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Archive for May 2009

auden’s back passage

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I’ve probably quoted enough of David Collard’s piece in the TLS in the post above, but one other thing worth mentioning. Collard quotes Harry Watt description of Auden working at the GPO:

Auden sat down to write his verse . . . . He got a bare table at the end of a dark, smelly corridor. We were now bursting at the seams, and the last corner available was in what was inevitably called “the back passage”. It ran parallel with the theatre, where films were constantly being shown. At one end, a bunch of messenger boys played darts, wrestled, and brewed tea.

At the other end, Auden, serene and uncomplaining, turned out some of the finest verse he has ever written. As it was a commentary, it had, of course, to fit the picture, so he would bring sections to us as he wrote them. When it did not fit, we just said so, and it was crumpled up and thrown into the waste-paper basket! Some beautiful lines and stanzas went into oblivion in this casual, ruthless way. Auden just shrugged, and wrote more.

I’m going to pin this passage somewhere prominent as I get started on my summer work over the next week or so, once the exams and papers are finally marked. I’ve had it with my tempermentalism, my sensitivity to work environments both material and psychological. I can’t work when X happens, I can only work in situation Y, and unless A, B, or C are positioned on my desk / available for consumption / aligned just the right way, then it’s useless even to start.  I’ve gotten into some deeply bad habits with work, you have no idea.

On the other hand, quite a lot of this neurotic tempermentalism is attributable to a general failure of belief. No, not in myself – don’t be silly. But in the disciplines and genres and media in which I do this work. So I’ll have to either sort that out too or simply remember to stop caring and do it anyway.

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May 21, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Posted in auden, me, simplicity

auden’s anonymous songs for lenin

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Amazing find described in today’s TLS. As, in David Collard’s words, a “trial run” for his work on Night Mail with Benjamin Britten, Auden did the sub- and intertitles for Vertov’s Three Songs for Lenin for its first ever showing at Ivor Montagu’s New Gallery Cinema.

The supporting programme at the forthcoming October screening would include a dazzling abstract work by Len Lye, Edgar Anstey’s influential Housing Problems, and the premiere of the experimental Coal Face, the first collaboration between Auden and the promising young composer Benjamin Britten. The main feature, though, was to be the world premiere of a Russian propaganda film commissioned by Joseph Stalin to mark the tenth anniversary of Lenin’s death. The director was Denis Kaufman (1896–1954), better known by his adopted name Dziga Vertov (“Spinning Top”). His new film was called Three Songs of Lenin and was structured around peasant folk songs eulogizing the dead Soviet leader and promoting Stalin as his political heir. Montagu was busy arranging subtitles and intertitles, and soon realized that the songs deserved a more poetic treatment in English. He needed advice, and urgently. What about that chap working for the Post Office?

In December last year I was working through the Ivor Montagu papers, which entered the BFI’s Special Collections archive in 1985. My main interest was in the first screening of Coal Face, but the next item in the pile was a stiff white envelope that contained a typed note: “The following titles are ‘verse’ titles to be held up for a few days while wording is checked in consultation with Auden”, dozens of scruffy typescript sheets in an unfamiliar format, and three manuscript pages in Auden’s best handwriting, blue ink on cheap unwatermarked paper, held together by a paper clip, a 1930s original by the look of it. The Montagu collection is one of the most frequently consulted in the BFI’s archive, but until now no one seemed to have recognized the importance of this material. Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, confirmed that these poems had never been published and that this was a significant find.

I’d say! And look! I’m going to try to make this one…

Soon we shall have the chance to judge for ourselves, thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of Nathalie Morris, the Special Collections curator at the BFI, and her colleagues. Highlights from the original programme, including a rare print of Three Songs for Lenin, will be given a special screening at the BFI Southbank (formerly National Film Theatre) in London at 6.15 on June 8. Auden’s verses will be read by the actor Simon Callow and for the first time in almost seventy-five years Uncle Wiz and the Spinning Top will be reunited.

