Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween

My review of the 1977 horror movie Hausu, in which I managed not to use the words "batshit insane," is up now at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Curiosity of the unprofound

"When in Maine the harbor-master is the habba-masta, when in New York seabirds are seaboids, when as in the Negro vernacular, the tenth becomes the tent, certainly is certainy, and Paris is Parus, the curiosity of the unprofound, with regard to the acoustics of speech, may seem like that of the Esquimaux listening for the first time to a phonograph. Our completely fascinated interest in these matters is, however, not to be disguised and our desire to know what topics may occupy the attention of the fastidious, is genuine."

— Marianne Moore on "a recent tract of The Society for Pure English" in The Dial, 80 (May 1926), 448

Friday, October 23, 2009

"We have to love the past
it is our invention."

— John Ash, "The Rain"

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Publishers all occupy skyscraper penthouses, or 'random houses,' and although I was never actually in one of them, I can see them as clearly as if I had been. The publishers dictate ideas for novels to the writers, supplying them with titles and, in some instances, writing the books themselves. The American custom of seducing one's best friend's wife, and later killing oneself while on a 'spree,' out of fear that one is actually in love with one's best friend, is the basic theme most recently insisted upon by the publishers."

— James Thurber, "The American Literary Scene" (1949) in Thurber Country, 193

Saturday, October 17, 2009

La tour de Latour

Starting in earnest next week, Mike Johnduff and I will be reading through the texts of Bruno Latour, as well as a few by some of his friends, and commenting and discussing at We Have Never Been Blogging. Here's Mike's opening statement and here's mine.

The outlook wasn't brilliant

Dial publisher Scofield Thayer's uncle Ernest wrote "Casey at the Bat."

Friday, October 16, 2009

From Confusion to Cummings

An exchange of letters from the pages of The Dial in 1923, as given in William Wasserstrom's The Time of the Dial (p. 58-59):

Mr. Dial Editor

My Mama told me to ask you what I want to know, so please tell me, dear sir. I am 11 years old and my mama lets me cut the pages of the Dial each month and I love to look at the funnies, next to the poetry.

Today I saw some funny poetry by Mr. Cummings. It had such funny lines and the punktuation and capitellization is so funny. My teacher makes me stay after school and my father licks me cause I punktuate and capitilize like Mr. Cummings does.

I said to my mama now can I write like they do in the Dial and she says I ll take your head off if you do what am I sending you to school for anyway to write like that.

And I said to my mama what does it mean an she said god knows cause nobody else does thats sure I've ask lots of Dial readers and they dont know no more than I do and at that its harder to break into print than to break out of jail thats what my mama said. Please Mr. Dial editor is it going to be like Cummings has it then I won't have to go to school any more to learn punktuation and capitellzation. Please answer.

Your little friend
Eugene Winton

3155 W. 38th Ave
Denver, Colo.

P.S. My mama says I won't get a reply unless I enclos a stampd envlup so heres 1.

Master Eugene Winton
3153 W. 38th Ave.
Denver, Col.

My dear Master Winton,
I am afraid that we can offer you very little consolation as to the matter of Mr Cummings' capitalization and punctuation. While Mr Cummings persisted in spite of spankings, and finally became a poet thereby, we could not officially council any one else to do likewise.

You must also remember that if all the world were like Mr Cummings, Mr Cummings' system of punctuation would lose some of its effectiveness. It is partially because the rest of us must devote our time to getting the rules right that Mr Cummings can get effects out of their violation.

But, going farther than this, I should point out that Mr Cummings does use his violations to a purpose. They are not mistakes; they are intentional. It used to be the practice, for instance, when one wanted to emphasize something, to underline it, or in printing to put it in italics. But we have learned today that much more emphasis can be gotten by other ways (this old way having been worn smooth). Look at the advertisements in a magazine, for instance, and see how much is done precisely along the lines which Mr Cummings uses in his poetry. Yet when you see an ad beginning with a small letter, do you write to the company in protest?

