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.)


Jan 23 2021

Random Readings from 2020 no 5: Samuel Butler and the Victorian Reading Public

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his coming-of-age novel The Way of All Flesh from 1873-1884, though it wasn’t published until after his death in 1903.

Regarding the reading habits of Victorian England, he notes that Mill’s On Liberty (1859) didn’t make much of a splash when it debuted. For this passage, one should also remember that Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1858, while Cardinal Newman had converted to Catholicism in 1845.

First, however, a little setup with the novel’s main character Ernest:

He did not understand that if he waited and listened and observed, another idea of some kind would probably occur to him some day, and that the development of this would in its turn suggest still further ones.  He did not yet know that the very worst way of getting hold of ideas is to go hunting expressly after them.  The way to get them is to study something of which one is fond, and to note down whatever crosses one’s mind in reference to it, either during study or relaxation, in a little note-book kept always in the waistcoat pocket.  Ernest has come to know all about this now, but it took him a long time to find it out, for this is not the kind of thing that is taught at schools and universities. Nor yet did he know that ideas, no less than the living beings in whose minds they arise, must be begotten by parents not very unlike themselves, the most original still differing but slightly from the parents that have given rise to them.  Life is like a fugue, everything must grow out of the subject and there must be nothing new.  Nor, again, did he see how hard it is to say where one idea ends and another begins, nor yet how closely this is paralleled in the difficulty of saying where a life begins or ends, or an action or indeed anything, there being an unity in spite of infinite multitude, and an infinite multitude in spite of unity.  He thought that ideas came into clever people’s heads by a kind of spontaneous germination, without parentage in the thoughts of others or the course of observation; for as yet he believed in genius, of which he well knew that he had none, if it was the fine frenzied thing he thought it was…. (The Way of All Flesh, (Garden City, NY: International Collectors Library, 1964) ch. XLVI, p. 212)

Now to Butler’s thoughts on the reading habits of the Victorians:

It must be remembered that the year 1858 was the last of a term during which the peace of the Church of England was singularly unbroken.  Between 1844, when “Vestiges of Creation” appeared, and 1859, when “Essays and Reviews” marked the commencement of that storm which raged until many years afterwards, there was not a single book published in England that caused serious commotion within the bosom of the Church.  Perhaps Buckle’s “History of Civilisation” and Mill’s “Liberty” were the most alarming, but they neither of them reached the substratum of the reading public, and Ernest and his friends were ignorant of their very existence.  The Evangelical movement, with the exception to which I shall revert presently, had become almost a matter of ancient history.  Tractarianism had subsided into a tenth day’s wonder; it was at work, but it was not noisy.  The “Vestiges” were forgotten before Ernest went up to Cambridge; the Catholic aggression scare had lost its terrors; Ritualism was still unknown by the general provincial public, and the Gorham and Hampden controversies were defunct some years since; Dissent was not spreading; the Crimean war was the one engrossing subject, to be followed by the Indian Mutiny and the Franco-Austrian war.  These great events turned men’s minds from speculative subjects, and there was no enemy to the faith which could arouse even a languid interest.  At no time probably since the beginning of the century could an ordinary observer have detected less sign of coming disturbance than at that of which I am writing. (The Way of All Flesh, ch. XLVII, p. 214)

That no one read much of Mill at the beginning of his philosophical career reminds me of how the well-read historian and analyst of foreign affairs, Walter Laqueur (1921-2018), once noted that very few folks at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th ever read Marx’s Das Kapital in its entirety (Best of Times, Worst of Times: Memoirs of a Political Education (Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2009) p. 61).


Jan 18 2021

Short Story Review: “TV Dreams” (2020) by Tim Frank

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Tim Frank’s “TV Dreams” (Misery Tourism, November 2020) is a powerful little short story.

Frank’s efficiency and economy of words, is incredible, reminiscent of Kafka’s “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”) (1912) and Camus’ “Le renégat” (“The Renegade”) (1957)––where in all of these, nearly every sentence and clause twists, churns, and chugs the narrative along unexpected pathways, via a good, invisible prose style that doesn’t call attention to itself. For:

*Prose by itself is a transparent medium: it is at its purest—that is, at its furthest from epos and other metrical influences—when it is least obtrusive and presents its subject-matter like plate glass in a shop window. It goes without saying that such neutral clarity is far from dullness, as dullness is invariably opaque.

(Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957) 265.)

“TV Dreams” is part science fiction, part psychological thriller. When the story’s main character Jamal finds himself between waking life and sleep, confined in a room surrounded by curtains—and all this severely juxtaposed against moods of dread and intrigue, yet narrated in a calm, soothing tone–-it reminded me somewhat of the works of David Lynch, Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone, the latter half of King Crimson’s “Lonely Moonchild,” and Vangelis’s “Reve.” These images in “TV Dreams” felt particularly Lynchian:

The Being guided Jamal to take the insomniac by the hand and as soon as he did so the insomniac stood upright and walked over to the TV, unplugged it and carried it under his free arm. Despite the fact the insomniac’s eyes were closed, and the TV wasn’t connected, his viewpoint was still projected on the television set….

The rest of the hosts were there too, holding hands with their own insomniacs – eyes closed, carrying unplugged TV or PC screens, transmitting various sounds and images directly from their minds.

*****

Still, I feel if a few lines were omitted from “TV Dreams,” it could very well be a perfect story. From the line “We are here to collect people….” to end of the sentence “Be my ally….” are, in my opinion, unnecessary exposition.

Though this exposition is somewhat self-aware of its own expository nature—e.g., “‘You don’t have to explain yourself,’ thought Jamal,”––and this self-aware exposition is similar to the final chapter (titled “Historical Notes”) of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale (1986)––I feel the narrative of “TV Dreams” would be strengthened by the omission of this passage, much like the needless penultimate expository scene to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

However, I may be wrong. Karl Wenclas, writer and publisher of New Pop Lit, someone whose literary opinions I read closely, has recently suggested that contemporary short stories need a little more exposition in them:

And, after having recently rewatched, after many years, Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. I and Vol. II in one continuous sitting, for he’s an artist whose work I have always taken seriously, I noticed that Vol. I is paced much faster than Vol. II, where in the latter, Tarantino allows David Carradine (“Bill”) to ramble exposition at a very leisurely pace—and in a way that makes the exposition itself entertaining. So: no, not all exposition is bad. And Tim Frank’s “TV Dreams” is an amazing story nonetheless.


Jan 6 2021

Random Readings from 2020: no. 4 Lawrence of Oxford and Arabia

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What did T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935) read at Oxford and in Arabia? Well, according to him:

I had read the usual books (too many books), Clausewitz and Jomini, Mahan and Foch, had played at Napoleon’s campaigns, worked at Hannibal’s tactics, and the wars of Belisarius, like any other man at Oxford; but I had never thought myself into the mind of a real commander compelled to fight a campaign of his own….

As I have shown, I was unfortunately as much in command of the campaign as I pleased, and was untrained. In military theory I was tolerably read, my Oxford curiosity having taken me past Napoleon to Clausewitz and his school, to Caemmerer and Moltke, and the recent Frenchmen. They had all seemed to be one-sided; and after looking at Jomini and Willisen, I had found broader principles in Saxe and Guibert and the eighteenth century. However, Clausewitz was intellectually so much the master of them, and his book so logical and fascinating, that unconsciously I accepted his finality, until a comparison of Kuhne [?] and Foch disgusted me with soldiers, wearied me of their officious glory, making me critical of all their light. In any case, my interest had been abstract, concerned with the theory and philosophy of warfare especially from the metaphysical side….

