect between the internal and the external, and art that pulls them further away from each other?

The Silmarillion revisited

Over at Salon, Peter L'Official ponders "Tolkien's cosmological vision" in the new edition of The Silmarillion ...and declares that Beren "should be Elvish for 'badass'" (via Bookninja):

As is often the case, the greatest pleasures are the small ones: Reading a familiar description or seeing a familiar place name will, for the Tolkien fan, set off a flood of memories of what will come to pass in later "years." And of course, revisiting "The Lord of the Rings" becomes all the richer with all of this new-old knowledge, throwing various elements of the story into fuller light. [...]

Reading Tolkien's "Silmarillion" is like looking at a frayed and faded picture of your grandfather and all of a sudden recognizing why your nose is shaped just the way it is. "The Silmarillion" is both profoundly satisfying and profoundly warming, even despite those who think its prose cold and unfeeling. It answers -- at least for Tolkien fans always desirous of more -- the fundamental question, why? If Tolkien knew (and he probably did) why the sky is blue, the answer would be in "The Silmarillion."

"The Silmarillion" is a special work because it offers what few other books of Tolkien's do: a true beginning, a fresh start. It is
the beginning, of all things. For those willing to surrender themselves to his bookish universe, watch the films, or at least make a valiant attempt at penetrating the veil of scholarly geekdom surrounding most Tolkieniana, the opportunity exists here to start from scratch, from the One, Eru, "who in Arda is called Ilúvatar." Both the Tolkien arriviste and the scholar -- for once on a level playing field -- are presented with the clean slate of creation time where myth can be made and remade within the mind of the reader.

20 February 2005

Curiosity stifled?

Ed Champion ruminates on what could be causing "common knowledge" to dwindle:

I wonder if this "expert" (or any educator, for that matter) has any idea that strangling an individulal's curiosity or telling someone how they should talk about culture is what leads to people like the history major who can't remember basic details. I wonder if the experts are truly cognizant of the unnecessary chasm that separates the layman from the cultured. The strange stigma behind an enjoyable book like Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which sets out to explain a good deal of science to a popular audience.

What we are seeing, I think, in this age of reactonary and results-oriented education, is a nation that is creating or pepetuating a knowledge class system. The disparity between the knows and the know-nots.

And it kills me to see the mad rush of curiosity suffering such an unnecessary crib death. Really, our countrymen are better than this.

19 February 2005


An incisive post by Spurious leads to more thoughts (via The Reading Experience)...

Suffering becomes literature. Yet literature, too, is suffering. Kafka says to Janouch, ‘Art for the artist is only suffering, through which he releases himself for further suffering’. But why this new suffering? Is it because the changes one must ring upon suffering cannot be sustained from now until eternity - because, soon, the writer will fall from the surplus of strength and become once more incapable of writing, left in the same suffering with which he began? It is the gaps of non-writing within writing that are frightening. The second suffering, the suffering of art, arises from the sense that the literary work must be endless if it is to prevent the return of the suffering from which the writer began.

Write to escape suffering. Suffer because you can never write enough. This aporia, if it sums up the relationship between Kafka and writing, is dependent on the fact that neither the empirical self nor the surplus self is ever satisfied with what has been written. Writing itself does not aleviate suffering; this is clear enough from the pages of Kafka's diaries where one finds over and again remarks like ‘wrote nothing today’.

Back before I started this blog, I posted about this in The Orchard:

For Kafka, there was an inherent disconnect between the internal/real self and the external, busy, surrounding world. In one of his early short stories, "Wedding Preparations in the Country," he delves into this idea. (It's a forerunner of sorts to The Metamorphosis.) A man goes out to the wedding preparations, but his real self--the "I"--stays home in bed...as a little beetle quietly curled up under the covers. It is the public self--the "one"--that is out in the world.

So he delineates this compelling dichotomy:

"oneself" vs. "I"
the self as immanent vs. transcendent...
thus, his self as body vs. beetle (the tiny core essence that is so foreign to the outside, heedless world).

He privately writes, "One works so feverishly at the office that afterwards one is too tired even to enjoy one's holiday properly. But even all that work does not give one a claim to be treated lovingly by everyone; on the contrary, one is alone, a total stranger and only an object of curiosity. And so long as you say 'one' instead of 'I', there's nothing in it and one can easily tell the story; but as soon as you admit to yourself that it is you yourself, you feel as though transfixed and are horrified... But if I myself distinguish between 'one' and 'I', how then dare I complain about the others? Probably they're not unjust, but I am too tired to take it all in..."

The aporia doesn't end. But maybe as the act of writing can keep suffering at bay, so can the act of reading. In these gaps of the silent void, I pull Walker Percy's The Message in the Bottle off the shelf and read of "The Man on the Train":

...the reading commuter rejoices in the speakability of his alienation and in the new triple alliance of himself, the alienated character, and the author. His mood is affirmatory and glad: Yes! that is how it is!--which is an aesthetic reversal of alienation. It is related that when Kafka read his work aloud to his friends, they would all roar with laughter until tears came to their eyes. Neither Kafka nor his reader is alienated in the movement of art, for each achieves a reversal through its re-presenting. To picture a truly alienated man, picture a Kafka to whom it had never occurred to write a word.

