Archive for May 2011
Herman Melville to Evert Duyckinck:
I would to God Shakespeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway. Not that I might have had the pleasure of leaving my card for him at the Astor, or made merry with him over a bowl of fine Duyckinck punch; but that the muzzle which all men wore on their souls in the Elizabethan day, might not have intercepted Shakespeare’s full articulations. For I hold it a verity, that even Shakespeare was not a frank man to the universe. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be? But the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.
From Al Ries and Laura Ries’s The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding:
A brand name is nothing more than a word in the mind, albeit a special kind of word. A brand name is a noun, a proper now, which like all proper nouns is usually spelled with a capital letter.
Any and every proper noun is a brand whether or not it’s owned by an individual, a corporation, or a community. Patagonia is a brand name for a clothing line, but’s also a brand name for the tourist industries of Argentina and Chile interested in promoting travel to this pristine and beautiful place. Philadelphia is a brand name for the leading cream cheese, but it’s also a brand name for the city of brotherly love.
Any proper noun is a brand. You are a brand (And if you want to be truly successful in life, you should consider yourself a brand and act accordingly).
Saw Meek’s Cutoff the other night – absolutely brilliant. Not sure how to put any of this without giving the game away, but it’s an incredibly artful piece and one that is in large part about what we can and can’t read / hear / comprehend / understand though it’s right there in front of our eyes / ears / heads. It’s a complicated film that fucks with the audience in all sorts of ways. (I’m usually ready for this sort of thing, as a modernist by trade, but I was actually complaining about the sound being too low in the cinema until the person I was with clue me in to the fact that it was probably intentional that we couldn’t hear what the characters were saying through large chunks of the film…)
And it’s a film that that vividly – and incredibly patiently – resists the probing, teleological impulse genetically resident in the Western genre that it’s subverting. Plus it plays all of this out in a way that makes the “American story” into at once a sort of impossible “back into the garden” narrative that’s biblically damned to fail and a haunting performance of the situation that I’ve always believed makes up the lion’s share of the American political unconscious. (Let’s put it this way: this is a settler and Indians story in which, well, there aren’t many Indians but the landscape is strewn with evidence that they once were here…. Just as the landscape is now, still…)
You should see it if you get a chance. Reminded me a lot of Lars Von Trier’s stuff, actually. Weird trees and all…
Can’t believe that I’ve never posted a link to this essay by Coetzee. You should go read the whole thing if you have the time, but for now – and apropos of some of the issues that I and others have been discussing here and elsewhere – here’s my favorite bit:
Some years ago I wrote a novel, ”Waiting for the Barbarians,” about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience. Torture has exerted a dark fascination on many other South African writers. Why should this be so? There are, it seems to me, two reasons. The first is that relations in the torture room provide a metaphor, bare and extreme, for relations between authoritarianism and its victims. In the torture room, unlimited force is exerted upon the physical being of an individual in a twilight of legal illegality, with the purpose, if not of destroying him, then at least of destroying the kernel of resistance within him.
Let us be clear about the situation of the prisoner who falls under suspicion of a crime against the state. What happens in Vorster Square is nominally illegal. Articles of the law forbid the police from exercising violence upon the bodies of detainees except in self-defense. But other articles of the law, invoking reasons of state, place a protective ring around the activities of the security police. The rigmarole of due process, which requires the prisoner to accuse his torturers and produce witnesses, makes it futile to proceed against the police unless the latter have been exceptionally careless. What the prisoner knows, what the police know he knows, is that he is helpless against whatever they choose to do to him. The torture room thus becomes like the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.
The fact that the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants, is a second reason why the novelist in particular should be fascinated by it. Of the character of the novelist, John T. Irwin writes in ”Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner”: ”It is precisely because [ he ] stands outside the dark door, wanting to enter the dark room but unable to, that he is a novelist, that he must imagine what takes place beyond the door. Indeed, it is just that tension toward the dark room that he cannot enter that makes that room the source of all his imaginings – the womb of art.”
To Mr. Irwin (following Freud but also Henry James), the novelist is a person who, camped before a closed door, facing an insufferable ban, creates, in place of the scene he is forbidden to see, a representation of that scene and a story of the actors in it and how they come to be there. Therefore my question should not have been phrased, Why are writers in South Africa drawn to the torture room? The dark, forbidden chamber is the origin of novelistic fantasy per se; in creating an obscenity, in enveloping it in mystery, the state creates the preconditions for the novel to set about its work of representation.
Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.
