26 June 2008

Ur-Story: What is lost

Some quotes:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, 'East Coker' V. ll. 172-189
The river's tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept...
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, III. 'The Fire Sermon' ll.173-186
"The dump was roughly square, half a mile on each side, sunk fifty feet below the streets of the sprawling housing development which surrounded it. All day long, Rocco said, two D-8 bulldozers would bury the refuse under fill which was brought in from the north shore, and which raised the level of that floor a tiny fraction of an inch every day. It was this peculiar quality of fatedness which struck Flange as he gazed off into the half-light while Rocco dumped the load: this thought that one day, perhaps fifty years from now, perhaps more, there would no longer be any hole: the bottom would be level with the streets of the development, and houses would be built on it too. As if some maddeningly slow elevator were carrying you toward a known level to confer with some inevitable face on matters which had already been decided. ...Whenever he was away from Cindy and could think he would picture his life as a surface in the process of change, much as the floor of the dump was in transition: from concavity or inclosure to perhaps a flatness like the one he stood in now. What he worried about was any eventural convexity, a shrinking, it might be, of the planet itself to some palpable curvature of whatever he would be standing on, so that he would be left sticking out like a projected radius, unsheltered and reeling across the empty lunes of his tiny sphere."
Thomas Pynchon, "Low-lands"
"In his novel, Snow White, [Barthelme] tells us about the manufacture of buffalo humps.
They are "trash," and what in fact could be more useless or trashlike? It's that we want to be on the leading edge of this trash phenomenon, the everted sphere of the future, and that's why we pay particular attention, too, to those aspects of language that may seem as a model of the trash phenomenon.
Much interest is also shown in "stuffing," the words which fill the spaces between other words, and have the quality at once of being heavy or sludgy, and of seeming infinite or endless. Later we are told (Barthelme is always instructing the reader) that the seven dwarfs (for the novel is a retelling of the fairy story)
...like books that have a lot of dreck in them, matter which presents itself as not wholly relevant (or indeed, at all relevant) but which, carefully attended to, can supply a kind of "sense" of what is going on. This "sense" is not to be obtained by reading between the lines (for there is nothing there, in those white spaces) but by reading the lines themselves...
Dreck, trash, and stuffing: these are his principal materials. But not altogether. There is war and suffering, love and hope and cruelty. He hopes, he says in the new volume, "these souvenirs will merge into something meaningful." But first he renders everything as meaningless as it appears to be in ordinary modern life by abolishing distinctions and putting everything in the present. He constructs a single plane of truth, of relevance, of style, of value—a flatland junkyard—since anything dropped in the dreck is dreck, at once, as an uneaten porkchop mislaid in the garbage.
But cleverness is also dreck. The cheap joke is dreck. The topical, too, is dreck. Who knows this better than Barthelme, who has the art to make a treasure out of trash, to see out from inside it, the world as it's faceted by colored jewelglass? A seriousness about his subject is sometimes wanting. When this obtains, the result is grim, and grimly overwhelming.
People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. "Do you think this is a good life?" The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. "No.""
William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life, "The Leading Edge of the Trash Phenomenon," p. 100-101.
"The construction crew had gone for the day. We stood above a hole in the earth, an engineered crater five hundred feet deep, maybe a mile across, strewn with snub-nosed machines along the terraced stretches and covered across much of the sloped bottom by an immense shimmering sheet, a polyethylene skin, silvery blue, that caught cloudmotion and rolled in the wind. I was taken by surprise. The sight of this thing, the enormous gouged bowl lined with artful plastic, was the first material sign I'd had that this was a business of a certain drastic grandeur, even a kind of greatness, maybe—the red-tailed hawks transparent in the setting sun and the spring stalks of yucca tall as wishing wands and this high-density membrane that was oddly and equally beautiful in a way, a prophylactic device, a gass-control system, and the crater it layered that would accept thousands of tons of garbage a day, your trash and mine, for desert burial.
Detwiler said that cities rose on garbage, inch by inch, gaining elevation through the decades as buried debris increased. Garbage always got layered over or pushed to the edges, in a room or in a landscape. But it had it own momentum. It pushed back. It pushed into every space available, dictating construction patterns and altering systems of ritual. And it produced rats and paranoia. People were compelled to develop an organized response. This meant they had to come up with a resourceful means of disposal and build a social structure to carry it out—workers, managers, haulers, scavengers. Civilization is built, history is driven—
Civilization did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense. We had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn't discard, to reprocess what we couldn't use. Garbage pushed back. It mounted and spread. And it forced us to develop the logic and rigor that would lead to systematic investigations of reality, to science, art, music, mathematics.

The sun went down."
Don DeLillo, Underground pp. 285-87.
The upper torsos of two figures, one female, one male, emerge from a pair of garbage cans:

"Nell: What is it, my pet? Time for love?

Nagg: Were you asleep?

Nell: Oh no!

Nagg: Kiss me.

Nell: We can't.

Nagg: Try. (Their head strain towards each other, fail to meet, fall apart again.)

Nell: Why this farce, day after day?

Nagg: I've lost me tooth.

Nell: When?

Nagg: I had it yesterday.

Nell: Ah yesterday!

Nagg: Can you see me?

Nell: Hardly. And you?

Nagg: What?

Nell: Can you see me?

Nagg: Hardly.

Nell: So much the better, so much the better.

Nagg: Don't say that. Our sight has failed.

Nell: Yes. (Pause. They turn away from each other.)

Nagg: Can you hear me?

Nell: Yes. And you?

Nagg: Yes. Our hearing hasn't failed.

Nell: Our what?"
Samuel Beckett, "Endgame"

25 June 2008

Ur-Story: Hamlet

Today, let's take a look at The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

T.S. Eliot felt Hamlet needed a good editor:"So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure." "Hamlet and His Problems" in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1922). Harold Bloom takes characteristically broad exception to Eliot's point in his essays on Hamlet in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. As Bloom says, "Shakespeare might have subtitled Hamlet either The Rehearsal or Unpack My Heart With Words, for it is a play about playing, about acting out rather than revenging. We are self-conscious, but Hamlet is consciousness of something." Hamlet, p. 11.

Hamlet does indeed mark the great divide in Western lit, and Eliot nails the dismount:
"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. If you examine any of Shakespeare's more successful tragedies, you will find this exact equivalence; you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife's death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic "inevitability" lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet's bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him."
One thinks of the nearly half-century of conspiracy theories arising out of Oswald's assassination of JFK: how could such a great man be taken down by such a schlimazel?

For Eliot disgust is the overriding emotion animating Hamlet, the artistic aim of the play. Bloom's point is that Hamlet has a new feeling, and that feeling is consciousness. Hamlet, the fictional Dane, intuits that he is (let us say) 'like' a character in a play. The things that happen to him have a certain dramatic resonance, and he needs to craft a 'play within a play' to vet this feeling. This is the beginning of modernity, the origin of "consciousness" in Western lit. (Of course, there's the argument that a similar sort of consciousness was arising in his contemporary Quixote, but more on that anon.)

Nothing less than realism is at stake: Eliot pegs Hamlet (the play) as a departure from realism. Thoughts and feelings are splattered all over the page without any dramatic correspondence. Interiority without external cues/clues is his definition of artistic failure. Faithful readers of this blog will recognize Eliot's influence: we find that fiction strongest which builds genuine, detailed POV perceptions from the "spray of phenomena" and derives emotion from perception.

Bloom, too, pegs Hamlet's departure from the limits of the representational; though, for him, it is a good thing. Progressive. There is something considerably more than irony at work in a play about a 'fictional' character who feels himself to be caught up in a 'fiction' and who crafts a play to stage his feeling of existential unease; though it provides him no relief, we readers can recognize that somehow he is onto the 'truth': indeed, he is a fictional character who is caught up in a fiction. That, to Bloom, is the greatness of Hamlet.

