Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Murphy Cat with Fuzzy Ball

Two years old when this was little friend. Who reminds me at every glance what a strange creature I am... that we are...

We need them... these animals, the one's we've domesticated, drawn out of their their habitat to accompany us for no good reason. Not to milk them. Not to eat them... but to look into their eyes and remember what we are... animals gone amuck. What strange creatures we have become. Every night, when I've run through all the anxiety tapes, have scolded myself to exhaustion... it used to be with a dog at my side as well... now, only the cat... but I say... last words before drifting into sleep...

all animals are equal...

... in our dreams


I'm sitting in my little South Philly efficiency... traffic passing by, glass of wine in hand at the end of the day... taking in a recent visit to Japonisme... Emily Dickinson's word... transport. Transported to wonder.

You really are finding your way, Lotusgreen, to something special here--the marriage of commentary, images, research.

And Clavdia Chauchat of Letters from a Librarian. In her most recent post, she reflects on what I think of as the aesthetics of process. Both of you illustrate brilliantly what can happen when an intelligent, creative sensibility begins to discover the possibilities of a new medium.

I think of Walter Benjamin... collector, connoisseur of intellectual bricolage--you two strike me as unanticipated descendants blossoming from seeds accidentally sown in the wake of his passing.

I can't open one of your latest offerings without being struck by the strangeness... how ephemeral--like dreams, but dreams that we have dreamt in common... hevel.. the Hebrew word translated in the King James as "vanity" ... mist... like the fog that dances over a lake at dawn, and vanishes by full light of day. There is something of the awareness of how elusive, how impermanent what your are making... in both of your web logs... and this makes them all the more...

full of wonder...

Wonder... the reward we will not know without pressing to the limits of what we can do and discover... wonder, that belongs, never to what we have won, what we have learned, what we have accomplished.. but always to what remains before us, beyond us... just beyond our reach.

... even the fashion.. .no, especially the inclusion of those images... which is perhaps why I'm holding your two web logs in a single thought--what is fashion... but a loveliness that will not last beyond the season, how we array ourselves in a beauty that must always vanish--an acknowledgment that whatever beauty is, it is nothing we can ever own, and never possess.

Monday, February 25, 2008

New on Letters from a Librarian

Meditations on Virginia Woolf and Eliot, images for the mind and eye. If you haven't visited this site, wait until you have more than few seconds. This is a site to savor, not to scan. Clavdia Chauchat (from the Magic Mountain) does needlework, embroidery. This takes patience. Her writing is like that, patient, threads of different colors, lines of thoughts drawn out, cleanly woven into emerging patterns. Letters from a Librarian, like Japonisme--web logs as works of art.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Hillary on Iraq

H. Clinton on Iraq, an analysis from Tikkun.


Don't miss the editorial note at the end on Obama.

My take on the meaning of the political rhetoric, HERE

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Fouad Mourtada

From Laila Lalami's Moorish Girl, February 22 post on "The Fake Prince of Facebook."

To sign petition's on Mourtada's behalf, go HERE

On the morning of February 5, plainclothes officers in Morocco picked up Fouad Mourtada in Casablanca, blindfolded him, and took him to the police station, where they reportedly tortured him until he lost consciousness. His crime: He had created a Facebook profile of Crown Prince Moulay Rachid, the King's brother.

Mourtada is 26. He did what millions of other people his age do every day--create profiles, real or fake, on social networking websites. There are fake profiles on Facebook for everyone from Brad Pitt to Mother Teresa, from King Abdullah to Osama bin Laden. There are 500 profiles for George W. Bush. Mourtada did not appear to think he was committing any crime. Indeed, despite being a computer engineer, with a degree from the prestigious École Mohammedia des Ingénieurs, he did not use a proxy server to protect his identity. Nor did he derive any profit, monetary or otherwise, from the Facebook profile. It may have been a youthful prank or a twenty-first-century homage, but either way it landed him in jail.

Salman Rushdie. The Shelter of the World. A review

If you don't mind my Sunday Salon posts a day early...

(Sumeet Sood provides some background in comments following the story. Helpful to read it in its social and cultural setting. )

At dawn the haunting sandstone palaces of the new “victory city” of Akbar the Great looked as if they were made of red smoke. Most cities start giving the impression of being eternal almost as soon as they are born, but Sikri would always look like a mirage.

So begins The Shelter of the World, Salman Rushdie's mirage of a tale in The New Yorker ( February 25, 2008). It would be difficult to classify this story, not that classification, slipping it into the proper box, would tell us better how to read--or how to judge it; but that the question hangs there when you put it down, a distraction, a tease: an Oriental Tale, perhaps, from someone who knows the territory inside out--who might, in another time and place, have written the real thing, but--by way of saying that we are all outsiders and expats now, looking back, mining our memories and putting them on display as a kind of exotica--writing instead, a parody of a European's fantasy of an exotic tale from the mysterious East.

All playful language and imaginative winks, draped on a minimalist narrative frame, the story works in about as many folk and fairy tale conventions as can be contained in some 7500 words. The Emperor Akbar, a descendent of the conquering Khans, Genghis, Changez, Jenghis, or Chinggis Qan, a Mongal, who finds the word "horde" distasteful, and prides himself on a poetic soul capable of limited remorse at the need to dismember his enemies, has imagined for himself the perfect Queen--more real than the queens of flesh and blood who float about the palace like ghosts. Akbar has but one remaining military engagement, a "diversion ... to quell the obstinate Rana of Cooch Naheen, a young man with a big mouth and a bigger mustache (the Emperor was vain abut his own mustache, and took unkindly to competitors), a feudal ruler absurdly fond of talking about freedom." Akbar plucks out Rana's offending mustache and, after a brief philosophical exchange, removes his head. Akbar "had begun to meditate ,during his long, tedious journey home, on which he was accompanied by the heads of his defeated enemies bobbing in their sealed earthen pickle jars, about the disturbing possibilities of the first-person singular—the “I.” Back in the palace, he tries this out on Jodha. She ignores his bold innovation, drops her veil and murmurs: "When a boy dreams up a woman, he gives her big breasts and a small brain. ... When a king imagines a wife, he dreams of me... She understood that he had changed. And now everything else would change as well." And so it ends.

But of course, nothing changes. He will never refer to himself in the singular again. The "everything would change" is a stock phrase. We know this because it's the second time we've heard it. Early in the story, after introducing Jodha, we are told how everyone in the city around the palace had to remain silent when Akbar was in residence, home from fighting his many wars: a set-up for Rushdie to indulge in a bit of fun.
when the Emperor came home from the wars the command of silence felt, in the mud city, like a suffocation. Chickens had to be gagged at the moment of their slaughter for fear of disturbing the repose of the king of kings. A cart wheel that squeaked could earn the cart’s driver the lash, and if he cried out under the whip the penalty could be even more severe. Women giving birth withheld their cries, and the dumb show of the marketplace was a kind of madness. “When the King is here, we are all made mad,” the people said, adding, hastily, for there were spies and traitors everywhere, “for joy.” ...When the Emperor set forth once more on his campaigns—his never-ending (though always victorious) battles against the armies of Gujarat and Rajasthan, of Kabul and Kashmir—then the prison of silence was unlocked, and trumpets burst out, and cheers, and people were finally able to tell one another everything they had been obliged to keep unsaid for months on end: I love you. My mother is dead. Your soup tastes good. If you do not pay me the money you owe me, I will break your arms at the elbows. My darling, I love you, too. Everything.
Fortunately for the mud city, military matters often took Akbar away. In fact, he had been away most of the time, and in his absences the din of the clustered poor, as well as the racket of the unleashed construction workers, daily vexed the impotent queens. The queens lay together and moaned, and what they did to distract one another, what entertainment they found in one another in their veiled quarters, will not be described here. Only the imaginary queen remained pure, and it was she who told Akbar of the privations the people were suffering because of the desire of overzealous officials to ease his time at home. As soon as the Emperor learned this, he countermanded the order, replaced the minister of works with a less dour individual, and insisted on riding through the streets of his oppressed subjects crying out, “Make as much racket as you like, people! Noise is life, and an excess of noise is a sign that life is good. There will be time for us all to be quiet when we are safely dead.” The city burst into joyful clamor.

