Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dry Salvage

When "inoperancy" (to use Eliot's word) threatens, as it does this early morning hour, after useless attempts to read, first, The Wings of the Dove, then, Time Out New York, I experience the time as dry. So did Eliot, in the red rocks of "The Waste Land", and in the empty pond of "Burnt Norton." I read "The Four Quartets" essentially for consolation, I realize this morning. For a description of spiritual desert, and then for a description of the plenitude of the sea.

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.


Monday, October 27, 2008

To map a cough

To map a cough, using schlieren photography, Dr. Gary Settles, an engineering professor, teamed up with Dr. Julian Tang, a virus expert from Singapore. 

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Grammar of Earth

TLS October 24

from William J. R. Curtis's review of The Essential Frank Lloyd Wright: Critical writings on architecture, edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer:

In another suggestive passage, from "In the Cause of Architecture IV: The meaning of materials--stone" (1928), Wright underlines his obsession with strata of rock as an inspiration for horizontal stratification in buildings, and reiterates the larger theme of "Nature" as a model for architecture.

Read the grammar of the Earth in a particle of stone! . . . For in the stony bonework of the Earth, the principles that shaped stone as it lies, or as it rises and remains to be sculptured by winds and tide--there sleep forms and styles enough for all the ages, for all of Man. 

We might bear this in mind when looking at Wright's later masterpiece, Fallingwater (1936), with its cantilevered concrete ledges, rusticated stone walls and natural boulders. Not that one should expect simple linkages in either direction between written images and built forms. Rather, themes emerged or re-emerged in different guises as unfolding features of a landscape of the imagination.

In the Wright quotation, the first sentence echoes Blake's "Auguries of Innocence": "To see the world in a grain of sand." The modernization of Romanticism? The appeal to nature, the vast eternal forms etc. Horizontal stratification is another way of viewing the verse line, and stanza. 

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Give Chase At Once to Soul And Body

Longinus, in A Treatise on the Sublime, describes Sappho's achievement thus:

Do you not wonder how she gives chase at once to soul and body, to words and tongue, to sight and colour, as as if scattered abroad, how, at variance within she is frozen and burns, she raves and is wise? For she is either panic-stricken or at point of death; she is haunted not only by one single emotion but their whole company, All things befall a lover, but she took the extremes of love's history and binding them in one achieved a masterpiece (trans. by Frank Granger).

The description is alluring, especially given the fact that, not withstanding the recent discovery of a nearly whole poem, all we have of Sappho's poetry are fragments. And few, therefore precious, are the glimpses of poetry in this ALSC conference where the linguistic currency is made up largely of abstraction.

I was glad to encounter a poet I did not know in Sarah Barnsley's talk on "Sappho, Mary Barnard and American Modernism." The four Barnard poems on the handout may lack the gemlike radiance of her fellow imagiste H.D., but they still offer the "dull luster of pewter," as one poem has it.

The three-part poem, "The River Under Different Lights," ends with the estuary, that watery border where "fresh water meets salt." In that mixing,

Nothing is sure, neither
tide, season, nor hour
in this flux of stream and ocean,
daylight and fog,
where only the fish,
a secret presence, move
surely on spring's errand.

In the heavy waters of doubt, it is a relief to read the ridiculously light-hearted "on spring's errand." I do feel like a fish out of water in this scholarly conference. It reminds me why I decided not to pursue a PhD in English, but to write poetry instead. I just don't have the wherewithal to bend my being to the task of examining manuscript variants or of digging in archival sources, to prove or disprove an idea. I don't care enough for Truth, but miss Beauty terribly when he is absent.

I wish I had been less tired last night to enjoy more the readings by Joyce Carol Oates and Edmund White, both of whom I heard for the first time. Colleagues in Princeton, Oates was thin and porcelain doll-like, whereas White was big and bearish. Oates read a fictional account of the few hours before Ernest Hemingway shot himself dead; she described him as "mysterious."

In the panel on Literary Biography, Emily Mitchell Wallace defended William Carlos Williams against his biographers' depiction of him as a promiscuous rake who was unfaithful to his wife Florence. While my mind understood the imperative to set the record straight, part of me could not help wondering why marital fidelity (or infidelity) was such a huge deal. I guess I would rather read one of the man's poems again, instead of listening to a 20-minute defense of his chastity. At least that is how I am feeling now.

Queen Anne's Lace

Her body is not so white as
anemone petals nor so smooth--nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand's span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over--
or nothing.

*After reading WCW's poem, Singapore Jade sent me a poem by a pair of Victorian lesbian lovers who wrote collaboratively under the pseudonym of Michael Field. Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece and ward Edith Emma Cooper wrote around 40 works together. The imagery of "Cyclamen" has the sharp spareness of the Imagistes, but the last two lines would have failed the requirement "to use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation" (Flint in Imagisme). Like H.D., the women were inspired by Sappho.


They are terribly white.
There is snow on the ground,
And a moon on the snow at night.
The sky is cut by the winter light.
Yet I, who have all these things in ken,
Am struck to the heart by the chiselled white
Of this handful of cyclamen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Leo Bersani's "Homos"

In this 1995 book, Bersani begins with a stark statement: “No one wants to be called a homosexual.” He is not thinking, primarily, of closeted gay men or women, but the aversion to “homosexuality” on the part of self-identified homosexual activists and theorists.

According to Bersani, queer theorists like Monique Wittig, Judith Butler, and Michael Warner have taken “queer” to delineate political rather than erotic tendencies. In their writing, they have erased the specificity of gay identity in favor of transcendence over the homo-hetero binary, or of social constructivism or of historicizing the category; these theorists fear, rightly, to essentialize gay identity, a move that would fall in with heterosexist practice.

