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[JULY 2005.]


It is an undergraduate computer-science problem to show that rigorously selecting one’s ten favorite poems would require infinite processing time, so this is an approximation. I feel sort of lame having picked such a stack of canonical names, and sticking entirely to English, but it’s these that do it for me. No, the Romantic era never ended; shut up.

Thomas Wyatt - “Whoso List to Hunt, I Know Where is an Hind”
William Blake - “The Clod and the Pebble”
S.T. Coleridge - “Frost at Midnight”
John Keats - “This Living Hand”
Emily Dickinson - “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain”
W.B. Yeats - “Adam’s Curse”
Wilfred Owen - “Parable of the Old Man and the Young”
T.S. Eliot - The Waste Land
Wallace Stevens - “The Idea of Order at Key West”
Elizabeth Bishop - “Sestina”

And squeezing in as the eleventh, because it’s so short:
Robert Herrick - “Upon Julia’s Clothes”


The Backstroke of the West

I think my favorite of these is “Our dichotomy opens the combat,” but that might be just because I read that phrase somewhere in Lacan. (Thanks Jen.)



On or off the steppes of the web, whenever I am forced to ask “Is this thought or not?” my generous angel attempts to remind me, “Whatever it is, it's sure a lot of work.”

So we all hang on over the pit of oblivion, like Jonathan Edwards’s spider.


El Ingenioso Hidalgo (1)

It is bizarre to me, and probably the fault of bad Lolita readings, how routinely people take Nabokov’s brand of art-for-art’s-sake criticism to exclude moral content. Every time the man opened his mouth, it was to judge the living and the dead. Nabokov’s criticism on Don Quijote finds any number of flaws in the novel; many are stylistic symptoms of the modern novel’s awkward adolescence, but what really gets his goat is the ethical lapse of gratuitous cruelty.

The author seems to plan it thus: Come with me, ungentle reader, who enjoys seeing a live dog inflated and kicked around like a soccer football; reader, who likes, of a Sunday morning, on his way to or from church, to poke his stick or direct his spittle at a poor rogue in the stocks; come, ungentle reader, with me and consider into what ingenious and cruel hands I shall place my ridiculously vulnerable hero. And I hope you will be amused at what I have to offer.


So we start in chapter 3 with the innkeeper who allows a haggard madman to stay at his inn just in order to laugh at him and have his guests laugh at him. We go on with a shriek of hilarity to the half-naked lad flogged with a belt by a hefty farmer (chapter 4). We are convulsed with laughter again in chapter 4 when a mule driver pounds the helpless Don Quixote like wheat in a mill... Some carriers in chapter 15 beat Rocinante so hard that he drops to the ground half-dead—but never mind, in another minute the puppet master will revive his squeaking dolls... By this time Don Quixote has lost half an ear—and nothing can be funnier than losing half an ear except of course losing three-quarters of an ear.

Humor just might emerge from a crowded field of contenders as the worst-theorized topic in existence; I’ve never read a remotely persuasive general account. But these particular incidents picked out by Nabokov deserve attention—especially the ear. That bit unsettled me quite badly, I think because of the permanence of the maiming. Don Quijote’s and Sancho’s prior mishaps are a sort of Looney Tunes in prose—they can be beaten within an inch of their lives, and emerge intact a moment later for the next round of punishment—but not even such a puppet master as Cervantes can make an ear grow back. Here’s the passage:

Puestas y levantadas en alto las cortadoras espadas de los dos valerosos y enojados combatientes, no parecía sino que estaban amenazando al cielo, a la tierra y al abismo: tal era el denuedo y continente que tenían. Y el primero que fue a descargar el golpe fue el colérico vizcaíno, el cual fue dado con tanta fuerza y tanta furia que, a no volvérsele la espada en el camino, aquel solo golpe fuera bastante para dar fin a su rigurosa contienda y a todas las aventuras de nuestro caballero; mas la buena suerte, que para mayores cosas le tenía guardado, torció la espada de su contrario, de modo que, aunque le acertó en el hombro izquierdo, no le hizo otro daño que desarmarle todo aquel lado, llevándole de camino gran parte de la celada, con la mitad de la oreja; que todo ello con espantosa ruina vino al suelo, dejándole muy maltrecho.

[Ormsby translates] With trenchant swords upraised and poised on high, it seemed as though the two valiant and wrathful combatants stood threatening heaven, and earth, and hell, with such resolution and determination did they bear themselves. The fiery Biscayan was the first to strike a blow, which was delivered with such force and fury that had not the sword turned in its course, that single stroke would have sufficed to put an end to the bitter struggle and to all the adventures of our knight; but that good fortune which reserved him for greater things, turned aside the sword of his adversary, so that although it smote him upon the left shoulder, it did him no more harm than to strip all that side of its armour, carrying away a great part of his helmet with half of his ear, all which with fearful ruin fell to the ground, leaving him in a sorry plight.

