Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gass on Philosophy

Here, by the way, is an extended excerpt from the Believer interview with William H. Gass, on the pleasures of reading philosophy, which I quoted briefly from in my last post (italics in original):
Philosophy has a great sort of appeal in terms of an artistic or aesthetic organization of concepts. It also leads, in some cases, to writing which is exceptionally interesting. I’m thinking, say, of somebody who’s very technical in a way, like [German philosopher Gottlob] Frege. And he’s writing on the foundations of arithmetic. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.

So there’s that part of it. But the world of conceptualized ideas is quite wonderful, even when it’s—-like Aristotle’s Physics—-an outmoded book. The physics is not true. But the reasoning is dazzling. You can learn so much from a book like that about the way a mind might work and should work. I remember reading it for the first time, and it was just extraordinary. When Aristotle is wrong because science has outstripped him, he is so sane given what he has in front of him to work with, that you think, Well. You leave somebody like Plato, whose mind is breathtaking, and you go to Aristotle, who has a very completely different kind of thing, and hasn’t got the style or the panache. And yet, oh, boy, some of the performances are devastatingly wonderful. Same thing with someone like Kant, or Spinoza. And of course one of my favorites, Hobbes. He writes some of the best prose ever. And it isn’t that when one’s appreciating this, you’re just throwing out the aim that they were trying to achieve—to get at the truth. The fact is that even if it isn’t the truth, it’s worth the journey.

One of my favorites is Plotinus, and, you know, I think he’s nuts. [Both laugh] But it’s always gorgeous, and the language is just spectacular. And the same is true of the Tractatus [Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein]. The German is exquisite. So what you’re dealing with is a certain quality of mind. I think it is important to realize when you’re studying philosophy that what you’re getting is not simply that they got it right. What they got right was the going after it and showing you how it works, and imagining this and that. Usually, doing what Emerson suggested: capturing the world as it might seem from one point of view. That tells you a whole lot about that point of view.

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Again on Nietzsche and youthful reading

I've been reading Nietzsche's On the Geneology of Morals and thinking more about youthful reading. Previously, I quoted Graham Harman on Nietzsche thus:
Many consider him a sort of juvenile pastime that one has to move beyond, and this attitude is understandable, but just think of how your brain is on fire after reading Nietzsche. There aren’t many philosophers who can do that.
At the time, I was interested chiefly in the "juvenile pastime" part of the remark, now I can see better how one's brain could be "on fire after reading Nietzsche", particularly a young person's brain. I can easily see how a young reader of philosophy could be quite enamored of Nietzsche. So confident! So assured! So provocative! So in love with exclamation points!

Interestingly, at least in the parts of Geneology I've read so far, Nietzsche's account of the origins of certain things is almost certainly wrong, and yet seductive. (Note: I opted to read On the Geneology of Morals after reading Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea--Dennett provides several passages from Nietzsche and suggests that Hobbes and Nietzsche are something like the first "sociobiologists", in that they were trying to explain the beginnings of things in terms of natural history, as opposed to resorting to God as an explanation. Dennett observes that, though Nietzsche may not have read Darwin directly, he was certainly familiar with and interested in the theories of evolution, which interest is reflected in his work. I hope to have something more specific to say about Nietzsche and Dennett and the origins of things, especially in the context of Chris Knight's work, in a later post. Dennett, by the way, is another writer who is overly fond of the exclamation point.) And yet Nietzsche remains a pleasure to read. It is enjoyable following his reasoning, registering objections along the way. I recall William H. Gass' love of reading philosophy--he often echoes a point made several times by Harman at his blog, that the thing about reading philosophy is not necessarily whether the philosopher was right, that they do not become worthless once science has shown them to be wrong on this or that topic; or, as Gass says here in an interview with the Believer, "The fact is that even if it isn’t the truth, it’s worth the journey." (Update: I've provided a substantially longer excerpt on this theme from this interview, here.)

But back to youthful reading. As noted before, Dostoevsky is another writer often said to be for the young. One grows out of Dostoevsky, is the sneer. I don't know about that, but I think I know what is meant by this sort of comment, at least when it's not a form of condescension (as, for example, I don't believe Graham Harman was being in any way condescending in his remarks about Nietzsche). In the final section of his great memoir, Gathering Evidence, Thomas Bernhard recalls his first encounter with Dostoevsky's Demons. He calls it "elemental". Some of us have approached that book and found it decidedly not elemental, for us. But Bernhard was 19 years old, I believe, when he read Demons. For him, at that age, no doubt it indeed was elemental. And what mattered for him later in life, in his own writing, was not what Dostoevksy might have had to say for him or to him in his 30s or 40s or 50s, but what it meant to read Demons when he was 19. Perhaps, if he had not read Demons, or any other Dostoevsky, until his mid-30s--perhaps it would have meant little to him. But that experience, that encounter, that elemental reading at the age of 19--he owed a certain kind of loyalty to that. Indeed, though at the age of 39 I've so far tried and failed to make my way into Demons, I nevertheless remember fondly my experience, at 24, reading The Brothers Karamazov. Yes, I was proud of myself for plowing through such a dense book, but also I was invigorated by the experience, wanted to talk about it, was on fire, in a sense, with the ideas. For some, this very aspect of Dostoevsky is what renders him aesthetically suspect. I used to agree, but now I'm not so sure. (Anyway, resolute atheist that I was and am, I hardly thought it was anything like a conservative religious tract, as others have argued.) After that you'd think I'd have consumed more Dostoevsky at that still relatively young age, but I did not. And by the time I got around to reading Notes from Underground, at 36, even this lean novella felt flabby to me.

The point is that these youthful readings are important, not to be dismissed or sneered at, or disowned. They form part of our worldview and our aesthetic, even if we move beyond or away from them. With some authors, if we miss out on appropriate youthful readings, then perhaps we miss out on them altogether, or maybe they simply cannot mean as much to us as they otherwise might have.

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Giovanni Arrighi

Lost in the shuffle of recent events has been the death on June 18th of Giovanni Arrighi, described as "one of the foremost scholars of the history and future of capitalism" at Verso's blog.
I actually haven't yet read anything by Arrighi myself, though his monumental books The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times and the more recent Adam Smith in Beijing are on my ever-lengthening list of books I feel that I need to read in order to understand our time (while I'm here, allow me to again point you to jane dark's excellent recent post on world system hegemons, which draws on Arrighi's arguments in both of these books). In March 2008, not long after Adam Smith in Beijing appeared, I happened to catch a panel discussion with Arrighi, David Harvey, and Joel Andreas at 2640 in Baltimore (Arrighi taught at Johns Hopkins University, Andreas still does, and of course Harvey taught there for the better part of two decades). It was a fascinating and occasionally heated discussion. I took copious notes intended for use on this blog, but I was never able to get my act together to organize them. (However, it turns out you can view a film of the event here; it's worth looking at if you have the time.) I was especially interested in this discussion, precisely because of its focus on China. As I've mentioned here previously, I'm greatly interested in China, but I've been unsure how to proceed. I'd like to read a history of the communist revolution and the cultural revolution that takes it seriously, without being fawningly Maoist or something. Perhaps Arrighi's later book covers some of the history; no doubt the book is equipped with a substantial bibliography (I'm also aware that, as one would expect, Monthly Review Press has some titles that look just right for this investigation, such as perhaps this one or this one or, especially, this one.)