This is just right. The whole game for the novelist who would write “politically” is to figure out the very very ambiguous difference between critique and inadvertent PR work. Showing the worst can sometimes – with a deeply dark irony – be doing the very bidding of that which is opposed. On the other hand, as Coetzee has it here, avoiding representation altogether is unacceptable as well.
(There are a few tangential things to mention while on the topic of this essay. First of all, readers of Disgrace should be able to see the centrality of this image of the “torture room” and the “locked door” in that novel… Second – and here’s where things get really complicated – one of the strange facts about Coetzee’s career was that he was able to evade South African censorship when many of his fellow SA writers weren’t. Reportedly, this has to do with the formal and thematic complexity (opacity?) of his early work… a situation that begs important questions about the position taken in the essay above….)
First things first. The Midnight Bell, the first novel in Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, is a misogynist work. There’s no too ways about it. Wikipedia summarizes the plot thusly:
The Midnight Bell tells the story of Bob, a sailor turned bar waiter who falls in love with Jenny, a prostitute who visits the pub. Ella, the barmaid at the pub, is secretly in love with Bob. Eventually, Jenny loses interest once Bob has spent all his savings on her.
So an absolutely pathetic man, resolute in his affections but absolutely blinkered by them as well, loses it all in a doomed quest for a prostitute. Got it – and I’m sure you can imagine how it plays out… But is there anything else that we can take from the text beyond the fact that it’s almost hysterically gynophobic?
If we (temporarily, provisionally) subtract the misogyny from the text – the cliched gender roles inhabited by the two characters – what we find, I argue, is a tragedy of failed narrativization.
It’s not simply, as the summary above says, that Jenny finally “loses interest in Bob.” Rather, it’s the fact that she has lost the ability to maintain interest over time in the first place. One day she – probably truthfully, without lying – will tell Bob that, yes, she’s in love with him, that she wants to be with him, even one day to marry him. The next day, she would fail to make an appointment without an excuse. The day after that she would deny ever loving him, the day after that she would beg him to be hers. One day she is eager and happy to see him; the next day drunk and dissociative; the next day drunk and amorous, and so on and on just this way.
And it’s not, I think, cynicism or deceit that we are meant to see in Jenny’s behavior. Rather it’s a sort of temporal disability that comes of her line of business, of her selling her body for a living. Jenny’s dissociativeness, her nearly schizophrenic tendency to be one thing one day and another thing altogether the next – even to seem to forget from hour to hour what it should be impossible to forget – is what drives Bob mad in his efforts to construct a coherent story in which the two of them are together.
Just like when, back in the olden days, you’d have to adjust the vertical and horizontal hold knobs on your television set to keep the picture from sort of carouselling or ferris-wheeling around, it’s the temporal hold that is askew – broken once and for all – on Hamilton’s Jenny.
Bob – the barman who aspires to write – attempts to construct via Jenny a romance of redemption, saving the reeling woman from her sexual mercantilism (and underlying booze problem). But he fails because Jenny simply lacks (has had destroyed, has herself destroyed) her ability to maintain feelings or affections over time. Because she needs always to be available for the next selling opportunity, because of the meaningless succession of faux meaningful encounters, time and authenticity have both become unhinged for her. It’s not that she either does or doesn’t want to fit into the “plot” that Bob plans – it’s that the petty capitalism that rules her life and the temporality that is its prerequisite have rendered it impossible that she fit in.
Bob is ruined, in the end, by his naive belief in fictional conventions – not just the conventions of romantic plot, but the more basic belief in, say, the fact that human beings maintain emotions and stances over time. Some of the central things he thought human beings were, Jenny was most definitely not… And he had the stark misfortune of falling in love with someone not completely human, as least in certain senses. Rather, she is a harbinger of atomised capitalist schizo-subjectivity who trades in the trappings of care but is incapable of love or any other emotion not immediately redeemable for profit.
Again: obviously all of this can and should be plugged back in to the gendered reading of the text. But to skip too quickly to moralistic condemnation would mean to miss the horrifyingly interesting nuances of the drama in question and the very modern character type at the middle of it.
Starting to get the sense that the “activist community” (ugh) in the UK is spending a bit too much of their time and energies on the police rather than the more important targets – the government, their cuts, etc. Seems to me that there’s been a big turn since January away from, say, defending education etc to combatting police violence. It’s understandable, as these are emotive issues, but perhaps misguided. What’s happened with the cops is awful, ominous, and the like… But it absolutely pales in comparison with the bigger issues at play. And fixing the situation with the police, if it were possible, seems to me unlikely to do much to move any of the other issues forward.
“a beautiful movie about the end of the world” – satiric, hyper-aestheticized apocalypticism!
