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Archive for March 2009

constrained time

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busdriver reading at finsbury park

So I’m going to be writing a piece this summer for a very nice collection indeed (I’ll be the guy readers are like “who the fuck?” when they check the table of contents) on the theme of, well, urban waiting, on the sort of waiting that happens in cities. So, yes, Lefebvre-type constrained time, definitely: bus stops, underground trips, the walk to work. But not just that, not just that at all, as that’s been worked over quite a lot and there’s probably more interesting forms of waiting out there to discuss.

(Oh, and it’s supposed to be a personal essay cum lit crit and history type paper. Yum. Maybe even with photographs. Double yum. There’s a question in this regard at the very bottom of my post, so if you’d rather not read, would rather write, skip to the very bottom…)

For instance, there’s the implicit waiting that is the flipside of the shock, the event, in Baudelaire’s “A une passante,” the waiting that’s condensed in the imparfaitness of the first line: La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait. How long has he been standing there? How long as the street been roaring? How long do you have to stand around on a street corner before you get an un éclair? That sort of thing.

“Un éclair… puis la nuit!” The evental moment passes so quickly that there’s not even time for verbs. All the rest is waiting, compositional and retrospective waiting.

And then there’s my absolute favorite moment of literary urban waiting. Forgive me, a long quotation from a shady on-line translation is coming. It’s the bit of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale when Frederic is waiting for Madame Arnoux to show up while at the same time the revolution of 1848 is starting up just around the corner.

It was the students’ column which had just arrived on the scene. They marched at an ordinary walking pace, in double file and in good order, with angry faces, bare hands, and all shouting at intervals :

” Long live Reform ! Down with Guizot ! ”

Frederick’s friends were there, sure enough. They would have seen him and dragged him along with them. He quickly sought refuge in the Rue de l’Arcade.

When the students had taken two turns round the Madeleine, they went in the direction of the Place de la Concorde. It was full of people ; and, at a distance, the crowd pressed close together, had the appearance of a field of dark ears of corn swaying to and fro.

At the same moment, some soldiers of the line ranged themselves in battle-array at the left-hand side of the church.

The groups remained standing there, however. In order to scatter them, some police-officers in civilian dress seized the most riotous in a brutal fashion, and carried them off to the guard-house. Frederic, in spite of his indignation, remained silent ; he feared being arrested along with the others, and thus missing Madame Arnoux.

A little while afterward the helmets of the Municipal Guards appeared. They kept striking about them with the flat side of their sabres. A horse fell. The people made a rush forward to save him, and as soon as the rider was in the saddle, they all ran away.

Then there was a great silence. The thin rain, which had moistened the asphalt, was no longer fall- ing. Clouds floated past, gently swept on by the wind.

Frederic began running through the Rue Tronchet. looking before and behind him*

At length it struck two o’clock.

” Ha ! now is the time ! ” said he to himself. ” She is leaving her house; she is approaching,” and a minute after, ” she has had plenty of time to be here.”

Up to three he tried to keep quiet. ” No, she is not going to be late a little patience ! ”

And for want of something to do he examined the most interesting shops that he passed a bookseller’s, a saddler’s and a mourning ware-house. Soon he knew the names of the different books, the various kinds of harness, and every sort of material. The persons who were in attendance in these establishments, from seeing him continually going to and fro, were at first surprised, and then alarmed, and finally they closed up their shop-fronts.

No doubt she had met with some obstacle, and must be enduring pain at the delay. But what de- light would be afforded in a very short time ! For she would come that was certain. ” She has given me her promise ! ” In the meantime an intolerable feeling of anxiety was gradually seizing hold of him. Impelled by an absurd idea, he returned to his hotel, as if he expected to find her there. At the same mo- ment, she might have reached the street in which their meeting was to take place. He rushed out. There was no one. And he resumed his tramp up and down the footpath.

