whetstone

December 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

“I sat there with my eyes on a flower in the carpet, or I looked up at her and then again at the flower, and her own glance strayed about the room in that abstracted way a good housewife has of looking around to surprise a speck of dust in the act. We were saying things to each other all the while, but they were strained and difficult things, completely empty.

You meet somebody at the seashore on a vacation and have a wonderful time together. Or in a corner at a party, while the glasses clink and somebody beats on a piano, you talk with a stranger whose mind seems to whet and sharpen your own and with whom a wonderful new vista of ideas is spied.. Or you share some intense or painful experience with somebody, and discover a deep communion. Then afterward you are sure that when you meet again, the gay companion will give you the old gaiety, the brilliant stranger will stir your mind from its torpor, the sympathetic friend will solace you with the old communion of spirit. But something happens, or almost always happens, to the gaiety, the brilliance, the communion. You remember the individual words from the old language you spoke together, but you have forgotten the grammar. You remember the steps of the dance, but the music isn’t playing any more. So there you are.

So there we sat for a while, and the minutes sifted and wavered down around us, one by one, like leaves dropping in still autumn air. Then, after a space of silence, she excused herself and I was left alone to watch the leaves drift down.”

— Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

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to do

December 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ack! I’ve been absent. Sorry. Here’s my schedule for the next two days:

Saturday: Volunteer! Watch El Clasico. I really hope that: Jose Mourinho pokes someone in the eye, increasing my enjoyment of the game by a factor of 167%/Zlatan appears to strike fear into the heart of Pep Guardiola in a giant hotdog costume/David Villa scores three times and tears the shirt off his body to celebrate this feat of valor, thereby setting everyone’s underpants ablaze/Xabi Alonso shakes his head in disgust at the limb-rending fracas on-going in the center of the pitch and retires from the match to pose for GQ and soberly ponder reruns of The Wire for the rest of his life/Madrid wins. Make some food (snickerdoodles? brownies? lunch next week?). Exercise by riding my bike over something unpaved, like my neighbor’s dog (just kidding). Write, you slob.

Sunday: City Lights cruise with friends! Forecast to involve chicken salad (ft. a few dehydrated raisins), dry white dinner rolls, cheap booze, uncurtailed vomiting.

I really want A Naked Singularity, by Sergio de la Pava. GENIUS 24YO LEGAL EAGLE + heist of the century?? + immigration + crime + boxing + damnation of systemic poverty = my tongue is lolling out the side of my mouth.

Thinking of getting the Toshiba Protege for Christmas.

To do:

EXERCISE, register to run, buy white elephant gift. XMAS GIFTS FOR BOBBY!! send ppl holiday cards (inc. sabina!). put together and mail package to esther!

the ugly tourist, by jamaica kincaid

December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

(Got this from the 10th edition of my Norton Reader. Pretty deadly stuff, wouldn’t you say? The passage was followed by a battery of questions related to the essay’s style, word choice, grammatical construction, and how exactly those combine to create the essay’s effect (this being a reader that aims to teach writing). The short answer to that would probably go something like “LOTS OF PARENTHETICALS” + “judicious usage of laser-pointer second person POV” + “drawling, biting undertone smuggled in under the aegis of some nicey-nice phraseology” = “blood-drawing contempt”. On reconsideration it’s obvious that Kincaid’s larger target is the privilege/economic stratification  that underwrites and enables the functioning of all tourism industries. But her takedown is so resentful and belligerently pitched that it’s also somewhat troubling, and not in the way she intends. For example, it leaves no room for the existence of a more benign tourism – the obvious response being that not all tourism takes place in poor countries. For another – for another?

If a person wanted to escape the banality of their life and go somewhere else, does that make them “ugly”? Kincaid says yes. But I think an interesting thing to notice here is her usage of the word “ugly”. Notice that she doesn’t use another word in its place – “bad”. So it seems to me that the essay is a summary judgment of the system rather than a judgment of the tourist’s character, since everyone everywhere suffers the same everyday banality. After all, it’s not ugly that you want to escape your life and go on vacation – it’s ugly that you have the wherewithall – the economic means – to do so.)

The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being. You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily; you are not an ugly person day to day. From day to day, you are a nice person. From day to day, all the people who are supposed to love you on the whole do. From day to day, as you walk down a busy street in the large and modern and prosperous city in which you work and live, dismayed, puzzled (a cliché, but only a cliché can explain you) at how alone you feel in this crowd, how awful it is to go unnoticed, how awful it is to go unloved, even as you are surrounded by more people than you could possibly get to know in a lifetime that lasted for millennia, and then out of the corner of your eye you see someone looking at you and absolute pleasure is written all over that person’s face, and then you realize that you are not as revolting a presence as you think you are (for that look just told you so). « Read the rest of this entry »

two unrelated quotes. no. three?