From the Guardian:
“Thus far, the only thing Von Trier has said about Melancholia is that it’s his first film not to feature a happy ending.”
Ha! See! Lars!
From the NYT:
OXFORD, England — The task given to participants in an Oxford University depression study sounds straightforward. After investigators read them a cue word, they have 30 seconds to recount a single specific memory, meaning an event that lasted less than one day.
Cues may be positive (“loved”), negative (“heartless”) or neutral (“green”). For “rejected,” one participant answered, “A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss, and my ideas were rejected.” Another said, “My brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me.”
The second answer was wrong — it is not specific, and it refers to something that took place on several occasions. But in studies under way at Oxford and elsewhere, scientists are looking to such failures to gain new insights into the diagnosis and treatment of depression. They are focusing not on what people remember, but how.
The phenomenon is called overgeneral memory, a tendency to recall past events in a broad, vague manner. “It’s an unsung vulnerability factor for unhelpful reactions when things go wrong in life,” said Mark Williams, the clinical psychologist who has been leading the Oxford studies.
Want to come back to this when there’s more time, but it’s interesting to think about this in relation to certain “trick” temporalities in modern narratives. Here’s an extract from the thing I’m (interminably) working on (footnotes below main text):
And it is fitting that when Emma meets Rodolphe again, they make love in the same forest, with Emma “lui demandait, en le contemplant les paupières demi closes, de l’appeler encore par son nom et de répéter qu’il l’aimait” (1, 440).  The relationship quickly slides into pure repetitiveness, repeat performances of the same romantic gestures and acts of love, as Flaubert renders in brilliantly irregular verb tenses in paragraphs such as the following:
Les rideaux jaunes, le long des fenêtres laissaient passer doucement une lourde lumière blonde. Emma tâtonnait en clignant des yeux, tandis que les gouttes de rosée suspendues à ses bandeaux faisaient comme une auréole de topazes tout autour de sa figure. Rodolphe, en riant, l’attirait à lui et il la prenait sur son coeur.
Ensuite, elle examinait l’appartement, elle ouvrait les tiroirs des meubles, elle se peignait avec son peigne et se regardait dans le miroir à barbe. Souvent même, elle mettait entre ses dents le tuyau d’une grosse pipe qui était sur la table de nuit, parmi des citrons et des morceaux de sucre, près d’une carafe d’eau. (1, 441)
This is one of Flaubert’s trademark techniques for rendering the everyday. Here, he describes a highly detailed action, too detailed to be precisely repeated again and again, in the imparfait tense, as if they were habitual actions.  Passages such as these are challenges for translators, since they border on the absurd: were drops of dew really often hanging in Emma’s hair “like a topaz halo around her face”? These magical moments of illicit love just keep happening, or so we are told, and it is no wonder that the thrill begins to fade almost immediately, especially for Rodolphe. After six months of this sort of thing, their romance has itself become like a marriage: “quand le printemps arriva, ils se trouvaient, l’un vis-à-vis de l’autre, comme deux mariés qui entretiennent tranquillement une flamme domestique” (1, 447). 
 and watching him with eyes half shut, she insisted that he speak her name again, that he repeat the words of love (131).
 The long yellow curtains, over the windows, softened the light to a dense golden blur. Emma would grope her way, eyes blinking, and the drops of dew hanging in her hair were just like a topaz halo around her face. Rodolphe, with a laugh, would draw her to him and press her to his heart.
She would explore his room, opening the drawers, combing her hair with his comb and looking at herself in his shaving-mirror. Often she would pick up the big pipe from the bedside-table, where it lay beside a carafe of water, among pieces of lemon and lumps of sugar. She put the stem between her teeth (132).