The titles themselves aren’t really all that interesting. But what is interesting is the thought that Auden must have had Vertov and the idea of anonymity in mind when writing the fantastic stuff that’s in Night Mail.

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May 21, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Posted in auden, movies

dream 2 – bookstacks

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Only have part of this one. I don’t normally remember dreams, so I actually have to try to remember to remember them if you know what I mean. Problem with that is that it wakes me up, and I can use all the sleep I can get. So this is just a fragment.

My wife is cleaning up, trying to get rid of the stacks of books that grow around the house. She hands me a pile and asks if I can take these in to my office, as there really isn’t any room here, at home. There isn’t any room in my tiny office either – stacks have started to grow on the floor there too.

The books that she hands me are odd, though. They are all from the same publisher – HBJ, actually – and all have the cover design that they employed back when my wife and I were undergraduates. Americans, at least those of a certain age, will remember this design from editions Woolf’s work published during the 1990s.

I flip through the books, but don’t recognize any of the titles. Zizek on Woolf? Hmmm…. Others are novels I haven’t heard of, by authors whose names I don’t recognize. I can’t remember the titles now, but they seem to be English, rural, woodsy, Wessexy or Essexy. Mid-century or modern-day updates of all of those Hardy novels that you haven’t read and probably won’t ever.

Notes: I almost brought home The Waves to read last night, but decided on Ballard’s The Drowned World instead. Never got to it, but in the course of the evening went looking for anything by Mary Gaitskill after reading this in The Nation. While I was looking, I found two more copies of The Waves, one with the new HBJ cover and one with the old – the one my wife used in her “Woolf and Shakespeare” course back at college.

The woodsiness that adheres to books that I was handed in the dream probably has to do with the fact that I just started Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze, which is very woodsy indeed. I mean look at the cover even:


The changing cover designs of novels map generational change in literature departments. When I was in college, we had those black framed Penguins, while the older profs still sometimes carried around the dayglo orange models, pages falling our, held together with tape and rubber bands. I am sure that at some point I said to myself One day you will be carrying around this copy of Madame Bovary and your students will have the new edition and it will mark you as old and they will think about you when you were at college, what you were like, and so on.

I am not sure what the whole making up / distorting titles thing is about in my dreams. I know that I’ve done this forever. One of the first professors I worked with in grad school, a year-long visitor from out west, a Heideggerian comp lit theorist of the old school, who didn’t much like my work and with whom I’ve never since been in touch despite the fact that the book I’m writing very clearly originated in the work that I did in his seminar, did once tell me a story, not a very good one, platkafka or bassoborges, that when he was in grad school he became convinced that there was this book that he couldn’t find in the library, that he needed for something he was working on. He couldn’t remember the title or the author, but knew it existed and so spent days and days scouring the library looking for the work in question. You can sense the ending, no? Finally he realized that the book didn’t exist, at least not the way he had been thinking. No the book he was looking for was his own book, the one that he was writing, had to write.

Harumph. I am glad that I dream about other peoples’ books, and that I know they don’t exist, as I don’t really have time to look for them.

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May 13, 2009 at 10:22 am

Posted in dreams

impersonality and the individual

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“Of the vaporization and centralization of the Ego. Everything depends upon that.” (Baudelaire, “My Heart Laid Bare”)

Henri Lefebvre toward the end of the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life, in the course of arguing on behalf of American literature and against the French stuff of the period:

Petty-bourgeois individualism has reached the extreme limit of exhaustion, and that goes for the intellectual as well as the writer. In the ‘human sand’, each grain, which is so dreadfully similar to all the others (unless we look at it through a psychological microscope) thinks it is frightfully original, even unique! Individualism ends up as the impersonality of the individual. It is the dialectical result of the ‘private’ consciousness and of its internal contradiction: the separation of the human being from the human. Nothing is easier to express than that abstract ‘psychology’ of this individuality, devoid of any content which might be difficult to express. Only a little knowledge of grammar is necessary. And there is plenty of that around! But unfortunately the tone of all these confidences and all these descriptions happens to be that of impersonality; therefore of boredom. The accusation that the Marxist dialectician levels at modern French literature as a whole is not that it expresses individuality, but rather that it expresses only false individuality, a facade of individuality, and abstraction. Nor is it by working in an element of ‘anguish’ that a young writer can give his descriptions or his story the direct, visual, physical, moving style, so much more individualized and varied, that one finds in Faulkner’s characters and novels. (237)

