Archive for June 2010
Interesting, special disaffinity for watching sports with other people, listening to people talk about sports, having people in my living room while I am trying to watch sports, and so on. Not sure what it is. Best guess is that in my line of work you don’t often meet people who, like me, devoted (were made to devote?) approximately 90 percent of their mental and psychological life to a game for that extended period of time that is often called childhood.
Especially don’t like people who, while watching sports in my living room, make snarky comments about the size of my television and the grandeur of my satellite television package. Ah academia. When I first got to Ivy League PhD Institution, the first set of friends that we had covered their television with a table cloth when people were over. Not in Cardinal, Ontario or Memphis, Tennessee anymore, we kiddies realized! Said tablecloth didn’t apparently stop them from coming over to my place to watch Wimbledon (wtf?) on my cable when tennis was in the summer air.
The total count of people with whom I don’t mind watching sports totals three: my wife (she’s been well trained in the art, we used to hold partial bleacher season tickets at Yankee Stadium mind you, and by the end had moved up into the insanity of the front rows…), my father, and as it turned out during the volcano, SEK.
Story. When my wife and I were first together, back in, yep, high school, she came to a game that I pitched against one of the Oranges. Can’t remember which one it was, though pretty sure it wasn’t West Orange. Sat in the stands with my father. (Looking back, wow, way to take one for the team, dearest…) I took a no-hitter through six (high school games were only seven innings long), fucking them up with sliders, until some kid plinked a single off of me with one out in the seventh. Shit. I would have made the Daily Record, or even the vaunted Ledger, the next day if I’d pulled it off.
Anyway, I was afterward supra-surly and, really, cussish when I got off the field. She didn’t understand at the moment, but I think in the long run (how long-term couples work, I suppose) this moment earned me a lifetime of overloud and vaguely Nova Scotian Goddammits while watching things on TV. That’s mostly the sort of talking that I do, and prefer to do, while I watch this stuff rather than discussing the reasons and costs behind my blinged out, sorta white trash media center in the center of the most used room in the house. Which I have because, unlike the rest of the freeloaders, yes, I admit that I like to watch vast quantities of sports on the weekends, feel deprived if I cannot watch them because of subscription issues, and as of lately, yep, like to watch them in HD.
Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is one of those books that has lingered at the front of the to-be-read pile for years and year. I dip in for twenty pages in a stolen moment, and then… it drifts back to the shelf waiting for another start.
I am delighted by Pessoa, but even more than delight it is probably recognition – the recognition of an orientation parallel to mine, of a project similar enough to one of my own projects (namely, the one that you are reading right now) – that informs this slow-motion compulsive pattern of starting and then leaving off, again and again, for probably something like a decade now. Take a look, for instance, at this passage which comes close to the start of the work:
I envy the people – well, I don’t know if I actually envy them – whose biographies are written or who write their own. In these disconnected impressions, which I deliberately leave disconnected, I shall narrate my autobiography in an indifferent sort of way, without facts; my history without life. These are my Confessions, and if I don’t say anything in them, it’s because I really have nothing to say.
What does it matter that someone confesses his worthiness or that he serves some useful purpose? What happens to us either happens to everyone or only to us: in the first instance, it’s banal; in the second it’s incomprehensible. By writing what I feel, I can cool this febrile sensitivity of mine. What I confess is unimportant, because nothing is important. I compose landscapes out of what I feel. I compose carnivals of sensations. I completely understand women who embroider out of grief or knit because life exists. My old aunt used to play solitaire during the course of infinite family gatherings. These confessions of feeling are my solitaires. I don’t read them, the way people read cards to know the future. I don’t put a stethoscope to them, because in solitaire the cards don’t really have any value. I unravel like a multicolored skein, or I make yarn figures out of myself that are like the ones braided by tense hands and passed from one child to another. I just take care that my thumb doesn’t miss making the final knot. Later I turn my hand over and the image changes. And I start over.
Comes very close – perhaps all too close, per what I said above – to the implicit, generally unconscious operating principle in place behind much of what I do here on this blog. ads without products started out, years ago, as a standard-issue editorializing site, commenting on the news, connecting the news with what I was reading, obliquely discussing my work, etc. But over the years, and I suppose because I’ve lived through what the shrinks call a transition crisis, the blog changed. As I went from grad student to assistant professor to lecturer, moved from America to Britain and before that from New York to somewhere else, and above all else fell abruptly from the prolonged adolescence of urban irresponsibility to the previously unimaginable heavy duties of parenthood, things changed and the blog became (for the most part – some of the old style stuff still trickles through) something else, something like my own book of disquiet.
Some very nice people have written me suggesting that there is a book scattered throughout these Sunday posts and the like. It’s a tempting thought, and incredibly heartening that they say so. (I’m well aware that there are others, if they’ve not long since gone away, who’d like nothing more than for me just to get back to the old stuff and think I’ve gone made with solipsism and the like). I’m working on a novel right now, a relatively conventional thing with a plot and characters and a setting, something that’s meant to be sold as literary fiction and sold to a publisher that publishes that sort of thing. There’s an incredibly optimistic thought at the back of my mind, a problematic thought whose optimism isn’t the worst of its problems. The thought is this: that if I were successful at publishing this novel, and maybe another like it, then I would free myself to work in unconventional forms, forms ranging from the sort of thing that I was up to here or some sort of Weight of the World style compendium of semi-fictionalized everyday life.
