Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year from South Phlly!

(actually, January 1, 2008--a re-post)

The clouds have turned from gray to cotton white. The rain is gone. I can hear the Mummers down the street. Jokers dressed in satins, ribbons and spangles walking past on their way to Broad street.

Ten thousand working stiffs dressed in drag! Diddy dum-dum-dum, Diddy dum-dum-dum, Ohoooo, dem golden slippers!

Do I stay home and work on my novel, or watch the parade?

Ah duty, why hast thou not the visage of a sweetee or a cutie?.

Not that I can't do both. They'll be marching till dark, and then I can go to 2nd Street and see the real revelry.

Nothing like the Mummers. Happy New Year!


the Mummers won...

Jonathan Lethem: The King of Sentences

There are stories that strike me as fluff on a first read. Nothing about them that would compel me to take a second look; and then, a day or so later--when stories I thought far better have vanished from memory, I find the one I'd so lightly dismissed is still there, nagging at me like The Little Drummer Boy a week after Christmas. Passages or incidents come back to me, pop into my head while standing on a corner waiting for the light to change. Jonathan Lethem's "The King of Sentences," was like that. (December 17, '07 New Yorker). HERE

The Little Drummer Boy reminds me that the Persistence of Memory is not always a sign of great merit, but it's something I do expect from the best writing, and even in the case of the Drummer Boy, it's a phenomenon that demands to be accounted for. What is it about this story--or about my neural circuitry--that keeps the tune going long after the music stops?

The narrator and his co-dependent sexual partner, Clea, both aspiring writers and clerks in a book store, are positively giddy about sentences: "good" sentences. They throw their own best efforts back and forth in lieu of conversation. Write them on the walls of the loft they share, print them out and cut them into strips to scatter through the city in hopes someone as appreciative of the craft of sentence writing as themselves will find and read them. They use them to goad one another to orgasm--and more than anything, they long to meet their hero, the "King of Sentences," the author of books of questionable character (this is true, it turns out, of the King himself), but no matter. It's only the sentences that count. "Sentences are content!" Clea exclaims to the cop, who wonders if they ever bothered themselves with the content of the King's books. No, to bask in the presence of their creator is a dream they cannot deny themselves.

What is going on here, and who is this King of Sentences? Wordsmith's Books tells us that Lethem "pin-points himself and the whole current literati crop of Chabonphiles and Eggersites on the head with this one. The Jewish Literary Review would have us see "an older Nathan Zuckerman in the King."

I'm not so sure. The way they call him The King in the last third of the story, and the final paragraph, where they understand, "abruptly and at last, just what it takes to be King. How much, in the end, it actually costs," brought to mind, incongruously, to be sure, the only popular figure I know of who, in the popular media is consistently called "The King ."

I'm more impressed by the relentlessly hypomanic, evanescent, monomaniacal idiocy of the two characters, their unblinking willingness to abase themselves in the presence of this sleazy author. This is what both troubles and fascinates me. You understand as you read, and this is more than a little disturbing, given the dubious character of their hero, that there is nothing they won't do to win his blessing--a premonition that comes close to realization in the final scene.

I couldn't help but think of those early letters of Raymond Carver to Gorden Lish--in the next week's issue of The New Yorker.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Jews, Medigans, Goyim and the Great Assimilated Herd

After the gods have fled... let us enjoy the food they have left us!

Doesn't this look good!

A rice pudding grown up, educated and fit to honor the gods... or goddesses, as the case may be.

Served for Thiruvadhirai, commemorating Shiva's birthday, on, appropriately enough, Siva's Arms, photo and recipe HERE

Surrounded everywhere by the lights, music and commercial shills and shalls of the dominate, midwinter U-Essian holiday (I've come to cringe every time I hear this one-of- three major North American states referred to as "America," as though Canada and Mexico were were like Alaska and Hawaii pre--1950's... existing only in anticipation of being absorbed into the Empire").

I was reminded the other day, shopping in the family owned Dollar Plus store down the block, of the great Indian diaspora. The cashier, a young woman with a shy and engaging smile, supervised by an older woman with sad and knowing eyes, wished me a "happy Christmas." Flashed through my mind--that they might be Christian, but more likely Muslim, Hindu... Parsi? but this obligatory midwinter greeting, obliterating our most precious differences, struck the same chord. Why do we all aspire to be Medigans?"

"It's not my holiday," I said, but smiled, and wished them well... and left.

Medigan... is old South Philly Italian for an American. Say Americano, or "American" in an Italian accent. "An American, an American, an American."

Used the way Lenny Bruce used goyim. One of his most brilliant routines. The South Philly Italians would have been for Bruce, Jews. The Old Order Mennonites in Ohio, were Jews. Whoever remained distinct, identifiable, were Jews. The great assimilated herd who saw everyone else as "other"... they were the goyim, the Medigans.

A few blocks away, at Geno's steaks ( a local icon and tourist trap--if you have to, please, go to Pats!) they want to believe they've joined the herd. If you don't wanna speak the English, go back where you came from, their sign says. An old pattern; a few second and third generation immigrants, insecure in their communal identity, turn Nativist. Twenty-First Century No-Nothings.

We are all diaspora.

We are all in exile from the Animal Kingdom we have fled, believing we were chosen by the gods... still believing, long after the gods themselves have fled in terror at what they have inspired...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Alice Mattison, Amos Oz: Two from the New Yorker

Reading notes: two short fictions from the New Yorker, a comparative review.

Brooklyn Circle, by Alice Mattison.

Brooklyn Circle is a standard, flat, day-in-the-life story of emotionally constipated Constance Tepper. Told close first person, though it would be hard to say this represents any particular point of view, as Constance is blessedly free of anything you could mistake for insight or self-awareness; the narrator falls short of omniscience only by failing to report from inside the heads of the other three characters: her former husband, Jerry, thirty year old daughter, Joanna, and an unnamed man whose apartment they stumble into from a fragment of elevated railway, a remnant of the Brooklin Circle named in the title.