Yes. Not so worried about the Faulkner issue right now. But what’s interesting about this is the way that it maps on to the complicated issue of literary impersonality, which is significantly different from the impersonality (actual individual impersonality, that is lack of a personality, an interesting one) that Lefebvre’s discussing right here. That is to say, literary impersonality, which is generally understood to mean the distancing or problematization of the notions and ideas of the author (you knew what Dickens wanted to tell you but with Joyce it’s much harder) is a formal stance, not a psychological status or condition.

Maybe you know Eliot’s exquisite joke about this…. He really was funny sometimes in his essays. This is from “Traditional and the Individual Talent”:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Ha!

But here’s the thing. Literary impersonality, which in its narrative manifestations generally takes the shape of some variety of free indirect style, tends as it happens to be a priviledged means of exposing just the sort of impersonality that Lefebvre’s describing above. The free indirect form penetrates the interiority of the character, but only in such a way that we seem to remain outside of the character. We are not probing it, like a headshrinker, nor is the poor guy or girl spilling his or her guts – it’s just there on the surface of the prose for us to see. As a form, free indirect discourse depends upon the exteriorization of the interior. Or – and I should show my math, but just bear with me for the moment – it depends upon the exteriorability of the interior, even the pre-exteriority of the interior. It doesn’t take too much in the way of mental gymnastics to see that for what goes on inside to come out in a shape that (sometimes, often, in the best cases) is intelligible, fairly coherent, and not really all that out of step with conventional narration (in step enough that you have to teach people to see this fact, right?) might well have been, well, conventional, available for this sort of presentation right from the start.

It’s no wonder that Flaubert pushes the form to the fore in the work that he does – in a way, a romance novel about a woman who reads romance novels is a straight shot…. One even starts to wonder whether the theme that he chose didn’t invent the form rather than the other way around.

We’re coming pretty close to what I would call the tacit, implicit, or unconscious formal politics of modernist prose. Lefebvre believes we learn something important when we, having passed through the moment of the Cogito, come to a further step along the path toward self-understanding – the step which takes the alienated, flimsy self for a marker of both alienation and the possibilities that might come of the social forms that generate it. The recognition that we are not simply ourselves turns from a tragic consequence of modernity into the announcement itself of the imminence of another sort of world, a better sociality and sociability.

(There – I’m going to count that as having worked on the m’script today…. That’s clearer than usual and I’ll work with it….)

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May 12, 2009 at 12:19 pm

if you see sid, ask him if he wants to buy the postal system too

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The front two pages of The Observer’s Business section Sunday featured one story after another dealing with the dysfunction and failure of privatized industries in Britain. It’s become very clear that the privatization of public services – services that in many cases shouldn’t or even can’t turn a profit – only works, in so far as it works, during periods overflowing with finance capital looking for a home. Then again, just about anything can be made to work during a period like that one, but now that cash is in short supply, take a look at where we are:

The privatized British rail system is looking even more fucked than usual.

The corporation that wants to buy the Royal Mail is having second thoughts now that it appears it may be difficult to slash the workforce.

The Blairite Private-Finance-Initiatives are starting to require, predictably, massive infusions of public investment.

BT (which hasn’t been publically owned since 1984) wants cut 10,000 jobs.

Perhaps as a minimal claim, right now, we might start demanding that industries that never had any business being privatized – in fact, simply couldn’t be effectively privatized and remain both solvent and accessable – might be returned to their natural states. And further, we might ask that our leftish public intellectuals stop mooning about as if they don’t understand the way the game works.