I had made a comfortable beginning of doctrine, but was left still to find an alternative end and means of war. Ours seemed unlike the ritual of which Foch was priest; and I recalled him, to see a difference in land between him and us. In his modern war—absolute war he called it—two nations professing incompatible philosophies put them to the test of force. Philosophically, it was idiotic, for while opinions were arguable, convictions needed shooting to be cured; and the struggle could end only when the supporters of the one immaterial principle had no more means of resistance against the supporters of the other. It sounded like a twentieth-century restatement of the wars of religion, whose logical end was utter destruction of one creed, and whose protagonists believed that God’s judgement would prevail. This might do for France and Germany, but would not represent the British attitude. Our Army was not intelligently maintaining a philosophic conception in Flanders or on the Canal. Efforts to make our men hate the enemy usually made them hate the fighting. Indeed Foch had knocked out his own argument by saying that such war depended on levy in mass, and was impossible with professional armies; while the old army was still the British ideal, and its manner the ambition of our ranks and our files. To me the Foch war seemed only an exterminative variety, no more absolute than another. One could as explicably call it ‘murder war’. Clausewitz enumerated all sorts of war…personal wars, joint-proxy duels, for dynastic reasons…expulsive wars, in party politics…commercial wars, for trade objects…two wars seemed seldom alike. Often the parties did not know their aim, and blundered till the march of events took control. Victory in general habit leaned to the clear-sighted, though fortune and superior intelligence could make a sad muddle of nature’s ‘inexorable’ law.

(T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a Triumph (c. 1926), (Garden City, NY: International Collectors Library, 1970?) II, xvii, 89; III, xxxiii, 159; III, xxxiii 161–62.)


Jan 4 2021

Three Poetic Pieces I Read in 2020

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Currently, I’m about half-way through Quintilian (35–100 AD), who is teaching me rhetoric, and while reading him, I recalled this passage that had previously read from Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956):

The reading of the poets recommends itself not only through the delight and refreshment which accompany it; it inspires the mind, gives sublimity to expression, and teaches the orator to influence the emotions of his audience. To be sure, it must not be forgotten that poetry* is close to epideictic (not to forensic) oratory….

*Quintilian uses the neutral expression “hoc genus” (X, 1, 28), which is presumably to be completed by “eloquentiae.” Or is it used absolutely? Ordinarily he says “poetae.” Only once (XII, 11, 26) does the word “poesis” appear, and it is extremely rare elsewhere in Latin. Horace has it once (Ars poetica, 361), but in the meaning “poem.” Poetica or poetice is also rarely “poetry.” Neither Roman antiquity nor the Latin Middle Ages had a current word for poetry.

(Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages), trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1953; Seventh Printing, 1990) p. 437)

I find comfort in that last line, because I get very uncomfortable trying to critically understand or analyze what we in 2021 call “poetry.” Yes, Coleridge’s definition of “the best words in the best order” is a good start, but hardly takes us (those of us who did not grow up reading, writing, reciting, translating poetry) very far toward understanding or appreciating the medium—particularly what contemporary poets are trying to do in and with the form.

A lot of modern poetry (post 19th century) I just don’t get. (I hear little rhythm in much of Yeats.) But here are three strong poems that caught my eye and ear this past year. I don’t want to quote from them, because to do that would affirm Walter Benjamin (1892–1940)’s theory that to quote a text is to interrupt its context. (“What is Epic Theatre?” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, (New York:Schocken Books, 1968) p.151).

Three strong poems recommended by Bookbread:

I strongly encourage any and all readers to check out these powerful works.


Dec 24 2020

Random Readings from 2020 no. 3: Gore Vidal

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It is always easy to disagree with Gore Vidal–but in his prime, he was difficult to spar with. First, from 1961:

Any citizen can be usefully engaged. He can also be useful in social and moral legislation, where there is much work to be done. As for civil liberties, anyone who is not vigilant may one day find himself living, if not in a police state, at least in a police city.

(“Police Brutality,” Esquire, August 1961 in Vidal’s United States: Essays 19521992, (New York: Random House, 1993) p. 555.)

Then from 1981:

Our therapists, journalists, and clergy are seldom very learned. They seem not to realize that most military societies on the rise tend to encourage same-sex activities for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has not grown up ass-backward, as most Americans have. In the centuries of Rome’s great military and political success, there was no differentiation between same-sexers and other-sexers; there was also a lot of crossing back and forth of the sort that those Americans who do enjoy inhabiting category-gay or category-straight find hard to deal with. Of the first twelve Roman emperors, only one was exclusively heterosexual. Since these twelve men were pretty tough cookies, rigorously trained as warriors, perhaps our sexual categories and stereotypes are—can it really be?––false. It was not until the sixth century of the empire that same-sex sex was proscribed by church and state. By then, of course, the barbarians were within the gates and the glory had fled.