But of course I’m not stupid enough to think, down deep, that that plan really makes sense. No one, nowadays, earns themselves out of responsibility to the satisfaction of market demands, and the trajectory of most writers now suggests quite the opposite – with each work ever more vivid evidence of their fealty to the satisfaction of convention. This isn’t a personal failing on their part – it’s a structural attribute of the market and atmosphere in which we live. (The academic parallel is tenure, which of course is supposed to liberate American professors unto their own idiosyncrasies, but that’s is rarely the case. Having run the full race-track, 99 percent either collapse into mediocre unproductiveness or keep churning out more of the same stuff they’ve been pavlovianly stickn’carroted into doing to earn tenure).
So if I were smarter (I’m not sure whether “and braver” should be here or not), I’d just skip ahead to the formally challenging, market-resisting stuff that I’d like to do down the road, because neither success or failure the other way is particularly likely to open that door in the future. So what to do?
I’m not going to abandon the thing I’m working on because a) I keep doing that, three or four times with nearly complete manuscripts, and that’s starting to get really annoying if not super-deeply symptomatic and b) I like it OK, somedays and c) I’m 21,000 words in, which is quite a lot when you think about it. But I am also, this week, going to work on something semi-fictional and bloggic and with interesting images interspersed for another opportunity, one as exciting to me as anything else.
(For the record, this has not been a Sunday post, despite the fact that it is in fact Sunday morning, the traditional time of their composition. This was housekeeping, and like all housekeeping meta in the wrong way, meta with the wrong sort of banality….)
As it turns out, I was right. And last night at a World Cup party, in the course of horsing around about my sniffing out his sniffing me out, I ended up disclosing the existence of this thing to quite a number of other colleagues, or maybe in fact all of them.
Christ, let’s hope that contract for the monograph comes through. Or else I’m going to be making one hell of an argument about my blog’s impactfulness!
The word “ideology” is banned, as it does not exist, not really. It exists only in the way that things like “art in general” exist. Henceforth, we will discuss only “public relations,” the actual tactics and material instantiations of the engineering of consent, the traceable paths of cause and effect involved with it.
We are not named by the policeman on the street who calls to us. We are named by our parents. Of course it is important to remember that we enter into language and then we never leave language. The problem is that the abstraction involved in the deployment of a term like ideology permits, no nearly mandates, that we stop just about there. The cop, the street, and then us, newly and irrevocably named – nowhere to go from there.
There is a malicious, ill-formed fiction at the heart of most theoretical errors – that is to say, I am starting to think, most theory.
Abstraction is a net that allows us to neglect the hold, to fall without worrying about reaching the next rung.
He promises himself not to take it out on them, just as his father promised that he would not take it out on him. And we all know how well that went.
When he takes his older daughter into the bookstore or the newsstand, often enough they stop to look at things that he has written, that her mother has written – as yet exclusively in the magazine and newspaper bits of the store. “Dadda wrote this piece… Yes I know it’s smaller than the other ones… Yes, we have a copy at home, I just thought you’d like to see it…. Do you remember when Dadda had to work last weekend – well, this is what he was doing, writing this…. Yes, sweetie, I know it is smaller than the others. That’s not what is important. What’s important is that Dadda wrote this piece.”
Or there are books. “Do you remember the man who came over last month? Do you remember Lola and her sister. Their father, yes. Yes, this is his book. Yes, he wrote all of it – the whole thing…. I don’t know if he did it on weekends or not, probably, at least some of the time…”
What a fundamentally different relationship to a bookstore, which for him was a sort of sacred shrine visited weekly with his mother. The people who wrote those were nowhere, elsewhere. You read what they wrote and you were thankful for the opportunity to do so. He never once thought of them, the people that he read, as alive and sitting at typewriters somewhere knowable, somewhere one might visit.
Still today, when in stress, he buys books. He never – until today – understood exactly what it means. Today, sitting in the Ikea cafeteria with his daughter, the older one, he received an email about his novel. Nothing bad – just preemptive feedback from an editor at X that his…. agent (?) had spoken to about it. When they were home, and after he had built the tiny child furniture they had purchased, he asked for time out to work and then stopped at the bookstore before making his way to the coffeehouse where he works.
The bookstore, the books he buys, in short, mean security against, recidivism in the face of, the unbearable task of doing something that he simply isn’t suited, for a thousand reasons, to do. By nature and by upbringing, he is a reader, a semi-passive recipient of these things, not one who makes them himself. That is for other people, those people whose parents took them to bookstores to show their children the articles and books they had written.
Later, he returns home and watches a repeat of the Yankees – Mets game on ESPN America. The reliever for the Mets throws at 3/4ers, just as he did. Throws a slider that shivers the legs of the batters, just as he did. This he could have done – this he was groomed, unlike his own father, to be large and brave in doing. He should have, he thinks, taken up the chance to pitch at university. What went into the pious decision to work instead? What sort of misplaced confidence, what sort of working through of class?
