Friday, May 30, 2008

Lost in the Wilderness

Journal Entry
Tohu v'vohu
Until the first word is written everything is possible. Speech opens outward to the unconditioned, to consequences unintended, to freedom. Not so the written word. In speech, we are like a ship with the bone in its teeth the words trailing out behind us in a widening wake soon to vanish on the surface of a restless sea, We may, of course, erase as we write, circling back to a new starting point--speaking to ourselves, as it were; but that all comes to an end the moment the page is read, and in truth, even the freedom of erasure and revision is an illusion. Every word added to the next forecloses an infinite array of possibilities.

If you set out to tell a story you quickly find that you cannot go just anywhere. The more you write the more the words take charge, reducing the writer to a mere instrument playing out theme and variation over sets of ever more determinate patterns, and yet, it is seldom clear what those patterns are; they seem to generate ghosts, shades, douplegangers eager to mislead, eager to lure the story into featureless deserts, barren wastes where it will wander hopelessly lost.

Resist the temptation to give in, to surrender to passivity. Above all, resist the safe way out, the straight and narrow path to the finish. There is no safety. No easy way to end it. The very demons that seem so threatening may hold the answer. Run from them and everything is lost. Like the fire around Busirane's castle, it is there to pass through. How else will you be able to give Amoret back her heart? .

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Not the Pointing Finger, Not the Moon, but the Word

See Infinite Text , on Letters from a Librarian. Part of what I was trying to at in Literature and Propaganda

Tornado: Kearney Nebraska... Echo Maker

I just saw a report of a tornado in Kearney, Nebraska... on the Platte River where Sandhill Cranes gather in spring and fall migrations--and the site of Richard Powers', The Echo Maker.

Because I will never forget the tornado that destroyed the neighborhood where I lived, friends who lost parents, the devastation that drops from the sky... for the hundreds of unexpected visitors to this site because of this post... I assure you, the connection was more than a book. My heart goes out to those caught in the wake and to all of you concerned for the safety of relatives and friends .

Tornado links on this blog:



Two Poems: Laura Riding

Sunlight on my face, backlights the rose, its leaves, its thorns. I sit and read. People walk past--their different walks, each to his or her own heartbeat, to his or her own rhythm.

For no reason... poems have their own reason, but need none: two poems of Laura (Jackson) Riding.


Have no wide fears for Earth:
Its universal name is 'Nowhere'.
If it is Earth to you, that is your secret.
The outer records leave off there,
And you may write it as in seems,
And as it seems, it is,
A seeming stillness
Amidst seeming speed.

Heavens unseen, or only seen,
Dark or bright space, unearthly space,
Is a time before Earth was
From which you inward move
Toward perfect now.

Almost the place it is not yet,
Potential here of everywhere --
Have no wide fears for it:
Its destiny is simple,
To be further what it will be.

Earth is your heart
Which has become your mind
But still beats ignorance
Of all it knows --

As miles deny the compact present
Whose self-mistrusting past thay are.
Have no wide fears for Earth:
Destruction only on wide fears shall fall.

The Way It Is

It falls to an idiot to talk wisely.
It falls to a sot to wear beauty.
It falls to many to be blessed
In their shortcomings,
As to the common brute it falls
To see real miracles
And howl with irksome joy.

Many are the confusions that fall,
Many are the inspired ones.
Much is there indeed contrary,
Much is there indeed wonderful,
A most improbable one it takes
To tell what is so,
And the strangest creature of all
To be natural.

From A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, Persea Books, New York.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Holy Trinity of Modernist Prose

Have finished the Douglas Parmée translation of A Sentimental Education. A lot to assimilate, the contribution of this book to what we think of as "realism." With a few qualifications, I think I was not so far off in my post on Madame Bovery.

Frédéric and Emma pursue impossible romantic dreams. It would be an inexcusable romantic gesture
to elevate their characters, to hoist them on a pedestal beside Werther. But what happens to that driving passion, brought down from the clouds and injected into Flaubert's flawed, middlebrow characters? Is the fault in the education? In the escapist novels Emma mistook for reality? Or in the characters he choose, like a Greek god who takes it into his head to experiment--to grant a gift to mortals too great for them to bear? In how many ways can they fail the gift?

If the object and goal is "love" --the answer would be: as many ways as there are people on earth. Had fate granted Moreau an early death for Arnoux, and he and Madame Arnoux had married... there would have come the time when, letting down her white hair, he would have been repelled, as he was in the end... but probably a lot sooner, and without the "Platonic" distance to shield him from the realization.

Which leaves me with an impression of Flaubert, not strictly as a realist--but an idealist, a conflicted idealist whose realism sees through the romantic delusions, but clings to, and drives his idealism to an even higher level, incapable of realization... but one that nonetheless, persists. Unattainable, at least, when tied to animal passions: love, politics. But left open for other possibilities? Other outlets... writing great novels, perhaps?