That was the day on which it became clear that a new kind of king was on the throne, and that nothing in the world would remain the same.

The bulk of the story is like this. Akbar raised by an uncle, who would have killed him but for the intervention of his aunt. The flattering phrases of the obsequious sycophant, Bhakti Ram Jain, the witticisms of his wise first minister. "If you were an atheist, Birbal... what would you say to the true believers of all the great religions of the world?"
Birbal was a devout Brahmin from Trivikrampur, but he answered unhesitatingly, “I would say to them that in my opinion they were all atheists as well; I merely believe in one god less than each of them.” “How so?” the Emperor asked. “All true believers have good reasons for disbelieving in every god except their own,” said Birbal. “And so it is they who, between them, give me all the reasons for believing in none.

As we might expect, Rushdie doesn't miss an opportunity to play with quasi-philosophical conundrums, how in the end, Jodha will attain reality equal to the other queens, as in the end, "none of them will exist any more than she does," on "the power of language and image to conjure beautiful somethings from empty nothings." All, as I said--in play. This would not be a problem if I felt that Rushdie was playing with real ideas, if the conundrums left me baffled, rather than merely amused; if, when I put the story down and ask what it is about, and can find no answer, it's not because what has been created on the page resists or transcends my ability to explain or classify it, like a story by Beckett--or Kafka; rather, there is no resistance. It slips though your mind like water--or air. A mirage, like the city of Sikri. Someone else's dream, like the beautiful Jodha. There's no resistance, and no wonder... when there's nothing there.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Santa Clara County t Vs Southern Pacific

The worst Supreme Court decision by far, in terms of human misery and the eventual surrender of all humanity as slaves to the Corporatacracy...
Santa Clara County Versus Southern Pacific...

some good news rising up


... promise.. back soon to literature...

Sunday, February 17, 2008


73 fractions of a second in the year

2007 CE.

The woman prostrated on the grave ... how I feel after seeing these.

We are able to carry on our lives only because we see and are aware of so little... and because we see and are aware of so little... are those who profit from human misery able to count their coins with so little danger of suffering the consequences

Friday, February 15, 2008

Eating India

Let the reader figure out the connection: the extended discussion in comments following my conversation with Stephen Crowe ...

In Chandrahas Chaudhury's The Middle Stage, linked from The Mint.

It could be said of good food writing that no matter how far afield the writer ventures, he or she always has one foot set at home...

...But the element that really binds Eating India into a whole larger than the sum of its parts is the intriguing personality and complicated life story of the author, glimpses of which appear at several points in the text. The voice that speaks throughout with such a distinctive tone—cultivated, empathetic, wise, yet sometimes oddly wistful and vulnerable—reveals itself to be that of a woman now based in a country (America) halfway across the world from where she was brought up, unable to abide by religious belief, and without a secure place in the perception of people after a failed marriage to a Muslim. This paradoxical mélange of rootedness in food and itinerancy in life and in thought gives Eating India a totally unforgettable flavour.

Forget the arguments... get into the food!

John Hendricks Smokehouse, Knox County, Ky: Nan Hendricks Hardin

Willard Hardin, artist (my uncle)

A smoke house is where ham and bacon are smoked to preserve them for latter use. We had no refrigeration so needed to smoke the pork butchered in November and December in a slow smoky fire for six weeks. Before that the meat had been packed in coarse salt for six weeks. The smoke came from a fire of hickory amid some rocks and ashes in the middle of the smokehouse floor. After the process was completed meat would keep well into summer with a distinct flavor of hickory. Our smoke house also housed fruit jars waiting to be filled and other household stuff not needed in the house. Underneath the smoke house was the cellar built into side of the hill. There my mother made kraut in a 50 gallon crock. There we stored potatos, onions, pumpkins and most of all apples.

Nan Hardin, from her unpublished memoir, growing up in Knox County, Kentucky

Note: The names on the side of the smokehouse are those of a farmer's teenage sons, cleaning their brushes while painting the farmhouse.
Black and White: chapter from her memoir

By Nan Hendricks Hardin

  One summer on a Saturday afternoon in the years of World
War II two old cars filled with black passengers stopped in front of our
house. They wanted directions to our church, Davis Chapel, a mile up the
road across from the schoolhouse.

  We children retreated into the house in amazement. We saw
few black people even on the streets of Barbourville and never so many in
one place. And here they were in front of our house asking directions to our

  Dad stood by the road in conversation with the driver of one
of the cars. My mother came from inside the house out to the road.

  “Good Lord!” Mom said. “You are going to the church to
sing at this time of day? There won’t be anyone there till dark. Besides,
you can’t sing on empty stomachs. Come on in and I’ll fix supper. Then it
will be time to go.”

  Twelve black people, a baby among them, poured out from the
old cars.

  Making supper was not a simple matter. After she lit the
wood fire in the kitchen stove Mom gathered vegetables in the garden. Dad
went to the smokehouse for meat, cured hog shoulder for frying. By this time
of the summer we had no ham left. Mom fried potatoes, sautéed cabbage, fried
the meat and baked corn bread in the now hot oven.

  The tiny black baby fell asleep as the visitors sat on the
front porch talking quietly to each other. We children listened but were too
shy to speak. Both Dad and Mom busied themselves with preparing the meal.

  After she put the food on the table Mom said, “Bring that
baby here on my bed while you eat. It won’t roll off this feather bed if we
lay it in the middle.”

  We watched as Mom put the sleeping baby on her bed.

  Mom told us, “Look at this baby’s hands. Its palms are almost
the same color of yours.”

  Sure enough the baby’s palms were a lighter color than the
rest of its body. Our skins were golden brown from the summer sun of play
and work.

  Dinner ready, the black people sat down around our dining room
table. The last one to sit was the preacher. He paused at the end behind the
chair where my Dad usually sat. After a prayer he turned to Dad, who stood
in the doorway. He asked Dad to sit down in the chair and eat first with the
other blacks. He would eat after that. This black preacher asked Dad to sit
at his own table in his own chair!

  As I watched from the kitchen doorway I saw on Dad’s face an
expression of something more than the courtesy of allowing a guest to eat
first at a crowded table. Was it discomfort or embarrassment? Was it a look
of guilt? Did my Father recall the lynching in town when he was a boy? Did
he think of the fact that his Granddaddy Davis had a slave that was sent to
the swamp to hide the wagon when Union or Confederate soldiers came through
Davis Bend? Did Dad recognize these blacks as descendants of the slaves
Great-Granddaddy Davis brought through Cumberland Gap on his way to Davis
Bend from Virginia?

