Friday, December 22, 2006
I've been trying to write something about Carl Sagan ever since Trev and I received the 25th anniversary Cosmos DVD set. I got obsessed with it, watching the disks literally every night for several months. This was during the height of W. madness, the fascist cult of personality and war delirium that is only beginning to abate. (The war itself, of course, looks to be escalating.) I remember thinking how much we need Carl Sagan, now more than ever. Various folks are playing some of his roles, with decent success--Brian Greene on astronomy, Al Gore on global warming--but I can't think of anyone who has celebrated human reason with such passion. The first five minutes of Cosmos make it clear that understanding science, harnessing humanity's powers to explore our universe, engenders far more reverence for the universe than any religious teaching. The Bible, while containing some interesting stories, is static. Seeking answers in the same stories over and over is a travesty of our human potential. Unless we continue to look up and out we are stunted. In the middle of the Cold War, heading into Reagan's free-for-all of ignorance and selfishness, Sagan was goofily optimistic, delighting in what humans have achieved and what we have yet to find out. In Leonardo Da Vinci's workshop, he sketched out a spaceship that would support life for the generations it would take to travel to the nearest stars.
I still pull out a Cosmos disk at random every month or so. I think for me it's a kind of prayer.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
I used to think liking Woody Allen represented a certain level of sophistication, but now it seems like pseudo-sophistication--the very people he makes fun of in his movies are the only ones who would think the movies are profound.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
I remember a few years back somebody, some cultural thinker, said "we" don't dream about computers. Somehow they hadn't yet become iconic or symbolic in the subconscious. But I dream about email all the time. And I answer it; I work hard composing real answers to absurd questions, and then I wake up and all the work was for nothing. This has to stop. A friend of mine swore off email about a year ago, sending out, in her last electronic communication, her snail mail and phone number. I haven't called or written since then.
I need to get out of the office.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Antlia Pneumatica, The Air Pump,
is La Caille's Machine Pneumatique, at first Latinized as Machina Pneumatica (which occurs in Burritt, and is the Italian name); but astronomers know it as simple Antlia. In Germany it is the Luft Pumpe.
The constellation lies just sount of Crater and Hydra, bordering on the Vela of Argo along the branches of the Milky Way, and culminates on the 6th of April; Gould assigning it eighty-five naked-eye stars.
He thinks that [alpha], the red lucida, may be a variable, as his observers had variously noted as of from the 4th to the 5th magnitude, and Argelander entered both of these.
La Caille's [beta] lies within the present limits of Hydra.
Although inconspicuous, and without any named star, Antlia is of special interest to astronomers from containing the noted variable S, discovered in 1888 by Paul of Washington, and confirmed by Sawyer. Chandler gives its maximum as 6.7 and its minimum as 7.3, the period being 7 hours, 46 minutes, 48 seconds,--the shortest known until it was supplanted by U Pegasi with a period of 5 1/2 hours.
So many questions...like, who is Paul of Washington? Extrapolating from the index, which refers me back to this page (43), I gather he was an astronomer, Henry Martin Paul. Not an American apostle.
I googled Antlia for more information and came across the very same quotation posted on this blog about archeoastronomy.
And this site tells us that the Air Pump was named in 1752 after the invention by Robert Boyle.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
I must say that as of today I like my novel, better than I thought I would. However, the original main character has thus far been completely excised from the story. I have lots of material about him that I may not get to use...or will I? If I don't, it probably means leaving the story in a fictionalized version of Bakersfield, which I had previously intended the other and current main character to leave. Sadly, I know very little about Bakersfield, so this means a research trip. Also, maybe, I'll go to Trona.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Monday, November 20, 2006
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Henry had not had to change the night-clothes he had put on at six. About nine he fell asleep and woke not long after. His wife and Fern were discussing a Thomas Gray poem. He thought he knew the one they were talking about but as he formed some words to join the conversation, death stepped into the room and came to him: Henry walked up the stepsand into the tiniest of houses, knowing with each step that he did not own it, that he was only renting. He was ever so disappointed; he heard footsteps behind him and death told him it was Caldonia, coming to register her own disappointment. Whoever was renting the house to him had promised a thousand rooms, but as he traveled through the house he found less than four rooms, and all the rooms were identical and his head touched their ceilings. "This will not do," Henry kept saying to himself, and he turned to share that thought with his wife, to say, "Wife, wife, look what they done done," and God told him right then, "Not a wife, Henry, but a widow."