December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sarajevo, 1914. Shortly before he is assassinated, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand finds the reception hall he is standing in crammed with the half-million beasts he has killed in his career as a hunter:

“One can conceive the space of this room stuffed all the way up to the crimson and gold vaults and stalactites with the furred and feathered ghosts, set close, because there were so many of them: stags with the air between their antlers stuffed with woodcock, quail, pheasant, partridge, capercaillie, and the like; boars standing bristling flank to flank, the breadth under their broad bellies packed with layer upon layer of hares and rabbits. Their animal eyes, clear and dark as water, would brightly watch the approach of their slayer to an end that exactly resembled their own.”

Extract from Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (with an assist from Geoff Dyer’s Guardian UK review of the same).

*

“… One can see that, far from enacting an easy ironic resignation, Dyer is really a late Romantic, a flâneur out of Rilke (but with a vinegary English dash of Kingsley Amis), eager to experience as much as possible, to travel and fall in love and meet new people, and wary of writing and reading, because, although they preserve such experience, they do so at a mimetic remove. The problem for the Romantic is that, in order to have anything to write about, he has to live—i.e., not be writing. Not for nothing is D. H. Lawrence, the savage pilgrim, Dyer’s great model.

So Dyer has spent much of his life on the move—London, Paris, Rome, Oxford, New Orleans, New York—and much of his best writing has been prompted by travel. He approaches this humorously in “Out of Sheer Rage,” but the English larkiness cannot obscure the intensity of the feeling. Once, he writes there, he found himself walking on a North London street, the road where Julian Barnes lived: “I didn’t see him but I knew that in one of these large, comfortable houses Julian Barnes was sitting at his desk, working, as he did every day. It seemed an intolerable waste of a life, of a writer’s life especially, to sit at a desk in this nice, dull street in north London. It seemed, curiously, a betrayal of the idea of the writer.” To spend one’s life writing is a betrayal of the writer’s life: Dyer knows this is a lunatic paradox, that even Romantics have to sit at boring desks and write, but he would rather have his battered paradox than Barnes’s clean coherence.

… This religious self-emptying might seem an unexpected turn in Dyer’s usually hilarious and worldly work. But in fact the metaphysics of boredom lead naturally to the metaphysics of shanti. In the earlier books, Dyer’s characters failed to write not because they were indifferent to writing but because they wanted too much to write. Negative liberty expresses a fear of completion; if you never start a work, then at least there is no chance of your having finished it. To complete something is in some ways to make it disappear; not starting it is a preëmptive strike against loss, a way of elegizing what has not yet disappeared. … Time is what completes us, and time is what forces us into the endless repetition that is boredom and the tyranny of habit. Travel, sex, and drugs—Dyer’s recurrent interests—are ways to cheat time, are moments out of time.”

The NYker ponders Geoff Dyer.

*

Wait! There’s more!

“I am always on the edge of what I am doing. I do everything badly, sloppily, to get it over with so that I can get on to the next thing that I will do badly and sloppily so that I can then do nothing — which I do anxiously, distractedly, wondering all the time if there isn’t something else I should be getting on with. … When I’m working, I’m wishing I was doing nothing and when I’m doing nothing I’m wondering if I should be working. I hurry through what I’ve got to do and then, when I’ve got nothing to do, I keep glancing at the clock, wishing it was time to go out. Then, when I’m out, I’m wondering how long it will be before I’m back home.”

Geoff Dyer, in Out of Sheer Rage.

the carrier bag theory of fiction

November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction
Ursula K. Le Guin (1986)

In the temperate and tropical regions where it appears that hominids evolved into human beings, the principal food of the species was vegetable. Sixty-five to eighty percent of what human beings ate in those regions in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistoric times was gathered; only in the extreme Arctic was meat the staple food. The mammoth hunters spectacularly occupy the cave wall and the mind, but what we actually did to stay alive and fat was gather seeds, roots, sprouts, shoots, leaves, nuts, berries, fruits, and grains, adding bugs and mollusks and netting or snaring birds, fish, rats, rabbits, and other tuskless small fry to up the protein. And we didn’t even work hard at it–much less hard than peasants slaving in somebody else’s field after agriculture was invented, much less hard than paid workers since civilization was invented. The average prehistoric person could make a nice living in about a fifteen-hour work week. « Read the rest of this entry »

lydia millet on alice munro

November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

“As the Grande Dame of Canadian realism, Munro is widely and rightly admired, both nationally and internationally, for the care of her craft, the economy of her sentences and the dignified reserve of her characterizations. She’s been virtually canonized by literary institutions in Canada and the United States and has been boldly called, by the more recently canonized American realist Jonathan Franzen, among others, the best living writer in North America.

