Nov 26 2021

In Defence of Les Femmes Françaises

pencil shavings

I am very glad to my essay “In Defence of Les Femmes Françaises” out by Fortnightly Review. It uses French literature of the past to explain French beauty at present, with aid from Balzac, Camus, Montaigne, Valéry and others.


Oct 30 2021

Some Newish Advice for Writers, with the Aid of Chris Arnade

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.

––Albert Camus, (La Peste (The Plague), trans. Stuart Gilbert, (New York: Knopf, 1957), ch. I, pp. 11–12.)

I have previously written about the work of Chris Arnade here and here. I continue to study him. He is teaching me to observe the world, as well as the people around me, better. And I hope, in turn, that that will help make me a better writer.

Arnade is teaching me that, as I writer, I need to walk, watch, write—in other words, stop looking at every occurrence as a “problem” to be solved, resolved, contemplated, pontificated upon; instead, just look and listen. I must learn to apprehend what I can accept and accept what I can apprehend. As Arnade puts it:

But walking forces you to slow down and talk to the people living there. You get to see beyond the bleh, and watch the endless string of tiny dramas that make up a city, and most people’s lives….

I also knew I would be reminded just how dramatically removed from each other the front and back row are. How little the front row gets these types of places, in a lived reality way, despite making claims to, and how little these places understand (or care about) what drives the front row, in an aspirational way….

There are plenty of very concerned articles in very serious periodicals about them, filled with suggestions that the residents themselves know little about.

But that isn’t what I want to focus on, because I walk to see beyond those problems….

To be blunt, as much as I enjoyed my brief time in Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield, I ultimately left with a mixture of sadness, frustration, and anger. Few, if any, outsiders care about these towns. Beyond seeing them as problems that need to be solved.

(“Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke,” Intellectual Inting, September 29, 2021.)

As a writer seeking to improve his craft, I need to beware of any sense in my soul of squirming at so-called sentimentality, quaintness. Admittedly, no, I don’t like it when callers call-in to my favorite local morning radio show, because they slow down the pace of the show, its ongoing conversation, they try to be funny and fail, or they espouse empty insults. Nonetheless, I need to pay attention to why they make me squirm. It has something to do with what Arnade is getting at:

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense. They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage.

I as a writer I need to learn to not laugh at sentimentality:

A good man will see that everything he says is consistent with his dignity and the respectability of his character; for we pay too dear for the laugh we raise if it is at the cost of our own integrity.

––Quintilian, (Institutio Oratoria Vol. II, trans. H. E. Butler, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1920) (VI, ii, 35) p. 457.)

Instead, I need, as Seneca puts it, to start cultivating a relationship with poverty (whether economic or cultural) by writing about and listening to those in need. For:

Hunger will make you find even that bread soft and wheaty. One shouldn’t, accordingly, eat until hunger demands. I shall wait, then, and not eat until I either start getting good bread again or cease to be fussy about bad bread. It is essential to make oneself used to putting up with a little. Even the wealthy and the well provided are continually met and frustrated by difficult times and situations.

(Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin Classics, 1969) Letter XVIII, p. 69; Letter CXXIII, pp. 226–27.)

Moreover, says Seneca:

You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.

(Letters from a Stoic, Letter XLVIII, p. 96.)

And instead, as Marcus Aurelius advises, learn to live with those who have learned to live with the gods:

Live with the gods. To live with the gods is to show them at all times a soul contented with their awards, and wholly fulfilling the will of that inward divinity, that particle of himself, which Zeus has given to every man for ruler and guide—the mind and the reason…. (V, xxvii)

Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you…. (VI, xxxix)

Let your one delight and refreshment be to pass from one service to the community to another, with God ever in mind…. (VI, vii)

Men exist for each other. Then either improve them, or put up with them…. (VIII, lix)

Enter into the ruling principle of your neighbour’s mind, and suffer him to enter into yours. (VIII, lxi)

(Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, (New York: Penguin, 1962.)