Monday, November 13, 2006
Boo’ya Moon is “this world turned inside-out like a pocket,” and it’s as real as J. M. Barrie’s Never-Never Land, L. Frank Baum’s Oz or the Grimms’ forest. Like those places, Boo’ya Moon arises from childhood longings for the things not provided by one’s parents or guardians, and it’s as forbidding as it is wonderful. You come away from “Lisey’s Story” convinced of the existence of King’s fantastic realm and of something else rarer still in fiction, a long, happy marriage.Other reviewers like Janet Maslin downplay the horror and fantasy elements in the book to concentrate on the love story, but this reviewer, Jim Windolf, finds both aspects equally worthy of interest. In Windolf's view, the fantastic aspects don't detract from the detailed portrait of the married couple. The two worlds blend in King's fiction, strenghtening it.
Windolf shows how writers like Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers, nostalgic for the schlock (including King) they grew up on, have become the new literary gatekeepers right under Harold Bloom's nose. And they have let King come on in.
It struck me also, in reading the NYT Book Review yesterday, that many children's books blend fantasy and realism in similar ways. I kept reading the reviews, thinking "that sounds interesting," then finding out it was "for ages 12 and up." Are children's books more daring that adult fiction now?
Thursday, November 09, 2006
It is difficult to describe Shakespeare's mdoes of representation without resorting to oxymorons, since most of these modes are founded upon seeming contradictions. A "naturalistic unreality" suggests itself, to meet Wittgenstein's annoyed comment that life is not like Shakespeare. Owen Barfield replied to Wittgenstein in advance (1928):
...there is a very real sense, humiliating as it may seem, in which what we generally venture to call our feelings are really Shakespeare's "meaning."
Life itself has become a naturalistic unreality, partly, because of Shakespeare's prevalence. To have invented our feelings is to have gone beyond psychologizing us: Shakespeare made us theatrical, even if we never attend a performance or read a play. After Hamlet literally has stopped the play--to joke about the War of the Theaters, to command the Player King to enact the absurd scene in which Aeneas recounts Priam's slaughter, to admonish the players to a little discipline--we more than ever regard Hamlet as one of us, somehow dropped into a role in a play, and the wrong play at that. The prince alone is real; the others, and all the action, constitute theater.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Friday, November 03, 2006
On the second page of the library book I took out, a reader has underlined "But Homer--and to this we shall have to return later--knows no background. What he narrates is for the time being the only present, and fills both the stage and the reader's mind completely." And then that reader has noted in very small letters in the margin: "I agree. Dankeschoen E.A." Another reader writes below that, "thank *you,* benny. E.A. (never had no one appreciate me)"
That's just a little appreciation to the anonymous annotators of this copy of Mimesis. I don't normally approve of writing in library books, but you have to love this.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Monday, October 30, 2006
However, up near the ceiling where we were standing, we saw something that looked like bird crap.
I could be a vegan.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Monday, October 23, 2006
This is no occasion to make great literary claims for Mr. King, or even to exalt his linguistic experimentation. His use of language in “Lisey’s Story” is so larded with baby talk that it borders on the pathological. Here is a writer who has a thousand ways of naming a toilet, and whose work can thus be an acquired taste. But “Lisey’s Story” transcends the toidy-talk to plumb thoughts of love, mortality and madness — and to deliver them with gale-force emotion. When Mr. King writes in a coda to this blunt but stunning book that “much here is heartfelt, very little is clever,” he is telling the truth.
I have not yet read the novel in question, but is this a case of one's reputation preceding one? Has Joyce not written his own encomiums to workings related to the toilet? How about other "real" novelists (Pynchon, DeLillo)? Is it even possible to judge King's latest work in light of everything he's done before? And could we have asked this question about some of his previous offerings?
What is the big risk of suggesting that King has "crossed the line" into literature? There must be one, for Maslin, anyway.