In lieu of writing at night, he smokes cigarettes and drinks beer. But before that, well before, as he and the same daughter, the older one, walked to pick up pizza, he told her “You know, actually you don’t know, but your grandfather almost ran this company… Yes, Pizza Hut. He was recruited, we went to Wichita, Dadda almost moved to Kansas, something we can both be thankful didn’t happen. But, yes, your grandfather almost made these pizzas, right from the very top….”
Decided to take a chance on this: we’re trying to work out a summer holiday, basically from late July till the end of August or some portion thereof. And what we’d like to do is work out a swap with someone – or at least rent our place out and then rent a comparable place somewhere else. We’re not having a lot of luck finding something we want, so I thought I’d try on here, just to see if one of my readers isn’t in the same sort of situation or would like to be.
So… If you live in an interesting place anywhere in the world, preferably an urban one, and you have the sort of place that would suit 2 adults + 2 young kids, and you’d like either to rent it out for the period listed above or part of that period or you’re interested in swapping it for a place in North London for the same period, please do get in touch. Oh, and we’ve got two low maintenance, non-aggressive cats that would stay here – just need to be fed and not let outdoors.
Our place has 4 bedrooms (one of them crib sized, not bed sized), a garden, is about 30 minutes from central London (1 bus to Finsbury Park Underground), all the usual amenities, and we live in a nice neighborhood for kids with lots of parks and the like, reasonably close to Hampstead Heath, etc etc etc.
It’s not available on-line unless you have a subscription, but Charles Nicholl’s piece in the LRB on Christopher Mountjoy (and by implication Shakespeare) and his ‘naughty house’ is quite something to read. Almost makes me believe in ‘research’ again (again?) and suchlike!
Shamefully, though there’s a decent reason why, I’m just now getting to Raymond Carver. (The reason has something to do with my intensely anglo- and euro-slanted undergraduate and graduate education, except when it comes to poetry…) But I’m reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and was just about to write a post about the endings of the stories, which as you probably know if you’ve read Carver are bemusingly ambiguous and frustratingly curt. But then I happened upon this piece by Charles McGrath from the New York Times in 2007, which reveals that I would have mislabeled the post. I was really going to be talking about Gordon Lish’s endings, not Carver’s. Go look at the whole article, but here’s the most relevant part:
That Mr. Lish was an early and tireless champion of Mr. Carver is beyond doubt, and some of his editing, or what one knows of it, appears to be brilliant. (There are no published scholarly studies of Mr. Lish’s edited manuscripts, which are now owned by the Lilly Library at Indiana University, but Mr. Carver often published his stories in magazines and journals before turning them over to Mr. Lish for collection in hardcover, and by comparing the magazine and book versions it’s possible to infer a fair amount.) Mr. Lish was a macroeditor, ruthless and aggressive, and he sometimes seemed to sense what Mr. Carver was trying to say even more clearly than Mr. Carver. He transposed, he retitled and rewrote (the endings especially), and most of all, he cut, sometimes reducing a story by 50 percent or more to get at what he felt to be its essence.
Not all his changes were improvements, however, and some resulted in considerable distortion. The most famous instance is “A Small, Good Thing,” a story about a couple waiting for their child to wake from a coma that is now regarded as one of Mr. Carver’s masterpieces. The Lish version, retitled “The Bath,” is a third shorter and eliminates the original story’s key passage, a moment of redemptive hopefulness at the end; instead, the couple are left frozen in despair. Mr. Carver was so upset that he insisted the original version be used in “Where I’m Calling From,” a 1987 collection of new and selected stories that was not edited by Mr. Lish. But several others he left in their edited versions, even though years earlier he had written to Mr. Lish begging him to restore the stories to the way he had written them. “If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form,” he said in the letter, “I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.”
In fact it was “The Bath,” the Lish edited version of the story, that I was going to write about, along with a few others, and what I would call the 70/30 ambiguities that they leave us with. What do I mean with the fraction? Well, take “The Bath.” (Spoiler warning!) Basically it goes like this. A mom goes to order a birthday cake for her son, who at the same moment is walking to school. He gets hit by a car, stumbles home to mom, ends up in the hospital, and drops into a coma. The parents wait by his bedside, taking turns to go home and bathe. First the father goes home, where he takes annoying calls from the baker about the birthday cake that’s due to be picked up. Here’s the very end of the story as the mother has just driven home, leaving her husband at the bedside:
She got out of the car and went to the door. She turned on lights and put water on for tea. She opened a can and fed the dog. She sat down on the sofa with her tea.
The telephone rang.
“Yes!” she said. “Hello!” she said.
“Mrs Weiss,” a man’s voice said.
“Yes, she said. “This is Mrs Weiss. Is it about Scotty?” she said.
“Scotty,” the voice said. “It is about Scotty,” the voice said. “It has to do with Scotty, yes.”
