I have a review of B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates in this month’s (June 08) issue of The Believer. It’s either at bookstores now or in the next week or so. I just received my copy of The Believer and it has Zadie Smith’s lecture on the art of fiction which she gave at Columbia, looks interesting. I’m sure I’d either love it or hate it. I’m also looking forward to reading the Gus van Sant interview, as well as the Tom McCarthy interview, as Remainder was one of my favorite novels of last year.
I’m still not completely moved in to the new house. There are problems everywhere. The special-ordered oven wouldn’t fit so we had to re-special order it from Lowe’s. Now there’s a big gaping hole where an oven should be in the kitchen. The bathtub wouldn’t drain properly so the plumber had to break through the tiles to get to the pipes. Now there’s a big gaping hole in the shower wall. My new house is an unintentional Gordon Matta-Clark project.
But in the basement of the house, I found a treasure trove. More later.
(Image: by Gordon Matta-Clark)
UPDATE: speaking of treasure troves - two women from Indiana coming back from a camping trip bought a zebra-striped trunk from a garage sale in Kentucky, back in 2003. Inside were about 200 photos and private letters, which one of the women contemplated throwing away. She took them to a rare documents dealer just to make sure (I bet you she watches Antiques Roadshow like me), and lo and behold, the photos and correspondences turn out to be a bulk of work by the photographer Weegee, whose photograph I used a couple weeks ago in a post. Damn!
I’m taking this sentence way out of context, from At the Mind’s Limits. But I hope the itch to find out the context in which “Today’s Sentence” must be true will give at least one more reason to check out Améry’s memoir of his torture by the Gestapo at the Fortress Breendonck. (After I move tomorrow & set up my internet connection, I’ll have more to say about Breendonck… ) -
Thinking is almost nothing else but a great astonishment.
I’m sure many of you enjoy Wyatt Mason’s thoughtful reviews for Harper’s as I do. When he’s enthusiastic about a writer, his joy works on you, through his sentences, like a virus. (A big reason why I bought It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick a few years ago.) Even when he’s not so keen on a book, he does something a bit more humane than other critics. When criticizing Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, for example, he graciously pointed toward Smith’s earlier example of writing as a specific reminder of her promise as a writer. Sometimes, I love reading those barbed UK book reviews. There’s nothing like book reviewing as bloodsport. But it is when the reviewers key in to something larger than themselves & their concerns that I value their function, when their reviews become ultimately self-effacing at the service of literature. I’ve read a few of those kinds of reviews from Wyatt Mason, so I’m happy that he’s started a blog called Sentences, through Harper’s website. (The latest entry is his report of the ego-stroking conversation between Jonathan Franzen and James Wood which took place at Harvard.)
On a totally unrelated note: I missed Jon Lester pitching a no-hitter because of the damn graduation ceremony!
(Photo of Mason, from Harper’s website)
One of the most annoying book reviews that I’ve ever read is Janet Maslin’s review of James Frey’s new book, Bright Shiny Morning. I don’t know what the hell she was smoking when she wrote it, but I don’t want a toke. Are you sure NY Times pays her for this
On the other hand, school’s over for me, hooray! Finally, I can do some books I’ve been meaning to read. Jenny recommends Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay highly, so that’s on the list. Other books I can’t wait to read are Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief and Ed Park’s Personal Days. Need to finally finish Senselessness by Horacio Castellano Moya, but after this, no more torture regime novels for a while… until Bolano’s 2666. Nam Le’s getting a lot of attention, and I’m very curious. And I promise I’ll finally read a Jane Austen novel this summer so when people are talking about Austen to me they’re not staring back at glazed-over eyes.
Now that Columbia’s not subsidizing my apartment, I’m getting priced out of Manhattan. Moving just across the pond. I’m happy though; it’s a house, has a small yard, and I have a huge basement office to myself to work in. Hopefully I’ll get to finally push forward on the novel that I’ve been writing. But that’s what I say every summer. I’ll at least set up a kiddie pool and slip ‘n slide for my girls, grill some steaks. Crank up some records by The Band and drink a lot of cold-ass beer. Good enough for me.
And I promise to be good to you again, blog. No more neglect.