Friday, October 20, 2006
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Actually it's a textbook case for Alex Woloch's theories on major and minor characters, which I'm reading about now. And maybe for Stanislavsky. Maybe I should teach it...
Monday, October 16, 2006
This project is, however, fatally marred in Franzen’s nonfiction by a flaw that readers of Franzen’s fiction are already likely to be familiar with, which is the author’s total lack of humor — a quality without which, as every stand-up comedian knows, obsessive self-exposure is tedious rather than entertaining or edifying. It’s hard, indeed, not to be struck by the almost willful refusal to consider the humorous — and, indeed, the amusing, the pleasurable, the beautiful — in Franzen’s work: a body of writing in which every landscape is a landfill (all three of Franzen’s novels are, in fact, filled with surreally detailed descriptions of blighted cityscapes), every season is rainy. “There was something dreadful about springtime itself,” the author recalls here, somewhat astonishingly, of a season in his childhood. But then, what else do you expect from the son of a man (now clearly revealed as the model for Al Lambert, the dyspeptic paterfamilias of “The Corrections”) whose reaction to the sight of his child enjoying himself — reading a book or playing with a friend — was the disdainful exclamation, “One continuous round of pleasure!” If anything, Franzen’s new book, whose title refers to the heavily symbolic setting on a thermostat that the author’s parents continually argued over, sheds light on the extent to which the author seems to have internalized rather than rejected his father’s awful severity and lifelong resistance to pleasure, and to have responded to this psychic squashing by embracing a clever, superior, smarty-pants persona.OK, I get the smarty-pants, and maybe the ultimate resistance to pleasure; I'll have to think about that. But humorless? The Corrections is hilarious--not all the way through, but there are plenty of scenes that are so funny I can't quite believe it. Does Mendelsohn mean something different by humor here? He seems to be eliding a sense of humor with senses of pleasure and beauty, which I don't think are the same thing. Isn't our world full of dyspeptic humorists, and aren't they funnier than, say, the Dalai Lama?
Monday, October 09, 2006
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Seems like an important question for thinking about literary character in the digital age...
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Friday, September 29, 2006
"As with many men who have achieved something of note...[his fundamental feelings about life] sprang from a deep love of what might be called the generally and suprapersonally useful, in other words, from a sincere veneration for what advances one's own interests--and this not for the sake of advancing them, but in harmony with that advancement and simultaneously with it, and also on general grounds. This is of great importance: even a pedigree dog seeks its place under the dining-table, undisturbed by kicks, and not out of doggish abjection, but from affection and fidelity. And indeed the most coldly calculating people do not have half the success in life that comes to those rightly blended personalities who are capable of feeling a really deep attachment to such persons and conditions as will advance their own interests." (p. 11, tr. Wilkins and Kaiser)
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
--Satchel Paige, as quoted in Zen to Go.
The book also quotes OJ Simpson, saying something like "Thinking's what gets you caught from behind." Now that makes you think.
Monday, September 25, 2006
In other words, perhaps we can empathize more with fictional characters than with real people--a striking idea to consider--because the former type of empathy costs us less. I haven't read enough about this yet, but presume the empathy itself is real even as the characters are not. I wonder exactly what the nature of this empathy is: do we feel a fictional character's pain more sharply? Intuitively that seems impossible, but maybe what we think of as empathy is our own fear--what if that happened to me? Or--I feel bad that this happened to X (but I don't necessarily feel bad for X, I feel bad for myself because X's life affects me). But empathy is not necessarily altruistic, so maybe substituting yourself for another is legitimate within empathy's definition. And if that's the case, it would seem easier to superimpose yourself upon a fictional character, whose mind you can usually read.
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
This could be the end of Show Don't Tell as we know it.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Friday, July 14, 2006
Monday, July 10, 2006
Ross computerized the business and saw it boom in the 1980s. But even as online sales of books became a major revenue source for bookstores, Ross resisted the trend.
It ran counter to Cody's founding philosophy -- books were meant to be browsed in person and knowledge discovered, he said Sunday.
"Students today, they use the Internet. They read their textbooks," Ross said. "In the '70s, they had wide-ranging intellect."