Though he is opposed, like the other theorists, to essentialist definitions, Bersani wants to reinstate the specificity of gay identity—same-sex desire—because one needs to oppose heterosexism on behalf of something, from the position of somewhere, however compromised something or somewhere is. His most potent argument against the erasure of gay identity is that such erasure is exactly what homophobia aims to accomplish. The first two chapters develop that argument in detail, with references to America in the early 1990s.

The next chapter argues that S/M merely replicates the power structures in the outside world, and does not question, let alone change, those structures, unlike what its advocates, including Michel Foucault, say. This chapter supports the overarching argument of the book, that many strands of current queer theory are not as gay-affirmative as they make themselves out to be.

The last chapter, titled “The Gay Outlaw,” expands on what Bersani sees as the need to destroy all relationism first, constructed as it is by oppression, before we can see the way forward to a new view of relations and community. To figure forth that idea, he analyzes Gide’s The Immoralist, Proust’s Sodam and Gomorrah, and Genet’s Funeral Rites.

The book is a stimulating read, written in readable prose, without too much theoretical jargon. I agree with the need to keep the specificity of gay identity while keeping out essentialist definitions. Though “queer” intends to be inclusive, to describe behavior instead of essence, I want to think of myself as “gay” because that denotes, particularly, my sexual attraction to men.

I am not so easy with the idea of destroying relationism in order to revolutionize oppressive structures. As Bersani admits, the idea is very far from being a political program. To my mind, the idea is also far too literary, supported as it is by literary analysis. Bersani describes Genet’s “revolutionary strength” thus:

Both his abhorrent glorification of Nazism and his in some ways equally abhorrent failure to take that glorification seriously express his fundamental project of declining to participate in any sociality at all [author’s italics].

One might ask why one should read an anti-social writer for clues to changing society. Bersani’s answer is that Genet compels us to re-think what we mean and what we want from community. Still, Bersani’s language of revolution runs counter to Karl Popper’s argument that, given our limited knowledge, social change must be wrought in incremental steps, through the deployment of social technology, instead of resorting to revolution and wiping the slate clean. The homosexual as outlaw is too tempting an idea not to resist.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The tongue a stabbed wafer?

Remedial reading continues. TLS August 1 2008.

From Chris Andrews' review of Donald L. Shaw's Spanish American Poetry after 1950: Beyond the vanguard:

[Shaw] points out, for example, how [Olga] Orozco's Esbozos frente a un modelo (Sketches in Front of a Model), where the idea that writing poetry is like trying to "translate a text written in a constantly changing code", echoes Borges's famous statement in La Muralla y los libros (The Wall and the Books): "this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon".


The young ultraist Borges believed that metaphors are the primordial element of poetry, and that they should be both novel and "effective" (eficaz), but by the 1950s he had decided that the real primordial element is rhythm and that all good metaphors are variations on familiar ones. Shaw suggests that Borges had lost faith in metaphor's capacity to "open up new dimensions of reality". But perhaps he decided that novelty and effectiveness are inversely proportional: the familiar metaphors have become familiar because they carry more cognitive freight more reliably. According to George Lakoff and Mark Turner, there are nine correspondences underlying the "life is a journey" metaphor (people leading lives are travellers, their purposes are destinations, and so on), all of them fairly obvious. When Andre Breton writes of a tongue that is a "stabbed wafer" (in "Union libre"), the correspondences that readers come up with are likely to be idiosyncratic.

I am also more and more certain that rhythm is the primal element of poetry. You lose rhythm, you lost everything. In the womb, we sense rhythm before we see anything. Andrews' idea about familiar metaphors chimes with Louise Gluck's decision, as described in Proofs and Theories, to use common diction. The familiar and the common are not only more reliable vehicles of meaning, they are also more universal. They resist mere novelty. They challenge the poet to deepen his game. 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Princeton Reprise

A friend, Jane McKinley, is the musical director of The Dryden Ensemble, which specializes  in performing 17th and 18th century music on period instruments. The group was playing an all Bach program in Princeton this afternoon, and so I hopped onto the New Jersey Transit from Penn Station, and was in the university town in about 80 minutes.

I had planned time to visit the Princeton University Art Museum before the concert. It is a small teaching museum that is also open to the public, and free. I did not care very much for its small collection of 16th-18th century European (many Dutch) paintings, although I liked Abraham Bloemaert's The Four Evangelists (1612-15) for its inquiring lion looking so incongruous beneath the table. 

In the 19th to mid-20th century section, I was very taken by Gabriele Munter's Self-Portrait in front of an Easel, and by Edouard Vuillard's gorgeous Woman in an Interior (Madame Hessel at Les Clayes). The lower galleries held collections of ancient Asian, Islamic and American art. I looked at some Chinese calligraphy, and reacquainted myself with the small-standard and draft-cursive scripts.

The concert took place in the Miller Chapel, a full portico Greek Revival church, in Princeton Theological Seminary. The baritone Richard Lalli sang, accompanied by the ensemble. I particularly liked his performance of Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort (Settle account! Word of thunder) from BWV 169, and Schweig! Schweig! aufgeturmtes Meer (Quiet! Quiet, heaving sea!) from BWV 81, both of which he rendered with power and emotion. Lisa Terry on the violoncello played with feeling the Adagio from Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1029. It was also a treat to hear the oboes da caccia, played by Jane and Virginia Brewer, for the aria Mache dich, mein Herze rein (My heart, make yourself pure) from St. Matthew Passion

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Poem: Leave with Nothing

Who needs ten shirts when two will do, one on the back,
the other in the wash? Who needs five pairs of jeans?
Who, in his right mind, needs two pairs of underwear?
Too many! Who goes to the laundromat in briefs?