Wishing you all the success in the world with your school work, I am
Faithfully yours,
Kenneth Burke
Editorial Department

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Even Though

the suspension bridges are buckling in the hurricane
and several cars full of conventional families
with an average number of children have been thrown
into a river full of alligators,

the old house is still there in its "extensive grounds"
its doorways linking the clauses of rooms and corridors
into a majestic sentence that will not reveal its object
(it might be only a patch of unusual colouror a child's excited view through a bedroom keyhole)

the windows open onto the white of the margin
rainclouds are a shop girl's dusty thumb-prints
a word is a hand a throat a strand of hair damp after an evening's dancing

the branching stairs escape syntax —
are the extreme point of muscular tension translated into stone

you collapse sprawling across the marble prefix as

the first door opens with a hollow sound out of a cheap horror movie
shown late on friday when we are a little stoned or drunk
and very easily frightened
A cat escapes into the garden and a rich dust rises in welcome. Oh! the fineness of the objects!
their colours! Garbo's hat with the feather in it the heaps
of early sixties singles, the Afghan gloves, the burnished globes,
the toy trains, the mouldy jellies and rose-coloured maps of empire!

It is all perfect: the mirrors are hardly tarnished at all
and still flicker with the faces of unhappy children.

We have stepped into the frontispiece of a new book:
it is called "The History of Pleasure."

— John Ash, The Branching Stairs, 25

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Harder Better Faster Stronger

Over at Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant gives an excellent gloss on Latour's notion of "trials of strength." He says, sensibly enough, that a scientific theory is akin to a bridge built over a creek: what gives it reality is its ability to withstand pressure over the course of time, to maintain its structure when other similar objects around it are being destroyed. "Reality, for Latour … consists of gradients of resistance. Some things have a high degree of resistance, some do not and are easily toppled or shattered."

He then concludes the post by extending the claim to literature, which obviously made my ears perk up:

Finally the case is similar in literature. The thesis that the best selling novel is the best novel fails to attend to the manner in which endurance is one of the crucial dimensions of reality or strength. To be sure, most people prefer Dean R. Kuntz [sic] to Joyce… However, the comparative popularity of Dean R. Kuntz compared to Finnegan’s Wake is not what establishes the reality of the object. Kuntz’s novel Intensity, while perhaps enjoyable, has very little staying power and very easily passes out of existence. However, when speaking of works like Homer’s Illiad, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, we are talking of works that are like a well built bridge, somehow clearly carrying traces of the historical setting out of which they emerged but also having the capacity to transcend that historical setting, to resonate like two strings of a guitar against one another producing differences in other historical settings, never, somehow, becoming cliches in the way that Kuntz’s mustached Scotch drinking heroes seem to immediately embody the cliche of the Reagan era, faux-sophisticate 80s man that loses our interest when this time passes. There is something here about how the language holds together, the thought holds together, the themes hold together, that give these works high gradients of resistance to dissolution. Indeed, it is the resistance we encounter in reading the work, the difficulty of navigating them, the richness of their multi-stratified and resonating diverse meanings that functions as an index of their strength or their ability to resonate in multiple changing historical settings like the cone of Bergson’s memory without losing their originality. They are like the art of pantomime, in a strange way, where the good pantomime manages to extract the pure event of a particular action from its causal context such that it becomes capable of appearing in any context as a singularity. The greatness of these works, their strength, does not lie in the attitudes people have towards it – like coffee one has to learn how to read Joyce and at first it is painful – but rather in the sturdiness of the construction that allows it to endure.

Hmmmmm. While the extension of the analogy is tempting, I'm not sure that Bryant is able to solve the overwhelming question of cultural value so fast. I'll leave aside the usual queries about class and subjectivity and who gets to decide what "resonates," both because they're too easy and also because they're not really in the spirit of Bryant's speculation. Instead I'll just ask: what would a total failure of a trial of strength look like for a literary text? Less like a negative evaluation by posterity, as Bryant imagines, and more like simple illegibility: a text in a dead language, or one of which no copies have been preserved, is the weakest possible text, in Latour's sense. So while in one sense, Bryant is right, Finnegans Wake probably has a much better chance of resonating fifty years from now than Koontz's Intensity, in another sense it is a much weaker, more fragile assemblage, one that, without the Skeleton Key and our biographies of Joyce and an enormous (but finite) amount of other paraphernalia, would be within spitting distance of illegible. Whereas Intensity, I'm guessing, will be roughly readable as long as current vernacular English remains in a recognizable state. So which text is stronger?