Constance has agreed to let ex-husband, Jerry, who now and then comes to New York on business from Philadelphia, where they used to live; "spend a few days in her Prospect Heights apartment (though not in her bed)." This time the occasion is not business, but one of his eccentric historical investigations. He wants to locate what may be left of a never completed project to circle Brooklyn with an elevated train line. He used to take off on similar excursions while they were married. Constance had never accepted his invitations to accompany him. We can assume that this excursion will prove the exception (and that he will likely share her bed before the story a gun in the first scene and we know they'll have sex before the curtain).

The daughter enters the story as a complication whose main purpose is to show us how disconnected and out of touch her mother is. Of the daughter, we're told that "much about Joanna confused her mother, and lately the confusion had intensified. It had been hard to keep track not just of Joanna's emotional geography, but where, in the simplest terms, she was;" a sentence that would apply equally to Constance. Joanna had been arrested not long before. Something about an altercation or argument in a bar. Joanna, at least, had strong views, which seem to have gotten her in trouble. This was in the first months of the Iraq war and someone in the bar had taken exception to her anti-war views. Cops were called in and she was arrested. This may or may not have been a case for the A.C.L.U. Constance, though a practicing attorney, has no interest in investigating--prefers, in fact, not to think about it. They all have dinner in a Chinese restaurant, and the mother's reluctance to get involved or take sides is a source of irritation to both daughter and ex. Nonetheless, when they get home, they look at each other "for a long time." She likes his smell. She "leans into his embrace" ... and you know what comes next.

Then they go looking for the lost El. Remember, this is the first time she's gone with Jerry on one of his trips. They do a lot of walking. Jerry takes notes. Con is cold to his enthusiasm until he confronts her as uncaring. That's enough to break down her resistance and they both climb up onto that section of track where, after Jerry sprains an ankle, they escape through the window of a man who has threatened to call the cops on them. Safely home, Con finds that her hands, "but not the rest of her--wanted to touch him." She doesn't. She goes in the kitchen and has a glass of water, "looking at her hands."

There you have it. Eccentric husband, still in love with Constance, in touch with his inner child: self-absorbed Constance who doesn't know what she wants, afraid to take risks. A shared moment to show how it might have been, but wasn't, and won't be. Their lives will go on as before. Nothing much will change, and there is no reason to wonder why.


The stranger was not a stranger. Something in his figure repelled but also intrigued Aryeh Zelnik at very first sight, if it was indeed first sight; it seemed to Aryeh Zelnik that he somehow remembered that face, those long arms, almost down to the knees. Remembered vaguely, as if from an entire lifetime ago.

So begins Heirs: by Amos Oz.

Compare this with the first paragraph of Brooklyn Circle.

Fourteen years after her divorce, Constance Tepper agreed to let her former husband, Jerry Elias, spend a few days in her Prospect Heights apartment (though not in her bed). They’d lived in Philadelphia when they were married, and Jerry still lived there. Now and then, he came to New York on business. Jerry was a tall, thin man who had grown up in his grandfather’s lamp store, learning not to break the lamps by standing up in slow stages. His father was Jewish, his mother a light-skinned black woman from the neighborhood who worked in the store and married the boss’s son. Jerry looked ethnically ambiguous.

In the first, every declarative statement is contradicted or followed by a qualification. We are given facts, it seems, only for the sake of casting them in doubt. In the second, there is nothing ambiguous... except the word itself. In this, Oz and Mattison are both following well established, but very different conventions. Mattison, that of a minimalist realism: events represented as they appear to happen, reported in straightforward prose that doesn't get in the way or call attention to itself. There is no internal analysis. Facts are meant to report on themselves, commenting on themselves, fact after fact: the illumination of the everyday; prosaic and otherwise unremarkable characters and events granted a fictional coherence those same characters, like Constance, would be unable to see--their very opacity serving by contrast to help us--the readers--grasp the significance of that invisible chain of causation. We put down the story and ask: are not our own lives perhaps like that? Woven into a coherence we are too preoccupied, too distracted to notice?

The problem is, how many stories of this kind do we need to lead us to such a revelation? Each such story is a closed system, complete in its incompleteness, and such meaning as we may find in them is a kind of web reminding us that we are indeed, caught in the chains of causality, that even the random freedom of chaos is an illusion. The single "lesson" of the art that frames the story, is that we are not free.

Amos Oz's story takes on the problem of causation by resisting it, by refusing the reader hooks that tie one set of events to another, by dissolving the "facts" before our eyes. Who is this man Aryeh Zelnik may or may not have known in some past life? We are never told. He parks his car outside the gate, strides toward the front porch where Aryeh is resting on a hammock.
As hard as he tried, he could not bring to mind who this stranger-unstranger was. Where had he met him? When? On one of his trips overseas? In the Army? At the office? On campus? Or perhaps back in his school days? The man’s expression was wily and jubilant, as if he had successfully played a trick and was now enjoying his victim’s agony. Behind, or beneath, the strange face was the elusive insinuation of an irritating, familiar face, a face that unsettled Aryeh Zelnik. The face of someone who had once treated him badly? Or perhaps the opposite—someone to whom Aryeh had done some forgotten injustice?
It was like a dream, nine-tenths submerged, with only the tip still showing.
There is more than a hint of Kafka in this story.

We are told that the visitor, who will introduce himself as Mafzir, Wolf Mafzir, has long arms, almost down to the knees. The simian image is repeated later in the story, and we learn that Aryeh, too--though a much taller man, has arms "almost down to the knees." Maftzir informs Aryeh, in obsequious circumlocutions, that he is an attorney come on unspecified business. He repeatedly gets Zelnick's name wrong, and when told to sit down, he lands himself on the hammock, "thigh to thigh with his host. There is about him a "miasma of thick smells... of digestion, of socks, of talcum power, and of armpits [...] over all these smells was a faint netting of pungent aftershave lotion," which reminds Aryeh of his father--the familiarity suggested is both to himself, and generational. Aryeh has him move--but away from the window where his mother might be disturbed to see his silhouette.