I have lived with little, I will live with less.
These books, accumulated like a secret vice,
seduced even the saint, and so must be reduced
to ten, no, five, no, two, no, no, how about one?

None! So, when a man needs you, he says, to go,
same man who needed you a year ago to stay,
you won’t leave with a rucksack and three shopping bags,
but fill your empty pockets with your empty hands.

You have lived with little, you will live with less.
Welcome, welcome, welcome to your new address.


Cold Medium and Hot Stream

TLS July 25 2008 (yes, I know, it's a while ago):

from Anthony Grafton's review of James Simpson's Burning to Read: English fundamentalism and its Reformation opponents:

In [James Simpson’s] view, the great translator William Tyndale did not liberate the human spirit by turning the sacred texts of Christianity into English. Rather, he imprisoned it in chains of paper. Tyndale and his ilk caused what Simpson calls the rise of “fundamentalism”, the literalist form of religious reading that has repeatedly shown the power, especially in recent yearsm to provoke violence and hatred around the world.


Debates on small points, instead of being settled by conversation, turned into mortal combat simply because scholars conducted them in print. The new medium, cold, distant and precise, enabled writers to excerpt, anatomize and mutilate their opponents' words, paragraph by paragraph and sentence by sentence, using all the textual violence they could devise.


In the end, Simpson argues Thomas More showed himself a more humane reader of Scripture than Tyndale--even if More, unlike Tyndale, burned a few heretics for their pains. For More knew that no text--even the New Testament--could encompass the entire Christian message, and he insisted on the need for a consensual interpretation reinforced by the experience of centuries.


from Richard Hamblyn's review of Erik Orsenna's Portrait of the Gulf Stream: In praise of currents, translated by Moishe Black:

This thermohaline warming was first described in the 1850s by the American hydrographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, who seemed to view the oceans as little more than a vast and efficient boiler house: "the furnace is the torrid zone; the Mexican Gulf and Carribean Sea are the cauldrons; the Gulf Stream is the conducting pipe," he wrote . . .


"What a fool I've been to neglect science all these years", [Orsenna] declares; "natural history is the mother of every form of history, every sort of story, the novel of all novels."


The Gulf Stream, he soon discovers, is not so much a single path as a sequence of thermal improvisations.


"I went endlessly back and forth from reading maps to reading legends, not knowing which would leave me better informed"--a process that in the end produces a near-seamless blend of travel, science and literary reportage, a peerless portrait of a force of nature made up of a series of digressions.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Roberto Calasso's "Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India"

Calasso retells the Indian myths in this book, and makes them gripping, probing and mysterious. In the first story, Garuda, the eagle, is born to save his mother from slavery to her own sister. The method of the myths and of the retelling is described by Garuda himself: "So many things happening, so many stories one inside the other, with every link hiding yet more stories . . . And I've hardly hatched from my egg."

After freeing his mother, Garuda decided to devote himself to reading the Vedas in the Rauhina tree. Reading hymn one hundred and twenty-one in the tenth book of the Rig Veda, he found the question that gave the book its title: "Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?"

Estuary to a hidden ocean, that syllable (Ka) would go on echoing within him as the essence of the Vedas. Garuda stopped and shut his eyes. He had never felt so uncertain, and so close to understanding. Never felt so light, in that sudden absence of names. When he opened his eyes, he realized that the nine stanzas were followed by another, this one separated by a space that was slightly larger. . . . The tenth stanza, without any question. And here was a name, the only name in the hymn, the only answer. Garuda couldn't remember ever having seen that name before: Prajapati.

The next chapter takes up the story of Prajapati who is a kind of Progenitor of all things, including the gods. Prajapati was the mind before anything existed. The mind did not even know whether it existed or not. The mind desired, with a desire that was "continuous, diffuse, undefined." It desired

what was definite and separate, what had shape. A Self, atman--that was the name it used. And the mind imagined that Self as having consistency. Thinking the mind grew red hot. It saw thirty-six thousand fires flare up, made up of mind, made with mind.

This fire was tapas, the same fire that burned in the gods, and in the holy men. Desire, in this myth, is longing for the Other; it is longing for form.

Chapter Three describes the desire of this Father for his daughter Dawn (Usas). Their union was disrupted by a son and god, Rudra, who fired an arrow into his father's groin, causing him to squirt his seed onto the ground. This triangular relationship, according to this chapter, is repeated with different names in different stories down the ages.

In Chapter Four, Brhama takes over the role of Creator and Father. The problem with his creation was that all were born exclusively of the mind, and no one died. Immortality proved to be oppressive. To solve that problem Brahma created Death. To solve the problem of mind, he created sex. When asked by the gods why bother with another mode of production, Brahma answered, "To preserve the world's gloss."

The triangle between father, daughter and son returns in Chapter Five. Daksa, a stand-in for Brahma, loved his favorite daughter, Sati, who, in turn, loves Siva. Whe Daksa refused to invite his son-in-law to his priestly sacrifice, Sati returned to her father's household, and rebuked him by self-combusting. Sati is, of course, the immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. Following his wife's death, Siva wrecked Daksa's sacrifice. The narrator draws this moral from the story:

The premise was a simple breach of etiquette, of terrifying eloquence. If Siva was not invited, sacrifice could no longer bring together the totality of the real. Thus he who was excluded took revenged. And the form of revenge he chose was once again the sacrifice. But this time a funereal sacrifice. The victim honored that day was sacrifice itself, the ceremony.

