Tuesday, October 30, 2007

First Memories: How Did You Learn to Read?

Has the experience of learning to read been studied from a psychoanalytic point of view? ... something I don't recall hearing much about. Odd, as in a literate society, it serves to merge us into the community, and exile us from it; shapes and strengthens the private voice of self-awareness, and chains that voice to a communal language. A primal bifurcating force, both individuating and socializing us. I think of recent posts on Spurious--is this what the writer re-experiences in leaving and reentering the human community as he writes? (for a link, see the following post)

What are your first memories of learning to read? The first book you read on your own? Family legends and personal memories.

A review of The Tin Woodsman of Oz on Counting My Blessings... got me thinking about this. Roused my curiosity... how did other people learn to read?

This was something that left a stamp on the rest of my life... contributed to making my first years in school utterly miserable. Bored to death, punished because I lost my place as we took turns reading in those awful first readers, I learned to experience myself as a kind of resident alien--stamped into my identity forever.

How did you learn to read?

I'd love to put together a collection of accounts. Post in Comments and I'll put them together, copy them into a running series of posts. Or let me know about posts on other blogs and I'll link them.

For me it was the Oz books, though the realization that I could read on my own came to me lying at the top of the stairs with a Donald Duck Comic Book... I ran to my father to show him...

I couldn't have been more than four or five years old. He didn't believe me. Told me I must have memorized the words. For a long time I wasn't sure myself. That rejection, too, a powerful early experience... so much of what shaped my life came from reading.

But it's true...

The Oz books were my Dick and Jane, before I was given Dick and Jane in the first grade.

I would sit beside my aunt, or on her lap, and she would point out words to see if I could remember and recognize them. First it was "and" and "the" and such, but gradually, following her finger as she read, I picked up, first more words, and then how to sound them out. I was reading on my own before I entered kindergarten.

For a long time I was not sure if this was but an invention of my aunt. I had assimilated my father's skepticism. But when my youngest son began to read on his own before he was five, I began to trust my own recollections. I do know that in the next couple of years I read all of the series I could get my hands on. I remember very little of any of them, but the cover of Tic Toc of Oz (my favorite) is still quite sharp in my mind--after 60 years.

With nothing to compare them to, I had no sense of how odd they were. This may explain more about my life than I would ever have realized without that review on Live Journal.

Monday, October 29, 2007

From Writing's Idiot, on Spurious

Read the rest HERE

But then you, too are a character, the persona writing gives itself into order to send itself out into the world. Proxy, your substance is borrowed; the author is in search of his authority even before the characters come looking. And what would they find if they found you? Another character, not an author, and one already engaged on his own quest: to stand face to face with what called him, and to call it to account.

In truth, writing only writes of itself. Why does it need you? To give itself substance. To let you rise like an avatar, and live a life in the world. But then to fall back, with your death, into its own deathlessness.

Could you pity it, then, language, for this desire to give itself flesh, to go out into the world, in order to return? Might you pity it for its dependency, its love of the first creation it immediately overlays with destruction? More terrifying: there is no one to pity. Writing is not itself, or its 'not' is also what it is.

Language's experience - living, dying, and unfolding the game of life and death in its own recurrence. Sense given and taken, fictions made and unmade, but everything pointing to what is still to come, not because it will save and redeem what has gone before, not because it will complete it, but because it is from there it will come again, the necessity of writing's fort-da, the freedom it gives by way of its return.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Reading Severance - Sunday Salon TSS

I've been reading, and taking notes on Robert Olen Butler's, Severance, with the thought of writing a review. I won't belabor the premise: you can look it up--and I want to save my comments for the review, but when I came to number 14, I couldn't resist posting a bit of a preview.

Maybe not a preview, but a footnote. A diversion.

One of his talking heads (that was Butler's first choice for a title) brought me to a full stop. CHOP CHOP

Gooseneck (Gansnacken), court jester to Duke Eberhard the Bearded, beheaded by his master, 1494.

I was curious about Butler's sources and came across exerts from a book I must add to my reading list..

The webpage is HERE.

The first thing I noticed was that the story of the strangled goslings is not unique to Duke Eberhard. No surprise. But what intrigued me was the role of the jester, of comedy--its universal role as a protected dissenting voice... not just Shakespeare.

The possibility that "art," its subversive role--as something above politics, has its deepest, its most universal origins in comedy. That if you believe in the independence of literature and the arts, if you are a defender of the subversive voice, the jesters of Persia, China, Europe--Africa... (Legba, the god of the Barking Dog) the Tricksters of the American tribal cultures--they are your true founding fathers... and mothers.