  Was Dad remembering the only black family who lived in Davis
Bend in his childhood? The father who worked in the Dean Mines across the
Hooker Hollow on Brush Creek returned home on a weekend night. He fell prey
to robbers who murdered him on top of Hooker Mountain, the only murder that
ever occurred in Davis Bend. Did Dad think of the corner of the Davis farm
where black people lie buried well away from the white people’s graveyard?

  Perhaps Dad’s discomfort related to the story of his
Granddaddy Davis, who awakened to find a former slave in the room with him,
supposedly trying to rob him. Whereupon Granddaddy Davis retrieved a pistol
from under his pillow and told the man to leave Davis Bend and not come
back, else be shot on sight. Perhaps Dad remembered that his own mother
buried the skeleton found in Westerfields’s old house attic in the garden
rather than in the Hendricks Graveyard. Grandmother Hendricks feared that
the bones were of a black person and she did not want it buried in the
family graveyard on the ridge by the house. She had a funeral service for
the skeleton and planted a pear tree on the grave. Always Dad told that
story as we ate the sweet little summer pears from that tree.

  This black preacher asked my Dad to sit at Dad’s own table in
Dad’s own chair. Courtesy required that Dad sit with these black visitors.
He usually ate with guests as Mom served the food and we children waited.

  I knew the way we did it and Dad’s expression was not lost to
my mind.

  Dad nodded after a moment and said he would just wait. He
gestured to the chair and the black preacher sat down.

  This was the one moment in my childhood when my Daddy seemed
to me a lesser man than another man on this earth. This was the one time I
felt Dad in the wrong.

  The black people praised my mother’s cooking effusively. We
stood in doorways as they ate. In the middle of the meal the preacher
pointed to a plate and asked for a piece of that cake. My mother came from
the kitchen to say that she did not bake a cake. The preacher continued to
point at the plate and we realized he meant the corn bread, so smooth and
beautiful with its brown crust and golden yellow insides that the preacher
mistook it for cake.

  My mother told that story for years for she thought the black
preacher had paid a high compliment to her corn bread.

  After they ate the black people drove on up the road to the
church house to practice their singing.

  As the sun went down the residents of Davis Bend walked from
the Ledger Branch, the Hooker Hollow and the Miller Bend as well as from the
houses along the road to hear the black people sing.

  The black singers practiced as we neared the church. The
strains of “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” drifted
across the swamp and the fields. Their voices seemed to us many more than
the two cars held.

  Inside the church the singers had moved two wooden benches
across in front of the pulpit. Here they sat swaying back and forth as they
sang. When they finished a song they shouted, “Amen!”

  We sat in front of them. No one sat to the left or right of
the guests in the choir place or the deacons’ corner. We were all directly
in front of them - expectant. The minister talked but he did not preach
acting more as a master of ceremonies.

  We knew that black people sang their songs with enthusiasm.
That those songs were our songs too we began to understand that
night. “Steal away to Jesus. My Lord he calls me, He calls me by the
lightning. I ain’t got long to stay here.” God also called our preacher,
Billie Butch Lickliter,“by the lightning.” We all knew the story by heart.
Lightning struck Billie Butch’s mule dead as he rode across the Lickliter
Mountain in a thunderstorm. God let Billie Butch walk away from his dead
mule to preach salvation to the unsaved.

  “Deep river, my home is over Jordan. That promised land where
all is peace.” The Jordan River is the same size as the Cumberland River
where the saved receive baptism after each revival. “Wade in the water,
children. Wade in the water. God’s going to trouble the water. Just follow
me down to Jordan’s stream. God’s going to trouble the water. I looked over
Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home: a band of angels
coming after me.” This sad deep river of life metaphor we knew. The life
after death we anticipated also. Our preachers preached salvation in heaven

  As the dusk deepened a deacon got up to light the kerosene
lamps around the church. In the mellow, pale lamp light the black faces
gleamed with sweat and fervor. Some intensity we did not feel or understand
now gripped these black faces as they shouted and sang. The amens became
moaning as they began to sing about Moses. “When Israel was in Egypt’s land:
let my people go, pressed so hard they could not stand, Go down Moses, Way
down in Egypt’s land. Tell old Pharaoh. Let my people go!”

  The white people of Davis Bend witnessed a great sadness in
these black voices and faces. We could not know or guess its depth. We too
saw in death the release of the body to heaven. But this was something
beyond our understanding.

  They repeated the refrain about Moses again. “When Israel was
in Egypt’s land: let my people go, pressed so hard they could not stand. Go
down Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land. Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.”

  They sang “Oh freedom! Oh freedom! Oh Freedom over me. And
before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and
be free.” Were they still sad about having been slaves? “My Lord, what a
morning when the stars begin to fall.” the voices went on.
  Where did these black people come from with this pain we could
not share? Why did they come here to sing to us? The memory of how this
event happened remains obscure.

  Actually they lived scarcely three miles by the Cumberland
River away from our house. We need only untie our boat, carefully negotiate
it over the shoals and beside the Hendricks Bluff. Then we would float past
Uncle Bill Johnson’s house, Custer Johnson’s place and the river bottomland
of the Hamptons and the Turners. Before the river turns as it passes
Barbourville we get on the mud bank, cross Miss Nola Minton’s horse farm and
we arrive in the Fairground area where black people live. Here they had the
segregated Rosenwald School and their churches. Many of the black men worked
for Miss Nola on the horse farm, in her sawmill or the lumberyard. Dad met
them when he went to the stable for horse manure to spread on our farmland
or took logs to the sawmill.

  The black women were maids in town. My mother came across them
there as she peddled our farm products about Barbourville. Often Mom talked
to these maids more than to the white women who employed them. The maids put
the eggs, the butter and the garden produce that Mom delivered to back doors
in their employers’ refrigerators.

  However, Nancy Rabbit was one black woman who did not work as a
maid. Nancy Rabbit roamed the streets of Barbourville. We often saw her as
she walked about from place to place as if that were the only thing she had
to do in life.

  Once going into town in the wagon we saw a car almost hit a
toddler of Nancy’s. The driver stopped to yell at Nancy, who sauntered on
unconcerned. Along the sidewalk the toddler and a slightly older child
followed Nancy in single file like two little ducks following a mother duck
to a pond.

  “Stop the wagon,” said my mother. “I want to talk to her.”

  Mom stood in front of Nancy, hands on her hips, blocking
Nancy’s way.

  “Nancy, give me these children. I’ll take good care of them
and raise them. You may get them killed. I’ll send them to school and keep
them clean and fed.” My mother gestured toward the children.

  Nancy, who always wore some sort of a hat like a fez or a
pillbox, cocked her hatted-head at my mother and replied. “I ain’t goin’
give my babies to no white woman.”

  She resumed her stroll about Barbourville.

  “What do you think you can do with two black children?” my Dad
said when Mom got back in the wagon.

  “The same as you do with two white children,” my mother

  “I don’t see how; where could they go to school?” he asked.

  “Well, they could go to Davis Bend, then to Rosenwald for
high school,” she thought.

  Dad shook his head and winked at me.

