Students often misuse the word ‘performativity.’ It’s one of those critical terms that undoes itself the way critical terms do, by ‘performing’ themselves badly.
He revised his Joyce lecture for the undergraduates today. It used to be on ‘Joyce’; now it is on ‘James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” More set texts as students desire clarity, exam preparation, value for money.
In the course of subtracting other things, he added the following passage. It is spoken my the priest who runs the ‘retreat’ that Stephen goes on, as one does, just at the moment of his sexual awakening.
—Last and crowning torture of all the tortures of that awful place is the eternity of hell. Eternity! O, dread and dire word. Eternity! What mind of man can understand it? And remember, it is an eternity of pain. Even though the pains of hell were not so terrible as they are, yet they would become infinite, as they are destined to last for ever. But while they are everlasting they are at the same time, as you know, intolerably intense, unbearably extensive. To bear even the sting of an insect for all eternity would be a dreadful torment. What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell for ever? For ever! For all eternity! Not for a year or for an age but for ever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.
—A holy saint (one of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words—ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never. O, what a dreadful punishment! An eternity of endless agony, of endless bodily and spiritual torment, without one ray of hope, without one moment of cessation, of agony limitless in intensity, of torment infinitely varied, of torture that sustains eternally that which it eternally devours, of anguish that everlastingly preys upon the spirit while it racks the flesh, an eternity, every instant of which is itself an eternity of woe. Such is the terrible punishment decreed for those who die in mortal sin by an almighty and a just God.
He too has been on a retreat or two in his time. On one of them, his last, and one that coincidentally took place just about when he was for the first time reading Joyce (which in a very real sense was a kind of harbinger of the career that he would have hopefully for good). At it, those on the retreat were presented with notes from their parents – clearly the priests had gotten in touch without his knowledge. His note was from his father, and read something like this: ‘I am proud of you that you stand up for the little guy. You are the sort of person who stands up for the little guy in a way that I am not. I am proud of you for that.’
He was confused upon reading it, and to this day, more than twenty years later he is still confused. Partly because he doesn’t believe it, believe it in any sense that it could be believed.
Not much later, or perhaps a bit before, his AP English class read portrait. When they came to the retreat sermon, the next morning they returned to school and assumed their spots in the library where they were accustomed to wait for the start of the classes. But this day, in the wake of the sermon they’d read, instead of enthusiasm for the morning sports pages, disputes about ‘fantasy sports’ leagues or other forms of gambling that they regularly engaged in, instead of what we call ‘banter’ in England (but not New Jersey), the sort of banter that 17 year old schoolboys at a boys Catholic school engage in, they were ashen faced to a one, including him, as they were worried about their immortal souls.
Teaching Yeats today in seminar, he runs into one of those obstacles of affect that seem to be coming ever more steadily as he nears 40.
When he was just a kid, a university student, a professor broke down and called off class after starting to sob real tears while reading a poem by Giorgos Seferis. It was a “classics” class – the sort of thing that the Greek and Latin departments do to boost enrolment. The poem was about ruins, the persistence of ruins, and a dog.
He cannot now find the poem. Search terms lead to false leads. He tries: “Seferis ruins.” “Seferis ruins dog.” “Seferis ruins dogs.” “Seferis Argos.” (The professor brought his dog, Argos, to class each day.)
After the abbreviated class, which he was taking with his now ex-wife, they circled, touched and confused by the display, and said things like “this is what we are too, this is how we want to be,” and returned up the steps to his office.
The dog was there, sleeping. The professor (who soon would be dean) was still sobbing. “Thank you, thank you for caring. It is important that you care. Thank you for that. For that at least…”
That was in 1996 or 1997. He cannot now remember. He did not sob – or even almost cry – teaching, after the post-one-hour-break so that he can have a cigarette – ‘Easter 1916.’ Even after reading them, to start, ‘September 1913.’ But, there was that rare bloom of feeling. Perhaps the feeling best named… well… naming that sort of thing is the stuff of good seminars, isn’t it?
Two things that might have done it. The weird third paragraph of the poem.
Hearts with one purpose aloneThrough summer and winter seemEnchanted to a stoneTo trouble the living stream.The horse that comes from the road,The rider, the birds that rangeFrom cloud to tumbling cloud,Minute by minute they change;A shadow of cloud on the streamChanges minute by minute;A horse-hoof slides on the brim,And a horse plashes within it;The long-legged moor-hens dive,And hens to moor-cocks call;Minute by minute they live:The stone’s in the midst of all.
It’s the moor-hens and the moor-cocks that do it. For reasons he explains to the class. And the utter bizarreness of this, well, entry into the poem, which makes it what it is – which is something slightly other than an exercise in highly passive-aggressive social commentary. The “minute by minute” that redoubles before turning into “within it” and then turning, finally, back into “Minute by minute” one more time. Pastoralia temporalized. Put on the stop-watch. Brilliant, this.