I normally resist reading the author into the work, but hard not to think of Flaubert's hopelessly romantic mother and practical, scientifically minded father fighting for his allegiance. If he wrote as though channeling his father's mind, it may only have been to hush the beating of his mother's heart.

‘Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we are wishing to move the stars to pity.’
— Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Have begun Musil's The Man Without Qualities. This may take the better part of the summer!

Fifty pages and I'm enthralled. What a wonderful complement and contrast to the other two great prolix modernists--Joyce and Proust.

Someday, someone will come along equal to the task--to compare the three. In generations to come, I have no doubt they will be read as a co-equal trinity of early 20th Century fiction.

Poetrywalla: New Indian Poetry Journal

I received this announcement by email:


Abhidhanantar & Poetrywala, a reputed publishing house has published Path-breaking poetry in Marathi, English and translated works since the past one and half decade.

Abhidhanantar-a quarterly, is one of the most respected literary magazines in Marathi today. As a publishing house, Abhidhanantar has contributed immensely in giving Marathi a global presence by publishing significant contemporary poetry in Marathi. Its English imprint Poetrywala- has published books of poetry of established as well as fresh voices in English.

We are pleased to inform you that Abhidhanantar & Poetrywala is launching Poetrywala, a half yearly literary journal dedicated to serious literature and arts in English. POETRYWALA will provide the much-needed space for new creative and critical writing in Indian languages in the form of translations as well as original writings in English. We hope it will be highly instrumental in building bridges between existing cultures, regions, languages and nations. We would really appreciate your involvement in this endeavour.

We request you to send in your poems (in English), writings or essays along with your short bio-data for the first issue of Poetrywala. A consent letter from you to publish your work in Poetrywala would be mandatory.

** The subject of the first issue is -NEW WRITING IN INDIAN LANGAUGES
You can reach us via e-mail:

Or by post or courier on the address:

Hemant Divate

Abhidhanantar & Poetrywala
1701/1702, 6A- The Whispering Palms,
Lokhandwala Township,
Kandivali(East), Mumbai-400101.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Literature and Propaganda

Listen to Andy Palacia--Belizean Garifuna singer and musician.

Immediacy... language overcome, by music?
I've been thinking about poetry, about language.

From a recent post on Spurious
For a thinker like Kierkegaard, however, as a recent book has shown us, language is not truer than immediacy, and the loss of the latter in the act of expressing it leads to the mistaking of 'reality as represented' for 'reality as reality', even as consciousness, for the most part, is unaware of this duplicity

The direct--needled-adrenalin to the heart... of the Garifuna music. Why, what makes this impossible... from where I am?
I have a beer in a neighborhood bar. Watch the TV (don't own one)... and I sort of get it.
We live in the virtual equivalent of a Stalinist state. Yeah, I know--they don't (usually) come knocking on our doors in the middle of the night...if we're not the wrong sort of immigrants. They don't grab us on the street... if we're white, or properly middle class, suit-and-tie-professional blacks... but what we say, what we write.... they come for that, without our even seeing it.

They come. They confiscate. They use.

They turn whatever turns-on the popular mind... into an ad.

What did they do... in Poland, 1952? Czechoslovakia, 1957? Writers, artists--who wanted to assert themselves?

They learned to subvert the language in order to preserve it. They learned the art of indirection.

We live in--for all the superficial openness... if not for all--in as oppressive and mind-stifling a social and political environment as Prague, 1957.

No, we don't get hauled off and sent to Siberia (most of us... if we're the right sort )... but they don't need to do that.

Just make an ad... of anything. And it will do.

And you're on their side.

The problem then, if you want to write and think freely... on the one hand, you can make your ideas so complicated that only other philosophers will understand them... or care.

On the other?

Perhaps there is no more important task for a writer--in the heart of the Empire, the belly of the beast--than understanding in every detail, in all its subtle crudity, the rhetoric of received notions. And the application for the propagandists of power.

How? to avoid them.


... to defy
syntax, grammar, "logic" ... in the name of reclaiming...

syntax... grammar... logic.

The difficulty takes different forms in prose and poetry. For poetry, we confront this on a more basic linguistic level. In prose, in story telling... it's the syntax of narrative itself--one step up.

Storytelling... how to tell a story... a story, not an ad? That can't become an ad? ... or if not that, with sufficient subversive power to undermine and scramble the kidnapped message?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What my Dreams Look Like

What my dreams look like

And more dreams

And you thought baseball size hail was a rural legend?

Check this out

The fat tornado... the half-mile wide one... that was what our tornado looked like.

Morris Street, South Philly: May 21, 2008

Sparrow fledgling spreadwing


scattered heedless on the
page -- feather

wing and claw
take flight -- words


to things

on an old man's face.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ruskin Heights Tornado: 57 years and counting

JRBD is no longer active. Operations moved to JR Magic Names.

First, an excellent FAQ on tornado safety and history

A News Film taken shortly after. The funnel shown is NOT the Ruskin Tornado. File footage. But the rest is.