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
I learned that I overwrite. I knew this, but I became conscious of how I feel when I'm in danger of overwriting--that is, anxious as opposed to excited, and pressured to "make this beautiful." At this point "show don't tell" has become oppressive to me. "Showing" is an invitation, to me, to overwrite, because I feel like every sentence has to create this luminous and unusual image. I'm going to try to tell as much as possible instead, and make do with fewer images and metaphors. I'm also going to try to write as I do when I'm doing an in-class exercise, fast and with a sense of discovery.
We'll see how this goes.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Here's Saunders reading the story:
Saturday, June 24, 2006
I'm hoping to learn about stories with non-traditional shapes. For instance, Charles D'Ambrosio (who says this in his Powells.com interview) talks about stories that are linear as opposed to circular. You start out, say, in a dime store, but you never go back there, never tie it back into the ending as a metaphor. It's simply over and the characters go on with their lives. Or the Alice Munro story, "White Dump," which we are reading for class. I am not a huge Munro fan thus far, but this story starts out from a point of view, or two points actually, from characters who turn out to be quite minor. The major character, whose viewpoint we're firmly ensconced in by the end, is not even mentioned right away, and when she is, she's described as living far away. She does not seem like she's going to be in the picture. But it's all about her in the end. How do you meander like that while not confusing the reader? How do you make a story more like a poem instead of like a polished billiard ball?
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Friday, June 16, 2006
No, I mean the San Carlos Library, because also for my novel I need to know about insurance agents. I looked in the online catalog and found a book on careers in insurance (perfect), but it wasn't at the SC library, so I poked around a little more and found a digital version which I could download to my computer! I just read the book (large print, not many pages) and it does indeed describe the jobs (perfect) and even better it has a glossary in the back! I know what an actuary is now. Well, I did and forgot again, but I can look it up.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Friday, June 09, 2006
The best parts of the film, though, are where Herzog comments on Treadwell's filmmaking -- specifically the moments when the film keeps running and Treadwell has left the shot. He is filming himself, usually, so he's off getting ready to run into the frame, or fixing his hair (an obsession), and in the meantime the camera is recording wind blowing through the brush, creating patterns. How often do we see extended shots of a place where there is neither a human nor an animal in the frame?
Monday, June 05, 2006
The bomb was for the Russians.
Right, the Japanese were just about defeated and trying to work out surrender talks. But we needed to show the Russians that we had the bomb, and blowing up a deserted island (say) in front of world representatives wouldn't cut it. We had to off some people, preferably non-white. I suspect the non-whiteness made it not only easier, but possible. The Japanese were already "faceless."
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
--The H-bomb is a "Super" version of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; they tested it and it vaporized an island. Oppenheimer planned the drop on Hiroshima, muttering "those poor people" in the days ahead, but never understood why Nagasaki...and he was against the H-bomb. The H-bomb is more or less the Doomsday device from Dr. Strangelove, and it exists.
--Truman was George W. Bush before George W. Bush was. We have elected mind-blowingly weak and stupid presidents before and made them out to be heroes. I hope history treats Bush more truthfully.
--The McCarthy era was just the same as ours. Just substitute terrorism for communism. Dissent was considered treason. Science was suspect. Power-mad, resentful bullies ruined thoughtful, intelligent people's lives.
--Oppenheimer named names; his brother didn't. His brother Frank founded the Exploratorium.
Friday, May 26, 2006
Paul Krugman, today in the NYT:
But can the sort of person who would act on global warming get elected? Are we — by which I mean both the public and the press — ready for political leaders who don't pander, who are willing to talk about complicated issues and call for responsible policies? That's a test of national character. I wonder whether we'll pass.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
On the plus side, I've gotten some real distance on a story that I didn't like much when I was working on it regularly. Having reread Olesha's Envy again in order to teach it, I came back to my own writing with an edgier voice. I am more willing to make my main character seem like a lunatic. I am more willing to chop out whole sections, even though they seemed integral to the plot. I think you have to give up the plot--just chop out everything you don't like, regardless of whether it's holding the story together. Then string the good parts together with a few more good parts and you're done. So how to get this distance on work on a regular basis without stopping writing for a month? I have to have several projects going at once, I guess. That doesn't seem like the usual advice, but there's no other option.
