Wednesday, October 31, 2007

An excellent exercise in literary guilt:

Office Politics

I've been watching The Office on DVD a lot lately — "binging," as Emily lovingly puts it. (It's occurred to me that, in these amorphous post-generals times, I might be indulging some weird fantasy about having a regular job again. If so, please remember to slap some sense into me the next time you see me.) It took me a long time to get into the American series, because I was so attached to the original British show, but it finally wore me down, and I've come to appreciate it on its own terms.

And as with anything that gives me real pleasure, I feel neurotically compelled to theorize a little bit about it. Here's a trial balloon: The British Office is to the American Office as Franz Kafka is to Erving Goffman. That is, the focus shifts from the mindnumbing banality and oppression inflicted on innocent office workers by idiotic superiors (Ricky Gervais' David Brent and Steve Carell's Michael Scott, respectively) to the coping mechanisms that the office workers use to live with that banality: pranks, office romances, small but significant expressions of community. All of which are an important element of the British version, but they're close to being the whole point of the American one.

Also, the characters' attitude toward the cameras is entirely different: in the British show they seem like something everyone (except for David) is subjected to, somewhat unwillingly; in the American one they're playfully acknowledged, even directly involved in the action (as when the camera operator directs Pam's attention to intrigue going on between Dwight and Angela). The impulse in the American Office is always toward inclusion, socialization, communal ritual (however unwelcome) above personal anomie: closeness at any cost.

To me this says a lot about the American attitude towards work, circa early 21st century: specifically, that it ought to be above all a lifestyle, and a socius. (This is an idea held by David Brent in the British show too, but there it's obviously a PC fiction, something everybody but him can plainly see; whereas the American show agrees with Michael that an office should be a community, but just thinks he goes about fostering it all wrong.) There are so many American TV shows about work, and about high-pressure jobs in particular (all doctor shows, all lawyer shows, The West Wing, 3o Rock, etc. etc.), where this vision of job-as-community is even easier to see; in fact, one thing that's refreshing and appealing about The Office is it's almost unique in being about a low-pressure job. Everything about the show is low-stakes, modest, unassuming: but rather than being experienced as degraded and humiliating, the mundanity of the office is exactly what gives pleasure, or allows the possibility of it.

(Just for the sake of probity, I am now issuing a spoiler alert.) The British Office ends with David Brent becoming a (minor) celebrity, in a literalization of the mock-documentary format of the show as a whole. Though this scarcely works out better for him than being a regional manager, it does read, in context, as a necessary dramaturgical move away from the temporary situation of the office, which Merchant and Gervais evidently considered exhausted after just twelve episodes. It's hard to imagine the American version allowing itself this way out, both because it's in the nature of American television shows to keep their premises humming indefinitely, and because, ultimately, the American office doesn't seem like such a bad place to be. (This difference also, if you think about it, reverses some of the standard commonplaces about American "escapism" and celebrity obsession.)

Not sure what valuation to put on this: Stockholm Syndrome or simple realism? Stanley Cavell said "the fact of television" is an acknowledgment of "the uninhabitability of the world," and one might say that the British Office works by extending this terrible fact to the workplace, the American Office by using the workplace to ward it off. But then again we do all have to work, somehow, don't we, and get along with each other in the process? Either way there seems to be something (not uniquely, but distinctively) American about the show's Weltanschaaung. Probably Elizabeth Bishop — who hardly worked a day in her life — said it best: "All the untidy activity continues, / Awful but cheerful."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Scared Straight

William Empson to Charles Madge, upon receipt of (in Madge's words) a "long and probably half-baked and undigested manuscript about Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton":

"The shape of the book I think is bloody insolent. The idea that one must write very esoteric stuff because nobody will read [it] anyway seems to me nonsense — you get plenty of readers if you give anybody a chance. Surely even a communist can have a reasonable amount of democratic feeling; the point about writing as plainly as you can is that you are testing your ideas against somebody who is not a specialist and just knows about life in general. Really subjective writing seems to me nasty to touch, gluey on the outside like David Gascoyne. I feel I have some right to be rude about this because [I am] so much open to the same faults. You had much better imagine before you write anything that England has long been a settled communist state, and that the only difficulties before you are (a) making the comrades hear what you want to say (b) convincing them you are not talking nonsense; assuming the future to have arrived is a piece of symbolism quite in your manner; you will find it works much better both as making you write better and making people buy your books. Actual chapters of quotation without confessing what you quote for, actual articles in quotation without confessing who they are quoted from, all that kind of thing, is merely indulging yourself in madness without the excuse of being mad. Of course there isn't much money in the kind of criticism we write anyway; but the kind of thing one needs in the way of sales and success, enough recognition and criticism to go on doing one's stuff without the insanity of isolation, you can get in presentday [1936] England at once, but only if you don't pretend to be mad. You must expect me to take you seriously if you left the MS to ask my view of it, and I advise you very heartily not to publish this as it stands. Better make it several books and put in a great deal of your political opinions; I don't see that you lose anything by putting them in, it will make the thing far more human, and you may become sufficiently interested to find the main things you wanted to say. I myself generally find what I was trying to talk about while I am re-writing so as to try to be intelligible …

