Wednesday, October 31, 2012

François Jullien's "In Praise of Blandness"

I found François Jullien's In Praise of Blandness last summer in the great architecture and design bookstore in Bras Basah Complex, where I brought GH to buy art supplies. I have read Jullien's The Impossible Nude years ago with a great deal of interest while I was working on the poems for The Book of the Body. In Praise of Blandness examines not just Chinese art, but also Chinese philosophy, ethics, music and poetry for a common denominator called dan, which Jullien translates as fadeur, and his English translator Paula M. Varsano translates as blandness.

In his Prologue, after acknowledging the difficulty, in fact, the undesirability, of defining blandness, Jullien describes the word thus, at the same time summarizing the movement of thought in the book:

Blandness: that phase when different flavors no longer stand in opposition to each other, but, rather, abide within plenitude. It provides access to the undifferentiated foundation of all things and so is valuable to us; its neutrality manifests the potental inherent in the Center. At this stage, the real is no longer blocked in partial and too obvious manifestations; the concrete becomes discrete, open to transformation. 
The blandness of things evokes in us an inner detachment. But this quality is also a virtue, especially in our relations with others, because it guarantees authenticity. It must also lie at the root of our personality, for it alone allows us to possess all aptitudes simultaneously and to summon the appropriate one in any given situation. 
On this common ground of the bland, all currents of Chinese thought--Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism--converge in harmonious accord. None of these systems conceive of it as an abstraction (for the purposes of establishing a theory) or, at the opposite extreme, as ineffable (in the service of some mystical calling). But it is precisely the bland that the arts of China reveal to us through their uncluttered spareness and allusive depths. 
By taking us to the limits of the perceptible, that place where perceptions assimilate and nullify each other, the bland brings us to experience a world beyond. But this movement does not open up onto another, metaphysical world, cut off from the senses. It simply unfurls and expands this world (the only one): drained of its opacity, returned to its original virtual state, and opened up--forever--to joy. 

I am drawn to the possibility, alluded to here, of experiencing the transcendent in immanence. That blandness may be the source of ceaseless unfurling, and so give off the sense of infinity within a finite moment or life. This sense is captured by the Chinese and repeated in a musical motif, as Jullien points out. In the History of the Song, the poet Tao Yuanming is described thus:

Tao Yuanming knew nothing of music, but he had at home a simple, unadorned zither without any strings. Whenever he experienced, in drinking wine, a feeling of plenitude, he touched the zither in order to express the aspiration of his heart.

Jullien comments,

The poet did not have to "trouble himself" to produce individually each note "from above the strings." The body of the instrument contains, within itself and at the same time, all possible sounds (the very image, of course, of the Dao). 

Tao Yuanming and his stringless zither became a touchstone and a shorthand for later artists, writers and critics when they alluded to the quality of blandness.

It is too easy to accuse Jullien of treating Chinese culture as a mere foil for the West. That in differentiating Chinese thought so sharply from Western philosophy he is distorting the Chinese tradition. Jullien's has at least two defences, I think. One, he displays a genuine love of authentic Chinese artefacts. In Praise of Blandness reproduces the paintings and calligraphy alongside quotations from primary written texts for the reader's appreciation. Two, he is alert to the distinctions made by the Chinese themselves between different schools of art. So he quotes Su Dongpo's "Postface to the Poetry of Huang Zisi," in which Su contrasts the great Tang poets Li Bo and Du Fu with the earlier poets of the Wei and Jin Dynasties:

By virtue of the brilliance of their talent, they surpass all other generations and excel over all poets past and present. But at the same time, that air of having risen above the world of dust, which we find [earlier] in the poetry of the Wei and Jin, is ever so slightly lost.

Jullien comments suggestively,

... the most accomplished work of art is not necessarily the most effective; indeed by virtue of its very perfection it is found lacking. If the calligraphy of the great masters of the Tang is the most accomplished, it must nevertheless surrender its supreme position, at least from a certain point of view, to that of the preceding period, a period that was profoundly simple, whose characters appeared on the page as most spare and scant, as if they had simply been left there, abandoned by the brush, rather than as the fruit of concentrated attention, of the focused practice of an art. Far from seeking to impose their dynamic rhythm on us, far from actively demonstrating qualities of consistency and vitality, they seem to have lost a bit of their density, to already be somewhat less than fully present, as if on the verge of taking their leave.... These written characters are transitory vestiges of an inspirtation come from somewhere else, which animates them from afar and of which they preserve a certain nostalgia: these written lines are perceived only as traces, and so exude an air of renunciation hat surrounds calligraphy with a halo of indistinctness and solitude. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lois Potter's "The Life of William Shakespeare"