What do I mean by 70/30? Well, probably, of course, this is the baker calling again – though of course, we can’t be sure. Maybe it’s more like an 85/15 in this case… As so much has gone into setting up the birthday cake angle of the story. In this case, the entire piece culminates on the pathos of the mother thinking that she’s getting a relevant, life-changing telephone call, when it’s really (probably) from a baker frustrated that he’s waiting around for payment and to get this cake off of his shelf. But then again… it could well be from the hospital… News good or bad, likely bad given the direction of things when she left. We’re left sharing some of her uncertainty as she waits for an answer that might, but probably won’t, arrive in a few seconds.
There’s a lot for me to say about this sort of tactic, Lish’s it seems in this case rather than Carver’s. And now I’m not sure who’s responsible for another 70/30 – the one at the end of “Why Don’t You Dance?” where we’re left half-wondering what it is that she wants to get “talked out.” (An issue like this one, not knowing what to call what, could either really put you off or really put you onto writing about Carver, depending upon what sort of scholarly type you are…) Anyway, I just for now want to say something quickly about the end of the original version of the story, before Lish got at it, and when it was titled not “The Bath” but “A Small, Good Thing.” It’s available in its entirety here. At the end of this one, after the boy actually dies and after taking repeated phone calls from the baker, the mother and father, driven by maddened despair, drive down to confront the baker:
They drove down to the shopping center. The sky was clear and stars were out. It was cold, and they ran the heater in the car. They parked in front of the bakery. All of the shops and stores were closed, but there were cars at the far end of the lot in front of the movie theater. The bakery windows were dark, but when they looked through the glass they could see a light in the back room and, now and then, a big man in an apron moving in and out of the white, even light. Through the glass, she could see the display cases and some little tables with chairs. She tried the door. She rapped on the glass. But if the baker heard them, he gave no sign. He didn’t look in their direction.
They drove around behind the bakery and parked. They got out of the car. There was a lighted window too high up for them to see inside. A sign near the back door said THE PANTRY BAKERY, SPECIAL ORDERS. She could hear faintly a radio playing inside and something creak-an oven door as it was pulled down? She knocked on the door and waited. Then she knocked again, louder. The radio was turned down and there was a scraping sound now, the distinct sound of something, a drawer, being pulled open and then closed.
Someone unlocked the door and opened it. The baker stood in the light and peered out at them. “I’m closed for business,” he said. “What do you want at this hour? It’s midnight. Are you drunk or something?”
She stepped into the light that fell through the open door. He blinked his heavy eyelids as he recognized her. “It’s you, he said.
“It’s me,” she said. “Scotty’s mother. This is Scotty’s father. We’d like to come in.”
The baker said, “I’m busy now. I have work to do.”
She had stepped inside the doorway anyway. Howard came in behind her. The baker moved back. “It smells like
a bakery in here. Doesn’t it smell like a bakery in here, Howard?”
“What do you want?” the baker said. “Maybe you want your cake? That’s it, you decided you want your cake. You ordered a cake, didn’t you?”
“You’re pretty smart for a baker,” she said. “Howard, this is the man who’s been calling us.” She clenched her fists. She stared at him fiercely. There was a deep burning inside her, an anger that made her feel larger than herself, larger than either of these men.
“Just a minute here,” the baker said. “You want to pick up your three-day-old cake? That it? I don’t want to argue with you, lady. There it sits over there, getting stale. I’ll give it to you for half of what I quoted you. No. You want it? You can have it. It’s no good to me, no good to anyone now. It cost me time and money to make that cake. If you want it, okay, if you don’t, that’s okay, too. I have to get back to work.” He looked at them and rolled his tongue behind his teeth.
“More cakes,” she said. She knew she was in control of it, of what was increasing in her. She was calm.
“Lady, I work sixteen hours a day in this place to earn a living,” the baker said. He wiped his hands on his apron. “I work night and day in here, trying to make ends meet.” A look crossed Ann’s face that made the baker move back and say, “No trouble, now.” He reached to the counter and picked up a rolling pin with his right hand and began to tap it against the palm of his other hand. “You want the cake or not? I have to get back to work. Bakers work at night,” he said again. His eyes were small, mean-looking, she thought, nearly lost in the bristly flesh around his cheeks. His neck was thick with fat.
“I know bakers work at night,” Ann said. “They make phone calls at night, too. You bastard,” she said.
The baker continued to tap the rolling pin against his hand. He glanced at Howard. “Careful, careful,” he said to Howard.
“My son’s dead,” she said with a cold, even finality. “He was hit by a car Monday morning. We’ve been waiting with him until he died. But, of course, you couldn’t be expected to know that, could you? Bakers can’t know everything-can they, Mr. Baker? But he’s dead. He’s dead, you bastard!” Just as suddenly as it had welled in her, the anger dwindled, gave way to something else, a dizzy feeling of nausea. She leaned against the wooden table that was sprinkled with flour, put her hands over her face, and began to cry, her shoulders rocking back and forth. “It isn’t fair,” she said. “It isn’t, isn’t fair.”
Howard put his hand at the small of her back and looked at the baker. “Shame on you,” Howard said to him. “Shame.”