Unfortunately, we live in an age when those who hold power have either lost the gift of humor, or finally caught on... even the invited court jesters cough up the party line, or risk banishment to the margins, where "entertainment" is just "entertainment."

We seem to have reverted to a pre-Homeric age, where we are able to speak only to those of our own tribe, and cannot imagine... as Homer did, the reality of those we oppose. Not even to mourn their dead... (Joe Bageant could teach us some lessons here... )

footnote: I've been searching for the subversive in Arabian Nights, and all I keep finding are stories of the "faithful sevants." What a pity, Morgiana had no sense of humor... or that it's a sort of Republican version of humor, meant to faithfully serve the ethos of power.

SundaySalon Sunday Salon

Monday, October 22, 2007

NYT Best Seller List: How do they do it?

Here's an interesting feature in the Sunday, October 24, New York Times, by Clark Hoyt, NYT public editor. How do they select books for the list? It's more complicated than you think.


Called to my attention by Bill Martin's Talking Agents, Ezine

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Reviewers, Bought-and-Paid-For: Carlin Romano--again

An eyeopener--this is not just about Junot Diaz' book--but how establishment reviewers prostitute themselves to the "market." Check out the discussion in the comments on Reading Experience.

If you want to address the literary/aesthetic qualities, then do so!

To foreground the ethnic subject matter-and then claim, by innuendo, that the book wouldn't stand up to higher level critical standards--without explaining how or why... stupefying!

The mendacity!

That someone like Romano is the bought-and-paid for "book critic" of a major newspaper says everything you need to know about the "authority" of mainstream critical journalism.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

Imagine a map of the Dominican Republic large enough to spread over northern New Jersey. Or at least, Paterson.

Not quite invisible. Transparent, but not clear, unevenly clouded. Like a giant table cloth dropped from the sky, blood stained and frayed, thickening as it descends like a fog, enveloping the city and its people, wrapping around them, covering everyone, everything--an envelope that is never quite absorbed, so in every face you take in, you are looking through this residue, this stain--a mark of distinction, a not quite transparent wound that you know will never heal.

Oscar Wao.

The title tells us this is his story. Though, perhaps we should read this more precisely: It's not his story, certainly not his alone. There is his sister, Lola--whose story rivals his own. And the story of their mother, Belicia Cabral, a figure so large, so compelling, with such will to life, that I see in her the problem at the very center of this book, the problem Diaz must have posed for himself, the problem, once begun, he had to solve before he could finish it, the aesthetic core of the novel--how to pry Oscar from Mother Beli and set him free?

For Lola, (Oscar's sister) the conflict is more straightforward. She and her mother are at war. Diaz assigns the narrative voice here to Lola: her struggle, her rebellion, the failed escape--a section of the book that appeared in somewhat altered form as a short story in the New Yorker. But for Oscar, it's different. The conflict has been internalized. Beli doesn't reign it over him as she does Lola. She doesn't need to. Oscar, in a sense, is Beli--mutatis mutandis. A reverse configuration. The correspondence of opposites. She is willfully self-assertive; in her youth, her sexual obsessions possess her like a third force, and she pursues them to the edge of self-destruction.

Oscar is his mother's child, but he turns desire against himself, externalizes a conviction of his own impotence, alienating the objects of his lust or seducing them to desexualized companions. He is nerdy, self-conscious, reads science fiction and fantasy, a player of role games. And he knows this. He sees it. He acknowledges it. While his mother, Beli is opaque to the roles she assumes, to the games she plays. Lola, here too--serves as intermediary... the only one with consciousness sufficiently independent to tell her own story.

Oscar might have, had he lived. Here is an interesting problem. He was more acutely aware, more mindful of who and what he was than anyone around him... but--maybe for just that reason--he spent his efforts writing imitations of the fantasies that had given him solace--escape from his misery.

It was not always so. When he was a child, we are told, he behaved as would be expected of a proper Dominican male--falling to the floor with a girl, mimicking the pelvic movements of intercourse to the applause of adult voyeurs. Something went wrong. Pre-pubescent: stringing along two girls; playground kisses--until at a moment of crisis, he chose the wrong one. From that moment, as though his life were cursed.

I think this is a red herring. The other choice, we are informed, would have been different, but no better. No, the choice explains nothing. The curse was there from beginning. The Dominican, the family Cabral Fuku. The beginning of his real life--as his mother's son.