He stared at the gaps in the pavement, the mouths of the gutters, the candelabra, and the numbers above the doors. The most trifling objects became for him companions, or rather, ironical spectators, and the uniform fronts of the houses seemed to him to have a pitiless aspect. He was suffering from cold feet. He felt as if he were about to succumb to the dejection which was crushing: him. The reverberation of his footsteps vibrated through his brain as he tramped to and fro.

When he saw by his watch that it was four o’clock, he experienced, as it were, a sense of vertigo, a feeling of despair. He tried to repeat some verses to him- self, to make a calculation, no matter of what sort, to invent some kind of story. Impossible ! He was beset by the image of Madame Arnoux ; he felt a longing to run in order to meet her. But what road ought he to take so that they might not pass each other?

He went up to a messenger, put five francs into his hand, and told him to go to the Rue de Paradis to Jacques Arnoux’s residence and inquire ” if Madame were at home.” Then he took up his post at the corner of the Rue de la Ferme and of the Rue Tronchet, so as to be able to look down both of them at the same time. On the boulevard, in the background of the scene before him, confused masses of people were gliding past. He could distinguish, every now and then, the aigrette of a dragoon or a woman’s hat ; and he strained his eyes in an effort to recognise the wearer. A child in rags, exhibiting a jack-in-the-box, asked him, with a smile, for alms.

The man with the velvet vest reappeared. ” The porter had not seen her going out.” What had kept her in? If she were ill he would have been told about it. Was it a visitor? Nothing was easier than to say that she was not at home. He struck his forehead.

” Ah ! I am stupid ! Of course, this political outbreak prevented her from coming ! “

Mmmm. Yes. I was going to attend the G-20 festival of media-anticipated ultraviolence next week until I remembered that I might be having a kid, any day now, and my services could well be required at home.

But here’s the big question for all of you: do you have a favorite episode of literary or filmic urban waiting? I think, per the Flaubert, I am most (but not exclusively) interested in scenes of waiting that are bound up with sexual or romantic frustration: waiting for the lover, waiting because there’s no venue for love, that sort of thing. Or perhaps scenes of waiting, like those that I’ve described above, that seem to undercut or satirize the political event.

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March 27, 2009 at 12:01 am

Posted in cities, waiting

erected and/or/yet/but infected

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Our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it.

Philip Sidney, In Defence of Poesy

Is just so in all the cases that matter, this. Including, though not most pertinently perhaps, poesy considered very broadly.

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March 26, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Posted in poetry

notes on / from the sensual man-in-the-street

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Blunted by mass-circulation at various points during our own low dishonest decade, Auden’s “September 1, 1939” nonetheless still has the power to raise my hackles, give me the cold shivers and the warm shakes all at once. Here’s some from the middle:

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

The best things, poetry or otherwise, veer just this way toward the peripheral parts of sense, the receding focal point, the dim heart of reason. What does the solipsism of love, the egotism of desire, have to do with the war, with the invasion of Poland? You’d have to be insane (insanely solipsistic, insanely egotistical) to think so, right? What a drawback of reasonableness in that turn from “universal love” to the next. What is Auden doing in the dive? Why is he drinking? Why is he “uncertain and afraid”?

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Ah listen to the way that the credos of the second of these stanzas repeat (syntactically, metrically, ideologically but with a slant) those in the first. “I will be true to my wife” twists into “There is no such thing as the State.”

The trick turn in the poem is what he does with the everyday. The previous masters of the everyday haunted by the outside, the wars raging at the margins, only got this halfway. Here the turn is total – the poem forgets itself, its origin, in the flipside, the real deal of chaining neurosis, repetitive speech-to-the-self. It is answering questions that no one has asked; it cannot seem to shut itself up.

The poem suggests parallelism or co-determination, but I’m not sure it’s that, I’m sure it’s meant to be heard as a false affiliation. The commuters’ fidelity or infidelity has nothing to do with what’s happening in Poland, what’s on the radio in the bar. Rather, the poem is performing the inwardness of the everyday, it’s suggesting the half-pious connections, the personal penances that we perform. I have seen, in the last few months, people give up booze in solidarity with the Gazans. I have read about the pledging of orgasms to the French General Strikes. Jokes or serious, there is a spot of truth expressed, almost vicariously, by these things. A truth about perspective, the way we run our worlds and run away from our worlds.