Chapter VI narrates the love affair between Siva and Parvati, the daughter of Himavat (Himalayas?). To capture Siva's heart, Parvati left her royal life to practice tapas in the forest. The god accepted her offer, and united with her, making her a goddess. Kalidasa, the Sanskrit poet, makes an appearance in this chapter. He was sneaking a look at their love-making before chased away by Parvati.

Parvati also discovered Siva had many lovers, one of whom lived as water in his hair, Ganga. In the story-within-a-story, Ganga was initially a proud woman who thought she could sweep Siva away like a straw. She plunged from the Milky Way on top of Siva's head.

But no sooner had she brushed against that head than Ganga felt lost. Siva's hair was a forest. And what was a forest? Her waters were constantly being diverted, divided, humiliated in tiny streams. They settled in huge lakes, surrounded by a thick darkness that was no longer darkness of the sky. Huge angry waves kept beating down on Siva. And Siva gathered himself in one spot, From there, like silk from a spider, his maya spun out, the sticky enchantment of his mind. Siva held back the waters, wound around she who winds around all, multiplied the meanders that would soak her up. . . . Ganga didn't know it, but her fury enhanced her splendor. Streaming down Siva's hair, she saw a corner of the god's mouth lift, in a hint of a smile. That made her even madder. As she renewed her attack, boiling in obscure little ditches, a few drops of foam spurted out beyond the forest. For a moment they found themselves suspended in the void, surprised. Finally they tasted a sharp, dry flavor. It was the earth. Those drops formed Lake Bindusaras, the Lake of Drops. From there they flowed into a bed that seemed to have been made for them. Men called that river Ganga.

The story is enchanting. It is a charming explanation of how the great Ganges came into being. It is a striking extended metaphor. It is also very sexy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Paperoles and Glass

Last night I made another stab at reducing the pile of unread magazines and journals, and read TLS July 11 2008.

from Peter Brook's review of Michael Murphy's Proust and America:

But Murphy subtly and convincingly argues that Proust's sense of the "metaphorics of retrospection" has an Emersonian cast: the "looping-the-loop" by which we return to our earlier selves, and which opens on to Marcel's eventual discovery that the writer's task is that of translator--of life, of nature--recalls Emerson's sense of nature as a place of signsm a place engaged in a perpetual writing. Proustian metaphor espouses the famous Emersonian credo that words are signs of natural facts, and natural facts are signs of spiritual facts.


If "love" in Proust is self-torturingm riven with jealousy, doubt and a masochistic need to witness the beloved's infidelity, this is part and parcel of the detective work that characterizes his novel, as it does Poe's work. Sexual curiosity provokes a true epistemophilia: an eroticized drive to know.


Late in the novel Proust analogizes the composition of his novel--put together from papers glued together to permit exfoliating additions, the famous paperoles, so named by the faithful family servant Francoise--to the work of dressmaking. Murphy comments: "If fashion by its very evanescence embodies Time, it is the dressmaker who stitches together the different strands and materials. If Time is to be made visible it is not through the permanent, the aim of which is to deny Time exists let alone that it passes, but through the ephemeral."


from Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's review of Isobel Armstrong's Victorian Glassworlds: Glass culture and the imagination, 1830-1880:

The reality of Victorian glass production in the "gross matrial world" was far less charming. Most glass was still hand-blown, a form of manusfacture which was always dangerous and often lethal. (In one centre of glass production, Stourbridge, it has been calculated that about 30 per cent of glass makers died before the age of forty and about half before fifty.) The "exhalation" of the Crystal Palace was constructed from 956, 000 square feet of glass panels, each of which carried traces of its own manufacture in the tiny blemishes created by human breath, which flitted in and out of sight like ghosts, according to whether the glass was being looked at or merely looked through. It was the largest example ever seen of Marx's argument that labour is "crystallized" in industrial artefacts, and a monumental witness to what was often sentimentalized as the workman's sigh.


Consider Henry James's Maisie, who hears life being discussed by adults so often that she expeiences an "odd air of being present at her history in as separate a manner as if she could only get at experience by flattening her nose against a pane of glass." Or Lewis Carroll's Alice, who is brought to realize how shifty scale is in Looking-Glass World when she is observed by the train guard "first through a telescope, then through a microscope, an then through an opera-glass". Or Tennyson's Mariana, whose moated grange includes a "blue fly" which "sang in the pane": a sad echo of her own trapped state but also a concentrated image of the writer, who transforms suffering into art.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Irish Hungers

I just read again Swift's "A Modest Proposal" in order to teach a class for a colleague. The savagery of the satire strikes me as hard as before. The outrage over the suffering of the Irish poor in 1729. The bitterness against England's exploitation. Particularly moving are the passages detailing groups such as begging mothers, and, more unexpectedly, young laborers. After dismissing the problem of the "aged, diseased and maimed," who take care of themselves by dying and rotting away, the speaker argues that the same is happening to the laborers.

And as to the younger laborers, they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away for want of nourishment to a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labor, they have not strength of perform it; and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.

Thinking about this monument of English prose, I am reminded of another, a more physical one, I saw and walked on last Sunday. The Irish Hunger Memorial, standing at Battery Park City, commemorates the famine of 1845-52. Designed by Brian Tolle, a New York based sculptor, a half-acre landscaped plot is cantilevered over a base of glass and fossilized Irish limestone.