 Flaubert uses this technique, writing what would seem to be a unique and highly specific event in the habitual and repetitive tense of the imparfait, throughout the novel. A brilliant example of this approach comes early in the novel, during Charles’s first meetings with Emma while he is treating her father:
Elle le reconduisait toujours jusqu’à la première marche du perron. Lorsqu’on n’avait pas encore amené son cheval, elle restait là. On s’était dit adieu, on ne parlait plus ; le grand air l’entourait, levant pêle-mêle les petits cheveux follets de sa nuque, ou secouant sur sa hanche les cordons de son tablier, qui se tortillaient comme des banderoles. (I, 307)
She always went with him as far as the doorstep. Waiting for them to bring his horse, she stood there by him. They had said goodbye, they had no more to say; the fresh air wrapped all about her, fondling the stray locks of hair at the nape of her neck, or tugging on the strings of the apron around her hips, fluttering them like streamers. (17)
Or another, which captures Emma’s voluptuous boredom early in her marriage and which concludes with a line brilliantly evocative of her ambivalence toward her everyday life:
Elle portait une robe de chambre tout ouverte, qui laissait voir, entre les revers à châle du corsage, une chemisette plissée avec trois boutons d’or. Sa ceinture était une cordelière à gros glands, et ses petites pantoufles de couleur grenat avaient une touffe de rubans larges, qui s’étalait sur le couvre-pied. Elle s’était acheté un buvard, une papeterie, un porte-plume et des enveloppes, quoiqu’elle n’eût personne à qui écrire ; elle époussetait son étagère, se regardait dans la glace, prenait un livre, puis, rêvant entre les lignes, le laissait tomber sur ses genoux. Elle avait envie de faire des voyages ou de retourner vivre à son couvent. Elle souhaitait à la fois mourir et habiter Paris. (I, 346)
She would be wearing her dressing-gown unbuttoned, revealing, between the copious folds of her corsage, a pleated chemisette with gold buttons. Round her waist she had a cord with big tassels, and her little wine-red slippers had large knots of ribbon, spreading down over the instep. She had bought herself a blotting-pad, a writing-case, a pen-holder and envelopes, though she had nobody to write to; she would dust her ornaments, look at herself in the mirror, pick up a book, then, dreaming between the lines, let it fall into her lap. She yearned to travel or to go back to living in the convent. She wanted equally to die and to live in Paris. (56)
 when spring came around, they were, with each other, like a married couple tranquilly nourishing a domestic flame (138).
Anyway, I’d like to say more soon about this, actually draw out the connection between the one and the other…
Ah, an invitation to participate in a bit of Mass Observation tomorrow.
(Actually, it’d be interesting if we posted them on-line… As you might imagine, I love that sort of thing, dailiness etc…)
One of a series of stories that (if I follow) Lydia Davis wrote using language borrowed from Flaubert’s letters to his lover Louise Colet:
The Coachman and the Worm
A former servant of ours, a pathetic fellow, is now the driver of a hackney cab—you’ll probably remember how he married the daughter of that porter who was awarded a prestigious prize at the same time that his wife was being sentenced to penal servitude for theft, whereas he, the porter, was actually the thief. In any case, this unfortunate man Tolet, our former servant, has, or thinks he has, a tapeworm inside him. He talks about it as though it were a living person who communicates with him and tells him what it wants, and when Tolet is talking to you, the word he always refers to this creature inside him. Sometimes Tolet has a sudden urge and attributes it to the tapeworm: “He wants it,” he says—and right away Tolet obeys. Lately he wanted to eat some fresh white rolls; another time he had to have some white wine, but the next day he was outraged because he wasn’t given red.
The poor man has by now lowered himself, in his own eyes, to the same level as the tapeworm; they are equals waging a fierce battle for dominance. He said to my sister-in-law lately, “That creature has it in for me; it’s a battle of wills, you see; he’s forcing me to do what he likes. But I’ll have my revenge. Only one of us will be left alive.” Well, the man is the one who will be left alive, or, rather, not for long, because, in order to kill the worm and be rid of it, he recently swallowed a bottle of vitriol and is at this very moment dying. I wonder if you can see the true depths of this story.
What a strange thing it is—the human brain!
From a recent Paris Review interview:
And what do you think of this Anglo-Saxon world?
You can tell that this is the world that invented capitalism. There are private companies competing to deliver the mail, to collect the garbage. The financial section of the newspaper is much thicker than it is in French papers.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that men and women are more separate. When you go into a restaurant, for example, you often see women eating out together. The French from that point of view are very Latin. A single-sex dinner would be considered boring. In a hotel in Ireland, I saw a group of men talking golf at the breakfast table. They left and were replaced by a group of women who were discussing something else. It’s as if they’re separate species who meet occasionally for reproduction. There was a line I really liked in a novel by Coetzee. One of the characters suspects that the only thing that really interests his lesbian daughter in life is prickly-pear jam. Lesbianism is a pretext. She and her partner don’t have sex anymore, they dedicate themselves to decoration and cooking.
Maybe there’s some potential truth there about women who, in the end, have always been more interested in jam and curtains.
And men? What do you think interests them?
Little asses. I like Coetzee. He says things brutally, too.
I’ve searched Disgrace on Amazon and can’t find the reference to jam as a marker of lesbian sexlessness in question. Prickly-pear jam comes up, but not that way… Anyway, there’s MH for you… And it all leads me to thoughts about the forms and intensity of what we might call willful stupidity that certain novelists indulge in, perhaps have to indulge in.