"I smack this out in a state of moderate beer assuming that you are not appallingly sensitive. The difficult thing would be to say it tactfully, but I don't believe you are as neurotic as your piece of writing. As to a public, of course there is a real muddle; the recent events have kept on showing a public opinion I find I agree with, its muddle is my own, and
I feel I can write decent (of course unselling) books with a notion that it is part of the country that provides the language. A man who doesn't feel that at all has of course a different situation, and I should have thought the straight way out was to bring in the politics firm and clear … Anyway, just as a point of theory, literary symbolism demands a public for symbolism; by all means imagine a public, and as a matter of fact you will imagine a real one; but those who write for no public are ever unconscious of their asylum.

"Love to you and Kathleen

"Bill Empson

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Worldly Country

By John Ashbery:

Not the smoothness, not the insane clocks on the square,
the scent of manure in the municipal parterre,
not the fabrics, the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird,
not the fresh troops that needed freshening up. If it occurred
in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel
that was OK too. From palace and hovel
the great parade flooded avenue and byway
and turnip fields became just another highway.
Leftover bonbons were thrown to the chickens
and geese, who squawked like the very dickens.
There was no peace in the bathroom, none in the china closet
or the banks, where no one came to make a deposit.
In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon.
By evening all was calm again. A crescent moon
hung in the sky like a parrot on its perch.
Departing guests smiled and called, "See you in church!"
For night, as usual, knew what it was doing,
providing sleep to offset the great ungluing
that tomorrow again would surely bring.
As I gazed at the quiet rubble, one thing
puzzled me: What had happened, and why?
One minute we were up to our necks in rebelliousness,
and the next, peace had subdued the ranks of hellishness.

So often it happens that the time we turn around in
soon becomes the shoal our pathetic skiff will run aground in.
And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea
we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Explain it!

F.R. Leavis on Ludwig Wittgenstein on William Empson (quoted in John Haffenden's Empson biography), in what strikes me as a kind of Cambridge intellectual Celebrity Deathmatch:

[Wittgenstein] said to me once (it must have been soon after his return to Cambridge): "Do you know a man called Empson?" I replied: "No, but I've just come on him in Cambridge Poetry 1929, which I reviewed for The Cambridge Review. "Is he any good?" "It's surprising," I said, "but there are six poems of his in the book, and they are all poems and very distinctive." "What are they like?" So I started: "You know Donne?" No, he didn't know Donne. … Balked, I made a few lame observations about the nature of the conceit, and gave up. "I should like to see his poems," said Wittgenstein. "You can," I answered; "I'll bring you the book." "I'll come round to yours," he said. He did soon after, and went to the point at once: "Where's that anthology? Read me his best poem." The book was handy; opening it, I said, with "Legal Fiction" before my eyes: "I don't know if this is his best poem, but it will do." When I had read it, Wittgenstein said, "Explain it!" So I began to do so, taking the first line first. "Oh! I understand that," he interrupted, and looking over my arm at the text, "But what does this mean?" He pointed two or three lines on. At the third or fourth interruption of the same kind I shut the book, and said, "I'm not playing." "It's perfectly plain that you don't understand the poem in the least," he said. "Give me the book." I complied, and sure enough, without any difficulty, he went through the poem, explaining the analogical structure that I should have explained myself, if he had allowed me.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Nerd Alert (Notes on Twee #0)

Carl Wilson, another of my favorite living critics (and not to be confused with one of my favorite dead singers), has a great piece on Slate about the cultural politics of contemporary indie rock, written in response to Sasha Frere-Jones' provocative but less convincing New Yorker article about race and the current lack of "miscegenation" in same. The whole thing is worth reading (as is SFJ's), but here are two of the most intriguing bits, which incidentally suggest a point of departure for a socioeconomic analysis of "twee," as well as the even more visible public hegemony of "nerd" culture (watch this space):