The mention of his mother serves as transition to a brief account of Zelnick's background. His wife, Na'ama left him to visit her best friend in San Diego and never returned. She writes him letters telling him how well she and her friend are getting along. She tells him their "spiritual teacher" feels they should not give one another up. Their married daughter cautions him (again, by letter) against pressuring his wife to return, that he should find himself another life. This is how he came to live with his mother in the house where he was born. Since coming, though he had been a unafraid of danger since childhood, served as a marine commando, "undaunted by enemy gunfire or climbing up cliffs," he has "developed a potent fear of darkness in an empty house. His mother is ninety years old and death. Occasionally he has fears that she might fall ill, or come to require his constant care. It's occurred to him that this would "give him a logical and emotional justification for transferring her to an appropriate institution, and then the entire house would be his. He fantasizes bringing in a new and beautiful wife. Or a series of young women. Meanwhile, they live their daily routines. The mother in her room reading old books, Aryeh Zelnick listening to the radio and building model airplanes.

The stranger continues to circle around the point of his coming, growing more insufferable with every moment, helping himself to ice water--which he gulps down from Aryeh's glass. He effuses praise of the village of Tel Ilan, calling it the Provence, no, the Tuscany of Israel, and with this, closing in on his point, giving the history of Zelnick's family in the region. Again, he seems to get names wrong. Some ninety--almost a hundred years ago, there was one Leon Akabia Zelnick, he relates. Aryeh, corrects him.

"His name was Akiva Aryeh, not Leon Akabia. Maftzir ignores him, and we see he is not wrong with the names, but names have been changed. The family came from Russia. The story he tells is important. Let me quote it in full.
At the beginning, if I am not mistaken, the two older brothers arrived—Boris and Simeon Zelnik. They came from a little hamlet in the Kharkov district in order to establish an entirely new farming colony here, in the heart of the untamed landscape of the forsaken Menashe highlands. There was nothing here. A desolate plain of thorns. There weren’t even any Arab villages in this valley; they were all on the other side of the hills. Later, Boris and Simeon were joined by their young nephew, Leon, or if you insist on it, Akabia Aryeh. Then, at least according to the conventional story, Simeon and Boris went back, in turn, to Russia, and there Boris murdered Simeon with a hatchet, and only your grandfather—your grandfather? Or your grandfather’s father?—only Leon Akabia stubbornly remained. Not Akabia? Akiva? Excuse me. Akiva. To make a long story short, it’s like this: By coincidence, we, the Maftzirs, are also from Kharkov! From the forests of Kharkov! Really! Maftzir! Perhaps you’ve heard the name? We had a very famous cantor, Shaya Leib Maftzir, and there was one Gregory Moisevitch Maftzir, a very important general in the Red Army. A very, very important general, but Stalin had him executed. In the purges of the nineteen-thirties.”
The man stood up and imitated a firing squad with his two chimpanzee arms, ticking off a volley of bullets and displaying, as he did so, sharp but not entirely white front teeth. He reseated himself on the bench with a smile, as if he were pleased with the way he had carried out the execution. It looked to Aryeh Zelnik as if the man expected a round of applause, or at least a smile, in exchange for his own saccharine grin.

Only now does Wolf Mafzir reveal that the personal matter he wants to talk about concerns Zelnick's mother. He asks permission to take off, first his jacket, then his tie, then does so. He has in mind some kind of development--that they as they are, after all, family, "even partners," this is a matter they should work out together. As the property is in the mother's name, and who knows how long she will live, or the terms of her will, they will have to make themselves her legal guardian so there would be no need for her consent. Remembering how he himself had given thought to the idea of putting her away, "these suppressed hopes made him feel guilty and even disgusted with himself. But the strange thing to him was that this repellent man seemed to be reading the ignominy of his own thoughts."

Aryeh rises, questions Maftzier. Who does he really represent? But by this time control as passed to the intruder. Zelnick attempts to break the meeting off, to force Maftzir to leave by announcing that he has to enter the house to attend to some business. Undeterred, Maftzir wants to follow him in. Aryeh is powerless to say no and Maftzir enters the house, not following, but leading, going from door to door, finally entering the mother's room, where he finds her in bed covered to her chin by a wool blanket. He leans over to kiss her, first on the cheeks and then on the mouth. She opens her eyes and extends her hand, which he caresses, then slips off his shoes, crawls into bed beside her and pulls he blanket over himself.

Aryeh Zelnik hesitated a moment or two, turned his gaze to the open window, through which he could see one of the abandoned farm sheds, as well as a dusty cypress up which orange bougainvillea had climbed with fiery fingers. He circuited the double bed and closed the shutters and the window and drew the curtain, and, as he darkened the room, he unbuttoned his shirt and undid his belt and he also removed his shoes and undressed and lay down on the bed beside his ancient mother. And so they lay, the three of them, the lady of the house between her mute son and the stranger, who did not stop petting and kissing her and murmuring softly, “Everything will be fine here, my dear Mrs. Zelnik. Everything will be wonderful. We will arrange everything.


Maftzir's account of the family history is central to this story. It calls attention to itself by its very pointlessness. Offered by way of introducing Maftzir's purpose, it explains nothing, reveals no links in a chain of causation. The connective tissue of this story, what holds it together, will not be found by connecting dots and drawing lines of causality. This is not a self contained form, a closed circle like Mattison's story, but rather, is built out of a network of relationships that draw the reader first outside the narrative itself to a rich mélange of allusions. Cain and Able, the wolf and the lion (Aryeh is lion in Hebrew), the sins of the fathers visited on the sons, the alteration of names and transformation of the land (and the pull back toward it's origins) in the founding and development of Israel, the inescapable bond of generations, the return of the repressed... even to the absurd association with Red Riding Hood--the Wolf crawling into granny's bed!... but through that, to the symbolic mode of folk tale and myth. A close reading would demand an interpretation able to knit all these associations and allusions together in some meaningful relationship, and then back into the story. Here, the psychology would not concern the characters, but that of the story itself. And while I'm not prepared to carry this out, I can say without qualification which kind of reading is the richer and more rewarding.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

South Philly Love Song

I'm moved in... an 18 hour day. My son was to have come by ten, didn't show up till two. By that time, I'd carried almost everything downstairs and loaded it on the truck. Those endless boxes of books... all but the computer desk and a couple of file cabinets. The first, too awkward to get around the corner on the stairs, the file cabinets, too heavy.