Yunior, a former lover and friend of Oscar's sister: the voice that frames the narration. We assume his is the voice in the opening chapter. We know it is the voice at the end. He might be an imagined projection of Junot Diaz. A voice mediating between the fictive world of Oscar, Lola, Beli and the other characters. He gives us lessons on Dominican history in footnotes. His character makes this possible--how Diaz is able to include these notes--and they would make a chapter in themselves--without breaking out of the narrative framework.
To return to an earlier point, the title matters. This is not the story of Oscar Wao--it is his life, because his is the life that encompasses all the characters in the book. He is all that his mother has denied. And in the end, frees himself from her, not in rebellion, like Lola, but by affirming the antithetical drives he carries within him. In doing so, he surrenders to the curse, the Fuku... he has to. Amor Fati... and defeats it. The sacrificial victim--who, having lived the life of the victim all his years, frees himself... from the mother of his victimhood, frees her with him. Transforms the curse to a blessing.... and yet... Diaz doesn't let us forget... such triumphs do not raise the dead, do not erase the scars, do not vanish the shadows...

... of the Trujillos that haunt us still.

Matthew Sharpe has a good review of this book at Powells

Friday, October 19, 2007

Lorca Found After Many Years Lost, or Why Poetry is Better than Sex!

Too long ago... so many years. I am old enough to call myself, old, but not so old that I've gotten used to it.

What was I going to say? (you see what I mean?)

Ah yes, Federico Garcia Lorca. Long, long ago I watched a college production of The House of Bernada Alba, this, not long after my first reading of The Trojan Women. I fell in love with Lorca--unfortunately, I took German that year, did not continue my Spanish. Not then or since.

There is only so much time in a life...

What was I saying... ?

Ah, Lorca!

Maybe it was the Spender translations, but I haven't read (or hadn't) read Lorca in more than 40 years. I went looking for the recent translation of Poet in New York (I try to find my books in this order 1: at local independents, 2: at Borders 3: Amazon. No luck at the local independents. I was sure Robins would have it! The best poetry selection in Philly... confess I didn't get to Jos. Fox... I was tired, my feet hurt... so I settled on Christopher Maurer's "Selected Verse" anthology--several translators.

This is why poetry is better than sex...

If I'd come across one of my old lovers... of the same era as my first affair with Lorca... she/they would have been as appalled at me, post-through-the-windshield wreck of an old man... as I would likely have been at her/them.

But Lorca has not aged. We have aged, and see his poems through different eyes, but the poems have not aged... gnus that spayed gnus and all that.

This is how you (fool yourself into believing) ... you stay young!

Thank you, Jonathan Mayhew. Do check out Bimsha Swings! (see my Blog List). Someone who cares enough about poetry to make himself obnoxious... for the best reasons.


Behind each mirror
is a dead star
& a baby rainbow

Behind each mirror
is a blank forever
& a nest of silences
too young to fly.

The mirror is the wellspring
become mummy, closes
like a shell of light
at sunset

The mirror
is the mother dew,
the book of desiccated
twilights, echo become flesh.


Small golden bells.
Dragon pagoda.
Tinkle tinkle
over the ricefields.

Primal fountain.
Fountain of the real.

Far off,
pink-colored herons
& the spent volcano.

translated by Jerome Rothenberg.
From Selected Verses. Ed Christopher Maurer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Note bene: I have cut-and-pasted my index reference to Lorca from Mayhew. Let anyone with a complaint take it to him.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Who Picks the Winner?

"The name of this game isn’t who picks the winner, but rather who picks the judges." So writes Ron Silliman in his most recent defense of poetic diversity.

Ain't it always been so...

Late night associations... Laura Riding and Simone Weil. If I had found either of them in my youth they would have changed my life. Probably not for the better--though in Riding's case, it might have short-circuited a lot of bad poetry. The "Poetry of Quietude" shielded me from her acquaintance.

Life and art--a deep subject for both of these extraordinary women. Weil has been on my horizon for many years (see, Theology of Anorexia), Riding, more recently. Hard pressed to say what it is that draws me to their words, again and again. What makes me think that it would not have been healthy meeting before I'd a better sense of my own limits, my own voice.

Weil is humorless. Riding... less so, though hers is not so much humor, as a kind of dry, ironic wit.


This posture and this manner suit
Not that I have an ease in them
But that I have a horror
And so stand well upright--
Lest, should I sit and, flesh-conversing, eat,
I choke upon a piece of my own tongue-meat.


I read Laura Riding, and look at my earlier poems, and think: this must be what an anorexic sees when gazing in the mirror at her body.




(I've posted three older poems in this blog, and linked another, if you can find them...though the link is more off-stage).

