Friday, November 30, 2007

Spurious on Simone Weil


And yet, and yet ... Why is it I think Bataille and Weil should be approached only by another writer-saint? Why do I dream idly of a book written at the level of their thought, their life, their writing?

How many times, reading this or that commentary on Weil, have I nourished like thoughts. "Saints" are by nature, beyond imitation. All imitation. We know them for what they are because they are like nothing and no one else.

For being such a one, there is no model, and everything that after comes to resemble them can be nothing more than imitation.

Weil's writing has long haunted me. It is a presence that, since I first read her work, has never ceased to challenge me. But to what end? For what purpose? I have no answer. Her words chill me, repel me, and that is why they never lose their hold, never lose their power to inspire.

My short story, A Theology of Anorexia began as attempt to imagine the intellect and sensibility of Simone Weil as an American woman. Or rather, to imagine Simone Weil transported into our time. I ended up with a story... but the thought experiment failed. It was at that point when I began to realize that the short story would not do for me. That I wanted more than story... something expansive enough allow me to work more intimately at the level of the artifice, to throw aside the pretense of not pretending.

Establishment Literary Fiction: Modernism, Genre Fiction

A short piece by Mark Thwaite, of >ReadySteadyBooks, worth quoting in full.

See my recent posts:
Realist Narrative Belies Reality

Publishing Situation

What is Real? What is Realism?
Nobel Formalists
Here's Mark Thwaite:

In this week's TLS there is an abridged version Gabriel Josipovici's lecture What Ever Happened to Modernism? (which I heard Gabriel give in London, back in March, as did Stephen Mitchelmore and Ellis Sharp).

The lecture, and now the essay (which I'm afraid isn't online), made me think again about Establishment Literary Fiction (ELF). It isn't that ELF is bad. Some ELF is good. And certainly much of it is very good indeed at being ELF! But since Modernism, and again since Modernism's questions were re-articulated by the writers of the nouveau roman — especially, then, for those who see the novel as a mode of enquiry or, better, a mode of discovery — ELF seems to me to be the embodiment of Bad Faith. It manifests a willing refusal to acknowledge that the questions that Modernism posed even exist (or that the novel might be a place to inquire about their answers).

Therefore, ELF endlessly repeats the tropes and styles of the Victorian Novel, with its fingers in its ears, shouting its (sometimes very good) narrative, flaunting its (sometimes very finely drawn) characters, refusing to be interrogated and refusing to recognise its own structural ressentiment.

Conventional narrative as transparent window to "reality" renders the politics of the status quo opaque to deeper criticism. The police state merely takes up the same old story, tells it again and again: factual, untilitarian, moral, economic--all arguments slide off like so many eggs on the windshield of the passing Car of State.

As long as we believe the story is real, any story, as long as we cannot bear to see the artifice--we are complicit in creating the monster. I find those ELF writers, and the publishers, agents and readers who favor them, guilty of more than bad faith.

Additional links: Ellis Sharp on the Josipovici Talk HERE

And from This Space, HERE

Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Without You I Am Nothing"

From The Psychoanalytic Field, and Fadi Abou-Rihan's running commentary on Anti-Oedipus: his two most recent posts, Disjunction
and Fetish.

I found these held particularly strong resonance for me to the question of the place of the literary magazines in my previous post, opening the question to to a dimension I hadn't anticipated, but find in retrospect, to be its real object.

What else are writers looking for when we expend so much time and anxious effort (and it is exactly that, anxious effort, on a pursuit with so little objective benefit?

This is the fetish that looms over any writer seeking publication, one that will be accommodated (fatally), resisted (futilly), ignored (equally impossible), or passed through... like Britomart through the fire guarding Busyrane's castle, while the brave knight Scudamour (Spenser's Dudley Doright--overwhelmed by Good Intentions!) flops about on the ground in a seizure of panic at the conjurer's illusion.

To put it bluntly, the logic of the fetish here is the intolerant and singular logic of the “without me, you are noting” that one party fosters and with which another colludes. Author and reader, teacher and student, analyst and analysand, parent and child, ruler and ruled; these are some of the structural couplets that breathe in the stagnant air of resentment without which, and in an ironically doubled and nested move, the corresponding institutions of Literature, Pedagogy, Psychoanalysis, Family, and State would not exist.

“Without me, you are nothing” is the logic of quasi-causes, of boundaries and restrictions, of confinements and regulations, through which the leak is construed as a threat and the crossing is supposedly a crossing into illegitimacy, chaos, fragmentation, and disintegration. But it is precisely the impermeable boundary itself that divides, consolidates, and reifies the functions of dictator, father, and super ego. Often enough, the crossing is not into chaos but into a more liveable and freer sanity. Instead of health or truth, it is territoriality and power that are the fundamental concerns of the institution and its fetish.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What Purpose do the Literary Periodicals Serve?

[Also posted at MetaxuCafe, where this has drawn a number of comments]

A month or so ago, Lev Asher, on LitKicks hosted a discussion on hardcover versus soft, contributors included agents, publishers, writers and reader/consumers. It was good discussion. Informative. Offered some new ideas.

I'd like to see a discussion like that on literary periodicals. There seems to be more of them then ever. Most have circulations well under 5,000. Most pay contributors in complimentary copies, if that.
Each one of these periodicals receives hundreds, and many, thousands of submissions a month. Is it the hope of becoming "respectable," of making an honest buck--that drives writers to spend their time and money, printing and copying and addressing and mailing and keeping records so you don't send the same story to the same place?

What is driving this?

First, let's confine this to short stories. Poetry spreads like mold, under rocks, behind the wallpaper, pops out of urban lawns like mushrooms. It finds its readers by laws of its own. But fiction is something else. Aside from Harpers (which publishes no more than 12 stories a year) and The New Yorker (which may publish 100), what's left? Esquire. Playboy. Maybe a dozen open slots left in the Real World. What's left, the last remaining outlet for print publication: the Little Lits. So what drives this is the writers. When the readers disappear, what else is left?

But why?

If you don't get paid, and almost no one is likely to read what you publish in one these magazines, what's the point?