4/28/2011 I watched in awe and horror the videos of the storms that hit so many places yesterday in the south... and those from Tuscaloosa over and over. I've never seen another that looked so much like the one I remember... it's size, the moments when the sun would light one side of it, the lightning that illuminated the center of the funnel (I was told I'd imagined this... that this isn't something that happened). My heart goes out to those lost, and those left without precious objects of memory and identity.

New members of our society of lifelong cloud watchers.

51 years:
May 20, 1957. F5 Tornado, Kansas City, Missouri
Ruskin Heights.

Scroll down for photo of aftermath, links and credits to photos.

If you were there, you are encouraged to add your memories to the comments below. There are other first hand accounts HERE and HERE

On the afternoon of May 20, 1957 I remember walking South on 109th Street, beside me, a class mate and next door neighbor, Larry Perkins. The street ends at the end of the block. We are at the crest of a long ridge--the "Heights" of Ruskin Heights. Below us, the football field, gymnasium and auditorium and the long brick class room corridors of Ruskin High School. Even now, I don't have to close my eyes to see the sky. I can feel the heat, the humidity.

I was 15. We had moved to Kansas City from Chicago in 1952. In one of my earliest memories, I was huddling in a storm cellar in Norman, Oklahoma where my father was stationed during the war. Cradled in my mother's arms. Tornado.. The beginning of a life long fascination with storms.

I was a voracious reader, loved books on animals, on science, and had a head full of ideas about tornadoes and how they formed and the conditions that spawned them--not all of it accurate, I'm afraid--but at 15, who would know? It was the perfect weather for these classic spring storms. In fact, before dark, there would be 51 recorded touchdowns. The Ruskin Heights F5 would be the strongest. I spent much of the late afternoon and evening outside watching the sky. I wanted to see what the real thing looked like. Hoped I might catch a glimpse of a hook dipping down from the back wall of an approaching super cell, a writhing, serpentine tail of cloud. The radio had predicted the possibility of severe storms. I was ready and waiting.

Where did we go, Larry and I?

No memory at all. Perhaps to the strip mall--the one where so many were caught when the super market roof fell in on them. But that was hours later. My next recollections leap forward--well after 7:00. There's been a sighting somewhere near or past the Olathe Navel Air Base. Our neighbors to the north, the Settles--J.B, was a reserve flier. Cougar jets--so the Olathe sighting brought it home. When you hear a place name on the radio that you know, that has emotional resonance--you pay attention.

My parents had gone shopping--driven to Sears with my younger sister, Peggy. I was alone in the house. I put the radio in the doorway so I could hear it and went back and forth, from front yard to back, watching the darkening sky to the south and west. Reports put the funnel, now confirmed, on a path headed directly toward us. Southwest. From my reading, I assumed all tornadoes came from the southwest. Trace my finger on a map... we were at the center of the bullseye.

Find a place of shelter on the opposite side--so I had read. That would be our garage. I took the digging forks and garden implements from the wall and put them in a large wooden tool chest. Not good to have pitch forks flying through the air, I thought. Gathered several blankets and lay them against the southwest wall of the garage, ready to wrap myself in at the last moment. Flying glass, I'd read, was a danger.

I had a Kodak Brownie camera. It was already dark for taking pictures--a great column of cumulonimbus clouds blocked the sun; I grabbed a chair and left my camera there. At the last minute I might get a shot of this thing. Those old Brownies--to take a time exposure, you had to hold the shutter switch down by hand. The chair was to keep the camera steady.

Memory: standing in the back yard. The first sighting. Neighbors to the east--pointing to the south. Nothing. Then lighting strikes would illuminate the thing... nothing like I'd imagined. No little hook dipping down out a cloud. No serpentine tail.... something immense, vast. Black at the base. A skirt of debris thrown up. And as it came closer--dropping out of the cloud wall, the sun low in the sky shown against it--like white whipped cream!

It was beautiful... and all the more awesome for its beauty. Forget Mount Blanc--if you want the Romantic Sublime, there it was!

A swirling column... that as it grew closer-- you had to turn your head to see one side and then the other--a straightforward glance wouldn't take in the whole of it... too close... ran to the front of the house for my last-chance snapshot... held down the shutter--when around the corner, there was my parent's car--doors flung open at they approached--voices calling to jump in.

But our dog! Our little honey colored cocker spaniel, Kitty (my dad liked Gun Smoke... )... I ran in the house, my mother's voice screaming at me to hurry, grabbed the dog, jumped in the car on the run. The tornado, by now a monster above us, the sound of it--not like a freight train, as I'd read... but something that seemed to well up from the very earth, the deepest organ notes--I thought of a recording we had of Albert Schweitzer playing Bach. In the Book of Job, this would have been the little finger of God.

At the south end of the block, a park... where most of the wreckage would later be buried. "Turn at a right angle!" I cried... remembering what I'd read. But my father at the wheel heard, turn right.

Directly into the path of the storm.