And of course, it is realism that reigns supreme, in Canada and the United States, though probably not in Europe, as the most popular and legitimate literary style. And yet — and yet — given that what Munro does, she does with immaculate precision — why always, with such a richness of skill, this insistent choice on the purely personal, the proximate world of the self and its near relations? In the cosmology of this world, the personal, social world, the individual is seen delicately negotiating a balance with friends and family: Her journey is the steady sun around which all planets revolve.

Surely the vast universe beyond the minutely personal is also of some little interest. There is, of course, often a backdrop. Munro, for instance, loves the land, loves her region within it, and comes to the land in her prose with knowledge, deliberation and devotion. Still, the land is a setting primarily for a specific subset of us, for the foibles and discoveries and preoccupations of the social self. And in the broader, dominant literary culture of realistic and personal fictions, a culture where Munro tends to lead and others to follow, the land often drops away entirely in favour of a massive foreground of people with problems.

These problems are rarely starvation or war; they tend to be adultery or career disappointment, say, which leaves us with a literary culture whose preoccupation is not meaning or beauty, not right or wrong, not our philosophies or propensity for atrocities or corrupt churches and governments, but rather our sex lives, our social mistakes, our neighbourhood failures and sibling rivalries. Enlightenment humanism finds a kind of perfect expression here: If our deliberations about our personal lives, consisting of a near-infinite scrutiny of the tiny passages through which we move in relation to friends and lovers, constitutes the best calling of art, must such self-scrutiny not also be our own highest calling and rightful task?

And if this self-scrutiny is the chief work of our lives, does the rest of existence not drop neatly away? It may be worth asking simply whether, in a culture where mainstream society is already wholly consecrated to the worship of self, literary culture should be consecrated to the same faith.”

The review, entitled Alice in Familyland, is archived here.

This is exactly how I feel about much of today’s “literary fiction”. All of those resplendent metaphors and innovative word choices and toned prose styles — but to what end? To chronicle discontent and ennui among swathes of the privileged, the bored, the middle aged? So that dude’s lonely. So that girl steals to jolt herself alive. It’s all so exasperatingly small-minded. Better to be like Dorothy Dunnett or George R. R. Martin, who inspire fanaticism in place of critical monocle-peering.

I’m addressing this to myself too. It’s like I want to do pan-sexual werewolves in Victorian-era London but all I know to do (all I’ve known to do since age 15) are quiet domestic vignettes about the ordeal of the lost fingernail clipper.

From The Heights Of Maccho Picchu

November 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Rise up to be born with me, brother.

Give me your hand from the deep
Zone seeded by your sorrow.
You won’t return from under the rocks.
You won’t return from your subterranean time.
Your hardened voice won’t return.
Your gouged-out eyes won’t return.

Look at me from the depth of the earth,
laborer, weaver, silent shepherd:
tamer of wild llamas like spirit images:
construction worker on a daring scaffold:
waterer of the tears of the Andes:
jeweler with broken fingers:
farmer trembling as you sow:
potter, poured out into your clay:
bring to the cup of this new life
your old buried sorrows.
Show me your blood and your furrow,
Tell me, “Here I was punished,
Because the jewel didn’t shine or the earth
Didn’t yield grain or stones on time.”
Show me the stone you fell over
And the wood on which they crucified you,
Make a spark from the old flints for me,
For the old lamps to show the whips still stuck
After centuries in the old wounds
And the axes shining with blood.
I come to speak for your dead mouth.
Across the earth come together all
The silent worn-out lips
And from the depth speak to me all this long night
Like I was pinned down there with you.
Tell me all, chain by chain,
Link by link and step by step,
Sharpen the knives which you hid,
Put them in my breast and in my hand,
Like a river of yellow lighting
Like a river of buried jaguars
And let me weep, hours, days, years,
For blind ages, cycles of stars.

Give me silence, water, hope.

Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.

Stick bodies to me like magnets.

Draw near to my veins and my mouth.

Speak through my words and my blood.

— Pablo Neruda

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