If you submit your work to these journals, what benefit do you imagine will come from it? You think, maybe, once you have some magic number of stories in print--that will turn the trick and get an agent to beg for the rights to your unpublished novel? Or are you playing the second-tier lottery game? Selection in one of those annual anthologies (yeah, that'll sure be the thing gets the eye of the New Yorker editor, right? BASS, the sesame key to fame and fortune!)

Question is, how does any of this square with reality?

What is the reality?

I get the feeling it's nothing more than a phantasmagoric con game, but not even the shills and carneys are aware of the con.

I've seen the lits attacked because they were assumed to be run by the "Academics", FMA Mafia Cartel, or some such. Great resentment because no one but Academics would read anything published in them.

Hey, be thankful for any readers you can find, I say. And be grateful for "Academics," They got into their line of work because, at least in the beginning, literature and reading was something they really cared about. Come on, now, these can't be the bad guys, that's like saying those 9th C. Irish monks were to blame for the Dark Ages, because--in their labor to preserve ancient learning--they were the only ones left interested in it!

Which brings us back to the beginning: what's the point? And how do we come to an informed understanding of what all this means?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

On Finishing Echo Maker

I'd been taking notes. Picking at the edge of the plate. Textual details on his prose style (fascinated by his quirky similes and figurative comparisons... how they work in unexpected ways on the level of the text--speculations on why he loves the word "ambush" so much. That sort of thing.


Ambushed might well describes what the last 50 pages did to my plans. No way my still somewhat feverish brain can deal with this book without some serious cogitation time.

Though it's old news, Mararete Atwood's
Review in the NYTRB is worth more than one read, and offers convincing reason why Power's books do to.

Of interest, LINK to a video of the Sandhill cranes--from a review on DEWEYMONSTER. The visual is not so impressive, though you see those threads of cranes appearing, one after another, and descending over the river and fields. But the audio! No words for what it must be like to hear that...

Two in a row... Tree of Smoke, now The Echo Maker.

A decidedly humbling experience...

I mean, you read King Lear, Anna Karenina... you say, okay, this is Shakespeare! This is Tolstoy! Nobody's asking you to be Shakespeare, Tolstoy... but these are young dudes! Barely wet around the ears?

Was it Reb Bunum, in Buber's version of the Hasidic Tales? .... When time for judgement comes: you will not be asked why you were not Tolstoy, why you were not Shakespeare... but why you were not a little more like Reb Bunum?

This is a very hard lesson to make one's own.

The Echo Maker... of course, that's what Reb Richard was getting at, wasn't it?

Shut up and listen to the fucking cranes, man...

... and dance your dance

Friday, November 23, 2007

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Internet and "sustained analysis"

On The Reading Experience, Responding to Other Scholars: is the internet incompatible with "sustained critical analysis?"

An interesting exchange.

My comment here:

I'm not an academic in my critical interests. As a writer, I gravitate toward thought "in-process" --working out, rather than "worked out." The essay, as Montaigne would have it, essayer, to try out ideas, but in the company of others, as an ongoing, multi-faceted conversation.

In the blogs, 'peer review' takes place in the open. The quality of critical writing, like that of the academic journals, depends on editorial selectivity. In the blogs, you see this in the links. I find that I judge blogs by their content--and classify them by the links they choose to publish.

There's a sorting out at work here. Those who are primarily interested in increasing hits and raising their "authority," to the degree they succeed, drift into a general bookish cloud of blogs that now and then will have posts that might interest anyone, but I see more discriminating, more sharply defined associations coming into being, recognizable constellations, proximities of interests and ideas and modes of expression that encourage readers to draw connecting lines, as between stars, galaxies, nebulae.

Sustained analytic works are hardly absent from these blogs, but they more often appear as links: sources suggested for readers to visit and harvest, to bring back what they find to the more protean, generative milieu of interconnected conversations--the characteristic mode of the blogs.

There is no incompatibility between this and the academic mode. I think that academics who claim to have no time for searching them out might be astonished--if they were to do a search--at how many academic scholars and publications are referenced in these blogs. I would like to see longer, more systematic articles published on blogs. I see no reason why that shouldn't happen; but they would serve a different purpose here, address a different readership, opening into ever wider concentric spirals of response, throwing out sprays of sparks and light, of fructifying energy, as opposed to the self-consuming vortex of the academic journals... black holes devouring everything they produce into the same gapping maw, impotent to generate anything but more of the same.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Walter Benjamin's Dialectic: Holding the tension

From Mike, on Joyful Knowing

Exert from Benjamin, German Idealism and Dialectic

Dialectic is an amazing force precisely because it holds things in indeterminate contradiction through its effort to determine them. This holding together, this arresting and immobilizing that takes place through the negative work of dialectic (the work of the dialectic to not arrest, to mobilize, or to bring forth total-mobilization) is the most forceful element of dialectic. Why? It does not lend itself to the objectification of capitalism, fascism, any of the organizing political-economic structures that reduce the world to what Heidegger rightly calls (also against Jünger) a "world picture:" a world of images fully determined by technology.

Read the rest HERE

"...precisely because it holds things in indeterminate contradiction"

Why I cannot identify Tata's Formalist/Realist problem in either convention, and even less, expect to find release from arrested ideological representations of the Real by rejecting one set of conventions in favor of others.

This has been the running thread through ten of my last dozen posts.

The best critic knows how to hold the tension. To be precise, but neither this nor that.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

No Risk, No Gain: Blakean Mental War

I expanded on some comments to Steve Tills... thought them worth foregrounding as a post.

Original post and comments HERE

Should" is one of those words, isn't it?

It's all about where the "should" is coming from... and that voice can be elusive.

I think of a production of Hamlet by the Arden Theater Company here in Philly when they were still in the tiny theater-in-the-semi-round behind St. Stephen's. The ghost scene. The stage was simply a platform raised about two feet above floor level. The theater went dark. Hamlet alone in a soft spot on stage. Every line from the ghost came from a different side of the platform--as the actor playing the ghost circled around. Hamlet would turn toward the voice, only to hear it come from behind--even the voice sounded different (was there more than one actor?)

It was very effective. Chilling.

Like figuring out where the "should" is coming from.