17 February 2005

Ironically appropriate

Before I begin commenting on John Harwood, here's a recent post at The Reading Experience (which I've also referenced elsewhere) to bring you up to speed:

It so happened that the dominant critical approach to literature in the 1940s, 50s and 60s became the New Criticism, a method of "close reading" that had the happy consequence of focusing the student's attention on the formal qualities of "literature itself," but it was surely inevitable that this critical method would come to be supplanted by others, since, again, the goal of studying literature was to develop critical approaches to literature, not to admire it for its intrinsic worth--although, again, New Criticism did seem to encourage this respectful attitude. [...]

It also happens that New Criticism is a critical approach for which I have a great deal of sympathy, although I also have problems with its unstated ambitions--for many of the New Critics literary study was intended to become through its respect for "the text" almost a substitute for religion [...] But in my opinion the most destructive legacy of New Criticism has been the process it initiated whereby Critical Methodology became all-important, inevitably leading to the creation of new methodologies deemed superior to the preceding ones, finally leading to the installation of "critical theory" as we now know it as the sine qua non of literary study. As a result, we have been led to forget: Before there were departments of literature and literary study, there was no literary theory as such. Writers and readers got on perfectly well without it.

Harwood specifically locates the beginning of this trend in the academy's appropriation of T.S. Eliot, asserting that he was "elevated to the position of dominant theorist by first-generation academic critics precisely because he was not an academic. He had to be endowed with a coherent theory of literature because the founding fathers could not affort to be seen (even by themselves) as cutting their coat to suit the institutional cloth. It is ironically appropriate that a man who made his reputation partly by inventing his own tradition should have been enlisted, despite his continued objections, as principal backer and guarantor for a critical enterprise which had never existed in the form necessarily adopted to secure its place in the academy" (102).

I also find it "ironically appropriate" that lit bloggers (from both within and without the academy) are opening up the discussion and appreciation of literature to those of us desperately longing for informed discussion without having to scale the walls of the ivory tower.

Insight into Chabon

Our pal the Rake saw Michael Chabon speak on Tuesday. TW, this one's for you:

[H]is lecture--an untitled "new talk"--was delivered in dramatic fashion, occasionally in the melodramatic voice of a Late Nite Movie mad scientist, and with great comic timing. Chabon is the picture of the perfect college roommate—if you brought him home for Thanksgiving, he'd charm the hell out of your parents.

And now the good stuff...

Here, the tale became a series of small, character-building mortifications. Most notably, one of his instructors--Oakley Hall, author of the Thomas Pynchon favorite, Warlock--reads the manuscript and declares, flatly: "I don’t like it." He also said it was "showy," "dull," and furthermore, there was "no goddamn story." According to Chabon, he was absolutely right. [...]

A short Q&A followed, and the same five or six questions that seem to be asked at every reading were duly asked. Chabon did score points when, in response to a question that began "Where did you get your Jewish identity…?", he replied, "Target." We learned that, for the record, he has been reading the NYRB and The Metaphysical Club, which baffled him, he said, but in a good way.

This makes me happy. But now I'm really curious about what part of it "baffled" him...

16 February 2005

Scattershot thoughts

Yesterday, Scott Esposito made this comment re. the "Future of the Blog":

Right now, I carry my Moleskine around to jot random thoughts that seem worth keeping, but if I was completely WiFi enabled I might occassionally go beyond scribbling in my Moleskine and blog a full stream of consciousness right there on the spot. People have already begun snapping photos all around an instantly uploading them; how about snapping prose pictures and blogging things on the fly from a reading, vacation, the five minutes before a big meeting with your agent, whatever?

This set me thinking about my approach to blogging. I've kind of had this mental block against writing all-out reviews of what I've been reading because I just don't have the time at this point (otherwise, I'd love to). But it really freed me up to think of other things I could do (yes, I do tend to overlook the obvious). And since this blog is pretty random anyway, I'm going to begin posting random quotes/thoughts/questions from a book I recently finished: John Harwood's From Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation. I really have more questions than anything else, but it will be good for me to just get them out there and pin down what I've been dealing with in wrestling with the question of grad school (and what to do when I get there if I wind up going).

Blueberry Girl

Happy news from Neil!

The next project with Charles Vess is already underway. It's an illustrated version of a poem called BLUEBERRY GIRL I wrote for Tash, my friend Tori's daughter, before she was born, which we're making into a book, that will, I hope, do good things for RAINN and the CBLDF.

15 February 2005

Reassessing the formula

In yet another brilliant post, Dan Green at The Reading Experience continues to question the stranglehold the academy has on literary study:

Again, what I find most telling about this formulation is that denying students access to theory would impede their ability "to have a meaningful understanding of modern literary scholarship" (emphasis mine). The almost unconscious assumption is that to study literature in modern American universities is perforce to study the scholarship on literature, to become familiar with what others who have devoted themselves to the study of literature have written about the study of literature. [...]

Certainly we can think of the way we come to value reading works of literature as, broadly speaking, something that is learned, but in this context "teaching" means teaching literature as part of an academic curriculum. And, in my opinion, this underlying premise that literature is something to be encountered through the formal study such a curriculum imposes, that "literature" is somehow first and foremost a subject of academic study, needs to be reconsidered.