One thing I remember from the panel discussion was Arrighi's contention that China's emergence as an economic power has been in large part dependent on the advances of the revolution, which resulted in a generally healthy and educated populace. Harvey and Andreas didn't dispute this point, but they were far less sanguine about the prospects of China becoming a major power, given its, in their view, particularly virulent form of capitalism. (This contention of Arrighi's reminds me, incidentally, of this talk given by Dmitry Orlov, in which he argues that the USSR, because of its socialism, however deeply flawed, was much better prepared to handle its collapse than the USA will be to handle its inevitable collapse, when it comes.)

Anyway, this great, great interview (link via Verso) of Arrighi by Harvey, which appeared in the New Left Review this Spring, has me dying to dive into his work sooner rather than later. The interview covers a lot of ground, from his work in Africa, where he cut his teeth in the 1960s ("the mathematically modelled neo-classical tradition I’d been trained in had nothing to say about the processes I was observing in Rhodesia, or the realities of African life"), up through to China and the current financial crisis. Here is a short excerpt:

One of Marx’s conclusions in Capital, particularly Volume One, is that adoption of a Smithian free-market system will lead to increases in class inequality. To what degree does the introduction of a Smithian regime in Beijing carry the risk of even greater class inequalities in China?

My argument in the theoretical chapter on Smith, in Adam Smith in Beijing, is that there is no notion in his work of self-regulating markets as in the neoliberal creed. The invisible hand is that of the state, which should rule in a decentralized way, with minimal bureaucratic interference. Substantively, the action of the government in Smith is pro-labour, not pro-capital. He is quite explicit that he is not in favour of making workers compete to reduce wages, but of making capitalists compete, to reduce profits to a minimum acceptable reward for their risks. Current conceptions turn him completely upside-down. But it’s unclear where China is headed today. In the Jiang Zemin era, in the 1990s, it was certainly headed in the direction of making workers compete for the benefit of capital and profit; there is no question about that. Now there is a reversal, one which as I’ve said takes into account not only the tradition of the Revolution and the Mao period, but also of the welfare aspects of late-imperial China under the Qing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I’m not putting bets on any particular outcome in China, but we must have an open mind in terms of seeing where it’s going.

In Adam Smith in Beijing, you also draw on Sugihara Kaoru’s work in contrasting an ‘industrious revolution’, based on intensive labour and husbanding of nature, in early modern East Asia, and an ‘industrial revolution’, based on mechanization and predation of natural resources, and speak of the hope that there could be a convergence of the two for humanity in the future. How would you estimate the balance between them in East Asia today?

Very precarious. I am not as optimistic as Sugihara in thinking that the East Asian tradition of ‘industrious revolution’ is so well entrenched that it may, if not become dominant again, at least play an important role in whatever hybrid formation is going to emerge. These concepts are more important for monitoring what’s happening than saying, East Asia is going this way, or the United States is going the other way. We need to see what they actually do. There is evidence that the Chinese authorities are worried about the environment, as well as about social unrest—but then they do things that are plain stupid. Maybe there is a plan in the works, but I don’t see much awareness of the ecological disasters of car civilizations. The idea of copying the United States from this point of view was already crazy in Europe—it’s even crazier in China. And I’ve always told the Chinese that in the 1990s and 2000s, they went to look at the wrong city. If they want to see how to be wealthy without being ecologically destructive, they should go to Amsterdam rather than Los Angeles. In Amsterdam, everybody goes around on bicycles; there are thousands of bikes parked at the station overnight, because people come in by train, pick up their bicycles in the morning and leave them there again in the evening. Whereas in China, while there were no cars at all the first time I was there in 1970—only a few buses in a sea of bicycles—now, more and more, the bicycles have been crowded out. From that point of view it’s a very mixed picture, very worrying and contradictory. The ideology of modernization is discredited elsewhere but so far is living on, rather naively, in China.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Thoughts and related links on Iran

Of course, the media circus surrounding Michael Jackson's death has had the inevitable effect of distracting attention away from events in Iran. But, as lenin reminds us, there is still much to unpack in that situation. In that post, lenin is discussing the image of Ahmadinejad as some kind of populist leader:
The more that comes out about the elections, the more it is clear that they exposed a raging war in the ruling class over political ascendancy and property, with relatively minor differences on other matters exaggerated. The second point is that the right-wing bloc behind Ahmadinejad has tended to use anti-imperialist rhetoric to justify the most naked transfer of wealth from the public sphere to capital, particularly to more influential players in the bazaari class and state-affiliated capitalists. They shake their fists at Washington just as they're about to go further toward neoliberalism than even the IMF proposed. And they justify it by referring to the need to break the sanctions imposed by Washington. This policy is obviously designed not to enrich the poor or sustain them in the long term, or strengthen their bargaining power as workers, but specifically to reduce their long-term wealth and purchasing power by redirecting a larger portion of socially produced wealth to a specific sector of the capitalist class.
As ever, lenin's been very sensible about the events in Iran, allowing his own analysis to unfold over time (with posts here, here, here, here, here, and here), while also allowing for various conflicting posts from Yoshie (for example, here and here), which has enabled some very interesting discussions to unfold at Lenin's Tomb. I have also appreciated posts from Richard Estes at American Leftist, here and here. In addition, he has again reminded me that I should be reading Angry Arab, As'ad Abukhalil's blog, more regularly.

I highlight these posts in particular because I've been suspicious of the rush to judgment, the rush to interpret these events in terms reduced to our debased sense of political process and our woeful understanding of the history of the region, along with all of our cultural biases about Iran. I am not very knowledgeable about Iran. I do know something about what the British and Americans have done in Iran, from the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 to meddling in the Iranian revolution of the 1970s, from the Iran-Iraq War to Iran-Contra. I know a lot of facts about these things, which I could string along as some sort of semi-coherent narrative about American imperialism and capitalist accumulation in the post-WWII era. Most of what I know about these things is cobbled together from books like Edward Said's Covering Islam, William Blum's Killing Hope and Rogue State, Tariq Ali's The Clash of Fundamentalisms, and Mahmood Mamdami's Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, not to mention various Noam Chomsky titles read over the years. But I don't know anything about Iran, about Iranians, the actual people, and I'm not likely to become well-versed enough to write well on the topic.

For this reason, I appreciated another recent lenin post ("The pitfalls of premature eloquence") in which he decried this rush to judgment, the tendency towards "instapunditry":
The dilemma faced by commentators of all kinds, not just bloggers, on the Iranian protests can be summarised by a single, annoying portmanteau word: instapunditry. The pressure to take a view prematurely in such a situation can only produce a series of stock responses, either based on CNN filtered news, or speculation from various samizdat-style websites, or material provided by the Iranian media itself. And after all, while these protests had precedent in previous student and workers rebellions, the sheer scale of upheaval had no precedent in the entire history of Islamic Republic. How to relate to that?