Finally, recall always C. S. Peirce, how: “The best maxim in writing, perhaps, is really to love your reader for his own sake.” And that part of being a merciful observer and writer means that, with regard to whatever (and whoever) one is writing about, “it is but charitable to be a little inaccurate.”

(The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: a Chronological Edition. Vol. I: 1857–1866, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1982), “Private Thoughts, March 17, 1888,” p. 9; “Think Again!” Harvard Magazine 4 (April 1858), [pp. 100–105], p. 24.)


Oct 17 2021

When Nothing’s Not New and Everything’s Always Random

typewriter

Some Recent Encounters with Surrealism in Contemporary Literature

I.

I recently reread the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), a habit which, it seems, occurs every five to ten years.

So it was fresh on my mind when I reviewed Nicole I. Nesca’s short-story/poem “Child” (2017).

And maybe, as Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman says, my attention is too “anchored,” too primed and predisposed to see the surreal when reading recent works of prose, poetry, or something in between.

But it can’t be all that. There must be (a little) something more. For, as Kahneman points out, simply being aware of the biases brought on by an anchor is still only half the battle:

You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different (or absent). (Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) p. 128)

II.

One of the things (I think) Breton is getting at in the Manifesto is that surrealism existed long before he (or anyone else) gave it a name. Breton, moreover, didn’t let himself be lured by the temptations of Originality. He knew he didn’t invent surrealism. Nor was he afraid to list his precursors on the subject:

Swift is Surrealist in malice,

Sade is Surrealist in sadism….

Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid…

Poe is Surrealist in adventure.

Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality.

Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere.

Mallarmé is Surrealist when he is confiding.

And, as I discussed in the Nesca review, part, but not of all, of the “game” (Breton’s word) of surrealism is radical juxtaposition. Let’s let Breton explain again (and admit his unoriginality again):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)….

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

This radical juxtaposition, however, at least in my (mis)understanding of surrealism, brooks no endorsement or herald or call for absolute randomness, á la pseudo-Dadism, anarchism, nihilism, the Voynich manuscript, etcetera. For if surrealism is a “game,” then it must have certain rules. Games remove a certain amount of randomness from any situation. If a game contains so many rules that it (theoretically) removes all randomness from (or within) the game itself, the situation is no longer a game: the situation is a machine: it is completely predictable and repetitive in its outcomes. Or, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson once put it, “Without the random, there can be no new thing,” (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) p. 147).

On the other hand, as Bateson elsewhere pointed out, pure randomness, whether in literature or natural science, can only be achieved via infinite means across an infinite amount of time:

It may well be that any particular pattern (or redundancy) in the method of search will necessarily blind the searcher to certain possible patterns in the universe; and that only RANDOM search can ultimately catch all possible regularities. This ideal will be achieved, however, only by a searcher with infinite time and in a universe which makes available infinite series of data.

(“The Message of Reinforcement” (1966) in A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) pp.141–42)

Part of this is because of the difficulty of defining the word “random”:

In both the theory of evolution and the theory of learning, however, the word “random” is conspicuously undefined, and the word is not an easy one to define. In both fields, it is assumed that while change may be dependent upon probabilistic phenomena, the probability of a given change is determined by something different from probability…. The word “random,” upon which all of these explanations turn, appears to be a word whose meaning is hierarchically structured, like the meaning of the word “learning.”

(Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) pp. 254–55)

III.

All this is to say that the game of surrealism strikes a balance between pure randomness and absolute predictability. Surrealism, at its best, offers moments of such balance, often through radical juxtaposition, as Margaret O’Brien has recently pointed out:

It’s an odd one, this painting but I’m around long enough to know that when something gives me that little tingle, that draws me back even though I might be perplexed, I know I ought to pay attention. So it is now with The Listening Room. Look at it. It’s either an oversized apple or a very, very small room. Its surrealism stretches my thinking, as Magritte no doubt playfully intended. 

Some recent encounters with surrealism in literature I’ve had include the following emboldened quotations:

The world is a broken lightbulb / no one cares enough about to sweep up. / Please, Marshmallow, lick the glass/ until your tongue bleeds sunlight.