The baker put the rolling pin back on the counter. He undid his apron and threw it on the counter. He looked at them, and then he shook his head slowly. He pulled a chair out from under the card table that held papers and receipts, an adding machine, and a telephone directory. “Please sit down,” he said. “Let me get you a chair,” he said to Howard. “Sit down now, please.” The baker went into the front of the shop and returned with two little wrought-iron chairs. “Please sit down, you people.”
Ann wiped her eyes and looked at the baker. “I wanted to kill you,” she said. “I wanted you dead.”
The baker had cleared a space for them at the table. He shoved the adding machine to one side, along with the stacks of notepaper and receipts. He pushed the telephone directory onto the floor, where it landed with a thud. Howard and Ann sat down and pulled their chairs up to the table. The baker sat down, too.
“Let me say how sorry I am,” the baker said, putting his elbows on the table. “God alone knows how sorry. Listen to me. I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I’ve forgotten, I don’t know for sure. But I’m not any longer, if I ever was. Now I’m just a baker. That don’t excuse my doing what I did, I know. But I’m deeply sorry. I’m sorry for your son, and sorry for my part in this,” the baker said. He spread his hands out on the table and turned them over to reveal his palms. “I don’t have any children myself, so I can only imagine what you must be feeling. All I can say to you now is that I’m sorry. Forgive me, if you can,” the baker said. “I’m not an evil man, I don’t think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don’t know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please,” the man said, “let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me?”
It was warm inside the bakery. Howard stood up from the table and took off his coat. He helped Ann from her coat. The baker looked at them for a minute and then nodded and got up from the table. He went to the oven and turned off some switches. He found cups and poured coffee from an electric coffee-maker. He put a carton of cream on the table, and a bowl of sugar.
“You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” he said.
He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. “It’s good to eat something,” he said, watching them. “There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world in here.”
They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he’d worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn’t a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.
“Smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. ”It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
Must say – I vastly prefer Lish’s ending. But it occurs to me that there’s something interesting to say about this, in light of some of the other discussions “we’ve” been having on here. Basically, the end of this story is an inverted narrativization of the central logic of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement speech, which I wrote something about here. It is a fantasy of the alienated interpersonal relationships of the everyday, when we brustle angrily past each other in the supermarket, yell at telemarketers, and generally move around the world with guard up, getting restored to some sort of empathetic civility via the epiphanic realisation that someone, in fact, is having the worst day of their lives. Odd relationship, when you think of it: Wallace is often figured as the hero who overturned the chokehold of Carveresque minimalism upon the post-MFA set in America, but were it not for Lish, at least some of the time, their work comes off the interstate at the same exit.
(Forgive me if all of this is obvious to those of you who know something about Carver – it’s new to me, and so I notebook away on here….)
Not the sort of thing that I usually list on here – don’t really do the noticeboard thing – but I just saw something on the Verso blog that might be of interest to one or two of you, given the fact that you’re here reading this and that the writer in question is one of the patron saints of this blog from way back. Apparently, King’s College and the British Library have teamed up on a research project focused on John Berger’s archive, which the BL holds. The project included a three-year AHRC funded PhD studentship to study the archive. I could think of worse things to do with three years than that….
I imagine this is bound to be an unpopular post, but oh well, that’ll make a couple in a row.
Go look at Christian Kerslake’s comment on the Save Middlesex Philosophy blog, and then go look back at another one of my rather unpopular posts. Obviously the circumstances in question now are a bit different than those that I was obliquely addressing then, but still – the point remains. Students and junior academics need to be wary of the motives, ultimate aims, and stakes involved when throwing in with their teachers / senior colleagues, who likely have about a thousand times more job security / market value than they do and 9/10 will fall back on it. More important, teachers / senior colleagues have an absolutely binding ethical obligation not to sell their students / junior colleagues up the pike, or allow them to sell themselves up the pike in the service of a politics that turns out, in the end, to be merely symbolic or worse.
It’s unsexy, I know. Lots about teaching – and really adulthood in general – is. But once you’ve seen one of these situations turn into a clusterfuck, trust me, you never need to see it again.
No one likes a nay-sayer, and even less someone who saw it coming all along but said nothing, but yeah, this is why I take the rhetoric of utopian liberation, especially in the lurid realm of academia, with a major grain of salt. Thus I sat it out. But none of what has happened has contradicted a single iota of my skepticism about handling these things in this way. And the devaluation of liberatory political discourse via hypocritical backroom realpolitik is about the last thing that our side needs at this point or ever. And the long-standing gripe against Theory – that it is little more than a job-creation machine, an instrument of limitless discursive production designed to forward the careers of a group of initiates – isn’t really contradicted by the outcome here.
I’m glad that there’s still going to be a CRMEP. But still. I noticed the other day that on the counter of my local North London independent bookshop there was a Save Middlesex Philosophy petition. I am pretty sure that the many people who signed this petition here were completely unaware of the existence of the Centre and that there concern was that a local philosophy department was being shut down. I wonder if it’s still there today and I wonder if people are still signing it….