Which is exactly what's going on in that scene, come to think of it!

I'm happy you're finding my blog of interest... twenty years ago, when I discovered the old BBS connections--pre-internet as we have it now, I naively believed it would be possible to find the kind of creative community we imagine when we think of... say, Poets of the New York School and the action painters in NY in the 40's, or Paris in the 20's, or...

Foolish dream.

But in these past few months I've begun to see at least part of that might be possible--since I set up JRBD. Blogs almost do it.

The discussion forums (Salon, Readerville, The Atlantic) failed because they depended too much on commonality of interest--that is, on common subjects. It was never merely an interest in art or poetry that defined (wrong word...defined) those moments, nor shared vision--but rather each of those involved seeing something before them that didn't yet exist, something different for each... an intrusion of the indefinable Real--what was shared, was what no one of them possessed, what could not be possessed, but only courted, each in his own way.

I see in the way we find and add links something more selective. I'm aware of doing that myself. While I want to be open, inclusive--I don't want to be so inclusive that the pattern of what I favor is obscured. I have something in mind... or just beyond what I'm able to hold in mind. I can't put a label on it. "Experimental" invites as many misses as "Mainstream." And some of what makes it into the mainstream is exactly what I'm looking for. I've chosen the majority of the blogs I've linked because, together, they seem to point in directions that feel promising... fellow seekers, if you will, but seekers who know damn well what they're looking for even if they won't be able to name or describe it till they find it.

is almost a caricature of the type! And I don't mean that negatively. It's that dissonant combination of openness and rigor--holding the tension!. Yes--that's what it's all about--holding the tension. He's amazing--such sharply formulated opinions and yet... he doesn't know what he's going to like till he sees it! So that what he likes, you can trust comes, not from abstractions imposed on what he reads, but from what he discovers from his reading, in the reading. To me, that frees me to both listen deeply to his opinions, and at the same time, never feel obliged to be beholden to them--or to believe he would respect anyone who did.

We cannot be genuinely open if we don't lay our beliefs on the table--stake our intellectual lives on the line. Blakean Mental warfare. But oh, the triumph is not in winning--but in discovering a whole new beginning! To have everything you ever thought or believed overthrown. Never happens to those who have nothing at stake, nothing to lose.

No risk, no gain.

The Fictive Universe of Realist Narrative Belies Reality

And there is my Sunday Salon theme.

If I could sing it would be a song. A theme song, for the rain it raineth every day. See what Josipovici has to say on exactly this in "The Opinion of Pythagoras (which is about Twelfth Night, and Pythagoras only in passing, as soul from one body to another).

Let me say it again (Should every song not have a chorus?)

The Fictive universe of realist Narrative Fiction Belies Reality. But no, it does more than that.

It lies.

And makes us lie with it, and there's the sin.

After an exchange (imagined on my part, as Mr. Tata has locked his comments door and hid the key), with James Tata: do read his essay on formalist and realist (what Mark Thwaite calls Establishment Realist Fiction) fiction in Ten Parts
HERE. You'll have to scroll down, as you can't link individual posts on this blog, thus the prophecy will be fulfilled, Last shall be First!

My question/sidesways reply/pre- Sunday Salon thought will be found

What Josipovici added was this thought of the closed universe of Realist Narrative, the Unified Fictive Universe to which all alike belong, and which, as said above, belies human reality as experienced anywhere but within those Narratives concocted to support Belief (as you might guess, this would include those of Religion, and the props and pulleys of dogma and theology meant, through the offices of Homily and Good Counsel, to be applied to the open wounds of unassimilable experience, and thus, close it--covered no doubt with tapestry, gown and thick makeup to hide the Stitches on the monster's brow).

Only when we acknowledge the play are we allowed to touch the Real.

Authors of Realist Narratives want us to love the lie.

And there's my thought, this gloomy November Sunday Morn. Do with it as you will.

... I feel rather out of place here. I look around, people sipping coffee or tea from china cups with appliqués of roses vaguely pink, stroking their purring cats, a bit of rain on the window pain, reading of detectives in fantasy land while I thrash about in my cold room, rubbing my hands to keep my fingers warm enough to flex and type, gnashing my teeth at the obscene semblances of reality peddled by publishers in high heels and mini skirts in back rooms of Book Super Stores...

... hell, somebody's gotta do it


Saturday, November 17, 2007

James Tata: Part 10 of 10: The Publishing Situation

Excerpt from the last post in this series HERE

.. but let me make an introductory note, to put this first.

I put 8 years into writing my first novel (working title, The Magic Slate). I'm still trying to sell it. Where agent or publisher have responded, it's been consistently of the, this-is-a-fine-beautifully-written-and-engaging-work, unfortunately-we-don't- think-there's-a market-for-this-kind-of-thing-But-good-luck-anyway! sort of thing. I had one agent who told me to let her know when I published it--so she could be sure to buy a copy.

What is one to think?

I'm neither discouraged nor optimistic. Yes, I want to publish my books. But the effort is the obligation I feel I owe them, not what drives me to write. What interests me in this experience is what it illustrates about publishing today. Until I set up my blog, I felt isolated, as though this were a problem peculiar to myself. But I've come to see that there are readers and writers, reviewers and critics who seem to represent a similar, semi-disenfranchised community.

This has been a revelation. A nascent movement with a common medium but as yet no common name. Read the LitKicks hardback/paper back exchange... on the surface, there's the business as usual rhetoric, as though it were primarily a marketing problem. How convenient. If you have to reduce the problem to marketing terms, the real subject, the real difference , the naked reality is covered over with fig leafs in the shape of dollar bills.

Making money and the market come first is escapist, an excuse to avoid confronting the issues: we don't have to think--it's merely a matter of understanding the automatic process, of following the rules--as though they were equivalent of the Laws of Physics.

Or like Pinker... it's genetic. Science is not bound to making the world look the way we want it too--it's the obligation of scientific thought to upset our expectations--Good Fred, he wrote a book on this--thinking dangerous thoughts or some such! But writers and artists are there to provide genetically programmed comfort. What business do we have concerning ourselves with "reality" beyond semblance?