An eighteen hour day. I'm not that young... two days to recover.

But oh is it good to be back in South Philly. My idea of paradise... well,okay. Not paradise. But a neighborhood with everything I could want or need in walking distance. Not a small consideration, having no car. And food! Ah... the food! A Vietnamese/French bakery a block away with bread and croissants to die for, butcher shops, cheese stores, the Italian Market... misnamed these an international market. Restaurants: Mexican, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Italian, Spanish.. you name it.

I don't cook foo-foo. My oldest son's a chef. I leave that to him. I cook paisano... but good food, well prepared, simple, fresh ingredients--what makes life worth living day by day.

The hours of daylight grow longer... soon it will be spring!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Artist and Critic: a Question of Authority

From This Space, Nicholas Murray, in a comment on the post Some thoughts on the death of criticism:

Is it worth scrolling back to Hegel who argued that art would gradually become displaced by philosophy as we, as it were, grew up intellectually unlike those Greeks who had to take important truths in intuitively through their art. I see this as the beginning of a road that leads to conceptual art, a progress from the sensual, tactile, visual (visceral?) enjoyment towards abstract contemplation of the idea or Geist. The critic in this scheme becomes less a servant of art, an explicator and evaluator, than a fellow-creator, whose intellectual function is equal to that of the artist. Critics who argue that authority comes from being a creator are in the rearguard of this movement. The "space" identified by this blog I take it to be one in which both kinds of mind meet and explore things together, ultimately abolishing the distinction. I am warming to the idea having been a bit of an artist-knows-best fundamentalist hitherto.

I began to reply as a comment but it kept growing, and thought it would be better as a free standing post.

I asked Nicholas: What do you mean by "together?" As one thing? Or in conjunction--in dialog, in relationship? If conceptual art marks a progress toward something like abstract contemplation of the idea, would one not expect this art, not only through its appropriation of abstract ideas, but in itself, to be a kind of philosophizing? I certainly don't find that to be the case. Conceptual art, rather than becoming more like philosophy, seems rather to be challenging philosophy and abstract thought on its own ground, appropriating ideas to its own, quite different ends.

I think you go wrong when you view this as an issue of authority, or rather, as a competition for authority, as though there were One Sort of Authority, and artist and critic were fighting for its blessing--Jacob and Essau at the feet of Isaac. Authority as Nobadday.

The authority of philosophy is not that of the artist, and the authority of the artist, not that of philosophy (the definite article with 'artist,' but not for philosophy) Through art, we orient ourselves in relationship with others. I was going to say, individually and collectively, but a collective, like "society," is an abstraction. It has no concrete place of being, such as we feel ourselves to have. I have to add this because I don't mean to be thinking of individuals (us) as monads, as discrete units apart from our relationship with others, but as beings who build a world we can have (and know) in common, a world (like the gorilla fashioning its arboreal nest) as humanly habitable place in space and time.

What happens to us when we read stories, before the images we make, in listening to the ordering of time and tone in music? What do we do when we experience art? We orient ourselves in reality, by selecting out of the incomprehensible totality, what we need to paint a picture of the world, to tell the story that--does not tell us, but places us--such that we "know" where and who and what sort of creatures we are.

Neither philosophy nor science do that. They can't give us a world to live in. They examine and explain and take apart what we believe we know and experience. They can show us the artifice of our belief--in what we are, in the fabricated world we inhabit.

Art emerges from the primal effort to live as conscious beings in a reality that knows nothing of our existence as we experience it: whatever it is that drives the brain to integrate the competing and separate systems of perception, memory and interpretation into an unshakable belief in the semblance of our Selfhood.

Science can name the parts and explain their mechanisms; Philosophy can remind us that it is a semblance, that what is real lies outside our power to possess, by either experience or knowledge. Art happens. As our sense of Selfhood happens. The difference is, that art is a happening that we make. It happens in relation to a natural world filled with the many other worlds we have made. That is, it uses whatever materials it needs to give us what we need, natural and humanly fabricated: the Romantic painter using the colors of sunset and sunrise, the conceptual artist using the ideas of philosophers and critics. And here is exactly where the critic comes in. It's not as if the critic has only one authority, one opposed to or other than that of the artist. Rather, the critic draws on multiple authorities. He examines, disassembles, names the parts--so we can better appreciate the artifice, the art that went into the making. But he also--if he is a good critic, an honest critic, enters into what happens, into the happening, and draws on that in what he writes. In this, in his drawing on what happens, he is like the artist, is an artist, and at the same time, remains other, secured to a way of knowing that frees us from the illusions we cannot help but make and need, lest we vanish into our own dreams, even as the subversive power of art frees us from the chains of knowing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Reviewing Realist Fiction for Dummy's

I was making dinner tonight, listening to NPR, when Maureen Corrigan came on with her list of best reads for the year. These on-air reviews usually wash over me, my mind too busy on other matters, but tonight--after so many blog posts on reviews, reviewers, and establishment fiction, I put my knife down, washed my hands, sat down--and actually paid attention.

It occurred to me as she repeated her formula reviews, book after book, why it is that reviewers (make that, commercial--print or electronic... even "non-profit" versions of commercial reviewers) have such a preference for realist narratives. It makes it so much easier to review the books. In effect, all you have to do is name the subject, reduce the book to a summarized report on a fictional event--as though the story might well be real, as though any distinction one might make between "story" and "real" is of no matter. Next, list the cast of characters, offer a movie level sketch of their problem/conflict/search-for-meaningful-resolution-of-past-trauma, etc, sprinkle the review with enough adjectives to make it sound like they're statements on the merit and quality of the book--but so general and empty of specifics that they function rather like movie background music. And there you go.