We could start with Paul Krugman. I can’t for a second understand his (guarded) optimism about the following:

Six major industry players — including America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a descendant of the lobbying group that spawned Harry and Louise — have sent a letter to President Obama sketching out a plan to control health care costs. What’s more, the letter implicitly endorses much of what administration officials have been saying about health economics.

Are there reasons to be suspicious about this gift? You bet — and I’ll get to that in a bit. But first things first: on the face of it, this is tremendously good news.

The signatories of the letter say that they’re developing proposals to help the administration achieve its goal of shaving 1.5 percentage points off the growth rate of health care spending. That may not sound like much, but it’s actually huge: achieving that goal would save $2 trillion over the next decade.

How are costs to be contained? There are few details, but the industry has clearly been reading Peter Orszag, the budget director.

In his previous job, as the director of the Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Orszag argued that America spends far too much on some types of health care with little or no medical benefit, even as it spends too little on other types of care, like prevention and treatment of chronic conditions. Putting these together, he concluded that “substantial opportunities exist to reduce costs without harming health over all.”

Sure enough, the health industry letter talks of “reducing over-use and under-use of health care by aligning quality and efficiency incentives.” It also picks up a related favorite Orszag theme, calling for “adherence to evidence-based best practices and therapies.” All in all, it’s just what the doctor, er, budget director ordered.

So let’s see. A lobbying / PR organization that represents the health insurance companies circulates a communique saying that they’re on board with the idea of slashing health care costs by rationing access to “some types of health care with little or no medical benefit”, hmmm… After all, you know what Keynes said about this, about what happens in the long run…. Why, exactly, does this excite Krugman? He should read this thing that I know I’ve posted before, from Heart of Darkness. It’s a bit misogynistic – you have to take my word that the misogyny doubles back on Marlow by the end of the book….

“One thing more remained to do — say good-bye to my excellent aunt. I found her triumphant. I had a cup of tea — the last decent cup of tea for many days — and in a room that most soothingly looked just as you would expect a lady’s drawing-room to look, we had a long quiet chat by the fireside. In the course of these confidences it became quite plain to me I had been represented to the wife of the high dignitary, and goodness knows to how many more people besides, as an exceptional and gifted creature — a piece of good fortune for the Company — a man you don’t get hold of every day. Good heavens! and I was going to take charge of a two-penny-half-penny river-steamboat with a penny whistle attached! It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital — you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.

“‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,’ she said, brightly. It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

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May 12, 2009 at 10:36 am

more on “genre” and why i can’t read it

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A few lead-in infobits and then a continuation of an argument:

1) Bought Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones today after hearing yet another respected litblog voice vouch that he couldn’t put it down, would rush home from work to read it, hadn’t showered since he started etc. I have to say: I started reading it today (while watching Arsenal get clubbed by Chelsea – look at norf london me, oy!) and I have a feeling everyone is right. You can tell a murderer from his fancy prose style, but bureaucratic murderers are masters of understatement and that’s what we refreshingly get here. I’ll report as I go, but so far so good.

2) Very much relatedly, found Journey Planet via Ken MacLeod’s site, and within the former I found something truly excellent. Not sure the ethics of cutting and pasting this here, but what the hell. It’s a cover design for 1984 by someone named Kris Stewart according to the caption in the zine.

1984

Absolutely perfect… funny how one can defamiliarize something that everyone knows so well by refamiliarizing it.

3) OK now for the (again, related) argument. We all had quite a skuffle in the comments box a few posts back about genre fiction and what I was calling (sort of reluctantly) or what was being called the bourgeois novel. Some these skuffles have continued off-line. I’ve been thinking more about it, and I think I’m ready to explain a bit more about why “genre fiction” doesn’t really do it for me.

