Tuesday, December 28, 2010


"I think it was this early that I first heard the bewildering formula, and intimidating admonition, when I had not cleaned my plate, 'There are children starving in India.' How was my fortune in having food related to their terrible misfortune in not having food? I would love to send them this food right now that I could no longer possibly eat. If in the future I eat less, will they have more? Why speak to me about this when it is too late to do anything about it? Why has this food just here just now become a rebuke to me? Are there not other grown-ups — and why not all grown-ups — who care about this? Am I ungrateful for having food? Is any contentment of mine a sign of my ignorance and of my badness? I am in no doubt that the seeds of such thoughts, as I stared at the unfinished food on my plate, became an inextinguishable part of my sense or emblem of the world's wrong. This is as clear to me as the memory seems to be of the smell and feel of the checkered oil cloth, with several small cracks in it, that covered the kitchen table where the family ate supper together. It is almost enough to make one crave philosophy."

— Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, 131

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Struggling to Hear

"Each art form has its own unique advantages and limitations. Words and music unfold successively, through time. Photography is about an instant. By analogy it can ask the impossible: in this case, what if you could hear every note of Beethoven's sonatas in an instant? What would that look like? And when we think of a piece of music that we know well, don't we sometimes remember it not phrase by phrase, but in its amorphous entirety?"

— Geoff Dyer, "Idris Khan" in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, 84

Monday, November 1, 2010

A truce with life

"If Kael looks better than she actually is, it is in no small part due to the quality of the competition. The nature of the film critic is to pump himself up. One critic's cant is another's Kant; the game is less one of taste than of ego and exhibitionism. It is exhibitionism, however, at a dispiriting level. One does not set out in life to become a movie critic; it is where one ends up. A truce is made with life, an armistice with ambition: it is far easier for the manqué litterateur to explain why he has not made a movie than why he has not written a book."

— John Gregory Dunne, "Pauline" in Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne, 252-253

Saturday, October 16, 2010

So much to answer for

"On September 22nd, amid a diatribe about House, Beck cited a passage from Secrets of the Federal Reserve, by Eustace Mullins. The book, commissioned in 1948 by Ezra Pound, is a startlingly anti-Semitic fantasy of how a Jewish-led conspiracy of all-powerful bankers established the Federal Reserve in service of their plot to dominate the world."

— Sean Wilentz, "Confounding Fathers," The New Yorker Oct. 18, 2010, p. 36

Thursday, October 7, 2010


"Newman got a tune into The Lively Set, a 1964 beach movie starring Doug McClure and James Darren (there was a soundtrack LP on Decca; somewhere, a copy survives); "Galaxy A-Go-Go! (Leave It to Flint)" turned up in Our Man Flint in 1966, though not on the soundtrack album. As a moonlighter he contributed background music to the CBS series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. He composed background rock functionals for the ABC series Peyton Place ('Something for Betty and Rodney to dance to'); in 1965, without Newman's knowledge, but no doubt with the hope the public might confuse Randy with his famous film-scoring uncles Alfred and Lionel, the results were assembled into Original Music from the Hit Television Show Peyton Place by the Randy Newman Orchestra (Epic LP). Reports that Newman also wrote theme music for the 1963 Girl Scouts Cookie campaign, the 1964 Republican convention, and a December 7, 1965, meeting of the Croatian-American Benevolent Society ('Dead Serb Blues') have never been verified."

— Greil Marcus, "Notes and Discographies" in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock'n'Roll Music, 301-302

Friday, September 17, 2010


"Considerable interest has been aroused as to the proper spelling of the name of the hero of these stories. The careful reader will note that there is no official spelling, that in the nature of things there could not be since if the name were written twice alike, both author and readers might forget to forget what he's spelled like — which would be quite fatal.

"Since no authentic picture of the Tajar is available a species of near-Tager common to China where these tales are published has consented to pose on the cover in his place."

— Jane Shaw Ward, The Tajar Tales

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The pit of what has been said

"And yet if you go back and look at old editions of The Nation or The New Republic, which published a lot of poetry back in the day — or if you go farther back, to Reedy's Mirror or The Century magazine — and if you hunt around for a while in some of those periodicals, you'll find that most of the poetry in them is just there as decoration. It's a form of ornament, like a printer's dingbat. A little acorn with a curlicue. Or the scrollwork on a beaux-arts capital. It's just a way of creating a different look on the page, and creating the sense on the part of the reader that he's holding something that is a real Kellogg's variety pack.