Friday, May 19, 2006
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
I am being hard on the Midwest. But this is just to counter the myth of cleanliness, happiness, and religious piety surrounding the vast center of the country. The heartland is tripping, folks.
In the DVD commentary it sounded like both the main characters in the film had gone straight, so good for them. Maybe seeing themselves on film did the trick. They seemed like intelligent and interesting people, even though the filmmakers made fun of them. Who knows what they could have done in a different place.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Monday, May 08, 2006
Trev says Oppenheimer reminds him of Dr. Baltar on Battlestar Galactica--a brilliant, chattery, occasionally crazed, basically good guy who ends up bringing great evil into the world.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Friday, April 28, 2006
But how to get people reading the good stuff? Academics can't do it, by definition. As soon as we assign it, it becomes a task, a pill, a leafy green vegetable (at best). It has to be done on TV and be administered by a powerful yet non-threatening and fun person. OK, Oprah was threatening to James Frey, and this is a symptom of her current obsession with memoir, which needs to stop. No surprise in memoir, not the kind we're talking about--only the surprise of being lied to. But as Cecilia Konchar Farr says in Reading Oprah, a very interesting book (and very poorly produced, as if on a Xerox machine, by SUNY Press) , Oprah's self-improvement approach to literature is the key. Oprah tells readers, This is difficult, but you can do it. She alternates--or used to alternate--easy books with more difficult ones, building up readers' stamina and confidence. And she did get tons of people to read Faulkner, though they didn't buy his work in as many truckloads as the others. But it doesn't have to be Faulkner; an emotionally difficult text is good enough. She's developing this capacity for literature, which means a capacity for calm and complex reflection. (I'm grabbing the term from Empson, who uses it in a slightly different way in 7 Types of Ambiguity.) I don't think this is the same thing as the "critical thinking" argument, which means literature teaches you how to seize a pen and start marking as soon as a politician or product pitcher opens his mouth. The capacity, as I see it, is for a kind of stillness. Wonder, maybe.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
[See update, below.] The E! story is yet another small act in the series of exploitations that began before the movie and exploded after it. Lyon was the youngest of five children in a poor family (her father died when she was a baby), and she was sent out to model as a pre-teen in order to bring in some cash. She won the role of Lolita when she was 13 or 14--the actual age of Lolita--but was, I gather, fifteen when the film was shot. So she was only a tiny bit older than the character, but was cast because she looked more adult than others her age. She had large breasts, unlike Nabokov's Lolita. So much effort went into confounding the audience's prurient/moral expectations about filming this story. How do you film it without doing damage?
Lyon went on to have a fairly terrible life. Divorced several times, she married a man in prison for murder at one point; before that she had married an African-American man and fled with him to Spain due to the uproar. She is now married to someone else and doesn't grant interviews. She's been diagnosed as bipolar but apparently found treatment later in life.
Incarnating Lolita appears to have done her no good. She received much of the lurid attention that the fictional Lolita did, and it should be remembered that the tendency then and even now was to portray Lolita as the seductress of a relatively helpless "middle aged man." E! Online says as much. The entwined artistic and commercial imperatives to film Lolita, combined with Lyon's poverty, the lure of celebrity, and finally the ageless pleasure of condemning girls for arousing sexual desire in others: the same cultural constellation trapped Lyons and Nabokov's Lolita, another fatherless child.
UPDATE 10-1-12: Sorry, folks, looks like E! has taken the story down. If anyone has other links they'd like to share, please do so in the comments.
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
I talked to a campus newspaper reporter today about the blog I'm doing with my students. I'm obsessed with that blog; it's all I can do to keep from looking at it every fifteen minutes. The reporter seemed to share my enthusiasm, but maybe she was just trying to placate me while looking for an opportunity to edge away.
Sunday, April 09, 2006
Synanon started as a rehabilitation program for drug and alchohol addicts, an alternative to Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous which emphasized self-reliance as opposed to reliance on a higher power. The Synanon prayer includes lines like "Let me understand rather than be understood," which I rather like. But Synanon itself then became a church; there was the usual partner-swapping and brutally honest encounter groups (known as Games), and then, as always in these stories, the time arrived to amass weapons. They never killed anyone but they did leave a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer who'd sued them. The Point Reyes Light reporters who exposed the operations received Pulitzers.