There is an ideological bias here that needs to be confronted, torn open, exposed for all its poverty... exposed in its role in supporting the insupportable status quo of Empire.

I would like to see a lot more open discussion on the literary blogs, more confrontation, more argument. We have editorial power to control the spam, the polarized rhetoric. Let's make more of engagement, explore and expand the dialogical potential of blogs on literature and arts.

post rant: here's Tata

In spite of its genteel self-image, publishing is a business. Though writers fight for meager institutional patronage to buy themselves time to write, book publishing itself, unlike the performing arts, is unsubsidized. (University presses may be subsidized, but they are a part of the same reputation-gilding apparatus as campus-affiliated "literary" magazines.) This is actually an advantageous condition, as commercial rough and tumble is an inoculant against the snobbery of an art treated by the wealthy as yet another item of their conspicuous consumption. Blaming mainstream writers and the journalistic book press for the comparative homogeneity of what the publishing houses produce is not only wrongheaded but in the long run self-defeating. It is often mentioned with chagrin that, due to the writing programs, there are more writers than ever, as if a multitude of sophisticated writers and readers were a bane rather than a blessing. Instead, imagine how many of those obscure writers might be producing work of high quality that does not fit into the mode of conventional realism and the narrow milieu that the publishing houses--and the complacent portion of the readership--believe is the only way that American writers can write. As that cadre of obscure writers continues to become as ethnically eclectic as America itself, the stories and novels and poems they produce will rival any national literature for variety, whether it is narrative, linguistic, experiential, political, social, or any other literary element imaginable. There are more subjects to write about in 21st century America than comic books, cruise ships, high school hijinks, and the victimhood detailed in too many "personal memoirs."

Discursive narratives of foreign origin, film or literary, are allowed greater leeway by American publishing houses, film distributors, critics, and audiences than are discursive narratives by American writers and filmmakers. Not for a minute do I believe that American artists do not produce challenging formalist narratives, only that such work is not afforded the same enthusiasm given similar work by artists working abroad. That these various American audiences are ready to engage with challenging work, provided it is foreign, appears to reside in an identification of "difficulty" with the exoticism of other cultures rather than as a characteristic of narrative art, regardless of its origin. It's as if American audiences think American culture is straightforward enough to warrant only linear narratives, as if complicated, contradictory lives are only lived by people in unfamiliar cultures. This is a perverse state of affairs, one that has radically narrowed our collective idea of contemporary American fiction in both subject matter and style. The vitality of our national literature demands that serious readers, writers, and critics put the New York publishing houses under the same fire for complacency that audiences and artists subject the Hollywood studios and the recording industry to.

Formalist--Realist. What is the Real Question?

To return to James Tata's posts--and why I linked them: what are we attending to when we contrast realistic and formalist novels? To me, everything depends on that question--or how we answer it. Is our concern with the form, the formula, the formality--which at least is something we can identify, describe and analyze--or is the problem with the conventions of reality that the form represents? Are we dissatisfied with the form (the narrative of realism) because it has become old, too common a convention, or because, impossible as it is to speak of something as general as "reality," impossible to define or describe satisfactorily (if we are not to change ourselves into metaphysicians, philosophers)--because what is missing is precisely that indefinable reality that is, or we hope can become, the real subject of any narrative of substance? Is it the form we grow tired of, or grows tired itself--or is it that once the convention becomes Common Coin, it loses its power to represent the Unnamable? To lead us into the silence of the Real?

In my mind, the problem with realist narrative is not its weakness as art, but that it is in danger of being nothing else than art. Exactly the charge that is brought against "experimental" work, that it is only about itself, mere play for the sake of play, self-referential manipulation of forms--this is precisely my complaint, the fault I find with conventional realist narratives, that they are nothing but "art," weak art, dead art, a chattering the same tired mantra over the abyss, comforting us with the noise we have lulled ourselves into believing, protecting us from the silence of the Real.

I think a good critic, good criticism, can tell the difference, but I doubt if there will ever be a theory, a set of critical tools that will perform the job, on its own, as it were--by application of the rules. That will tell us how to tell the difference. At best, we can recognize those works that have at least refused us false comfort.

It's up to the writer to lay before us a work that shimmers with the silence of the Real, to fashion a form that can make us believe, for a time, that it has captured what cannot be captured, that it has almost succeeded in representing what cannot be represented.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fadi Abou-Rihan: Anti-Oedipus, Lacan, Mourning, Nietzsche

Another fine, lucid post from Fadi Abou-Rihan on The Psychoanalytic Field in his running commentary on Anti-Oedipus.

At the level of the unconscious, neither objects nor relations ever die; they only get transformed. What is experienced is hence not so much the loss of the object but the abrupt reshaping of one’s relationship to it.

Consequently, mourning and melancholia are amongst the vicissitudes of one’s relationship to other relations and not to objects.

Read the rest HERE

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What is real? What is realism?

To James Tata,

Beginning Richard Powers, Echo Maker... I catch the cognitive dissonance. What I objected to in your objection, your (partial) exclusion of Powers, your more convinced exclusion of Hazzard... differed with you in your difference... ?

From the "Formalist" escape (transcendence? avoidance? divergence?...) from "realism."

What is the formalist formula for, if not to overturn the former?

... the former version of the "real?

We're back to the problem of memesis... the question of what it is we're imitating, what it is we're representing.

False notion: "Realism" is never, can never be, a conservative force.
Conservatives hate the real. They want only the last version, only what's already been turned to Common Coin... the better to cash in on it's Caché.

It's only the conservation of old notions of what is real... Is release from those restrictions ever made in the name of anything other than a more real version of the real?

Even if the most real version of reality finds at the heart of the real nothing but an Absense? A blank?

Nobaaddy... the Big Other who never was?

You're on to something important, Mr. Tata... but it has nothing to do with a distinction between the Formal and the Real... or its mimesis.

Wrong contrast.

Need a sounder critical foundation. Not what you see in the publishers bias that's the problem... but the Formulation... a merely formal problem all along?