But…. on the other hand, one knows what Auden means, right? “We must love one another or die.” Too pat, way too pat. We are meant to hear it as pat. But we also know what he means, prismatically untangling himself in the bar, with the radio on, on fifty-second street.

A few stanzas ago, those buildings were proclaiming “The strength of Collective Man.” They were reshaped, pressed into service. Now they are sexually offensive, overbearing – they touch what they are not asked to touch.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Ah a trick break. The same is the “Eros and dust” but not. It is the “Negation and despair.” Or both. Syntactically both. One set material yet metaphorical, poetic, anthopomorphic, the other abstract yet real, too distant, yet right. And it’s all couched in a passive-aggressive (but who is the aggression directed against? Who is the target?) unreasonably long extension – the wish, the “May I,” gets lost in itself, in the resistances that it wishes against.

There is no connection between the aspiration to let go of the “loved alone” in favor of the universal and the onslaught of violence just started in middle Europe. That is to say, there is all the connection in the world.

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March 24, 2009 at 12:38 am

Posted in poetry

upstairs / downstairs

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Well, you know how we tell the kids not to rely on wikipedia when they write their papers? Maybe, following our advice, they’re missing out a bit.  I was just looking for a summary of the plot of Henry Green’s 1945 novel Loving for this insanely encyclopedic lecture that I’m giving tomorrow and found the following, which is the full entry for the novel on that site:

Loving is a 1945 novel by British writer Henry Green. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Loving tells the story of the servants in Kinalty Castle, an upper-class Irish household during World War II.

In his 1975 memoir Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill relates that during a luncheon at the Ritz Hotel, New Yorker editor William Shawn asked Green what had led him to undertake the writing of Loving. Green replied, “I once asked an old butler in Ireland what had been the happiest time of his life. The butler replied, ‘Lying in bed on Sunday morning, eating tea and toast with cunty fingers.'”

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March 23, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Posted in novel


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If I could just figure out how to turn the computers and projectors on in my classrooms, I could have a lot of fun with this streetview stuff:

What’s strange is that I’ve walked past this house lots and lots of times. In fact, it’s a special street, a street that stands out from the rest around it for mysterious and non-mysterious reasons (the non-mysterious: because it runs right into Hampstead Heath, a particularly gorgeous part of it, the foot of Parliament Hill… I’ve shown you pictures before…)

Did I ever mention this to you? It’s rather nicely done. I wonder, though, what sorts of fun (but serious fun) of this sort one could have now that streetview’s come to London….

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March 23, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Posted in fiction


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Jack Womack, whose novels I really really like though I am hard to please when it comes to that genre, is guest-blogging at William Gibson’s site. Basically, he’s just posting images of books from his intimidatingly interesting library of sub-literary detritus. Go look!

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March 23, 2009 at 9:48 am

Posted in whatever


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Seen and snapped at the Corbusier exhibition at the Barbican yesterday afternoon.

Frequent commenter and old friend Pollian wondered whether the word conscience was right or whether it would have more properly been translated consciousness. Presuming the original was conscience, he’s probably right. It’s a rather important difference, no? I’ll have to take a look at the source when I get a chance…

Oh, there was also this, that I’m going to have to look into more deeply – especially the Philips connection:

(A little background at wikipedia on the poeme electronique…)

Otherwise, dear readers, this has been the most intense term of work I have ever experienced. Whittled right down to the bone I am. Spent today finishing a piece on the Communism Conference that was supposed to weigh-in at 1600 words, but is currently 3700 words. Erk! So tomorrow will be slashing and burning in the morning, followed by writing a lecture on something I know nothing about except things like this and this. (Can you figure out the lecture topic?) But term is over in five days and then I’ll undoubtedly start a summer of blogincessance, or something. Off for my nightly five n’ some…

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March 23, 2009 at 12:24 am

Posted in design, Uncategorized