Behind us... and I'm not sure of this part of my recollection, there were two more cars--all of us going full accelerator, peeling away to out-race this thing, and then we were showered with debris, a clattering against the roof and windows, the car shaking--speeding into absolute blackness... and then it began to clear.. and we could see again, and we slowed down.

Behind us... no more cars. We never knew what became of them.

For hours, my father and I wandered through the ruins, following calls for help from those caught beneath the debris. People wandered like living dead, studded with roofing nails, bleeding and dazed. The sound of water gurgling out of severed pipes, the sweet smell of natural gas. It was not easy to find our own street, our house... which fared better than the Perkins' next door: nothing left but the concrete slab. (I attributed this to my having left all doors and windows open... the myth/theory of the day, that the sudden drop in pressure contributed to the destructive power of the wind) . Behind our house, to the east--devastation as far as you could see.

I close my eyes... 51 years and counting. And I see the sky, that wall of cloud. I still have dreams. But they have grown strange. It comes again and again. It has taken my parents, taken friends, lovers.. those who never came close to that storm. And soon enough, I know... It will come again for me.

Carolyn Glenn Brewer's book on the Ruskin Heights tornado: Caught in the Path>
Scroll down for photos.

NOAA : meteorlogical data, maps, graphs. Scroll down for photgraphs of the tornado in formation, and post-storm damage.

Friday, May 16, 2008

View from the Front Steps: Morris Street, South Philly

I sit in front of the house late in the afternoon, reading, greeting neighbors as they pass. I look up, ask myself: what do I see in the scene before me that is new, that I've never seen before? Nothing is ever the same--if only we learn to see in the moment. This is what I tell my students. Shouldn't I try to be as good as my word? I open my journal: an exercise in awareness.

Views from the front steps:
Morris Street, South Philly
May 13, 2008

Sparrow perched
on sky crossed
lines, eclectic
birdlike fly

blue or brick
or green tendriled
porch rail vine

lintels painted white
in rows

a dandelion parachute
a neighbor
nods in passing

Cortege, corsage

to sleeve

in lieu of heart

May 14

Rose leaves in threes
in trembling semaphores of air


to passersby

who cannot hear
the song, but note
the time and mark
the hour

counting numberless
the ways

a wise man sees

May 15

       (Full stop!)
this riverwash of words



of wing on wing
neither crow-like churns and rows but

on moving battlements
of cloud

climbing castled column
           invisible turret

                       of air

Friday, May 9, 2008

Klimpt, Freud, Nietzsche

From The Guardian.
It was all over. The Reich was finished, Hitler dead, his charred jaw bone all Russian pathologists could find of him in the smouldering ruins of Berlin. Hundreds of miles to the south, in Austria, an SS unit prepared to stage its own private apocalypse.
On May 7 1945, they arrived at Immendorf Castle in southern Austria. The German soldiers already billeted there were ordered to leave. That morning, German forces in Austria had signed their surrender, to take effect the next day; for these SS men, it was the last night of the war.

Klimpt was more than gold leaf and erotic glitter. The article linked above shows him as an artist close in spirit to Nietzsche, and to his Viennese contemporary, Sigmund Freud.
Klimt ... had a passion for Greek art and mythology. But instead of celebrating the rationalism of the Greeks, he evoked their dark side. A profound influence on his work was Friedrich Nietzsche's 1872 book The Birth of Tragedy, which argues that Greek tragedy grew out of music, the purest of the arts because it taps into the deepest, most primitive parts of the psyche (the book is addressed to his friend Wagner, whose music famously does just that). Klimt dramatised this radical theory of art in two paintings, Schubert at the Piano and Music II, painted as a pair in the late 1890s: in the former, Schubert gives a drawing-room performance; in the latter, the more primal image of a Greek lyre-player is flanked by mythological monsters. Both paintings were burned in 1945.

Philosophy, the first to be finished, was an explicit Nietzschean manifesto. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues that western culture is driven by a superficial confidence in facts and a coarse drive to manipulate the world: this "optimistic" rationalism, he writes, must now give way to a tragic sensibility that accepts the uncertainties of our perceptions. In other words, while science as it was understood seemed to offer certainties, Nietzsche championed a more subjective understanding of the world. Klimt's Philosophy makes this idea movingly visible with its great, agonised column of human bodies - loving, longing, being born and dying. The universe through which they cascade is a vertiginous empty space dotted with stars.
Of course, I know this painting only from looking at a black and white photograph of it. Philosophy is gone forever - burned in 1945 along with Medicine and Jurisprudence, paintings that express the same pessimistic view of the world.

Is There a Part of the Brain Reserved for Reading Poetry?