Or something more... for which the formula... the Formata... is merely servant?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tata: Part 5

Tata's Part 5


"Denis Johnson--Though I have read Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, it is his story collection, Jesus' Son, that strikes me as the one work by any writer mentioned in this essay that perhaps best represents how artificial my attempted categorizations of writers are. A slender collection of weakly connected stories about a junkie, the narratives seem straightforward enough in the mode of what a friend of mine calls "feckless guy stories"--and that I would add are a genre over-represented in writing workshops--which can be nothing but realist, yet Johnson uses time in sophisticated ways to represent a junkie's tangled consciousness while calling such little attention to his methods that they are all but invisible to the reader unconcerned with formal matters. Roth is the only other American writer whose work I am familiar with who is capable of being formalist while appearing to be realist, only Roth does it in book after book."

I could never have imagined Tree of Smoke emerging from Jesus' Son... and yet it's a continuum. Demands a re-reading of the earlier stories.

On the one hand, a 19th C. novel. An American Tolstoy. So many characters you have to take notes. Plots and subplots and subplots. But a metaphysical novel in the mode of Cormac McCarthy, a Gnostic fallen world, where no one can quite remember what the pre-fallen state was really about.

Molly Bloom's closing monolog , her yes I said yes--Bernonoes' Everything is Grace, Eliot's infolding of the Rose and the Fire...uttered in pure irony in some circle of hell Dante never dreamed of. War scenes as realist as Naked and the Dead, recited from the Drunken Boat.

The banality of the Good...

Your association with Roth is right on target! Something of what I was was getting at with Powers and Hazzard.

An elusive catagory, slippery as it is... don't let go of it!

It's everything that really matters in contemporary fiction.

Tata, Dude! Let's Talk!

Since Tata makes it doubly difficult to engage directly--not only are comments disabled, but you can't link to individual posts (at least I've not discovered the secret). I would like to have added a post here, with ten links, one to each section of his essay. At 10,000 words, it's barely a sketch of the subject, and zeros in on critical areas that are life-blood to me as a writer. All about what I've been calling the aesthetics of process.

This is an essai --as Montaigne meant it to be, a try-out, in American sports jargon. A try-out of ideas on a particular subject. In each of the ten posts that encompass this piece are ideas, asides, comments, critical notes that do not deserve to sit on a screen in monastic self-communing solitude.

They beg for engagement, for expansion, for inclusion into a general dialog on our descent into near-illiteracy.

I'm tempted (but I won't give in to the impulse) to post each of the ten segments as quotes here, in ten successive posts, last first, so the reader can go through them first to last.

Instead, I'll respond with brief comments and ask you to please, go to James Tata's Blog, and read this essay... and come back here and tell me what you think.

Let's Talk!

Part 3: Richard Powers.

-2006: Richard Powers (The Echo Maker)--A writer in the realist mode, not just in style but even in the choice of his frequent subject matter, science and technology and their human ramifications.

I think you miss on this one. Goldbug Variations? Galatea 1.2? Plowing the Dark? These are realist novels? Tata, I think you need another category--meta-realism? Even with Hazzard--who on the surface is a realist, as say, William Trevor is a realist--crosses into an altogether different level of reality on the prose alone. More evident in Transit of Venus than The Great Fire, and with Trevor--Two Lives, especially Reading Turgenev, takes "realism" into something much closer to Formalism ( weak argument for sure... but the irredeemably "realist" readers on Solon (or was it Readerville?) a few years back, hated Reading Turgenev, and their every argument spoke to its formalist and anti-realist elements.)

This is not to disagree with your thesis, but argue for some fine tuning.

I can't tell you how happy your essay made me--oh my god, I thought-- I've found a compatriot! A fellow Expat! This dude gets it!

So why make it so damn hard to TALK!


Fomalism: a continuation....

James Tata responded to my question on Nobel Laureates and Formalism on HIS BLOG. I encourage you to read, not only part two, but his whole essay (see below). It's well worth your time.

I'd also encourage the author of this provocative blog to reconsider his policy on comments. There's no obligation to publish every comment that comes along, let alone respond to those that take one's thoughts on merry-go-round rides. Weblogs distinguish themselves from printed media by their immediacy of engagement and dialog--and this may be their best justification.

Tata wrote:
Thanks for writing. I'm in kind of in a quandary, because although I make it a policy to answer readers' mail, I see you posted your message to me on your blog, making our discussion public before it even started. As you noted there, I don't make space for comments on my own blog. Most of the reasons for that are probably more dull than you might think, but among them is that I think my posts should stand or fall on their own without me rushing to their defense and getting involved in circular arguments. As you know, it's hard anticipating every objection when writing about anything, let alone a subject that people obviously have a lot of passion for. My decision to post the essay in sections rather than in one long, inevitably unread post apparently stripped my argument of context. One of the many hazards of the web. Given I've already written close to 10,000 words on this subject, I'd rather let the essay speak for itself.

Having said that, in answer to your question, part 2 of the essay attempts to define the terms I'm using.

posted by James at 2:41 PM

Nobel Formalists

Also from James Tata: 8 of 10 Nobel Lauraetes, he tells (in contrast to fiction from American publishers--are formalists.

Seeing so place for comments, I asked the following by email:

Your post on Nobel formalists--in contrast to American publishing houses, begs for further comment.

I'd like to hear how you distinguish formalist criticism, which might choose anything as subject, and "formalism" as you use it--to characterize the work itself.

Where does "formalism" overlap with meta-fiction, post-modernism? And what do you believe explains the lack of interest in formalist works by U.S. publishers?

James Tata's: Narratives of Immigration

Narratives of Immigration (7 of 10)

One of the judges of Granta's most recent list of "Best Young American Novelists," Ian Jack, writes:

All of us judges agreed on one thing: ethnicity, migration and "abroad" had replaced social class as a source of tension, even though, as O'Rourke pointed out, that the gap between the wealthy and poor in the US is wider than ever. "In America all class analysis is forbidden," said White. "It's as if the conflict and alienation offered in, say, the British novel by encounters with members of other, lower social classes is replaced in America by contrasts of first and third world cultures." [emphasis mine] (footnote 16)

A contemporary peculiarity of the so-called liberal position in the United States is that the working class does not really register with it, even to the extent that older terms like "blue collar" and "working class" have been replaced with the euphemistic "middle class," presumably because the other terms are too left-wing sounding for American consumption. Why this is so would be the subject of an entirely different essay; I agree with Ian Jack and will take his assertion as my starting point.