"The magazine is going to have some kind of big thoughtful political piece about Teddy Roosevelt, say, and then it's going to have a bit of serialized fiction, and it's going to have some 'cuts' — that is, some art — and a few color pages tipped in, maybe, if it's The Century magazine, maybe by Maxfield Parrish, and it's going to have some poems. The long nonfiction piece comes to an end, and it's about being a stevedore in Baltimore, something like that. And then at the bottom of the page is this poem in two columns, with six stanzas, and each stanza has indentations, and the conventionality and vapidity of it will stun you. 'The shades of summer's bosky hue, o'erlie thy modest floobie doo.' The editors of The Century didn't expect you to read that poem with your full mind. They knew it was just some rhymes thrown pell-mell together with cornstarch. They knew full well, because this is America, land of bad poetry. Yes, sir! Bad poetry, sir! Loads of it in the back, sir! Just keeps coming. Tipped in. The shovel eases the soft tonnage of poetry over the rim, and it just pours into the pit, pluth. The pit of what has been said. And the lost gulls are flapping and calling — peer! peer!"

— Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, 70-71

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


According to a reliable third party, this blog is banned in China.
Didion's signature mode: lyric exasperation.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Drawing a blank

"'People in the East pretend to be interested in how pictures are made,' Scott Fitzgerald observed in his notes on Hollywood. 'But if you actually tell them anything, you find … they never see the ventriloquist for the doll. Even the intellectuals, who ought to know better, like to hear about the pretensions, extravagances and vulgarities — tell them pictures have a private grammar, like politics or automobile production or society, and watch the blank look come into their faces.'

"Of course there is good reason for this blank look, for this almost queasy uneasiness with pictures. To recognize that the picture is but the by-product of the action is to make rather more arduous the task of maintaining one's self-image as ([Stanley] Kauffmann's own job definition) 'a critic of new works.' Making judgments on films is in many ways so peculiarly vaporous an occupation that the only question is why, beyond the obvious opportunities for a few lecture fees and a little careerism at a dispiritingly self-limiting level, anyone does it in the first place. A finished picture defies all attempts to analyze what makes it work or not work: the responsibility for its every frame is clouded not only in the accidents and compromises of production but in the clauses of its financing…

"Nor does calling film a 'collaborative medium' exactly describe the situation. To read David O. Selznick's instructions to his directors, writers, actors and department heads in Memo from David O. Selznick is to come very close to the spirit of actually making a picture, a spirit not of collaboration but of armed conflict in which one antagonist has a contract assuring him nuclear capability. Some reviewers make a point of trying to understand whose picture it is by 'looking at the script': to understand whose picture it is one needs to look not particularly at the script but at the deal memo.

"About the best a writer can hope to do, then, is to bring an engaging or interesting intelligence to bear upon the subject, a kind of petit-point-on-Kleenex effect which rarely stands much scrutiny. 'Motives' are inferred where none existed; allegations spun out of thin speculation. Perhaps the difficulty of knowing who made which choices in a picture makes this airiness so expedient that it eventually infects any writer who makes a career of reviewing; perhaps the initial error is in making a career of it. Reviewing motion pictures, like reviewing new cars, may or may not be a useful consumer service (since people respond to a lighted screen in a dark room in the same secret and powerfully irrational way they respond to most sensory stimuli, I tend to think much of it beside the point, but never mind that); the review of pictures has been, as well, a traditional diversion for writers whose actual work is somewhere else. Some 400 mornings spent at press screenings in the late Thirties were, for Graham Greene, an 'escape,' a way of life 'adopted quite voluntarily from a sense of fun.' Perhaps it is only when one inflates the sense of fun into (Kauffmann again) 'a continuing relation with an art' that one passes so headily beyond the reality principle."

— Joan Didion, "In Hollywood" from The White Album, 164-166

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Family History

"There is a naive conception of social history that is extremely popular. People with different viewpoints give it different slants, but the basic story is much the same. The leading character is called Technology, or sometimes Science; very sophisticated storytellers have twin leads called Science and Technology. They are the active agents in the drama. In some versions, they are the heroes; in others, the villains. In all, they are endowed with overwhelming power.