You enter the memorial through a Famine-era Irish cottage donated by the artist's extended family, the Slacks of Attymass, County Mayo, Ireland. From the open-roof cottage, the path meanders through a rugged landscape planted with gorse, ling heather, soft rush, yellow flag iris, cross-leaved heath, foxglove, bearberry, blackthorn and Burnet rose. Stones from every Irish county, and bearing the name of that county, are scattered along the path. The path ends at the highest point of the memorial, a post which affords a view of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, what the Irish fleeing the famine would have seen when they sailed into the country. It was a moving experience, wandering through the memorial. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

To be industrious and original

from T. H. Breen's review of Jan de Vries's The Industrious Revolution: Consumer behavior and the household economy:

Between 1650 and 1850, the households throughout north-west Europe and British America responded to consumer incentives not only by working harder, but also by redefining the character of work. . . . In general, men and women worked longer hours. They had fewer holidays. The major force driving the "industrious revolution", however, appears to have been the labour of women and children. Women devoted themselves to productive activities that expanded household income; they stopped making articles at home that they could now purchase. Some engaged in proto-industrial pursuits--spinning and weaving flax and cotten, for example--while others cultivated crops to be sold on the market. A surprisingly large number of women ran small shops.


A major break in the story occurred around 1850, when the industrious household gave way to an entirely new structure, which he calls somewhat awkwardly the "Breadwinner-Homemaker Household".

. . . Breadwinner-Homemaker families wanted to live in healthy environments. They knew enough about germs to realize that clean homes--those with pure water, clean cooking utensils, and proper sewage facilities--required the household to use store-bought goods in wats that made their homes seem more sanitary, even more respectable. . . . [F]or less well-to-do families, the burden of channelling manufactured good efficiently towards the consumer goal of creating tidy, germ-free environments fell to married women. Unlike the mothers and wives who contributed to the income of the "industrious" households, late nineteenth-century women worked mainly at home, applying their productive labour to processing items purchased in the marketplace. The rising real wages of men, and the continued employment of dependent children, facilitated the transition from one household structure to another.


After the 1950s, the dynamics of the ordinary household shifted once again. . . . [A]fter the Second World War, men and women began to work longer hours. More significantly, married women returned to the labour force in huge numbers. Most of these women were mothers. . . . The breadwinner-homemaker faces extinction. Men and women have come to prefer living in households with multiple earners.


from Ian Mortimer's Commentary piece "Beyond the facts":
Names as representations of historical concepts illustrate how modern originality can come to be universally associated with the past and yet not be fictive. No one would refer to the Renaissance as either fictional or imaginary. But what needs to be stressed is that it is not just the name which is truly original but the concept it embodies. . . . True originality can be much more than just a poetic quip which happens to prove popular. It can be a way of envisioning an entire period, and perhaps even a way of envisioning the entire human past.

T. Schreiber Studio's "Twelfth Night"

My first visit to the T. Schreiber Studio last Thursday, with The Quarterback, to watch Cat Parker's production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The direction banked on chic, rather than depth, replacing Elizabethan songs with the steampunk music of Cloud Cult, projecting backdrops and stage scenes onto the back screen. The actors were encumbered by the task of filling in a large crossword puzzle in the middle of the stage with words like "melancholy," "love," and "gentleman."

The acting was uneven. Jacqueline van Biene, who played Viola, brought a certain charisma to the performance. Her Viola was intelligent and passionate, qualities which make it even more mystifying how she could fall for the lethargic Duke Orsino. Julian Elfer was a very funny Malvolio; the genius of his performance lay in making him almost tragic. In the cell scene, he was not just pitiable in his deception, but, struggling to remain standing despite his agonizing bewilderment, nearly noble.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Louis Menand on Lionel Trilling

In The New Yorker Sep 29, 2008, Louis Menand wrote a long article about Trilling as a literary critic, public intellectual and fiction writer. One section, of interest to me, depicts Trilling's attitude towards being Jewish.

"It is never possible for a Jew of my generation to 'escape' his Jewish origin," Trilling explained, in a symposium on Jewish writers in 1944. Still, he said:

I cannot discover anything in my professional intellectual life which I can specifically trace back to my Jewish birth and rearing. I do not think of myself as a "Jewish writer." I do not have in mind to serve by my writing any Jewish purpose. I should resent it if a critic of my work were to discover in it either faults or virtues which he called Jewish.

Around the same time, Trilling was asked to address Jewish students at Columbia. There is no innate quality of Jewishness, he told them. The culture of an American Jew is not Jewish; it's American. Jewishness exists only because of "the belief of non-Jews that Jews constitute a racial entity and a certain kind of action on the part of non-Jews based on this belief." Without this prejudice against the Jews, "the idea of Jewishness would largely disappear."

Sartre was criticized for making the same argument, a few years later, in "Anti-Semite and Jew," but there are always non-Jews who have ideas about "the Jews," and so there are, on Trilling's theory, always good reasons for Jews to feel Jewish.

I agree that there is "no innate quality" of Jewishness or other forms of identity, and that identity could be constituted by one's opponents, or one's other. But the missing element in this view is that one can form, or formulate, one's own identit(ies) too. Sure, one has to make do with what one has--through inheritance and circumstance--but one can collect some materials over the course of a lifetime.


In another section, Menand speaks of Trilling's cast of mind as dialectical, as illustrated in these quotations:

To suppose that we can think like men of another time is as much of an illusion as to suppose that we can think in a wholly different way.

The poet, it is true, is an effect of environment, but we must remember that he is no less a cause.

Perhaps only science could effectively undertake that task of freeing sexuality from science itself.

This intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement.

Menand writes, "Trilling saw everything under a double aspect: a trend and a backlash, a pathway to enlightenment and a dead-end of self-deception. He was a humanist who believed that works of literature can speak to us across time. . . . But he believed it with weakening conviction; he could see all the arguments for considering humanism a vain promise.