He started the seminar with some quotes, mostly Yeats but he also exposed them to the Adorno thing about poetry and Auschwitz, which he’s always found somewhat abominable, but sometimes abominable things are really good teaching aides.
The other thing? There were meant to be two. Fine: the utter ridiculousness of “Wherever green is worn.” Which picks up the “where motley is worn” of the first paragraph and presses it so tightly into some sort of shamrocked box that you, really, can only imagine it as an product for export. Utter bêtise, which sometimes he rates quite highly in a thing like this, almost overwhelmingly so. And that’s what he’s talking about, export.
He didn’t cry today, but if he had, it would have been about the utter teachability of the poem. Which isn’t quite what that dog-leading classics professor was crying about, but it’s close. Vector that through the Adorno though, which is utterly wrong but still perhaps right in some way that those who read Adorno can’t possibly face up to.
Last night, he cleaned the kitchen. Really cleaned it. Residue accumulates under the weight of unforeseen activities. Coffee stains in the sink. Newspapers piling up. The stove circled with various aftermaths of harried cooking. Items out of place are now in place.
Cleaning is a way of hiding, hiding from all sorts of things. His father, he has noted, throws himself into it not just at points but all the time. At first, when his father first started this, when his mother had tipped from struggle to raw incapability, he thought it a gesture as aggressive as it was passive. But it wasn’t. Or it was, but complexly so.
You learn what your father is by acting him out yourself.
The floor is still a mess – maybe tomorrow if there’s time.
It’s very difficult for writers to get on television in America.
Due to the BBC, it’s relatively easy for writers to get on television in the UK.
Thesis: these facts, and the pressures and opportunities that come or don’t come with them, have a lot to do with the ‘shapes’ of intellectual culture in the two places. Whereas in the USA, culture seems for the most part divided between something that can be emblematised by the yipping commentary on a NASCAR race on the one hand and on the other a graduate seminar in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley, the culture in the UK can start to feel like just a a drawn-out closing monologue, set in a rustic pub, after the presenter has taken us on a wellies-on walking tour of Hadrian’s Wall.
Appreciated this rendering, in the New York Times, of the narrative temporality of the Federal Reserve as a sort of pseudo-Beckettian inversion of the logic of drama outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics:
It’s almost as if the Fed were designed to confound explanation of it, precisely so the Rick Sterns of the world could never hope to influence it. Aristotle, in his ‘‘Poetics,’’ described a formula for emotionally engaging drama that screenwriters still consult to this day, with central characters and a plot that moves from a beginning through a climax to resolution. Presidential elections can be molded into this Aristotelian structure perfectly, as can many major news stories.
The Fed, by contrast, seems more like somebody sat down with a copy of ‘‘Poetics’’ and carefully constructed its opposite. There is no beginning to Fed action; it’s always there, always acting, even when its action is to not make any changes. There is no natural climax. It’s just an ongoing conference between a group of economists. And it is never resolved. There is no single moment when the Fed is done.
In this formulation, the Fed is essentially an anti-dramatic, or even anti-evental, organisation. It is an institution designed, in that sense, to keep narrative from happening.
From (what was chosen to be) the first page of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
“Insects all business all the time.” The line breaks – in its brilliance, but a brilliance that comes of its impersonation of a cliché – the lyrically chanting list of “stuff in a field.” (One can almost see an inspirational poster made of the phrase, the drone ants lifting improbably [if relatively] enormous items in their eternal effort to keep calm and carry it on. A horrific poster in an Amazon fulfilment centre?) It’s as if one part of realism (that Barthian effet de réel that comes of the mentioning of objects that serve no role in the plotward establishment of meaning) intersects with another notion of realism, the one mentioned in the post to which this one is an addendum – the deflationary mode, that which operates through the undercutting of lyricism, the bringing of things down to earth.
It’s an intersection like a minor car accident is an intersection, a comedic if jarring one. That’s what we sometimes forget about realism, perhaps, just how funny it is, is often meant to be. A higher form of comedy.
Lydia Davis in her foreword to the new collection of Lucia Berlin’s short stories:
A description can start out romantic – “the parroquia in Veracruz, palm trees, lanterns in the moonlight” – but the romanticism is cut, as in real life, by the realistic Flaubertian detail, so sharply observed by her: “dogs and cats among the dancers’ polished shoes.” A writer’s embrace of the world is all the more evident when she sees the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the commonplace or the ugly along with the beautiful.
Berlin’s animals seem to me to be more a matter of painterly than “Flaubertian” realism. Think of all the animals going about their animal-business at the feet of the humans involved in climactic events in Renaissance paintings.
But I do like Davis’s general notion as a starting place: realism is that which undercuts the romantic, the lyrical, the sensational. It’s the worry that you’ve left the kettle on during the climactic meeting, the crying child in the buggy during the hushed but pivotal marital conversation, the iPhone buzzing in the middle of fantastic sex.