In my youth, I might have been weak enough to follow in their wake. I mean, in my life. A year after graduating from high school, I gave away most of my cloths, dressed exclusively in denim shirts and worker's cotton slacks. My repudiation of the consumer culture... and this, in 1962? You can see how vulnerable I was.

Though perhaps not. The problem is, I can't resist the urge to play... never could be as serious as these two. And yet... Their gravity draws me, not into their orbit--sling-shots me into a direction I would not have taken had I not encountered them.

Riding stopped writing poetry when she was 37. Weil gave herself up to her disease, her holy anorexia, even younger.

Laughter keeps us going longer. The truth, without the deceit of humor... or of art, is deadly.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What is a Review?

What do I want in a review? I ask this, because I'm so seldom satisfied with the reviews I read. Even those I most admire. Think of John Updike. How effortlessly he weaves his erudition into the exposition, how easily he draws on the breadth of his reading to compliment his judgments--and how generous and broad and well informed his opinions. And yet, they leave me hungry--for what?

I don't like the basic conventions. A review that sketches the plot, scene by scene, from opening to denouement sets my teeth on edge. Not that I'm one who cares about spoilers; I tend to read the last 20 pages or so before I've finished the first 30. The mystery to me is not how it ends, but how the author will tie it all together. How everything in between will stand in relation to how it begins and how it ends.

I can't think of an example of the kind of review I would like to read.

I mentioned that to a friend. She said, isn't that why people write novels? Or anything?

"If you can't find the book you most want to read, you write it yourself. If you want to read a different sort of review--write it yourself!"

I find the idea of writing a review more challenging, triggers more anxiety... than writing a novel. I can hide my most vulnerable opinions, my judgments, mask them in endless aesthetic indirections. But a review exposes you in a way a novel or poem or story doesn't.

Or exposes a different part...

Is it then, that in thinking about writing a review, I want to find a new form... or is it that I want to find a new form to protect myself from exposure to a type of judgement I'm not prepared to accept?

Some of both, I think. What way to find out, but to do it?

With all its indirection, my non-review of Sherman Alexie's, Flights, was an experiment in the direction I'd like to go. I was anxious after posting that. I wanted to delete it... but there was something in it, even in its failure, that I knew I had to listen to, to learn from.

This morning, I finished Junot Diaz' The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I don't know whether I can do it... but I know I want to. To write something of the kind I'd like to read myself.

"I met something, Bella would say, guardedly." The adverb names it for us, with casual indirection. The Mongoose, the guardian who comes to us in need, and cannot help us in the end.

Or does it?

Why does this... why did this book make me think of Plato's Gorgias?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Wood on Roth

A good discussion of Roth kicked off by Mark Thwaite's post on the James Wood New Yorker review of Exist Ghost.

At Ready Steady Books,

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


THIS is why I linked to this site.

So What's Wrong? ... You tell me..

On a more serious note, this is a comment I left on Larvel subjects... you gotta go to the source to see the provocation.

A sufficiently documented understanding of sources that someone should keep a record of for analysis: the “Comments” left to the major on-line news outlets: CNN, ABC etc…

You get the same sort of Ignorance-over-Evidence arguments–with an even deeper sense of how this has opened to public exposure what has been out there all the time.
Second only to my primary reaction: (We are doomed!… )

...is the more important question.. as this is a new snapshot of our political ecology, not a new phenomenon ( or is it?)…
...how have we not managed to kill ourselves off before, as we seemed bound to a collective death wish that not Freud nor Lacan nor Zizek nor anyone has seemed to have accounted for?

I mean that as a serious question. Is it only because we didn't yet have the means? No... we could have done it with missiles and thermonuclear warheads 45 years ago...

Do we have some deep need to live on the edge of extinction?

Pinker ! That's how our species lived for most of our history, right?

That we survived those first x-hundred thousand years on the edge... does that mean we are programmed to recreate our original survival conditions to the end?

If Lacan had only had a dog...

"FOOD!" I say... and Keeba goes


I say, "Walk?"

she goes...


If Lacon had a dog... stead of being plagued by the doubly whammy of jouissance, .... the goal of psychoanalysis mighta been...

Le Joie du Chien!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Puppet Master

In his response to my last post, Writing Seduction, Fadi Abou-Rihan touched on what I think of as the aesthetics of process. What attracts me to marauders who violate the boundaries between philosophy and psychoanalysis. When my mind goes sour, it's like bicarbonate of soda in vinegar to read this kind of stuff... my thoughts fizzzzz over with pleasure.

Which makes me think of a passage in Abou-Rihan's post...

Writing as masturbation?