Today, American evangelical Christians are busy trying to impose on the population at large their superstitions about sex and the sexes and the creation of the world. Given enough turbulence in the land, these natural fascists can be counted on to assist some sort of authoritarian—but never, never totalitarian—political movement. Divines from Santa Clara to Falls Church are particularly fearful of what they describe as the gay liberation movement’s attempt to gain “special rights and privileges” when all that the same-sexers want is to be included, which they are not by law and custom, within the framework of the Fourteenth Amendment. The divine in Santa Clara believes that same-sexers should be killed. The divine in Falls Church believes that they should be denied equal rights under the law. Meanwhile, the redneck divines have been joined by a group of New York Jewish publicists who belong to what they proudly call “the new class” (né arrivistes), and these lively hucksters have now managed to raise fag-baiting to a level undreamed of in Falls Church—or even in Moscow.

(“Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” The Nation, November 14, 1981 in Vidal’s United States: Essays 19521992, pp. 596–97.)


Dec 24 2020

Random Readings from 2020: no.2 The Gordon Riots

Western book stack

Before this riotous year, I was unaware of the Gordon Riots of London:

By the late spring of 1780 the reform movement was already disintegrating. The final discouragement came with the terrible Gordon Riots of June 1780. Sir George Savile and the Rockingham whigs had carried in 1778 a Roman Catholic Relief Act. Religious intolerance was easily whipped up by agitators in the eighteenth century, and in 1779 a Protestant Association was formed with the half-witted Lord George Gordon as President. On June 2nd, 1780, a huge crowd of 60,000 people gathered in St George’s Fiends, Southwark, to present a monster petition against the Catholic Relief Act. The petition was presented to Parliament, and some of the crowd went off to burn Roman Catholic chapels. During the next few days there was more violence, the prisons were attacked and the prisoners freed. The house of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, was destroyed, together with his precious library. Next day, “Black Wednesday” saw the climax of the violence and destruction. An attack on the Bank of England was repulsed with heavy casualties. By the 9th the military were in full control. Four hundred and fifty people were arrested and twenty-five people were hanged. Gordon was tried for high treason, but acquitted after a brilliant defence by his counsel, Thomas Erskine.

What did it all mean? There is no evidence that it was planned by the Protestant Association, or the Opposition, or indeed by anyone. Religious feeling against Roman Catholics was strong; there was much social unrest in London, and there was an obvious absence of any adequate police force. There was widespread disillusionment at the war failures, heavy taxation and trade recession. All these factors seem sufficient to explain the Gordon Riots.

The results were far-reaching. The riots went far to destroy the reform movement. The rift between the whigs and the radicals widened. The governing classes became deeply suspicious of popular movements. Professor Butterfield comments:

The memory of these days had a great part in that fear of popular demonstrations which seized upon both the ministry and the governing classes of England at the time of the French Revolution.

(R. W. Harris, A Short History of 18th Century England: 1689–1793, (New York: Mentor Books, 1963) pp. 200-01.)


Dec 24 2020

Random Readings from 2020 no 1: Mark Twain

London - Georgian Apartments

From Mark Twain’s The Innocent’s Abroad (1867):

At eleven o’clock at night, when most of the ship’s company were abed, four of us stole softly ashore in a small boat, a clouded moon favoring the enterprise, and started two and two, and far apart, over a low hill, intending to go clear around the Piraeus, out of the range of its police. Picking our way so stealthily over that rocky, nettle-grown eminence, made me feel a good deal as if I were on my way somewhere to steal something. My immediate comrade and I talked in an undertone about quarantine laws and their penalties, but we found nothing cheering in the subject. I was posted. Only a few days before, I was talking with our captain, and he mentioned the case of a man who swam ashore from a quarantined ship somewhere, and got imprisoned six months for it; and when he was in Genoa a few years ago, a captain of a quarantined ship went in his boat to a departing ship, which was already outside of the harbor, and put a letter on board to be taken to his family, and the authorities imprisoned him three months for it, and then conducted him and his ship fairly to sea, and warned him never to show himself in that port again while he lived. (chapter XXXII)