May 21, 2015
View of Malakoff Hauts de Seine_______________________
b. May 21, 1844
Bach in Autumn
Jean-Paul de Dadelsen
translated by Marilyn Hacker
Once I knew days spent walking, the elms numbered toward evening
From milestone to milestone beneath a chromatic sky;
At night the inn where liver and fresh pork dumplings were steaming.
Once on free days I would walk all the way to Hamburg to hear the old master.
Handel had gone off in a post-chaise
To amuse the king of Hanover; Scarlatti wanders through Spanish feast-days.
They are happy.
But what use are the organ’s pedals, if not
To mark the indispensable way?
On this wooden path, worn like a staircase, daily, whether
Under the Easter trumpets or the paired Christmas oboes,
Under the rainbow of heaven’s and human voices
From milestone to milestone repeating my earthly voyage, I followed
The progression of the double bass.
Above the horizontal road that merchants take, not without risk,
To bargain in the shops of Cracow
For wigs, perfumes, pelts from the stalls of Novgorod,
A lark soars alone in the holy vertical.
Before the wingspread soul in its Sun’s wake
Can spring forth beyond the tomb, the rules, the law,
This earth must be learned in all its difficulty.
b. May 21, 1897
Taking a Measure of Happiness
David Beer reviews The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being, by William Davies
... Put simply, the question is whether happiness should be understood as being measurable, that is to say, that it can be captured in bodily responses and brain functions, or if we should think of it as something transcendent and intangible. For Davies, neither of these is likely to very gratifying – although, given the focus of the book, he understandably seems a little less concerned by the later. The important point for Davies is that both of these approaches simply ‘flip the same dualism’. His point is that in the case of the happiness industry – an industry built to promote our happiness, to limit our sadness, and to make us more profitable – the more subjective, mystic and ethereal accounts of happiness simply exists to ‘plug’ any ‘gaps’ left by more objective, scientific or neurological accounts. Some other approach is needed, he argues, one that is based on listening and a more political and sociological understanding of happiness and the conditions that facilitate or erode it. The case he makes is compelling. The book describes, in detail, an industry that has emerged that is designed to measure, manipulate and control our emotions. The examples roll from the pages, and the scale of the reach of this kind of economic behaviourism is startling. As Davies tellingly notes, ‘the current neuromarketing frontiers of behaviourism make John B. Watson look positively innocent by comparison’.
, by Joanna Scutts
The Empathetic Camera: Frank Norris and the Invention of Film Editing
McTeague’s depiction of an early commercial film audience is a scene that fits queerly into the rest of the story, as a strange foreboding of things to come. In McTeague’s incredulity, his mother-in-law’s distrust of the film apparatus as a kind of trick, and his wife Trina’s enchantment at the device, the reader gets an encapsulated view of the different responses to one of the most violently modern events of the time: a trip to the cinema, to see a past reality unfold as if in real time before people who were slightly unable to believe in this reality. This is part of Norris’ grand project, throughout the small but thematically consistent body of work he produced from the age of twenty-nine to his death three years later at thirty-two: a depiction of the everyday shock of new media and industrialization, the concept of capturing time and presenting its fictional form as the truth, through the film apparatus. Even if the story of audience members fainting at the arrival of the train on-screen is, as many suspect, a fiction, the reason for its existence as lore stems from a very real disjuncture, part of the premise of the industrial age. How can the present reality hold a living document of the past? How can a unit of lost time make such a realistic reappearance in the present?
Norris grew up inside of the changing urban landscapes of Chicago and San Francisco, and made it his purpose, near the end of his life, to track these changes politically in his fiction. Yet his artistic development as a painter, a journalist, and finally a prose writer, was defined by his relationship to the visual world, and the changing ways of interpreting that world that were growing up around him during the time in which he lived.
In Norris’ 1897 essay, “Fiction is Selection”, he argues that writers are editors more than inventors. The job of “writer and mosaicist alike” is “to select and combine.” It is from the rough-hewn design in a writer’s brain that a story must be whittled, for nothing can be created that is not already, in some form, hidden in the folds of memory. “Imagination!” He writes. “There is no such thing; you can’t imagine anything that you have not already seen and observed.”
Film’s greatest strength was, from the start, its ability to emotionally manipulate viewers on a mass scale. It spoke to one as easily and as powerfully as it spoke to millions, controlling viewers seamlessly and guiding them toward a forgone conclusion that he believes he has come upon naturally, by an organic, empathetic process. Filmic storytelling was, in even its earliest manifestations, a way of transforming the frighteningly unpredictable human body into a predictable set of responses.