"There are some other characters, too. One of them is called Modern Society, who is more or less the dutiful wife, following where Technology leads her. In some accounts she drags her feet; in others she eggs him on. But it does not make very much difference one way or the other because they are married, for better or worse. There is one other character, a kind of stepchild called the Individual. His job is to fit into the family as best he can. This requires him to be diligent and skillful. Since the family is changing, getting more scientific, technological, and complex all the time, this can be a hard job.

"There are a lot of dramatic possibilities here, and our writers have exploited them all."

— Randall Collins, The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification, 1

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On message

"And Huey Newton would comment. 'Yes. Mandate Number Three is this demand from the Black Panther Party speaking for the black community. Within the mandate we admonish the racist police force…' I kept wishing that he would talk about himself, hoping to break through the wall of rhetoric, but he seemed to be one of those autodidacts for whom all things specific and personal present themselves as mine fields to be avoided even at the cost of coherence, for whom safety lies in generalization."

— Joan Didion, The White Album, 30

Friday, August 27, 2010


"'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.' I've always disliked the unnecessary comma in the middle of this famous Fitzgerald dictum, suggestive as it is of an inability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time while still retaining etc."

— David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, 135

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Worn Copy

"Science is on a long-term campaign to bring all knowledge in the world into one vast, interconnected, footnoted, peer-reviewed web of facts. Independent facts, even those that make sense in their own world, are of little value to science. (The pseudo- and para-sciences are nothing less, in fact, than small pools of knowledge that are not connected to the large network of science.) In this way, every new observation or bit of data brought into the web of science enhances the value of all other data points. In science, there's a natural duty to make what is known searchable. No one argues that scientists should be paid when someone finds or duplicates their results. Instead, we've devised other ways to compensate them for their vital work. They're rewarded for the degree to which their work is cited, shared, linked, and connected in their publications, which they don't own. They're financed with extremely short patent monopolies for their ideas, short enough to inspire them to invent more, sooner. To a large degree, scientists make their living by giving away free copies of their intellectual property. What is this technology telling us? Copies don't count anymore; copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won't mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain in meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed, and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media, and sewn together in the universal library."

— David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, 29-30

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Look at that mountain, look at those trees

"The week before I leave, I listen to a song by an L.A. composer about the city. I would listen to the song over and over, ignoring the rest of the album. It wasn't that I liked the song so much; it was more that it confused me and I would try to decipher it. For instance, I wanted to know why the bum in the song was on his knees. Someone told me that the bum was so grateful to be in the city instead of somewhere else. I told this person that I thought he missed the point and the person told me, in a tone I found slightly conspiratorial, 'No, dude…I don't think so.'"

— Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero, 193

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Sense of an Ending

R.I.P. Sir Frank Kermode.

Game recognize game

"The petit bourgeois do not know how to play the game of culture as a game. They take culture too seriously to go in for bluff or imposture or even for the distance and casualness which show true familiarity; too seriously to escape permanent fear of ignorance or blunders, or to sidestep tests by responding with the indifference of those who are not competing or the serene detachment of those who feel entitled to confess or even flaunt their lacunae. Identifying culture with knowledge, they think that the cultivated man is one who possesses an immense fund of knowledge and refuse to believe him when he professes … that, brought down to its simplest and most sublime expression, it amounts to a relation to culture ('Culture is what remains when you've forgotten everything'). Making culture a matter of life and death, truth and falsehood, they cannot suspect the irresponsible self-assurance, the insolent off-handedness and even the hidden dishonesty presupposed by the merest page of an inspired essay on philosophy, art or literature. Self-made men, they cannot have the familiar relation to culture which authorizes the liberties and audacities of those who are linked to it by birth, that is, by nature and essence."

— Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice, 330-331

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Break On Through

Via Wikipedia:

"Between 1959 and 1963 Sternberg taught a course on film aesthetics at the University of California Los Angeles, based on his own films. His students included Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, who went on to form the rock group The Doors. References to Sternberg films appear in some songs by the group, and Manzarek describes Sternberg as "perhaps the greatest single influence on The Doors."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

It's Money That Matters

The CFP for the 2011 EMP conference has been released. It's going to be in Los Angeles this year (!) and the theme is: "Cash Rules Everything Around Me: Music and Money."