Classes are over. Grades turned in. Only two weepy emails from students wondering what they had done wrong that I didn't give them the 'A' they were sure they deserved. Do math professors hear complaints like this? "I know I couldn't solve a single equation, but I worked so hard!"
Now to finish the novel I've been working since the end of the last century... and settle in for a summer of reading. I like to begin the day with poetry. Working my way through From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960 - 1990, George Oppen's New Collected Poems, A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, and Frank Bidart's Star Dust. For some time I've been taking notes on the Thomas H. Johnson collection of Emily Dickinson, every poem. I've not yet covered 300 and the poor paperback edition is falling apart, held together with duck tape and paper clips. I write the annotations in the margins so don't want to buy a new copy.
In fiction: currently reading Douglas Parmée's translation of A Sentimental Education. I should try it in French, but still working my way though Germinal--a page, a paragraph, a sentence at time. Before the summer's over I hope I'll be able to finish, among others, Musil's Man Without Qualities.
Come the late afternoon, written out for the day, aching for human company, too early to make dinner, hours before I can justify calling it quits and heading for Bella Rosa for pool and a few glasses of wine, I take a chair and set it in the entrance walk in front of my apartment. (I rent a first floor front efficiency in a typical South Philly row house. Even have a little porch and a patch of garden space for basil, tomato, parsley, oregano and thyme). Broad street and a subway exit is only a block away, so there's a steady parade of people coming home from work that time of day. I bring out my journal, a book, a couple of New Yorkers or the London Review of Books, arrange a pillow at my back, settle down to bask in the late afternoon sunlight and read. The passersby satisfy the need for company; I get in quality reading time--altogether a fine way to end the daylight hours.
Cold wind and rain today, but there's a nice café on Passyunk (several, actually... and not one Starbucks. I can take my pick)... pack up and do my reading while enjoying an espresso and almond biscotti.
Yesterday I was browsing through the London Review of Books (T.J. Clark has a wonderful piece on Courbet and Poussin at the Met--and there's a James Wood review), when I found myself staring at--not reading, but staring at a poem. I couldn't read it. Couldn't force myself to read it. This got me to thinking. I can't read the New Yorker poems either. Sometimes it's because they show up half way through an article or story I've already begun, and I don't want to stop. But staring at this poem in the LRB (two poems, actually--and both quite short)--I realized it was something else, more to it than that. I simply cannot read poetry when I'm already engaged in reading prose. I try... read a line or two. Nothing registers. It's almost painful. I feel the muscles in my stomach contracting. I feel bad for the poets, their work surrounded by hostile prose, like trying to read them with three TV's going.
To read poetry I need silence. Wide borders. Lot's of white space. Best of all--to come to them fresh from a night's sleep full of dreams, cup of coffee in hand, desk cleared of clutter--especially--other reading matter. An open notebook--blank page inviting my impressions.
I'm sure that if my head were encased in an MRI when reading first poetry, than prose, entirely different areas of the brain would light up. For those who say they cannot read poetry... would it help to do a session of Tai Chi first? ... or yoga? Poetry requires a state of heightened mindfulness, a mind so acutely awake the circle comes back around and overlaps the state of dreams. But then, isn't that true in general of how we experience art? Everything else is divided between waking and sleep, but engaging a work of art we live in a state that is neither and both--a third state of mind, a state of mind, like the kingdom of heaven of Jesus of the gospels--with many mansions. Some for poetry, some for fiction, some for dance. Shakespeare has one all to himself. And Bach. Homer. Cervantes. Lady Murasaki.
Ah, I would be happy be occupy a rusty watering can in the far corner of an old weather beaten garden shed at the edge of the estate of the least of these houses of the mind.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Subversive Power of Realist Narrative: Peter Handke: On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House

I've been reading Peter Handke's On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House. I finished it this afternoon. As I read the last few pages I found myself surprisingly moved.

Why? Why was I surprised?

From the first page I could see that this would be an intellectually engaging read, aesthetically challenging--a book which, because it would not lend itself to easy classification, would resist easy judgement. I expected, that is to say, a mostly cerebral experience. It was certainly that, but that I found it deeply moving--like listening to music, was unexpected. I don't begin to understand the how and why of it. I'm not one to think of reason and emotion as contradictory. I have not idea how to go about writing a review, but a few things occurred to me on the walk home from the café where I'd been reading, thoughts I wanted to put into words.

I was going over those parts of the novel where the journey of the pharmacist of Taxham grows increasingly fantastical. Perhaps it's because the fantastical elements are so material, so concrete, nocturnal wind and dust, labor and sleep, bicyclists and the turning of the seasons--though space and time come a bit unhinged--or at least, uncertain, there is no release from heat and cold and gravity, so I found myself resisting a recurrent impulse to dispel in afterthought the fantastical... the perfect word.. dis-spell: to dispel the spell, to read those passages the way some scholars in the earlier generations of "scientific" biblical critical studies would reduce everything uncanny, otherworldly, miraculous--to something that better fit their notions of reality. Because they couldn't give up their idea that the Bible was in some form, true, revealed or otherwise, and they had accepted scientific methods and views--then the parting of the Red Sea... must have really been a low tide in the Sea of Reeds. It did not occur to them what an egregious misreading this was of the story as written. As though we were to posit, as serious criticism, some spurious but truthy sounding "scientific" explanation for Krook's spontaneous human combustion in Bleak House, or insist that we better understand Macbeth if we make the witches nothing more than projections of his pathological ambition. That they may be--but for the play to come alive, they are very much--really witches! No, the meaning of the crossing of the yom, of the flight from Egypt. is just what it is in the Passover Seder--a nes, a miracle. This is only a problem if you insist on confusing how a story "means," with how we understand the physical universe.