If, in the first quarter of the 20th century, the camera as mechanism stood for pure truth, editing was selection, manipulation, violence. If film as footage stood for impartiality, editing allowed for the presence of an author. Editing was the true artistic aspect of a mode of storytelling that was still too new to be considered an art form. Editing gave film what it desperately needed to become art in the eyes of its audience: a point of view.
Footbridge at Passy
May 20, 2015
Ostashevsky and Timerman's Pirating-Parroting of Language
Ostashevsky is himself an accomplished translator of Russian, but it is his original American poetry that seems ready-made to discuss the the multiple mutating filters of translation, or, to paraphrase Nabokov, the re-Englishing of Russian re-versions of an English re-telling of a Russian memory. His poetry’s battery of English sound effects—which generate surprise even from the most potentially cringe-inducing end rhymes—seem to retain with them a Russian bemusement at unnoted or ignored English assonances, while at the same time perhaps attempting to restore the “bad rhyme” principles of Alexander Vvedensky, a forgotten Russian poet who he’s translated. And the cross-cultural pollination extends to high and low culture, with signifiers of intellectual, philosophical, and mathematical erudition remolded into American vernacular idioms like rap, Dr. Seussisms, borscht-belt comedy and elephant jokes. Appropriately enough, the epigram that heads the collection Iterature, in his poem “Autobiography”—“structaque sunt nostris barbara verba modis”—is a plaint written by Ovid about his attempts (no longer extant) to write in Getic (the language of his place of exile, corresponding with present day Romania, but which may have more generalized affiliations with the “gothic”—a productive engine of translational oddities, as we’ll see in future posts.) The longer quote reads something like “What shame, that I write this little book in a Gothic tongue! What barbarous words have been built into our style!” Metamorphosis, exile, drift . . . the translational gothic creates not merely new texts, but also new beings in process, who are untranslatable, or at least untranslatable back to their origins.
Le lilas blanc
Slavoj Zizek: The Order of the Real
Reading Zizek is like floating around in a vacuum of endless repetitions that seem to never find a resting place. I sometimes shift from Zizek to Wallace Stevens to remind myself that “the imperfect is our paradise” (from The Poems of our Climate):
The last stanza exemplifies the work of Slavoj Zizek who admits that words alone are uncertain good – not as in William Butler Yeats. When Zizek introduces his concept of the Gap we should understand that it is not what we might think it is: a Void between us (For-itself) and the proverbial Thing-in-itself. Which is the Idealist prognosis and Kant and his tradition as received in most academic scholarship of the last two hundred years. A move Quentin Meillassoux in his book After Finitude has marked by the appellation of correlationism, etc. No. For Zizek the Gap is the Real, the screen that distorts all our views onto reality.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
…the Real is a gap in the order of Being (reality) and a gap in the symbolic order? The reason there is no contradiction is that “reality” is transcendentally constituted by the symbolic order, so that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein). In the common transcendental view, there is some kind of Real-in-itself (like the Kantian Ding an sich) which is then formed or “constituted” into reality by the subject; due to the subject’s finitude, we cannot totalize reality, reality is irreducibly inconsistent, “antinomic,” and so forth— we cannot gain access to the Real, which remains transcendent. The gap or inconsistency thus concerns only our symbolically constituted reality, not the Real in itself.
So the gap concerns not the Real as it is in itself, but with our symbolic order of language that tries to constitute our universe of meaning we call reality. Yet, against any Idealist reading of this, of the notion of the subject’s performativity and creativity (““symbolic construction of reality”), Zizek will rather expose another truth of the ontological “collateral damage” of symbolic operations: the process of symbolization is inherently thwarted, doomed to fail, and the Real is this immanent failure of the symbolic.
Someone is writing a poem. Words are being set down in a force field. It’s as if the words themselves have magnetic charges; they veer together or in polarity, they swerve against each other. Part of the force field, the charge, is the working history of the words themselves, how someone has known them, used them, doubted and relied on them in a life. Part of the movement among the words belongs to sound—the guttural, the liquid, the choppy, the drawn-out, the breathy, the visceral, the downlight. The theater of any poem is a collection of decisions about space and time—how are these words to lie on the page, with what pauses, what headlong motion, what phrasing, how can they meet the breath of the someone who comes along to read them? And in part the field is charged by the way images swim into the brain through written language: swan, kettle, icicle, ashes, scab, tamarack, tractor, veil, slime, teeth, freckle.