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Dozens of extraordinary photos taken in America between 1939 and 1943 at the Denver Post's website.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

She is Greek, she is great

In recent weeks I've written reviews of three Agnès Varda films for Not Coming to a Theater Near You's "Viva Varda!" retrospective: Uncle Yanco, Mur murs, and Jacquot de Nantes. What have you done?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Death and

"Littlefield leaned closer to him. 'You're a young man, you can still learn. Pay attention to this. You can steal in this country, you can rape and murder, you can bribe public officials, you can pollute the morals of the young, you can burn your place of business down for the insurance money, you can do almost anything you want, and if you act with just a little caution and common sense you'll never even be indicted. But if you don't pay your income tax, Grofield, you will go to jail.'"

— Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, The Score, 55-56

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"So his novels lead double lives, in which the sophistication of his ideas is constantly overwhelming the rather primitive narrative and stylistic machinery; the reader has to learn to switch voltages, like a busy international traveller."

— James Wood on Richard Powers in The New Yorker, October 5, 2009

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Danger in the Past

“When a word like dangerous is applied to ideas, language or art, it immediately signals a desire to return to the past. It means that the speaker is fearful … the speaker fears all innovation, which he denounces on each occasion as ‘empty’ (in general that is all that can be found to be said about what is new). However this traditional fear is complicated today by the contrary fear of appearing anachronistic; suspicion towards the new is combined with a few nods in the direction of ‘the call of the present’ or the necessity to ‘rethink the problems of criticism’; ‘the vain return to the past’ is dismissed with a fine oratorical gesture. Regressiveness appears shameful today, just like capitalism. Whence come remarkable jerks and abrupt halts: there is a pretence for a while of accepting modern works, which one ought to discuss since they are being discussed; then, suddenly, a sort of limit having been reached, people proceed to a joint execution. These trials, set up periodically by closed groups, are thus in no way extraordinary; they happen at the end of certain disturbances of equilibrium. But why, today, Criticism?”

— Roland Barthes, Criticism & Truth, trans. Katrine Pilcher Keuneman, 32-33

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Need to Know

"Once you know the answer you can see that the cross-word puzzle was set quite fairly. But why should we be given a guessing game at all — why can't he tell us? The mood seems to be that of a professional man who must guard the interests of his client, and only one word is his client at a time."

— William Empson, "Dictionaries" in The Structure of Complex Words, 405

Monday, July 12, 2010

Pilgrim's Progress

"Some of those who had known Christian in his great days as a teacher were sorry, after the war, to see him becoming involved in the administrative side of the University. I remember his saying to me one day, in the early stages of this, 'I've just sent off a lot of letters, and I said to myself as I mailed them, "There are seventeen letters to people who don't interest me in the least."' But the job of the dean's office did interest him — though it seemed to us that it did not take a Gauss to rule on remiss or refractory students. He had never liked repeating routine, and I suppose that his department was coming to bore him. He made, by all accounts, a remarkable dean — for his card-catalogue memory kept all names and faces on file, even for decades after the students had left; and the sensitive feeling for character that had been hidden behind his classroom mask must have equipped him with a special tact in dealing with difficult cases. His genius for moral values had also a new field now in which it could exercise itself in an immediate and practical way, and the responsibilities of his office — especially in the years just after the war, when students were committing suicide and getting into all sorts of messes — sometimes put upon him an obvious strain. Looking back, since his death, it has seemed to me that the Gauss who was dean of Princeton must have differed almost as much from the Gauss with whom I read French and Italian, as this austere teacher had from the young correspondent in Paris who had paid for Oscar Wilde's drinks. The Gauss I had known in my student days, with his pale cheeks and shuttered gaze, his old raincoat and soft flat hat, and a shabby, mongrel dog named Baudelaire which had been left with him by the Jesse Lynch Williamses and which sometimes accompanied him into class — the Gauss who would pass you on the campus without speaking, unless you attracted his attention, in an abstraction like that of Dante in Hell, and who seemed to meet the academic world with a slightly constrained self-consciousness at not having much in common with it — this figure warmed up and filled out, became recognizably Princetonian in his neckties and shirts and a touch of that tone which combines a country club self-assurance with a boyish country-town homeliness. He now met the college world, unscreened, with his humorous and lucid green eyes. He wore golf stockings and even played golf. He interested himself in the football team and made speeches at alumni banquets. Though I know that his influence as a dean was exerted in favor of scholarships, higher admission requirements, and the salvaging of the Humanities — I cannot do justice here to this whole important phase of his career — the only moments of our long friendship when I was ever at all out of sympathy with him occurred during these years of officialdom, for I felt that he had picked up, a little, the conventional local prejudices when I found him protesting against the advent in Princeton of the Institute for Advanced Study or, on one occasion, censoring Lit for publishing a 'blasphemous' story. One was always impressed, however, by the comprehensive and lucid way in which he seemed to have absorbed the business of the University."

