Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Arab market panic

From The New York Times:

"Hassan can watch, aghast, as databanks at NASDAQ graph hard data and chart a NASDAQ crash — a sharp fall that alarms staff at a Manhattan bank. Hassan acts fast, ransacks cashbags at a mad dash, and grabs what bank drafts a bank branch at Casablanca can cash: marks, rands and bahts. Hassan asks that an adman draft a want ad that can hawk what canvas art Hassan has (a Cranach, a Cassatt and a Chagall). Hassan can fast-talk a chap at a watchstand and pawn a small watch that has, as a watchglass, a star padparadschah (half a grand, a carat). A shah can pack a bag, flag a cab and scram, catch-as-catch-can."

Just kidding, it's from Christian Bök's Eunoia. Fooled you!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Spirit of Romance

"Ezra Pound once remarked to me that Shakespeare of the Sonnets may well have been 'a public letter-writer':  that's writing poetry-to-order -- a trade.  Pound told me this during the time he was imprisoned in a mental hospital in Washington, D.C.  'Sometimes,' he added, 'the guards come to me, for a piece of verse to give their sweethearts.'  'And do you write it?' I asked.  'Oh, yes.'"  (Hugh Kenner, The Elsewhere Community, pg. 150)

Say gal, happy valentine's day!  Look, I wrote ya somethin.
Aw shucks Stanley, I didn know you wrote no poetry.
Yeah, well, for a swell gal like you...
...oh Stan...it's...
Like it?
Sure I like it, but now when did you learn italian?
Aw...eh, I picked up a bit in the service.  You know.  Learned it from Uncle Sam.
Oh...I...sure.  Say, what's "usura"?
Eh...dat's, like, I wanted to say "you sura are a...nice girl" and all.
But Stanley, it's doesn't...
Oh it's just a nice thing I wrote you, why ya always gotta...What?
Stanley, most of our friends in the building are Jewish, how could you say this part here?
Lemme see that... ah shit.  Ezra Pound wrote it, alright?  Happy?

Friday, September 26, 2008

U.N. Must Relax

"To the judicial observer such turmoil as was manifested in some of the amazing acts of the new governments had an almost pathological odor, suggesting that nations, like individuals, may at times need the soothing hand of the psychiatrist.  Indeed, it is an open question whether, if some method might be discovered magically to quiet the emotions of diplomats at certain critical moments, international complications might not frequently be lessened.
Without doubt, in countries now conquered, the peoples, deprived of liberties  and of material possessions, are in a pitiable nervous condition.  Many have lost all that they held dear - wives, children, relatives and friends.  The aims of postwar reconstruction for these unfortunates, assuming victory for the United Nations, should be more than material and political.  Organized medicine should aim to help their nervous disorders. ... It is to be hoped that physicians in each nation can be trained in time for medical reconstruction, for not only the conquered but also the conquering will need this treatment."  (Edmund Jacobson M.D., You Must Relax, 1946 revised edition, pg. 160-161)

More on this once I've had a chance to get back to some Fanon that I've been meaning to re-read.

How Pleasant? (Notes on Twee #12)

"There is no form poetry can take unworthy of our consideration, even our admiration. When a new edition of The English Poets on the Chalmers model appears, it would be incomplete without, for instance, the very representative work of Edward Lear… I find in them evidence of very painful emotional upset in the poet's mind; and the song of Calico Pie presenting grief in terms of childish invention is to me as poignant as the idea of Hamlet played by Burbage the actor as a comic part. Adoption of this pseudo-infantility of expression must surely denote suffering in an extreme form. I say this in all seriousness."