  Nancy Rabbit continued her stroll with the two children
following her like little ducklings in a row.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Birthday, Ben!

A moving post by Litlove on Tales from the Reading Room... her son's concerns about running out of oil, global warming. She set up links to those who would like to respond. This post is a comment I left... and, on the occasion of my firstborn's 39th birthday, an appreciation for my two sons, who help me understand why we go on...
I phoned my oldest today to wish him happy birthday. Thirty-nine years ago on a bitter cold night, crossing Powelton Avenue to what was then, Presbyterian Hospital. Only a few blocks from our apartment… I can’t remember if we walked or drove, or what kind of car we had, but I remember crossing that street and the cold wind and how the next time I was fully aware of the weather, it was spring.

It was a long labor. His mother made a heroic effort to go Lamaze to the end. Nothing like being a coach over the course of an 18 hour labor (breath.. puff puff puff, breath puff puff puff) to change one’s whole perspective on: men, women, sex–how relatively small a role one plays as a male in the larger scheme of things.

And nothing so restores one’s place, the reassurance of being needed, as holding that newborn child in the crook of your arm for the first time.

I am father of two sons, ten years apart. I cannot imagine myself without the history of their presence, their growth–and, oh… it was not an easy passage in either case. If it had been a novel, that long, difficult labor was but foreshadowing of the next 17-18 years! And it didn’t get easier the second time.

But the firstborn is now head chef in a Center City restaurant, and the younger, like a second heartbeat, … taking courses at Temple, majoring, like his father, in religion–because no other liberal arts major is so liberal in the range of courses it accepts as counting toward the major. For him, it’s a late start. For me–it was my impulsive change of majors every semester through my junior year. That, and time out to serve my sentence as a conscience objector during the Vietnam war.

All as prelude. In the last few decades I’ve come to profoundly doubt our place in the world… a belief that the emergence of human consciousness and enterprise has been a tragic fluke. I ask myself, if I were young, would I choose to have a child? (As though, when we are young, we do these things by choice) And I am troubled. Troubled because I can’t offer a clear affirmative answer. To bring a child into the world, who will die. For what? Did I think of that when I held my son in the crock of my arms? And yet… I would not change what I have done.

Tonight, I was tired and thought of going to Mara’s for dinner. Did not want to expend the energy on making a meal for myself. But I can’t afford to eat out. And as I began to work, mincing garlic, slicing onions, making the dressing for my salad, heating the sauce (”gravy,” as they say here in South Philly.

… something changed. I was doing for myself. I was caring for my most basic needs, and I thought of hunter-gatherers, of the gleaners of the Neolithic age… this too, is nature, I thought. Our nature. To bring forth. To recreate. To pass on what we have done. To die.

And as always–almost reflexively, when I mop up the gravy with the Italian bread, dip the last crust into the olive oil at the bottom of the salad bowel, sip the last drop of wine from my glass… I hear myself say aloud…

oh… that was good!

Somehow, that says something to me about the question your son raised. Of how we go on. And why.

I’m not sure how… but it does.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Engaged Critical Reponse: reply to Stephen Crowe

Let me cut to the heart of where I believe we differ. You say you have a "problem with emotional argument." But you don't describe the problem. You don't mention it again. Not the problem you have, the one that belongs to you. What you go on to say is about something else: an explanation that leaps over the problem itself. To explain how and why a book "works," you say, "requires analytical thinking--i.e. reason rather than emotion."

But where is the problem you began with? The one like the problem you had with the Rake's critique of James Wood? I don't see it. It seems to have disappeared into an abstraction about "reason and emotion." You do go on to say that "reason" is to be "applied to one's emotion, and to the devices at work in the text.

A curious association: one's emotions with "devices." The same instrument (reason) applied to both, with some sort of assumed analogy to be drawn with the "devices" in the text and the "devices" that constitute our emotions. What is missing, is the problem that sets all this off, the one you have with emotional arguments. Is it that reason (as you understand and use it) isn't adequate to the task? Or is it that you haven't stopped, haven't paused to reflect on the "problem" long enough to recognize it as one distinct from that having to do with writing and thinking about literature? As the problem you have, that belongs to you, the one you experience in meeting arguments laden with affective power.

You don't acknowledge the leap you make in moving from the problem you have, to the conceptual problem you pose--about reason and emotion. A purely abstract idea of this theoretical opposition, itself, an unexamined assumption. The benefit for you being, that it relocates your "problem" to something outside your "self", a set of "devices" ... which, in the absence of definition or conceptual clarity, serves an almost mystical function, standing in for whatever it is that would be the counter-force, the power that saves you from your problem... a reasonable salvation.

The opposition of reason and emotion is, of course, specious. Unfounded and indefensible. In applying the disciplines of reason, emotion is no less present than when we act by ungoverned passion, and "reason" can be a most effective mask to cover emotions we prefer to hide, or deny.
We can work with this sometimes necessary fiction without much danger of impairment to our investigations, when they have to do with black holes, chaos theory, reconstructing ancient civilizations from pottery shards, gene splicing, but when it comes to thinking about art, there is a problem. Another kind of problem. A problem, I suspect, close to your heart.

"Art and the study of art," you write," are not the same thing."

What makes you so sure?

"... otherwise poetry criticism would be written in verse, music criticism in musical notation."

In verse? No. But in the mode of poetic thinking? Yes.

A play or a novel has many modes of being: as repositories of historical information, manifestations of political and cultural perspectives, linguistic and symbolic artifacts--any one or all of which are worthy of our attention and study--yielding knowledge by application of methods borrowed from, and not altogether unlike, those of the hard sciences. Methods which, if we are not critical regarding our own thinking, we might mistake for evidence of the efficacy of the application of reason, as opposed to emotion.

And here is my problem with what you wrote.

When we read, Proust wrote, we read ourselves. An engagement with a play, a novel, a story, a painting... is a double encounter, a dialogue. Critical writing that engages the text is always personal.

Of all Shakespear's plays Macbeth is the most rapid, Hamlet the slowest, in movement. Lear combines length with rapidity,--like the hurricane and th whirlpool, absorbing while it advance. It beings as a stormy day in summer, with brightness; but that brightness is lurid, and anticipates the tempest.
Coleridge, from Lectures on Shakespeare.

The tragedy of Lear is deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakespeare. There is perhaps no play with keeps the attention so strongly fixed: which so much agitates our passions and interests our curiosity. the artful involutions of distinct interests, the striking opposition of contrary characters, the sudden changes of fortune, and the quick succession of events, fill the mind with a perpetual tumult of indignation, pity, and hope. ... So powerful is the current of the poet's imagination, that the mind, which once ventures within it, is hurried irresistibly along.

Samuel Johnson, Notes on King Lear

Johnson and Coleridge are reading themselves in reading the play, and in reading themselves, they give us a new portal into the experience and understanding of the play--a kind of reading that does not come by remaining an outsider to the experience, and writing and reflection that is filled and empowered by an engagement which cannot be dissected into categories of "emotion" and "reason" anymore than you can find such distinctions in a poem or play that succeeds on an aesthetic level. We can get away with pretending we are brains in a bottle when investigating the stars (though I see no evidence of that when I read scientists of the highest order... say, like those who post on Cosmic Variance--and can't imagine Sean Carroll making such a claim), but even so, there is a difference when we are thinking about the aesthetics of a text. Treated as an object (as "devices" we can dissect as artifact: of culture, repository of history) --the aesthetic engagement is erased. It cannot endure the unengaged glance. To think and write about the aesthetics of a literary work, you must be engaged in the aesthetic experience: thinking with the body and feeling with the mind. The best critical writing is fully synesthetic--engaging all the senses interchangeably, mind and body as one.