"With its true spiritual center in Richard Florida-lauded 'creative' college towns such as Portland, Ore., [indie rock] is the music of young 'knowledge workers' in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire … This doesn't make coffeehouse-indie shallow, but it can result in something more akin to the 1960s folk revival, with fretful collegiate intellectuals in a Cuban Missile Crisis mood, seeking purity and depth in antiquarian music and escapist spirituality. Not exactly a recipe for a booty-shaking party …

"The profile of this university demographic often includes a sojourn in extended adolescence, comprising graduate degrees, internships, foreign jaunts, and so on, which easily can last until their early 30s. Unlike in the early 1990s, when this was perceived as a form of generational exclusion and protested in 'slacker'/grunge music, it's now been normalized as a passage to later-life career success. Its musical consequences might include an open but less urgent expression of sexuality, or else a leaning to the twee, sexless, childhood nostalgia that many older critics … find puzzling and irritating. Female and queer artists still have pressing sexual issues and identities to explore and celebrate, but the straight boys often seem to fall back on performing their haplessness and hyper-sensitivity. (Pity the indie-rock girlfriend.)"

I have a few problems with the last paragraph: the too-easy, meaningless side-taking with anonymous "female and queer artists" (not any female or queer artists in particular) against equally hypostasized "straight boys," and the related leap from aesthetic self-representation to social practice embodied here by "the indie-rock girlfriend." But on the whole I find it kind of a fascinating idea: that the powerlessness and smallness that twee (and, these days, indie more generally) connotes can be seen as a function of, and response to, the knowledge/power conferred on its target audience by years of academic legitimation.

And, before anybody says anything, glass houses, stones, yeah I know.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Reading Reading Comics

My first post-/non-generals book is Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics, which Emily bought a while ago and I've been saving for a treat. It's a really great overview of the past quarter century or so of comics/graphic novels/"sequential pictorial narrative art"/what-have-you, written by one of the best contemporary critics of same. I care only a little about comics, but I love Wolk: he has the wonderful, and rare, critical ability to make me feel excited even about work that I already know I don't really respond to (Grant Morrison, for instance) just because his own response is so energetic and intelligent. This puts him in a class with people like Pauline Kael, Robert Christgau, Stanley Cavell, etc. Anyway, highly recommended. (Yes, I realize it's a little funny that I'm "relaxing" with a book of criticism — but I suppose, if I'm honest with myself, I love really good criticism almost more than anything else.)

And it reminds me of something you might want to look at, Greg, for your local Modernism project: Alan Moore's only prose novel, Voice of the Fire, which sounds like it's squarely in the tradition of Paterson and Briggflats. Amazon says: "In a story full of lust, madness, and ecstasy, we meet twelve distinctive characters that lived in the same region of central England over a span of six thousand years. Each interconnected tale traces a path in a journey of discovery of the secrets of the land. In the tradition of Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, Schwob's Imaginary Lives and Borges' A Universal History of Infamy, Moore travels through history blending truth and conjecture, in a novel that is dazzling, moving, sometimes tragic, but always mesmerizing." It's also, according to Wolk at least, bordering on unreadable. But don't you kind of want to find out for yourself?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Just letters

First post-generals blog post!

In 1971, Elizabeth Bishop directed a seminar at Harvard on 'Letters': "Just letters - as an art form or something. I'm hoping to select a nicely incongruous assortment of people - Mrs. Carlyle, Chekhov, my Aunt Grace, Keats, a letter found in the street, etc, etc."

[quoted from an essay in Colm Toibin's Love in a Dark Time (p. 183)]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


What happens in theory stays in theory.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

General good will

Which one of you is going tomorrow, and which on Tuesday? I forget.

In any case, knock 'em dead tomorrow, [Greg/Adrienne]! And then you, the day after, [Adrienne/Greg]!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

I need to know more about this!

Any of you two ever heard of this? (I found this tidbit on wikipedia)

When Roth in 1962 appeared on a panel alongside the distinguished black novelist Ralph Ellison to discuss minority representation in literature, the questions directed at him soon turned into denunciations.

I can't find anything on google....hmmm

Friday, October 5, 2007

This is a facile exercise

To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat

Not to be too "all work and no play..." about this, but why can't I memorize things? All I want is to hold onto one little phrase from "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction."