— Robert Graves, from "What Is Bad Poetry?" in Poetic Unreason, 22-23

Our starting point

"He was an aphorism writer, there are countless aphorisms of his, I thought, one can assume he destroyed them, I write aphorisms, he said over and over, I thought, that is a minor art of the intellectual asthma from which certain people, above all in France, have lived and still live, so-called half philosophers for nurses' night tables, I could also say calendar philosophers for everybody and anybody, whose sayings eventually find their way onto the walls of every dentist's waiting room; the so-called depressing ones are, like the so-called cheerful ones, equally disgusting. But I haven't been able to get rid of my habit of writing aphorisms, in the end I'm afraid I will have written millions of them, he said, I thought, and I'd be well advised to start destroying them since I don't plan to have the walls of every dentist's office and church papered with them one day, as they are now with Goethe, Lichtenberg and comrades, he said, I thought. Since I wasn't born to be a philosopher I turned myself into an aphorist, not entirely unselfconsciously I must say, turned myself into one of those disgusting tagalongs of philosophy who exist by the thousands, he said, I thought. To produce a huge effect with tiny ideas and deceive mankind, he said, I thought. In reality I'm nothing other than one of those aphorizing public menaces who, in their boundless unscrupulousness and impudence, tag along behind philosophers like horseflies behind a horse, he said, I thought. If we stop drinking we die of thirst, if we stop eating we starve to death, he said, such pearls of wisdom are what all these aphorisms amount to in the end, that is unless they're by Novalis, but even Novalis talked a lot of nonsense, so Wertheimer, I thought. In the desert we thirst for water, that's about what Pascal's maxim says, he said, I thought. If we look at things squarely the only thing left from the greatest philosophical enterprises is a pitiful aphoristic aftertaste, he said, no matter what the philosophy, no matter what the philosopher, everything falls to bits when we set to work with all our instruments, he said, I thought. All this time I've been talking about the human sciences and don't even know what these human sciences are, don't have the slightest clue, he said, I thought, been talking about philosophy and don't have a clue about philosophy, been talking about existence and don't have a clue about it, he said. Our starting point is always that we don't know anything about anything and don't even have a clue about it, he said, I thought. Immediately after setting to work on something we choke on the huge amount of information that's available in all fields, that's the truth, he said, I thought. And although we know that, we continue to set to work on our so-called human-science problems, to attempt the impossible: to create a human-science product, a product of the intellect. That's madness! he said, I thought. Fundamentally we are capable of everything, equally fundamentally we fail at everything, he said, I thought. Our great philosophers, our greatest poets, shrivel down to a single successful sentence, he said, I thought, that's the truth, often we remember only a so-called philosophical hue, he said, I thought. We study a monumental work, for example Kant's work, and in time it shrivels down to Kant's little East Prussian head and to a thoroughly amorphous world of night and fog, which winds up in the same state of helplessness as all the others, he said, I thought. He wanted it to be a monumental world and only a single ridiculous detail is left, he said, I thought, that's how it always is. Even Shakespeare shrivels down to something ridiculous for us in a clearheaded moment, he said, I thought. For a long time now the gods appear to us only in the heads on our beer steins, he said, I thought. Only a stupid person is amazed, he said, I thought. The so-called intellectual consumes himself in what he considers pathbreaking work and in the end has only succeeded in making himself ridiculous, whether he's called Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, it doesn't matter, even if he was Kleist or Voltaire we still see a pitiful being who has misused his head and finally driven himself into nonsense. Who's been rolled over and passed over by history. We've locked up the great thinkers in our bookcases, from which they keep staring at us, sentenced to eternal ridicule, he said, I thought. Day and night I hear the chatter of the great thinkers we've locked up in our bookcases, these ridiculous intellectual giants as shrunken heads behind glass, he said, I thought. All these people have sinned against nature, he said, they've committed first-degree murders of the intellect, that's why they've been punished and stuck in our bookcases for eternity. For they're choking to death in our bookcases, that's the truth. Our libraries are so to speak prisons where we've locked up our intellectual giants, naturally Kant has been put in solitary confinement, like Nietzsche, like Schopenhauer, like Pascal, like Voltaire, like Montaigne, all the real giants have been put in solitary confinement, all the others in mass confinement, but everyone for ever and ever, my friend, for all time and unto eternity, my friend, that's the truth."

— Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, trans. Jack Dawson, 64-67

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"All schools are bad and the one we attend is always the worst if it doesn't open our eyes."

— Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, trans. Jack Dawson, 18

Monday, September 22, 2008

Metaphor of the Week

"Rhymes properly used are the good servants whose presence gives the dinner table a sense of opulent security; they are never awkward, they hand the dishes silently and professionally. You can trust them not to interrupt the conversation of the table or allow their personal disagreements to come to the notice of the guests; but some of them are getting very old for their work."

— Robert Graves, On English Poetry, 89-90

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Death Is Not The End

I've been wanting to write something more substantial than this about David Foster Wallace's suicide, which affected me much more powerfully than I would have ever expected. There are a number of reasons for this, I think, and I hope it won't seem to coldly analytical, or too self-indulgent, if I try to work them out here.

I first read Wallace's Girl with Curious Hair in college, when I was considering becoming a fiction writer myself, and many of my efforts in that line were pretty blatant imitations of one or another of his styles. The problem I ran into with my writing, I now realize, was also a problem Wallace had, a weakness which he was able, through sheer force of will, to make into a kind of strength: the tendency to be relentlessly monologic and interior, to explore individual consciousness in excruciating depth. I had a lot of trouble getting anything to happen in my stories, just moving characters around or getting them to talk to each other. So Wallace as a fiction writer was a bad influence (for me, at least), a dead end, although I think a case could be made that he raises the project of a certain strain of modernist fiction (the introspective tradition of Joyce, Woolf, Proust) to the level of the sublime. As in literally sublime: terrifying, infinite, inhuman.

I also relate to Wallace, and was particularly upset by his death, because I've also had some experience with clinical depression, though at nothing like the level he experienced. The exhaustive descriptions of psychic pain in Infinite Jest and in many of the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (like "The Depressed Person," for instance, one of the most harrowing pieces of short fiction ever written) are so scarily accurate precisely because they capture what's worst about that kind of pain, the fact that you can understand intellectually more or less exactly what's happening to you, and yet can't seem to get out from under it. Wallace wrote about this emotional aporia more and more in his later years, which now seems doubly sad, since he clearly was in so much pain that he could think of nothing else, and it is, in the end, not such a rich subject for literature. In this context, his last book Oblivion — and particularly the metafictional suicide fantasy "Good Old Neon" — now seems like an oblique extended suicide note, a work with a certain horrific power but not what he set out to accomplish in the earlier, less obsessive part of his career.

I realize I should be careful in conflating Wallace's work with his illness, but honestly it's hard not to. Many people, understandably, have been urging Wallace's readers not to interpret his suicide as an inevitable outcome of his writing, or as a response to the current state of American culture, or according to any other tempting existential narrative: it's merely a case of an illness, they say, a chemical misfiring clouding the judgment of an otherwise humane and brilliant man and making him do a stupid, horrible thing. I completely agree with the wisdom behind this warning, but I find I have difficulty heeding it. After all, speculation about the relationship between a person's suicide and the world view and cultural circumstances of that person is exactly the sort of speculation Wallace himself wouldn’t — couldn’t — have refrained from indulging in; and to not speculate, to decide beforehand that his fate was a pure biological accident, seems to place an arbitrary limit on the consciousness that Wallace always insisted was possible (if not exactly desirable). He also would have struggled mightily with the cliché of it all — the romantic topos of the self-destructive genius, or the idea of himself as a pure product of America gone crazy — both of them exactly the kinds of truths tranformed into clichés while still remaining truths, thus becoming all the more inaccessible as truths, that Wallace habitually obsessed over. (For a late example of this, see his much-circulated, retrospectively chilling 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address.)

So while I wouldn't presume to draw the moral of Wallace's death, I will say that it feels especially dispiriting to me that he passes away on the eve of this Presidential election, at a time when empathy seems to be hitting an all-time low, on both sides of the aisle (as they say). One of the big losses, I think, is that Wallace isn't here to comment on the American political situation, which he was in many ways uniquely placed to analyze, as a liberal Democrat who wrote an admiring profile of John McCain in 2000.+ Of course it’s idle to speculate about such things, and who knows if he even knew what was going on in the wider world in his last few weeks, but it’s hard not to wonder if McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate wasn’t particularly painful for Wallace (who I think took politics a lot more personally seriously, and certainly wrote about it more intelligently, than many more obviously engagé authors). The current Palin/Obama popularity contest seems to be staging, in the crudest possible terms, a confrontation between populism and intellectualism that was at the heart of Wallace's work. A recurrent theme in pretty much everything he wrote is the need to balance high — sometimes impossibly high — standards of intellectual and social achievement (whether represented by postmodern fiction, prescriptive grammar, prodigious athletic ability or poststructuralist literary criticism) and a passionate need to believe in the moral life of others, including those not able to communicate their moral lives in a way that intellectuals can respect or understand. For me, this was the essence of Wallace, and it accounts for much of the best, as well as some of the worst, in his work. This internal conflict was part of his persona: he wore his polymathic brilliance and educational credentials on his sleeve, while also working absurdly hard to communicate with "regular people," addressing himself — at least in theory — to readers of all levels and tendencies, fighting to recover that Dickensian popular voice he felt had been ceded by the modernists and postmodernists in the name of formal sophistication and authorial autonomy. To this end, he also wrote about people that most intellectuals refrain from considering as anything other than scapegoats or statistics: state-fair attendees, cruise ship passengers, working-class halfway-house inhabitants, right-wing radio talk show hosts, old ladies moved by the events of 9/11. The vexed question of élites, in other words, about which we hear so much right now, was a real question for Wallace who, like any self-respecting genius, believed in the principle of meritocracy, yet could also understand exactly how lonely and angry those outside the magic circle of social and academic recognition could feel.