I've said enough for one post. I thought I might go on to defend The Rake, and comment on what I think he's reacting to in Woods, but that would take a extended post in itself. I can suggest that it is Woods exclusionary approach, his disengagement from the works he comments on, his reduction of what he reads to objects for dissection with no evidence of engagement, that closes the door to any possibility of dialogue... he neither treats the text as pure artifact, nor permits mutual engagement, rather, he insists on speaking from a ground that exists only apart from mutual engagement/ The Rake addresses that... and you have a problem with his engagement... a problem, you have yet to address.

Stephen Crowe responds to Apollonians and Dyonesians

The following post by Stephen Crowe is a reply to Apollonians and Dyonesians It was left as a comment, but hiding it away in a comment box doesn't do it justice, or perhaps I should say--doesn't do the question justice.

Stephen Crowe:

Hi Jacob! I really appreciate you taking the time to think about my comments. I want to pay you the same respect, and so I hope you’ll forgive me if I go on a little. I like to think that I am not quite as dry and dull as I might appear! For example, the graphic-novel comment was intended as a joke: the term “graphic novel” is a self-conscious attempt to distinguish comics for adults from the idea of “comics,” which are thought of as being for kids; so I thought it would be funny to imply that the only comics that actually use the term are intended for children. Apparently I was wrong! In any case, I only mentioned comics in the first place, not to be “self-consciously generous,” but because I like comics. I thought I’d have written something about them by now, but I never got around to it.

I can see that we don’t quite see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, but I’m of the optimistic opinion that honest discussion always leads to mutual enlightenment: even if all we learn is what the other thinks, that in itself is a valuable lesson. That’s why I have such a problem with emotional arguments. As you say, it does seem paradoxical to say, on the one hand, that the arts are primarily emotional media, and on the other to require that critical discussion of those media should be governed not by emotion but by reason. However, there is an important reason to maintain that demarcation, as I’ll try to demonstrate.

You fault me for “disparaging those which presume to express ideas about, ahem... subjects that are expected to provoke emotional response, in a manner and style that does the same.” But does a psychologist need to be insane in order to write about insanity? Art and the study of art are not the same thing; otherwise poetry criticism would be written in verse, and music criticism in musical notation. Anyone can enjoy or not enjoy a book; a critic should be able to explain their experience, to explain how and why it works. Otherwise what good are they? To do this requires analytical thinking—i.e. reason rather than emotion, in fact reason applied to one’s emotion, and to the devices at work in the text.

I was a little surprised to that you picked out the Black Garterbelt post for praise. It’s true that there is some genuine textual analysis in the post, and Rake admirably attempts to characterise Wood’s taste (though not quite correctly, I think: for example, “a placid, tranquil presentation, with the powerful feelings and emotion reflected in the characters rather than in the aesthetic choices” does not correspond with Wood’s avowed love of D.H. Lawrence). However, none of that textual analysis coalesces into any kind of argument. Instead, he ends with a non sequitur that amounts to a rather overwrought personal attack.

Taking a comment by Wood, that objections to ‘hysterical realist novels “are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality,” Rake latches on to the single word “morality” and draws it out into a wild paranoid fantasy: “The invocation of morality will not do,” he says. “When a critic starts passing moral judgments on an author's aesthetic choices,” he continues, “his zeal has outstripped his intelligence and he's of no use or consequence to me as a reader, at least on the subject at hand.” Finally, taking the word as a personal affront, he says this:

“I like and admire the fiction of DeLillo, Pynchon, Foster Wallace, et al. Does that make me morally suspect in Wood's eyes? Perhaps aesthetically bankrupt? Or simply ignorant? He certainly does not shy away from pejoratives such as inhuman, and it's naive to think that they're meant only to sting the architects of hysterical realism and not the readers and advocates of same.”

But this is a complete misrepresentation of Wood’s point! What he meant by the word “morality” (I believe) was to suggest that the style of hysterical realism might be the result of a fear on the part of the authors to face certain aspects of reality. This is a long way from the censorious tone that Rake perceives. He certainly never implies that any authors or readers are “inhuman.” This misrepresentation seems to me like little more than an attempt to write Wood off, in order to be rid of the pesky obligation to actually listen to what he has to say. At no point in Rake’s post does he attempt to actually meet Wood’s arguments in any real way, either by defending the value of so-called hysterical realist novels, or by rebutting Wood’s arguments for the centrality of emotion in literature. Instead of attacking Wood’s arguments, he attacks Wood himself. And this is the problem with emotional argument. Instead of expanding the breadth of our understanding, it contracts it.

As critics, we are like astronomers each with a telescope fixed on only one fixed area of the sky. By using our analytical skills to describe our differing views to each other, we can combine out efforts to construct a map of the heavens. I don’t want to stop you from reading Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon (James Wood might, for all I know; I can’t speak for him): I want you to explain to me why anyone would read them. The idea is not for one person to “win” the argument, but for two conflicting arguments to synthesise into a single understanding.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Nooses and neck ties....

.. is there a difference?

The neck tie is a symbolic noose. Those who sport them, do so to announce their willing complicity in their own hanging.

... or, with sufficient ironic insouciance, to say, by pretending to play the game, that they're not.

A subtitle business, not likely to be understood by more than a few.

I keep adding to my previous post, and in doing so, I realize that that's the sort of blog I'd like. A kind of Leaves of Grass approach, where the beginning is always at the top and you endlessly (well, not really... we all die in the end) add and revise the one long evolving post... sort of like ... you know... our lives?

No...not a diary. Not a journal. Go back to Leaves of Grass. A composition. A single composition that we endlessly (figure of speech) improve and change and revise.

This is an editorial comment on recent (late and soon) critiques leveled at literary blogs.

There are modes of expression that you cannot do--with all the mediating interventions and yes, those interventions have been set up to protect us from a lot of dross.

Tell me about it. Tell us about dross. Go to a bookstore, take a look around, and tell me about dross. Look at the reviews in newspapers, and tell
me about dross.

It's not fear of's fear of making real judgments, judgments that aren't pulled out of some sort of prepared guide--a list that tells you, without looking, what's good and what's not--the fear of standing before something that doesn't pop up when you click your auto-index... that you will have to be responsible for... on your own.

That's what's lacking in the established media...not altogether. But damn hard to find. And what you get from blogs like Black Garterbelt...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Apollonians and Dyonesians, the Raw and the Cooked, Normies and Crazies: A bi-polar Manifesto!

I added Un arbre dans la ville to my links. Food for thought. Is there in the literary blogosphere, as in ancient Greek drama (qua Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy) an Apollonian and Dionysian split?

If so, Stephen Crowe's blog is admirably, studiously, even perhaps... in an Apollonian sort of way, militantly for the former. What brought this to mind was the good news that Steven Mitchelmore of This Space, is out of the (that article marks me as a U-Es-A-un, don't it? ) hospital, and recovering from his unfortunate accident. I'm not sure the Apollonians with us would get the connection, though I suspect those of us with brains that habitually, often to our chagrin, particularly late at night... seek out paths less traveled, will. Steven is very much of the Apollonian persuasion, though less self-consciously, perhaps, and less dedicated to a mission to promote that side of his genetic inheritance than Stephen.