First, though, the fine print. 1) I don’t hate genre fiction. In fact I read or try to read quite a lot of it. I very much like the idea of it! I was being a bit too stark and polemical for my own good. 2) Christ, I don’t hate J.G. Ballard. I will say that I am continually disappointed by Ballard’s work – whenever I read it I feel that it could be so much better than it actually is. But there’s probably even a bit of anxiety of influence type psycho-dynamic going on when I talk about him, and as I keep promising, I’m going to try to say something bigger and better soon. But just to prove that I don’t dismiss him: I’m teaching a graduate seminar on him next year, by choice! 3) Issues of taste are really complicated! How can they be discussed without the weird slant logic of what I like is admittedly only what I like but on the other hand I have to make a claim for universal value or else why the fuck are we talking about this? Kantian or something? I think so…. But it’s complicated talking about things in this way and strangely, strangely, we’re not used to doing it anymore – maybe because we don’t really understand (or understand all too well) the bit I just put into italics.

End of small print. On to the argument, stated very succinctly but ripe for expansion:

I believe that narrative fiction’s principle interest, what it does best and is basically meant to do, is to rehearse a rhythm of banality and eventfulness, ordinariness and emergence, everyday life and the shocking turn, the crisis. It goes on at length about nothing really happening, things being ordinary, and then something else happens.

The problem for me with most genre fiction is that it skews from the start and by structural mandate the relationship between the familiar and the unfamiliar that is the very baseline of fiction, in my opinion and according to my tastes. I think this is easy to see. When the generic presupposition is in the distance future, when everything is utterly different and new, something happens or whatever, I get lost, I doesn’t sound like music but rather only noise.

Of course there are “genre” writers who are invested in boredom and ordinariness. And of course this is complicated by the fact that there are many “conventional” or “bourgeois” novelists who start with a defamiliarizing gesture. But I also think you can see what I mean. And from what I understand (which is not much) this is an active line of debate and discussion in “genre” circles themselves. And it’s not that I simply can’t read past this stuff as wallpaper, because of course I can. The problem isn’t that – the problem is that the mandate to start from the unfamiliar skews the writers’ relationship to the form itself, generally seems to make them misunderstand the first and primary thing that the form does well.

I also happen to think – and much of my work is staked on this claim, so christ I hope I’m right – that one of the main things that modernist narrative was invested in was the exposure of this dialectic, or in particular the shadowy part of this cycle, the everyday side. I’d even go so far as to say that most of the works that we think of as major milestones in the development of modernist prose were in fact invested in an experiment in prose narrative without the fateful turn, the illuminating exposure, the shocking revelation. Perhaps – consciously or unconsciously, or somewhere between the two – they were trying to teach us something about the nature of fiction, trying to get us to think about this dialectic and the phase of it that we’d often generally rather forget.

I further think that there is a politics implicit in this arrangement, a politics of uneventfulness, an implicit practice that works against the event. And I’m going to try to say this, at length and in depth, as I rewrite the goddamned manuscript yet again but for the first time really, this summer.

But just to circle back for a moment: most of the genre or quasi-genre stuff that I like is stuff that fulfills this contract, the contract of the narrative form. Lots of utopian and dystopian fiction is in touch with this issue – lots of it even hyperbolizes the point, making it more visible that it generally is with other thematic frames. But when we start in a spaceship, or with a bodice that’s always already ripped, or with a seamonster who is god or the devil or both, or with vampires, or anything else that skews the realism, that is to say the tedium, of the work, I am lost and I cannot read, not willingly anyway.

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May 10, 2009 at 10:34 pm

symposium

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Ah, for the first time in nearly a year, there are two empty wine glasses next to an empty bottle formerly filled with shitty white wine on the coffeetable. (Jacob’s Creek, 2006. Was an excellent year for swill.) This is because for the first time in nearly a year she is drinking again, given the fact that she is post-partum enough to buy herself an hour or so without an infant either a) inside of her tum or b) mewling to be fed, right this instant.

Thank god for small mercies, we needed this today. The distribution was approximately 90% me and 10% her, but still, lovely. I missed this sort of thing. A lot.

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May 9, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Posted in me