Trilling saw books, including the Great ones, as social products "all the way down." Menand summarizes:

They do not come from some place outside the system, and they do not represent an independent alternative to the way things are. They are among the things that are, even when they belong to what Trilling called "the adversary culture"--even when they reject conventional ways of thinking and behaving. The adversarial is part of the system; it helps to hold the other parts in place. Responsible liberal people feel better adjusted for having an appreciation of art and ideas that are contemptuous of the values of responsible liberal people. It helps the world seem round.

I think this is an important corrective to the easy idea that Great Books trascend time, that their message is universal. However, this explanation lacks a theory of change, of innovation. If even subversion is always conservative, then how does a culture change over time? This version of the dialectic appears very like statism.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Umor, amor, and bookworm repellent

Reviewing The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (ed. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie), Emily Gowers writes (TLS October 3 2008):

By rejecting transliterated Greek terms like atomi in favour of metaphors like semina (seeds) and genitalia corpora (generative bodies), [Lucretius] craftily presumes the material nature of the smallest units of life in advance of further proof. And the exaggerated trickle of word into word in his honeyed verse is the cleverest means of suggesting organic interrelations in the physical world, most famously through fortuitous phonetic connections: the link between lignum (wood) and ignis (fire) "proves" the metamorphosis of timber into ashes; that between umor (semen) and amor (love) reduces sex to an exchange of bodily fluids.


The poem on "all things" [i.e. De rerum natura] is also a compendium of all stylistic moods and registers, with an almost organic identity of its own: a shifting amoeba living out its predicted cycles of growth, decay and rebirth. Where does the abrupt and gloomy ending among the Athenian plague victims leave us? Exposed, like trained Epicureans, to the finality of material thing or hopeful of yet another revival--honeybees rising from rotting corpses?


John Keay, in his TLS review of Simon Winchester's biography of Joseph Needham (Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the great secrets of China), notes that Needham became obsessed with notching up Chinese "inventions and discoveries" and awarding a date to each. Winchester provides a representative example of the kind of lists Needham included in his published writings:

Blast Furnace--3rd century B.C.
Book, printed, first to be dated--A.D. 868
Crank handle--1st century B. C.
Bookworm repellent--no date

Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time

Before going to the Kundiman poetry reading at Fordham University last night, Pauline and I had dinner at Nook in Hell's Kitchen. Dinner was very pleasant, sauced by talk about the ekphrastic stories she is writing, and about the book of poems I am publishing next April. She gave me a copy of her essay published in an anthology of women's writing, Homelands: women's journeys across race, place, and time (edited by Patricia Justine Tumang and Jenesha De Rivera, and published by Seal Press). Pauline's essay charted her own journey towards accepting her ethnic identity as a Korean adoptee, and her gender identity as a transgendered woman.

The essay--and the life--is remarkable for the geography it traverses. At the age of eight months, Pauline was flown from Seoul to Tokyo, then to Anchorage, and then to Chicago, where she was picked up by her foster parents, and brought back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That flight set the pattern for a peripatetic life afterwards. Madison for college. London for her master's. Chicago for corporate career. Urbana-Champaign for PhD. Queens in NYC for activism and living out a chosen life.

The years spent pursuing her PhD proved "pivotal" for Pauline in redefining her identity.

When I finished my dissertation in December 1993, I discovered Foucault while taking a graduate seminar in political theory. Reading the work of this radical gay French theorist helped me rethink my lifelong identity complex. I had labored for years under the feeling that I was a "fake Korean," unable to live up to the expectations of others. In light of reading Foucault and other theorists, I came to understand that my pursuit of--or flight from--Koreanness was doomed to fail from the start, since there was no essence of Koreanness to pursue. I came to see myself as having a distinct identity as a Korean adoptee--neither ethnically Korean in the way that Koreans or recent Korean immigrants are, nor Korean American in the way that U.S.-born, English-speaking Korean Americans are.

I could identify with the feeling of being a "fake" whatever. Growing up in Singapore, even before I went abroad for college, I was often made to feel that I was not a real Chinese since I could not speak, read or write Mandarin fluently. In Singapore, Mandarin was so identified with being Chinese, that other dialects (such as the Cantonese I speak at home, along with English) came to be seen as sub-cultures. An English-speaking Chinese was labeled a "banana," yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I was no victim, however, since such insults came from a class which was losing political and economic influence to the rising English-speaking class. My experience confirmed what Pauline discovered in Foucault: there is no essence to an ethnic identity. Rather, identity is historically determined, and is contested by class and other interests.

In the same years Pauline came to accept herself as a Korean adoptee, she also came to terms with her gender identity.

I would eventually come to call myself a "male-bodied woman," a concept radical even within the transgender community, because I reject the assumption that the presence or absence of the penis determines my status as a man or as a woman. While cross-dressers often find me too transsexual to relate to because I live full-time as a woman, transsexuals find me puzzling because I have not pursued hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery. Even within the transgendered community, I find myself in between.

To see who we are clearly, we need to re-name ourselves. The phrase "male-bodied woman" probably consolidates--crytallizes?--how Pauline sees herself. If we are to look away from society's mirror, we need language to hold up another mirror. Language, in its power of abstraction, can change our perceptions, or, at least, show us how much our perceptions, so intimate and individual to us, are shaped by society.

One person's changed self-perception can transform the self-perception of others. Pauline, in her essay, wrote of the first international gathering of first-generation Korean adoptees, in September 2001, in Washington D. C..

Being at a conference with more than two thousand Korean adoptees was an extraordinary experience. While a few of the attendees were initially shocked by my presence--most had never met an openly transgendered person before--they soon realized that my life story as a Korean adoptee was one that they could relate to.