He outlines the events that got us to this point, and concludes:

Theory is important, indeed indispensable, to "those who are planning to become graduate students and professors." And undoubtedly "anyone teaching literature will have to deal with a group of conflicting assumptions." But these things are true because, essentially, becoming a literature professor, not advancing the cause of literature, has become the primary objective of the graduate student, and because teaching literature has come to be much more about teaching--that is, professing a point of view--than about the works of literature being taught. Those works are still around, waiting for such readers as are willing to take them for what they have to offer. But in this regard, curious readers would be much better served by reading, say, literary weblogs than by giving much thought to what literary theory is all about.

(My prior mentions of this ongoing discussion can be found here and here.)

Out of the gate

Drunkard's Prayer

01. I Want You To Be My Love
02. Born
03. Drunkard’s Prayer
04. Bluer
05. Spark
06. Hush Now (Stella’s Tarantella)
07. Lookin’ Forward
08. Little Did I Know
09. Who Will Guard The Door
10. Firefly
11. My Funny Valentine

A deeply personal record, Drunkard's Prayer was recorded in Karin and Linford's living room and reflects the relaxed atmosphere and sonic warmth that can only be found at home. With upright bass, piano, acoustic guitars, a few horns, a few subtle textures and one amazing voice, Over the Rhine's new songs are often stunningly simple and always fearless. There's a lot of love on this one. Quiet music should be played loud.

Anything to help

Inside Higher Ed reports:

For five years, graduate students facing stress or feeling suicidal have had a hotline that they could call 24/7.

On Monday, the founders of the hotline announced that they had turned it over to another group. While about 50 universities have publicized the service, many others have declined to do so because it was created by a religious organization, the Campus Crusade for Christ. The hotline organizers decided it would be best to find a secular home for the hotline, so it could reach more people.

"It breaks my heart that we were not available enough to the students who need help, so I think this is a very beneficial move for students who need a life-saving resource," said Nick Repak, executive director of Grad Resources, the Campus Crusade's program for graduate students.


The help line (1-877-GRADHLP) was been turned over to the Kristin Brooks Hope Center, which runs a number of specialized suicide prevention services. The National Mental Health Association worked with both groups to help bring about the transfer.

Repak said that the hotline never had a religious agenda. Students were only counseled about whatever crisis they were facing, and no information about them was ever turned over to Campus Crusade. He said he recently came to realize that "as a faith-based organization," Grad Resources couldn't reach enough students.

13 February 2005

Heloise & Abelard

Cristina Nehring makes some excellent points in her article on the infamous medieval lovers:

Small wonder, in this climate, that the anguish Abelard and Heloise suffered for each other renders them even more suspect. What with safe sex, prenuptial agreements and emotional air cushions of every stripe, we have almost managed to riskproof our relationships. The notion that passion might comprise not only joy but pain, not only self-realization but self-abandonment, seems archaic. To admire, as an early-20th-century biographer of Abelard and Heloise does, the "beauty of souls large enough to be promoted to such sufferings" seems downright perverse.

And yet there's a grandeur to high-stakes romance, to self-sacrifice, that's missing from our latex-love culture -- and it's a grandeur we perhaps crave to recover.

I remember reading a column a few months ago that asserted, "The time to get out of a relationship is when things aren't fun anymore." I was dumbfounded that such a facile line could pass as good advice. The idea of self-sacrifice anymore seems linked to words like "repression" and "resignation," rather than "honor" or "selflessness." Or even "love."

Only recently -- and miraculously -- has a new cache of material turned up, fragments of 113 letters that many scholars believe Abelard and Heloise exchanged before Abelard's castration. Copied in the 15th century by a monk named Johannes de Vespria, discovered in 1980 by Constant J. Mews and finally published as "The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard," these short but eloquent missives present two people vying -- with no coyness or gender typecasting whatever -- to outdo each other in expressions of adoration. "To a reddening rose under the spotless whiteness of lilies," the woman addresses the man. "To his jewel, more pleasing and more splendid than the present light," the man addresses the woman.

Another welcome find from the elusive goldmine of long ago. Anyway, it's a good article, in which she concludes, "There is a crack," the Leonard Cohen lyric goes, "a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in."

The brilliant film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind draws on Alexander Pope's poem, "Eloisa to Abelard" for more than merely its title. The two complement each other, raising probing questions regarding the nature of love, time, memory, loss, and suffering. When is enough enough? Where is the line between hanging on and letting go?

In my unabashed opinion, if it doesn't transcend time and space, it isn't love. Or as good old Will wrote:

"Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom."

Beginning the world

Hearty congratulations to my sister Deborah and her friend Saskia! Their 10-minute short, Le French Film, is one of six selected for screening at a student film festival out in Los Angeles next month! It's a lovely little black & white homage to the French New Wave films of the '60s (shot in French with English subtitles, of course).

More stills from the shoot can be found at the site of an endearing Frenchman.

P.S. Many thanks to Ms. Croc for helping me out of nagging technical difficulties. (I'll help you take over the world anytime!)

11 February 2005

Oh no...

God, talk about bloggish mood swings. I've gone from elation to depression in five minutes flat.

Arthur Miller has died. He was 89.

Via Randa at MoorishGirl...who also points us in the direction of an excellent article of Miller's, Why I Wrote "The Crucible" (my favorite play of all time):

"Fear doesn't travel well; just as it can warp judgment, its absence can diminish memory's truth."

UPDATE: The NY Times obituary.

ANOTHER: The obit at the LA Times.