(Austin Davis, “Marshmallow,” Some Houses Are Built with the Wrong Bricks, Massachusetts: Moran Press, 2020)

*****

At first he is ecstatic and brings in his wife who is overjoyed at the lively giant baby. The joy turns to panic soon when they realize the baby is still growing at an alarming rate. After an hour young Philbert is too big to hold. After his nap he is to [sic] big for the house and eats his parents. By the time for “One Life to Live” he had gone through the beach homes of the rich and famous, and working on the western half of Fire Island. By the third rerun of the “Simpsons” he had devoured four million people including the staring back line for the Islanders.

(James Thornton, “Tony Randall vs. the Giant Baby Who Ate Long Island,” Meaty-Ochre no. 1, Austin, Texas: Self-Published, 2019)

*****

Cool sea water sweeps away his jetlag for the time being. Dried off, we eat ice-cream and return to the airport.

(Anthony Rudolf, “Pedraterra,” Two Fables: Pedraterra, Angleterre, (Les Brouzils, France: The Fortnightly Review, 2021) p. 5)


Oct 7 2021

Tenderness: A Writer’s Tool

bookshelf

Lately I’ve noticed when reading some recent works of fiction occasional moments which can only be called (at least to my mind) “tenderness.” As a reader it seems you either catch them or you don’t. Perhaps you have to get attuned, putting your ear to the ground to see if you can hear the train coming etcetra.

Take for example the opening lines from Richard Daub’s short story “The Huffy” (2021), via New Pop Lit:

Day after Christmas, 1983, fifth grade, in the attached garage at Eric’s house—

“They got you a Huffy?” Eric laughed, referring to Carl’s new bike. “Huffys are for losers. Did they buy it at Sears?”

And also this moment from Stacy Swann’s novel Olympus, Texas (Doubleday 2021):

That day, while at school, Hap had missed his brother. He’d been excited when, after walking the quarter mile from the cattle guard, where the bus stopped, his mother met him by swinging open the screen door and setting an impassive March on the porch. “Go play,” she commanded before she went back inside. (p. 18)

Like the old legal definition of obscenity, it must be admitted that while I can’t quite define such tenderness–I can’t tell you why x is tender and y is not–but I know it when it see it. And the tenderness conveyed in these examples seems to be something ephemeral, never sustained; always momentary, never stationary.

But such tenderness isn’t limited to fiction alone. Chris Arnade’s work, which I have studied for several years now, also periodically captures this delicate humanity, this non-poisonous sentimentality at which, in a seizure of squeamishness, the jaded soul too often shrieks:

While we are talking an older regular comes in, who is blind. Not somewhat hard of seeing, but completely blind. A few regulars get up and quietly map out the lay of the bar to him, explaining where he shouldn’t sit based on who else is near by. It is a very sweet moment, that isn’t especially special. Just people being decent. It happens everywhere.

I try not to overthink stuff. I try not to be all metaphorical. But I am buzzed, and it is a blind man coming to a sports bar, something he clearly does all the time. (Arnade, “Walking America, part 2: Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott,” Intellectual Inting, October 7, 2021)

Tenderness is found in those so-called “cheesy,” “cornball,” nostalgia-laced moments of life on the Backrow that more of today’s American writers need to capture (and realize why they really aren’t cheesy) if they sincerely wish to shrug off the group-think elitism they acquired while sitting in the Front Row of so-called writer’s workshops that trained them into submission. As Arnade has recently pointed out:

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense. They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage. (Arnade, “Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke,” Intellectual Inting, September 29, 2021.)

So, as writers, let’s find the tender moments, but not metamorphize them. Don’t turn them into allegories, just learn to behold the present moment, be mindful of it. Learn to be, not do—focusing more on what is tender rather than what is travesty.


Sep 30 2021

Lévi-Strauss: a Recent Assessment

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia


Sep 24 2021

Literary Impressionism: no. 1 The Idea of “Waiting” in French Literature

London - Georgian Apartments

“What to do in Casablanca?”