(Image: “Summer” by the incomparable Weegee)
Apparently, they removed the ice cream box from the Red Sox clubhouse and the players are pretty pissed off about it, according to this article, albeit tongue-in-cheek. Josh Beckett demanded a trade if it’s not returned. Mike Lowell expressed his frustration about why they couldn’t have the ice cream box back, saying “we won the World Series with it there.” I guess the Yankees are in a similar frosty situation: the manager Joe Girardi has requested the ice cream box to be removed from the players’ clubhouse, and people are pissed, except for A-Rod, I bet, who probably prefers gelatos. And strippers.
Alice McDermott, who was probably my favorite writing teacher amongst many, wrote a story in The New Yorker years ago, called “Enough.” It was about a woman who loved eating, especially ice cream -
If you want to begin with the ice-cream dishes licked clean by a girl who is now the old woman past all usefulness, closing her eyes at the first taste. If you want to make a metaphor out of her lifelong cravings, something she is not inclined to do. Pleasure is pleasure….If you have an appetite for it, you’ll find there’s plenty. Plenty to satisfy you—lick the back of the spoon. Take another, and another. Plenty. Never enough.
(Tipped hat to Joy of Sox)
In the current Spring ‘08 issue of The Paris Review, Kaz Ishiguro is interviewed. My favorite Ishiguro novel, by the way, is The Unconsoled, but it might pale in comparison to the radio play he submitted to BBC right after he graduated from college (it was politely rejected). The play was called “Potatoes and Lovers,” and Ishiguro says that in the manuscript, he spelled potatoes as “potatos.” Ishiguro seems strangely proud of it, and mentions that he wouldn’t mind other people seeing it now -
It was about two young people who work in a fish-and-chips cafe. They are both severely cross-eyed, and they fall in love with each other, but they never acknowledge the fact that they’re cross-eyed. It’s the unspoken thing between them. At the end of the story, they decide not to marry, after the narrator has a strange dream where he sees a family coming toward him on the seaside pier. The parents are cross-eyed, the children are cross-eyed, the dog is cross-eyed, and he says, All right, we’re not going to marry.
In Chapter 6 of In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin is in Bahia Blanca, located to the south-west of Buenos Aires, the last place before the Patagonian desert. He drives through the desert, sleepily watching
the rags of silver cloud spinning across the sky, and the sea of grey-green thornscrub lying off in sweeps and rising in terraces and the white dust streaming off the saltpans, and, on the horizon, land and sky dissolving into an absence of color.
He then notices the Indian shacks and briefly muses about the native Araucanian Indians, how they were so fierce that they flayed their enemies alive and sucked at the hearts of the dead, how they scared the Spaniards out of their wits. “Their boys’ education,” Chatwin writes, “consisted of hockey, horsemanship, liquor, insolence and sexual athletics.” There is a mention of a book called Araucana written by a certain Alonso de Ercilla in honor of the Indians, which Voltaire purportedly read, using the Araucanian Indians as models for the Noble Savage.
After describing the desolate landscape of the Patagonian desert, Chatwin muses why Charles Darwin was so singularly attracted to the Patagonian desert -
In summing up The Voyage of the Beagle, he tried, unsuccessfully, to explain why, more than any of the wonders he had seen, these ‘arid wastes’ had taken such firm possession of his mind.
Perhaps to encapsulate his own speculation on the matter, Chatwin alludes to a book called Idle Days in Patagonia, written by W. H. Hudson in 1860, in which Hudson devotes a chapter to answering Darwin’s question. Hudson’s conclusion is that as one wanders through the Patagonian desert, “a primaeval calmness (known also to the simplest savage)” becomes instilled in the wanderer, which is perhaps “the same as the Peace of God.”
It’s a fine thought by Hudson (or Chatwin), but one that I have my doubts about. There might be a reason for Darwin’s uncommon attachment to Patagonia that is far more restive and disturbing. In Chapter 5 of The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin writes about arriving in Bahia Blanca on September 7, 1832. After speculating that there must be no animals in the Patagonian desert, Darwin writes about digging into the ground and finding various lizards, insects and animals in a “half-torpid” state, and remembers a passage from Alexander von Humboldt’s writing which mentioned native Indians finding boas and crocodiles half-buried in the mud in their lethargic state, and how they sprinkled water on these creatures to animate them.
Then Darwin’s diary account takes a strange detour from his usual naturalist concerns. (I’m almost tempted to say “Sebaldian” in describing Darwin’s detour for more than one reason, but especially as Darwin’s digressive thoughts seem to have been prompted by Humboldt’s mention of the Indian practice of reanimating the buried animals: Alexander von Humboldt was one of Sebald’s favorite writers.) Darwin writes about the bloody battle waged by General Juan Manuel de Rosas’ troops against the native Indians. He writes with unqualified horror about the soldiers’ practice of murdering, in cold blood, all Indian women above 20 years of age. When he approaches a soldier to question him about this inhuman practice, the soldier replies: “Why What can be done They breed so!” There is also a mention of three Indian spies who are captured and summarily executed, after steadfastly refusing to give up information. The third Indian, Darwin notes, follows his perfunctory denial of “No se” with a statement, “Fire, I am a man, and can die!”
Although Darwin is stirred by these accounts, he is, after all, a dutiful Christian westerner (okay, please refrain from sending me philosophical emails about why Darwin is not a Christian. Because I don’t care. I’ll print the email out, and wipe my ass with it, thanks.) He believes that the Indian children who are captured and sold as slaves must be treated fairly by the captors, that there is little to complain of. But it is clear that the plight of this civilization of Indians is close to Darwin’s heart. He writes about an Indian escaping the pursuit of the troops, by riding on his horse by straddling only one leg on the animal’s body, hanging by the its neck to avoid the bullets. “Thus hanging on one side,” Darwin notes with wonderment, “he was seen patting the horse’s head, talking to him.”
It seems to me that Darwin felt very uneasy about this conquest of the Indians by Rosas’ troops, to say the least, and of the possible extinction of this “other” civilization & their way of life. Chapter 5 ends with a remarkable paragraph that is at once an archaeological observation and a quiet reflection on one civilization’s passing by the usurpation of another. There is no judgment in it, just the notice. As in the rest of The Voyage of the Beagle, the prose is restrained, each sentence tessellating beautifully upon the other with immaculate poise, forming the whole picture. On the surface, this moment described is only about the soldier using an Indian arrow as flint. But in Darwin’s notice, isn’t there a nostalgia for the demise of the civilization which he knows too little of, which will be forgotten too soon?
I saw one day a soldier striking fire with a piece of flint, which I immediately recognised as having been a part of the head of an arrow. He told me it was found near the island of Cholechel, and that they are frequently picked up there. It was between two and three inches long, and therefore twice as large as those now used in Tierra del Fuego: it was made of opaque cream-coloured flint, but the point and barbs had been intentionally broken off. It is well known that no Pampas Indians now use bows and arrows. I believe a small tribe in Banda Oriental must be excepted; but they are widely separated from the Pampas Indians, and border close on those tribes that inhabit the forest, and live on foot. It appears, therefore, that these arrow-heads are antiquarian relics of the Indians, before the great change in habits consequent on the introduction of the horse into South America.
So I was walking on the 95th Street toward Broadway yesterday, taking my daughter home from school, and guess who I see, kind of staggering down the street Philip Roth. Uh-huh. For some reason, he looked really disoriented & wind-blown. I really wanted to say hello, but he didn’t look like he was doing so good, so just passed him. For a few blocks, I kicked myself for not having said ‘hi.’ And in the meantime, my mind had somehow started referring to him as Zuckerman, and it was really then that it occurred to me: perhaps no one had quite pulled off the fiction/reality entrechat like Philip Roth had over the past few decades. Pretty remarkable.
I was reading Stendhal’s delightful and brilliantly quirky autobiography, The Life of Henry Brulard, and I think he may have had a similar experience of encountering a person who seems like fiction embodied: he met, in one of those Parisian parties which he claims to have despised (yeah, right), an old woman named Mme de Montmaur, a character upon which Mme de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons is based -
I had met with society, and then only at long range, only at Mme de Montmaur’s, the original of Mme de Merteuil in “Les Liaisons dangereuses.” She was by then old, rich and lame. Of that I am sure; as for morality, she objected to them giving me only half a crystallized nut when I went to see her in Le Chevallon, she always made them give me a whole one. “Children take it to heart so,” she used to say.
That was all the morality I had met with… This detail about Mme de Montmaur, the original of Mme de Merteuil, is out of place here perhaps, but I wanted to use the anecdote of the crystallized nut to show what I knew of society.
What a fantastic passage! It’s weird, it’s funny, and most of all - it’s cryptic. What the fuck is Stendhal talking about with this crystallized nut anecdote What kind of “morality” is he talking about here, through this metaphor Pardon the pun, but seriously, this is a hard nut to crack. On the surface level, it does seem like Stendhal’s taking a pretty straightforward shot at the flippant morality of the society, but one has to take into account that he does so by using the crystallized nut as a metaphor. He strangely but pointedly mentions this incident as the “crystallized nut anecdote” at the end of the passage, as if by reiterating the phrase “crystallized nut,” he is pointing toward a hidden code. There’s a definite nudge there, but one has a tough time deciphering to what Stendhal is nudging us toward. He frustrates the easy, straightforward interpretation of the morality of the society.
Some of you may recall that Stendhal’s notion of “crystallization” expounded upon in Love is pivotal to his aesthetic theory. In Chapter 2 of Love, Stendhal describes a couple of lovers throwing a twig into the salt mines of Salzburg -
Two or three months later they pull it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable… What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.
Simply put: it’s seeing your loved one everywhere, in everything. Then through the process, an ordinary person (a twig) becomes perfected in the lover’s eyes (as crystals). But Stendhal extends this metaphor into his theories on art & on literature… the process of making & perfecting art, too, the evocative power of the artist, is a crystallization process, according to Stendhal.
W. G. Sebald was preoccupied with Stendhal’s episode of the salt mine crystallization in Vertigo; apparently, he kept up his strange obsession with it: the crystallization/crystal metaphor becomes crucial in Austerlitz, and elsewhere (see Sebald’s description of Sir Thomas Browne’s crystalline quincunx in The Rings of Saturn; it relates to both Stendhal’s and his own “crystal” project.)
Back to Stendhal standing in front of Mme de Montmaur. He must have felt that he really was standing in front of Mme de Monteuil, as in a few paragraphs before, he admits that he used to believe in those days that he really was at once “a Saint-Preux and a Valmont.” He watches this fiction incarnate commanding people to give him a whole crystallized nut instead of a mere half, and concludes: “That was all the morality I had met with.”
As of now, I can’t unwrap this mystery. How much of his statement is ironic, how much is sincere Is he saying anything about art and its relation to morality, too, especially in consideration of his theory on “crystallization” Almost impossible to gauge. Maybe this joke isn’t meant to have a punchline. And let’s not forget that I may be reading way the fuck too much into this thing, as usual. But to me, this is Stendhal at one of his most inscrutable, delightful turns. I can’t stop thinking about this moment, want to see through to his heart.
P.S. - There are many film incarnations of Les Liaisons dangereuses, but you may not have seen the Korean adaptation of it, called 스캔들 (Untold Scandal), set in the Chosun Dynasty. Perhaps it’s my favorite film version of the Laclos’ tale, and Jeon Do-yeon, who won this year’s best actress at Cannes for her devastating performance in 밀양 (Secret Sunshine), is great in this movie, as are the rest of the cast.
(Image: one of many incomprehensible hand-drawn maps/diagrams from Stendhal’s The Life of Henry Brulard; for a vaguely and tangentially related post, go to Terry’s entry on Sebald’s useless map, which is actually more of a critique on the limitations of cultural-studies approach to reading Sebald…)
One classical music reviewer that I’ve been reading with pleasure is Bernard Holland of NY Times. His reviews usually are shorter than most, but he is remarkably deft at describing the compositions under discussion with concision and understanding. I learn a lot from reading his reviews. Yet he is also one reviewer I disagree with the most. For example, this Glenn Gould assessment. And this morning, in the review of Brentano String Quartet’s concert featuring “late style” compositions by Brahms and Shostakovich, Holland had this to say about Mozart and late style -
Late style is less appropriate to composers who might have thought they had another 20 years to go when unexpected deaths turned middle periods into late ones. Mozart had no late period; he died suddenly in his prime.
This seems like a preposterous claim to me. I am no Mozart scholar, but there are many indications that Mozart was very much aware of his failing health and mortality in the last years. Some of his last letters to Constanze are bone-chilling, and they contain none of the youthful exuberance of his earlier letters -
If people would see into my heart, I should almost feel ashamed… To me, everything is cold - cold as ice. Everything is empty.
The letters are quoted from Andrew Steptoe’s Mozart-Da Ponte Operas, and the icy emptiness which Mozart wrote about is again described by the composer as “a kind of emptiness which hurts [him] dreadfully - a kind of longing, which is never satisfied, which never ceases, which persists and increases daily.” Late style I’d say so. Edward Said, in his magisterial On Late Style which I’d briefly discussed in a previous post, writes about the last of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, Cosi fan tutte, as the exemplary work of the composer’s late style. In short, Said describes Cosi as a work that bears its composer’s icy sense of control and rigor, cold-heartedness disguised as comedy, and refusal to bend toward customary views of emotions, especially, of love.