Ed's back!


Those of us who love and study literature know its power to touch our hearts and minds. But I love reading about encounters with great works that are free of any preconceived theoretical baggage. A friend of mine (who happens to be a law student) recently posted her reaction to The Stranger, having never read Camus before:

The second part of the novel is the trial, Meursault's long prison stay, and the conviction. This was the part of the book that just shook me to the core. I work in a prosecutor's office, and even today I helped garner a conviction for the State in a case. I know all about how trials work, the flaws of the criminal court system, and the mechanical, sometimes seemingly unfeeling way it can churn people through the gears of justice. (Though I must say Minnesota's better than most states.) Meursault's almost third-person perception of the trial, beginning with his increasing apathy about his own fate as he feels himself shunted to the side by even his own lawyer, confirm the worst of what one hopes does NOT exist in a courtroom. Meursault is not involved, respected, believed, heard, or trusted. Meursault's powerlessness, his feelings that he has done nothing wrong--they were devastating for me to read; I felt that I had crawled inside of the minds of many of the defendants my office prosecutes, and I hoped and prayed Meursault was the exception and not the rule.

Like it or not, sometimes literature forces us to reexamine the circumstances of our current context.

Memorable fancy

From the Contemporary Poetry Review, here's an article with an interesting explication of Blake:

Although sometimes appearing to reject reason outright, Blake in his masterpiece of satirical irony The Marriage of Heaven and Hell tries to reconcile such apparent opposites as reason and energy, body and soul, through the office of the poetic imagination. His book also challenges conventional views of heaven and hell. Most remarkably, in the following section titled “A Memorable Fancy” (Plate 12), Blake addresses some of the objections of the Deists:

The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spake to them; and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer'd. 'I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm'd, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.'

Then I asked: 'does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?'

He replied: 'All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing.'

Then Ezekiel said. 'The philosophy of the east taught the first principles of human perception: some nations held one principle for the origin & some another; we of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle and all the others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the Priests & Philosophers of other countries, and prophecying that all Gods would at last be proved to originate in ours & to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius; it was this that our great poet King David desired so fervently & invokes so pathetic'ly, saying by this he conquers enemies & governs kingdoms; and we so loved our God. that we cursed in his name all the deities of surrounding nations, and asserted that they had rebelled; from these opinions the vulgar came to think that all nations would at last be subject to the jews.'

'This' said he, 'like all firm perswasions, is come to pass; for all nations believe the jews' code and worship the jews' god, and what greater subjection can be?'

I heard this with some wonder, & must confess my own conviction. After dinner I ask'd Isaiah to favour the world with his lost works; he said none of equal value was lost. Ezekiel said the same of his.

I also asked Isaiah what made him go naked and barefoot three years? he answer'd, 'the same that made our friend Diogenes the Grecian.'

I then asked Ezekiel why he eat dung, & lay so long on his right & left side? he answer'd, 'the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite; this the North American tribes practise, & is he honest who resists his genius or conscience. only for the sake of present ease or gratification?'

Though Blake’s irony is multi-layered, there’s a kernel of genuine insight within this fanciful tale. According to Blake, Isaiah’s revelations of God’s judgments were not bound by history or geography. The prophet said that he didn’t hear God “in a finite organical perception,” but rather was firmly persuaded that “the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God.” Since the voice of honest indignation can be heard by anyone throughout the globe, it is potentially available to all, answering the Deists’ demand for universality. Blake even makes provisions for the Indians in “worlds discovered new” when he compares the physical austerities practiced by Ezekiel to those of “the North American tribes,” suggesting that both practices are impelled by a universal desire to alter human consciousness to experience a “perception of the infinite.” Similarly, Blake has Isaiah assert that the impulse that made him go naked and barefoot for three years was shared by the Greek Cynic Diogenes.

According to this “Memorable Fancy,” the chief difference between the religion of Jews and Christians and those of other people is that the people of Israel taught that “the Poetic Genius” was the first principle, from which all others are derived. Similarly, the only difference between the descendants of the “great poet King David” and other nations is the greater emphasis the former place on the poetic imagination.

10 February 2005


On Sunday, my roomate and I slipped into a corner used bookshop and were promptly handed maps to the "labyrinth" by the proprietor. He wasn't kidding! Many Borgesian rooms, levels, and winding shelves later, I walked to the front with decent stack (which would've been much larger had we not been pressed for time):

Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake ~ Northop Frye
To Double Business Bound: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology ~ René Girard
The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham ~ Helen Vendler
Art As Experience ~ John Dewey
Lives of John Donne and George Herbert ~ Izaak Walton (a lovely old edition)

This little town isn't so bad after all: the happy discovery of this bookshop ranks right up there with the fact that Faulkner was the first "writer in residence" here in 1957...

...along with the discovery of an old pic of Annie and RHW here back in the day:

09 February 2005

Cafeteria intelligentsia

Above all else, P&J believed in the educated general public. [...] The thought that you could be both "subversive" and incomprehensible to 90 percent of the audience made them laugh, not quite with joy.