It has been possible to be both eloquent and consistent only [by] relying on an analysis made for a different situation that seems to fit.
My own time constraints aside, this is exactly why I have previously not written about the protests in Iran (and, frankly, why I generally avoid writing about unfolding current events as they happen, except insofar as they seem directly related to something specific I may be reading--for example, the financial meltdown happening as I'm reading Marx or Harvey or whomever).

In any event, lack of sufficient knowledge to form my own coherent analysis does not prevent me from noticing that something has been going on. It may not be quite the clear-cut conflict favored in the liberal press (or, certainly, the conservative press), but still, as lenin puts it:
anyone on the left who doesn't see an emancipatory dimension in the protests is politically defunct. The bloodless lack of enthusiasm for what is manifestly a democratic movement in some of the commentary reflects not anti-imperialist sensibilities so much as political timidity. The key here is universality: these protesters are no different from those who have been beaten or killed in Genoa, in London, in LA, in Athens, and everywhere that the state is challenged by a democratic movement and responds in this way. Their case for solidarity is not diminished by the fact that they live in a society that has been threatened by imperialism.
So it goes without saying, though here I am somewhat belatedly saying it, that I stand in solidarity with the people of Iran. Indeed where previously this blog has taken time to argue against the facile demonization of Ahmadinejad, it has been precisely because this (ongoing) characterization of him in the American press and by American political leaders lays the groundwork for a potential attack on Iran, which of course threatens not Ahmadinejad at all, but the lives of those very people protesting (a point made well two weeks ago by Glenn Greenwald, link via both Andrew Seal and Aaron Bady; the latter, incidentally, also has written a thoughtful post on Iran and non-violent action).

Finally, to close this scattershot entry, this statement of solidarity (link first seen at Lenin's Tomb) from the Venezuelan Revolutionary Marxist Current is well worth reading--it contrasts the current events in Iran with the Bolivarian Revolution, while also offering some useful history about the Iranian Revolution itself and the counter-revolution that has been the Islamic Republic.

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Michael Jackson

Much to my surprise, I've been fascinated by Michael Jackson in the wake of his death. When I'd heard he'd died, I didn't think much of anything, other than "oh, wow". I wasn't saddened by his death. I'm still not quite saddened by his death, though I remain saddened by his life.

When Thriller was in its extended hegemonic moment, I liked Michael Jackson as much as the next 12-to-14 year-old kid. I liked the music, wanted to see the videos ("Friday Night Videos", right? we never had cable. . .), enjoyed watching the dancing. I was never into him, but I wasn't into anything at that age other than baseball. And I wasn't yet buying anything of my own. When I was 16 and started buying music and cultivating my own tastes, I'd positioned myself as officially against actually popular music, which obviously meant no Michael Jackson for me--or, for that matter, Prince or Madonna. (And, of course, as noted here on numerous occasions, at the time of this shift I was engaging in necrophiliac music consumption of my own by listening almost exclusively to classic rock.) By the time Bad came out, I couldn't grasp that Jackson was still being taken seriously, even if secretly I liked some of the songs. (Indeed, I remember watching the Grammys, when he performed "Man in the Mirror", and thinking I sensed and saw an audience that wasn't with him at all. Silly me. It wasn't the first or last time I'd be so out of touch.)

In those days I had rather confused ideas about authenticity and selling out. I've blogged about this stuff previously and have no desire to rehearse it here. But that I was able to persuade myself that, for example, the insanely popular Led Zeppelin was somehow not commercial is some kind of neat psychological trick--when it was their very popularity that helped confirm their acceptability to my confused adolescent mind. Of course, they played their own instruments, they rocked, they didn't release singles, didn't license their songs, broke up when Bonham died, and so on--various factors which became for me components of a baseline norm of what music and musicians should be like. Insert here a paragraph or two about the whole indie angst about selling out that I bought into wholesale when that music caught my attention. And another one about self-consciousness about dancing, about cool, about looking foolish. The point is that the kind of spectacle represented by Michael Jackson, especially as he seemed to be continually trying to repeat the unrepeatable success of Thriller, was completely anathema to my tastes, my perspective, my comfort, my sense of propriety, the list goes on.

As a result of all of this, I have never owned a Michael Jackson record. Like many, we rectified this oversight yesterday by downloading all of Off the Wall and about half of Thriller itself. So I find myself listening to songs I've known forever for really the first time, in my own time, paying attention to stuff I've taken for granted. And the main thing I'm struck by is the evident rage and pain in Michael's vocals. I think I'd taken subliminal notice of this before, but it hits me right away every time now, especially in the utterly magnificent "Billie Jean". (About which, perhaps you've already seen k-punk's great post on this song. If not, and you care, go read it.) I think we've long known that this had to be one seriously lonely and tortured person, if we even gave him credit for being a person at all, if we didn't think of him merely as some freak. And again I am saddened by what we do to people, saddened by the life lived by this person in particular. I'd like to step back from the impulse to critique the spectacle and take a moment to celebrate the man's gifts and thank him for sharing them.

That's really all I'm going to say of my own. Of all the stuff written on Jackson elsewhere my favorites, along with k-punk's, have been Marcello Carlin's, in which he talks about the pressures faced by those identified early in life as "special", and Steven Shaviro's. In particular, speaking of selling out, I'd like to highlight this from Shaviro's post before I go:
All this [i.e., discussion of certain racially coded remarks from Greil Marcus, quoted by k-punk here] might seem like raking over old coals; but the intersection between mass popularity and questions of race is still a central one for American culture (note: I am including the reception of British musicians like the Beatles in America as itself very much part of American culture). In the most important respects, the Beatles and Michael Jackson were very much alike, in that they both achieved a mass popularity that exceeded all bounds and crossed over many cultural divides. If we toss out (as we should) Marcus’ white mythology, then we might even say that Michael Jackson was the end of something, as much as he was the beginning of something else. Jackson’s celebrity, like that of the Beatles before him, and of Elvis before them, was only possible in an age of “mass culture” that no longer exists. In the time of Fordist mass production and mass marketing, cultural products were also mass marketed. This reached a new level of intensity when television replaced the movies and radio as the dominant mass medium. Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson are all figures of the period between the introduction of broadcast television and the introduction of multi-channeled cable television, home video players, and the Internet. The latter technologies, together with the general shift from standardized mass production to the regime of just-in-time flexible accumulation, with its endless array of customizable options, mean that no single celebrity figure can ever be as culturally dominant as Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson were. Recent debates, among music critics and on music blogs, between “rockists” and “popists” are ultimately sterile, because both sides fail to take sufficient account of our curent culture of niche marketing, “long tails,” customization, and “crowdsourcing,” not to mention that the advertising and commercial strategies initially deployed on a massive scale by figures like the Beatles and Jackson are now increasingly prevalent on the micro-level. They are no longer just imposed from above; rather, they saturate all our media and all our interactions, oozing up as they do from below. It used to be that you could accuse somebody (as Marcus liked to accuse black artists) of being a bourgeois sellout; but today, everyone without exception is a “bourgeois sellout,” because (in the age of “human capital” and self-entrepreneurship) being such is a minimum requirement for mere survival. Today, this is a structural condition of social existence, rather than a matter of personal integrity or choice.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Noted: Evelyn Scott

Also from Part VI of Escapade:
Manoel felled a tree in which was an owl nest and when he showed me the small blinded bird I asked him to let me keep it. I cut one of the owl's gray-brown wings and I have allowed him to run loose while we sleep. All night long I hear his hunting moan in the dark. I imagine him free; a gray cloud of feathered quiet drifting, his low cry, and his claws clinging to a young bird--clinging, clinging like an unlifting shadow. From a moral standpoint death, which is most inimical to human relations, should be hideous. But the owl has convinced me of the superficiality of moral judgments. He is the cruelest of creatures and the most innocent. In the morning he sits on my knee and I give him bits of our maggot-laden meat. He is resigned to me utterly. When I call to him in the daylight he always comes feebly toward the sound. And he stares, stares at me with his great helpless eyes, feeling perhaps, because I have given him meat, that I have become a part of his sightless world.