This passage reminds me that identity is not just a matter of authenticity and integrity; it is also a matter of community. Accepting her ethnic identity as a Korean adoptee, Pauline was willing and able to participate in this conference. When she entered this community, she brought with her all her other identities, including that of being a transgendered woman. Now, that community's self-definition must shift, however slightly. The community cannot disown one with a "life story" like its own, but needs to come to terms with the variations on the same theme.

I am stimulated by this passage to think through a little more my confused ideas about identity. My default position has been that identity is bad, is unnecessarily confining and intolerant. I am especially suspicious of national identity, with its flag-waving and five-year-plans, its armies and Olympics. Perhaps a more wholesome approach is to embrace all the identities jostling in me ("I am large. I contain multitudes."). I would like to be a poet in pragmatic Singapore, and a Singaporean in the English poetic tradition. I would like to be religious among the agnostics, and gay in my family.

Not for the sake of confrontation, but for the sake of authenticity. The talk of the performance, or construction, of the self leaves me cold. To be true to myself still seems an ethical imperative, and a psychological drive, even if the self is a moving target. The heart of Pauline's essay, the place she calls home, is a passage about what music means to her. In it, she follows "authentic" in one sentence, with "fullest sense" in the next. That juxtaposition seems suggestive to me. To be true to a thing is to possess the fullest sense of the thing. That argues for an idea of authenticity more in line with plenitude and complexity, than with singularity and correctness.

I bought a piano and thereby filled my little apartment with the music of my childhood and the spirits of those since lost to me. Sometimes when I play a Bach prelude, a Schubert impromptu, or a Chopin etude from my childhood or youth, the distinction between my past and present dissolves. And when I sing one of the German hymns from the Lutheran hymnal of my childhood, I realize how much music continues to shape my search for an authentic identity. My piano represents "home" in its fullest sense. It is not simply a musical instrument--or a decorative piece of furniture; it is an instrument of self-determination in the creation of my own culture of home; it is an instrument of the art of memory, a tool to be used in the archaelogy of the self.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Elia Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire"

Watched the film on my laptop on Sunday night, the 1993 re-release with the cuts restored. It felt melodramatic, rather than dramatic. I would like to watch the play, and compare it with the film. Film robs the drama of its physicality, I think, the menacing swagger of Stanley Kowalski, the sexual tension between Stanley and his wife, Stella, and the shocking rape of Blanche DuBois. On film, the smashing of windows and crockery blended into the soundtrack. 

I still remember the visceral shock of watching Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge in the theater. The actor who played Eddie Carbone was a powerful physical presence. He dominated the stage in all three dimensions, and then some. Film not only converts flesh into celluloid, it also demystifies the body by making a picture of it. 

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick"

Moby-Dick is not a novel, but a Dramatic Poem. Its sources are Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible. Its spirit is not realistic, but idealistic; it sees in the things of earth shadows of things in heaven, or, as Ahab puts it, “Not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.” Its strategies are self-consciously dramatic: dialogues that rival for color and comedy the exchanges between Lear and the Fool; soliloquies that aim for the grandeur of Hamlet; and action that extends its import, as in Homer, through extended metaphors. Where it pauses to catch its breath, it sees analogies everywhere, in the parts of the ship, in the members of the crew, in the stages of killing and boiling down a whale. Ahab, who sets out to kill the White Whale, discovers he is the White Whale, just as Ishmael, who sets out to tell the story of Ahab, finds out, in this obsessive narrative, he is Ahab.


Chapter I Loomings—Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place on lodges in.


Chapter IX The Sermon—“Screwed at its axis against the side, a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room; and the ship, heeling over towards the wharf with the weight of the last bales received, the lamp, flame and all, though in slight motion, still maintains a permanent obliquity with reference to the room; though, in truth, infallibly straight itself, it but made obvious the false, lying levels among which it hung. . . . ‘Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!” he groans, ‘straight upward, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!’


Chapter XI Nightgown—. . . truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.


Chapter XXVI Knights and Squires—But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike, that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy. His omnipresence, our divine equality!


Chapter XXXII Cetalogy—But now I leave my cetological system standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but draught—nay, but draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!


Chapter XLI Moby Dick—So that here, in the real living experience of living men, the prodigies related in old times of the inland Strello mountain in Portugal (near whose top there was said to be a lake in which the wrck of ships floated up to the surface); and that still more wonderful story of the Arethusa fountain near Syracuse (whose waters were believed to have come from the Holy Lanf by an underground passage); these fabulous narrations are almost fully equaled by the realities of the whalemen.


Chapter XLII The Whiteness of the Whale—Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.


Chapter LV Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales—The Hindoo whale referred to, occurs in a separate department of the wall, depicting the incarnation of Vishnu in the form of leviathan, learnedly known as the Matse Avatar. But though this sculpture is half man and half whale, so as only to give the tail of the latter, yet that small section of him is all wrong. It looks more like the tapering tail of an anaconda, than the broad palm of the true whale’s majestic flukes.


Chapter LX The Line—All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turns of death, that mortals realize the silent subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.


Chapter LXVIII The Blanket—It does seem to me, that herein [the whale’s blubber] we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!


Chapter LXX The Sphinx—“O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.”


Chapter LXXX The Nut—If you attentively regard almost any quadruped’s spine, you will be struck with the resemblance of its vertebrae to a strung necklace of dwarfed skulls, all bearing rudimental resemblance to the skull proper. It is a German conceit, that the vertebrae are absolutely undeveloped skulls.