(Just to be clear on the hypocrisy front: in a parallel situation, I would find myself a new job and quickly if I could. That’s not the issue, not at all…)
Even those of them who were believers are still surprised upon landing in the queue. After all, one of the main things about hell is that everyone who gets there is surprised that it has happened. If any one of them had been absolutely confident that this fate awaited them after their deaths, they (obviously) would have acted differently, lived more prudently, treated those around them and themselves better. Hell, for the hell-bound, is a story that they each believed only in the way that we all “believe” in fairy-tales or novels, whose morals and messages are true in many senses but never, to our minds, true in the literal sense.
But here it is, there they are, and this is what it feels like for them once they are there. For each of them it is, of course, a bit different. But in other important senses every moment is, for each of them, exactly the same.
Of course it is overwhelming. Just a moment ago many of them were dying in a hospital, while others were driving their cars or sleeping in bed. A stray subset were taking aim at the enemy or drunkenly walking home along a busy road or robbing a small grocery store or strapped into an electric chair. Earthquakes swell the lines, as do campaigns of aerial bombardment and well-coordinated terrorist attacks. And now they are here.
One might think that their first reaction to their arrival would be to doubt the reality of the situation – to attempt to press what is now their only and final situation into a effervescence of a dream, the passing mental tangle of a bad night’s somnolent screenplay. But somehow, none do. The ordinary and binding logic of everyday earthly phenomenology is non-binding in hell, and somehow those perceptions and experiences that on earth we can distance through doubt they quite simply cannot. Whether the mechanism in question that makes this so is biochemical or architectural, electronic or what we might here on earth call magical, makes no difference. There simply is no relief to be had via the usual human means of self-relief through distancing and dissociation. None of that “Wow – this is just like a bad science-fiction movie” or “Fucking christ, this can’t be happening” works down there, here, below.
So what does it look like, this place where they abruptly find themselves? Through the ages, the décor has changed, and in fact for most of history there had to be several separate entrances for the damned of different places and stations in life: the hellmouth of a French king during the early eighteenth century had by course to differ from that provisioned to a particularly sadistic Balinese chieftain from the same time, just so that it would be properly understood to be what it was. If Dante had actually had an experience of hell before he wrote about it, rather than simply fantasized it in service of the young girl he lusted after, he would likely have been granted access only to the portal available to the Florentine nobility and their immediate subordinates, rather than the universal passo che non lasciò mai persona viva that he writes about in the Inferno.
My guess is, given who Dante was and what he was up to, he found this out for himself soon enough.
But latterly, due to the increasing and unprecedented standardization of human experience, efficiencies have become possible. As you might expect, as you’ve been told in countless of the more sophisticated novels and movies and even gnomic if modern everyday metaphors centered on the topic, the current design is most reminiscent of the bureaucratically-organized space, closest perhaps to a particularly grim airport jetway at a provincial airport well past-due for renovation.
Those who were philanderers on earth still can’t help themselves but search the line in front of them for likely targets and possible acquisitions, just as the enviable and covetous alike still can’t help themselves but size up the probable wealth and success of those around them as registered in the way that they are dressed or act or just generally hold themselves as they slowly pace toward their punishment to come.
When the moment arrives when they are stripped of their garments, which is about three-quarters of their way down the passageway, and each is revealed in their infernal corporeal reality – flesh pustulantly swollen in the places where its not sagging, desiccated and patchy hair, a skeletal thinness holding it all together, oozing sores where pores once invisibly dotted the skin – they, each of them, still can’t help but furtively and then less furtively stare at the sexual parts, the real nakedness, of those standing nearest them in the queue. In death as they would have been as children, the sight of the normally unseen, that which is revealed only on special occasions and has often meant love, greets them with a double beat of the heart, a second and then a third look, as horrible as what they’re actually seeing is. They even think, most if not all of them, of which of their hellfellows they might have seduced and those who would have attempted to seduce them in turn. They evaluate, and almost to a one they imagine themselves to be – that they would have been – at the top of the sexual pecking order, were they otherwise and elsewhere than in the giant line that leads to damnation.
And so it goes, for those invested in other forms of earthly pride – and most in this queue are invested in more than one. Despite the viscerally disgusting nakedness around them, and the fact that the game, all the games, seem to be up once and for all and they have finally lost, the wealthy search for signs of relative poverty, the intelligent for stupidity, the violent for weakness, the once-popular for signs of awkward unsociability, and so on.
A minority of the damned who are very literate – though there are more of these than you might have thought – think of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.” Some percentage of those that do even recall, word for word, the doorkeeper’s final utterance in that text: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.” Of course, they don’t all remember it in English but in the language in which they read it, generally their own language. Others of the same group think the phrase non serviam over and over again, like a mantra, but with in each case deep ambivalence, ambiguous effect.
Almost all of them, literate or not, wonder at various points whether this line is in fact hell – whether there really is an end at all. Cleverly, cynically, they try to guess at the joke in store for them, the joke that is hell. A large percentage actually have the phrase “I’ve seen this movie before!” run through their minds. An infinity spent standing in line amongst moldering bodies and their reek, a queue that never quite ends, how appropriate this would be! The perfect hell for a hellish modern world!