It is different with the hawk. Tilting himself back against the side of his cage, his claws, at the end of his thin stick-like legs, clutch tensely at the air, and when I attempt to feed him his terrible eyes select unerringly my moving finger. More than once he has dragged at it with his beak and torn my flesh. He was wounded when he was captured and it would be useless to free him. Nothing will free him but starvation. He sees us too plainly. His vision has placed us outside him forever. He recognizes our antithesis. He also reminds me of a child. He is another Death.

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Noted: Evelyn Scott

From Part VI of Escapade, wherein Evelyn (named but once in the book) and John have bought some land in the mountains, hoping to make a living raising sheep and various crops--things don't go well and they are living in unbelievable poverty, alarming at times even to the locals (who are themselves very poor):
I love the rich purplish color of the floor where a sun spot moves on it. I lie here. I am better today. I have had my dinner of our unvarying food, boiled red beans and mandioc mush, with a red pepper to make it tolerable and large crystals of salt like gray-white rock. How warm and comforting food is. How entirely worth while to live to be able to eat. Life seems to me so sweet, so precious, that I wonder that everyone is not kind like John. When there is this awful impersonal Enemy to fight why are not people gentle to each other? Why do they not always stand together protecting themselves against it? I feel that I ought to warn them, to tell them of the danger they are in. It is, almost, that I have a mission to the race. I must make others realize what I alone seem to know, that all of us are subject to the obscure attacks of misfortune, that we have nothing to waste in unnecessary struggles which we ourselves precipitate. But, of course, I only mean that I want people to accept my view of life, my way of looking at marriage and at everything else. I have no wish to force myself on the world, but I want at least a tolerance which will allow me to exist. And at home John and I are actually considered dangerous. Do you not see how pitiful we are? I want to say. But in this also they will misunderstand me, for I love myself entirely, completely, and I will not accept from them any criticism of my acts.

I think sometimes that my pride is as strong as my pain--not quite, perhaps, but very nearly so. If I were the only one made to suffer I should accept everything out of pure defiance. It is through John and Jack [their child] that my self-respect can be subjugated. My pride affects me as an exaggeration of myself. Protest expands all of my being. My self-righteousness is much more intense than anything which I can intellectually define or encompass. Because I alone of all the world can understand and pity myself, I am God. I alone of all the world can offer equality to myself.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Another forgotten writer: Evelyn Scott

Forgotten or neglected writers abound. In March, I blogged about Olive Moore, who it seems was so little known she wasn't even forgotten. And not too long ago, at ABC of Reading, I learned of Evelyn Scott. Scott, Thomas McGonigle tells us in another post, was published in The Little Review, alongside a slew of still-famous names: Eliot, Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Hart Crane, Djuana Barnes, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens. She introduced Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and, McGonigle says, "received for her troubles his back-handed compliment, as being pretty good for a woman". I sense a glimmer of recognition at this remark; I must have read previously of Faulkner saying such a thing, though I obviously never looked into it.

Well, I'm interested. Most of Scott's books appear to be out-of-print. I check the library, and it has several, ranging from 1923 to 1941; the library provides no further information online. I somewhat arbitrarily put a hold on the earliest, Escapade (which, it turns out, is itself not out-of-print, available in a University of Virginia Press edition), which I subsequently check out. The volume is old, though clearly not a first edition. It's not covered in any kind of protective sleeve; there are signs of mildew. For all that, the book is in decent condition; it was obviously well made. It was last checked out in 1991. After beginning the book on my commute in yesterday, I'm more than ever curious how such a writer can fall through the cracks, so I look Scott up on Wikipedia: virtually nothing, though I do learn that she was born in 1893 and died in 1963, and links are provided to a bibliography and a short biographical sketch ("Tennessee's Prodigal Daughter: Evelyn Scott" by Caroline Maun), the latter being part of a modest website devoted to celebrating Scott and her work. I skim the bibliography, but I don't find Escapade. I read the opening of the biographical sketch (where I learn that "Evelyn Scott" was a pseudonym for Elsie Dunn), and midway through the first paragraph I read of "Scott's first autobiography, Escapade (1923)", and I go back to the bibliography and sure enough, there it is, listed not under "Novels" but "Autobiography". If I hadn't looked up this information, I'm sure I would have read the entire book without having any inkling it was autobiography.

Anyway, I'm now more than halfway through Escapade, and friends, it's good. It was immediately evident that I was in the presence of a writer. (Says the description at the website: "It explores female subjectivity and breaks new ground in literary modernism." Whatever that means.)

Interestingly, there are other similarities with Olive Moore's Spleen, beyond simply being forgotten. Here, the narrator has escaped the States with her married lover; it's a major scandal back home; she is twenty, pregnant. They are in Brazil. She resents the life she left that looks down on her actions; she is confident, assured, modern. Independent-minded. She writes about the locals, with sympathy, if not always with warmth, and about her opinion on the scandal and her ideas about life and existence ("Death is like the unknown lover to whom the child, in infancy, is already dedicated.")--there are many references to being; remember, the book was published in 1923. And she writes about her pregnancy and about the birth itself and about being a mother. It strikes me that, with Moore's novel, we have perhaps the earliest literary writing about pregnancy (though I strain to come up with any more at all; for one, there's Carole Maso's diary about pregnancy and depression, A Room Full of Roses; no doubt in my ignorance I am missing many). In the great 19th century novels, this kind of thing happened offstage. But here we also have writing about being a mother, about the work, and the weariness:
It was always dark in the bedroom. I lived in the long contemplation of a blank wall, of a pale violet light that fell across me as it penetrated the blinds of the sala window which was opposite my door. The baby lay beside me. He seemed fragile. I was heavy with response to the new indescribable smell he gave out. I had been close to babies before but I did not recognize the odor as anything familiar. I had found something which I had needed for a long time. I knew now what I had needed.

When he drank of my milk, all of me was arrested in the sensation of his soft clinging touch. I was mindless, beautiful. I wanted to be like that forever and ever. I let him drink too much. His head fell back and the white milk trickled warmly from between his parted lips. His mouth was loose and red. He half closed his eyes and I could see the delicate pinkish veins in the thin lids. He looked drunken with himself, and I was drunk also. We were in a relaxation that was almost a debauch.