Much of Sartre’s novel Le Sursis (The Reprieve), (c. 1945), set in 1938, follows the line at the beginning of Casablanca (1942), regarding the refugees. They “wait… and wait… and wait….”

Sartre’s novel seems to stress the malaise of war. The book presents a world where the worst thing about the Occupation isn’t the food shortages or the Gestapo, but the boredom. Not for nothing has Beckett penned:

POZZO: …. But I must really be getting along, if I am to observe my schedule.

VLADIMIR: Time has stopped.

POZZO: (cuddling his watch to his ear). Don’t you believe it, Sir, don’t you believe it. (He puts his watch back in his pocket.) What ever you like, but not that. (Waiting for Godot 1949/1955)

If time has stopped, is it then impossible to wait? Or is waiting a way of stopping time? Let’s ask Simone Weil:

The extinction of desire (Buddhism)––or detachment––or amor fati––or desire for the absolute good—these all amount to the same: the empty desire, finality of all content, to desire in the void, to desire without any wishes. To detach our desire from all good things and to wait. Experience proves that this waiting is satisfied. It is then we touch the absolute good. (“Detachment” Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986) p. 278.)

But the French were waiting even before the world wars. Consider this passage from Pierre Loti’s Pêcheur d Islande (An Iceland Fisherman) (c. 1886):

Usually there is some information concerning the wrecks off Iceland; those who return have seen the tragedy from afar, or else have found some wreckage or bodies, or have an indication to guess the rest. But of the Leopoldine nothing had been seen, and nothing was known. The Marie-Jeanne men, the last to have seen her, on the 2d of August, said that she was to have gone on fishing farther towards the north, and, beyond that, the secret was unfathomable.

Waiting, always waiting, and knowing nothing! When would the time come when she need wait no longer? She did not even know that; and, now, she almost wished that it might be soon. (trans. Jules Cambon, (New York: P. F. Collier, 1902) V, vii, pp. 263–64.)


Sep 9 2021

Bach’s Art of the Fugue (and its Counterpoint)

Mark Twain in Athens

Really digging Bach and counterpoint these last few weeks, good logical to stuff to read something like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to, etc.


Sep 7 2021

The Need to Reread, via John Wilson (& Others)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

I keep thinking about this great piece by editor John Wilson from back in July on his method of rereading. It reminded me of some other proverbs for rereading that I continue to ponder:

It consoles me too that the places I revisit and the books I re-read always smile upon me with the freshness of novelty. (Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Tome I, trans. J. M. Cohen, (New York: Penguin, 1958, 1988) “9. On liars,” p. 30.)

I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book:  one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.(Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Lectures on Literature, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982) p. 3.)

PLAYBOY: Arthur Clarke has said of the film, “If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we’ve failed in our intention.” Why should the viewer have to see a film twice to get its message?

KUBRICK: I don’t agree with that statement of Arthur’s, and I believe he made it facetiously. The very nature of the visual experience in 2001 is to give the viewer an instantaneous, visceral reaction that does not—and should not—require further amplification. Just speaking generally, however, I would say that there are elements in any good film that would increase the viewer’s interest and appreciation of a second viewing; the momentum of a movie often prevents every stimulating detail or nuance from having a full impact the first time it’s seen. The whole idea that a movie should be seen only once is an extension of our traditional conception of the film as an ephemeral entertainment rather than as a visual work of art. We don’t believe what we should hear a great piece of music only once, or see a great painting once, or even read a great book just once. Bu the film has until recent years been exempted from the category of art—a situation I’m glad is finally changing. (Eric Nordern, “Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick,” (c. 1968) in Stanley Kubrick Interviews, ed. Gene D. Phillips, (Jackson, MS: Mississippi UP, 2001) p. 48.)

But—to anticipate a point to be treated later—it’s rather odd that I tend not to feel that same panic at the thought of not having time to reread books I already love, even though I know that such rereading will surely be pleasurable. The possible pleasure of an unread book weighs more heavily on me than the sure pleasure of one I already know. (Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (New York: Oxford UP, 2011) pp. 70–71.)