Last Thursday, Scott McLemee at Intellectual Affairs wrote a great piece on intellectual exchange for the common man, and alluded to some insightful questions about the role blogs (may) play in saving us from "literary loneliness" (via The Reading Experience and Conversational Reading):

[T]he cafeteria fostered a style in which the tone of authority had to be assumed with some care. There was always someone nearby, waiting to ambush you with an unfamiliar fact, a sarcastic characterization of your argument, a book he had just carried over from the library with purpose of shutting you up for good, or at least for the rest of the afternoon. ("Now where is it you say Lenin wrote that? It sure isn't here!") You had to think on your feet, to see around the corner of your own argument. And if you were smart, you knew to make a point quickly, cleanly, punching it home.

The very fact that this is increasingly true of the literary blogosphere deflates any quibbling about "egocasting." People here (for the most part) do this because the love of books and ideas, like water, seeks its own level.

The deeper problem, perhaps, is the one summed up very precisely in a note from a friend that arrived just as I finished writing this: "Do you think there's any way that intellectual life in America could become less lonely?"

I would venture to say, "Yes." And it isn't necessarily the act of communication that makes this true, but the discovery of finding one's thoughts echoed in the words of so many brilliant others.

I Am in Need of Music

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

~ Elizabeth Bishop

(A day late for her birthday, but an excuse to post poetry nevertheless...)

08 February 2005

Best bits

Maud remembers Iris Murdoch (who died on this day in 1999), and tells us of her love for The Sea, The Sea and other interesting tidbits. (Meanwhile, Existentialists & Mystics: Writings on Philosophy & Literature is still on my wish list...)

Ron at Beatrix shares his "guarded enthusiasm" for Christopher Hitchens' new collection of essays.

Scott at Conversational Reading reacts to the news of Hemingway's "new novel" that exposes his "ligher side":

For God's sake, someone stop the presses! Don't you think there's a reason Hemingway, who wrote this while on safari in 1953-4, never let this manuscript see the light of day? He wrote it while he was on safari, putting bullets between the eyes of elephants and lions. Of course he was happy. Of course he was light. The guy was probably frigging dopey on all that animal blood and all those carcasses hanging around his tent. He was out killing things! Could you expect Hemingway to have written a morbid, depressing book while the man was out ravaging the Serengeti?

And at the fierce First Annual TMN Tournament of Books, Boyle trounces Tuck to join Roth, and Maud has her work cut out for her in Round Two.

07 February 2005

Martin Amis in Cali

The Sunday Times continues its series of "Authors in the front line" with Martin Amis in Colombia:

Machismo, in its Latin American mutation, has one additional emphasis, that of indifference - unreachable indifference. You felt that indifference very strongly with John Anderson, on the central divide. Any kind of empathy is not just enfeebling - it is effeminate. You have no empathy even for yourself.

As resoundingly accurate as you can get.

Earlier in the piece, he explains:

The people here are desplazados, displaced peasants, mainly from the country's Pacific coast. Cali contains about 70,000 of the displaced. Some are pushed from the land by that irresistible modern force, urbanisation; others are fleeing what may be the final convulsions of a civil war that began in 1948.

My other "job" is typing (and interpreting) transcripts of the interviews my sister had last summer in Colombia with people immediately connected to the displaced and--in some marvelous, heartbreaking cases--the displaced themselves. Their resilience and dogged optimism in the face of the situation is amazing to behold. Although Amis' article is realistically bleak in dealing with the violence in the streets of the cities, that he could cautiously use the words "final convulsions" in connection with the civil conflict lifted my heart a few inches off the ground.

Lonely hunters

In 1959, Carson McCullers hosted a small luncheon party in order that Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke (Isak Dinesen) could meet Marilyn Monroe.

By all accounts, the three women hit it off wonderfully -- though Arthur Miller says the legend of them dancing together on McCullers' marble-topped dinner table is an exaggeration. McCullers thought it the best party she ever gave; everyone thought Monroe's story of trying to finish cooking pasta with a hair dryer the equal to anything Blixen had to tell; Blixen thought Monroe "almost incredibly pretty," full of "unbounded vitality" and "unbelievable innocence" -- "I have met the same in a lion cub that my native servants in Africa brought me. I would not keep her."

P.S. Happy Birthday, Jane!

Cervantes comes to light

A rare first edition of Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote", published 400 years ago, has been unearthed in Spain...

A group of experts are investigating whether the tome, found near the southern city of Murcia, is a first edition from 1605.

Only 18 are known to exist worldwide, four of them in Spain.

With Spain holding a range of nationwide celebrations to mark four centuries since the country's most famous literary work appeared the book, if its origin is confirmed, would be more than its weight in gold.

The tome emerged when the hamlet of Alhama organised a Quixote exhibition, calling on local children to bring a copy from their parents' collection.

One child brought along an edition explaining it was a family heirloom which had belonged to an ancestor who lived in Cuba.

José Calero Heras, a professor of literature, told Spanish broadcaster TVE that the first page contained several first edition characteristics, including a dedication to the Duke of Bejar, a descendant of the royal family of the ancient kingdom of Navarra.

A phrase, in Latin, reads: "after the shadows I await the light."

A Spanish national library commission is to examine the paper, ink and printing techniques used before pronouncing whether they believe the volume is indeed a first edition.

05 February 2005

Cuba's libraries

Jessa at Bookslut alerts us to the campaign of A U.S. Library vs. Fidel:

Fidel Castro, I'm sure, never heard of the small town of Vermillion, South Dakota, until late last year, when the Vermillion Public Library—founded in 1902, on the eve of the Progressive era in American politics—began to gain international attention by becoming the first, and only, American library to call attention to Castro's imprisoning of 10 of Cuba's independent librarians to sentences of more than 20 years. [...]