— Edmund Wilson, "Christian Gauss" in Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers, 20-21

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Filesharing

"Without examining all the directions in which Puritanism exercised influence, let us just recall that the degree of toleration afforded to pleasure in cultural products serving purely aesthetic or sporting indulgence was limited by one characteristic factor: they must not cost anything. Man was merely the steward of the gifts granted him by God's grace; he, like the wicked servant in the Bible, must give an account of every penny, and it is at the very least dubious whether he should expend any of this money for a purpose which serves not God's glory, but his own pleasure. Which of us with eyes to see has not met people of this persuasion right up to our own time? The idea of the obligation of man to the possessions entrusted to him, to which he subordinates himself as servant and steward or even as 'moneymaking machine,' lies on life with its chill weight."

— Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the "Spirit" of Capitalism, trans. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells, 115

Friday, June 18, 2010

Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes and Its Discontents

Poetics Rethought!

I was sorry to miss the big Rethinking Poetics conference at Columbia this past weekend, but airfare doesn't grow on trees. Here are some eyewitness and participant accounts of the proceedings to make me feel all right about it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"All studies are, at bottom, the study of aging."
— Many Moon System Proverb

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Après les avant-gardes

One of many perfectly phrased lines in Peli Grietzer's (ultimately quite moving) Tumblr essay on the attraction of the contemporary avant-garde:

"If the history of Avant Garde really is a history of failed revolutionary quests, it is a failure so total it can't even be called that — it would be like saying I failed to become fluent in Italian by re-watching The Godfather. Wouldn't it be better to say I was just watching The Godfather? In the absence of any sufficiently appropriate action there is no sense of speaking of intention."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Flying fish

"The greatest misfortune of a man of letters is not perhaps being the object of his confreres' jealousy, the victim of the cabal, the despised of the men of power; but of being judged by fools. Fools go far sometimes, particularly when bigotry is added to ineptitude, and to ineptitude the spirit of vengeance. The further great misfortune of a man of letters is that ordinarily he is unattached. A bourgeois buys himself a small position, and there he is backed by his colleagues. If he suffers an injustice, he finds defenders at once. The man of letters is unsuccoured; he resembles a flying-fish; if he rises a little, the birds devour him; if he dives, the fish eat him.

Every public man pays tribute to malignity, but he is paid in honours and gold."

— Voltaire, The Philosophical Dictionary, trans H.I. Woolf

Sunday, June 6, 2010

PR for Poetry

A weird and wonderful manifesto of sorts from Stan Apps at Action Yes.

Friday, June 4, 2010


"Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins
Nature kids, I/they don't have no function
I don't understand what they mean
And I could really give a fuck"

— Stephen Malkmus on the Kantian aesthetic

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ruse of Reason

I've put in so many professors that it will keep the enigmas and puzzles busy for centuries meaning things for them to argue over.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Farewell to an Idea

"They used to be the leaders of the avant garde, but now they just want to be understood, and so farewell to them."