I admire and respect these wonderfully self-controlled sorts... who I invariably hear as I read them, speaking through stiff upper class London lips. But am amazed and dismayed at how readily they dismiss those of us who have been dealt a rather larger part of our common bi-polar heritage than they, the privileged majority, would admit to owning up to.

Un Arbre presents its mission as " a forum for the rational discussion of emotion in art and art criticism, with an emphasis on pursuing and analysing great works of art in popular media."

... adding to that..

"Yes, that means comics too. Not graphic novels, though. They're for pre-teens."

You see what I mean?

That intentionally generous (or should I say, self conscious) offer to include the comic... qualified, of course, by exclusion of a genre, inherently irrational, one that challenges operational notions of the "rational."

Not to mention... which of course I will mention.. the problematic business of founding aesthetics on emotion, and championing a criticism that eschews affective styles--pretending to a stance above and beyond--not by virtue of more finely tuned and sharply honed intellectual analysis--but by offering opinions in a calmer demeanor, and disparaging those which presume to express ideas about, ahem...subjects that are expected to provoke emotional response, in a manner and style that does the same.

In a point counter point exchange on James Wood, Steven takes to task The Rake, of The Black Garterbelt and Ed Champion, of the late and lamented Return of the Reluctant, in their challenges to Wood.

He writes:
Black Garterbelt: ‘His continued struggle against the hysterical seems like the despairing stage whispers of a quaking moralist.’ Ed Champion on Return of the Reluctant: ‘James Wood is the most feared man in American letters? Get real. He’s a mere nitpicking titmouse. To be afraid of Wood is like having minor chest pains while passing the Grey Poupon from one Rolls Royce to another.’

Are we talking about the same man? I haven’t even included the congratulatory comments that hang off these posts like dribble, accusing Wood of everything from idiocy to misogyny. Wood is of course not without his detractors in print (Reese Kwon detailed some of these in her essay on Wood for Small Spiral Notebook); nor is he without his followers online, including Kwon as well as Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation. But the condemnation of Wood’s work to be found online is not merely negative, but derisive, veering towards libellous.

Click on that link Black Garterbelt. Tell me what I'm missing here. He offers, point by point, textual arguments--rational textual arguments. His sin, it would seem... is about style.

The Rake follows in the tradition of Nietzsche and Blake, which annoys Stephen. He, projecting unreflectively, accuses The Rake of irrationality, blind to the astute arguments offered, because, evidently, they are offered with a jacked up level of humor and playful wit that he finds offensive.

Okay... I'm not only metaphorically given to the bi-polar tendency to excess, to the Blakian mistrust, if not Blake's contempt, for the weighed and measured consideration, no... that's the brain I've been blessed and/or cursed with. I like to think of it as more blessed than cursed, and by acknowledging and appreciating the Mitchelmores and Stehpen Crowes, even the curse is moderated... and I am moved to a balance my nature would have denied me.

Would that the Apollonians among us might recognize their own imbalance... and listen more closely to the reason that lurks not far behind what we Dionysian crazies write.

Raw and the cooked.

Sushi. Steak Tartar. A tomato, warm from the summer sun plucked from the vine…

"Cooked" has it’s advantages… those grapes, touched by the first frost… kiss your lips 5 years later. But that’s not "cooked" either… what bubbles to the surface, the cultured inebriation, Li Po tossing poems on the water from Rimbaud’s drunken boat… … I want criticism and reviews that don’t sound like someone trying to talk when they’re choking in a fucking necktie… but as well and deeply read as … Harold Bloom?

No matter how you try to escape it... it's all parody in the end...

So, whatamIgonna do? After a hard day... sucking in my gut holding passions in check doing a quick re-read of The Consolations of Philosophy... ohmygod what a relief to click d'Rake and know there are still a few intelligent people out there who don't demand you wear a neck tie as the price of listening to what you have to say.

The Tragedy of Lear, C.O.B.

Because some of my students couldn't quite wean Lear and Company of their Shakespearian lingo (see the previous post), I offered this imaginative exercise

Think of Lear, I told them, as Chairman of the Board of Directors of a major corporation, not a king. He's going to give his daughters his wealth before he dies--maybe to avoid the inheritance tax? But the two he rewards the most by signing over all his assets and giving them power of attorney, kick him out of his McMansion and he ends up a street person sleeping on a vent. Kent is a former trusted VP, or CEO of one of subsidiary companies... etc

Now... how would they talk? Rewrite the lines so they would sound right coming out of the mouths of these modern characters.

And for those who want to be more creative... why not a write (a shorter version), of Lear in this form? The object would be to catch as much of the dramatic complexity, but as humor--a parody.

The Tragedy of Lear, COB

I mean really, what could be more timely?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Translation, Teaching, Reading--passive and engaged

I've been struggling with the problem of how to relieve my students of the habit of passive reading. Keep in mind--I'm teaching college freshman, almost all of them business majors in one form or another. Few of them read for pleasure. They're extra-curricular scholastic experience did not include theater. When they read aloud, they do so self-consciously, without expression. In their mouths, Lear's "Come, let's away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i'the cage..." comes out no different than were they reading instructions from a computer manual. The words as they read them have no burrs, no points or hooks, no Velcroed edges to catch a thought, a heartbeat or a tear as they pass through. The problem is getting them to slow down, and most importantly, when they read on their own--getting them to recognize when they don't get it, to understand when lines pass through with no effect, as little more than white noise, that it isn't supposed to be that way. No matter how apparently successful the sessions of close reading in class, they invariably revert to form. What to do?

I've heard others tell me they had some success having students write paraphrases, an idea I don't find at all to my liking, but Friday morning I was in a quandary trying to come up with a plan for my afternoon class. We'd done some close reading with Lear, and as usual, it wasn't making any lasting impression. In desperation, I was almost ready to work up an exercise in paraphrase, and then I stopped... how does paraphrase differ from translation, I asked myself? What if I asked them, not to paraphrase, but to translate from Elizabethan to contemporary English? Unlike paraphrase, they would not be able to generalize. What was concrete in the original would have to be concrete in the translation. When Lear compares his situation to a man fleeing a bear and faced with a roaring sea, there would have to be a bear and a roaring sea in the translation.

You don't delete the bear by turning it into a symbol, or worse... a generalized explanation. They would not be able to say or write, as they are wont to do: "He seems, like, you know... there's two different kinds of danger?" This is not a translation of

...Thou'dst shun a bear,
But if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea
Thou'dst meet the bear i'th' mouth.

In a paraphrase, you need pay no attention to levels of diction. In paraphrase, the elevated speech of a nobleman and the crude patois of peasant can be rendered in the same style. Not so translation. In translation you would want to find a way to represent the difference. Not describe it--represent it, show it. To translate, you have to pay attention to detail, and hasn't that always been the most difficult idea to get across?