Nonetheless, I found myself at some point relating the fantastical journey to the blow on the head--as though he were telling this story to the narrator who is interviewing him... say, after recovering from surgery? Recounting a delusional episode? Those things hadn't really happened... such is the hold, the subversive hold of realist narrative, that--even knowing better--we do no easily let ourselves read a story on its own terms.

New Yorker Stories, Great Experiment: II. Generative process

I began this survey of short fiction with a question about process. When we write a review (and this question is only gradually becoming clear to me as I work my way through these stories), is it possible to include--even to recognize--the process that engendered it? Art, as I understand it, is a work of erasure and transformation; transformation by erasure; the erasure of its origins. That penumbra, that luminous shadow we encounter as its aesthetic reality, its very power to affect us stands in inverse proportion to the success of the erasure.
In the single chapter assigned to her in As I Lay Dying, Addie says of Anse: "He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack." When we were discussing this passage a few weeks in class, the word leapt out at me... "a shape to fill a lack." A lack! I'm sure it was the echo from Lacan that startled me, but Faulkner is not using the word in Lacan's sense. It would be tempting to hear lack as want, as need, but in another passage we see that this is not what she had in mind either. There are words, she says, where she hears "... the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not deeds, that are just the gaps in people's lacks."
A gap in a lack? A space in an absence--a word that is neither deed, nor lack of deed. An absence compounded by a void.
I thought about erasure. The lack, the absence of the origin... and how the word stands for both: the shape that is filled like a jar until the jar disappears and no longer has a name. We cannot have--that is, cannot experience both the shape and that which fills it, not at the same.
The word then is not only a replacement, a transformation of what has been erased, but a trace. When I think about how to write a review that touches on the aesthetics of process--how the poem was made, the generative process of which the story is the product, what need to focus on, to look for... is the trace. Focus, as the eye in focusing on what is distant loses sight of what is near at hand, in focusing on what is near at hand, loses sight of what is distant. We cannot see both the jar and that which fills it.
In Great Experiment I see two traces, two independent, mutually generative points of origin, one for each of the two layers: the environmental layer, the concept, in movie jargon--and the characters and story line which, as I wrote--does not so much represent that layer, as is itself a product and manifestation of it. Imagine the concept first: Toqueville's America and what has become of it... of us. To carry this forward you need to imagine the characters, the script and rolls they will have to follow to carry out--to make manifest--that concept. But how to make this more than a simplistic allegory? How to transform the concept to environment? We confront a limitation here: character and story, in order to manifest the concept, but be more than that, have need of an origin independent, yet consonant with their environment. I find that trace in the paragraph where Kendall compares the life he had with his parents with what he's able to give to his children.
Kendall had never wanted to live like his parents. That had been the whole idea, the lofty rationale behind the snow-globe collection and the flea-market eyewear. But as the children got older, Kendall began to compare their childhood unfavorably with his own, and to feel guilty.
There in that guilt, is a trace strong enough to engender the story that follows and all the links to the environmental layer and the generational theme: Toqueville to the present, father to son, son to child. "How had it happened in one generation?" he wonders. "His parent's bedroom had never looked like this." He's haunted by his father's "dresser full of folded laundry, a closet full of tailored suits, every night, a neat, clean bed to climb into." The coinciding links: for the story-line: to live as his father had lived, he would he would have to find the money. From this, the scam, his own "great experiment." To the historical, social layer: "It wasn't the only master bedroom of its kind in Chicago. Across the country, the master bedrooms of more and more two-salaried, stressed-out couples were taking on the bear-den atmosphere of Kendall and Stephanie's bedroom."
One can imagine it proceeding out from either point. Thinking of Toqueville--the historical contrast then-and-now summons the family history, the node of personal guilt that itself is manifestation of the economic and social conditions. Or from such a moment of guilt---an awaking to the realization that for the first since the end of the Second World War, children cannot claim to be better off than their parents--or to promise their own children a life better than their own.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

New Yorker Stories: Great Experiment. More Beginnings. Sunday Salon

The Great Experiment
Jeffrey Eugenides
The New Yorker, March 31, 2008

Jeffrey Eugenides' story

In Leaving for Kenosha (see my review HERE), Richard Ford foregrounded a day-in-the-life of a family set against the aftermath of the Katrina disaster. While their story forms a discrete part of the disaster, it is never a offered as a microcosm pretending to represent the whole. The experience may be shared, but it is not shared as a continuum; the whole is not only greater than its parts, but its reality cannot be inferred from them. Jeffrey Eugenides' "Great Experiment" also deals with the relationship between collective and individual experience, but here, the individuals are presented more as manifestation of their social condition. I'm going to hold the opening paragraph analysis for the end.