“No more harm?” Ironic of course, but in a very black way, and all the more shocking since it comes right after the verbal glee of the mock-epic style, which itself follows several pages of innocent metafictional fun with Cervantes’s fake Arab chronicler. The questions to ask are: a) did Cervantes expect us to laugh at this, and b) do we actually laugh at it? The answer to a) is probably yes. We’ll laugh at the most ghastly things if they’re presented cartoonishly enough, and in a society as brutal as seventeenth-century Spain (though it sure doesn’t win any prizes compared to dozens of others) much more is eligible for cartoon status. The second question is trickier. I found the passage rather hideous and upsetting, but read on: after the injury Don Quijote becomes enraged, trounces his adversary, and goes on to have a long talk with Sancho about his valor, the irrelevance of civil jurisprudence for knights-errant, and the recipe for his secret healing potion. Sancho gets very excited about this last, but Don Quijote ends the conversation:

-Calla, amigo -respondió don Quijote-, que mayores secretos pienso enseñarte y mayores mercedes hacerte; y, por agora, curémonos, que la oreja me duele más de lo que yo quisiera.

“Peace, friend,” answered Don Quixote; “greater secrets I mean to teach thee and greater favours to bestow upon thee; and for the present let us see to the dressing, for my ear pains me more than I could wish.”

This was where I laughed. It’s funnier in Spanish than in Ormsby’s translation, and much funnier in context; for several pages of high-flown discourse Quijote apparently forgets that he’s missing half an ear, then mentions the pain in the most formal and reserved way possible. (The imperfect subjunctive quisiera is the kind of word you use to order a meal in fancy restaurants.) Quijote’s insistence on maintaining his dignity is what makes the maiming thinkable, what brings it into the realm of things that we can actually laugh at—and, in a weird way, is what humanizes it. I have a suspicion that this may not have been true for Cervantes and his audience; for them the injury was the main comedic attraction, and Quijote’s reaction just an afterthought. If this is true, it means that we’re reading the book rather differently than its original audience did. But this is not the sort of willfully blind reading that Nabokov attacks, where one simply ignores the cruelty in order to pronounce vague, Harold Bloom-esque platitudes about the book’s humanism or heroism. The cruelty, and our horrified reaction to the cruelty, is a necessary part of the affective experience. And the book’s ability to support both of these readings, and to be praised by readers from both camps, might tell us something about why it’s stuck around so long.

(more to come)


Watch For Deer Next Five Miles

So you can see that things are shaking up a bit. Pica is coming on board as an author, and now and again we will attempt to hoist longer pieces from the rigging, aside from our usual alternating sequence of distress signals and pirate flags. There will be a period of change and uncertainty until a new punctuated equilibrium is established. But at least we are both scrupulous in our punctuation.



Part three (east) is finished; it alone is 103,000 words. One cardinal direction to go.


eleven syrupy treats

Everything is shipshape for purchase on the other end of that Pacific Theater link: I'll put up a couple more mp3s soon.

I was asked to write about movies some time ago, and then got distracted, because I'm not always good for much. I don't see that many films, maybe thirty a year, and often don't know what to say about them. I get handicapped in that my face-recognition software is just terrible; as soon as an actor puts on sunglasses or changes their clothes, I often fail to recognize them as the same character, and if the movie decides to show the passage of time by giving the actor a wig or something, it's all over.

The last film I saw in a theater was the Batman movie, because people were going to see the Batman movie. It cost about as much as a meal at a chain diner, with a drink included, and delivered about the same amount of satisfaction; you basically know what's going to arrive on your plate, and only a curmudgeon would complain about being unable to order what's not on the menu. My genial indifference gave way to admiration for the Scarecrow visuals and ridicule for the microwave generator that vaporizes all water within miles, except for the water comprising 65 percent of the characters. Possibly the film is set on Putnam's Twin Earth? At home I've been working through some lists of recommended thirties comedies (here and here). The last one was The Good Fairy, which was thoroughly endearing, not least because it only occasionally remembers that it's supposed to be set in Budapest.

It's been a while since I saw a film I actively hated, since most bad movies are like heavy traffic; there's no actual thing there to hate. You just grit your teeth and endure, and eventually you sell your car. I suppose the ones that make me angry are those that demonstrate obvious talent, then proceed to fuck it up through gross misunderstandings of our reasons for telling stories, cinematic or otherwise. I think The Saddest Music in the World was the last time I saw that happen; before that, Kill Bill.

Never saw any of the Godfather movies, due to general boredom with the Mob. That's probably a mistake.