Adrienne Rich, Someone is Writing a Poem
A musicological poetics
Jeff T. Johnson
Trouble Songs: An invocation
Language is not only a means for saying, language is what we are saying. Record, we say, and we mean album, or we mean vinyl, or we mean history. Let the record show. That we say record and not CD, tape, album, or document is integral to what we are saying. We place ourselves in history, and we place history in ourselves when we use particular language.
History exists as Trouble Song and is troubled by its representation. Distinctions between Trouble Songs collapse into versions, iterations, variations, and interpretations. Just so, trouble is inescapable, and can be only partially elaborated. To speak the word “trouble” is to invoke trouble. The “Trouble Songs” project is such an invocation and elaboration. When we say “trouble,” we refer to the history of trouble whether or not we have it in mind. When we sing trouble, we sing (with) history. We sing history here; we summon trouble.
A Trouble Song is a complaint, a grievance, an aside, a come-on, a confession, an admission, a resignation, a plea. It’s an invitation — to sorrow, frustration, darkness. It’s part of a conversation, or it’s a soliloquy, and it’s often an apostrophe. The listener overhears the song, with sympathy. The song is meant for someone else, someone dead or gone. The singer doesn’t care who hears, and the song is a dare. Or it’s a false wager — to speak trouble is to summon trouble, but it’s already here.
Trouble is loss — or the threat of loss, which is the appearance of loss. A Trouble Song is impossible speech; it speaks about the inability to speak. Trouble is a lack of what once was possessed, a desire in absence, an absence in desire. Trouble is the presence of absence, a present of loss. It is impotence and despair, but a Trouble Song is not a negation or a denial. Its admission is its invitation. Trouble is spoken not only in resignation and exasperation, but also in defiance. Trouble is spoken as a challenge to death and defeat. In a Trouble Song, there is history, but there is no past — trouble is here and now. Which is to say, there is history, but it is not (the) past.
Plage de la Vignassa
b. May 20, 1856
All the philosophy that's not fit to print
“Philosophy that’s not fit to print” denotes philosophical insights that do not fit easily into contemporary units of printed philosophy: the chapter, the article, the presentation. One of the exciting things about blogs is the way they add a new medium to the cocktail napkin, dinner conversation, and posted letter. The ideas expressed in good blog posts (as well as cocktail napkins, dinner conversation, and posted letters) sometimes do end up repackaged as chapters and journal articles. But their value doesn’t rest on that. You might have an interesting idea from teaching a class, reading a book, trying to make sense of something in popular culture, or from reading another blog, and it might not fit well with existing print dialectic for a variety of reasons. It may just concern topics that don’ t mesh well. It might not be weighty enough. Or it might shade into other discursive practices such as criticism (in the sense Noel Carroll describes), satire, raw appreciation, literary excursion, or a little pithy insight the defense of which would be short by the standards of Analysis. The insight might concern history, art, sports, music, food, leisure, trains, death, heartache, decline, enrichment, moral rot and recovery, the fact that nobody much uses the word “akimbo” any more, the sad fate of animals in various space programs, etc. etc. etc. etc.
May 15, 2015
Sun in an Empty Room
d, May 15, 1967
Lost in Translation: Proust and Scott Moncrieff
William C. Carter
Although Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff’s translation of À la recherche du temps perdu is considered by many journalists and writers to be the best translation of any foreign work into the English language, his choice of Remembrance of Things Past as the general title alarmed the seriously ill Proust and misled generations of readers as to the novelist’s true intent. It wasn’t until 1992 that the title was finally changed to In Search of Lost Time. “Remembrance of Things Past” is a beautiful line from William Shakespeare’s sonnet 30, but it conveys an idea that is really the opposite of Proust’s own. When Scott Moncrieff chose this title, he did not know, of course, where Proust was going with the story and did not correctly interpret the title, which might indeed be taken to indicate a rather passive attempt by an elderly person to recollect days gone by._______________________
Proust’s theory of memory rejects the notion that we can simply sit and quietly resurrect the past in its true vividness through what he called voluntary memory. When we attempt to do this, we find that it doesn’t work very well. We remember very little and often only in a haphazard and rather bland way. On the other hand, Proust’s title should be taken to suggest a different approach: the Narrator’s search (recherche means both search and research in French) is an active, arduous quest in which the past must be rediscovered—largely through what Proust called involuntary memory, as demonstrated in the famous madeleine scene—then analyzed and understood, and finally, if your ambition is to preserve it in writing, transposed and recreated in a book....
from The Purification Festival in April_______________________
with translation from Cham/Vietnamese & note by Alec Schachner
Life no longer hesitates, no more wavering
but slow too slow as if no possible way to be slower. He feels the
language of the hymns spill into millions of millions of cells
living or dead
overflow and stir them awake never to let them sleep again all
the millions and millions of sprouts are stretching their shoulders
to raise their heads.