I enjoyed Lois Potter's The Life of William Shakespeare tremendously. Subtitled "A Critical Biography," the book looks at all the works by the Bard not only as literary artefacts but also as living process. On the poems, she observes the pressures on an ambitious young man aspiring to make his mark on literary London. On the plays, she is particularly acute on Shakespeare and his collaborators. She is also sensitive to how the plays were written or adapted to capitalize on star actors and boy performers. Different audiences, whether at the theaters or the Inns of Court or the royal palaces, accounted for different versions of the plays. Publication of the plays were economic and political decisions, and not just literary ones. The process of producing the work was messy, contingent, opportunistic, and it is a testament to Potter's writing that she is able to bring a clarity of form to her mastery of detail. One useful device is to begin every chapter with a quotation from Shakespeare. The quotation launches a brief discussion of the theme of that stage of Shakespeare's social and writing life.

What she does not know, she says so. What she is unsure of, she speculates cautiously. I like the suggestiveness of some of her outside references. In her discussion of Anthony and Cleopatra, she considers Jungian archetypes of gender.

Jung's "Perfection is a masculine desideratum, while woman inclines by nature to completeness," though a wild generalization, works remarkably well as an account of the duality of this play. Jung went on to insist that, "just as completeness is always imperfect, so perfection is sterile." Macbeth may be the most perfect of Shakespeare's plays, in the sense of being self-contained and atmospherically unified, but its power comes from the evocation of a universe that eventually shrinks to the dimensions of Macbeth's obsessed mind (and his marriage is, at least in the play's present, famously sterile). In Anthony and Cleopatra, on the other hand, Shakespeare emphasizes the fertility of the Nile and "All the unlawful issue" of the two lovers, while never mentioning the children that the historical Anthony had by Octavia. 

Potter is also very suggestive when defending Shakespare against the suspicion that somebody more learned wrote his works.

One effect of situating Shakespeare among other writers may be to make the anti-Staffordian argument irrelevant. If he can be seen as an author like any other, there is no need to talk about his "genius" and no need to displace him with someone else. "Genius" is a term unpopular in scientific circles because it makes no distinction between potential and achievement. It is however a term that people like to use about Shakespeare, and perhaps the main reason people like to read books about Shakespeare is that they hope to discover some cause of "genius" that they themselves can imitate. Yet what they most need to imitate is his productivity. As Dean Simonton writes, "the single most powerful predictor of eminence within any creative domain is the sheer number of infuential products an individual has given the world." As I have already indicated, it is the sheer number of Shakespeare's surviving plays and poems, and the fact that few people can claim both breadth and depth of knowledge in them all, that makes them an inexhaustible field of study. We are all, forever, trying to remember him.

I am guilty of reading books about Shakespeare, such as this one, to discover how I can be a "genius" like he was. It is interesting to think that what I have to do is to produce as many influential products as I can within my short lifetime.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Between Ecstasy and Truth

TLS October 19 2012

from Llewelyn Morgan's review of Stephen Halliwell's Between Ecstasy and Truth: Interpretations of Greek poetics from Homer to Longinus:

Homer's works were already, alongside everything else, a meditation on poetry's power to transform the pain and impermannence of mortal existence into kosmos, a lasting order or design. An overarching theme of Halliwell's discussions is the tension repeatedly diagnosed by Greek thinkers between poetry's capacity to transport its audience to another psychological place and its claim to offer insight into the truths of this existence, the "ecstasy and truth" of his title. Homer himself fails, ultimately, to square these two principles, and Halliwell arrestingly ties Homeric poetics to the figure of the Muse, an embodiment of poetry transcendent and beautiful, but representing a resolution only truly achievable on a divine plane, and only glimpsed by mortals. 
However we choose to think about it, as the Muse, or as a peculiar sensation in the pit of the stomach, what the Greeks were reaching for, in Halliwell's paraphrase of Plato, was "something in poetry which resists fully rational analysis by anyone".


from Frances Wilson's review of Belinda Jack's The Woman Reader:

There are hundreds of visual depictions of the woman reading, all of which explore the strange dissolution of time and space--what Michel de Certeau calls the neither "here nor there"--that occurs when we are lost in a book but, as Jack reminds us, the male reader transported by his text is rarely the occasion for a painting. The reading reverie is a state associated only with femininity. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The ART of Modeling

My very good friend Andrew Howdle, who works from Leeds, UK, has a beautiful portfolio of photographs and drawings out at Dimension Magazine. Titled cannily "The ART of Modeling," the work is as much about seeing the model Arnold Aziza as showing him off. "Arrival," a professional-looking fashion shot, reminds us of the various meanings of the key word in the title: "Model (N) a new system of seeing (1593); an exemplar (1693); a person drawn by an artist (1873); (V) to wear clothes for a fashion display (1904).

The work looks better than much of what GH and I saw in Chelsea during our gallery hop yesterday. Alexander and Bonin showed the "Airmail Paintings" of Eugenio Dittborn, a Chilean artist. According to the press release, the collages on lightweight fabrics that could be folded and mailed to friends circumvented the constraints of working under Pinochet's dictatorship. The format was formally and politically resonant but the collages themselves lacked visual interest. Another politically-engaged artist was Ahmed Alsoudani showing eight new paintings at Haunch of Venison. Alsoudani grew up in Baghdad, escaped to Syria during the Persian Gulf War and then obtained asylum in the United States. His surrealistic paintings of monsters, amputated limbs and machine parts were very much in the Western tradition. The interest of his work, to my mind, seemed to lie more in his personal history than in his artistic achievement.

At Andrew Edlin Gallery, the curators brought together an eclectic assemblage of art associated with the empyrean. The title of the show "Collectors of Skies" came from a short story by French art critic Champfleury (1820–1889). Of the 18 artists, I liked best the two works there by Henry Darger. He is very odd. A true outsider's art.

Matthew Marks Gallery displayed the work of Tony Smith in two separate shows. The first, "Jackson Pollock & Tony Smith: Sculpture: An Exhibition on the Centennial of Their Births," comprised works created by both artists over a single weekend in Smith's backyard, just a few weeks before Pollock's death in a car crash. I thought the sculptures, mostly of discarded concrete pieces, were slight. In contrast, the second show highlighted a monumental piece by Smith called "Source." Made of steel painted black, the massive form had faceted sides, with a limb projected out like a fashion runway. The wonder was the sheer weight of the work; little else held the attention.

Andreas Slominski's show "Sperm," at Metro Pictures, started well and then lost its way. The first work  "Sperm of a Black Man and a White Man" displayed two drip-dried stains on the wall, one yellower than the other. Which is which? In the same room, bales of hay were stacked in such a way as to create steps. "Sperm of the Pilots," seen on the wall above the hay-steps, played with the ideas of take-off and a roll in the hay. The other rooms, splashed with the sperm of other animals, were far less interesting. They were still more provocative than the new paintings and collages of Richard Hawkins at Greene Naftali. The latter were poorly painted and, like some of the other shows, traded on literary references and name-dropping.

More paintings this year than last, but none of them very good. GH remarked on the lack of ideas in American art right now.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Julith Jedamus's poem "Belle Tout"

Belle Tout, also the title of the second poem in Jedamus's book The Swerve, is a decommissioned lighthouse located on a cliff at Beachy Head, East Sussex. The poem opens by describing it as "Beautiful, futile," adjectives which immediately make me associate the lighthouse with Art. Why is the Art-Lighthouse beautiful and futile? Because it gives "a flash, then darkness." Its beauty lies in its transient brilliance, its futility lies in its incapacity to provide steady illumination. It is also "Cliff-/bound, cliff-threatened." High Art must risk falling over the edge: the cliff is its natural environment. So far, so good.

Then the poem makes a leap that I find hard to follow. The poet, who has been addressing the lighthouse directly in the second person, describes its face as "minatory," or threatening. It led men "not to safety but their graves." This accusation is accurate historically, for Belle Tout, situated so high that mists too-often covered it and the cliff-edge obscured its light from ships, was a bad, bad lighthouse. That was why another lighthouse was built at the bottom of the cliff and Belle Tout was decomissioned. But in what sense does Art lead men not to safety but their graves? The poem is unclear on this point, but insists on the deliberate fatality by asking the lighthouse, "who could have guessed your motive?" Now, neither lighthouses nor literature can have motives. The question raises more questions, such as whose motive is the poem talking about? A writer? The poem convicts the lighthouse of even greater intention, for "Lives/ were your trophy." So this combative lighthouse kills to display its scalps. If the white cliffs in the previous poem are too "unconscious," this lighthouse is overly conscious: it has a motive and a preening vanity. At this point, I am beginning to doubt my own equation of lighthouse and Art. 