We need not take sides in this dispute—I often counsel my friends who find themselves in the middle of a 'political' dispute between two bosses (let's say a department chair and a dean) at work not to get in the middle of an "elephant f--k". That's not quite what we're doing here. We just have a different take. If it were up to us, we would subtitle Hamlet "Where's the Beef?" or "This Time It's Personal". We've been theme-blogging something we call the 'Ur-Story' as a purely human way of understanding the inevitable sense of loss that accompanies death. Indeed, Hamlet is precisely about Hamlet's response to the death of his father. The traditional response to such sadness and loss (whether as a function of honor and duty or emotional satisfaction) has been to find out who's to blame and exact revenge/justice. Hamlet, then, we might say, poses the question, inter alia, 'whether the testimony of a ghost is sufficient to indict and convict someone for the murder of a king/father?' The answer, of course, is no. At best it can arouse our suspicions, maybe give us a clue where to look. (Though, in Macbeth, the appearance of Banquo's ghost is sufficient to elicit a sense of guilt in the regicide. Here, though, the ghost is merely an aide to, or representation of, conscience—not a coming to or representation of consciousness.) And that is insufficient legally to convict or, as the case may be, exact revenge.

How, then, does one confirm one's suspicions? First, you try to query witnesses, as does Hamlet to no avail. Nobody's talking, not even dear old Mother. Hamlet's frustration grows and he takes out a harmless interloper behind the arras. This atrocity, though, will not be avenged.

What then? Hamlet concocts the artistic solution: the play. He has the players re-enact the murder scene in front of the prime suspect, Claudius, so he can gauge his uncle's reactions. These prove confirmatory, but still insufficient to elicit a confession from the evildoer. Normally, one suspects, this would be enough to evoke action. For Shakespeare it isn't. It sounds like to me like WS is kicking the legs out from under the established conventions of the revenge genre. Is there satire here? (I'm not enough of a scholar of the Restoration revenge play tradition to say, but it'd be a good guess for further research.) So, yeah. Art can exactly imitate life (oh! oh! there's REALISM in the play!) and can produce genuine emotions in its readers/viewers/patrons/listeners. So what? Such aesthetic experiences are insufficient grounds on which to base a real-life life-or-death decision, Shakespeare seems to be showing us, though they can be insightful, illuminative. [Recall our discussion of Aristotle's rules for tragedy: the emotions elicited by the play provided the viewer with 'a sentimental education' in how to deal with real life loss. Hamlet tries to push the envelope with respect to their efficaciousness, alas, to little avail.]

What then? Hamlet, the proto-detective, is defeated by a lack of corroborating evidence and because of his madness (taking out Polonius, e.g.—this is how the elites are handled when they maltreat their lessers) is sent away. Here is where the murderer, Claudius, makes his big mistake: he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to have Hamlet killed. He knows of Hamlet's suspicions and knows he's a potential rival; besides Hamlet's getting too close to the truth. Hamlet discovers and foils the plot and comes back to take his revenge for real this time, turning the tables once again on another of Claudius's plots to take out his nephew/rival: This Time It's Personal. It takes two attempts on Hamlet's life by Claudius before Hamlet finally decides he has sufficient evidence to take him out. Hamlet, if anything, is just. Revenge is a personal thing that in undoing the deed also undoes the doer.

Thus the play ends in bloodshed. It's as if Shakespeare is conceding the genre point: "Okay, Globe crowd, I know this has been a hell of a long play, and I know you're all expecting a big revenge-type finale. So, here it is! Take that." Hamlet slaughters pretty much everybody, taking himself out in the process, much to everyone's satisfaction; the story alone, and its teller, surviving.

The rest, as they say, is silence.

20 June 2008

Ur-Story (More Poetry)

The Man on the Dump

Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho ... The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.
The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.
The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says
That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs
More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.

Now, in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums,
Myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox),
Between that disgust and this, between the things
That are on the dump (azaleas and so on)
And those that will be (azaleas and so on),
One feels the purifying change. One rejects
The trash.

That’s the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon
(All its images are in the dump) and you see
As a man (not like an image of a man),
You see the moon rise in the empty sky.

One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

Ur-Story (Poetry Break)

This Compost

By Walt Whitman


Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper'd corpses within you?
Is not every continent work'd over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv'd,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through
the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.


Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form'd part of a sick person--yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on
their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch'd eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the
colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato's dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in
the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata
of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which
is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited
themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard and the orange-orchard, that
melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once
catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless
successions of diseas'd corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
from them at last.

19 June 2008

Ur-Story (Some Fun)

Not quite Faust, but pretty funny nonetheless. (Forgive the damned commercials)

18 June 2008


The inevitable sense of loss that accompanies death: let's accept this as our jumping off point, our Ur-story. All of religion is one elaborate fiction that attempts to explain it, however unsatisfactorily, as a fundamental flaw in our being and our circumstance that some distant god is trying either to correct or somehow redeem or, barring that, at least put a hopeful spin on it which we will come to understand someday if we keep the faith, baby. James Wood complains that Bart Ehrman and, for that matter, the Bible fail to put a happy face on it for him to comprehend. Sorry, Jim.

The thousand-faced hero's quest, central to all mythology (per Joseph Campbell) and pre-modern literature, is, if we read the Gilgamesh aright, likewise a reaction to our grief in the face of this loss. Helen (lately of Troy). (Nearly) Penelope. Oedipus's patrimony and, indeed, his identity; his eyes. We could go on. In the classic formulation, the emotions relevant to this Ur-story were pity and fear: we pity the Loser and fear we ourselves might soon become one. So, the thinking went, the fictional protrayals of this Ur-story should follow certain formal, dramatic rules which would work to elicit these very emotions in us, viscerally introducing us to the appropriate coping mechanisms native to our nature. Tragedy as therapy. A sentimental education.

These two strategies, the religious (hope for something better) and the literary (grapple with them and thus get a grip on those bad feelings) did the trick for a number of centuries. Oh, there have been any number of intellectual attempts to justify or, better yet, explain the problem to the denser of us. But that all feels like mental masturbation, nothing really productive comes out all those gymnastic efforts.

Then along came the modern world—more people, more information, seemingly more evil—and a potentially "new" solution: laughter. James Joyce once told his friend Eugene Jolas that he "was interested in a comic version of Leibniz's essay on theodicy." You can judge for yourself whether his Finnegans Wake succeeded at this; Ulysses is pretty funny. Umberto Eco, in The Name of the Rose, implies there was a vast conspiracy by the early Christian fathers to squelch any hint of the comedic in the works of Aristotle (the patron secular saint of patristics), because if the people learned to laugh at the inevitability of loss they would no longer honor the churchly hierarchy. That's not to say there was no comedy prior to the 20th Century. Au contraire: M. Voltaire takes a pretty sure, satiric shot across Freiherr Leibniz's "best of all possible worlds" Theodicy bow in Candide. It's just that comedy, to the 'serious'-minded among us, simply wasn't considered serious enough, especially for such a monumental problem. Besides, Voltaire was French.

[to be continued]

17 June 2008


B _ S H

We'll get back to our Ur-story theme blog shortly. This story relates to another theme, Swarms, we've been blogging:

By Sherwood Ross

A conference to plan the prosecution of President Bush and other high administration officials for war crimes will be held September 13-14 at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover .

"This is not intended to be a mere discussion of violations of law that have occurred," said convener Lawrence Velvel, dean and cofounder of the school. "It is, rather, intended to be a planning conference at which plans will be laid and necessary organizational structures set up, to pursue the guilty as long as necessary and, if need be, to the ends of the Earth."