You can still see the dormant antennas from the Marconi days, and one imagines the Games and halluncinatory "Dissipations" and the paranoia growing on the silent, occult hum of radio waves.
Monday, April 03, 2006
--Adrienne Rich, "Demon Lover"
I will now take this line completely out of context to reflect on a weirdness of mine, which I've discovered could also serve as a principle of sustainable living. I've always thought of things as having feelings. Stuffed animals, it goes without saying, but also computers, cups, plastic bags blowing across the highway, clothes...just about everything. I suppose I attribute feelings to them mostly when they're being treated badly, i.e. thrown away or tossed unthinkingly aside. This has led to some problematic hoarding behavior on my part, and a tendency to apologize to whatever I do throw away. (OK, I don't always apologize to the coffee grounds.) The tendency is also stronger when the thing was a gift, but I don't think my sense of a soul in a thing has only to do with the person who gave it, or the (unknown) person or people who made it. Anyway I read somewhere awhile back that having a sort of animistic belief system like this can lead to conservation--a resistance to disposing of items at the first sign of trouble with them. But at the same time one needs to be less attached to things, less willing to drag home crap because you feel sorry for it.
I'm reading Rich's line to mean that we're hard on things and they feel it. But I don't think that's what she meant. I wonder if cruelty to things extends to misinterpreting words.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Thursday, March 23, 2006
I now face the prospect of returning to the novel after, let's say, 10 days. Robert Olen Butler, henceforth to be referred to as R.O.B. (aka G.O.D.) says that if you miss more than two days in a row it's as if you never wrote a word. And the novel does feel quite unfamiliar at the moment. For a few days there the distance was really nice; I was no longer mired in it, so I could float above and see the whole thing. I remembered what I wanted the novel to feel like and took some notes about tone that I thought were important at the time. But that was last week. Now I'm afraid I'll go back and see that the whole thing is a disaster, and slink off to short-story safety again. Must resist.
Monday, March 20, 2006
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Monday, March 06, 2006
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress....
Exactly. That is what I am trying to get at in my novel. That and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
When I read Yeats in college I did not get "unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress." I thought I got it. Dionysus, deep, dark laughter, yeah, yeah. But you can't get certain poems until you're older. I mean, I'm not that old, but you have to have the retrospective view of your life, and you don't have it when you're twenty. You have regrets, repressions, but you simply aren't old enough. I can tell by the notes I made on this poem ("Sailing to Byzantium") in my Norton that I had no idea what it was about. "Between two worlds," I wrote. (He's in transit, sailing, see?) I was writing down the professor's explication; I did not feel it. Four Quartets was another one. In college it was, I thought, the hardest poem I'd ever read. But now I can see it's about getting old, just like lots and lots of poetry.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Characters like Joe are especially revealing doubles for writers, whose work forces us to be sedentary at least at the time we're doing it. Come to think of it, Stephen King's Annie is another version of Joe, a superhuman monster who kills on behalf of the paralyzed writer Paul Sheldon. She kills the cop who comes looking for Paul, for instance. Paul is Annie's prisoner, and he watches in horror as Annie kills the cop in the kind of comic-opera gorefest that is King's special gift. But as an author Paul knows he's also created Annie. She's his "constant reader" who loves all his books, and she's his character, his Joe. So killing the cop is Paul's literary fantasy too.
Sunday, February 26, 2006
I might add that I was sick on Saturday night (Robitussin: Don't let anyone tell you it doesn't work), otherwise we would have been "out clubbing" at the latest "hot" night spots, where we are immediately ushered to the VIP table, past the riff raff clamoring outside the door, because we know the owner.
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Friday, February 17, 2006
1. Snowflakes. Not snow, which I've seen a fair amount of in California, but snowflakes. The ones that fall in loose clusters of about dozen or so and you can see the individual crystals. No two are alike, they say; well, there's no way to prove that. Falling snow also silences everything. It happens whether you're indoors or out. I'm not sure why. The one sound you do hear, which of course you're imagining but can't help imagining, is the sound of the snowflakes themselves. They make a little ssth as they land on a pile of their fellows.