— Lyn Hejinian, My Life, 53

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Critical Machine

"Let a communication be formed between any number of learned men in the various branches of science and literature; and whether the president or central committee be in London, or Edinburgh, if only they previously lay aside their individuality and pledge themselves inwardly, as well as ostensibly, to administer judgment according to a constitution and code of law; and if by grounding this code on the two-fold basis of universal morals and philosophic reason, independent of all foreseen application to particular works and authors, they obtain the right to speak each as the representative of their body corporate; they shall have their honor and good wishes from me, and I shall accord to them their fair dignities, though self-assumed, not less chearfully than if I could inquire concerning them in the herald's office, or turn to them in the book of peerage. However loud may be the outcries for prevented or subverted reputation, however numerous and impatient the complaints of merciless severity and insupportable despotism, I shall neither feel nor utter aught but to the defence and justication of the critical machine. Should any literary Quixote find himself provoked by its sounds and regular movements, I should admonish him, with Sancho Panza, that it is no giant but a windmill; there it stands on its own place and its own hillock, never goes out of the way to attack any one, and to none and from none either gives or asks assistance. When the public press has poured in any part of its produce between its millstones, it grinds it off, one man's sack the same as another, and with whatever wind may then happen to be blowing. All the two and thirty winds are its friends. Of the whole wide atmosphere it does not desire a single finger-breadth more than what is necessary for its sails to turn round in. But this space must be left free and unimpeded. Gnats, beetles, wasps, butterflies and the whole tribe of ephemerals and insignificants may flit in and out and between; may hum, and buzz, and jar; may shrill their tiny pipes, and wind their puny horns, unchastised and unnoticed. But idlers and bravadoes of larger size and prouder show must beware how they place themselves within its sweep. Much less may they presume to lay hands on the sails, the strength of which is neither greater nor less than as the wind is which drives them round. Whomsoever the remorseless arm slings aloft, or whirls along with it in the air, he has himself alone to blame; though when the same arm throws him from it, it will more often double than break the force of his fall."

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 239-240

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


"Ambiguity is one of the favorite principles of the modern critic, but this one has backfired rather badly, killing quite a few graduate students. The critic sees the poem through the dictionary, as if the poet had taken the twenty-three definitions of green and used them all at once. But the way the poet uses green does not appear in any dictionary. (Incidentally, someone should analyze the dictionary, if analysis is the order of the day. The dictionary is a kind of large bad poem, or rather a fine piece of science fiction. And the card catalogue of the library is surely the most romantic epic of modern man…)"

— Karl Shapiro, "The Critic in Spite of Himself" in In Defense of Ignorance, 16

Monday, May 24, 2010

Itching tongues

"First, truly I note not only in these … poet-haters, but in all that kind of people who seek a praise by dispraising others, that they do prodigally spend a great many wandering words in quips and scoffs, carping and taunting at each thing which, by stirring the spleen, may stay the brain from a through-beholding the worthiness of the subject. Those kind of objections, as they are full of a very idle easiness, since there is nothing of so sacred a majesty but that an itching tongue may rub itself upon it, so deserve they no other answer, but, instead of laughing at the jest, to laugh at the jester … Marry, these other pleasant faultfinders, who will correct the verb before they understand the noun, and confute others' knowledge before they confirm their own — I would have them only remember that scoffing cometh not of wisdom. So as the best title in true English they get with their merriments is to be called good fools; for so have our grave forefathers ever termed that humorous kind of jesters."

— Sir Philip Sidney, A Defence of Poetry, 49-50

Monday, May 17, 2010


"Behind every successful artist is a new historian who says it's all just a symptom. Behind every successful new historian is an artist who says you forgot to mention my work — and, boy, is it symptomatic!"

— Charles Bernstein, "What's Art Got To Do With It?" in My Way: Speeches and Poems, 48

Sunday, May 16, 2010


"What Pound passed on … seems less a teaching of technique than a technique of teaching. The point may be clarified by looking at his favorite anecdote, Agassiz and the fish, which begins the ABC of Reading (1934). The great zoologist hands a postgraduate student a small fish and tells him to describe it. The student returns with some textbook definitions. Again Agassiz tells him to describe the fish. The student produces a four-page essay, and is told once more to look at the fish. 'At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it' (p. 18). That, for Pound, exemplifies the method of modern science and ought to be the basis of all teaching. But what exactly has been taught? Nothing, apparently, except the necessity of looking. The last section of the ABC, its 'Treatise on Meter,' preaches a similar moral: 'The answer is: LISTEN to the sound it makes' (p. 201). One should not underestimate the value of this technique, in the hands of a respected master who convinces disciples that they too will be ruthlessly looked at and listened to. Yet the method is also very coercive, laying claims to objectivity while actually forcing the student to guess what sort of answer will satisfy the teacher. For teachers do want a specific something (not how the fish smells, for instance), and students find what they go looking for. To pass the course, Pound's disciples had to discover modern poetics. They learned how to do this less by grasping principles than by imitating Pound."

— Lawrence Lipking, "Poet-Critics," in
The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Vol. 7, 455

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Trial balloon

Criticism, bitten by philanthropy, longs to be freed from administration.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"A wide and open field gives us agoraphobia."