To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat

...even if it's a possibility of populist rhetoric that Stevens offers, only to snatch it back in a cuttingly brusque manner. "This is a facile exercise." The jeremiad, in Stevens, is a false basis of consensus. And yet

To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat

Whatever. "These are not things transformed./ Yet we are shaken by them as if they were./ We reason about them with a later reason." Sometimes you just need to type the words.

Twee Postmodernism

By Randall Jarrell

Some of the sky is grey and some of it is white.
The leaves have lost their heads
And are dancing round the tree in circles, dead;
The cat is in it.
A smeared, banged, tow-headed
Girl in a flowered, flour-sack print
Sniffles and holds up her last bite
Of bread and butter and brown sugar to the wind.

Butter the cat’s paws
And bread the wind. We are moving.
I shall never again sing
Good Morning, Dear Teacher, to my own dear teacher.
Never again
Will Augusta be the capital of Maine.
The dew has rusted the catch of the strap of my satchel
And the sun has fallen from the place where it was chained
With a blue construction-paper chain…
Someone else must draw the bow
And the blunderbuss, the great gobbler
Upside-down under the stone arrow
In the black, bell-brimmed hat —
And the cattycornered bat.
The witch on the blackboard
Says: “Put the Plough into the Wagon
Before it turns into a Bear and sleeps all winter
In your play-house under the catalpa.”
Never again will Orion
Fall on my speller through the star
Taped on the broken window by my cot.
My knee is ridged like corn
And the scab peels off it.

We are going to live in a new pumpkin
Under a gold star.

There is not much else.
The wind blows somewhere else.
The brass bed bobs to the van.
The broody hen
Squawks upside-down — her eggs are boiled;
The cat is dragged from the limb.
The little girl
Looks over the shoulders of the moving-men
At her own street;
And, yard by lot, it changes.
Never again.
But she feels her tea-set with her elbow
And inches closer to her mother;
Then she shuts her eyes, and sits there, and squashed red
Circles and leaves like colored chalk
Come on in her dark head
And are darkened, and float farther
And farther and farther from the stretched-out hands
That float out from her in her broody trance:
She hears her own heart and the cat’s heart beating.

She holds the cat so close to her he pants.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The villain in the movie Underworld (1927; directed by Josef von Sternberg, story by Ben Hecht) is named Buck Mulligan.

Postscript: he's played by the actor Fred Kohler, above.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

More Twee Modernism

"Prowling night-puss leave my hard squares alone
they are in no case cat food
if you had sense
you wd/ come here at meal time
when meat is superabundant
you can neither eat manuscript nor Confucius
nor even the hebrew scriptures
get out of that bacon box"

— Ezra Pound, Canto LXXX, 518

Monday, October 1, 2007

bring down the maps again

Seriously last thing I need to be doing as I enter my last week of generals, but I've added Muriel Rukeyser's "Book of the Dead" (1938) to my list. A few notes that wont add up to anything major: A long pastiche poem that she wrote starting in 1936, when at the age of 22 she went to West Virginia to investigate and document the scads of miners dying of silicosis, a lung disease brought on by inhalation of silicon-dioxide. It's the true formal middle step between Reznikoff's Testimony, which carves its sources in order to crystalize historical violences in the present, and Paterson, which seeks to give the inhabitants of the town full control over their fates (WCW's argument against "accident" in Book I, even as spatial coincidence is the work's formal point of origin).

Here we are moved along the road,

"Past your tall central city's influence,
outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,
are centers removed and strong, fighting for good reason.

These roads will take you into your own country."

A clear relocation of both proletarian struggle and modernist representation outside the city. But "outside its body" begins to get troubled by the subject of poisoning, as the body politic succumbs to the same blockages (failed pleas on the floor of the House are included and dismissed) as the men's lungs. The purity of the raw materials becomes a threat to the poem's construction -- seeking to include testimonies unpurged -- as it is a threat to the miners, who were told to expand production once the bosses learned how the richest deposits could be "used...without refining". Documentation, as in the Oppen of Discrete Series, cannot stand apart from directly stated advocacy. Thus, the camera eye view of the city is blurred by movement, seems unable to survey properly (X-rays become the dominant and necessary form of photography in the poem, acting as truer "maps" throughout), and becomes another glass frame or prohibition, like the ones that house the manager who is "keeping his books behind the public glass".

"What do you want - a cliff over a city?
A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here."

ends the section "Gauley Bridge." Can't write a natural poem about the scene. Can't just show the city -- the bridge goes over the river, which is dammed, which is "a scene of power", which allows the mining, the highways, the road you took to get here.