Lastly: the legacy question. I think Wallace will be remembered as a great writer, especially of nonfiction, and an important figure in the history of American literature, a link from the age of Pynchon/Gaddis/DeLillo into whatever we come up with next. He's also almost guaranteed that he will have perpetual cult status, that the hero-worship that's always been directed at him will continue, and that people will continue to read his work for what are (to me) bad reasons. I've tried to reread some of his stuff recently, as a sort of mourning process, and it all seemed, in this new context, just completely repellent and hermetic and tragic. I hope that changes for me — I’m guessing it will. (Right now I'm planning to reread Infinite Jest this summer, and probably A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again as well.) But I want to add one final thought, more in the way of self-analysis than tribute to Wallace: one reason I like writers, probably the main one, is because they live. That is, I'm interested in literature not so much as a production of aesthetic monuments, but as a record of how one particular human being, who I'm interested in for whatever reason, dealt with the various opportunities, challenges and obstacles that history threw their way. So I guess, more than anything else, I feel angry at David Foster Wallace — who, I now realize, was my favorite living novelist — for giving a new kind of interest to his life's work, a tragic and hopeless one, at the expense of what was, for me, the highest interest of all imaginative literature: the interest of observing how one unique and fascinating person copes with the world.

* I think this conflict probably had something to do with the fact that Wallace was from Illinois, and spent much of his writing life there; it's been interesting to see how many of the writers that have written in tribute to Wallace (particularly at the McSweeney's website, which has transformed itself into a kind of temporary shrine) mention his distinctively Midwestern sensibility, often expressed as "kindness" or "decency."

+ Wallace in the Wall Street Journal just a few months ago gives some idea of his later thoughts on McCain: "McCain himself has obviously changed; his flipperoos and weaselings on Roe v. Wade, campaign finance, the toxicity of lobbyists, Iraq timetables, etc. are just some of what make him a less interesting, more depressing political figure now—for me, at least. It's all understandable, of course—he's the GOP nominee now, not an insurgent maverick. Understandable, but depressing. As part of the essay talks about, there's an enormous difference between running an insurgent Hail-Mary-type longshot campaign and being a viable candidate (it was right around New Hampshire in 2000 that McCain began to change from the former to the latter), and there are some deep, really rather troubling questions about whether serious honor and candor and principle remain possible for someone who wants to really maybe win." (WSJ
, May 31, 2008). He also notes that "the previous seven years and four months of the Bush Administration have been such an unmitigated horror show of rapacity, hubris, incompetence, mendacity, corruption, cynicism and contempt for the electorate that it's very difficult to imagine how a self-identified Republican could try to position himself as a populist." For another tantalizing hint of what Wallace's contemporary political commentary could have been like, see this.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"With the sublime we have for two hundred years built up a more and more intricate theory for a type of art that we do not actually have and would not care for if we did have it."

— Philip Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences, 3 (quoted by Sianne Ngai in "Merely Interesting," Critical Inquiry Summer 2008, 787)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Talkin' 'bout my generation

"Early impressions tend to coalesce into a natural view of the world. All later experiences then tend to receive their meaning from this original set, whether they appear as that set's verification and fulfilment or as its negation and antithesis. Experiences are not accumulated in the course of a lifetime through a process of summation or agglomeration, but are 'dialectically' articulated in the way described … [E]ven if the rest of one's life consisted in one long process of negation and destruction of the natural world view acquired in youth, the determing influence of these early impressions would still be predominant. For even in negation our orientation is fundamentally centered upon what is being negated, and we are thus still unwittingly determined by it …

"Another fact, closely related to the phenomenon just described, is that any two generations following one another always fight different opponents, both within and without. While the older people may still be combating something in themselves or in the external world in such fashion that all their feelings and efforts and even their concepts and categories of thought are determined by that adversary, for the younger people this adversary may be simply nonexistent: their primary orientation is an entirely different one."

— Karl Mannheim, "The Problem of Generations"

Saturday, September 13, 2008

David Foster Wallace commits suicide

Oh my God, this is awful.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Left, justified.

R.I.P. Martin K. Tytell

"This is the alphabet q w e r t y u i o p a s d f g h j k l z x c v b n m. The one extraordinary thing is that no one has yet taken the trouble to write it out fully." -- WCW, "The Simplicity of Disorder" (Selected Essays, p. 97)

The Big Poem

"We need to make sure America's poems remain the biggest, best-designed, best-funded poems in the world."

sorta = what my dissertation's gonna be about...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Short History of Analytic Philosophy

Kantian content contest.

(With apologies to Richard Rorty.)

Thursday, September 4, 2008


"The sole fact of experience that demonstrates that life is generally good is that the overwhelming majority of men prefer it to death."

— Émile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, trans. W.D. Halls, p. 190

Wednesday, September 3, 2008