As immigration has been the central social--if not political--force shaping American life since the passage of The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the single most far reaching, though perhaps least known, piece of major Great Society legislation, it follows that an American literature concerned with contemporary life would be preoccupied with stories of immigrants adjusting to living in the United States, and even of lives lived in various countries of origin. To an extent, New York publishing house literature reflects this interest in the educated readership that is its audience by publishing by such writers as the previously mentioned Jhumpa Lahiri (b. 1967), Junot Diaz (b. 1969), and Robert Olen Butler (b. 1945), as well as Edwidge Danticat (b. 1969), Don Lee (DOB unknown), Mary Yukari Waters (b. 1965), and Mohammed Naseehu Ali (b. 1971), to name a mere handful
Read the rest HERE (You'll have to scroll down...)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mike Davis: California Burning

Mike Davis: Diary
From the London Review of books, November 15, 2007

Every year, sometimes in September, but usually in October just before Halloween, when California’s wild vegetation is driest and most combustible, high pressure over the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau unleashes an avalanche of cold air towards the Pacific coast. As this huge air mass descends, it heats up through compression, creating the illusion that we are being roasted by outbursts from nearby deserts, when in fact the devil winds originate in the land of the Anasazi – the mystery people who left behind such impressive ruins at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon.

There is little enigma to the physics of the winds, though their sudden arrival is always disturbing to greenhorns and nervous pets as well as to lorry drivers and joggers (sometimes scythed by razor-sharp palm fronds). Technically, they are ‘föhns’, after the warm winds that stream down from the leeward side of the Alps, but the Southern California term is a ‘Santa Ana’, probably in ironic homage to Mexico’s singularly disastrous 19th-century caudillo. For a few days every year, these dry hurricanes blow our world apart or, if a cigarette or a downed power line is in the path, they ignite it.

They also offer lazy journalists the opportunity to recite those famous lines from Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, in which the Santa Anas drive the natives to homicide and apocalyptic fever. But just as one shouldn’t read Daphne du Maurier to understand the workings of nature in Cornwall, one shouldn’t read Chandler to fathom the phenomenology of weather and combustion in Southern California. A better choice would be Judy Van der Veer, an unfairly forgotten writer who spent most of her life ranching in the rugged hills near the hamlet of Ramona, 35 miles north-east of downtown San Diego. Read the rest


Davis's books include Late Victorian Holocausts (as good a background to workings of the Global Economy and its horrors as you're going to find), City of Slums, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb and In Praise of Barbarians: Essays against Empire.

This guy writes like an angel... of the apocalypse.

If you haven't read him: drop what you're doing, start with Late Victorian Holocausts and don't stop till you get to whatever his latest book will be at the time.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sunday Salon, November 11

Another week, another with stacks of papers to grade. Tomorrow, student conferences, so will have little time for grading. It piles up at the end of the term.

Let's see--for my brief reading breaks, what can I do for Sunday Salon?

Less than 200 pages in Tree of Smoke, but won't have time to finish that. A Josipovici essay from Singer on the Shore. Have several recent New Yorkers I haven't been able to get to.

For weeks, except for classes, I haven't been out of my room. Email notice from One Story --an open invitation from Sam Allingham to celebrate his first publication. The Abyssinian, an Ethiopian restaurant in West Philly.

Well, I said, to my cat Murphy. There's a bar. Food, inexpensive and good. Why not? Murphy yawned, bored with my company. As good as giving me his permission.

Didn't have much chance to talk with Sam, but good conversations with his friends. The Missouri Raiders. John Brown. Is continental philosophy making a comeback in American universities? I told UofP grad student Peter Schwartz (sp?) he should definitely check out Larval Subjects, and of course, handed out some JRBD fliers. Creating Links in the Real World.

Now for a second cup of coffee. Arm myself to face these Freshman papers...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Mailor obit

Norman Mailer, January 31, 1923 - November 10, 2007

Friday, November 9, 2007

Dept. of Justice loves Literature!

What could be more encouraging?

A visit from:
IP Address 149.101.1.# (US Dept of Justice)
ISP US Dept of Justice
Continent : North America
Country : United States (Facts)
State : District of Columbia
City : Washington

... hours after adding an Impeach Bush Widget... (but of course, that has nothing to do with it).

Someone from the DoJ wanted to know what I had to say about Sherman Alexie's FLIGHT (which does have a chapter on someone who trained a terrorist pilot)...

1 sec. on.

How long does it take?

Do they think Alexie knows something? Am I suddenly susipicious?

Of course not!

Just a DoJ functionary who loves fiction and poetry... got interrupted on his/her lunch hour...whatever they perceive to be in their interest, whatever they think they can get away with... they will do... even check out a poem.

Who woulda known?

It is, at the very least, interesting--to live in a time of mass psychosis.

See y'all in Guantanamo?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Diwali: Poem by Shanta Acharya

Poetry is rooted in it's own traditions, literary, cultural, religious--and of course, linguistic.

Do we most honor and understand a poem when we steep ourselves in the cultural fabric it expresses, or when we seek to respond to those elements that seem to break free of the limitations of origin? Or neither and both?

For an outsider, the particular conventions of a poem transgressing the boundaries of language and tradition--I mean, what would be conventions within the traditions of origin, strike new cords, invite responses alien to the reader in the poem's native language, so that what is most alien and new, is at the same time a door opened into what is familiar in that other world, and a formation of something new to both.

I find in this meeting place the very essence of that strange eclectic invention we call art, and not least, the source of its transgressive and sacrilegious character.

Our appreciation of the Tlingit designs on the bows of the whaling vessel we observe in the museum--as "art" --is, in terms of the intended purpose of these artifacts, a sacrilege born of a kind of willful ignorance. Once we have we seen them outside of their cultural context, in this artificially created secular space we reserve for works of art, no matter how we correct and inform ourselves, their value will never be for us what they were for those who made them. We will admire them as the idolaters we have become, as the idolaters they have made of us in our meeting with them.