In March 2003, Castro's State Security police arrested 75 Cuban dissenters: journalists, human rights workers, and labor organizers, along with independent librarians who provided access to books excluded from Cuba's censored library system. These "subversive" independent public librarians were sent to Castro's foul prisons, along with the other dissenters. [...]

The Vermillion Public Library is now sending books to its sister independent library in Havana. The first two shipments included Spanish-language editions of George Orwell's
1984 and a collection of the works of that formidable freethinker Mark Twain.

What has made this signal of solidarity against repression most notable is that this small town in South Dakota has not only defied Castro but has also shown the hypocrisy of the national American Library Association—the largest organization of librarians in the world—whose governing council last year overwhelmingly defeated an amendment from one of its members to demand that Castro immediately release the 10 independent librarians, along with the other 65 "prisoners of conscience," as Amnesty International has described them.

04 February 2005

A feel for literature, part 2

Scott over at Conversational Reading sums up an issue I posted about yesterday:

Really, though, I enjoy books both ways, and I don't think I'd want to read wholly without either. Perhaps I'm just a wishy-washy guy, but sometimes I just want to sit down and enjoy some artful writing and other times I'm out with my notepad and little sticky things interpreting like there's no tomorrow. Somedays I'm out with my Barthes and my Foucault, and others I prefer more personal reactions to a book, like Cigarettes are Sublime, (a work I recently finished).

Regardless, it is interesting, and insightful, to watch Dan and Mark disagree. I will say that by blogging they're doing readers like myself a favor, presenting on an almost daily basis erudite takes on literature. It's that kind of intelligent, impassioned discussion of literature that's missing from general talk of literature in the media, and looking for it is part of the reason I turned to blogs in the first place.

I heartily agree. This is also what's sucked me into the blogosphere and inspired me to start up my own little ramshackle place. Because even though I've already outed myself as a self-conscious neophyte, these are definitely issues worth risking foolishness for.

He also links to Word Munger's thoughtful post, "A defence of literary criticism--sort of":

Rushdie’s specific critique of literary theory is that it imposes an ideology on a text – Marxism, feminism, neo-colonialism, whatever. Reading a text this way, for Rushdie, is like smashing it through an iron grate. Sure, you can pick up the now-battered remnants of the text and come to some “understanding” of what they “mean,” but it will be a fragmented, disjointed view of the original text. Instead, Rushdie thinks students should be taught to simply read texts, “one sentence after another,” and afterwards, to “try to piece together what those sentences mean.”

But that isn't the whole story...

Do yourself a favor and read the entire post. Meanwhile, I'm heading out into the snow to (hopefully) catch a bus and begin my weekend of more delightful Spanish interview transcribing.


In which George blows off a little steam

Reaction to Fisher-Price/Scholastic's plan of new interactive DVD books:

"Stop throwing our children to the sharks!"

It's a wonderful world we live in when parents aren't even needed! Um, people, get the fucking books yourself and read them to your children. There's a reason my son is recognizing certain words, knows his alphabet, and is reciting stories before he turns two (on Monday!). Because I PARENT. Hello?! I don't even do that much, really. I just spend time with him and we don't watch TV. That's it! We play games and read books. It's not rocket science!

The father we never found

On this day in 1968 Neal Cassady died, at the age of forty-one. Cassady was not only Jack Kerouac's wheelman on the cross-country trips that inspired On the Road but a direct influence on Kerouac's style. His rambling, benzedrine-and-booze letters to Kerouac aimed for "a continuous chain of undisciplined thought," and invited his friend to "fall into a spontaneous groove" with him by mail. Only after getting this advice (and his own pile of bennies and his 120 ft. roll of paper) did Kerouac move beyond the "phony architectures" (i.e. traditional prose) of his rough draft into "innocent go-ahead confession, the discipline of making the mind the slave of the tongue."

Read the rest at Today in Literature.

House of Derrida

Bookninja alerts us to the new Derrida film:

An action-packed new blockbuster in which our hero Jack, a secret CIA agent, infiltrates the French intellectual terrorist scene and starts a campaign of covert assassinations before finally staging his own death.


Apparently, it's actually "An odd portrait of Jacques Derrida, one of the most polemical and influential theorists of the end of the 20th century. The filmmakers 'deconstruct' the French thinker's private and professional life, in an attempt to capture the processes of an inquisitive and iconoclastic mind which has greatly influenced our way of understanding the limits of language."

Sounds fascinating.

Reading further, I found that Mark Z. Danielewski is listed under assistant editor, sound, and additional camera. I wonder if is this the same Danielewski of House of Leaves? Could be...

Mathilde by candlelight

Wednesday night I walked downtown to a local venue to see Blue Merle (a hybrid mix of Nickel Creek & Coldplay). It was an amazing show--the place was packed, aside from the fact that it was their third show here in the past month! (I definitely plan on picking up a copy of their new album, Burning in the Sun, once it's out.)

But I also loved sitting at an inconspicuous table in the dim candlelight, finishing Sébastien Japrisot's luminous novel A Very Long Engagement before the show started.

An article in The Independent last month discusses Japrisot's life and work:

The way of the world, in all its hard, tragic and hopeful guises, was to be Sébastien Japrisot's preoccupation throughout a prolific and varied career - one that spanned literary fiction, crime novels, screenplays and translations, right up to his death in March 2003. He held a Graham Greene-like reputation in France: a brilliant talent cocooned in a complicated and volatile personality. However, on this side of the Channel, he has remained relatively obscure to all but Francophiles and cinéastes. [...]

Japrisot's classic follows the endeavours of Mathilde, a young woman on a quest to discover the fate of her fiancé, Manech, who went missing in action in the Great War. Mathilde was crippled in a childhood fall, and her physical strength is replaced with a mental resolve as rigid as a girder. She is a beguiling protagonist. Guillaume Laurent, who adapted the book with Jeunet, notes: "What's so beautiful about A Very Long Engagement is that the heroine's tenacity, strength of will and faith transcend the horrors of war."

It is a good adaptation in that Audrey Tautou nails Mathilde, the still point of its rapidly turning world (I could somehow deal with the fact that she isn't strictly wheelchair-bound). I identified so completely with her character that it would've been difficult to dislike the film. Jeunet's interpretation of the story is very him (with all that that implies)--it was interesting to see the pieces of information that he withheld in order to make it a tighter mystery. Also, to enhance the dramatic tension, he intentionally keeps Mathilde hoping to find Manech alive. In the novel, this is much cloudier, many more years pass, and it almost seems as if Mathilde's hope is in finding out how he died...which somehow effortlessly co-exists with her aim of finding him (don't worry--this doesn't give anything away one way or another).

That said, I wish I had read the book first, and especially wish that I could read French! (It's Un long dimanche de fiancailles for your list, Ms. Croc.) But this is a case where both novel and film complement each other. Mathilde's indestructible resolve reminded me of Jane Eyre--a very different character, but the unswerving fidelity to what she holds true is very similar.

A few favorite lines:

She is mistaken. Time passes, as That Man said, and life is strong enough to carry us on its back.

"Of course, Matti, you will rebel against an action that deprived you of hope..."

Her father's reply is just what she expected: he knows her--or her heart, at least--better than anyone, and he knows perfectly well that if she has that heart set on an idea, and someone else doesn't like it, that someone else is simply out of luck.

03 February 2005

Chasing the light

Identity Theory has new art up by Catherine Ryan. (This one looks like it could easily have been the cover of The Innocence Mission's new album.)


Bookninja divulges:

My favourite Rand burn goes to Incoming Signals who writes, "Today would have been Ayn Rand's 100th birthday. In celebration, I'm going to bake a cake and then not share it with anybody." Bravo.

(I nearly spewed coffee all over my computer screen...)

A feel for literature

Dan Green at The Reading Experience never lets me down:

The overriding claim is that all "readings," even those that claim to renounce "theory" as it is currently understood, are nevertheless unavoidably theoretical, "shot through" with some theoretical assumption or another. It's a very common move made by the partisans of academic theory, one that is supposed to induce silence on the part of theory's skeptics, dazzled as they should be with this penetrating insight and forever after unable to mount an attack on theory that isn't self-undermining.

It also has the effect of yanking the rug out from under the feet of neophytes like myself, who don't think "privileging the text" is such a bad idea. Should we really be treating literature as a glass onion, seeing through all the layers till there's nothing left to see?

Since we can't ultimately make sense of anything without some underlying assumptions about how they are presented and how they have previously been understood, does this mean we're just theory programs, assembled so that we apply our theoretical constructs to everything in sight? Perhaps so, but at this level it seems to me that "theory" becomes mostly a meaningless word, synonymous with "education." If CS wants to maintain that we can't appreciate literature at all without being "educated" about it, so be it.

John Harwood lambasts the critics/theorists who are "persuaded that he or she is already in possession of the only valid reading of the sacred texts--or that only the elect know how to read at all" (although overall, he seems to not only throw out the baby and the bathwater, but the actual tub as well). The prevailing attitude seems to be that the "uninitiated" just don't know what the hell they're talking about. (I'm nearing the end of this book and hope to comment more on it soon.)

Personally, I think it's obvious that literature can be appreciated apart from "education." But the purpose of "education" should be to heighten (refine, deepen) "appreciation." (This was the effect a BA had on me, and should I go on to teach, I can only hope that this is what I inspire as well.)

I can't help but include the rest of it:

Works of literature quite clearly differ from other forms of communication and expression. They are written not to transmit ideas or attitudes or opinions but, first and foremost, to become formally shaped works of verbal art. (At least the best ones are.) They are composed, intended to evoke an aesthetic response from their readers, and it doesn't take any convoluted "theory" for us to recognize this. In my opinion, to say that our understanding of this distinction between literature, poetry and fiction, and other kinds of writing depends on a "theoretical" intervention is, pragmatically speaking, just plain silly. I know literature when I see it, and while, indeed, my ability to do this has to some extent been enhanced by my education, calling it a theory adds nothing useful to the discussion of literature or of literary criticism. Similarly, in this context it makes perfect sense to speak of a "feel for literature": This is possessed by anyone who responds readily to the aesthetic effects of literature without any need to be told that doing so involves some theory of reading.

Ah, validation!