But they are wrong, all of these, almost all of those who are in the line. Eventually, after hours or months – the time goes by differently here – they turn yet another of the jetway-style turns and discover, in fact, that they can see the end. It is a dark yawning mouth, and you cannot see what happens to those who pass through it but the sense that you have is that people are falling off into some sort of abyss. There are signs of struggle that can be seen from far away, as far as the final turn. It seems, from what they can tell, that people resist at the end – grabbing on to the walls and the edges of the mouth, and even those around them, but the forward momentum of the line pushes all of them, however much they struggle, over the edge and into the dark place. Panic rises up in those that turn the corner and see what lies ahead of them, a panic only slightly undercut by the relieved curiosity that comes of realizing that the line does in fact end.
But first, before they find out, there is something to read. A few steps past that final corner, there is a small podium positioned on the right hand side of the corridor. On this podium rest printed sheets of paper. Obviously everyone takes one – there’s been nothing like this anywhere along the way. And obviously, as distracting as the sight of what seems to be the hellmouth proper is, everyone takes a minute to try to read what is on the flier that they’ve just taken.
It starts like this:
Welome to hell. The universe into which you were born favors the meek and the stupid, the ugly and the unambitious, the sexless and the boring. You are none or at least not many of these things. You were astute, given all indications, to doubt the existence of this place. Unfortunately, though, it exists and you are here. And though it is deeply understandable that you would, ultimately you were wrong to believe in the just indifference of the world, in the idea that because there was no escaping your genetic and/or socially conditioned destiny you could not be punished for being who who were or doing what you did. There simply was no escaping this fate, not for you. I could explain all this at length, but I don’t have to and won’t, because I am…
None make it further than this in their reading, because all by this point have fully started to grab at whatever can keep them, even for a second or two, from what lies ahead. The document goes on for pages, though none of them get to read it. And as the neurotic panic that has taken the place of cynical resistance gives way to the raw animal fear – just that of the animal in the abattoir at the moment they know that this blissful or horrible, whatever, bovine or porcine life is about the end and end violently – they slip over the edge and fall into a space that is distinctly not the stuff of joke, or Borsch-belt witticism or Catholic school bathroom scrawl. They fall, that is, into the lake of fire, a fire that burns so hot and hard that there literally is not a moment off from pain to formulate a second thought.
1. His shrink warned him once: in almost every case, the net result of perfectionism is not the creation of perfect things but rather mediocrity. One can’t quite face the work or the release of the work, the work becomes literally unbearable, thought drifts toward the meta-consideration of why the work isn’t right rather than what the work actually needs to be, one tries too hard or gives up and tries not hard enough. Whatever – the net result is generally the same.
2. He thinks about the deep compatibility of the internet with such attitudes and patterns of behavior. He thinks of the way it services a need to work that cannot face the work itself. He thinks of the outlet that a blog provides for the logorrhea that does indeed require outlet, but only ever in a space of effort without consequence, no possibility of reward or the failure to attain a reward.
3. They are sitting outside Medcalf in Exmouth Market.
Brooklyn-vibe, sunny. The hipsters are the next table who kept asking them for a light have given up on asking, just come and wordlessly do their business with the lighter on the table and then return to their own places.
A pause, and then the conversation resumes.
The agent says: “I would, if I were you, try to make it funny.”
“Funny, yes. Well, it’s not not funny. It’s funny, in a dry sort of way. I think it’s funny.”
“You just wouldn’t want to be po-faced about it. Given the subject matter, given what it’s about.”
From the bar across the pedestrianized street, a roar of expectation and then a roar of disappointment. South Africa v. Mexico. He puts his hand on his bag in the seat beside him. Expensive ultralight laptop, Macbook Air.
He says to the agent, “I suppose I know what you mean. But if it is funny, it is funny in the way that Coetzee’s Disgrace is funny.”
“Disgrace doesn’t strike me as a particularly funny novel.”
“No, actually I can name at least three, no four, no five funny things in it. The bit about the prostitute in the beginning, what does he say, ‘a moderate, moderated bliss….’ Funny.”
“The bit about Emma Bovary, Lurie’s fantasy of Emma Bovary coming out with him in Cape Town.”
“And of course the ending, the three-legged dog.”
“I guess that’s funny. I don’t know, maybe I’d call it…”
“The three-legged dog! Listen do you want another drink? I want another one. What is that, what sort of white?”
Minutes pass. South Africa - Mexico has come to an end, a draw. And the he returns, drinks in hands.
4. Later that night, he is drunk and discusses the matter in depth, sort of, with his wife.
5. The next morning, he checks his Current Fictional Projects for signs of humor. He is not sure. But when is he ever funny? When do people laugh at him? His students laugh, and people laugh at his lectures. But he decides that he is funniest when, in the murky confidence of a pub or a party, he is vicious about other people, says the worst things in the world about a mutual acquaintance. A Catholic school skill, a survival technique for smart kids, lexically inclined – you caption the weak lest ye be captioned yourself and become, then, the weak. Could he do this in fiction? Construct devastating little à clefs about people that he knows in the real world?
6. Later that morning, while the kids are still asleep, he sifts the piles of unsorted, unopened mail, a week’s worth, on his kitchen table. Ah! The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40″ fiction issue. Just the thing to cheer him up! He puts it aside.