The poem goes on to take away even the beauty first ascribed to the lighthouse.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxBelow, waves wound
xxxthemselves on the shingle, and white cliffs rise,
xxxcancelling your beauty.

So both waves and cliffs, natural energies and formations, are superior in beauty to the lighthouse. The poet thinks "How fortunate" that the lighthouse was moved back inland from the crumbling cliff-edge. Fortunate for the lighthouse, of course, but also fortunate for sailors, who were no longer betrayed into crashing rocks, and for nature-lovers who no longer need to bide the competition of the lighthouse with the white cliffs and waves. 

"Blind and disarmed," the lighthouse now "guard[s] the green endangered downs." This concluding claim is highly ambiguous. If the lighthouse is "blind and disarmed," how can it guard the downs? Or is it only good for guarding the downs, and not the cliffs? But the downs are "endangered"; surely they require a better guard than one that is blind and disarmed! Furthermore, the lighthouse held human lives as nothing more than war trophy, so how could it be trusted with guarding the downs? The best interpretation that I can come up with is that the lighthouse, now re-deployed as a popular bed-and-breakfast and a famous landmark for filming, will ensure that the surrounding downs will be left untouched. It is now designated as Heritage and so the surrounding views are protected along with it. But the poem does not allude to these new uses of the lighthouse. It assumes extra-textual knowledge. If this is indeed what the poet intends, then that assumption, to my mind, is a flaw.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Vertical Roads

With EN, I saw the dance performance "Vertical Road" at the Rose Theater on Wednesday. Choreographed by London-born Akram Khan, to music by Nitin Sawhney, the performance was disappointing. It began with someone behind the curtain shaking it and it ended with the curtain falling down, an act of revelation that just did not materialize. The movements were uninspired, at one point featuring a dancer moving two others around like marionettes by waving his hand over their bodies. Supposedly inspired by the Sufi tradition and the Persian poet Rumi, it slotted some whirling dervish moves into a grammar dictated by modern dance. As EN put it, the production exoticized itself. The eight dancers, assembled "from across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East," was a politically correct version of multi-culturalism. The production was an object lesson in how not to do fusion.


The Takács Quartet was serenely brilliant last night at Alice Tully. In superbly balanced and blended playing, they brought out the concise wit of Haydn's String Quartet in D major, Op. 76, No. 5 (1797). I did not care much for Britten's String Quartet No. 2 in C major (1945), but the group played it beautifully. Edward Dusinberre, the first violinist explained the allusions to Purcell in the first and third movements and to Bach in the second. The quartet obligingly played the opening measures of the Purcell and Bach, and then the Britten, for comparison. After intermission, French Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin joined them to play Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor (1940). WL remarked on his shading of even the softest notes. He had some of the qualities that WL admires in Glenn Gould, with none of the latter's eccentricities.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Julith Jedamus's "The White Cliff"

RB and I are reading Julith Jedamus's The Swerve together over at PFFA, and posting our comments on the same thread.

Born in Boulder, Colorado, Jedamus moved to the UK and has lived in London for sixteen years. It's fitting for her debut collection to open with a poem that tries to situate her American speaker in the English landscape. "The White Cliff," as of Dover, is as iconic of England as Mount Rushmore is of the United States, at least since Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach." It is, however, the physical feature that one sees while boating over from France, not while arriving by boat over the Atlantic. It is certainly not the Heathrow airfields, the more likely sight to greet the eyes of a new immigrant of the end of the twentieth century. As such, the white cliff is more literary than literal, more symbolic than actual. This literariness is appropriate because the poem is about the symbolism of England. The form of the poem also highlights the literary stakes: the poem is an English sonnet.

After seeing the white cliff as the "face" of England, the poem compares it to a series of other things:

the book read backwards, the sugar-loaf,
the main, the high plucked forehead of a queen,
the cracked wall of a citadel.