2. In Ohio you can still smoke in restaurants. People toss their heads and shoot jets of smoke from their mouths and noses like horses.
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Which brings me to Lolita itself. Is there a less cozy book in the world? Nafisi and her students, from inside their cocoon, read the book as an allegory for totalitarianism and a literal chronicle of child abuse. I suspect this is how Oprah would read it (especially the second way), and therefore one--and by one I mean myself sometimes but not always--is inclined to discount it. But why? Can we really tell readers from a traumatized place that their take is less sophisticated? That they need to get well or get safe before they can properly understand literature? That literature only works when you're comfortable? Cripes, I hope not. That would be totalitarian.
Think of all the people who adopted James Frey's memoir and clutched it to their hearts even as Frey was revealed as a psychopath (exploited by the publishing industry). These were traumatized people, recovering addicts who sought and found help in the story. But sophisticated types mock them, first for liking Frey's lousy prose (maybe a sign of his authenticity, his real suffering) and then for standing by him when he was found inauthentic. For caring about authenticity on one hand, and for not caring about it when it no longer served their needs. But judging whether people's readings are proper comes close to judging whether their emotions are. And you'd have to know an awful lot about each person to be able to tell.
In Lot's Daughters Rob Polhemus says Lolita ushered in the whole confessional genre that started in the 60s and culminates in the types of books Oprah chooses for her readers. In other words you can trace a direct line from Lolita to Oprah. But that's as long as you identify with Lolita, as Nafisi and her students do, and not with Humbert. Maybe you can risk identifying with Humbert if the rest of your life isn't in much danger.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Saturday, February 04, 2006
Poul Anderson's story "Call Me Joe" (from 1957) describes a remote exploration of Titan in which a human operates a lizard-like artifical life form on the surface through mind-to-mind transmissions. The operator is a quadraplegic; Joe is a fighter who swigs liquid methane. Eventually the operator's consciousness gets sucked down into Joe, swapping white-collar emasculation for macho, scaly freedom. Spirit and Opportunity are female and (perhaps not coincidentally) they're servants, cute and plucky. But their operators and observers on earth clearly endow them with life. In exchange for being our eyes, hands, and feet on Mars, the rovers get to borrow human consciousness--even if they're not aware of it.
Thursday, February 02, 2006
Friday, January 27, 2006
When I was an undergraduate I never heard about the New Critics, mainly because nearly every professor (like my high school teachers before them) practiced New Criticism. Like some forms of Protestantism or Midwesternness, it was not even seen as a practice, certainly not one among many. It was just what you did. Then when I got to grad school "New Critic" was a term of derision, meaning bourgeois liberal, meaning Republican, meaning fascist. (I would currently agree with the equation of numbers two and three in that series, but let's leave the bourgeois liberals out of it, please.) It was only very recently that I decided to figure out just who these New Critics were, and of course they were a pretty diverse lot (methodologically) spanning a good chunk of the twentieth century.
I'm just dipping into Empson so far, but here's a line I love from the last chapter, which I'm reading first. Speaking of the experience of apprehending a poem, Empson says "one cannot give or state the feeling directly any more than the feeling of being able to ride a bicycle; it is the result of a capacity..." Empson was a poet himself so his critical method was poetic. Imagine that.
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Friday, January 20, 2006
Stephen King talks about the "hole in the paper" in Misery, only for him it means the writer is in the zone. This doesn't preclude madness, and I don't believe King thinks so either. When the writer, Paul Sheldon, sees the hole in the paper he forgets he's writing. Specifically he forgets words and the technologies used to produce them (Annie Wilkes's crappy typewriter) and sees only his characters in action. That's also Paul's and King's hope for their readers, that they will not even be conscious of the physical words or the writer's deployment of them, and instead see--at a later time--exactly what the writer saw through the hole.