Sep 4 2021

Short Story Review: “Child” (2017) by Nicole I. Nesca

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Nicole I. Nesca’s Let It Bleed (Screamin’ Skull Press, 2017) is a book of prose and poetry—of verse, vignettes, as well as short stories—and a book both Canadian and American.

In it readers will find pairs, symmetries, contrasts, and sometimes, radical juxtaposition—the kind prophesized (though not before acknowledging necessary precursors) by Bard André Breton (a prophecy which still needs hearing in 2021):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind.

It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

(André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (c. 1924), trans. unknown)

In Nesca, readers can encounter this idea of radical juxtaposition of either/and with regard to structure-medium-content: similar to the way William Blake’s paintings and poetry can be absorbed with profundity individually, but, when found together, offer an intimidating sense of wonder to those modest readers who nevertheless continue their approach toward Blake’s super-art, though they learn they must approach with fear and trembling.

But in terms of content for either a poem or story—the writing’s agency that acts upon the reader when something jars that reader simply because what the reader encounters is adjacent to something else (and can also occur with painting or music or architecture)—results often in mere perplexity, though occasionally, in sound enlightenment. The results are such things as: McCartney’s “Band on the Run” (1970), a radical juxtaposition of two or three, depending on how you count them, different pieces of music; Tom Hanks in The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) and the irreverence of the title to the movie itself; Metallica’s “One” (1988), which begins as a quiet, solemn dirge toward the singer’s own death, then, shifts into an loud, angry invective against Death itself; Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1989), which is almost two separate movies sandwiched together, though a sandwich with almost nothing in between, so it might be better to say squished; or even Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), with its wild rural setting in the South that then moves to the wild metro setting of the North)….

So too with Nesca’s book overall. Particularly, the piece “Child” is what stood out for me upon first-reading (certainly not the last) with its radical juxtaposition.

For here is poetry that flows into prose—but there is a vivid narrative underlying it all, one with a true beginning, middle, and end—yet here also is a clash of lyric and free verse, a clash of Nature’s organic pheasant and Humankind’s artificial rifle, a clash of daughter and father, of life and death.

Or is it not so much a clash, as a balance of all these things?—dare we say a Dao of things?––if my feeble misunderstanding of the Dao is correct? Here I’m thinking of something recently written by Alan MacFarlane, who earlier this summer explained in The Fortnightly Review:

Working in Japan was a larger challenge. As Ruth Benedict, among many western observers, pointed out, the essence of Japan is that it is not an Either/Or civilization, but rather a Both/And one. All categories overlap in Japan and they fluctuate all the time. There are numerous instances of situations and thoughts which do not fit into western binary categories. Just to take one example. I make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the realm of spirit and normal, secular, activities. So, for me a religious service or prayers are sacred, while a game of football is secular.

This does not work in Japan. Many of the so-called sports and games there, often with an ending which mirrors the idea of ‘dao’, the path or way in Shinto and Buddhist thoughts, are both sacred and secular. This is the case with ju-doken-dosu-mo, and with Noh opera. It is true of archery, of sword-making, of the ‘way’ of tea (cha-do), the way of gardens. Indeed, it turns out to be true of all Japanese art and all its crafts, which are both spiritual and secular at the same time.

So, yes, I think Nicole Nesca is getting at something like that Dao, or balance or sense of both-and rather than either-or––in particular in her story-poem “Child,” but also, her book Let It Bleed maybe getting at something similar overall. Overall, this is a book I intend to return to. There is definitely something wild going in Winnipeg, and ’tis nothing to do with weather nor wildlife.


Aug 31 2021

Updates Regarding Bookbread

Western book stack

Covid 2019-2021+ (as well as the Texas February “Snovid 2021”) really threw a wrench into my habits with this blog.

I hope now to get back to reviewing mostly short stories, and occasional crumbs of things found in books.

Here are three major items I’ve recently had published: