31 January 2006

The questions

Can I tell you that I have found answers to the questions that torment the man of our time? I do not know if I have found answers. When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of “answers.” But as I grow old in the monastic life I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions. And what are the questions? Can a man make sense of his existence? Can a man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world began and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? My brother, perhaps in my solitude I have become as it were an explorer for you, a searcher in realms which you are not able to visit--except perhaps in the company of your psychiatrist. I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts.
~ Thomas Merton, born on this day in 1915

(from Paul Elie's magnificent book The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage)

29 January 2006

Case in point

Allusion done well:
"I hate to disturb you when you're researching," Violet said, "but there was a note from Jerome [Squalor] on my pillow. Esmé is going to take us to Veblen Hall at ten-thirty sharp, and it's just past ten o'clock now. Is there any way we can help you?"

"I don't see how," Klaus said, his eyes looking worried behind his glasses. "There's only one copy of the catalog, and it's pretty complicated. Each of the items for the auction is called a lot, and the catalog lists each lot with a description and a guess at what the highest bid may be. I've read up to Lot #49, which is a valuable postage stamp."

"Well, Gunther can't hide the Quagmires [Isadora & Duncan] in a postage stamp," Violet said. "You can skip that lot."
J.D. Salinger, an economist, Thomas Pynchon, and a famous dancer all within two pages of each other--with quite a bit of "conspicuous consumption" thrown in for good measure. (I'm a sucker for this kind of thing.)

Mature poets steal?

The Little Professor on literary plagiarism:
In his "War on Plagiarism," Prof. Lesko neglects to get at the literary-historical problem: what, exactly, are we to do with a long-dead major author after we find him or her guilty on all counts? Should we respond to such authors in the same way that we respond to a novelist caught in the act now? (Or, as Scott asks of Coleridge, "And the more you love his poetry, the harder it is to know what to think of his kleptomania. Should you be indignant? Or just perplexed?") When I teach Dorian Gray, for example, I always point out that Ch. XI is plagiarized. Now, strictly speaking, an au courant contemporary probably would have recognized the "poisoned book" and, by extension, Ch. XI's debt to it; after all, Huysmans was a key Decadent. Moreover, as other critics of the novel have noted, there's something oddly appropriate about the chapter's derivative nature, given how derivative Dorian is himself. Still, we're stuck with the original question. Should I derail the classroom discussion for a lecture on the evils of plagiarism? Issue a blanket amnesty? Toss the novel into Reading Gaol? What?

Given that literary history consists of authors reading, rewriting, alluding to, parodying, and saluting each other, it's impossible to yank a brick out of the wall without reducing the whole edifice to a shambles. One cannot ignore Shakespeare because he borrowed extensively from someone else's King Leir, any more than we can eject Coleridge from the Romantic canon because he had a cribbing habit to accompany his opium habit. It's much easier to dimiss a pleasant third-rater like Rhoda Broughton, who in one novel absconds with a passage from The Mill on the Floss without so much as a "please, George." After all, Broughton has had no real influence on subsequent novelists. And there's the problem, isn't it? Once a work turns out to be powerful enough to generate imitation, response, parody, critique, and so forth, its own borrowings frequently become, in practice, a purely academic question. If the writer isn't caught and halted at the time (like Brad Vice), then his or her work may either go the way of all published literature or become so culturally significant that plagiarism becomes, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Once the work has successfully gone forth and multiplied after escaping into the wild, as it were, it's perhaps a little late (not to mention futile) to denounce the author at every turn; what are we to supposed to do, dig up Coleridge's bones and burn them? (Even Norman Fruman, famed chronicler of Coleridge's plagiaristic misdeeds, enthusiastically dubs Coleridge a "great artist" [2].) Like it or not, the plagiarism issue is just not very helpful when it comes to assessing Coleridge's, Shakespeare's, or Wilde's historical significance. It's similarly useless when talking about low-end novelists: I can point out that both Anna Eliza Bray and Emily Sarah Holt steal from John Foxe, but once I've branded "plagiarist" on their respective foreheads, I'll still be left with the problem of what they've chosen to steal and how it affects the texts in question.
Like it or not, I've come to think of this in terms of a sort of historical relativism. We've gone from a time when spelling wasn't even standardized (Shakespeare) to an era when personal information can be accessed from home (the internet). The line between allusion and thievery has always been a thin one, but we can't always apply the standards of "now" to the works of "then."

28 January 2006

García Quintero

Read a poem that begins, "Poco a poco el silencio ha ido llenando mi alma de ruidos, / con pisadas temerosas como de fiera perseguida por el temblor del / corazón que afila su cuchillo" ("Little by little silence has been filling up my soul with noises, / with fearful footsteps like a wild beast chased by the trembling of / the heart sharpening its knife")...and remember how your own hollow heart rattles with a silence of its own.

The Poetry International Web on Colombian poet Felipe García Quintero:
[His] is a poetry in which there is no separation between thought and experience, and where experience is deformed, so as to express feelings of alienation and estrangement in small, cruel narratives or in series of mournful lamentations, interspersed with striking images.
(The parallel translation layout of this site is a joy to behold.)

25 January 2006


But if you hold a blunt blade to a grindstone long enough, something spurts--a jagged edge of fire; so held to lack of reason, aimlessness, the usual, all massed together, out spurted in one flame hatred, contempt. I took my mind, my being, the old dejected, almost inanimate object and lashed it about among these odds and ends, sticks and straws, detestable little bits of wreckage, flotsam and jetsam, floating on the oily surface. I jumped up, I said, "Fight". "Fight", I repeated. It is the effort and the struggle, it is the perpetual warfare, it is the shattering and piecing together--this is the daily battle, defeat or victory, the absorbing pursuit. The trees, scattered, put on order; the thick green of the leaves thinned itself to a dancing light. I netted them under with a sudden phrase. I retrieved them from formlessness with words.
~ Bernard in The Waves by Virginia Woolf, born on this day in 1882

For more thoughtful posts about Virginia, see this, this, and that. I'm looking forward to reading Anne Fernald's forthcoming book on Virginia--Feminist, Reader, Woolf--which will "offer a feminist theory of literary influence."

21 January 2006

One year

One night last year (21 January to be exact), I quietly started this little blog, a cyber-scrapbook of literary thoughts and clippings. I've had a lot of fun keeping my brain awake reading other bloggers' intellectually stimulating and just plain hilarious posts, getting to know some brilliant people, and participating in my first group reading blog, 400 Windmills. Litblogs have proven to be quite a lifeline, and I'm grateful to all of you for just doing what you're doing. The opinions and aspirations of lonely readers everywhere are being honed as a result.

As another year begins, I'm reminded of a poem by my favorite Elinor:
Now let no charitable hope
Confuse my mind with images
Of eagle and of antelope:
I am by nature none of these.

I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;
I live by squeezing from a stone
What little nourishment I get.

In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.

~ Elinor Wylie

The perks of the pseudo-librarian

While working on our school library this week (reshelving everything in alphabetical order and new categories, affixing tiny labels on the spines, adding check-out slips to the new books), I've been able to smuggle a few books to read at home. I'm finally getting a chance to read more Lemony Snicket, and take care to not startle people with my random laughter while reading in public. Only today, Klaus was relating what he'd read on hypnotism to his sisters:
"A man who lived in England in the nineteen twenties was hypnotized. All the hypnotist had to do was shout 'Bloomsbury!' and he suddenly became a brilliant writer, even though he couldn't read."

17 January 2006

Salinger support

Ms. Mental multivitamin defends Holden Caulfield:
In the places in which I've taught (from college lecture halls and writing centers to a juvenile detention facility for young men), Holden's narrative has, like no other, cracked open the discussion coconut. From the classrooms of a tony suburban high school into an undergrad honors seminar in a small liberal arts college over to the cramped, dirty classroom of that juvie center, Holden bounded. He captivated, angered, and alternately dismayed and delighted.

For this alone, he will remain in my top ten.

He makes. students. think. [...]

Some might argue that just about any book can yield discussion, but I'd counter that this is really only true when you're talking with readers. But I haven't always worked with readers, and with non-readers (or less than ideal readers (more about this in a moment)), a deafening sound of silence often follows an enthusiastic teacher's inquiries about the latest reading assignment when, for myriad reasons, a book has failed to connect with the students (or vice versa).

Oh, sure, you can lead, cajole, and coach responses. And I did. But with Holden? I never needed to. He spoke to (shouted at!) both my readers and my non-readers with little to no interpretation from me. The students fairly exploded with questions, opinions, assertions, and reactions.

Call me crazy, but I love that sort of visceral response to literature.
It's true. Most people either outright hate him or feel sympathetic to his particular plight. I myself have always had a soft spot for Holden and completely agree with Ms. M-mv.

On a related note, I once mentioned Janet Malcolm's fantastic essay in defence of Franny and Zooey, and it bears repeating. It's a brilliant piece of work.

While reading Ian Hamilton's engaging (pseudo)biography on Salinger, I was infuriated by the wholesale (intentional?) misunderstanding of the book on the part of the critics of the day. Forget about missing the boat. They missed the entire ocean. It's as if they read as far as "Franny" and stopped, then smugly (and irrationally) declared the book "anti-intellectual." If all this hadn't happened before I was born, I would've stormed off letters to the critics calling them "anti-intellectual" for being so lazy as to not read the latter half of the book.

15 January 2006

And they wonder why they're no closer to the clouds

Any diligent student of writerly posterity--and none was more diligent than Eliot himself--might have seen it coming. Giants must be cut down to size; icons must be toppled. In Eliot's case, the literary-industrial complex that sprang up in order to explain him now seems to exist largely to vivisect him, intent on exposing him as all too human.
Whatever happened to standing on their shoulders?

(Via A&L Daily)

Missing person

Where oh where is Jimmy Beck?

Book bliss

Is there anything better than successfully carting three suitcases full of books to another country? Maybe unpacking them and then lining them up using new bookends... But then there's the fun of cataloging them for the school library... (Yes, I'm a geek.)

None of this could be possible without the help of my tireless father, bookish friends Chris and Jeni, and the kind librarians who donated two grocery bags full of books!

Many hearty thanks to you all. Minds will be challenged and delighted by your kind generosity.

14 January 2006

I Heart Rabassa

I'm back in Colombia now (holiday travels officially over) and reunited with my lovely, speedy internet connection. The best book I read over break was Gregory Rabassa's If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, a chatty memoir about his experiences as a literary translator. I've long admired his translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and thoroughly enjoyed learning about his own background and perspectives (especially since completing my own translation work on my sister's documentary). It was like sitting at the feet of a benevolent grandfather, listening to droll and insightful tales of days gone by. My favorite story has to be in the section about García Márquez: "His next long novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch, was excerpted in The New Yorker and therein lies a beautiful tale of editorial timidity and orthodoxy." He explains:
A word that Gabo enjoys throwing about in a lot of his writing as an expletive but more often than not as a descriptive term is mierda, excrement. […] It was a favorite word of the novel’s unnamed patriarch and as such it was absolutely essential that it appear in English in its correct earthy and expressive translation. This is how I did it, causing great distress at The New Yorker. I was given to understand that any number of high-level editorial meetings were held to decide what to do about the word, which had never appeared in the magazine before. As intelligent people the editors saw that the word just had to be matched by its equivalent in English if the truth of the story was to be maintained. Since then I have liked to trumpet the news that in a triumph even greater than his winning the Nobel Prize, García Márquez broke the shit barrier at The New Yorker.

06 January 2006

Colombian documentary online

First post of the new year and I've got wonderful news! A "rough cut" of my sister's documentary about the plight of the displaced in Colombia is now up at Frontline World:
At the heart of "This Little Old Town," though, is a story that transcends violence and offers hope and renewal. When Correa learns that a group of villagers are reclaiming the mountain village of Saiza, which they were driven out of five years ago, she joins them on their journey home.

About 1,500 villagers make the trek through coastal mountains that are as breathtaking as they are dangerous, reminding Correa of the countryside in which she rode horses as a child.

When they reach Saiza, by mule and on foot, they see remnants of their burned-out homes, entangled in the encroaching jungle.

But they remain optimistic: "We think that we will rebuild a new future," one villager tells Correa. "The small amount of people who are left are very hardworking and very humble."

As the villagers make plans to rebuild and to plant crops, Correa comes across Saiza's mayor, Omar Pino, wading in the nearby river like a contented Buddha. To express how it feels to be home, he tells her: "I would like to sing a song, if you allow me. It's called 'This Little Old Town.'"

It's a scene to savor and we hope you enjoy watching this week's story.
There are also some excellent links attached to it as well.

It has been an enormous labor of love for all of us involved in this poignant piece. Many congratulations to Deborah and Brittney for a job well done.

¡Viva Colombia!