I suspect that Bernard Holland’s refusal of Mozart’s late style stems from a rather elementary view of what late style might be, insofar as today’s review is concerned. He describes Mendelssohn’s late quartet as “bitter and death-ridden… an act of mourning,” and Shostakovich of the Quartet #15 as “a man writing his own obituary.” Which are apt descriptions for those particular compositions, but I wonder if those phrases color the Holland’s notion of late style, as well. Not every work of late style veers toward mourning. Beethoven’s last works, for example. Yes, there is the mournful Richard Strauss of Four Last Songs and Metamorphosen, but also of Der Rosenkavalier: rigorously technical, impenetrable.
And there is Mozart.
(Image: by Anthony Goicolea)
First of all, welcome Ashraya, to the blogging community. She’s a precocious pre-med student who happens to be quite a writer, as well as a singer for the band, The Kitchen Cabinet. Second of all, if you haven’t already, grab a copy of Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks’ new album, Real Emotional Trash and go to track 6, “Baltimore.” Go ahead, dude: crank it up. It will quickly be apparent that younger bands haven’t forgotten how to jam. Psychedelic, wall-of-sound guitar, kick-ass drumming by Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney throughout the album… what can I say My favorite rock album in some time.
I noticed that this blog has actually gained readers while I was away. Interesting. I suspect that it was because my Murakami interview translations got picked up somehow in different channels. I had like two thousand visits one day. (Maybe I should purchase that weird book, Murakami’s Whiskey Pilgrimage in Europe, from the Korean bookstore & translate some passages…) But just maybe, the readers find my silence way more interesting. I wouldn’t doubt that possibility at all.
Taoists always knew the value of being silent, both in words & deeds. “One does less and less until one does nothing at all,” says Lao Tzu, “and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.” The gist of it all being that words & purposive action lead to the kind of instrumental reason which entrenches one in the ways of the world, away from wu wei.
I briefly mentioned Chuang Tzu by way of Eliot Weinberger in my previous post. He’s a more interesting philosopher to me than Lao Tzu, because while adhering to the same Taoist cautionary stance against “words,” Chuang Tzu’s functional valuation of “words” is more nuanced than Lao Tzu’s. There’s an interesting parable of an Artisan named Ch’ui in Section 19 of Chuang Tzu called “Mastering Life.” “Artisan Ch’ui could draw as true as a compass or a T-square,” Chuang Tzu tells us, “because his fingers changed along with things and he didn’t let his mind get away” -
You forget your feet when your shoes are comfortable. You forget your waist when the belt is comfortable. Understanding forgets right and wrong when the mind is comfortable. You begin what is comfortable and never experience what is uncomfortable when you know the comfort of forgetting what is comfortable.
Artisan Ch’ui had no need for mediating tools because he didn’t let his mind get away, just as how one forgets his body when the mediating apparel is comfortable. Then Chuang Tzu concludes with a culminating illustration of this principle -
The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him
Any word that exists outside of meaning is a useless vessel, can only deter The Way. Even the words that successfully serve their mediatory function must be forgotten once the meaning is understood. Uncannily enough, these words of Chuang Tzu find their echo centuries later, in a different continent, in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein which inform his readers of the limited, mediatory purpose of his words and propositions in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus -
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
Throw away the fish traps, throw away the ladder. Chuang Tzu’s instruction “once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words” slides comfortably into Wittgenstein’s famous last words of Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
This is all fine and dandy, but the ultimate irony is that Chuang Tzu depends on words and texts to theoretically deliver a conduit to The Way, the principles of which all but negate the primacy of words. Wittgenstein, likewise, would spend a solid chunk of his life digging himself out of the hole that was Tractatus, with words and more words. When Chuang Tzu asks, “Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him” it is as if he is stoically acknowledging the impossibility of such a prospect. The question is a rhetorical möbius strip: it promises the enlightenment of the wu wei, but simultaneously puts at distant bay the practical attainability of The Way. The fact that both Chuang Tzu and Wittgenstein rely on the written word seems to testify to this - unmediated meaning exists in truth, but may be irretrievable in practice. Just as it is impossible to undo language, in this completely mediated and rationalized world, all one can do is sift through the mediations to get closer.
(Last image: by Rivane Neuenschwander)
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