Testing this out, I sat down and began to translate from Act 3. Wow, I thought... this is not easy! But everything that made it difficult pointed precisely to what I hoped they might learn in the process, learn from the trying--that what they had thought of before as reading was but a pale semblance of what happens when you are engaged with the text. I imagined, filled with hope at the possibility--my students suddenly looking up--after struggling with a few lines, overwhelmed with the revelation that up to that point, they hadn't been reading at all! ... one does not teach freshman if one is not given to such fantasies. And who knows... this one just might work!


My intention when I started this post was to introduce a piece I stumbled on surfing for articles on translation: Eliot Weinberger's long and thoughtful essay in Issue One of Fascicle.


Here, from the final paragraphs and postscript. Worth printing out the whole and keeping on file.

... In July of 1991, the Italian translator of The Satanic Verses, Ettore Caprioli, was stabbed in his apartment in Milan, but survived. Days later, the Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, an Islamic scholar, was stabbed to death in his office at Tsukuba University in Tokyo.

As far as I know, Rushdie has never made any extended comment on Hitoshi Igarashi. It would take another kind of novelist– Dostoyevsky perhaps– to untangle the psychological, moral, and spiritual meanings and effects of the story of these two: the man who became the most famous writer in the world at the price of what seemed until recently to be life imprisonment, and the anonymous man who died for a faithful translation of an old mistranslation, paying for the writer's mistake.

Translation is the most anonymous of professions, yet people die for it. It is an obvious necessity that is considered a problem. (There are never conferences on the "pleasures of translation.") Yet it is a problem that only arises in the interstices when one is not casually referring to some translated bit of literature: the Bible, Homer, Kafka, Proust. . . Could it possibly be that translation essentially has no problems at all? That it only has successes and failures? There is no text that cannot be translated; there are only texts that have not yet found their translators. A translation is not inferior to the original; it is only inferior to other translations, written or not yet written. There is no definitive translation because a translation always appears in the context of its contemporary literature, and the realm of the possible in any contemporary literature is in constant flux– often, it should be emphasized, altered by the translations that have entered into it. Everything worth translating should be translated as many times as possible, even by the same translator, for you can never step into the same original twice. Poetry is that which is worth translating, and translation is what keeps literature alive. Translation is change and motion; literature dies when it stays the same, when it has no place to go.

Time out. Politics Matters. We cannot exempt ourselves from our human responsibilities...

I did like Edwards. I liked the rhetoric. His taking on the Corporatocracy that has stolen the country from the people. But you can have the best ideas going and it means nothing if you don't know how to work the system. If you don't hold the right cards.

The difference between Kennedy and Johnson--I hated Johnson, such a sleaze, but he was a suburb inside operator. He was able to get Kennedy's programs though congress. All that fal da rah about Kennedy's mystique and charisma is more than half nostalgia. I mean, he barely beat Nixon! Freaking NIXON! That should give you a good reality check on how far "charisma" can take you.

Yeah, Kennedy was a good speaker. He knew how to rally his own natural base, but he did not bring that many new people into politics, and half the country hated him. To be effective, his charisma wasn't going to do him much good; he would have to wheel and deal, work with what was there--a reality that reduced his "charisma" to politics-as-usual in his time.

I say this because of the comparisons being tossed around: Obama to Kennedy. The reality is, Kennedy never approached the kind of response that Obama has generated. So what we have in the Democratic primary race now, on one side, is a Clinton who has learned from a master and is almost as shrewd an operator as the Big Dog himself. Clinton as president would know how to work the system--she could be as effective as the limitations of the current distribution of political power and popular sentiment allow... which is to say, she might even match the Big Dog... but by this time we ought to know... that's not enough.

Bill was good. He knew how to play the cards he was dealt, but he couldn't change the deal he was working with, and there's the problem.

That's where Obama comes in. There's no question about it; the man is a popular political phenomenon. I don't listen to his speeches to learn what his policies will be. He's generally on the right side of most issues, but I don't see that as being what matters. Not in this election.

We're involved in one of those generational transition elections--and one like none I can remember in almost 50 years of following politics. There's a part of me that hesitates to come out and take a stand... a lot of reasons to distrust people who have the kind of gift Obama has. He whips up irrational energy... so much depends--not on how he plans to reform medical care--but on how he responds to, how he uses that collective fever he releases in the crowd.

I think of Martin Luther King, an example of someone who had that same gift--and how careful he was, how conscious he was of how he used it. That's really what the non-violent philosophy was about... as much as it was a tactic of mass actions, it served as a natural limit to the doors of power that might have tempted him--and in that era, a pretty effective reality check.

So what I watch when I listen to Obama is the expression on his face--what happens to him when the waves of the crowd wash over him. And I see two things. First, a turning inward, this look of focused resolution--a look of recognition. He knows what is happening. It neither surprises him, nor moves him over much. He withdraws slightly at the very peak of the response... does not push it beyond a certain point, does not seek to drive the crowd any closer to where individual identity is abandoned to the mass. Nor does he show any signs of needing this--he enjoys it, takes it in, but it's as though you can see a look of satisfaction that precedes that moment, a confidence he brings to the crowd, rather than seeking it from them... he has not come to ask the crowd for personal confirmation... which is precisely the source of his power, of his charisma. He remains, somehow, outside of what is happening around him, and so, in perfect control.

So I see in Obama, as he awakens a whole new political constituency, a new political reality taking shape.

Yes, effective power will always depend on the kind of insider skills at which the Clintons (and Lyndon Johnson) were past masters, and Obama as president will be no more effective than Kennedy, for all his charisma, if he doesn't surround himself with the right people, if he doesn't learn how to use the power he releases... but this doesn't worry me.

He's a fine poker player. A skill he used as a newcomer to Illinois state politics. He seems to have as sharp an instinct for the details of power as he does for shaping the big picture, so the real advantage of Obama over Clinton, the real choice, is between Clinton's proven ability to work, and work within, a broken system. Politics as the art of the possible, the art of producing, as we have come to expect... the lesser of several evils, while Obama, by raising up a whole new popular political constituency to appeal to, to back him up, stands not only to change the deal with a new set of cards, but to change the game.

I see I've used that word twice... change... which may, for all its rhetorical redundancy, not be as hollow as it sounds.

Given my likely choices... voting or not voting--since I'm not quite ready to give up my belief in the idea of democracy--of government by the consent of the governed (and if anything is clear at this point, a vote for a Republican would amount to abandoning that belief) ... I am inclined, baring further developments to the contrary, to say that I'm am prepared to vote... and with no small measure of hope for what it might mean... for Barack Obama for President.

Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Day, Ebenezer Baptist Church

Friday, February 8, 2008

Manil Suri at the Free Library: Part 2 of 2.

Having been shut out of the last three readings, I showed up two hours early. It's a library. I brought paper, a book to read--what's a two hour wait in a library?

It was closed. Steel gates locked. I could see two women at the foot of the stairs stacking books on a table under the bronzed eye of Dr. Pepper

Dr. William Pepper, Founder, Free Library of Philadelphia - (who--in statue form--plays an important role, as does the library, in my novel, The Magic Slate

Of course, he didn't look that big from the front door, at the far end of the great hall...

Keep in mind, too, that I was peering through the criss-cross grid of a steel gate. At least I knew I wasn't there on the wrong day. That table--just where they always set up when they have a reading, the author's books stacked up to sell, the author, after the reading, one table down signing copies for those who go in for that sort of thing.