— Kenneth E. Boulding, "A Theory of Philanthropy" in Collected Papers Vol. 2, 242

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The agoraphobic kleptomaniacs

From Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky's book-long interview with David Foster Wallace (a thirty-first birthday present):

…you said you saw yourself as "A combination of being incredibly shy, and being an egomaniac, too"?

I think I said "exhibitionist, also."

But exhibitionist too?


Well, I think being shy basically means being self-absorbed to the extent that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I'm hanging out with you, I can't even tell whether I like you or not, because I'm too worried about whether you like me. It's stressful and unpleasant or whatever. And I have elements of that shyness in me.

And yet at the same time, I mean it's sort of like the agoraphobic kleptomaniacs. At the same time, I think that most people — and stop me if you disagree, because I'm talking to somebody who's in the trade — somebody who's writing, has part of their motivation to sort of I think impress themselves and their consciousness on others. There's an unbelievable arrogance about even trying to write something — much less, you know, expecting that someone else will pay money to read it. So that you end up with this, uh… I think exhibitionists who aren't shy end up being performers. End up plying their trade in the direct presence of other people … And exhibitionists who are shy find various other ways to do it …

But there's also, the shyness feeds into some of the stuff that you need as a fiction writer. Like: Part of the shyness for me is, it's very easy for me to play this game of, What do you want? What will the effect of this be on you? You know? It's this kind of mental chess. Which in personal intercourse? Makes things very difficult. But in writing, when I think a lot of what you're doing — there are very few innocent sentences in writing. You've gotta know not just how it looks and sounds to you. But you've gotta be able plausibly to project what an alien consciousness will make of it. So that there's a kind of split consciousness that I think makes it difficult to deal with people in the real world. For a writer. But that actually comes in handy.

And one of the reasons why I think when I'm really working hard, that I'm not around people much, isn't that I don't have time. It's just that, it's more like a machine you turn on and off. And I, the idea of sitting here and being completely wrapped up in what piece will result, what your impression of me is, how I can manage that, would be so exhausting that I just don't want to do it. That's what's kind of weird — is this process of being interviewed kicks that machine. Except, now I don't have control over it, right? Now I've gotta manage it, and trust that you, that you — when writing the piece — that you are concerned about how it's gonna come off to the people who are then gonna manage it as well. So the three are actually kind of interestingly — there's writing, there's innocent interaction with other people, and then there's this interviewing stuff.

What I would love to do is a profile of one of you guys who's doin' a profile of me. It would be way too pomo and cute, to do. But it would be very interesting. It would be the way for me to get some of the control back. Because if you wanted — within the parameters of, you can't tell outright lies that I'll then deny to the fact checker. But if you wanted, I mean, you're gonna be able to shape this essentially how you want. And that to me is extremely disturbing. Because I want to be able to try and shape and manage the impression of me that's coming across. And it might be why writers are such shitty interviews. (16-18)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"What is an age but something to complain about?"

— Randall Jarrell, "The Age of Criticism"

To All Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats

A letter from T.S. Eliot to his godson, 1931.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Last Metro

My final review for the François Truffaut series, which ends this weekend, is up now at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


"Life, for them, and their circle of friends, was often a whirlwind.

"There was a whole crowd of them, they made a fine bunch. They knew each other well; taking a lot from each other, they had common habits, common tastes and shared memories. They had their own vocabulary, their own marks, their special ideas. Too sophisticated to be perfectly similar to each other, but probably not sophisticated enough to avoid imitating each other more or less consciously, they spent a large part of their lives swapping things. They felt irritated by that often enough; but even more often they found it amusing."

— Georges Perec, Things: A Story of the Sixties, trans. David Bellos, 44

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Altered state

I'll be at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference in Seattle this weekend, giving a paper called "'I Do Alterations': Sammy Cahn and the Business of Parody."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Risk Society (No. 2)

"One runs little to no danger in speaking of the weather, or writing about the weather, or in repeating what others may have said on that subject. It is safe to conclude that people discussing the weather may be doing so in order to avoid a more controversial subject, one that might irritate, annoy, or even anger someone, anyone, within earshot. He was past avoiding risks."

— Walter Abish, How German Is It, 11

Sunday, April 11, 2010

And here is The Wild Child.