The iconoclastic protestants were on to something. Art is dangerous to fixed systems of thought. Giotto's St. Francis preaching to the birds breaks free from all theology--opens the windows to the multispectral light of heresy, cannot be contained. We cannot look at this painting, truly look--without breaking free into some larger space than its theology would have granted us.

All this as preface to a poem on Shiva's Arms on the festival of Divali--about which I know nothing more than the brief introduction she offers--and offers me no entrance into this poem. I read it, and dwell in it... knowing that I am a transgressor, trampling shod in a foreign sacred space...and yet... in my reading, discovering what I would I would not have known without it, what belongs to all--paradoxically, because it is an expression of what has belonged only to the initiated.

I wonder if "art" --in all its forms... in assimilating particularity to an imagined universal... is the work of the spirit extinguishing its source, a kind of death wish, as we are so clearly bent on extinguishing the sources of life on our planet?

Here is the poem, by Shanta Acharya, from Shiva's Arms

Fever In Diwali a poem from her first collection of poems, Not This, Not That (Rupa & Co, India; 1994).

Pious neighbours celebrated Diwali
with neat rows of oil lamps
promising the destruction of evil.

My fever flew fast through the coil of night
setting ablaze the desolate sky
like a child conspiring with confetti stars.

Harassed doctors came with tablets,
magic, miniature moons
with syrup in exorcist cups and hermetic brew.

While the snake-charmer’s fluted thermometer
grinned its flinted fangs wider and wider,
I ate moons and laughed at stars.

My limbs could’ve even danced a few steps to appease
evil with the grace of lightning in a storm ripped sky
like blue throated Shiva with snakes in red matted hair.

White sheeted, I lay still
like an Indian monkey in summer.

The "Crisis of Poetry"

A good piece on Josh Corey's Cahiers de Corey on the problem of autonomy in the arts.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Aesthetic "value" in Pop Culture

In a post on Reading Experience, responding to a piece on TV adaptations of literary classics HERE

I wrote as comment:

Just what is it that becomes "part of pop culture?"

Something stripped of its source--or any source. Neither film nor book. And this, evidently, is its real meaning--that it become common coin.

A cultural equivalent of money.

"Not something sacred," the reviewer said.

What does that mean? --but creating an abstract artifact, cut loose from the gold standard, leaving its value measurable only in terms of its currency of exchange.

But unlike money, exchange can be made only with other equally empty cultural artifacts. Value is assigned when the artifact is given some temporary utility as a function for selling a real commodity, political or commercial.

Jane Austen's novels are not degraded by the films that draw from them, but by our according them value because they have demonstrated such success in selling films.

Every reviewer who pumps that bit of wisdom into the septic tank of pop culture, reinforces exactly this transvaluation--or devaluation.

In "pop culture", words don't create or destroy value: they reveal what we choose to value or disvalue.

If there is no escape from ideology, as Žižek demonstrates--what ground to criticize this diminishment?

None, but in the absence we find in the works themselves. In their Lack... In the silence that is their well of meaning--tainted, to be sure, by our very act of drawing it forth, but granting us, in that absence of meaning, a freedom we cannot own or subsume--but only live and respond to, again and again.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Second Edition: Manic-Depressive Illness, Goodwin and Jamison

Having a personal and familial interest in the subject, I was happy to see from Oxford University Press, a new edition of Goodwin and Redfield's introduction to manic-depressive illness.

I assume that the OUP release (exert below), a beautifully written piece of expositional prose, is the work of Kay Redfield Jamison, author of Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperment.

Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression, Second Edition by Frederick K. Goodwin and Kay Redfield Jamison chronicles the medical treatment of manic and depressive episodes, strategies for preventing future episodes, and psychotherapeutic issues common in this illness. In the excerpt below the authors introduce their second edition.

It has been 17 years since the publication of the first edition of this text; they have been the most explosively productive years in the history of medical science. In every field relevant to our understanding of manic-depressive illness—genetics, neurobiology, psychology and neuropsychology, neuroanatomy, diagnosis, and treatment—we have gained a staggering amount of knowledge. Scientists and clinicians have gone an impressive distance toward fulfilling the hopes articulated by Emil Kraepelin in the introduction to his 1899 textbook on psychiatry. Those who treat and study mental illness, he wrote, must first, from bedside observation, delineate the clinical forms of illness; they must define and predict its course, determine its causes, and discover how best to treat and then ultimately prevent insanity. Psychiatry, he argued, was a “young, still developing science,” and it must, “against sharp opposition, gradually achieve the position it deserves according to its scientific and practical importance. There is no doubt that it will achieve the position—for it has at its disposal the same weapons which have served the other branches of medicine so well: clinical observation, the microscope and experimentation.” Kraepelin was right, as usual. And he was remarkably astute in his observations and predictions about the immensely complex group of disorders collectively known as manic-depressive illness.

Manic-depressive illness magnifies common human experiences to larger-than-life proportions. Among its symptoms are exaggerations of normal sadness and joy, profoundly altered thinking, irritability and rage, psychosis and violence, and deeply disrupted patterns of energy and sleep. In its diverse forms, manic-depressive illness afflicts a large number of people—the exact number depending on how the illness is defined and how accurately it is ascertained. First described thousands of years ago, found in widely diverse cultures, manic-depressive illness always has fascinated medical observers, even as it has baffled and frightened most others. To those afflicted, it can be so painful that suicide seems the only means of escape; indeed, manic depressive illness is the most common cause of suicide. We view manic-depressive illness as a medical condition, an illness to be diagnosed, treated, studied, and understood within a medical context. This position is the prevailing one now, as it has been throughout history. Less universal is our diagnostic conception of manic-depressive illness, which evolved as we were writing both editions of this book. Derived from the work of Kraepelin, the “great classifier,” our conception encompasses roughly the same group of disorders as the term manic-depressive illness in European usage. It differs, however, from contemporary concepts of bipolar disorder. Kraepelin built his observations on the work of a small group of nineteenth-century European psychiatrists who, in their passion for ever finer distinctions, had cataloged abnormal human behavior into hundreds of classes of disorder. More than any other single individual, Kraepelin brought order and sense to this categorical profusion. He constructed a nosology based on careful description, reducing the categories of psychoses to two: manic-depressive illness and dementia praecox, later renamed schizophrenia. It is to Kraepelin, born in the same year as Freud, that we owe much of our conceptualization of manic-depressive illness. It is to him that we owe our emphasis on documenting the longitudinal course of the illness and the careful delineation of mixed states and the stages of mania, as well as the observations that cycle length shortens with succeeding episodes; that poor clinical outcome is associated with rapid cycles, mixed states, and coexisting substance abuse; that genetics is central to the pathophysiology of the disease; and that manic-depressive illness is a spectrum of conditions and related temperaments.