But because Annie makes Paul write on a bad typewriter (and also maims his hand) it's harder to see through the paper. Writing becomes more obviously a physical chore, and when the typewriter throws its "n" key, Annie fills in the "n's." In other words, she inserts herself ("n" sounds like "Ann," unfortunately for me, and unfortunately too because deconstruction is out). Instead of the madness of the writer's brain firing on all cylinders, Paul sees Annie's disgusting body when he writes. For King these are two sides of the same coin, I think.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
The flash-spot moves around with your vision, which drives you crazy, like the belief that your house is haunted. All you can see is that you can't see what's there. The orb of light in Pale Fire seems like a version of the Nedotykomka in Sologub's Petty Demon. The Nedotykomka is a sort of malevolent dust bunny that represents and drives the protagonist's madness. I now see that David Bethea in Russian Review (63:1) has found reflections of the Petty Demon in Nabokov, so I'm not the only one. It might be that the orb is not just a repercussion of the Nedotykomka, but an image of unacknowledged literary influence--a hole burned in the page. Influence is definitely maddening.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
- The Spiders, a non-human race that lives on a planet orbiting the On-Off star. When the star is "off" the Spiders hibernate for over a century (I think) and when the star comes back on (rather beautifully), they must rebuild their civilization. The Spiders who have multiple eyes and legs and full body hair are the most engaging characters by far in the book. They're idiosyncratic, inventors, with senses of humor. When the human characters are on stage I keep asking, like David Bowie did, Where are the Spiders?
- The Focused. These are people whom the Emergents deliberately infect with a neural toxin that makes them essentially autistic. They think only about their current task, talk about nothing else, neglect their hygiene and personal lives utterly. They're the perfect high-tech employees. The fact that they usually receive the infection in grad school requires no further discussion.
- Systems. Specifically, what does one do with the systems of a society it has conquered? How does the conquerer adapt and use the techologies of its enemy? What's the difference between adoption and cooption? How can they trust the tools?
I will finish, I will, right after Pale Fire, which seems like it's going to be the best book ever written.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Do you want a banana?
No. [=lost opportunity to provide information]
Do you want a banana?
You know I don't like bananas. [=intriguing implications about the speakers' relationship]
Since hearing this I've been going through my stories with the No Comb. And yet: "No" is fun to say. It's fun to write. It looks great on the page.
See what I mean? It's even better without quotation marks. It does stop the narrative, it is empty, more like punctuation than a word. That's it's power. There must be a use for these little dead spots in fiction.
Monday, January 09, 2006
Rothschild studies "extremophiles," creatures that live in extreme conditions on Earth. These studies suggest life could exist on a place like Venus, with its stifling toxic clouds, or on Mars, where it gets damn cold. (Although Mars has other problems, notably "chaotic obliquity," meaning the tilt of its axis changes dramatically over relatively short time periods. It rocks. The Earth doesn't because of our Moon.) One thinks of the bacteria living in the "smokers" or thermal vents on the ocean floor, but it turns out there are lots of other examples of extremophiles, including penguins. And us. Because one of the questions Rothschild raised was how to define "extremophile"--especially if we take out the requirement to "love" the extreme and say it's OK to merely tolerate it. Some bacteria live in pools of acid only because they can't get out. They thrive in the relative comfort of the lab ("I didn't know it could be like this!"). Apparently some biologists consider it cheating to grow a layer of blubber or develop the ability to make and wear coats--so a kid ice skating couldn't be an extremophile--but that's an arguable line to draw.
What became clear for me at this talk was how deeply science is imbued with philosophy. The notion of questioning what an "extremophile" really is, and working from the understanding that the definition is questionable, opens huge investigative possibilities. Humanists are all about questioning definitions, and it's time we all starting seeing this method as productive rather than merely undermining.
Thursday, January 05, 2006
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Sunday, January 01, 2006
The guy at the hostel told me to take a deep breath and while he waited for the ranger to answer the phone asked me where I was from and if I'd been birdwatching. This seemed to be his method for dealing with city folk who came in gasping about some horror (slug, owl vomit) on the trail, and I wanted to tell him that I was not panicked, only worried that I was not worried enough. I went back outside to flag the ranger down and saw my husband walking the horse and its rider, a taciturn woman with legs as thin as my wrists. She'd been riding on the beach, but her horse was from Montana and had never seen the ocean before. The surf had panicked him and he had thrown her.
"It's always the rider's fault," she said. She was unhurt.
At Ronald Reagan's funeral a riderless horse followed the casket with boots reversed in the stirrups. A ghost was in the saddle, looking backward.