"We must try to hold Bush administration leaders accountable in courts of justice," Velvel said. "And we must insist on appropriate punishments, including, if guilt is found, the hangings visited upon top German and Japanese war-criminals in the 1940s."

Velvel said past practice has been to allow U.S. officials responsible for war crimes in Viet Nam and elsewhere to enjoy immunity from prosecution upon leaving office. "President Johnson retired to his Texas ranch and his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was named to head the World Bank; Richard Nixon retired to San Clemente and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was allowed to grow richer and richer," Velvel said.

He noted in the years since the prosecution and punishment of German and Japanese leaders after World War Two those nation's leaders changed their countries' aggressor cultures. One cannot discount contributory cause and effect here, he said.

"For Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Yoo to spend years in jail or go to the gallows for their crimes would be a powerful lesson to future American leaders," Velvel said.

The conference will take up such issues as the nature of domestic and international crimes committed; which high-level Bush officials, including Federal judges and Members of Congress, are chargeable with war crimes; which foreign and domestic tribunals can be used to prosecute them; and the setting up of an umbrella coordinating committee with representatives of legal groups concerned about the war crimes such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, ACLU, National Lawyers Guild, among others.

The Massachusetts School of Law at Andover was established in 1988 to provide an affordable, quality legal education to minorities, immigrants and students from low-income households that might otherwise be denied the opportunity to obtain a legal education and practice law. Its founder, Dean Velvel, has been honored by the National Law Journal and cited in various publications for his contributions to the reform of legal education. #


(To attend or for further information Jeff Demers at demers@msl.edu (978) 681-0800; or Sherwood Ross, media consultant to MSL, at sherwoodr1@yahoo.com)
Not sure I agree with the hangings part; I am against capital punishment, generally. Pres.* Bush's rush to hang Saddam Hussein after his capture must be borne in mind, however.

Still, baby steps. This is only a moot court, after all.

16 June 2008

Ur(-uk) Story

Again, we're with the Ur-story theme. As a brief footnote: Ur is often thought to be the first true city, the beginning of not only Western but human civilization. It's in present-day Iraq, near the town of Nasiriyah. To refer to something as the Ur-[something] means to consider it the ground or basis or origin of that thing.

A neighboring city, Uruk, was the supposed home of an early king named Gilgamesh, who lends his name to what is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the oldest literary texts: The Epic of Gilgamesh. In keeping with our thesis—namely that the Ur-story concerns the inevitability of death and loss and the ways we deal with it—we should expect this earliest story to reflect and state this theme. And it does.

In a passage of remarkable emotional depth, we read:
[Gilgamesh] touched [Enkidu's] heart but it did not beat, nor did he lift his eyes again. When Gilgamesh touched his heart it did not beat. So Gilgamesh laid a veil, as one veils the bride, over his friend. He began to rage like a lion, like a lioness robbed of her whelps. This way and that he paced around the bed, he tore out his hair and strewed it around. He dragged off his splendid robes and flung them down as though they were abominations.

In the first light of dawn Gilgamesh cried out, "I made you rest on a royal bed, you reclined on a couch at my left hand, the princes of the earth kissed your feet. I will cause all the people of Uruk to weep over you and raise the dirge of the dead. The joyful people will stoop with sorrow; and when you have gone to the earth I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion." The next day also, in the first light, Gilgamesh lamented; seven days and seven nights he wept for Enkidu, until the worm fastened on him. Only then he gave him up to the earth, for the Annunaki, the judges, had seized him.

The Gilgamesh issued a proclamation through the land, he summoned them all, the coppersmiths, the goldsmiths, the stone-workers, and commanded them, "Make a statue of my friend." The statue was fashioned with a great weight of lapis lazuli for the breast and of gold for the body. A table of hard-wood was set out, and on it a bowl of carnelian filled with honey, and a bowl of lapis lazuli filled with butter. These he exposed and offered to the Sun; and weeping went away.

Bitterly Gilgamesh wept for his friend Enkidu; he wandered over the wilderness as a hunter, he roamed over the plains; in his bitterness he cried, "How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead. Because I am afraid of death I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods." So Gilgamesh travelled over the wilderness, he wandered over the grasslands, a long journey, in search of Utnapsihtim, whom the gods took after the deluge; and they set him to live in the land of Dilmun, in the garden of the sun; and to him alone of men they gave everlasting life.
The epic is incredibly rich, and this passage goes right to the heart of its significance. Enkidu is the classic feral child; he was raised by wild beasts. Only a week of orgiastic sex with a temple prostitute could civilize him. He chooses to leave his wilderness home and travel to Uruk, where he disrupts Gilgamesh's droit de seigneur prior to a wedding festival. They fight, then become fast friends out of mutual respect. After a period of idleness and becoming fat and lazy in the city, they decide to go out and tame the wilderness forest. To do so they first must defeat Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the cedar forest. They urge each other along when they falter, and together they defeat this foe. Seeing all this the goddess, Ishtar, falls for the manly Gilgamesh, but he spurns her with insults about how she has treated all her past lovers. She runs home to her father and convinces the gods to set the Bull of Heaven upon the men, but they make short work of him as well. Then Enkidu taunts Ishtar and flings bull shit in her face. Of course somebody must pay for this outrage, and we can pretty much rest assured it will be Enkidu, he of the lowly origin, and not Gilgamesh, who is the archetypal Campbellian hero and, improbably, two-thirds divine (don't ask me quite how). This is where the above quote comes in. Freaked out by his friend's death and confronting his own mortality, Gilgamesh spends the rest of the epic questing to discover the secret of eternal life. Does he find it? Well, you'll have to read it to find out.

[FYI: Utnapishtim is the model for the Biblical Noah and some say Gilgamesh is the model of the Homeric Odysseus.]

There is so much here (civilization and barbarism, gods and monsters, dreams and reality, war and alliance, class and status, ritual and quest, grief and mourning, etc., etc.), but for our purposes The Epic of Gilgamesh is a top candidate for being an actual, real-life Ur-story. Fact is, it pretty much speaks for itself.

[to be continued]

14 June 2008

Ur-Story (Divertissement)

I want to take a slight, though relevant detour from this Ur-story theme post series. I want to respond to the latest review/essay by James Wood in this week's The New Yorker while it is still current. Beyond silently screaming "How could you?" (review a non-fiction book in the annual "Fiction" issue—ask Michael Orthofer and Levi Asher and Scott Esposito), I felt Wood's essay touched on some issues I've been raising here.

His essay, "Holiday in Hellmouth", ostensibly a review of Barth D. Ehrman's new book, God's Problem, is more of a personal essay, almost a testimony as to how Wood himself came to reject religion because of its inability to deal with the problem of evil ("thinking about theodicy still has the power to change lives. I know this, because it was how I began to separate myself from the somewhat austere Christian environment I grew up in") and a discussion of some of the problems he's having now with the issue ("Why does God not now establish paradise on earth...And what is the purpose of these eighty or so years we spend on earth not having the tears wiped away from our faces?"). It seems that whenever the world needs the intervention of a benevolent deity to alleviate its suffering—tsunami, volcanoes, cyclones, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, concentration camps, genocide, the atrocities of war, etc.—the deity takes a vacation from answering prayers, and that's sufficient reason to disbelieve.
"If he no longer believes, of course, suffering should not be theological 'problem.' But the rebel is stuck, as Dostoyevsky knew well, in an aggrieved nostalgia for belief. For the believer, theodicy is merely 'the problem of evil'; for the rebel, theodicy is also ' the problem of theodicy,' and protest, even rage, is the loudest tone."
Wood claims he reached the same point as that put forth in Ehrman's book when he was a kid totting up the pluses and minuses of belief in a deity and uses Ehrman's review as a platform to assert his own particular opinion.

Before he gets into the substance of the book putatively under review, Wood patronizes the "rough power" of Ehrman's "bawls [of] horror and hatred" and "full-throated anger" as nostalgic and adolescent: "I can hear it like a boy's breaking voice..." Then he chides Ehrman for failing to "connect[] Bibilical passages with the larger philosophical or literary traditions" in a book which bears the subtitle: "How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer." Ehrman did not set out to do Patristics or philosophy or, heaven forfend, literary criticism (practical or otherwise).

About two-thirds of the way through the piece, Wood finally gets down to the business of telling us what Ehrman's book does accomplish: "He separates three large strands in the Biblical writings: the idea that suffering is a punishment for sinful behavior; the idea that suffering is either ultimately redemptive or some kind of test of virtue; and the idea that God will finally vanquish evil and establish his kingdom of peace and harmony." Fair enough, and you can see where our own interpretive post intersects with and diverges from Wood's review (and even Ehrman's view).

Wood spends, by my count, five paragraphs explicating the themes of Ehrman's book (insufficient, after his patronizing introit, to induce me to investigate the book any further), then jumps back to his own point of view on the subject, riffing on some of our old favorites: Marilynne Robinson and Dostoyevksy. When Wood concludes...
"But one could also say, more skeptically, that Christianity needs the concept of Heaven simply to make sense of all the world's suffering—that, theologically speaking, Heaven is 'exactly what will be required.' In the end, Heaven, it seems, is the only tenable response to the problem of evil."
... it seems obvious it is Wood's point of view on display, not Ehrman's. But, what's more, it's not at all clear how this relates to the Ehrman book and his views at all: Is it a summation? A criticism? Relevant?

We've said our peace about heaven and the ascension thereto. And we've shown what, at root, one has to believe if one is to call himself a Christian. Wood seems to agree with us that the problem of free will presupposes an impossible ontological continuity of the individual (and that's one of the many reasons we really enjoy his eloquent, engaging essays and reviews), but our postings are on a silly, little personal blog. Wood thrusts his view in the face of a discrete, scholarly look at the Bible's treatment of a perennial subject, demeaning the reviewee as well as his book because he had different ambitions for his project than Wood would have preferred and because he didn't hold the same views as Wood does now (one must assume because Ehrman's own views aren't sufficiently clarified) and because he failed to address Wood's own personal issues. It's not clear Wood learned anything from Ehrman's book other than perhaps a few grudging, scholarly Biblical factual details (nor is it clear that we could if we read the book), and, plainly, the Biblical point of view doesn't faze him a bit. We eagerly await Wood's Leibnizian tome on the topic.

13 June 2008


What, if anything, can we identify as the Ur-story of Western Civilization?

Certainly, the Ur-story of the Western religious tradition is one of the inevitabiity of loss. Look no further than the Genesis myth: Jahweh puts in a tough six-day work week, and ends up quite self-satisfied with his work product: a perfect, functioning world inhabited by at least one interesting creature. All of which reflect his divine ability, however vain. As we all know, Jahweh ultimately loses control of his doppelganger and, in His grief and anger, condemns his entire creation—at one point nearly destroying the whole thing in a cataclysmic flood. With the loss of His creation, Jahweh realizes He must do something. So, He creates a nation of favorites to try and conquer it for Him by proxy, but that doesn't really work out because the chosen ones are as forgetful and rebellious as Satan and Adam and always squabbling amongst themselves. Still, he has to try to redeem it somehow. So, He comes up with a better idea: He'll send a princely Messiah to try to reclaim it. (This either has or hasn't happened depending on what flavor of religion you prefer.) And this works! At least in theory—though it's yet to be put into practice. So, along the way He is constantly sending little prophetic reminders that He's still trying to get the kinks worked out.

That's about as naked as it gets, though, in Gass's terms, this grand story of loss is still slathered in fiction. The characters of Jahweh and Satan and Adam and Moses and Jesus and all the various prophets, for example. The (circular) plot of creation and damnation and redemption.

This story of loss is repeated in the Eden story: Adam and Eve get a swell place to live—no toil, no strife, etc. Not even child-birth labor pains. But they think they're so smart and go out to picnic with a lesser creature and get their asses evicted. Loss. Irreparable. Irretrievable. Sadness and grief and suffering that clouds over the smaller gains and joys that come and, just as quickly, go. Later, one of their boys kills another, so they have to send him off. Again, loss and loss. It can happen in so many ways, but it always happens.

We tell ourselves stories to try and understand this sense of loss that permeates our existence. This sense of loss that is replicated in the Ur-story. We create fictions to populate these stories with identifiable protagonists and antagonists and discrete, digestible outcomes and comprehensible emotional responses to this predicament.

Scholars tell us that the story of Job is the oldest of the Biblical stories, predating the Jahwist Genesis texts. The story is one of a good and prosperous man who loses everything. Loss is inevitable, a fact of life. In fact, it is the central fact of life. The fiction is that Jahweh allows Satan, or "the adversary", to take everything away from Job to test Job's faith. In the end, after all his suffering and loss, because of his virtuous character, everything is restored to Job. Apparently, the story of Job is older even than its telling in the scriptures. And it certainly feels like an ancient way of "justify[-ing] the ways of God to man," a real Ur-story. Suffering and loss is not always punishment. Sometimes it's just Jahweh's way of playing with us. Still, in the end, He'll come through and make us whole. This, in Gassian terms, is the fiction surrounding the story, but it's instructive and gives us something to cling to.

[to be continued]

12 June 2008


Speaking of doleful countenances... I took a brief retreat to the North Carolina mountains earlier this week, and read a frustratingly opaque essay by William H. Gass—my favorite knight-errant critic: "The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications" in his Tests of Time (a book I've referred to before). I often turn to Gass for inspiration or for a spur to further reflection. The clarity of his style is legendary. This essay, however, left me scratching my head—as I was banging it against the wall.

His opening was tantalizing, proposing a distinction I have sought to articulate in my blogland commentary correspondences with the prodigious Nigel Beale [hope you're self-googling] and in my exegesis of James Wood's eloquent, though oddly self-limited, How Fiction Works:
"Stories are things that get told. They can exist outside of any particular medium or any particular method of narration. ...

To begin with, stories break up the natural continuum of life into events. Next, stories arrange these segments in a temporal sequence, in order to suggest that whatever ahappens earlier is responsible for what happens later. ...In stories, all events tend to be given the same weight or value... .

The linear movement always has an aim...and when the story has a happy ending, aim and outcome are the same. ...

In stories, there are agents and actions; there are patterns; there is direction; most of all, there is meaning. Even when the consequences are tragic, there is a point; there is a message, a moral, a teaching. And that is a consolation. It is consoling to believe that our lives have a shape, a purpose and direction; that the white hats and black hats have appropriate heads beneath them, and are borne about by bodies with the right souls inside; that there are historical entities, called events, which we can understand, periods which have cohesion and personalities all their own, causes we can espouse or oppose, forces we can employ, and so on.

Stories have to have a certain size. An arrow, to boast of flight, must fly awhile.

But should we believe in the story's simple determinism, in its naive teleology, its easy judgments, its facile divisions of time, its Chutes and Ladders structure? especially when stories are morally devious. There opening events are always an excuse, for the real aim of every story is a justification. ...

Stories invent a world which isn't there. Stories are abstract and indifferent to detail. A Story asks for the complicity of its readers, who share its ups and downs and tacitly approve the widkedness it wishes to justify. Histories do mostly the same thing: write up the past in a way that will authorize some present misbehavior. Stories try to keep us naive and trusting. Yes, indeed, they console us. They console us by shielding us from the truth. ...

Fictions, on the other hand, pull flashbacks and other tricks, fill their pages and the stories they pretend to tell with data: descriptions, expositions, conversations, digressions, momologues. There are characters with fictitious psychologies and fabricated pasts. ...

It might be plausible to suppose, as Hilary Putnam does, that if we turn the crank on a certain character, he will project his world on the tabula rasa of our reading, as if the world were an inference and th inference were useful to us in our own... . The data of any fiction, without the style and structure of that fiction, cannot guarantee any kind of real consequences. As soon as a so-called truth is removed from a literary text, as it must be if it is to be of further use, it loses its predictive power. ...

We do tell ourselves stories in order to live. That is just another one of our problems, and one wonders will we ever grow up. But we do not tell ourselves fictions. Fictions are too complicated; often they are nearly as long as life itself. And the good ones are frequently just as puzzling..." (pp. 3-8)
The gist is this: There are no new stories, only new ways of telling them. In the story, action is everything. Fiction gives the action context.

Gass concludes as follows in a section with the Foucaultian entitled 'Reality Has A History':
"narrative forms have always enjoyed a privileged position, as if they were the best mirrors of reality; indeed, the notion of the mirror (though it inverts) is beguilingly isomorphic. But the mind never did march, only its linear logic did; human character neither was built in a day nor let out its contents like a tap to a vat. Correlation replaced necessity, probabiilty certainty; entities were full of elements made of entities, yet entities were exclamations of relation. Death was a destination, not a consummation, and life, though full of purposes, had none, and though everything in life was a sign, life managed, itself, to be meaningless.

Story was a comfort, but if it was thought to be right for the realization of the world, except in the narrowest of cases, it was the comfort of a lie.

Fiction is story's polar opposite, though that does not mean they do not need one another, live in the same sphere, or have no common qualities. Both are cold most of the year." (pp. 26-27)
Gass tells us that "human society is full of narratives, which we set up and follow." The narratives change to meet our circumstances and need, but the story remains the same. But can we unearth the Ur-story around which our multiform narratives flit and flicker like flies on shit? This was the question I meditated on during my long drive down the mountain.

[to be continued]

Of Doleful Countenance

In answer to our earlier question, looks like it's going to be this guy: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) introduced thirty-five articles of impeachment against Pres.* George W. Bush. The full text of the articles can be found here(pdf). Apparently, it took him over five hours to read the resolution into the record. After a reading by the clerk, the House of Representatives voted 251 to 166 to send the articles of impeachment to the Judiciary Committee, which is not likely to hold hearings before the end of his term—the same fate as his earlier articles of impeachment against Vice Pres.* Richard Cheney.

Here is the index of the charges:
Article I: Creating a Secret Propaganda Campaign to Manufacture a False Case for War Against Iraq.

Article II: Falsely, Systematically, and with Criminal Intent Conflating the Attacks of September 11, 2001, With Misrepresentation of Iraq as a Security Threat as Part of Fraudulent Justification for a War of Aggression.

Article III: Misleading the American People and Members of Congress to Believe Iraq Possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction, to Manufacture a False Case for War.

Article IV: Misleading the American People and Members of Congress to Believe Iraq Posed an Imminent Threat
to the United States.

Article V: Illegally Misspending Funds to Secretly Begin a War of Aggression.

Article VI: Invading Iraq in Violation of the Requirements of HJRes114.

Article VII: Invading Iraq Absent a Declaration of War.

Article VIII: Invading Iraq, A Sovereign Nation, in Violation of the UN Charter.

Article IX: Failing to Provide Troops With Body Armor and Vehicle Armor.

Article X: Falsifying Accounts of US Troop Deaths and Injuries for Political Purposes.

Article XI: Establishment of Permanent U.S. Military Bases in Iraq.

Article XII: Initiating a War Against Iraq for Control of That Nation's Natural Resources.

Article XIIII: Creating a Secret Task Force to Develop Energy and Military Policies With Respect to Iraq and Other Countries.

Article XIV: Misprision of a Felony, Misuse and Exposure of Classified Information And Obstruction of Justice in the Matter of Valerie Plame Wilson, Clandestine Agent of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Article XV: Providing Immunity from Prosecution for Criminal Contractors in Iraq.

Article XVI: Reckless Misspending and Waste of U.S. Tax Dollars in Connection With Iraq and US Contractors.

Article XVII: Illegal Detention: Detaining Indefinitely And Without Charge Persons Both U.S. Citizens and Foreign Captives.

Article XVIII: Torture: Secretly Authorizing, and Encouraging the Use of Torture Against Captives in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Other Places, as a Matter of Official Policy.

Article XIX: Rendition: Kidnapping People and Taking Them Against Their Will to "Black Sites" Located in Other Nations, Including Nations Known to Practice Torture.

Article XX: Imprisoning Children.

Article XXI: Misleading Congress and the American People About Threats from Iran, and Supporting Terrorist Organizations Within Iran, With the Goal of Overthrowing the Iranian Government.

Article XXII: Creating Secret Laws.

Article XXIII: Violation of the Posse Comitatus Act.

Article XXIV: Spying on American Citizens, Without a Court-Ordered Warrant, in Violation of the Law and the Fourth Amendment.

Article XXV: Directing Telecommunications Companies to Create an Illegal and Unconstitutional Database of the Private Telephone Numbers and Emails of American Citizens.

Article XXVI: Announcing the Intent to Violate Laws with Signing Statements.

Article XXVII: Failing to Comply with Congressional Subpoenas and Instructing Former Employees Not to Comply.

Article XXVIII: Tampering with Free and Fair Elections, Corruption of the Administration of Justice.

Article XXIX: Conspiracy to Violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Article XXX: Misleading Congress and the American People in an Attempt to Destroy Medicare.

Article XXXI: Katrina: Failure to Plan for the Predicted Disaster of Hurricane Katrina, Failure to Respond to a Civil Emergency.

Article XXXII: Misleading Congress and the American People, Systematically Undermining Efforts to Address Global Climate Change.

Article XXXIII: Repeatedly Ignored and Failed to Respond to High Level Intelligence Warnings of Planned Terrorist Attacks in the US, Prior to 911.

Article XXXIV: Obstruction of the Investigation into the Attacks of September 11, 2001.

Article XXXV: Endangering the Health of 911 First Responders.
Any guesses as to how this turns out?

06 June 2008

Guy Davenport -- Quotes

"What we call the twentieth century ended in 1915." Geography of the Imagination.

"Unless the work of art has wholly exhausted its maker's attention, it fails. This is why works of great significance are demanding and why they are infinitely rewarding."

"Fiction's essential activity is to imagine how others feel, what a Saturday afternoon in an Italian town in the second century looked like. My ambition is solely to get some effect, as of light on stone in a forest on a September day. . . . "
"Wittgenstein, huddled in silence on his chair, stammered quietly from time to time. He was committed to absolute honesty. Nothing --- nothing at all --- was to escape analysis. He had nothing up his sleeve; he had nothing to teach. The world was an absolute puzzle, a great lump of opaque pig iron. Can we think about the lump? What is thought? What is the meaning of can, can we, of can we think? What is the meaning of we? If we answer these questions on Monday, are the answers valid on Tuesday? If I answer them at all, do I think the answer, believe the answer, know the answer, or imagine the answer?" from The Geography of the Imagination

"I see a pattern here : a movement from assuming the world to be transparent, and available to lucid thought and language ( - the Victorian realist tradition - ), to assuming .... that the world is opaque. This would seem to be the assumption of Joyce, Borges, Beckett, Barthelme, Ionesco.

"The radical change in twentieth-century narrative is of form. There has been a new understanding that literature is primarily literature and not a useful critique of manners. And there has been a vigorous search for new patterns to the novel. Cubism, a nonsense word for a style of painting invented by Picasso and Braque, was essentially a return to an archaic mode that understands painting to be the same thing as writing....

"Cubism must have developed when the artist considered how much of his sketch must be finished. Finishing involves a stupidity of perception....

"The architectonics of a narrative are emphasized and given a role to play in dramatic effect when novelists become Cubists; that is, when they see the possibilities of making a hieroglyph, a coherent symbol, an ideogram of the total work. A symbol comes into being when an artist sees that it is the only way to get all the meaning in. Genius always proceeds by faith...

"Cubists include visual information which would require several points of view. Perspective commits itself to one point of view. The Sound and the Fury is therefore a Cubist narrative. Les Fauxmonnayeurs, Fowles’ The Collector and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Mandelstam’s The Noise of Time, Cortazar’s Hop-Scotch, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans." , from "Narrative Tone and Form"

"A work of art is a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible." Forward to Every Force Evolves a Form.

"The prime use of words is for imagery: my writing is drawing." Interview with Hoepner.

"I trust the image; my business is to get it onto the page."

"A page, which I think of as a picture, is essentially a texture of images. [...]The text of a story is therefore a continuous graph, kin to the imagist poem, to a collage (Ernst, Willi Baumeister, El Lissitzky), a page of Pound, a Brakhage film." (Geography of the Imaginationin the essay "Ernst Machs Max Ernst."

"The writer assembles, finds, shapes. There is nothing to be gained by displacing the authentic." Geography of the Imagination.

"I learned from a whole childhood of looking in fields how the purpose of things ought perhaps to remain invisible, no more than half-known. People who know exactly what they are doing seem to me to miss the vital part of any doing." Geography of the Imagination.

"The components of an ideogram cohere as particles in a magnetic field, independent of each other but not of the pattern in which they figure. The ellipse, which we feel to be the absence of predication, is the invisible line of attraction between particle and particle."

"My writing unit is such that I start literally with scraps of paper and pages from notebooks. Every sentence is written by itself; there are very few consecutive sentences in my work.[...] Single sentences, which are revised eight or nine times. And I find a place for them, so that the actual writing of any of the stories of Tatlin! was a matter of turning back and forth in a notebook and finding what I wanted."

"Most language refers not to the world but to itself, is a music of sense rather than sense itself. That language is metaphorical is, in time, its frailty and deterioration. An allusion is a reservation of meaning."

"A work of art easily offers us three angles of interest: how it came to be, what it is, and how the world has honored or neglected it."

04 June 2008

McLuhan to Pound

Ideogram of “Tree” and “Forest” created by Hirokazu Kosaka

Letter to Ezra Pound
Toronto, 21st December 1948

Dear Pound,

Much delighted with the Trieste newspapers. The job on Hemingway most amusing. And the Joyce item a gem. Very significant too the Cicero review. My Italian not too adequate even for newspapers though.

The post has just brought The Great Trade Route (1). So I now have the only copy in Toronto. Am keen to get at it. Giovanelli and I are talking Ford up into a small boom. The time is ripe. And it is the best strategy for preparing the ground for a more adequate approach to your own achievement. Intellectually at least, the obfuscators via Marx are pulling rocks over themselves.

Seon Givens of Vanguard Press, the editor in charge of my book on Industrial Folklore (2) is a Mary Butts collector. Has everything. She (Seon Givens) plans to visit you soon.

As Giovanelli and I work up the W. Lewis cause we discover any number of Lewis fans who have warmed themselves secretly at his fires these 25 years!

The American mind is not even close to being amenable to the ideogram principle as yet. The reason is simply this. America is 100% 18th Century. The 18th century had chucked out the principle of metaphor and analogy — the basic fact that as A is to B so is C to D. AB:CD. It can see AB relations. But relations in four terms are still verboten. This amounts to deep occultation of nearly all human thought for the U.S.A.

I am trying to devise a way of stating this difficulty as it exists. Until stated and publicly recognized for what it is, poetry and the arts can't exist in America. Mere exposure to the arts does nothing for a mentality which is incorrigibly dialectical. The vital tensions and nutritive action of ideogram remain inaccessible to this state of mind.

With most cordial seasonable wishes for you and Mrs. Pound.

Marshall McLuhan

1 ) The Great Trade Route (1932) is an extended essay
by Ford Maddox Ford.
2 ) The Mechanical Bride

03 June 2008

Poetry Break: Imagism

A City Sunset

Alluring, Earth seducing, with high conceits
is the sunset that reigns
at the end of westward streets...
A sudden flaring sky
troubling strangely the passer by
with visions, alien to long streets, of Cytherea
or the smooth flesh of Lady Castlemaine...
A frolic of crimson
is the spreading glory of the sky,
heaven's jocund maid
flaunting a trailed red robe
along the fretted city roofs
about the time of homeward going crowds
—a vain maid, lingering, loth to go...


A touch of cold in the Autumn night
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded;
And round about were wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

T.E. Hulme (1909)


"The metaphor and the adjective are nuisance stumbling blocks to perception."

-- Edward Dahlberg, writing about Ezra Pound in a review of The Letters of Ezra Pound for Tomorrow 1951; reprinted in Samuel Beckett's Wake and Other Uncollected Prose, ed. Steven Moore.

For more, see here.

02 June 2008

The Pope's Nose: Joyce's Move

Here's how Joyce took a stab at it:
It made him very tired to think that way. It made him feel his head very big. He turned over the flyleaf and looked wearily at the green round earth in the middle of the maroon clouds. He wondered which was right, to be for the green or for the maroon, because Dante had ripped the green velvet back off the brush that was for Parnell one day with her scissors and had told him that Parnell was a bad man. He wondered if they were arguing at home about that. That was called politics. There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr Casey were on the other side but his mother and uncle Charles were on no side. Every day there was something in the paper about it.

It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in poetry and rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry. That was very far away.


How pale the light was at the window! But that was nice. The fire rose and fell on the wall. It was like waves. Someone had put coal on and he heard voices. They were talking. It was the noise of the waves. Or the waves were talking among themselves as they rose and fell.

He saw the sea of waves, long dark waves rising and falling, dark under the moonless night. A tiny light twinkled at the pierhead where the ship was entering: and he saw a multitude of people gathered by the waters' edge to see the ship that was entering their harbour. A tall man stood on the deck, looking out towards the flat dark land: and by the light at the pierhead he saw his face, the sorrowful face of Brother Michael.

He saw him lift his hand towards the people and heard him say in a loud voice of sorrow over the waters:

-- He is dead. We saw him lying upon the catafalque. A wail of sorrow went up from the people.

-- Parnell! Parnell! He is dead!

They fell upon their knees, moaning in sorrow.

And he saw Dante in a maroon velvet dress and with a green velvet mantle hanging from her shoulders walking proudly and silently past the people who knelt by the water's edge.


It was his first Christmas dinner and he thought of his little brothers and sisters who were waiting in the nursery, as he had often waited, till the pudding came. The deep low collar and the Eton jacket made him feel queer and oldish: and that morning when his mother had brought him down to the parlour, dressed for mass, his father had cried. That was because he was thinking of his own father. And uncle Charles had said so too.

Mr Dedalus covered the dish and began to eat hungrily. Then he said:

-- Poor old Christy, he's nearly lopsided now with roguery.

-- Simon, said Mrs Dedalus, you haven't given Mrs Riordan any sauce.

Mr Dedalus seized the sauceboat.

-- Haven't I? he cried. Mrs Riordan, pity the poor blind. Dante covered her plate with her hands and said:

-- No, thanks.

Mr Dedalus turned to uncle Charles.

-- How are you off, sir?

-- Right as the mail, Simon.

-- You, John?

-- I'm all right. Go on yourself.

--Mary? Here, Stephen, here's something to make your hair curl.

He poured sauce freely over Stephen's plate and set the boat again on the table. Then he asked uncle Charles was it tender. Uncle Charles could not speak because his mouth was full; but he nodded that it was.

-- That was a good answer our friend made to the canon. What? said Mr Dedalus.

-- I didn't think he had that much in him, said Mr Casey.

-- I'll pay your dues, father, when you cease turning the house of God into a polling-booth.

-- A nice answer, said Dante, for any man calling himself a catholic to give to his priest.

-- They have only themselves to blame, said Mr Dedalus suavely. If they took a fool's advice they would confine their attention to religion.

-- It is religion, Dante said. They are doing their duty in warning the people.

-- We go to the house of God, Mr Casey said, in all humility to pray to our Maker and not to hear election addresses.

-- It is religion, Dante said again. They are right. They must direct their flocks.

-- And preach politics from the altar, is it? asked Mr Dedalus.

-- Certainly, said Dante. It is a question of public morality. A priest would not be a priest if he did not tell his flock what is right and what is wrong.

Mrs Dedalus laid down her knife and fork, saying:

-- For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year.

-- Quite right, ma'am, said uncle Charles. Now, Simon, that's quite enough now. Not another word now.

-- Yes, yes, said Mr Dedalus quickly.

He uncovered the dish boldly and said:

-- Now then, who's for more turkey?

Nobody answered. Dante said:

-- Nice language for any catholic to use!

-- Mrs Riordan, I appeal to you, said Mrs Dedalus, to let the matter drop now.

Dante turned on her and said:

-- And am I to sit here and listen to the pastors of my church being flouted?

-- Nobody is saying a word against them, said Mr Dedalus, so long as they don't meddle in politics.

-- The bishops and priests of Ireland have spoken, said Dante, and they must be obeyed.

-- Let them leave politics alone, said Mr Casey, or the people may leave their church alone.

-- You hear? said Dante, turning to Mrs Dedalus.

-- Mr Casey! Simon! said Mrs Dedalus, let it end now.

-- Too bad! Too bad! said uncle Charles.

-- What? cried Mr Dedalus. Were we to desert him at the bidding of the English people?

-- He was no longer worthy to lead, said Dante. He was a public sinner.

-- We are all sinners and black sinners, said Mr Casey coldly.

-- Woe be to the man by whom the scandal cometh! said Mrs Riordan. It would be better for him that a millstone were tied about his neck and that he were cast into the depths of the sea rather than that he should scandalize one of these, my least little ones. That is the language of the Holy Ghost.

-- And very bad language if you ask me, said Mr Dedalus coolly.

-- Simon! Simon! said uncle Charles. The boy.

-- Yes, yes, said Mr Dedalus. I meant about the...I was thinking about the bad language of the railway porter. Well now, that's all right. Here, Stephen, show me your plate, old chap. Eat away now. Here.

He heaped up the food on Stephen's plate and served uncle Charles and Mr Casey to large pieces of turkey and splashes of sauce. Mrs Dedalus was eating little and Dante sat with her hands in her lap. She was red in the face. Mr Dedalus rooted with the carvers at the end of the dish and said:

-- There's a tasty bit here we call the pope's nose. If any lady or gentleman.

He held a piece of fowl up on the prong of the carving fork. Nobody spoke. He put it on his own plate, saying:

-- Well, you can't say but you were asked. I think I had better eat it myself because I'm not well in my health lately.

He winked at Stephen and, replacing the dish-cover, began to eat again.

There was a silence while he ate. Then he said:

-- Well now, the day kept up fine after all. There were plenty of strangers down too.

Nobody spoke. He said again:

-- I think there were more strangers down than last Christmas.

He looked round at the others whose faces were bent towards their plates and, receiving no reply, waited for a moment and said bitterly:

-- Well, my Christmas dinner has been spoiled anyhow.

-- There could be neither luck nor grace, Dante said, in a house where there is no respect for the pastors of the church.

Mr Dedalus threw his knife and fork noisily on his plate.

-- Respect! he said. Is it for Billy with the lip or for the tub of guts up in Armagh? Respect!

-- Princes of the church, said Mr Casey with slow scorn.

-- Lord Leitrim's coachman, yes, said Mr Dedalus.

-- They are the Lord's anointed, Dante said. They are an honour to their country.

-- Tub of guts, said Mr Dedalus coarsely. He has a handsome face, mind you, in repose. You should see that fellow lapping up his bacon and cabbage of a cold winter's day. O Johnny!

He twisted his features into a grimace of heavy bestiality and made a lapping noise with his lips.

-- Really, Simon, you should not speak that way before Stephen. It's not right.

-- O, he'll remember all this when he grows up, said Dante hotly - the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.

-- Let him remember too, cried Mr Casey to her from across the table, the language with which the priests and the priests' pawns broke Parnell's heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.

-- Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Low-lived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!

-- They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!

-- Well, it is perfectly dreadful to say that not even for one day in the year, said Mrs Dedalus, can we be free from these dreadful disputes!

Uncle Charles raised his hands mildly and said:

-- Come now, come now, come now! Can we not have our opinions whatever they are without this bad temper and this bad language? It is too bad surely.

Mrs Dedalus spoke to Dante in a low voice but Dante said loudly:

-- I will not say nothing. I will defend my church and my religion when it is insulted and spit on by renegade catholics.

Mr Casey pushed his plate rudely into the middle of the table and, resting his elbows before him, said in a hoarse voice to his host:

-- Tell me, did I tell you that story about a very famous spit?

-- You did not, John, said Mr Dedalus.

-- Why then, said Mr Casey, it is a most instructive story. It happened not long ago in the county Wicklow where we are now.

He broke off and, turning towards Dante, said with quiet indignation:

-- And I may tell you, ma'am, that I, if you mean me, am no renegade catholic. I am a catholic as my father was and his father before him and his father before him again, when we gave up our lives rather than sell our faith.

-- The more shame to you now, Dante said, to speak as you do.

-- The story, John, said Mr Dedalus smiling. Let us have the story anyhow.

--Catholic indeed! repeated Dante ironically. The blackest protestant in the land would not speak the language I have heard this evening.

Mr Dedalus began to sway his head to and fro, crooning like a country singer.

-- I am no protestant, I tell you again, said Mr Casey, flushing.

Mr Dedalus, still crooning and swaying his head, began to sing in a grunting nasal tone:

O, come all you Roman catholics
That never went to mass

He took up his knife and fork again in good humour and set to eating, saying to Mr Casey:

-- Let us have the story, John. It will help us to digest.

Stephen looked with affection at Mr Casey's face which stared across the table over his joined hands. He liked to sit near him at the fire, looking up at his dark fierce face. But his dark eyes were never fierce and his slow voice was good to listen to. But why was he then against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun and that she had come out of the convent in the Alleghanies when her brother had got the money from the savages for the trinkets and the chainies. Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell. And she did not like him to play with Eileen because Eileen was a protestant and when she was young she knew children that used to play with protestants and the protestants used to make fun of the litany of the Blessed Virgin. Tower of Ivory they used to say, House of Gold! How could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of gold? Who was right then? And he remembered the evening in the infirmary in Clongowes, the dark waters, the light at the pierhead and the moan of sorrow from the people when they had heard.

Eileen had long white hands. One evening when playing tig she had put her hands over his eyes: long and white and thin and cold and soft. That was ivory: a cold white thing. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory.

-- The story is very short and sweet, Mr Casey said. It was one day down in Arklow, a cold bitter day, not long before the chief died. May God have mercy on him!

He closed his eyes wearily and paused. Mr Dedalus took a bone from his plate and tore some meat from it with his teeth, saying:

-- Before he was killed, you mean.