Read the rest HERE

Sunday, November 4, 2007

November 3, 2007

Grading papers. Hauling cat to vet and back. Lost time. Nothing recently completed, not of my own writing (three poems unended... absence of closure and unfinished are not the same. And one novel... )

There was Robert Olen Butler's Severance, but want to save this for a review. No time, no time.

Reading now Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions. This is rare biography, well written, thoroughly researched--and psychologically insightful far above the usual. Half way though and looking forward to the second volume.

Also half way through Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. I think: Tolstoy. A thoroughly old-fashioned novel, a crowd of characters, plots, subplots and Big Themes. Beautifully written. The battle scenes are wrenchingly brutal--hard to put down. Mildly disappointed... but only because it's not the kind of book I'm hungry for of late. Next on the pile: a Handke, a Josipovici, and Powers'The Echo Maker--I'll make up for it soon enough.

Have just begun Josipovici's book of critical essays, The Singer on the Shore. One a night before sleep.

For the morning, poems from Frank Bidart's, Star Dust. A true heir of Stevens, especially the late poems.

To make up for such spare Sunday fare... two poems from Star Dust


When to the desert, the dirt,
comes water

comes money

to get off the shitdirt
land and move to the city

whence you

direct the work of those who now
work the land you still own

My grand parents left home for the American

desert to escape
poverty, or the family who said You are the son who shall

become a priest

After Spain became
Franco's, at last

rich enough

to return you
refused to return

The West you made

was never unstoried, never

Excrement of the sky our rage inherits

there was no gift
outright we were never the land's



Not bird not badger not beaver not bee

Many creatures must
make, but only one must seek

within itself what to make

My father's ring was a B with a dart
through it, in diamonds against polished black stone.

I have it. What parents leave you
is their lives.

Until my mother died she struggled to make
a house that she did not loath; paintings; poems, me.

Many creatures must

make, but only one must seek
within itself what to make

Not bird not badger not beaver not bee


Teach me, masters who by making were
remade, your art.
Frank Bidart. Star Dust. Farrar. Straus and Giroux. New York, 2005

Friday, November 2, 2007

Black Spring

From a newly discovered blog, Black Spring Check it out. Some good stuff there.

This last one is particularly apt: I am sure that I am not alone in the fact that I have spent oodles of money and years “knowing myself,” as Socrates would have encouraged, via “psychotherapy” and the value I place on that kind of “exploration,” “insight forming,” “change-processing,” what-have-you, is immense. Now, here’s the kicker, what one “tells” his/her therapist/analyst/change-agent and technique used to facilitate the “process,” investigations, intimacy are in some ways similar, but generally profoundly different than what literary artists try to do. No, that’s not the kicker, either. Maybe this is: I cannot “relate” to a therapist/change-agent the same stuff that I relate as a writer. No, that isn’t it, exactly, either. Maybe it’s this: Psychotherapy is all about (1)”feelings”/World-“others”-view-approach-relations;(2)Discovery of these;(3)Interpretation of these;(4)Re=digestion of, including on-going, and Nourishment from these. Frankly, in my experience, it’s radically more “open,” “open-ended,” “depth-accessing,” “generative,” “World-making,” “self-determining,” and such. Nope, I cannot seem to “make my point” or quite discover what it is that I need to get at. (I do know this: There’s experience, including “verbal experience” that can be had in a therapist’s office, that cannot be had via writing or reading. And the very best psychotherapists have limited regard/interest in what “difficult poets” do/write/say, I think. What I don’t know is why the two worlds are so far apart. I don’t know why I view the psychotherapy world as far freer and open, the writing world as far more “intellectualizing” of “the World” and far less “open” to “experience that supercedes or transcends or encompasses “mere” verbal experience.

No, I still don’t know what I’m trying to get at, precisely, but I’ll have to pause and come back to the subject fresh. Here’s another angle and sub-topic, though. Writing that truly wanted to “change conditions” political and social would NOT locate itself in “literary” endeavors, venues, objectives, or careers. It would be essentially “detournement” and NOT present itself as “literature” or artifact or commodity at all. It would engage “the world” directly and aggressively, mostly in the form of highly “illegal” acts that most governments would use their legal systems to prohibit, thwart, punish, forbid. For example, documents, films, recordings would be used with the highest precision and artistry to (“destroy”) expose sociopathic government officials and reveal inhumane government acts. Most everything would be written anonymously, of course. Literary traditions shun this kind of encouragement of “propaganda” (and for very good reasons). Who are “the good guys” and who are “the bad guys?” “Artistic genius” and great artistic effort would naturally “be used” by “good” artists” and “bad,” alike. “But isn’t that already the case?” Menno asks, though I have not been able to include him in the new Google blog here, yet... Or, the other end of it, or one other end of it – okay, say that indeed any/all true literary production that endeavors to be “used” for political change doesn’t deserve to be called literary in the first place. Okay, yeah, but isn’t most all literary production used to “make a living” (mostly via university jobs) today, anyhow? Why is that any less “political” than...

Mayhew on Creeley

Jonathan Mayhew on Creely HERE

There's an almost painful tension in Mayhew's responses to poetry--in these three brief paragraphs, we see it raw.

The flayed ascetic need for reasoned judgement--an astringent intellectual discipline in the way he reads poems--and here, equally strong, an acknowledgment of how helpless a purely critical language before the reality of the poem itself--the reading experience it opens. Why no critical mode is sufficient to apprehend...or comprehend, everything in the poetic universe.

And he holds that tension. Doesn't let go of either side.

The very definition of critical integrity.