Once a bat came into the room while we were alone. I was terrified of bats, but I got up and put a mosquito net over the baby. I had a sharp painful pleasure in my fright, in my sense of bondage to my child. I would always belong to him. I would always think of him first. My abandon to him was humiliating and sweet like abandon to a lover. I thought, It is my body I give to him. And I was surprised in recognizing this. I had imagined maternity as something thin and ideal.
And a bit later:
I am exhausted. The housework and the care of a heavy child are too much for me so soon after leaving my bed. My nerves are too vivid, exhausted by responsiveness. I feel as if I were dying already of too much life. I am in terror of my fatigue which is strong and impersonal--stronger than I am. I pray to something or other, beg myself to go on, beg the baby to sleep, to give me a little rest.

When the baby cries in the night I get up in the dim relaxation of despair and talk to him. "Oh, baby, I can't bear it any longer. Please go to sleep. Please go to sleep."
And: "My back aches. And the baby is merciless. Yes, sometimes I am so tired that I long for the irresponsibility of insanity in order to escape."

It's not all about being a mother, but it's all writing. Occasionally Scott's lyrical descriptions lose me in their piled up metaphors, but even these are often marvelously vivid and well-chosen. I'm already prepared to rank this with the great literary memoirs: Thomas Bernhard's relentless Gathering Evidence; Edward Dahlberg's Because I was Flesh; Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (and, no, I still haven't read Nabokov's Speak, Memory). I'm excited to know that there are several other Evelyn Scott books quietly awaiting my attention at the library. Many thanks to Thomas McGonigle.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

On Baudelaire and modernity and ambivalence

In the June 8, 2009, issue of The Nation, Joshua Clover has a review (full review is for subscribers only, which I am not) of a new translation by Keith Waldrop of Baudelaire's collection of prose poems, Paris Spleen. In his review, Clover discusses the "contradiction that charges" the collection:
The individual is endlessly threatened by the gravity of the social whorl, by the maw of the masses and the tinsel seductions of the marketplace. And yet he is an individual only insofar as he is part of this new configuration, the very grounds for this new sort of person. He has no being beyond it.
Exploring this further, he writes:
For all his hate, it is the mass of people, each more unfortunate that the last, to whom he keeps returning. In "Solitude," perhaps the book's most paradoxical poem, he seems to renounce any rapprochement with the crowd. "The unfortunate inability to be alone," he bemoans, and "practically all our mishaps come from not staying in our room"--summoning the exhausted wisdom of La Bruyère and Pascal. By the end he has in his sights "all the fools searching for happiness in movement and in a prostitution I would call fraternalistic, if I wanted to speak in my century's uppity tone."

These last two words are an unconventional translation to "belle langue"... The common phrasing has long been "the beautiful language of my century"[...]. Waldrop's willingness to alienate the language, to make it dance again, cannot help but be striking to any reader of Baudelaire. It now suggests something of the poet's contempt for the honeyed talk of the bourgeoisie and its new cadre of captive intellectuals, and Waldrop gets this exactly right.

What slips away in this rendering, however, is the extent to which Baudelaire did wish to speak the beautiful language of his century, to wrest it from the salon and the Académie. Again and again he goes looking for it; the secret he knows is that it is to be found exactly "in movement and in a prostitution." The passage is the stroll of the flâneur, that jaundiced inspector of modernity, walking through the market but imagining himself not quite of it: the private citizen invented by public existence. This is the daily or nightly course for which Paris Spleen's lyrical movements and undulations find form.
It occurs to me that, if Clover appeared more often in The Nation, I might be persuaded to re-subscribe. (Of course, I'd be vastly more likely to re-subscribe if the quality of that rag's political analysis in any way resembled Clover's own, as known by me through his jane dark guise; see, for example, such recent entries on The New York Times and Tiananmen Square, on world-system hegemons, on the economic downturn and race, and so on.) Anyway, Clover's review reinforces my desire to read Baudelaire. I'm thinking of picking up The Flowers of Evil, along with Paris Spleen, as well as Benjamin's Baudelaire writings, handily published together now as The Writer of Modern Life (also mentioned in the review). Presumably the latter collection includes the relevant Benjamin I've already read, which reading put Baudelaire on my personal map in the first place.

I am intrigued by Clover's analysis, in the passages quoted above, of the different translations of the two words "belle langue" and, by implication, Baudelaire's conflicted relationship with modernity. I go back and forth on translation, worrying about choosing the best when multiple versions exist, worrying about getting the real experience, lamenting my monolingualism, and so on. Of late, my tendency is to not worry about it too much. The translation is simply that, and we do the best we can, and something of the original shines through. Here, though, I'm again struck by my loss. For it seems clear that what Baudelaire is saying is to be found at the intersection of the two versions (since, again, I am not likely to read him in the original).

We encounter few authors with zero preconceptions. With Baudelaire, my conception is of him as Benjamin's writer of modernity. One senses a writer struggling to give voice to the modern, to witness it, to see it as fully as possible. Perhaps, in the context of the problems of modernity, I have overplayed in my mind the extent to which he celebrates the modern, a celebration which might strike me as suspect. But, of course, as noted, I've not yet read him and my conception is, in fact, based on very little. So, given my ongoing concerns here, it will be seen that, as a reader, I am ripe for an interpretation of Baudelaire that highlights his "contempt for the honeyed talk of the bourgeoisie and its new cadre of captive intellectuals". Not so fast, Clover says. This contempt is "exactly right", but it misses something. It misses the love.

And I'm off and running, considering my own ambivalence about modernity, critiques of technological society, complaints about distraction. I am all too aware that, though I rail against the modern world, I am nonetheless of it, and that, in some respects, modernity enables my own opposition to it (for instance, I have a blog; I have a Twitter account, God help me). I'm reminded of problems I have had with Marshall Berman's conception of modernism, in which modern art is needed to allow us to become more suitably modern, to engage with the changes of modernity (for another take on Berman, see Aaron Bady's excellent post from last September on All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, in which Aaron asks questions about who gets left out of that conception, whose work is needed to make modernity function). My preference has been to think of literary modernism less as the obsessive drive to "make it new" (which does indeed seem to always require that we be rushing ahead, like modern life, always rushing, always impatient, demanding we adapt, keep up, be up for the next challenge) than as an awareness that certain forms are now suspect, suspect because of what's been learned, or perhaps exposed, in this drive forward. It is not that modernism should help make us, readers, modernists, that is to say, adapted to modernity, in all its complexity, but instead that modernism reflects that, in the move towards modernity, old verities have themselves been rendered suspect, verities on which certain narrative forms relied. The distinction is perhaps fine; I can see that it's possible we can include both sorts in a broader umbrella of modernism (a dialectic?). Not in a desire for inclusiveness but to embody an ambivalence. And yet it seems to me that the version I prefer is a necessary corrective to the more widely held version, that it's more suited to our current predicament.