No need to say anything about the novel as artifact, the way the prose or narrative voice and strategy shape the story. The story is enough, nothing that might explain why the novel in question might be more or less than any miniature paraphrase, though I suppose, that's what those adjectives are supposed to tell you.

All this was running though my head--conversation in progress as she spoke--before she wrapped up her list with the two books she didn't like: Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke (a "clichéd Vietnam novel," and Junot Diaz', The Wondrous Life of Oscar Woa... she didn't explain her distaste).

I had some problems with these books, though I thoroughly enjoyed both of them, but after her vapid, formulistic blather on the "gritty realism" of Richard Russo, I couldn't help but wondering if the problem with these last two books was that they simply cannot be reduced to simplistic formulas. If you're going to show where they succeed and where they fail, you are going to have to do some real work... or, have another catalog of clichés to draw on to cover up the sad reality that you didn't know how to read, let alone serve critical judgement, on books of their class (need I mention names?).

I think Josipovici has accurately named the problem, a reactionary denial of the most basic questions raised by the modernists on the relationship between art and life. As though the last decades of the 19th and the first half of the 20th Century hadn't happened. I differ from Josipovici, in that I think that what we are seeing is not a wish to continue 19'th Century realist narratives, but a new development, one based on an aesthetically reactionary reading of those 19th Century writers--something analogous to fundamentalist religion, which is not at all a clinging to traditional modes of religiosity, but a reaction to modernity, that recreates religious traditions in such a way that anachronistic conflicts that did not exist before the challenge modernity had posed are foregrounded as basic dogma. Even secularists like Richard Dawkins are taken in by this... treating religion as a kind a primitive version of science, there to explain the workings of the physical world, while ignoring the purely narrative power of myth, where the objective claims, vis-à-vis how the physical universe operates, only become important in themselves when challenged, as when they are confronted with the contradictory claims of science.

But that's another subject...

As Dan Green notes on Reading Experience, "Reviewers privilege narrative, but not necessarily realism. There is no necessary connection between "story" and "realism."

See the following posts on this same point:
Establishment Literary Fiction

The Fictive Universe of Realist Fiction

Formalist-Realist: What is the Real Question?

Toward Imagining the Real

More on Literary Magazines

Daniel Green has an essay in CONTEXT
HERE on literary magazines. He's done his homework on this one, comparing a number of the more prominent lits. He raises the one question that really matters: why is the fiction published in these magazines so uniformly bland, why are there so few exceptions (Green mentions some)to the conventions of narrative realism? One would think, if there is any mission to justify this strange institution, it would be to seek out and encourage writers who challenge the forms and expand the range of short fiction.

Green's essay is a MUST read.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Josipovici's Creative Negation. Sunday Salon

It's been a long time since I've had a Sunday at leisure. For three weeks running it was bronchitis and tooth trauma (at least that's over); then a broken RSS feed. This time, it's moving day tomorrow. All but a few books are packed in boxes. Much cleaning to do and other final preparations, but before I pack up the computer, I want to offer a few thoughts on Josipovici. I've just finished The Singer on the Shore. This is book by a writer, something to keep in mind when you read these essays; he is writing about how and what he reads, of those ideas and experiences that nourish or impede his work. He is not, and doesn't claim to be a philosopher, he doesn't draw on ideas from psychoanalysis , or probe too deeply into critical theory. You won't find Zizekian pyrotechnics, or elaborate linguistic puzzles on the order of Derida or Lacan, or the condensation and ellipses of Blanchot; if that's what you expect when you come to these essays, you will be disappointed. But you shouldn't be. He is none of these things, but that is not his weakness, but his strength.

When he began to work on his first novel, The Inventory, he found himself unable to write an opening that satisfied him. Again and again he tried to describe the room where the possessions of the deceased lay scattered about waiting to be inventoried for his survivors. Every attempt failed, until he realized that this description of the room simply didn't interest him. He was doing it because it was a convention. When you enter a scene in a novel, the narrator fills the space with images, with sound or silence, with atmosphere that sets the tone and mood, but this was not what he had in mind when he began to write, this was not what interested him; it was not what he needed to do; it was not what this novel required. I can't think of a better illustration of Josipovici's essential integrity. He does not--he cannot--simply follow a convention simply because it has worked for others. In that first novel he encountered the kind of block that is no block at all, but those defining limitations indispensable to all successful creative efforts. In the essay, "This is Not Your Rest," we find the same idea in another context.

It was Stravinsky once again who most perfectly summed up the paradox. He remarks somewhere that had Beethoven had Mozart's lyric gift he would never have developed his own remarkable talents. In other words, what is required is that we make the most of what we have and do not mourn the absence of what we do not have. Because circumstances have caused certain roads to be blocked to you, you are forced to discover others, which might never have been found had it not been for you and your circumstances. For what do Kafka's and Proust's remarkable fictions, Eliot's remarkable poems emerge from, if not the profound sense that all ways were blocked to them?"