All these comparisons display conventional American ideas of England. England is the land of high literature, the country with a long past, the command of high seas, the monarchy, the former empire. The poem's speaker says that "half" of her believed these images of England, but "half" of her did not. The believing half walked not on furze but on "furzy crown," and "felt" metaphoric rock instead of seeing the rock for what it was. This half of Jedamus compared the cliffs to lace, "festooned with fissures," in an instance of "gaudy similes."

The unbelieving half wished for the "literal eyes" of a gull that the speaker saw rising above the cliffs at sunrise. I find this wish quite remarkable for a poet to announce. Surely poetry aims to see better through its metaphor-making powers. The gull in flight may be a pretty figure for poetic vision but does a poet really want to see the world as a gull does? A cliff is a nesting ground, a fish is a meal? I am taking this over-literally, of course, but my fanciful mistake is prompted by the word "literal."

I think "literal eyes" must be glossed by what comes next, for the poem's speaker then thinks of her "rebellious ancestors" who left England for America. The connection is made through the parallel structure of "and I wished for its literal eyes" and "and I thought of/my rebellious ancestors." But the parallel hides a sleight-of-hand. When the English left for America, they might be Dissenters, but they thought of themselves as Englishmen and women still, not as rebels against the Crown. The American rebellion came much later, not at the point of immigration. Jedamus could be referring to her particular set of ancestors who might have rebelled and fled, but the poem seems to imply a broader category of English immigrants to America.

These rebellious ancestors left their home for "a more austere one." I gloss the gull's "literal eyes" with the "austere" hopes of the migrants. To see literally then is not to see non-metaphorically, but to see with greater stringency, a perspective that Jedamus has inherited from her rebellious forebears. It is a wish to see past historical cliches and gaudy similes to the thing itself. This kind of vision reminds me of "no ideas but in things," the line by William Carlos Williams, whose paternal grandmother, like Jedamus's rebellious ancestors, migrated from England to America.

The poem closes with another remarkable line. After Jedamus's ancestors had left England,

the cliffs, unconscious, shone and shone...

I read "unconscious" as unconscious of the immigrants' departure. To read the word as general unconsciousness is to empty England of people altogether. But what does the shining mean? Does England continue shining because it does not miss those who have left? That would make for a bleak conclusion for the returning Anglo-American. Or does the unconscious shining of the cliffs attract the Anglo-American to return, perhaps to write on these white cliffs, as on the blank page? The conclusion does tease a reader out of thought, and herein, perhaps, lies its powerful appeal.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Paul Lewis plays last Schubert piano sonatas

The air in Alice Tully last night was thick with anticipation. The concert, of the three piano sonatas that Schubert wrote in the last summer of his young life, was sold out. Paul Lewis strode onto the stage, bowed, sat down and immediately struck out the first notes of Sonata in C minor, D. 958. The articulation of the phrases was crisp but not chilly; sensitive but not sentimental. Billed as a poet of the piano, he displayed the expressiveness suggested by the moniker but also a quality less commonly associated with it, that of intelligence. Modeled on Beethoven's sonatas, D. 958 is heroic in its aspiration. Lewis gave its grandeur its due. I was holding my breath throughout the performance.

Sonata in A major, D. 959, the next work on the program, was played even better. The restlessness, the anger, the resolution of the music spoke more clearly than D. 958 of an individual and refined personality. I heard Schubert hesitate and think, choose and continue. Paul Lewis was playing not just with his fingers but with his whole body. The slow second movement was especially moving. The applause at the end was loud and warm. We all knew that we had heard a very special performance.

After the intermission, however, something in the air changed. Was the anticipation of what is reckoned to be Schubert's piano masterpiece, Sonata in B-flat major, D.960, pitched so high that it had nowhere else to go but down? The playing certainly felt different to me: at once too reverential and too technical. The music sounded familiar, not refreshed. It lacked the spontaneity of the earlier playing. Was the pianist too restrained? The last movement should be filled with a Dionysian joy, but it was subdued and controlled, and so the repetitions sounded tendentious and boring. It was a disquieting end to what was a brilliant first half. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On Completism

TLS October 12 2012

from Graeme Richardson's review of Elizabeth Jennings: The Collected Poems, edited by Emma Mason:

A weighty Collected Poems can be many things: a monument to greatness, like a Pyramid; or a record of significance, like a Presidential Library. It may be the retiring poet's carriage clock; it may be their concrete overcoat. A poet's complete works, handily gathered, should ensure they continue to be read. But the typical Collected might not help with that: unless every piece was a masterpiece, the good can be buried in the indifferent, repetition can dilute what in small doses is powerful and original, and what was a well-practiced craft starts to look automatic. 
Completism might be justified if a poet lived so tumultous a life that changes of place or mind might need to be tracked. That is not the case with Elizabeth Jennings. She was born in 1926 in Lincolnshire, her family moved to Oxford in 1932, and in that city she spent most of the rest of her life. She never married or had children; she was troubled and repelled by sex. Her Catholic upbringing could be blamed for that; but she remained a faithful Catholic throughout her life. Her faith was inseparable from her writing, and is often its subject. In early adulthood she worked in oxford City Library, and then in publishing. For 1960 onwards, her mental and physical health began to break down. For a time, she was institutionalized in a mental hospital: but the poems she wrote never sensationalized her illness. With a typical generosity, she often wrote of other patients, or her nurses. She became an alcoholic. In later life, she had a small income from reviewing, from her poetry (which sold well) and from the sale of her manuscripts to American universities. But her appearance was borderline-destitute; she lived in cluttered chaos, among thousands of toys and trinkets.... She died in 2001, and was buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, only a couple of miles from where she grew up. It is not a wide-ranging or especially eventful biography. 
It may be, then, that the tribute of completism could be paid to a writing career grand in scope and ambition. But Elizabeth Jennings had modest aims and a shrewd understanding of her limitations. She returned again and again to the same subjects--frustrated love, family conflict, craft and art, living by faith--with the same sort of negative theology.... Despite some experimentation in the middle of her career, she wrote mostly in traditional forms, with conventional rhyme schemes and metres.... She rarely wrote a poem longer than fifty lines, but her reticence serves to beckon the reader closer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Meringoff Awards

The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers announces four awards of $2000 each, in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and high school student writing. Only one entry is accepted from each person. All entries should be previously unpublished. The entry must be postmarked not later than December 1st 2012. The winner will be announced towards the end of December, 2012. There is no entry fee for current members of The Association of Literary  Scholars, Critics, and Writers. For everyone else membership in the ALSCW is required, which is $32 for students and $37 for all others — all members will receive the annual three issues of our literary journal/magazine Literary Imagination, and our newsletter, as well as being able to attend our conferences and local gatherings—see ALSCW website ( for details about how to join the ALSCW.

For the Meringoff Poetry award, each entry can be one poem, or a group of poems that add up to no more than 150 lines. The judge for the poetry is Greg Delanty.
For the Meringoff Fiction award, each entry should be one story, or a chapter of a longer work of no more than 30 pages double spaced.
For the Meringoff Nonfiction award, each entry should be one nonfiction piece, or a chapter of a longer work of no more than 30 pages double spaced.
For the Meringoff Student Writing award, each entry should be one essay of no fewer than 7 and no more than 30 pages double spaced. The essays should be nominated by the teacher for whom it was written. The teacher, not the student, should be or become a member of the ALSCW.

All entries will be judged anonymously. With each entry please include one copy with your name, email address, postal address and phone number and another copy without your name and contact information.

All Submissions should be postmarked not later than December 1, 2012

Stephen J. Meringoff Literary Contests
Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers
650 Beacon St. Suite 510
Boston MA 02215
United States

Monday, October 15, 2012

What to do in and around NYC

The last three weekends were busy ones. S and R drove up from D.C. to stay with us overnight on September 29. We went up to the roof of the Met and enjoyed the glittering autumnal view there. Then we had a very nice dinner at le Paris, which I strongly recommend.

Columbus Day weekend began on Friday with drinks with DW. We hadn't seen each other for a long time, and the time at Suite Bar passed very pleasantly, so pleasantly that we both wondered afterwards why we were not meeting more often. Then on Saturday, dinner with P and J at Spring Natural Kitchen on the UWS because J wanted to try its organic cooking. Dinner was a success. It was so easy to be with them, so relaxing. 