Ambivalence! Literary ambivalence is nothing in the face of ambivalence about modernity itself. If Baudelaire explored, with excitement and repulsion, the condition of modern life (how convincingly I say that: you'd think I'd read his work), what do we have to say after 150 years more of development, of decay, of deepening adaptation? Now we have no excuse but to know that, not only does our way of life depend on the current privations of millions caught living in the wrong part of the world (how unfortunate to live in a country with vast reserves of oil), but that that way of life is also built on centuries of murder and destruction. Knowing this, but also knowing how unprepared we are for that way of life to disappear, though knowing that disappear it must. Liking the comforts of modern, technologically-enabled life, indeed loving aspects of it, but knowing that the idea that all could share in such comforts has always been a pipedream (though, surely, hating the job needed to maintain it, hating especially the pointlessly long commute, hating the noise, hating the idiocy, hating the polity). The globe simply can't support it--and anyway, the resources have to be extracted from somebody, the labor has to be done somewhere, the waste has to go somewhere. There is no getting around the fact that people continue to die for it. Not so they can share in it, but so we can laze about in it, continuing to not do what needs doing, voting instead for "change" that is no kind of change at all.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Revisiting the Big Dalkey Get

As is traditional around here, I move from the deadly serious to the irretrievably trivial. . .

When this blog was but a month old, I posted a list of the 55 Dalkey Archive books I'd acquired a couple years previously when a friend and I took advantage of their big sale (100 books for $500). I thought it would be amusing to take another look at this list in the context of my change in focus, shifts in my reading life, and so on. At the time of the original post, I'd read 23 of the 55 books; as of today, I've read 31. But I've also discarded some of them, others are on the edge of removal, and even of those that are relatively safe, a few remain that I wish I hadn't picked.

Here is the list, with those I've read in bold and the discards crossed out:

1. Chapel Road, Louis Paul Boon
2. Rigadoon, Céline
3. Some Instructions to my Wife, Stanley Crawford
4. Storytown, Susan Daitch
5. Island People, Coleman Dowell
6. Too Much Flesh and Jabez, Coleman Dowell
7. Phosphor in Dreamland, Rikki Ducornet
8. Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, Stanley Elkin
9. George Mills, Stanley Elkin
10. The Rabbi of Lud, Stanley Elkin
11. Van Gogh's Room at Arles, Stanley Elkin
12. Mrs. Ted Bliss, Stanley Elkin
13. Foreign Parts, Janice Galloway
14. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, William H. Gass
15. Quarantine, Juan Goytisolo
16. Blindness, Henry Green
17. Concluding, Henry Green
18. Nothing, Henry Green
19. Doting, Henry Green
20. Fire the Bastards!, Jack Green
21. The Questionnaire, Jirí Grusa
22. Flotsam & Jetsasm, Aidan Higgins
23. Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley
24. Time Must Have a Stop, Aldous Huxley
25. A Minor Apocalypse, Tadeusz Konwicki
26. The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus
27. Reader's Block, David Markson
28. AVA, Carole Maso
29. The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, Carole Maso
30. Cigarettes, Harry Mathews
31. Singular Pleasures, Harry Mathews
32. 20 Lines a Day, Harry Mathews
33. The Human Country, Harry Mathews
34. The Case of the Perservering Maltese, Harry Mathews
35. Women and Men, Joseph McElroy
36. Impossible Object, Nicholas Mosley
37. The Hesperides Tree, Nicholas Mosley
38. Odile, Raymond Queneau
39. Collected Novellas, vol. 1, Arno Schmidt
40. Nobodaddy's Children, Arno Schmidt
41. Two Novels, Arno Schmidt
42. Is this what other women feel, too?, Jill Akers Seese
43. The Sky Changes, Gilbert Sorrentino
44. Imaginary Qualities of Actual Things, Gilbert Sorrentino
45. Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino
46. Pack of Lies, Gilbert Sorrentino
47. Blue Pastoral, Gilbert Sorrentino
48. Under the Shadow, Gilbert Sorrentino
49. Something Said, Gilbert Sorrentino
50. The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein
51. Annihilation, Piotr Szewc
52. Monstrous Possibility, Curtis White
53. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, vol. one, Marguerite Young
54. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, vol. two, Marguerite Young
55. Marguerite Young, Our Darling, Miriam Fuchs, ed.

With 31 books read and four discarded, that leaves 20 books. Why did I get rid of the four? Well, the real question is, why did I pick two Aldous Huxley books?!? I've never read anything by Huxley, including Brave New World. At the time of the purchase, I was smack in the middle of what I have been calling my "days of despair", but the period wasn't always despairing. I believed in the virtue of diverse reading, an expansive view of what constituted literature, of what I thought I wanted to read. (I'm not saying I don't now believe in diversity, but my approach is markedly different.) I also had--still have--a tendency to read the less famous book(s) by an author first. This has paid off handsomely in many cases, but it has its pitfalls. One of which is making you not want to read the more famous book at all. Anyway, this is partly what happened with Huxley. I figured I'd read Brave New World at some point, and, hey, Point Counter Point was also on that Modern Library list, so... It is in this spirit that I'd acquired a used (Dalkey) copy of the latter, and included the other two Huxleys as part of my selection in the big purchase. I suppose I should have paid more attention to my previous passes at the first page of Brave New World. In retrospect, I realize that I found the prose unreadable at worst, uninteresting at best. It turns out the same is true of these other Huxleys. Nothing interesting about the prose at all. Off they go. (I'm sure I could elaborate some more, but these are books I've not read and will not read, right?)

I'm not surprised I included the Ben Marcus volume in my pick, but after several attempts at reading this book, I decided that I simply couldn't. I couldn't make sense of it at all, nor did I relish the work needed to unpack its mysteries. Away!

As for Céline, here is another case where I should have read the more famous book(s) first before acquiring any others. I've kept my copy of Journey to the End of Night (a New Directions book, of course), so I may yet read it, even though my early passes at it have not kept my interest. And Rigadoon, and all the other Céline books I've looked at, is much the same. The style looks irritating. I know writers I admire have sworn by Céline, but I just don't care. (I still think that Death on the Installment Plan is a first-rate title, however.) Sold!

Ok, that accounts for the four discards; what about the remaining 20? One book in particular is on the chopping block: Joseph McElroy's Women and Men. Read my earlier Dalkey post for remarks about McElroy and this book. Here, I'll just say that this mammoth novel survives only because I hope to read some of the sections explicitly mentioned by Garth Risk Halberg in his year-end post (and comment) at The Millions. If those sections don't work for me, it's gone.