I wrote in my journal, after copying out this passage (mentioning that one should certainly add to this list, Beckett--evading the shadow of Joyce), that the other side here, is how easy it is for most to go on imitating, expanding on what others have discovered with little sense of "being blocked" by their predecessors achievements. This made me wonder which, then, comes first? Is it because the artist finds one path blocked that he is forced to find another--forced by circumstances to work out another way? Or is there something already present, a sense, perhaps, of his own as yet unrealized work that rises up, as it were, in rebellion, and will not let him follow any other way in good conscience? There is nothing "out there" blocking the way. It comes from within... or rather, is itself, from the beginning, a part, and a participant, in the process; the negative, the "not this, not this not this" that makes this possible.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Critical Theory and Politics-Left and Right:

Right and Left Nostalgias, from blah-feme

What is it about theorising that draws such venom from the right? I have been thinking about this for some time now, and it has taken on some urgency recently (see post below). What brings me to ask this question is, perhaps, something to do with my fidelity to the idea that theory and left-wing politics are not merely connected or comfortable bedfellows, but that left-wing politics is, ontologically as it were, born of theory, fundamentally reliant on it and refuses the separation of theory and practice, seeing that separation as a symptom of hegemony. In this sense, then, the right is right (as it were) to hate theory, to sniff in it the narcissism of leftist nostalgia (as they would have it). The left, they would put it, is stuck to the image of a coherent and catch-all theory of the social in which humans and agents will circle in a tight and closed system of mutuality. Of course, they are right in one sense: the left's attachment to theory has also been about an attachment to a fetishized notion of theory as somewhat removed form the sphere of action by dint of its overarticulation, its over-investment in the Symbolic.

Read the rest HERE

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Toward Imagining the Real

A few notes on Imagining the Real

The kind of thing that pass through one's mind under the dentist's drill. Twelve points toward the idea of Imagining the Real.

1) A forthright acknowledgment of the fact of language is the one thing that matters in distinguishing Establishment Literary Fiction (Mark Thwaite's term) from literature. Plot, storytelling, emotional involvement--The Tempest has all that, and we're never allowed to forget that it's all play.

2) Dennis Johnson and synesthesia.
Why shouldn't sweat squeak? There's more to mind than conventional Horatios have dreamt of in their philosophies.

3) Imagination is not fancy. Imagination is the measure of our capacity to recognize the Real.

4) We can only represent representation, never the Real.

...but we can imagine it. Though we cannot represent what we have imagined.

5) What is real cannot be possessed, least of all in knowledge... unless we mean that in King James' sense.

6) No one can see himself. Or think of himself. All that complicated organic mechanism that works to integrate the as yet unnumbered brain functions into the semblance of a whole--of selfhood, falls apart the instant we turn our mental gaze on what--until that moment--we felt to be our self.

More simply put: we are not present in our own division.

7) Presence matters.

8) Language, too, is real. That means, Language, as such, can become present. Finding Presence in "good sentences" is like dissecting a cat to find the purr.

9) The most superficially "representative" fiction, may be as engaged on the level of language as any "avant garde" or experimental work. I would hold Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus up as an example of exactly this. A comparison with the letters of Emily Dickinson would be helpful here.

10) Engagement, not Representation.

11) All representation is second hand, hence, the tendency of those who pursue it to retreat to the Common Coin.

12) The first requirement for a disengaged criticism, is the willful refusal to read.

Daniel Green on B.R Myers Review of Tree of Smoke

Daniel Green, at The Reading Experience, has a piece on B.R Myers' hack review of Tree of Smoke. On the one hand, I'm pleased to see reasoned criticism of Myers' reviews, on the other, I can't help feeling that any direct response grants this man's efforts more respect than they deserve.

I was amazed to see in the comments that followed how many defenders Myers has--but then, we seem to be living in an age that breeds defenders of the indefensible. In any case, the comments raised a number of questions that beg for a more considered response. Just one example that needs thrashing out: Myer's habit of isolating individual sentences (a method that reminds me of Yvor Winters hyper-rationalist misreadings of Shelley and Stevens), an over valuation of the sentence that cropped up in several comments, and which raises some serious problems regarding translation.

I've been taking notes... something on Imagining the Real. Here's hoping I'll be able to put something together over the winter break.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Quotation Marks in Fiction

In a comment on MetaxuCafe to my previous post, Jim Murdoch raised a question about the use of quotation marks:

I read over this piece several times but I kept stumbling over the lack of quotes. I’ve read books before that dispense with them and I’ve never understood what the author hopes to gain by dropping them.

As something that comes up with some frequency, I thought it would be good to open for discussion as a Sunday Salon topic.

I wrote in reply:

Quotation marks are a printers convention. I've abandoned them in stages. For a while, I used a modified French system: Em-dash without the guillemots. In time, even the dashes restricted the reading beyond what I found acceptable.

Quotation marks are artificially restrictive, and deadly if you have any inclination to observe and leave evidence for the many layers of mental activity that mediate between an explicit speech act meant to be heard by another character, and a purely internal voice--one that may not even be entirely acknowledged by the mind in which it occurs. For everything but explicit speech you have to resort to stage directions.

He mumbled under his breath. He thought to himself. She said, or thought she said... without being sure he heard what she intended. She thought, as soon as the words were out her mouth. etc...

This is the narrator telling the reader how to read. I find it insulting.

In a film script or play, the actor fills in the lacuna. So do good readers if you don't treat them as infants. Sometimes you hear what another character has said like an echo in your own mind.

I prefer to use a minimum of directions. He says, she says. Not so much to point out the explicit speech, as to warn the reader to be on the alert for shifts from open speech to internal monolog, reflexive afterthoughts, words perhaps spoken, but not as dialog meant to be heard, semi-conscious associations. I also want to include the narrator in the scene--sometimes as projection of a character's thoughts, sometimes to throw the meaning in doubt, to open the interpretative possibilities.

If you pay the slightest attention to how your mind works in a conversation you will see that most of what happens, happens entirely outside of anything you could include in those silly little printer's signposts. Minimalism is one way to get at this, like Josipovici--I'm thinking of In a Hotel Garden, where the speech is so enigmatic, so stripped of background and stage direction, that it remains open for the reader.

I'm not a minimalist. I have to go about it by other means.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Narrative Voice: Ari Figue's Cat: Sunday Salon

I can never complete a work until I am sure of the voice. I've been so close for so long with this novel--gone from 3rd person to 1st to close third and back; alternated the voice chapter to chapter. Nothing that quite works. Here, at last, I think I've found the middle ground, a voice that speaks from the interstitial space between the reader and the fictive world it evokes, participant in both, belonging to neither. The first person plural, "we" opened the door.