"No, he says.. . ”It’s not just that I’m pleasuring myself; I’m also externalizing and doubling myself. I’m entering that murky terrain that would otherwise mark the categories “self” and “other,” “me” and “not me,” as separate and discreet."

In an extract from The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World, Schelling-in-itself, in The Zizek Reader:

In short, by means of the Word, the subject finally finds itself, comes to itself: it is no longer a mere obscure longing for itself, since, in the Word, the subject directly attains itself, posits itself as such. The price for it, however, is the irretrievable * loss * of the subject's self-identity: the verbal sign that stands for the subject, that is, in which the subject posits itself as self-identical, bears the mark of an irreducible dissonance; it never 'fits' the subject. This paradoxical necessity on account of which the act of returning to oneself, of finding oneself, immediately, in its very actualization, assumes the form of its opposite, of the radical loss of one's self-identity, displays the structure of what Lacan calls 'symbolic castration'. This castration involved in the passage to the Word can also be formulated as the redoubling, the splitting, of an element into itself and its place in the structure."

The puppet master...

This is my idea of the artist's Working Subject--the alternate, or surrogate subject which/who performs the secondary work... that is, performs, as the puppet master's puppets perform their act, the externalized Word of the surrogate ego/Subject. The writer writing his story, does not write the story. He sets forth words, and the words foreclose possibilities and open possibilities, but of what? Not of the story. Not of the poem... not yet.

First comes the teller of the tale. The Voice of the poet... the Voice is what matters. More than a voice -- an alternate consciousness, the surrogate Subject that is no longer that of the Puppet Master﷓﷓ That is what/who writes the story, the poem, performs in the body of the puppet. The "writer," the one who signs his name, who picks up the check (if he's that fortunate)... he doesn't write the poem, the novel, the play. It's the work of the Puppet Master's Surrogate Ego, and at the same time, the deepest, most real subject of the any story, any poem. Everything else of what we call "content"... exists, in as much as it can be said to exist... only through the eyes, the Surrogate consciousness that posited itself as Word., Word that always bears the "mark of an irreducible dissonance--how else, the inexhaustible fund of interpretations?

To see the world through another mind... both why I write, and why I read.

other names: Willard Russell Johnson, Rusty, Russ Johnson... what's in a name?

Monday, October 8, 2007


My last post was worked over from an email exchange with an old friend... Old. As in, we've been friends for more than the usual span of years in our disconnected culture, and we're both eligible for that horrid euphemism, senior.

What's wrong with "old?"

... a subject in its own right.

A more recent exchange brought to mind some thoughts about poetry. More to the point, the language of poetry and literature--and that of ... everything else. science, in particular. And more to my interests here--of criticism, theory, psychoanalysis.

I've been reading Fadi Abou-Rihan's running commentary of Anti-Oedipus on The Psychoanalytic Field. I mentioned this to my friend, who is both a poet who has something of an investment in psychoanalysis, and it set off some thoughts about language.

For some time now, my own poetry had been staging a sort of revolution--overturning the old regime, as it were. A new mode. A new language. Catching up with what I've been doing in my novels. It occurred to me in my exchange with my friend, that I've been reading Rihan, Zizek, Deluseze and Guattari... as a kind of poetry. But...


I mean.. I've been responding on the level like that when I read poetry that I know will change how I think, feel.. how I use and respond to language.

But.. poetry, very badly written... as I wrote to my friend.

... ironically. They are not badly written. Only, written in a different mode.

In what does that difference consist, I asked myself?

Žižek, et al... write as seductresses... luring you into their language, their mode of discourse. Promising you reward if you can master their mode. Write back in the same language... with a twist.

Poets--strong poetry, denies their readers the language they employ. You can do it--but as parody, as poseur, as impotent imitator. While the language of these prose expositors invites, seduces you into responding in kind... submitting to their fantasies.

The poet finds language that resists submission, subverts it even when it seems to give in. Remains open to ...what? Defined by... what?

If I could answer that, it wouldn't be poetry.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Tangled Calculus of Love

I began keeping a journal when I was eighteen. I had dreams of writing novels--of "being a writer," but there was always something else I had to do. Something I had to experience, to learn, to do... to do.

I remember, the summer I began keeping the journals. I spent hours sitting at the kitchen table in my grandmother's kitchen--our summer house on a lake in Western Michigan.. Hours typing on a portable Royal I'd gotten for a graduation present. Pages and pages that went nowhere. The problem, I realized... was that I had nothing to write!

The journals were my way of remembering, reminding myself, of gathering material until the time would come--and I would know when it came--know when I was ready.