Others: Unexpectedly, I've been unable to make it through William H. Gass' (incredibly short) Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. Gass is one of my favorite writers, but this book is rather too cute (Gass plays here with fonts and type sizes and the shapes of words and I don't think it's nearly as interesting as he does). I've tried several times to read Goytisolo's Quarantine. This novel is also short, but the writing strikes me as vague and unfruitfully obscure. I'll give it another pass, but if I can't make it through, it'll have to go. I wish I hadn't selected Jack Green's Fire the Bastards!, if only because I don't think I care enough about the shittiness of newspaper reviews, or even the review reception of Gaddis' The Recognitions, more than 50 years on. I still expect to read one of the Dowell books and the Aidan Higgins (a collection I began but never finished for no good reason). Carole Maso's AVA is in the current TBR pile. She's always a keeper, but she requires slowness and attention I don't always have to give (plus, I wanted to have read some Beckett before reading it, which I now have). I'm sort of out of my Nicholas Mosley phase, so The Hesperides Tree has languished and isn't likely to be read anytime soon. The lone remaining unread Stanley Elkin book on my shelves, the three novellas making up Van Gogh's Room at Arles, will get read. Elkin's another favorite, but I just haven't been in an Elkin place in the last couple of years. Same with Sorrentino. I was mildly disappointed in his Mulligan Stew (still a very funny book), and that may have put me off reading Pack of Lies and Blue Pastoral. But also I simply wasn't there. I sort of wish I hadn't included the Curtis White (non-fiction) book, but it's slim enough and probably not without interest, so I imagine I will read it. Arno Schmidt...it was the over-the-moon enthusiasm of The Complete Review that moved Schmidt onto my radar. I'd had some good success with Complete Review recommendations up till then, but since then I've become aware that my tastes are very different, so I wonder if the Schmidt selections (three of them! how insane am I?) were a mistake. I've thought about trying one or more of them a few times, but the layout of the words on the page is odd enough to have distracted me. I wasn't up for it. Two of these books are hardcovers and thus very expensive, so if I decide to sell, who knows, I may do OK on them. But I still hope to give them a decent chance. (Meanwhile, I've seen very few references to Schmidt anywhere outside The Complete Review. I'm not sure if that tells me much of anything.)

That leaves Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans and Marguerite Young's two-volume Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (plus the small critical volume about Young and her book; I probably didn't need this book either). I leave these for the end because of their length, their perceived difficulty, and the fact that both writers were women. We think of men as being the writers of difficult literature, do we not? I certainly do, I have to admit. One clear exception is Gertrude Stein, who is famously difficult, in particular The Making of Americans. Marguerite Young's enormous novel doesn't appear to be difficult to read, at the level of the sentence or paragraph, but it does appear to be hugely ambitious. With either book, I will need to psyche myself up for a serious attempt at a reading that does justice to the material.

Interestingly, when I took part in this big purchase, I was madly in love with the Dalkey Archive. To me, it was the ideal press: attractive books, excellent mission, and a massive stable of interesting books by underappreciated authors. My opinion has shifted. It still is all those things, and I still think it's an exemplary publisher. But its considerable focus on the self-consciously experimental or post-modern, however one chooses to define those terms, is, let's say, not quite in line with what I want from literature anymore, what I think is valuable or interesting about it. But of course that's what this blog is about, when it's about literature, so I won't expand on the point here.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thoughts on Abortion

A few months ago, on my way through the train station as part of my evening commute, I was forced to wade through a throng of young people carrying posters and plackards and wearing similarly sloganed t-shirts. It quickly became clear that they had descended on Washington for yet another anti-choice rally. I quietly moved through the crowd, contemptuously rolling my eyes as I walked to my train.

The next morning, waiting for the bus, I asked my bus-riding friend, a middle-aged white woman, where she'd been the previous day. She enthusiastically announced that she'd been at the rally in DC. I immediately clamped up: the last thing I like arguing about is abortion. And I admit that I felt a little embarrassed, as I remembered my contempt from the previous evening. Our other regular companion, a male scientist from Bulgaria who loves to argue, immediately started engaging her in a debate, as I looked on in dismay, sure that things were going to become unpleasant. How was it possible she was anti-choice, he wanted to know. And indeed, she had decided to come right out with it, because usually she is quiet about it. Apparently she is the only person she knows who is not pro-choice. I listened to them talk, continuing to feel uncomfortable, when suddenly the conversation made a turn that allowed me to enter into it easily, quietly. The question of the moment was, what should be the legal consequences of abortion? This had always been a question that had troubled me, so I said something. I've long sensed that very few people actually want to have women sent to prison for having an abortion. My friend admitted that this was a problem, that it was an issue that too few anti-abortion people thought about. She maintained that being anti-abortion is not about punishment.

I have another friend, this one of long-standing, basically liberal with leftwing tendencies, but who has always prided himself on being pro-life, it being important to him that he have this one "conservative" position (presumably so he can't be pigeonholed). But for him, the matter is both emotional (he was adopted) and abstract, in that he has never had any intention of campaigning against abortion, nor does he attack his friends' views on abortion. I've always argued that this means that, his personal feelings on abortion notwithstanding, he is effectively pro-choice.

Now, there is a difference between my two friends. Both consider themselves anti-abortion, but one goes to organized anti-choice rallies, the other does not. And yet it seems that neither of them believes women should be punished for having an abortion. Indeed, for years I have suspected that very few people who claim to be opposed to abortion actually think through the implications of their opposition. They'd tell you it should be illegal, but what does illegal mean? Illegal means against the law, which means that it is punishable under the law. In what way should it be punished? Of course I've already gone well past the point where most have long since stopped pursuing the question. My suspicion was confirmed when I watched this video of an anti-abortion protest, in which protesters were asked, "what do you think should happen to women who have abortions" (video originally seen several years ago, via Bitch Ph.D.). Basically, the answer was either "I don't know, I haven't thought of it" ("that's not my department, you should ask so-and-so") or that it "was between them and God".

My friend maintains that being anti-abortion is not about punishment, and the responses given in the video suggest that, for most, she is right. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Because, of course, there are those who do believe punishment is in order, the punishment of doctors in particular. These are the people who really drive the movement against abortion, the lunatics who blow up clinics, who harass women, who kill abortion providers, such as the asshole who recently killed Dr. George Tiller. These are the true believers; these are the people who can and will be pushed over the edge by irresponsible political rhetoric, the kind we get from the American Right every day.

One such rhetorical gambit is the idea that "abortion is murder"--worse, it's the murder of babies. This gambit has great emotional power and has both proven effective in swelling the ranks of the anti-abortion and led directly to violence against abortion providers. The day after Tiller's assassination, M. LeBlanc posted an excellent entry at Bitch PhD on this very topic. It's well worth reading. (The idea was also explored by Adam Kotsko at both The Weblog and An und für sich; in both posts, and comments, Adam highlights the utter moral insanity of the formulation.)

I'm posting this nearly two weeks after the event, because--apart from being frankly too slow to respond quickly even were I inclined--it's never a bad time to make it clear what you stand for. As BitchPhD says in another recent post, it isn't enough that the truth is available, somewhere: people need to hear it again and again, from all sorts of different sources. People need to hear about the experiences of women (many of which are provided in the comments to that post; and here is one woman's account of her own abortion). People need to be able to counter the lies and misinformation with actual facts about, for example, late-term abortion (also). As an avowedly feminist man, the very least I can do is stand and blog in solidarity.