Ari Figue's Cat

Book IV: Ch. 30

Missing Persons

At first we couldn't find the light--greeted by a long tunnel of a room, open stairway to a loft-like second floor--watery green the sun that filtered through a skylight draped with a sagging batik sheet; milky blue the light rippling through the glass bricks. The door left open the better to see. Inspected the shadowy forms stacked shoulder high along the walls. In rows, forming corridors, branching passageways, dead ends--a maze of boxes, transfer files, chairs and tables piled high with books.

You’ll have to pull the switch at the box, she says. I think it’s under the stairs.

Particles of dust stirred to life by our entrance dance in narrow shafts of sun penetrating the spaces in the flooring from the loft above.

What is all this stuff? Gazing in amazement--lost in a reverie of shadows--his voice gives Naomi a little start.

What do you see? I haven’t been here in quite some time.

Boxes. Lots of boxes. He stands there, this letter in his hand from Sorrel. My mind is anyplace but here in this room, like someone swimming under water, starved for breath, I long to break surface, to face the sun of living day.

Yours? he asks.

By default. The burden of possession without ownership. Left to me without will or testament.

Someone who died?

Someone I know--or thought I did. Not well, it turned out.

A friend?

An acquaintance.

There were no relatives? No one to claim her things?

Her? I don’t recall that I made reference to sex.

He must have Wren in mind... or is it Sorrel, whose letters are in his back pocket?

I’m sorry.

Don’t be. It was a long time ago. The cause for sorrow has long since passed. It’s an odd thing, isn’t it? He might well have died. After almost twenty years. One would have been justified to have accepted the possibility.

He... the owner of these things, he's not dead?

No. Missing...

Something in our nature that does not believe in death--or endings--unless in stories. Not even there. A story has an ending only to let you go back to the beginning--to start over again. Naomi runs her hand over the surface of a stack of boxes, feels the grit of dust, turns her palm. Slowly brushes the one hand clean with the other.

A son or husband goes to a faraway land, never to be heard from again. It takes a long time for the distinction to fade--between missing and dead. She pauses. Breathes deeply of the musty air, as though savoring the aroma of time. Sooner or later, it comes to the same thing. The dead never leave us; the missing never return.

I no longer see him; but I feel his presence. I find this difficult--and difficult to account for, as years have passed since I felt anything for him... either longing or regret.

I can't help but think of Sorrel. How in his mind she must still be as she once was, though she would be... No. He would not be able to picture her. Those who die young will never age. Not that such a thing would cross his mind--that anything might have happened to her, but her life, because it did not follow his, is beyond change, as though she had in fact died. This letter... it must have come as a shock, to suddenly... be compelled to imagine her as real... as someone our own age.

They slip away, out of reach, the missing... and unlike the dead, who, given time enough, release us--the missing never do.

Surrounded by shadows, we are equally lost in our own reveries. Behind on the rehab, living off the advance for three months, he must have anticipated a very different reception. Relieved that she had no inclination to pressure him.

For Sorrell, there would be no residua of desire. His infatuation, if he remembers it all, the reality, not what it has become--will come back to him as one recalls a childhood malady, a story that has happened to someone else. He can have no wish to renew their relationship, or revisit it. Having come to prefer the phantom, I think he must fear her return, that she will sweep all that aside, fancy and memory alike. Why then, when there have been other women, women he has known better, longer, why had those few weeks retained such a hold on him?

What haunts us, she said, turning to him as though she could see in the dark, what haunts us--isn’t death. It’s the blurring of boundaries. That somehow, when we weren't paying attention, they left, and when they return, we will see, only then, in a flash--all that we have lost in their absence.

* * *

He sits at his desk, pen in hand. The moment he opened the door to the apartment, even as he was climbing the stairs, I could see it in the way he moved, in his very breath--the old fear--the voice pressing under the surface, stretching its limbs like a beast waking from long hibernation. The cause, I think, or one of them--for this paralyzing inertia that’s held him in its lock-grip, trapping him in his solitary cell.

To act--moves us forward, when what we want is to go back--to recapture a lost moment﷓﷓or undo it. Procrastination feeds on itself. The more you fall behind, the more convinced you are that the task is impossible. One moment you are standing there, dust pan and broom in hand, gazing at a little pile of sand on the floor. You give a great sigh, thinking of all the other duties and petty tasks yet undone. You close your eyes, take a deep breath--and when you open them again, you're holding a teaspoon and staring at Mt. Anapurna.

I keep going over the scene in my head: the night he woke up and saw Wren--or whoever it was, playing her childish game in the snow. Under his window--as though for his benefit, a performance--as though she knew. From the moment he set foot on that icy floor, before he reached the window--he was caught. By the time he reached down to pick up that snapshot, the script had been written. It's not enough to daydream about it, spin out stories--first you have to know. Only then do you have the power to erase and forget.

The script.

Figue's word.

Or mine?

He looks at the glass and sees in the reflection a phantom peering back at him--a ghost of his own accumulation, scraps and clippings gathered over a lifetime, an eidolon, an absence staring at a space left in the snow by a girl no longer there. He lied to himself, pretending he wanted to strip away the fiction, peel it off like a bad skin, but what has he accomplished? More lies to pack the wound. What is to be done, but wrap it in yet another layer--bandage flayed reality till it stalks you like a mummy in a B movie?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Question is, the Blogger said...

From Blah Feme, where are we; where have we come from; where are we going?

What, to be clear about this question, is blogging for? And whom does it address?

I think I am done with the Utopian claims about blogging: we cannot make claims to Blogostan as an ideal space when blogging itself always wants to free itself from the mundane worn out channels of everyday (formal) political discourse and wants also, often, perhaps more often than not, to free itself from most forms of political discoursing altogether. The squelch of blogging, then, its damp insidious superfluity, is a refusal of the utopian altogether. It is resolutely dystopian.