But what I like about Bryant's formulation, in spite of everything, is that it makes the social use value of literature the criterion for textual strength without immediately conflating use and exchange value (as materialist approaches to literary sociology, like Franco Moretti's, often risk doing). On this view, a writer like Joyce is not just his fluctuating reputation, or his sales figures: he is also, as the card-carrying New Critic would insist, his texts, which can stand up as well as anybody's to trials of strength. And his texts are stronger than Koontz's, because they are more likely to satisfy examiners in a number of different social contexts, over a longer period of historical time, than Koontz's are, which will some day probably only be read by people who have a thing for late-twentieth-century period horror fiction.

But of course Joyce — any author, but particularly Joyce — is not just his texts either; he's also, as the card-carrying poststructuralist would insist, his paratexts, not only all of those he refers to in his work but also all of those books and articles that have been written on it, and all the other works that have been inspired by it. So it seems to me that Bryant is being unnecessarily formalist when he says that "[t]here is something here about how the language holds together, the thought holds together, the themes hold together, that give these works high gradients of resistance to dissolution." It's taking the metaphor of "construction" too literally: any given Joyce text is indeed a very sturdy construction, or assemblage, but it's one assembled not only by Joyce himself. It's in this sense that Joyce's texts, like any writer's, are social: that is, they require many actors and actants working together to give them their full strength, value, or "meaning."

But still. Doesn't this privilege the particular constructions of literary critics, academic scholars, and "highbrow" readers above the millions who are certainly experiencing some reality when they read a Koontz book (whatever else you say, you can't take that away from them)? Could we say, then, that Koontz may be real to more people, but Joyce is real in more ways?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Steady Job

Some intriguing remarks on literary professionalism from "The Art of Poetry: Marianne Moore," the 1960 Paris Review interview with Donald Hall:

Interviewer: I was intrigued when you wrote that ‘America has in Wallace Stevens at least one artist whom professionalism will not demolish.’ What sort of literary professionalism did you have in mind? And do you find this a feature of America still?

"Moore: Yes. I think that writers sometimes lose their verve and their pugnacity, and he never would.

“That question I am so often asked: ‘What work can I find that will enable me to spend my whole time writing?’ Charles Ives, the composer, says, ‘You cannot set art off in a corner and hope for it to have vitality, reality and substance. The fabric weaves itself whole. My work in music helped my business and my work in business helped my music.’ I am like Charles Ives. Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller would not agree with me.

Interviewer: But how does professionalism make a writer lose his nerve and pugnacity?

Moore: I suppose money has something to do with it and being regarded as a pundit. Wallace Stevens was really very much annoyed at being catalogued, categorized, and compelled to be scientific about what he was doing — to give satisfaction, to answer the teachers. He wouldn’t do that. He was independent.

“I think the same of William Carlos Williams. I think he wouldn’t make so much of the great American language if he were judicious about everything. And that is the beauty of it — he is willing to be reckless, and if you can’t be that, what’s the point of the whole thing?”

— Reprinted in Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Charles Tomlinson, 44-45

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Not only connect

A typically interesting speculative post from Graham Harman on the use of blogs. His basic thesis is that blogs (and the internet and new media in general) are great for the exchange of information, but less great for critique, which he feels "works best when it is quantized, not constant and rapid." I think I agree, which may be why this blog has been evolving from a more dialectical style, inviting argument and discussion, into more of an online commonplace book, or even a collection of placeholders, ways to mark texts or store information for future retrieval. It strikes me that the accumulative, archival aspect of blogs is less often emphasized than their immediate communicative power. For instance, I like to discover blogs that interest me (like Harman's) and work my way through the archives, getting a sense of what the writer is like and what things and people he or she is connected to. Every once in a while I'll become a daily reader of a blog, checking it every day for updates, but this habit is usually temporary: I'd rather move on and find something new. Not sure whether this means I've got a more "old media" approach to the internet, treating it more like a library than a public forum; or if it's just that some people tend to emphasize new forms of exchange over new forms of access. Either way, it's clearly a new kind of landscape.