Mr Casey opened his eyes, sighed and went on:

-- It was down in Arklow one day. We were down there at a meeting and after the meeting was over we had to make our way to the railway station through the crowd. Such booing and baaing, man, you never heard. They called us all the names in the world. Well there was one old lady, and a drunken old harridan she was surely, that paid all her attention to me. She kept dancing along beside me in the mud bawling and screaming into my face: Priest-hunter! The Paris Funds! Mr Fox! Kitty O'Shea!

-- And what did you do, John? asked Mr Dedalus.

-- I let her bawl away, said Mr Casey. It was a cold day and to keep up my heart I had (saving your presence, ma'am) a quid of Tullamore in my mouth and sure I couldn't say a word in any case because my mouth was full of tobacco juice.

-- Well, John?

--Well. I let her bawl away, to her heart's content, Kitty O'Shea and the rest of it till at last she called that lady a name that I won't sully this Christmas board nor your ears, ma'am, nor my own lips by repeating.

He paused. Mr Dedalus, lifting his head from the bone, asked:

-- And what did you do, John?

-- Do! said Mr Casey. She stuck her ugly old face up at me when she said it and I had my mouth full of tobacco juice. I bent down to her and Phth! says I to her like that.

He turned aside and made the act of spitting.

-- Phth! says I to her like that, right into her eye.

He clapped his hand to his eye and gave a hoarse scream of pain.

-- O Jesus, Mary and Joseph! says she. I'm blinded! I'm blinded and drownded!

He stopped in a fit of coughing and laughter, repeating:

-- I'm blinded entirely.

Mr Dedalus laughed loudly and lay back in his chair while uncle Charles swayed his head to and fro.

Dante looked terribly angry and repeated while they laughed:

-- Very nice! Ha! Very nice!

It was not nice about the spit in the woman's eye. But what was the name the woman had called Kitty O'Shea that Mr Casey would not repeat? He thought of Mr Casey walking through the crowds of people and making speeches from a wagonette. That was what he had been in prison for and he remembered that one night Sergeant O'Neill had come to the house and had stood in the hall, talking in a low voice with his father and chewing nervously at the chinstrap of his cap. And that night Mr Casey had not gone to Dublin by train but a car had come to the door and he had heard his father say something about the Cabinteely road.

He was for Ireland and Parnell and so was his father: and so was Dante too for one night at the band on the esplanade she had hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God save the Queen at the end.

Mr Dedalus gave a snort of contempt.

-- Ah, John, he said. It is true for them. We are an unfortunate priest-ridden race and always were and always will be till the end of the chapter.

Uncle Charles shook his head, saying:

-- A bad business! A bad business!

Mr Dedalus repeated:

-- A priest-ridden Godforsaken race!

He pointed to the portrait of his grandfather on the wall to his right.

--Do you see that old chap up there, John? he said. He was a good Irishman when there was no money In the job. He was condemned to death as a whiteboy. But he had a saying about our clerical friends, that he would never let one of them put his two feet under his mahogany.

Dante broke in angrily:

-- If we are a priest-ridden race we ought to be proud of it! They are the apple of God's eye. Touch them not, says Christ, for they are the apple of My eye.

-- And can we not love our country then? asked Mr Casey. Are we not to follow the man that was born to lead us?

-- A traitor to his country! replied Dante. A traitor, an adulterer! The priests were right to abandon him. The priests were always the true friends of Ireland.

-- Were they, faith? said Mr Casey.

He threw his fist on the table and, frowning angrily, protruded one finger after another.

-- Didn't the bishops of Ireland betray us in the time of the union when Bishop Lanigan presented an address of loyalty to the Marquess Cornwallis? Didn't the bishops and priests sell the aspirations of their country in 1829 in return for catholic emancipation? Didn't they denounce the fenian movement from the pulpit and in the confession box? And didn't they dishonour the ashes of Terence Bellew MacManus?

His face was glowing with anger and Stephen felt the glow rise to his own cheek as the spoken words thrilled him. Mr Dedalus uttered a guffaw of coarse scorn.

-- O, by God, he cried, I forgot little old Paul Cullen! Another apple of God's eye!

Dante bent across the table and cried to Mr Casey:

-- Right! Right! They were always right! God and morality and religion come first.

Mrs Dedalus, seeing her excitement, said to her:

-- Mrs Riordan, don't excite yourself answering them.

-- God and religion before everything! Dante cried. God and religion before the world.

Mr Casey raised his clenched fist and brought it down on the table with a crash.

-- Very well then, he shouted hoarsely, if it comes to that, no God for Ireland!

-- John! John! cried Mr Dedalus, seizing his guest by the coat sleeve.

Dante stared across the table, her cheeks shaking. Mr Casey struggled up from his chair and bent across the table towards her, scraping the air from before his eyes with one hand as though he were tearing aside a cobweb.

-- No God for Ireland! he cried. We have had too much God In Ireland. Away with God!

-- Blasphemer! Devil! screamed Dante, starting to her feet and almost spitting in his face.

Uncle Charles and Mr Dedalus pulled Mr Casey back into his chair again, talking to him from both sides reasonably. He stared before him out of his dark flaming eyes, repeating:

-- Away with God, I say!

Dante shoved her chair violently aside and left the table, upsetting her napkin-ring which rolled slowly along the carpet and came to rest against the foot of an easy-chair. Mrs Dedalus rose quickly and followed her towards the door. At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage:

-- Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!

The door slammed behind her.

Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.

-- Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king!

He sobbed loudly and bitterly.

Stephen, raising his terror-stricken face, saw that his father's eyes were full of tears.
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ch. 1.

01 June 2008

The Politics of Fiction

I know I've been nattering on in my most recent themed posts on the issues of crowds and politics.  I'm pretty sure I've annoyed those of my readers who are apolitical or angered those of unlike mind or simply bored those of you for whom American politics are irrelevant.  I assure you there are literary reasons behind these feuilletons other than as draft-fodder for future non-fiction essays.  To wit:  one of the two novels I currently have in process has explicit political themes; it's a bit of a thriller, truth be told—though, in conception, it is no less "literary" or "artistic" than the one I've finished or the other one I'm working on.  Thus, these last entries rate in my mind as research.

I'll leave you with a quote from Lydia Millet in the latest Bookforum:
"The most crucial artistry of fiction is the existential question, whose critique of power is found in its linguistic play or symbols or evocations of feeling. And an obvious but key distinction between the literary and the middlebrow, between books that are art and those that simply are not, is not politics per se, which can play a part in either, but the quality of being beyond easy description. If a novel loses little through being synopsized in a page, it is not art but narrative. Narrative can be a skeleton for literature but clearly is not literature itself; that distinction belongs only to fiction that is comparable to other art forms, to poetry, to painting, to music, and cannot be represented by anything other than itself. Language is a landscape whose beauty rises from the unconscious, while narrative is a superficial structure we impose on it consciously—not an end in itself, but a tool.

The problem is that fiction is written about in this country, in places as prominent as the New York Times, in a way that mistakes narrative for art. There’s nothing wrong with pulp fiction or genre fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with middlebrow fiction: What’s wrong is that (increasingly, to my mind) opinion-making critics elevate the mundane and the middlebrow to the literary. One dominant reviewing trend, for example, mistakes banal stories about assimilation or interpersonal drama—and often those sagas that marry the two —for literature merely because they may expose insular readers to unfamiliar cultural or ethnic touchstones. Works that are little more than cross-cultural soap operas pass as literary achievements because, in a sense, they also pass for political statements: The politically correct, in other words, is clothed as the political, and apparently, that’s the closest many readers care to come to transcendence.

True literature is almost always truly political—political in a deep sense, political in a way that is felt, that reverberates through the being. It should not be enough that a writer has an identity that is deemed marginal, or writes about identities that are. What needs to matter most is the extraordinariness of the artist’s relationship to language."

Lydia Millet is the author of six novels, most recently How the Dead Dream (Soft Skull Press, 2008).