Kendall is a forty-five year old editor of a small, non-profit publishing house, called the Great Experiment, after a passage from Alexis de Toqueville. The owner, Jimmy Dimon, is an octogenerian former pornographer turned advocate and supporter of free-speech and civil liberties. The great experiment, of course, is America, and Kendall finds himself locked out of what it has become since 1831 when Toqueville made his pilgrimage through the young republic. In his twenties, Kendall had been a promising poet and intellectual, but he has grown tired of doing without; unable to afford health insurance or to make the improvements his wife dreams about, he wonders where his life has gone wrong. Over mini-barrel tumblers of Scotch at the Coq d'Or, Piasecki, Jimmy Dimon's accountant plants the fateful seed. "If you and I weren't so honest we could make a lot of money." Piasecki had been fired along with eighty-five thousand other employees of Arthur Anderson.
“I don’t know,” Piasecki said. “It’s just that, once you’ve been screwed like I’ve been, you start to see things different. I grew up thinking that most people played by the rules. But after everything went down with Andersen the way it did––I mean, to scapegoat an entire company for what a few bad apples did on behalf of Ken Lay and Enron . . .” He didn’t finish the thought. His eyes grew bright with fresh anguish.

So begins the slippery slide. The shinny apple is dangling from the tree and Kendall is ready to take a bite. He arranges for another meeting at the Coq d'Or. How is it done? Piasecki lays out the plan. Set up a dummy corporation, invoice the publishing house. In a year or two, dissolve the company. Good for $500,000, maybe a million each. Keep cool. Don't be conspicuous. Jimmy Dimon never checks the figures--too busy spending his money on Viagra and whores. They file incorporation papers for a storage company, then bill Dimon for storing books that were never printed. Kendall is careful. His money goes to restoring the interior of his Oak Park house, visits from a Venezuelan maid--nothing too visible from the outside.

They have, of course, underestimated Dimon. At the end of a phone call in January, he tells Kendall that he's been looking at Piasecki's accounts.

"...The numbers look funny, " he tells him.

“What do you mean?”

“What are we doing printing thirty thousand copies of Thomas Paine?” Jimmy said. “And why are we using two printers?”

At congressional hearings, in courtrooms, the accused C.E.O.s and C.F.O.s followed one of two strategies: either they said they didn’t know, or they said they didn’t remember.

“I don’t remember why we printed thirty thousand,” Kendall said. “I’ll have to check the orders. I don’t know anything about the printers. Piasecki handles that. Maybe someone offered us a better deal.”

“The new printer is charging us a higher rate.”

Piasecki hadn’t told Kendall that. Piasecki had become greedy and kept it to himself.

“Listen,” Jimmy said, “send me the contact info for the new printer. And for that storage place. I’m going to have my guy out here look into this.”

The smart thing was to act nonchalant. But Kendall said, “What guy?”

“My accountant. You think I’d let Piasecki operate without oversight? No way! Everything he does gets double-checked out here. If he’s pulling anything, we’ll find out. And then Mr. Piasecki’s up shit’s creek.” [...]In his vibrant, scratchy voice, Jimmy began to recite a passage of “Democracy in America.” It was the passage they were putting on the bookmarks. Out in Montecito, bald, liver-spotted, in a tank top and shorts probably, the old libertine and libertarian crowed out his favorite lines: “In that land the great experiment of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis was to be made by civilized man,” Jimmy read, “and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past.”

Snow pummelled the glass. The lakefront was obscured, the water too. Kendall was enclosed in a dark space high above a city rising from a coast engulfed in darkness.

“That fucking kills me,” Jimmy said. “Every time.”

This plot is layered against a running social commentary, for which it serves as both illustration and object lesson. Toqueville provides the binding interface. Jimmy Dimon "has decided that that what the country needed was a super-abridged version of Tocqueville's seminal work, culling all of the predictions the Frenchman had made about America, but especially those that showed the Bush Administration in its worst light.". Working on this project has had the double effect of making him think about America, about what it has become, and at the same time, increasing his feelings of alienation, loosening his sense of identity with the country, and with it, his moral anchor. The business pages of the Times and Tribune were instructive.
" Here you found the pension-fund manager who'd siphoned off five million, or the Korean-American hedge-fund genius who vanished with a quarter billion of Palm Beach retiree money and who turned out to be a Mexican guy named Lopez. Turn the page to read about the Boeing executive sentenced to four months in jail for rigging contracts with the Air Force. The malfeasance of Bernie Ebbers and Dennis Kozlowski claimed the front page, but it was the short articles on A21 or C15 detailing the quieter frauds, the scam artists working in subtler pigments, in found objects, that showed Kendall the extent of the national deceit.

Then from Toqueville:

... I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men and where a profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property. But wealth circulates with inconceivable rapidity, and experience shows that it is rare to find two succeeding generations in the full enjoyment of it.