In 1970, and again in 1978, I burned what I had written. All the notebooks I used for my journals. Entries were sporadic after that until 1988--when it happened. It came to me, just as I knew it would. That from now to the end, I would have to write--poetry and fiction. I could no longer put it off. A late start, yes--but I told myself, probability was on my side--that (as much as anyone can count on anything), I could count on having twenty years, and with luck, half that again... with maybe another five thrown in for good measure. Time to leave a body of work.

Those journals were my companions. I carried a volume... usually, one of those marble composition books, everywhere. I wrote. Sitting on park benches. In my years working for temp agencies, on lunch and coffee breaks. I wrote on the el, I wrote in bars at night. Forty-three notebooks--writing with a small hand, two lines each space. Five-thousand three-hundred pages to date. Well over a million words.

I still do this, but entries have become much more infrequent of late. I go weeks now without a new word. I've been thinking about why this is so.

The novel I'm working on is one reason. It takes up all my time and imaginative energy. But I recognize in typing old entries of those journals that something has changed in my sense of relation to self and world. I don't quite know how to put it. The novel, and my poetry--which has undergone a radical change in the last year or so, are forms that involve a dissolution of self. Making myself disappear in the words. There was an aspect of that in the journal writing--the practice of attentive observation, turning into words what I saw--as though from a consciousness not my own--but the journal, as psychological and emotional mirror, has come to feel alien to that effort, more like a wall than an opening. The recording of the days events, of wishes and disappointments--nowhere to go with that.

A trap.

Very little new to observe in my life on that level. What presses to be shaped into words demands a vehicle more open, more multifaceted, multileveled... more about memory than the moment at hand.

In the Goonan article referenced two posts back, she calls literature, "consciousness made portable and transferable." I like that. I've come to feel like the journals have become too narrow, or my consciousness too elusive. When I write in them, I'm not in them--my conscious life (and I mean more than waking consciousness), remains outside them,. I keep them now largely because I still want to keep track of time. Locating myself in place and time.

Maybe it's not so complicated as all that. I wrote more pages in the week I went to visit my sister in Portland... she was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer... than I have in the three months since. Maybe it's become a kind of travel journal. Maybe it always was. And I'm not making entries now because I'm not going anywhere--that where I am going, demands a fiction deeper and more expansive than the journals.

I need to work over what I write, over and over. It takes many readings and revisions before I see clearly what is there.

Dream work.

The journals--remain on the level of the initial entry. They record the first impression, which is always, it seems, governed more by self-deception than insight.

Then ... there is at this moment, no object of desire to lead me into those labyrinths of deception. Ah Pinker, you idiot. You think any of us are so stupid that we believe for an instant we are not driven by our animal heritage? That we have not listened to what science has taught us? That we can forget for a moment--that it is the double helix at the heart that makes the cricket sing, the dancer dance... who weaves for us, the tangled calculus of love?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

More on Pinker's Missing Genes

Here's the piece I was looking for in the previous/following post: Louis Menand, What Comes Naturally, originally from The New Yorker, November 22, 2002.

I would simply link this (do read the whole thing if you haven't already), but can't resist quoting some exerts here.

Pinker's idea is that it explains much more than some people�he calls these people "intellectuals"�think it does, and that the failure, or refusal, to acknowledge this has led to many regrettable things, including the French Revolution, modern architecture, and the crimes of Josef Stalin. Intellectuals deny biology, according to Pinker, because it interferes with their pet theories of mind and behavior. These are the Blank Slate (the belief that the mind is wholly shaped by the environment), the Noble Savage (the notion that people are born good but are corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (the idea that there is a nonbiological agent in our heads with the power to change our nature at will). The "intellectuals" in Pinker's book are social scientists, progressive educators, radical feminists, academic Marxists, liberal columnists, avant-garde arts types, government planners, and postmodernist relativists. The good guys are the cognitive scientists and ordinary folks, whose common sense, except when it has been damaged by listening to intellectuals, generally correlates with what cognitive science has discovered. I wish I could say that Pinker's view of the world of ideas is more nuanced than this.

The key, it is no surprise, is the denial of human nature. "The giveaway may be found," Pinker advises, "in a famous statement from Virginia Woolf: 'In or about December 1910, human nature changed.' " She was referring, he says, to "the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism," which is "more Marxist and far more paranoid," and which gave us "Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (a crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine), Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung," and similar outr� fare. But "Woolf was wrong," he tells us. "Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter."