On Sunday G and I went to Philly for the day. We both loved the new Barnes Foundation building, designed by Tod Williams. I was mesmerized by the Matisse dance mural but liked "The Joy of Life" much less than I thought I would. I had the unwanted feeling that the Picasso works in the collection were stronger than the Matisse paintings. The happier discovery here was how much I liked Cezanne's portraits. Their somber backgrounds spoke of an essential seriousness that I found quite moving. This was an art not calculated to please. Barnes considered Renoir, among all the modern painters he collected, as his god. After looking at so many paintings by the French master, I stil did not understand what Barnes saw in him. Renoir is very pretty but not godlike. The way the paintings were arranged on the wall according to Barnes's idea of "assemblages" felt overly didactic to me. I kept hearing the schoolmaster's voice in my ear as I moved from room to room. 

Philly celebrated National Coming Out Day in a more Dionysian manner than does New York. We did not know it until we hit the street fair in the gay neighborhood. Every bar threw an outdoor party of sorts. We had a drink at Woody's, browsed at Giovanni's Room, ate at the Cuban restaurant next door called Mixto, and then, after trying a few other places, returned to bustling Woody's. It was easy to catch a cab to the train station and then we were back by Amtrak. After restting on Columbus Day, G voyaged into the New World when he started on his new job with clodagh the next day. 

This last weekend, I went to Boston to attend the council meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers. The ALSCW, which is open to everyone, promotes the reading and writing of works of literature. I met JB the outgoing president and SS the incoming president. SS is organizing the annual confence at Athens, Georgia, next April. For that conference I am putting together a panel session on the translation of Asian literature. The meeting was held at the Editorial Institute of Boston University. After the meeting, I met YTW for dinner at Chinatown, before taking the Megabus home. 

The next day, Sunday, we went on a hike with R, L and S. They drove us out to Arthur W. Butler Memorial Sanctuary, near the town of Mount Kisco, where we had brunch first. Little S did very well on the hike, being in high spirits throughout. Maple and pine trees over 225 acres. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Writing "Straits Times" Part 2

Once in a while the paper would trumpet that a news article was by its own correspondent. Most of the time, however, the paper paraphrased other news sources, such as the Evening Standard or the China Morning Post, and cited them by name. In "A Peculiar Ban in China.--Cigarettes and Torches" (March 11, 1929, 17), the paper quoted directly a correspondent of the North China Daily News. So my quotation of The Straits Times is really a quotation of a quotation: another way of looking at the writing of history.

So far (Oct 1928 - Mar 1929) the news articles were not organized in any sections like International, Home or Sports. On page 17, news about China might be juxtaposed with an opinion on the English public school; a review of a new edition of the Bible might find itself next to municipal news. The front pages of the paper were given over to advertisements completely. Commercial and shipping statistics were given prominent place.

The initials in a person's name I count as separate words. H.M.S. I counted as one word, since it is a title of sorts.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Started Writing "Straits Times"

Last weekend I started work on my book based on the prime number of 17. It will be a history of Singapore written according to Oulipian rules. I take the 17th word on the 17th page of The Straits Times and put the words together to form a poem. The Straits Times (ST) is Singapore's main English daily broadsheet newspaper. It was started by an Armenian, Catchick Moses, and launched on 15 July 1845 as an eight-page weekly. Since the earliest edition of the paper had only eight pages, I cannot begin my history at the beginning of the paper. I will begin, instead, in media res, so to speak, not at the so-called founding of Singapore by Stamford Raffles, not at the proclamanation of independence from the British, nor at the establishment of a newspaper by Moses. The beginning will be owned by no one, except accident.

But the beginning of my history is not without logic. Of course it made, and still makes, sense to publish a newspaper in multiples of four pages. Two sheets of newsprint give eight pages, the size of the earliest editions. Later, ST published in a cycle of three days: 16 pages for two days, then 20 or more pages for the third day. In this context, 17 is inconveniently indivisible, not only by the factor of four but by any other factor, except one and itself. During this period when ST published in this pattern, there is only one Page 17 in every three editions of the daily paper, and so my history will necessarily be incomplete, even by its idiosyncratic rules. A poem catches only nine words from a month's worth of newspapers.

I footnote every word in the poem with the title of the news article, the date of the newspaper and the page. In each footnote, I also include a quotation from the article that appeals to me. The quotation is not an attempt to explain the word in the poem or the headline of the article, at least not in any direct manner. First of all, the quotation is chosen for some striking detail or witty formulation or a tone of voice. I am actually very moved by the quotation of perishable journalistic copy. Personal taste is involved in the selection of quotation, and becomes one sign of the personal in this largely impersonal writing project. Another sign is the anonymous voice from the past that I quote.