That clinched the deal. He was on the phone with Piasecki in an instant. A good man undone, not so much by his own greed, as by an irresistible climate created by the greed of others, a climate that demanded complicity as the price for belonging. Once American politicians had denied that the United States was an empire. Now every accepted it. Everyone was pleased. "Victory was what counted, power, muscularity, doublespeak if necessary. You saw it in the way people drove..."
Everyone knew what he wanted and how to get it. Everybody you met was nobody's fool.

One's country was like one's self. The more you learned about it, the more you were ashamed .

* * *


Here is my impression of the opening before reading the rest of the story, with added commentary.

As I explained in my Priliminary Remarks, and a HERE, typographical paragraph breaks can be misleading. Here, the minimal opening unit covers eight typographical paragraphs, and even then is not complete.

“If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?”

Proves to be an ironic epigraph--Kendall's failure to reverse the order of the conditional will be his undoing.
It was the city that wanted to know. Chicago, refulgent in early-evening, late-capitalist light. Kendall was in a penthouse apartment (not his) of an all-cash building on Lake Shore Drive. The view straight ahead was of water, eighteen floors below. But if you pressed your face to the glass, as Kendall was doing, you could see the biscuit-colored beach running down to Navy Pier, where they were just now lighting the Ferris wheel.

The characters are manifestations of "the city." And not only the characters in the story, all of us. You too, dear reader, as you would know if were to press your face to the glass like Kendall. Inside/outside. Cut off. Floating above the "real" world.

The gray Gothic stone of the Tribune Tower, the black steel of the Mies building just next door—these weren’t the colors of the new Chicago. Developers were listening to Danish architects who were listening to nature, and so the latest condominium towers were all going organic. They had light-green façades and undulating rooflines, like blades of grass bending in the wind.

There had been a prairie here once. The condos told you so.

Parentheical commentary. What follows breaks the sequence, but not decisively: neither subordinate to the sentence before the comment, nor structurally coordinate with any sentence before it, but parallel and continuous with the image of Kendall, face pressed to the glass.

Kendall was gazing at the luxury buildings and thinking about the people who lived in them (not him) and wondering what they knew that he didn’t. He shifted his forehead against the glass and heard paper crinkling. A yellow Post-it was stuck to his forehead. Piasecki must have come in while Kendall was napping at his desk and left it there.

The Post-it said: “Think about it.”

Thinking about the conversation that led to their attempted scam.

Kendall crumpled it up and threw it in the wastebasket. Then he went back to staring out the window at the glittering Gold Coast.

Gazing. Wondering. Staring out the window at a world to which he does no belong.

Words: 247
Sentences: 14 17.64 wps avg.
Suggests story that follows will be heavy on sociological/ economic setting, status and belong... from a POV above the fray...
Narrative Time: present
Voice: unlimited third person. Voiceover to a documentary.
Language: conventional exposition (?)

This completes the exposition for the plot, but not the contextual setting--the devolution from Toqueville's America to twenty-first century Chicago in its "late capitalist light," the world Kendall and Piasecki and Jimmy Dimon inhabit, a second layer which they do not so much represent, as are themselves its manifestations. The next five paragraphs ( Typographically set apart by white space and double-line height initial capital letter) form something close to a second opening, continuing to add to Kendall's back story in the beginning, but essentially devoted to Toqueville, the "Great Experiment," political historical observations--culminating in a then-and-now comparison consisting of a long quote from Democracy in America and the following paragraph.

In these, as in the forests of the Old World, destruction was perpetually going on. The ruins of vegetation were heaped upon one another; but there was no laboring hand to remove them, and their decay was not rapid enough to make room for the continual work of reproduction. Climbing plants, grasses, and other herbs forced their way through the mass of dying trees; they crept along their bending trunks, found nourishment in their dusty cavities and a passage beneath the lifeless bark. Thus decay gave its assistance to life.

How beautiful that was! How wonderful to imagine what America had been like in 1831, before the strip malls and the highways, before the suburbs and the exurbs, back when the lake shores were “embosomed in forests coeval with the world.” What had the country been like in its infancy? Most important, where had things gone wrong and how could we find our way back? How did decay give its assistance to life?

There is the question that binds the story line to the documentary background: how can the decay of the Great Experiment give assistance to life? A question this story is not able to answer.

Friday, May 2, 2008

What is a "Professional" Writer?

What is a "professional" writer?

This came up at Metataxu Cafe. A question in the profile:
What is your profession?

They give you a menu... but only one choice... from a list.


Nope. One or the other.

So I ask, how can I claim to be a "professional writer"... if I don't earn my living by writing?

...what about Kafka? What was he?
Certainly there's more to this than earned income.

And what's wrong with being an amateur--one who writes out of love and need?

A professional, at least, can say... I'm no dilettante.

And is there an advantage to being an amateur?

That one's easy. No one can call you a who...ahem... "hack".

Then...what is a dilettante, but a professional amateur?

And what is a hack, but an dilettante... who does it for money?

Like Camus said, let us be neither

... victims
... nor executioners.