It seems that aesthetics, unlike cognitive science, is not a body of knowledge worth acquiring. Pinker thinks that any moral sophistication derived from exposure to �lite art can be instilled much more effectively by "middlebrow realistic fiction or traditional education." So if people want to hang a painting of a red barn or a weeping clown above their couch, he says, "it's none of our damn business." The preference for red-barn and weeping-clown paintings has been naturally selected. In fact, the "universality of basic visual tastes" has been proved, Pinker points out, by the artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who, in 1993, surveyed people's artistic preferences for color, subject matter, style, and so on. They proceeded to make a painting that incorporated all of the top-rated elements: it was a nineteenth-century realist landscape featuring children, deer, and the figure of George Washington. Pinker notes that the painting exemplifies "the kind of landscape that had been characterized as optimal for our species by researchers in evolutionary aesthetics."

Jesus wept. To begin with, Virginia Woolf did not write, "In or about December 1910, human nature changed." What she wrote was "On or about December 1910 human character changed." The sentence appears in an essay called "Character in Fiction," which attacks the realist novelists of the time for treating character as entirely a product of outer circumstance�of environment and social class. These novelists look at people's clothes, their jobs, their houses, Woolf says, "but never . . . at life, never at human nature." Modernist fiction, on the other hand, because it presents character from the inside, shows how persistent personality is, and how impervious to circumstance. Woolf, in short, was a Pinkerite.

Pinker needed only to have looked through any trot on modernist writing to see his error. One of Woolf's principal specimens of the new, post-realist fiction was Joyce's "Ulysses," a novel about twentieth-century Dublin whose characters are all based on characters in the Odyssey. You can't get a much finer tribute to universal human nature than that. The modernists were obsessed with the perdurability of human nature. This is, as Woolf said, precisely what distinguishes them from the realists and romantics who preceded them. It's why Kandinsky "invented" abstraction (to help preserve, he said, "the element of pure and eternal art, found among all human beings, among all peoples and at all times"). It's why Picasso put African masks on the prostitutes in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." "Heart of Darkness," "Women in Love," "A Passage to India," "Sweeney Erect," "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop"�they are as explicitly about the intractability of human aggression and desire as an evolutionary psychologist could wish. There is nothing Marxist about them. The preferred mode of orthodox Marxism was not modernism; it was realism.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Steven Pinker: What's Missing? Coming up Empty on post 19th C. Literature and Art

I came across a review of The Blank Slate a few days ago--a long, thoughtful response to Pinker's rather odd opinions on literature and art. I'd thought it might be Scott Esposito, from Conversational Reading ... no. Couldn't find it there. Tried Technorati, Google and Yahoo... no luck. But in the process, did come across a fine essay by Kathleen Ann Goonan, CONSCIOUSNESS, LITERATURE, AND SCIENCE FICTION: Iowa Review Web
She only touched on Pinker in passing (I've quoted those paragraphs here), but do check out the rest of her essay.

Her most telling point, and to me, the most puzzling turn in Pinker's argument:

"Although Pinker insists that, because of their evolved biological traits, humans prefer art that includes understandable landscapes, recognizable human faces, and novels that tell stories in the traditional fashion, it seems obvious that whatever Modernism and Postmodernism are, appreciation of them springs from biological roots as much as does appreciation of simpler modes of communication.

Maybe Pinker has some missing genes?

In his book The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker blames the Modernists and Postmodernists for the insularity of the humanities in academe, for the fact that the "two cultures" of science and the humanities have grown so far apart. He also states that, in the main, those in the humanities would have the hardest time accepting that there is a genetic basis for much of who we are and what we do. He takes particular note of Virginia Woolf's 1924 essay, "Character in Fiction," (though he references "Mr. Bennett and Bennett and Mrs. Brown," an essay which, in its originally published form in 1923, did not contain this phrase) in which she states . . . "on or about December 10 1910 human nature changed." Pinker says, "She was referring to the new philosophy of Modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to Postmodernism, which seized control in its later decades... Woolf was wrong. Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter." Pinker assumes that "the philosophy of Modernism" was a largely artificial movement made up out of whole cloth by Woolf and other arbiters of taste--essayists, critics, and artists.
The situation is actually a bit more complex. Although Pinker insists that, because of their evolved biological traits, humans prefer art that includes understandable landscapes, recognizable human faces, and novels that tell stories in the traditional fashion, it seems obvious that whatever Modernism and Postmodernism are, appreciation of them springs from biological roots as much as does appreciation of simpler modes of communication. He downplays another interpretation of the changes in the human psyche which Modernism concretely manifested - the fact that, due to changes in knowledge about ourselves and the world, and the use of new technologies which emerged from this knowledge, our reflection of these changes in art, literature, and architecture became radically new. Art emerges from humans, from some mysterious stratum intermingled with consciousness in ways which sometimes elude direct awareness. Art that is purely intellectual and calculated rarely finds as large an audience as did Modernism in all of its manifestations.
Pinker's blame of literature for the intellectual impasse at which we find ourselves, and in particular the contention that Modernism and Postmodernism "caused" this impasse, are in some respects straw men. Science and the humanities differ in fundamental ways, particularly in the fashion in which they approach fact and knowing. Yet, it is in journals such as the one in which this paper appears that differences between "The Two Cultures" can be discussed so that there can begin to be a melding of the richnesses and insights of these two cultures, to everyone's benefit. Just as scientific progress in many fields, including that of consciousness studies, is crippled by lack of communication between specialized, but extremely knowledgeable people, so the idea that human progress in all academic fields can be given a boost by a cross-culturization of information seems plausible. It might, therefore, be useful to have more information about the change Woolf noticed, and how the change--if not in human character, then perhaps a change in what people thought of as human character, came about.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Arabian Nights