Chpater LXXXII The Honor and Glory of Whaling—That wondrous oriental story is now to be rehearsed from the Shaster, which gives us dread Vishnu, one of the three persons in the godhead of the Hindoos; gives us this divine Vishnu himself for our Lord;—Vishnu, who by the first of his ten earthly incarnations, has for ever set apart and sanctified the whale. When Brahm, or the God of gods, saith the Shaster, resolved to recreate the world after one of its periodical dissolutions, he gave birth to Vishnu, to preside over the work; but the Vedas, or mystical books, whose perusal would seem to have been indispensable to Vishnu before beginning the creation, and which therefore must have contained something in the shape of practical hints to young architects, these Vedas were lying at the bottom of the water; so Vishnu became incarnate in a whale, and sounding down in him to the uttermost depths, rescued the sacred volumes.


Chapter XCIV A Squeeze of the Hand—Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. . . . Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever! . . . In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.


Chapter CIV The Fossil Whale—Such, and so magnifying is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.


Chapter CXXXI The Symphony—“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time, recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst no so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? . . .”


Chapter CXXXIII The Chase—First Day—In an instant’s compass, great hearts sometimes condense to one deep pang, the sum total of those shallow pains kindly diffused through feebler men’s whole lives. And so, such hearts, though summary in each one suffering; still, if the gods decree it, in their life-time aggregate a whole age of woe, wholly made up of instantaneous intensities; for even in their pointless centres, these noble natures contain the entire circumferences of inferior souls.


Chapter CXXXV The Chase—Third Day—“. . . Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents. There’s a most special, a most cunning, oh, a most malicious difference!”


Chapter CXXXV The Chase—Third Day—“Oh now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief.”

Best of the Web

Valparaiso Review announces its three nominations for the Best of the Web anthology from Dzanc Books, a non-profit independent publisher. 


Howard from PFFA drew attention to a neat idea: a poet laureate map. Another Canadian first? 

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Victoria Chang's "Salvinia Molesta"

Victoria Chang dances with three Muses in her second poetry collection: Clio, the Muse of history; Erato, the Muse of love; and Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy. Though all three hover over every section of the book, each Muse presides over her own section. 

The first section deals with Chinese history. It begins with the poem "Hanging Mao Posters" and ends with the poem "After Hanging Mao Posters." The formal gesture (it makes me think of theater banners) prepares the reader for the section's meditation on big themes, such as the Cultural Revolution, the Nanking Massacre, and China-Taiwan relations. 

Chang approaches the Cultural Revolution symbolically (a poem about Mao's "Four Pests" campaign against rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows), empathetically (a poem speaks in the voice of Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, who committed suicide while under house arrest), and in identification (a poem describes an uncle who "disappeared" after he was shamed for reading foreign books). 

Writing an ode to Iris Chang, the author of a controversial book on the Nanking Massacre, Chang makes the lyric mode combative by including the actual writing of a Japanese historian who minimized the horror and meaning of the event. Writing about China-Taiwan relations, she deploys metaphor (two trains colliding), and narrative (a 1947 incident in which Chinese troops killed Taiwanese protesters). 

Though the methods vary, the poems cohere in a single vision, suggested in the title of the poem "Ars Poetica as Dislocated Theater." The poems tend to present history as spectacle. While this has the strength of highlighting the display of power, it also has the potential to distance the reader from the events the poems depict. The best poem here, "Proof," is so powerful because the speaker inscribes herself in her poem, in a poignant and humble comparison to her book-loving uncle. Many of the poems in this section are written in couplets. The verse form feels too fragile to bear the burden of witness; the poems can appear thin. 

The second section sings of love and its infidelities. "The Professor's Lover," for instance, is an ambitious six-part poem charting an extra-marital affair. Love, in other poems, is sensually compared to plants--magnolia, mulberry, brambles, fig vines--and to food--fava beans, cured tofu, sliced pork, peanut shells, salt, Bundt cake. More originally, in "Love Poem as Eye Examination," 

The room became a raven until a white fire lit
the wall. The doctor's breath alarmed

and I was suddenly inside this bird, looking out
of its eye.

I've never read or heard an eye examination described like this before. This is wonderful. 

The most memorable of the love poems is also one with a real argument. In arguing against its Anne Carson epitaph--"A space must be maintained or desire ends"--Chang's poem "Desire" acquires rhetorical force. The images are no longer merely decorative or empirical, but they carry the burdens of thought and proof. "It is not space I desire," protests Chang, "but a dying. . . 
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxsas clothes in a dryer in
a laundromat at 3 a.m. might finally stop
unclenching and accept their entanglement.

The third section is tragic in a very contemporary sense. The boardroom and the market become the stage for fear and pity. The protagonist here is Clifford Baxter, the Enron executive who committed suicide. He is treated in the fine poem "Collision" with no cover-up but with great sympathy, as a man entangled with his world. Salvinia Molesta is a weed that reproduces so quickly on a pond that it can choke off the pond inhabitants from the sun. If this entanglement with the world proves fatal, to someone like Baxter, it also produces beauty, for the speaker of the love poems.

Chang, who has an MBA and works as a business researcher, reports in a truthful yet poetic fashion from that world. One of the pleasures of the last section is the adroit manner in which she converts the tin of corporate-speak into the bullion of poetry. "How Much" is the best example of this. Its third section, almost presciently, makes of a giddy stock market recovery an existential crisis.

$13 a share. The man on the phone line
has a rope in his throat. The closing price is
rouged. We can believe in God again. The banks
are full. The streets are hungover. The man on
my left is rich. The man on my right is a month
from dead. The champagne ditches its bottle.
The London air free-falls in the hotel-room.
There are plates of carved fruit. New York is
cheering through the phone. Heaven must
be this way. Tomorrow, Germany. Then Paris.
Hello. Goodbye. Where's the bathroom? I don't
understand. I am lost. How much?