I admit that I don't keep up with the feminist blogs as much as I once did, or would like, so Bitch PhD remains my primary portal for other links and stories. The post linked to in the beginning of the preceding paragraph, along with Bitch's own typically trenchant commentary, contains numerous links to articles and factsheets and blogs, as does this one and this one. But I also want to point to two older posts that helped me clear away some of my own baggage about abortion. I've always been pro-choice, but I'd have to say that I was fairly glib about it. Later, though I argued that, as with so many other areas of public discourse in recent decades, the right has been all too successful in changing the terms of the debate--being able to call themselves "pro-life" is only the start of it--I nevertheless found myself succumbing to some of the slippery rhetoric resulting from this shift (for example, the idea that abortion is "always" an agonizing decision for the woman; it's not). Anyway, the first of these posts is from 2004 and is an excellent piece on how her own attitude towards abortion shifted when she herself became pregnant with her son. The second is from 2005 and simply asks Do you trust women? The latter post in particular is very valuable. Indeed, in light of this question and her exploration of it, it seems to me that the label "pro-choice" itself is ultimately counterproductive. Perhaps the right to choose sounds too much like the language of consumerism. Really, at minimum, we believe, first, that women are people, and, second, that women are capable of making their own decisions.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

In Brief: Two more by Josipovici

Contre-Jour: A triptych for Pierre Bonnard: Novel from 1987. My least favorite of Josipovici's works, though certainly not without interest. I knew nothing of Pierre Bonnard, still don't really. This isn't a biographical novel. For one thing, here the painter has a daughter, or at least seems to, whereas in real life he did not. As elsewhere, repetition is key. Whereas in, for example, the sublime Everything Passes the repetition of phrases has a musical quality and the effect is quite moving, here I grew annoyed. There is some interesting stuff about the artist's devotion to his work, to the exclusion and detriment of everything else--perhaps this is why the fictional daughter is introduced, as a sort of spectral presence, the daughter that could never have been, and who even here in the fiction is ignored, marginalized, outside of her parents' marriage, outside of her mother's devotion to her father, outside of the father's art. By the end she appears to not exist at all.

In the Fertile Land: Short stories, also from the 1980s. Some of the stories here are not terribly memorable, but there are a few worth mentioning. I especially enjoyed the 100-page novella "Distances" and the stories "He", "Steps", "The Bitter End", "A Changeable Report", the title story... there are echoes across his work, artists working, repetitions, a man at a window, grief, mourning... some are very short, merely a page or two; some are all dialogue, attributed or otherwise. The collection is worth picking up (and unlike much of Josipovici's pre-90s work, inexpensive used copies can be found), particularly with half the book given over to "Distances".

Speaking of Everything Passes, here is a nice appreciation at booktwo.org, a site new to me (link courtesy Steve Mitchelmore, via Twitter).

For convenience, here are links to my previous writing on Josipovici's fiction:
In a Hotel Garden
Goldberg: Variations, review and follow-up
Moo Pak and Now, in brief

Of course, I've blogged much more extensively about Josipovici's crucial criticism; for that, as always, click on the label. . .


In Brief: Five novels from the shelves

We've been trying to weed out books, clear out shelving space, etc., so I've been taking a look at books we've had for years and, well, reading them (I know, I know, this utter lunacy, and possibly dangerously irresponsible: Isn't there a book industry to support? An economy to repair? Ha!). This is how I ended up finally reading Olive Moore's excellent Spleen (which I blogged about previously). Here are five more, none of which I loved.

Passing by Nella Larsen
This has sat on my shelves for well over a decade, since my mother gave me all of the books she'd acquired in the course of getting her continuing ed. Master's degree. For years I'd filed it with my non-fiction books, assuming that it was a study about the phenomenon of African-Americans passing as white in the early 20th century. I later realized my mistake and dutifully filed it with the fiction, but still it sat. Fiction it may be, but I feared that it might be only of interest for what it was about and that its actual literary merit was slight. I was prompted to read the book by Andrew Seal's enthusiastic post on it earlier this year. And. . . and I wish I could share Andrew's enthusiasm. More than once he refers to the novel's subtlety, but I didn't find it terribly subtle. The melodrama is heavy, the events are predictable, and the "passing" isn't really explored or much depicted, but rather asserted. If the novel weren't extremely short, I doubt I would have been able to plow my through to the end.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun (in the translation by Robert Bly)
This one doesn't really fit the category, I suppose, since I'd had it on my bedside pile for a while. I include it nevertheless, since I don't expect to be saying much else about it. Again, I expected to like it more than I did. You see a lot about Hamsun influencing various Modernists; some, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, calling him the "father of modern literature", primarily for his focus on the pyschological; and so on. Be that as it may, my experience reading Hunger felt akin to my experience reading Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. As with that novella, I wasn't nearly as engaged by the voice as I'd hoped to be. I sort of wanted him to shut up.

Sula by Toni Morrison
Back in the old days, in the days of despair, I read and more or less enjoyed several Toni Morrison novels. I accepted her without question as a literary giant and would have been surprised to learn that there were serious readers who disliked her fiction. My favorite was Song of Solomon. I liked Beloved but was confused by its glittering reputation (I didn't understand why it was, it seemed, universally hailed as her best, and as a masterpiece). I even liked the knottier and much-maligned Paradise. In the time between that novel and her next work, my reading interests had changed dramatically and I stopped paying attention to her. In the meantime, it appears to me, that silly New York Times best-novel-of-the-last-25-years thing notwithstanding, that Morrison's star has rather fallen. It seems fashionable to attack her writing. My instinct is to come to her defense, based on past enjoyment (I liked, for example, what Andrew Seal said, somewhere at his blog, about the importance of the oral tradition for Morrison's writing; I'd link to his remarks if I could find the exact post). In this context, I thought it would be interesting to read her again. In the event, Sula is a vivid tale centering on two childhood friends, one who grows up to marry and lead a conventional, socially approved life, the other (Sula) who leaves town, only to return years later as a free spirit, and is a misunderstood, disruptive force in the town. In a sense, she acts as an organizing principle for the town, with her disruption, her wrongness, her "evil", as the other characters have it, prompting more responsible behaviors in the rest of the town. I'm not usually one to call for novels to be longer than they are or to fill in details, but a bit more would have been nice here.

My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore
I don't know anything about this writer. The novel is another entry in the aloof-father/over-emotional-and-possibly-a-little-crazy-mother genre. Chapters alternating between third-person account of the past, on a plantation in Hawaii, mostly through the vantage point of the daughter Lily, and a first-person, present-day narration by Lily herself. Descriptions of Hawaii. Thematic backdrop: Adultery; imperialism; the war. A major character is Japanese, friend and companion to Lily, born to a woman already dead from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, taken by the white American doctor on the scene, who happens to be said aloof father. Well-written, fairly conventional, compelling enough to read to the end, not otherwise terribly memorable. The novel comes with a blurb from John Hawkes, of all people (perhaps Moore was a student of his?), which I admit helped pique my interest in reading the book.

Homo Faber by Max Frisch (translated by Michael Bullock)
First-person account (a "report") by Faber, who is an engineer of some kind (I've already forgotten; I remember he refers a number of times to turbines), a self-described technocrat, scornful of all manner of mystery or religion or the like, hyper-rationalist, given to expounding thus on the nature of truth, etc. Yet his account is rife with unlikely coincidences, as if he were subject to a certain fate beyond his control. Stranded in Mexico after an emergency plane landing, with the brother of his best-friend from 20 years earlier, who he learns had married his then-lover, who had been pregnant by Faber; later he cancels at the last minute flight plans to Europe from New York, taking a ship instead, where he just happens to run into a young woman who he doesn't yet know is his daughter, tragedy ensues, etc. Inessential.

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