I've been reading... I pick it up at irregular intervals, between other readings: Jack Zipes' translation of Arabian Nights. Haven't dipped back into it for many weeks, more obligation than motivation... until I came to the Fisherman and Jinee...

Are there recent psychoanalytic critical studies of these tales?

I did a lazy (make that, a busy man's) search, and didn't find any.

This tale alone, a dream of dreams, is going to keep me dreaming for days.

What makes these stories so ripe for the picking... that everyone has a defined social role in a fixed hierarchical system, and the roles are screamingly allegorical... but you can't assign simple, fixed compliments to anything, to any character, to the roles they represent.

The very heart of all these stories--reflected in the framing device--is the unfixed element X. From within the most deterministic of the monotheistic systems, we have this extraordinary interlocking series of stories, where the single most recurrent motif, is the enigmatic X at the heart of every narrative, the indeterminate X. It's where all the Jinns et all come into play (what we call "magical realism".. god how I hate that term!)

This is the best way to read the incommensurate X at the heart of the J narratives, as Bloom has claimed.

Blake had it right. "Religion" is invented by those who don't know how to read--a failure of imagination.

I think we should include in that class, not just the usual fundies... but Hitchins and Dawson and Pinker...

... how did we get to this? So many really smart people, who have no idea how to read?

Monday, October 1, 2007

Krasznahorkai's WarAndWar

From Spurious
Plato was wrong: it is not immortality that is sought in the creation of a book, but the sweetness of obscurity. Not immortality - not the fame of a name that spreads from generation to generation, but the oblivion of a name, the St. Andrew's cross that is placed across it.

One could argue for a reading of Krasznahorkai's WarAndWar as a prolonged narrative meditation on this theme. A copy of the book has been resting, sometimes on the edge of my desk, sometimes on the floor beside me, since I finished it a month or so ago. I remember promising a review--waiting for me to honor my promise.

I had in mind, not a full exposition: plot, characters, literary themes... the usual, but rather, something more narrowly focused. I asked myself, a week or so after finishing the book, what element most stubbornly resisted the erasure of memory, which--even if I couldn't easily describe or define it--clung to me as the book's most haunting presence.

That is where I would have to begin.

The narrator, Korin, has found a manuscript in an archive. Though he not the author (the manuscript is anonymous), he takes upon himself an authorial obligation to the work that he has found by accident. He becomes--he accepts--absolute responsibility for its dissemination. The transitions from one layer of narrative to the other are like a prolonged, episodic struggle for oblivion--a sacrifice of self-being for the sake of the immortality of the work. A sacrifice doomed to failure.

He devotes himself--gives up everything, offers his own life as the instrument for its universal survival (though we cannot be altogether sure the manuscript has not provided him a rationale for a sacrifice he has already decided upon). The narrative related in the manuscript is woven into the account of Korin's efforts to see to its publication and survival. My review would have to begin, I thought, with these transitions--from Korin's story to that of the four time travelers of the manuscript. Transitions without formal mediation. In the course of a single sentence (Krasznahorkai's sentences can be pages long--more than a few make up entire chapters), the narrative moves from the chronical of Korin's journey, to the narrative in the manuscript. As you read, you are carried from one course to another; the transitions are all but invisible, like one river merging into another. I hope I will eventually find the time to analyze these passage in detail.

László Krasznahorkai: War"ampersand"War (Blogspot will not allow the ampersand). Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (2006). A New Directions Book.