Perhaps my habitual response to works of literature is naive--in the sense that it arguably presupposes this is the way most people respond as well--but it certainly is not a lie. I'm not describing my "pre-theoretical" stance in order to bamboozle people into accepting a reactionary agenda. It's real. Nor am I fooling myself into thinking I'm theoretically pure while in truth I'm infected with theory. I haven't failed to "interrogate" my approach to literature through the good offices of critical theory and all that it's taught us that we didn't know before. I'm familiar with all of the current brands of academic theory, and I understand all of the arguments about the inevitability of theory. I just think they're wrong. I don't say that works of literature often become unduly "contaminated" with politics, just that when a literary text becomes preoccupied with politics (social commentary more generally), it's no longer literary but political. I'm frankly dumbfounded that so many people seem not to be able (or refuse) to acknowledge this fairly simple "conceptual assumption."

And of course this is fundamentally an "academic" discussion in the most literal sense. If literature and literary criticism could be wrested from the institutional hands of the academy, literary theory as it is presently known would be dead.

Quite a mouthful.

02 February 2005

Left Behind my arse!

Ron at Beatrice gives long-overdue props to Fred Clark's brilliant evisceration of the Left Behind books:

NYT columnist Nick Kristof hit a similar theme last November, criticizing Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins for the inherent bigotry of their apocalypse porn. But nobody I've seen has gone after these guys with the thoroughness of the Slacktivist. See for yourself, encourage him to do more--though the site itself is going great guns, the Left Behind well hasn't been touched for over a month--and if you're in the media, write about his work.

Hear, hear!

LaHaye's embarrassing responses to Kristof are also well-documented by Mr. Clark (who did a fantastic job at PRISM back in the day).

Silent seas

The Guardian has a recent article on the rest of Eliot's unpublished letters:

Karen Christensen, who worked as an assistant to Mrs Eliot in the 1980s, says that only half the material that was completely ready for publication in 1988 has in fact been published. The years 1922 to 1927, intended as the second volume, have never appeared.

Without the letters, critics have instead mined the poems for evidence, variously detecting homophobic, homoerotic, anti-semitic or just plain misogynist strains.

Ms Christensen writes: "The letters in the second volume were the most moving of all the hundreds I worked on.

"They catalogue the breakdown of Eliot's first marriage, the bewilderment and despair of two people who seemed unable to avoid destroying each other ... A second volume of letters would do much to reveal what really went on between them and would, I feel sure, create sympathy for Eliot."

(But one has only to read Four Quartets to see the sobering issues he was dealing with towards the end of his career.)

Books are furniture

"A house without books is like a room without windows."
~ Horace Mann

In defence of complaints regarding personal "clutter," I have always maintained that books are furniture, and have used Mann's line as corroboration. There really is a method to the madness of having random stacks of books piled around the house: it just looks better. And I freely admit that when I visit other people's homes, I surreptitiously glance at their bookshelves (and tables and floors and chairs) to see what they're stocking their minds with.

A gleeful discovery of CAAF's confession, "I do always peer at the catalogs (particularly Pottery Barn for some reason) to see what books they have on their shelves" led her to post on Nicholas Baker's essay, "Books as Furniture."

Now I have happy precedent for my daft habit of only leafing through catalogs to see which books they place in their well-decorated rooms...

In a more literal vein, MIT students constructed an exhibit of furniture made entirely out of books last year:

Smith used pages from P.D. James' detective novels as quilt panels which she machine-stitched with red thread. Other book pages were shredded to provide stuffing for the quilt and pillow. The mattress is rows of stacked books.

"I was able to find at least two comfortable positions [on the bed]. I was really surprised; I thought it would be like boulders," said Demaine.

Ah, but would lurid tales seep into her dreams?

01 February 2005

Satchmo and that Shakespeherian Rag

I have one of those "Poetry Speaks" page-a-day calendars (given to me by the lovely Sarah Jane) on the kitchen (card)table. Although the selections are hit-or-miss, it's good to peer at this little square block of printed words while I blearily pull on my Docs every morning before heading out the door.

In preparation for Langston Hughes' birthday today, yesterday's bit was a few words on Hughes by Al Young:

While recordings of poets reading their work were not widely available, my classmates and I understood that poems did not live on the page; they only camped there.... We knew poems lived in the body.... First-rate composers--Anton Dvorak, Bela Bartok, Cole Porter, Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington, and Thelonius Monk come to mind--build their music from everything they hear going on around them, from the formalized to the vernacular and the colloquial ... the poetry of Langston Hughes, alive with clues to the origins of the blues, continues to quiver....

This reminded me of Ralph Ellison's vibrant comparison of T.S. Eliot to Louis Armstrong in "Hidden Name and Complex Fate: A Writer's Experience in the United States" (from Shadow and Act), which recounts his foray into literature while studying music:

Wuthering Heights had caused me an agony of unexpressible emotion and the same was true of Jude the Obscure, but The Waste Land seized my mind. I was intrigued by its power to move me while eluding my understanding. Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets, and even though I could not understand then, its range of allusion was as mixed and as varied as that of Louis Armstrong. Yet there were its discontinuities, its changes of pace and its hidden system of organization which escaped me.

There was nothing to do but look up the references in the footnotes to the poem, and thus began my conscious education in literature.

Critics and theorists can wrangle over meaning all they want. Give me that unspeakable sense of ineffable thought resting beneath printed verse that leads God knows where.

("O O O O...")