Only secondarily can the quotation be compared in an analogous fashion with the word in the poem. The word in the poem will always hold a synecdochic relation with the news article, since it comes from the article, but sometimes it may bear a metaphoric or summarizing relation to the article as well. The footnoting of every word in the poem is, of course, a parody of traditional scholarship. The resulting poem looks like nonsense and so seems to cry out for explication. Only the form, but not the substance, of explanation is given, but the parody does not quite erase our human need for understanding.

I expect my own understanding of this project to broaden as I drill into the National Library Board archives. Right now I am pleased with the difference between Book 11 and Book 17. The poems in Book 11 are top-heavy with title and epigraph. The poems in Book 17, on the other hand, are untitled; they are weighted from below by footnotes. The former is lyrical, the latter objective. In between them is my edition of 13 Singapore poets, a step in the process of the removal of self from the writing.

Friday, October 05, 2012

"Wisdom in Withdrawal"

Tara Safronoff reviews Michelle Cahill's book of poems Vishvarūpa in Kin Poetry Journal. Having read the book, I find the review fair-minded in its judgments and alert to the liminal spaces in the poetry.

These poems seek wisdom in withdrawal, in the near-absence of self, in a retreat from the world (in a dream, in a poem) that allows one to see things in their fullness.... More.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Stoics and Their Critics

TLS September 28 2012

from Noel Malcolm's review of Christopher Brooke's Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and political thought from Lipsius to Rousseau:

If you were an educated person in early modern Europe, some elements of Stoicism were in your intellectual bloodstream. You might have possessed only the vaguest ideas about the original Stoic philosophers Zeno or Chrysippus, but the works of Cicero and Seneca had been drummed into you in the schoolroom, and much of the stock wisdom of the age, circulating in commonplaces and sententiae,  was drawn directly or indirectly from their writings. Virtue, not pleasure, provides real happiness; a virtuous life is lived in accordance with reason; true virtue has no need of external goods; the wise and virtuous man is truly free; and so on.


The Stoics' dismissal of pity (as a weakness and indeed a vice) was hard to square with Christian ethics, and their cult of suicide was quite unacceptable. The notion that all vices were equally bad had to be either explained away or rejected. But perhaps the most persistent and far-reaching criticism was the one first expressed by St Augustine: at the heart of Stoic ethics was an exorbitant belief in the power of human reason and the ability of the wise man to perfect himself.


But perhaps the most telling anti-Stoic argument, to modern eyes, was the most simple one. This commonsensical view was summed up by Nicolas Malebranche as follows:

I grant that reason teaches us that we ought to suffer exile without sadness, but this reason teaches us that we should not feel pain when our arm is cut off.... Experience sufficiently shows us that things are not as reason says they should be, and it is ridiculous to philosophise against experience.

Or, as David Hume put it: the Stoics exhbited the "Folly of the Ancients" by engaging in "the great philosophic Endeavour after Perfection, which, under the Pretext of reforming Prejudices and Errors, strikes at all the most endearing Sentiments of the Heart, and all the most useful Byasses and Instincts, which can govern a human Creature". Reading those words, one hears a pre-echo of the great debate between prefectionist rationalists and fallibilist conservatives that continue, in some forms, to this day.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Thow Wei Xin on the Merlion anthology

Just read Thow Wei Xin's 2010 review of Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems, edited by Edwin Thumboo and Yeow Kai Chai. He made many just comments on individual poems, but what was more striking was the call for deeper exploration to establish who we are.

Ultimately, Reflecting on the Merlion is perhaps the most useful for collecting the previously scattered poems on the Merlion in a single volume, thus serving as a guide to what has gone before, revealing which sentiments and expressions have become conventional and clichéd, and encouraging future poets to think more deeply and originally about issues of identity and how the Merlion—problematic, yet emblematic—can participate in such considerations. 
Or, to borrow one last time from the Greeks: don't just be Penelope picking at a shroud. Be Telemachus: make your sacrifices, pour your libations to the everlasting gods, and set forth on deeper waters to establish who you are.

He sent me a link to a personal note that he wrote as a follow-up to the review.  There he points out how often Singapore poets castigate the masses for being soul-less. It ends:

But rather, if the government has already created an atmostphere where the individual is sacrificed or goaded to ideology and nation, then the poet, in confronting this, should remember the citizen with a measure of compassion and understanding rather than pity and scorn.