Three films that mean a lot to me would be La Règle du Jeu, Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, and The Big Lebowski: all comedies of one sort or another. Around the local blog neighborhood, people much more informed than I routinely discuss film comedy; I don't feel equipped to say much. I do think it's easier to believe in the ludicrous when you see and hear it acted out before you; these are simulacra of our world, but brighter and faster, thus joyful, and unsteady at the edges, thus alarming. When a crack appears in the world, pretty often it's death that leaks through, whether it's the skeleton dance at Marquis's château or Walter biting off an ear as Donnie goes down with a heart attack. I would like to talk about Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, but I, er, haven't read Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. This whole site should be titled "Notes For Discussions I Might One Day Be Qualified to Have." Cheers!

(P.S.: Iowablog, you don't do anything no more; why not take this "meme" and run with it?)



The Pacific Theater is here! As far as the official website and Amazon and everyone are concerned, the release date is on Tuesday, but those who wish to click the button up there can order a copy pronto for ten bucks, with an added two-dollar cut for the U.S. Postal Service. Rah!


wdn't they say "grosser roman"? or know i nowt?

You know owt; they would say ein großer Roman, and maybe one day they will.


perder el juicio

They were testing air-raid sirens on campus this morning, I guess as practice for the day the Luftwaffe comes to bomb us. They sounded like theremins blasting through megaphones, greeting the vintage fifties flying saucers that will finish my book, make me smarter and better, render me able to hold a steady job without childish despondency, reconcile me to my shortcomings, grant me rest.

It's a gross Roman, as the Germans would say—my stepfather thinks that at this point I should just rename it War and Peace. If the day comes when I accomplish something that could be placed next to Tolstoy without vaporizing on contact, surely it will not be I who accomplishes it. I will have turned into something unrecognizable to myself. Read Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments yesterday, all about how the great transformation must come from without rather than within—so compromised and farcical as we all seem, how could we move unaided to anything but more farce? And yet it happens. We will sprout bizarre flowers when the season comes, we will be new.



I have been meaning to answer a reasonable response to June 22, below:

hey, improve your attitude! i'm a bi/feminist girl who loves ulysses and I think you could say some interesting things about women and sex and the last chapter. not sure WHAT exactly, but I don't think the q. is completely dumbass. v. woolf probably thought the same thing as mr. bersani and she still took ulysses seriously enough to write mrs. dalloway in response.

Right, if I were a grown-up I would have taken the mention of Mr. Bersani as an entrée into a discussion of gender in "Penelope," which certainly is a fruitful topic. Unfortunately my dander was raised by the double whammy of "heteronormativity," which is not a bit of jargon I had previously encountered, and the easy way it nestles up with the verb "accuse." I do not know who Leo Bersani is, and maybe he is actually the best critic since Coleridge, but this sounds like the sort of criticism where, from the comfortable vantage point of your own enlightened age, you level an accusation against a book written decades ago, as if it were a corporation with discriminatory hiring practices or something, and that's the end of it. It's probably correct to say that the last chapter of Ulysses presents men and women as essentially different in certain ways. But the form of the question, and the various definitions that cluster under the term "heteronormativity", suggest that an ought necessarily accompanies the is, that to represent gender difference as anything other than social construction is necessarily to reinforce the usual cluster of repressive beliefs that a woman's place is in the home, that homosexuality is deviant, and so on. I find that a terribly uncritical and unsubtle way to think, and this kind of thing is my number-two problem with jargon, right after the basic issue of obscurantism.

Molly Bloom does not get the same depth and variety of narrative treatment as her husband. Her chapter returns us to the stream-of-consciousness technique that Ulysses largely abandons after its first third, so instead of the pyrotechnics of the later Bloom chapters, we appear to get a woman's unmediated thoughts, centering on matters that we traditionally associate with the feminine: love, sex, the body, the home. One account of the narrative arc of Ulysses, which I quite like, suggests that it combines the mythic and mundane by cranking up its technique into ever more complex and surreal elaborations until at last, in the homecoming chapters, it returns to something like realism. But it's repetition with a difference; having been taken through the mythopoeic possibilities of daily life, the reader is now equipped to see them even in a monologue such as Molly's, which formally doesn't stray a whit from realism. Her thoughts and judgments about herself and others oscillate as much as Bloom's, and the previous seventeen chapters have trained us to see how, like any of us, she becomes a very different person from one moment to the next. It might be objected that the possible roles between which Molly shifts are only the same old confining categories that Western society has instituted for its women: the virgin, the whore, the mother, and so on. That may be true. But Joyce was working with the culture he had—it wasn't his project to reimagine the feminine from the ground up. For that we may be thankful that V. Woolf came along. If she did hold the same opinion as Mr. Bersani, she certainly made better use of it.


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