Steps stomping more sturdily. I see – more firmly
the world fragmented and rejoined by an urgent breath
the fire at its last gasp.
He is cast out freed from the flames – his body covered with wounds
all the world wounded – only the smile untouched
the bliss untouched
millions of millions of water drops fly down to extinguish a surviving
spark straining to flicker one last time
extinguish misery, hopelessness on the faces. I see.
On the far side of elation
Resilience untouched they begin to take root once again.
Lady on a Tram Station
d. May 15, 1935
If you spend much time in libraries these days -- wandering the stacks, that is, rather than sitting at a terminal -- you might have seen other long rows of dark green books with gold lettering, published by the University of Toronto Press and bearing the name of Frye.
The resemblance between The Collected Works of Northrop Frye (in 30 volumes) and the Frazerian monolith is almost certainly intentional, though not the questions such a parallel implies: What do we do with a pioneer whose role is acknowledged and honored, but whose work may be several degrees of separation away from where much of the contemporary intellectual action is? Who visits the monument now? And in search of what?
Frye’s relative decline as a force to be reckoned with in literary theory was already evident toward the end of his life; at this point the defense of Frygian doctrine may seem like a hopelessly arrière-garde action. (“Frygian” is the preferred term, by the way, at least among the Frygians themselves.) But the waning of his influence at the research-university seminar level is only part of the story, and by no means the most interesting part. The continuing pedagogical value of the Anatomy is suggested by how many of Frye’s ideas and taxonomies have made their way into Advanced Placement training materials. Anyone trying to find a way around in William Blake’s poetic universe can still do no better than to start with Frye’s first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947). Before going to see Shakespeare on stage, I’ve found it worthwhile to see what Frye had to say about the play. Bloggers periodically report reading the Anatomy, or Frye’s two books about the Bible and literature, and having their minds blown.
Feel Beauty Supply: post 1
At first I thought I would use this Commentary space to read through an online archive, but in the end such a gesture felt adjacent to my current preoccupations. What I hope to do instead is to elucidate a narrative of my own search for an adequate poetics, one that begins and ends with two very different theories, though each proposes “freedom” as the ultimate aim of poetic production. I want to attempt to rehearse an evolution of thinking around poetics that begins with Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Judgment and ends with Hurston’s Mules and Men, though I’ll make some detours.
For the last twenty-five years of my life, or, since I left high school, I’ve struggled to find an adequate definition of POETRY. Not being able to get on with it, so to speak, is in many ways due to my own shortcomings as a person and thinker. Nevertheless not being able to get on with it, I think, had a lot to do with being a young person in the shadows of certain avant-gardes. I’m hoping that the story of getting from Immanuel to Zora will also be in part the story of coming out of those shadows. So this is just to say I am here for a little while and this is what I’ll be doing while I’m here. See you in a few days.
Rooms By The Sea
Pioneers in the Digital Snow
Yeah, yeah, no time to think. Gimme gimme now! Thumbs up, thumbs down. Should I buy it or not? These appear to be the essential frames for modern criticism to function in today. Just serve the ever-shrinking moment and get the hell out of the way of the pleasure stampede. And please don’t bore us with an idea, let alone an essay disguised as a review. Please don’t bore us, period.
Tweets, blogs, social networking sites… if it can’t fit in your smartphone window and be grasped at a glance it ain’t worth your time of day. The trend perceptions on this electronic revolution have leant towards the obvious – more communication on every front, a greater necessity for speed in every act, the compression of information to match that speed, and with all that rapid-fire pressure a corresponding desire to find some alleviating air-space for the mind whenever and wherever possible. Zero sum game: triviality, gossip, and porn are king. Not to mention the brilliant sub-editor who can keep story titles like “Headless woman in a topless bar” rolling across the news breaks when you log out of your email. Click. It works.
It can seem like our culture is being ferried on its own electronic light all the way into hell. The digital equivalent to Aldous Huxley’s “soma” in Brave New World, where we become prisoners to our own desires, and raptured out of consciousness.
But is that really all that is happening for those who worry about such things rather than just indulge and enjoy? I feel more positive even as the house of the modern mind appears to be atomizing around me.