The reading itself takes place in a small auditorium downstairs. Seats 387 people. For the "Celebrity Authors" (such as we have these days), chairs are set up in the great hall with a large screen blocking everyone's view of Dr. Pepper. Late comers get to see the projected image of the author, and hear his projected voice. Even less to my liking than expecting authors to scrawl flattering lies to perfect strangers on the inside covers of their books. As if what you have to go through to write and get published isn't humiliation enough.

I paced back and forth, watched the rush hour traffic on the parkway, the homeless men lined up behind a van waiting for the cup of soup and plate of food being dished out by three women racking up points for the sake of heaven; listened to the flags of the world flapping in the wind. Then I remembered--it was early enough, not much past 5:30, that the library bookstore would still be open. Yes! ...and I had just withdrawn money at an ATM. What better use of a conscientious citizen, a recession looming, than, like those women feeding the homeless, rack up points for the sake of heaven by going shopping!

Information for bibliovores. If you're in Philly and doing the rounds of bookstores, you won't want to miss this one. The Free Library is on the Parkway between 18th and 19th. Walk past the library to 19th, take a right and behind the library on the corner--large collection with hidden treasures, great buys]

I wandered back to the front doors, $40 lighter in the wallet, what felt like as many pounds heavier in my canvas (Cats, Books.... Life is Good!) book bag. Still locked. Okay, I missed John Updike. Wasn't that disappointed. More like duty that I went at all. Missed Sherman Alexie. Sherman is so at ease in front of an audience, witty, unpretentious. More like a visit with a good conversationalist than a "performance," so I was irked to miss that. Can't even remember who the other Celeb was. For them, the doors were open three hours before the reading. Manil Suri's stars, evidently, don't shine as brightly. There's something to ponder, I muttered to myself, pacing the sidewalk, waiting for the doors to open.

At last, after a forty-five minute wait that seemed much longer, a guard came to the door, unlocked and slid the steel gate aside, and I made my made my way to the auditorium--stopping to buy a copy of Suri's new novel.

Reviews from Publisher's Weekly at Powells

My Mind on Books and


Add $26.75 to $40. Add "don't go to readings in or near bookstores with cash in your pocket" to the rule about shopping in a supermarket on an empty stomach.

The lectern is set up at the center of a proscenium stage, backdrop of red velvet curtains. The stage is raised no more that two feet above the level of the auditorium, so from my front row seat, I would be about eight feet from the speaker. A young woman in plaid skirt, librarian blouse and brown boots offered the usual introduction, after an appeal for donations for the proposed new Moshe Safdie addition. Like my students (but only the women), she ended all her sentences with a rising inflection, as though asking a question. That's only a part of it. Young women have developed this tonal dialect on their own, quite apart from the equally incomprehensible young male mumble, a form of proto-speech produced with moth partially open, neither jaws nor lips moving (like someone with a sinus problem, or talking in their sleep--which may, in fact, be the case. I suspect this may be a dialect developed and reserved for classroom delivery); the women, on the other hand, use their patois all the time, pretending to understand one another perfectly well, but the consequence of this New Speak for me, is that, in the one case, the stress is so out of sync with the meaning, and in the other, vowels so blur into an indistinguishable porridge, that should I find myself listening to anyone under 35, I'm reduced to blinking in stupefied incomprehension. I never fail to be relieved at the beginning of a term to see several foreign students in my class. Thank god, there'll be someone in the room whose English I will understand!

This is where the mind goes when you have time on your hands. But at last, the introductions over, the author appeared from the wings and took his stand behind the lectern. Suri has an easy, relaxed manner (he looks a lot like Barack Obama--handsomer, without the big ears, tall, thin--an interior quality that projects a sense of effortless presence. The reading, I discovered, you can see and hear for yourself. It's on YouTube. Different location, but essentially the same event, so I won't say more about that, though I want to mention what he said after the reading about his design for this book in relation to The Death of Vishnu, and the third book he plans for the series. This should not be thought of as a trilogy, he explained, where the same characters are taken up in each book, in different situations and stages of life. Better to think of it as a triptych, each book related thematically with India as a background in different stages of its development since independence. In the Death of Vishnu, the near-homeless man who lives on the stairwell of an apartment, serves, like the god whose name he carries, as a kind of caretaker watching over (though with little power to intervene), the lives of the tenants. The setting is contemporary--India as it has come to be in the present. In the second book, he wanted to go back in time--not long after independence--to relate something of the story of how a post-colonial state, accepting the challenge of modernity, but without imitating the west, began to work through its own rich traditions to evolve an identity and place in the world that would be its own. Shiva, as a god defined by absence, serves in telling the story of Meera--a love story--maternal, filial and sexual, as she finds herself through the loss and absence of the objects of her love. Shiva is also the god of destruction, preparing the way for Brahma, the emblematic god of the next book--who recreates the world, beginning a new cycle of creation and destruction. Suri, then is engaged in creating a form of aesthetic national myth-making, not unlike that of English literature from the Arthurian legends though Spenser and Blake, but played out on a most intimate and human level. I look forward to reading The Age of Shiva--and to the third book in his triptych.

Manil Suri's webpage

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Manil Suri at the Free Library/ Peggy Clark's Water Colors

Portland Rainy Morning: Watercolor, Peggy Clark

Manil Suri will be at the Free Library on the Parkway this evening. Last three times I tried to attend, the auditorium was filled. Seating only in the main lobby under the bronzed gaze of Dr. Pepper--watching on a giant TV.

Not for me. Turned around and went home.
[post reading: Suri impressive. Too tired to string words together last night, but will follow up after classes0

I'm not much for book signings, but I like to hear the authors read. Last time I managed to get there on time--a few years ago now--Richard Powers and Ken Kalfus. Powers read from The Year of Our Singing, and Kalfus from The Commissariat of Enlightenment. A memorable occasion/

I haven't read Suri's lastest, but The Death of Vishnu was one of my favorite reads in 2002. If I make it on time, I'll write about it when I get home.

Meanwhile, here's an image one of my sister's watercolors.
I'll add a list of West Coast galleries that carry her work when she sends them. She's one gutsy woman. All of 90 pounds, if that--in her forth month of chemo, post surgery for ovarian cancer: still painting and doing exhibitions.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Rose, a Yellow Forsythia... we are responsible for everything we most deeply feel...or feel we know...

Photo by Lefty

A post on: Black Mirror brought back a memory... not of a rose...

... for me it was the forsythia… dripping with rain, a break in the clouds, the sun turning each drop into a prism. Twelve years old, coming from an art class at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

“You are responsible for this…. ”

I didn’t have those words, but the meaning was there… overwhelming.
That what I felt, what I saw in that moment… I would be a thief to hold to myself. That if I failed to pass this on… and I clearly understood this to mean.. that to die without giving it form, to what had happened to me in that moment, and all such moments I might experience in the future… that if I failed to make them real to others… then I might as well have never lived at all.

That whatever I knew of beauty in the world… I was responsible for. That I experienced it as a debt to be paid, as something that I owed… for my very life.
The gift of the sublime is not free… we are responsible for every passing glance that takes it in. It doesn’t matter whether I’m remembered or forgotten… others have surpassed anything I’m likely to do, and if my work is forgotten, it will be because others have surpassed me in my own time. What matters, is that I never forget that day, the forsythia drenched with rain, and what I learned in that moment. What matters, is that I not forget… that I not forget