Universities could be allowed to recruit unlimited numbers of UK undergraduates who are able pay their tuition fees upfront under plans being considered by the coalition government.
The idea, which Times Higher Education understands is likely to be explored in the upcoming White Paper on higher education reforms, would remove students who do not take out state-funded loans from an institution’s cap on numbers.
Currently, about 14 per cent of home students do not take out a fee loan. But if they are undergraduates taking a first degree, they still count towards the limit on numbers for universities, which is imposed to ensure that public spending is controlled.
However, with ministers keen for ways to allow universities to expand without additional costs to the Treasury, it is understood that the White Paper may be used to float the idea of removing self-funding students from the cap.
This at least puts to final rest any sense that the “reforms” currently happening here are part of a process of “Americanizing” British universities. Whatever the other problems with them, all but a tiny handful of US universities run “need blind” admissions systems. The UK seems to be heading toward a very much “
need wealth aware” system. And just in case you might be thinking that this will be a minor, top-up sort of change: my university, a very very good one, is currently doing everything it can to increase overseas enrollment, often at the expense of home students even when they will be paying the new £9000 fee.
And to think that when I decided to take a job here I was proud to be joining a more egalitarian system than the one that I’d come from…. Here’s more:
The “off-quota” proposal was raised by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, in a speech to Universities UK’s spring conference earlier this year.
He asked how it could be achieved in a “needs-blind” and “socially progressive” way, although the precise detail of what he was referring to was not mentioned.
Well, the precise detail wasn’t mentioned because it’s actually in fact absolutely impossible. Nonetheless, the BBC this morning (reading apparently from some spin-doctored lie-sheet government press release) headlined the news as a progressive move, designed somehow to “free up publicly subsidised university places for poorer students.” Jesus….
From Aristotle’s Poetics:
It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen - what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.
Implicit in the construction of the fictional character is the notion of probability, estimation, aggregation. This becomes explicit, or at least more explicit, at certain moments of literary history, for instance the 18th-century when the novel as a form veers away from both factual reportage on “real people” (even if they’re fake) and fantasy. Characters at that point (as with Aristotle) become particular instantiations or condensation of a presumed group….
I’ve been reading Catherine Gallagher’s fantastic “The Rise of Fictionality” in Franco Moretti’s compilation The Novel – pretty much everything I’m saying here comes from that save, I guess, for the word “aggregation.” The essay is on the emergence of fictionality as a concept during the 18th Century, and the way that it takes a more complex shape than we generally have thought. (In short, rather than simply distinguishing itself from factuality, it further has to distinguish itself from fantasy as well… In doing so, it relies upon / informs the development of a new model of truth, one that moves toward verisimilitude and probability rather than the simple and literal. And the entire operation hinges on a different notion of character. As Gallagher writes, ”novels are about nobody in particular. That is, proper names do not take specific individuals as their referents, and hence none of the specific assertions made about them can be verified or falsified.”
For anyone still unaware of how bad things can be and generally are in the US with health care, SEK nails it here.
See, here’s the sort of thing that I worry about w/r/t the influence of the theorists and pseud0-theorists and their turn to apocalypticism. From the blog of a sometimes AwP commenter:
This wishful thinking wards off the sinking feeling of doom, not the fear of something happening, but the knowledge that nothing will. For doom is not felt but known. It is what the characters in Sartre’s No Exit feel when they realize that they aren’t waiting to go to Hell, they’re already there. It’s George Orwell when he says “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.” It’s 54 percent of Americans thinking – knowing - their children will live more miserably than they do.
You should go read the whole piece for the context, which has to do with “our” inability to conceive of change, but I hope that you can see the problem. Made me laugh out loud the first time I hit that last line… An America in which 54 percent think – or even know in italics- that things will be to some degree worse for their kids (harder to find work? harder to attend university? harder to afford a house?) is a worried country, but it ain’t exactly Sartre’s Hell or Orwell’s Airstrip One. Obviously, if you give yourself over to ridiculous hyperbole, if you apocalypticize what is a bad but certainly a long way from interminably and unalterably fucked, you’re going to find it hard to conceive of paths forward politically.
Why this reflex then, the overselling? It smells of grad seminar overreach, trying to render the significant but mostly mundane ills of society in gaudy technicolor out of fear that the reader – or more probably the writer himself – would get to bored dealing with the world as it really is. One more quote from the piece:
American politicians toy dramatically with apocalypse, a government shutdown or a reached debt ceiling threatens the end but is always narrowly averted.
Apocalypse, huh? Well, perhaps the writer wasn’t yet politically conscious back then, but we’ve made it through that sort of thing before. Led to some nasty political results, but a long, long way from the end of the world.