If we are after discourse, or perhaps at the beginning of something we cannot yet grasp, will there be a moment when it becomes clear, when the viral damp dries, the messy upheaval settles and the lines of ordinance become clear? I think, to revisit the logic of the always-already-late, the owl of Minerva only now takes flight in order to hunt!

Read the rest HERE

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Gabriel Josipovici: In a Hotel Garden

No one in the novel acknowledges the repetition of the pattern. But there it is. They met by accident on holiday in Italy. They were together. They talked, and then he left. Years later, Ben and Lily, too, met by accident on holiday in Italy--that is, Ben was on holiday; Lily had came in search of something. Something that had to do with the past, her Grandmother's past. The pattern, it seems, is never a perfect fit. How then to decipher its meaning? But there it is, this pattern, broken as it may be, at the center of the novella. They meet. They part. Meet once again (as her Grandmother and the man Lily might imagine could have been her grandfather, as they met again, briefly, for no reason we can understand). There is nothing to suggest anything will come of this meeting of Ben and Lily. But what will happen after? The shadow of the Holocaust is too dark to dispel, and too strange to portend anything in the way of a future. The pattern is engendered out of itself.

Absalom hanging by his hair from the limb of the tree, cut down by King David's men? There is no pattern there that we can see. The Biblical stories are rich in patterns, each serving as comment and interpretation on the others. In contrast, we hold the two mis-meetings of the novel, one against the other, and while we can see the pattern, neither tells us anything about the other. Each stands alone. Unengendered.
What does that word mean, the child, Robert, wants to know, overhearing the conversation with his parent's childless friend. Two worlds. The world of Ben's friends, Rick and Fran, with child and dog. They are immune to the questions that drew Ben and Lily together. They live in the engendered world from which Ben and Lily have been estranged. As though there were no connection. Nothing passes from one to the other. They recognizing the gap, acknowledge the failure. The same thing happens between Rick and Fran, and between them and their son, only they have made themselves immune to the loss--for the time being. Only the dog pays attention.
Is this what is missing? Attention? I think of Simone Weil. What she meant by this word. Both Lily and Ben (more Lily than Ben) seek to attend to their lives, to what happens to them... or has happened, in the past. But it's as though this were something that had been lost in the past. Something that Lily knows, but only by suggestion from the stories her grandmother told. Something she wants to find again... but not as though it belonged to her. A remembered trace... what it meant to be a Jew. Not the belief.... the experience. Of living in a world where one moment, one pattern engenders another in such a way, that out the patterns, stories are born. Stories that give birth to stories. Not broken patterns to be stumbled across like ruins, like finding oneself, again and again, in the wrong garden, at the wrong time, in the wrong life.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A humanly habitable World, Thoughts for Sunday Salon

Religious traditions have preserved, even while subverting it with their reactionary defensive attacks against critiques that would force them to give up all their objective claims, a subversive aesthetic claim--without which we have no world to live in, no world that will support our human needs--those needs we make out of nature, an artifice to support a communal life that is more than hunting, gathering and reproducing.

What we value as essentially human, as opposed to the life of other animals--are all the variety of ways we are able to act and create that no longer serve those basic, animal needs. We don't need cities, sailboats, architecture or archeology, Super bowl games, symphonies, stock markets, poems, gardens, astronomy or astrophysics, bicycles, formula one race cars, movie stars, waltzes or rock n' roll... or stories about ourselves... all that goes into making the aesthetics of the human, and which we threaten by our over valuation of technology, by a too narrow rationalism--a rationalism not willing to take seriously the special needs we acquire as part and consequence of our partial freedom from the domain of nature (hunting gathering reproducing)--even while remaining simply another species in nature's kingdom.

Shakespeare plays beautifully with this in the garden scene of Richard II, and in the discussion on grafting in the Winter's Tale: the opposition, in his terms, between nature and "art," (that is, art as artifice, craft, skill).

Where in grafting, you take "A gentle scion to the wildest stock, and make conceive a bark of baser kind ... The art itself is nature."

But we practice nature's art as nothing else in nature does, and makes us a question to ourselves, as nothing else in nature is.

A dog, a squirrel, a whale, a tiny patient spider, don't ask, what does it mean to be a dog, a whale, a spider? But who can say what it is to be human? We are both an animal among animals, a species in nature, and something self-created. Something so strange, that we had to invent gods to project outside ourselves what we have done, to deny the responsibility, deny coming to terms with what that means.

Religion attempts to address these questions, and fails by refusing to accept authorship of what it, and we, have invented. By accepting responsibility--that we made up this character we call God--we assimilate religion into the purely human aesthetic, where it becomes, as it was for Blake, a profound well of metaphorical self-reflection, a poetry of the human soul.

The wind is blowing across the plains, the tall grass undulates like the
fur of a great beast dreaming of prey. We wake, the warmth of sleep
abandons us to the chill light of morning, the strength of yesterday’s meal evaporates in
the autumn air. Will today's hunt bring success? Will we make it to the
sheltering caves in the distant hills before the first winter storm? Will
it always be so? The excitement of the hunt, the elation of the fresh
kill, of skins heavy with gathered seeds, the days of sleep in the sun,
the pleasures of the flesh under the beneficent moon... will it always be
so? Will summer always give way to autumn and autumn to cruel winter, to
days when the spoor is cold--when even the dogs catch no scent of eland
or antelope on the glacial wind?
Will we always find ourselves like this, the bones gnawed clean around the
fire, the marrow sucked, our furs too worn to keep us warm?
But look! The mountains are not so far. Surely there are herds--in the
valley over the next hill-- complacent and fearless and without
number. Observe the dogs, there is much they
can teach us--how hunger only makes them the more joyful for the hunt!

are not alone... I have felt the warmth of your hand and only last
night I dreamt of such things as the earth has never seen. I believe the
wind spirit, who dissolves all things and returns them to invisibility,
found favor in us as we slept. I see her light shining on your face, and
my own light reflected in your eyes. With such a blessing, we will never
be lost in this great world no matter how far we wander.