Friday, October 2, 2009

On Figures

"On Figures Quintilian, though he may pay disproportionate attention to them, still is perfectly aware of the danger of the actually and constantly committed fault of separating off some quite ordinary fashion of speech, ticketing it with a long Greek name, and thenceforward regarding the ticket as something real, the attaching of which to similar phrases is an illuminative and profitable exercise of the critical faculty." (18)


"When a man writes even a good oration, much more than that far higher thing a good piece of prose (which may be an oration, if need serves, or anything else), he does not say to himself, 'Now I shall throw in some hyperbaton; now we will exhibit a little anadiplosis; this is the occasion, surely, for a passage of zeugma.' He writes as the spirit moves him, and as the way of art." (33-34)

— George Saintsbury, A History of English Criticism (1911)

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Tina and Seth met in the midst of an overcrowded militarism.
"Like a drink?" he asked her. "They make great Alexanders over at the Marxism-Leninism."
She agreed. They shared cocktails. They behaved cautiously, as in a period of pre-fascism.
Afterwards he suggested dinner at a restaurant renowned for its Maoism.
"O.K.," she said, but first she had to phone a friend about her ailing Afghan, whose name was Racism.
Then she followed Seth across town past twilit alleys of sexism.

The waiter brought menus and announced the day's specials. He treated them with condescending sexism,
So they had another drink. Tina started her meal with a dish of militarism,
While Seth, who was hungrier, had a half portion of stuffed baked racism.
Their main dishes were roast duck for Seth, and for Tina broiled Marxism-Leninism.
Tina had pecan pie a la for dessert, Seth a compote of stewed Maoism.
They lingered. Seth proposed a liqueur. They rejected sambuca and agreed on fascism.

During the meal, Seth took the initiative. He inquired into Tina's fascism,
About which she was reserved, not out of reticence but because Seth's sexism
Had aroused in her a desire she felt she should hide — as though her Maoism
Would willy-nilly betray her feelings for him. She was right. Even her deliberate militarism
Couldn't keep Seth from realizing that his attraction was reciprocated. His own Marxism-Leninism
Became manifest, in a compulsive way that piled the Ossa of confusion on the Pelion of racism.

Next, what? Food finished, drinks drunk, bills paid — what racism
Might not swamp their yearning in an even greater confusion of fascism?
But women are wiser than words. Tina rested her hand on his thigh and, a-twinkle with Marxism-Leninism,
Asked him, "My place?" Clarity at once abounded under the flood-lights of sexism,
They rose from the table, strode out, and he with the impetuousness of young militarism
Hailed a cab to transport them to her lair, heaven-haven of Maoism.

In the taxi he soon kissed her. She let him unbutton her Maoism
And stroke her resilient skin, which was quivering with shudders of racism.
When beneath her jeans he sensed the superior Lycra of her militarism,
His longing almost strangled him. Her little tongue was as potent as fascism
In its elusive certainty. He felt like then and there tearing off her sexism
But he reminded himself: "Pleasure lies in patience, not in the greedy violence of Marxism-Leninism."

Once home, she took over. She created a hungering aura of Marxism-Leninism
As she slowly undressed him where he sat on her overstuffed art-deco Maoism,
Making him keep still, so that she could indulge in caresses, in sexism,
In the pursuit of knowing him. He groaned under the exactness of her racism
— Fingertip sliding up his nape, nails incising his soles, teeth nibbling his fascism.
At last she guided him to bed, and they lay down on a patchwork of Old American militarism.

Biting his lips, he plunged his militarism into the popular context of her Marxism-Leninism,
Easing one thumb into her fascism, with his free hand coddling the tip of her Maoism,
Until, gasping with appreciative racism, both together sink into the revealed glory of sexism.

— Harry Mathews (1984)