He spends the rest of the morning writing emails to invoice magazines and get back to publicity editors and responses to his pitches, which makes him feel slightly better but not in a lasting way. He writes n+1 to tell them that one of his pieces seems to have disappeared from the new website.
A bit better but not much better. It doesn’t last.
7. He has the thought that if he simply could stop thinking about writing and simply do more of it… Well, sure…
8. He can only remember one occasion when he laughed aloud a something in a piece of fiction. Surely there were other times, but if there were he can’t remember them now. It was a scene in the middle of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Television when the protagonist / narrator is futzing away some grant-funded time in Berlin, during which he’s supposed to write an academic book. Futzing around, he comes to a large park in which it’s permissible to sunbathe in the nude, even if no one’s actually doing it where he is at the moment in question. He decides to take off all of his clothes anyway, and is walking along in the nude when he happens to run into the members of the board who offered him the grant. He ends up having a conversation with his bosses / benefactors, middle of the day and CABNM (clothed academic board naked male to put it into a porn category that doesn’t exist but perhaps should) about the progress of his work and the like.
It made him laugh, anyway. Who knows…
9. On the toilet in the early afternoon he finally opens the issue of The New Yorker and reads Rivka Galchen’s story “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire.” Here’s the beginning.
People say no one reads anymore, but I find that’s not the case. Prisoners read. I guess they’re not given much access to computers. A felicitous injustice for me. The nicest reader letters I’ve received—also the only reader letters I’ve received—have come from prisoners. Maybe we’re all prisoners? In our lives, our habits, our relationships? That’s not nice, my saying that. Maybe it’s even evil, to co-opt the misery of others.
I want to mention that, when I sold the movie, my husband had just left me. I came home one day and a bunch of stuff was gone. I thought we’d been robbed. Then I found a note: “I can’t live here anymore.” He had taken quite a lot with him. For example, we had a particularly nice Parmesan grater and he had taken that. But he had left behind his winter coat. Also a child. We had a child together, sort of. I was carrying it—girl or boy, I hadn’t wanted to find out—inside me.
I searched online for a replacement for that Parmesan grater, because I had really liked that Parmesan grater. It was the kind that works like a mill, not the kind you just scrape against; it had a handle that was fun to turn. There were a number of similar graters available, but with unappealing “comfort” grips. Finally, I found the same model. Was it premature to repurchase? Two days passed basically like that. Then, on Wednesday, my brother called. I gave him the update on my life.
Ah, now there it is! The Parmesan grater! Is that the funny that he is meant to do? The quirkily revelatory detail, the absurdity of everyday life, of kitchenware? Our essential triviality, our accoutrements, our tick-work preoccupations! And then rendered in voice, a voice that knows that it’s being listened to but still doesn’t get it – doesn’t hear quite what we hear… which is the funny! The author pretends to be the sort of person who says things for effect that doesn’t know they are saying things for effect. Fucking brilliant!
It made him laugh, anyway. Who knows…
10. At night, after the World Cup game, which his wife spends reading The New Yorker, she makes a joke about their ages, the fact that they still have time etc. He asks her, completely seriously, po-facedly even, how old he is – whether he is 33 or 34. He is sure it is the latter, but as it turns out he’s wrong. 33, still the interminable Jesus Year, a year in which he has laughed, he is sure, less than in any other year of his life.
Think I sniffed out a colleague that reads this blog tonight. Was talking about the video in this post with, in fact, the person featured in it – not Coetzee, the one who makes the brilliant joke. And my co-worker sitting next to me said “Ah yeah I’ve seen that video!” But when I asked how he found it, he replied that I had told him about it. But of course, I hadn’t, not as far as I can remember. You see the implication…
We’ll see. If he reads this, he is welcome to let me know so that I can start self-censoring myself on here properly.
I’m fascinated by the new iPhone 4 promotional video, its juxtaposing of scenes of quietly utopian everyday life with shots of the human-free robotic production of the phones. What’s especially fascinating is the chaismus at play: wholesomely septic family life under neoliberalism, with its romping, drooling toddlers and hotel comforters that at least look clean, takes place at a distance. Dad’s in Hong Kong or Milwaukee, mom’s at home taking endless videos of the scrambling kid. They have family time via videophone - perhaps dad’s been away for a long time, christ perhaps they conceived the kid via some other newly released app that “will change everything, all over again.”
On the other hand, what is it – according to the logic of the video – that permits this touchless familial intimacy at a distance? An entire factory full incessantly and with inhuman precision machines that seem to be, well, copulating these devices into existence. All that clockwork contact, pressing and insertion. One sequence even seems to involve something of a moneyshot, the climactic interest of which at least in part is the strangeness of seeing a tiny bauble of goo amidst all this stainless steel sterility.
Static visions of yesterday’s Crate and Barrel lifestyle, Californian, with the single child and a job that shows dad the world, are subtended not simply by the magical products on offer at the Apple Store, but the laborless labor of the machines, fucking all day and night to bring us our A4 chips and Retina displays, our 18 month contracts with AT&T or O2 and our business trips to pay them out.