Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Sun Also Sets

"Oh, Jake," Brett said, "we could have had such a damned good time together."
"Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so."

Maybe someone's already beat me to it*, but I think Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press, 2011) is our generation's The Sun Also Rises, which means, I guess, that I'm predicting Ben Lerner will win the Nobel Prize after he writes a few, you know, "major" novels to follow up on this first one. Lerner is a bit older than Hemingway was in 1926, but the action of Lerner's novel is set in 2004, when Lerner was 25, which means Jake Barnes and Adam Gordon are roughly the same age. Also, Barnes is impotent because of a vaguely described injury from the war. Gordon is not injured and impotent but bipolar and medicated and, in some sense at least, "incapable". Both are young Americans in Europe, embarked, arguably, on what Norman Mailer described as a "drunken furlough from the ordering disciplines of church, F.B.I., and war". Both are having a difficult time being "in love" under the current conditions (on the surface, each in their characteristically aloof ways).

Both novels are near-perfectly written. You can even, I think, trace a kind of "arc" from The Sun Also Rises to Leaving the Atocha Station through both American literature and Imperial Grand Strategy, if you will. But I'll leave that sweeping gesture at the sweep of its gesture.

Hemingway on his younger days in Paris:

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it. (Death in the Afternoon, p. 10)

I'm probably not the only one who sees in this description of the relationship between "motion and fact" and "the emotion you experience" the influence of T.S. Eliot's famous analysis of Hamlet; it's an account of what Eliot called "the objective correlative". Like so many others, I always found his critique of the play unconvincing, precisely because it seemed to me that play was about a man who had lost an objective correlative. The "difficulty" Hemingway describes had reached a limit, and this is of course also why young men, perhaps spending a year abroad to feel it more fully, can so easily identify with Hamlet. I should note here that when he ran for mayor of New York in 1969 Mailer announced that the people of the city had lost their objective correlative, duly citing T.S. Eliot.

Adam Gordon is a man who is working the most tenuous connections between what he feels and any given sequence of motion and fact. He's a poet.


*Update: Indeed, someone has beaten me to the comparison: see J.A. Tyler's review at the Rumpus.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Social Theory and the Novel

"It seemed to him that everybody, literate and illiterate alike, had in the privacy of their unconscious worked out a vast social novel by which they could make sense of society." (Norman Mailer, 1970)

Reading James Wood's review of Michel Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory brought this remark from Mailer's A Fire on the Moon to mind. This sentence in particular: "The power of Houellebecq's critique has less to do with its persuasiveness as social theory than with the spectacle it offers of the author's bared wounds" (80). Let's let that biographical moment pass. It's the first part of the sentence I'm interested in. I am personally completely unpersuaded by social theory as such. Reading a novel "as social theory" strikes me as not a little wrongheaded. Interestingly, Mailer's unconscious Novelist was precisely to complement his more famous existential Navigator. The Novelist was to "draw up new social charts upon which the Navigator could make his calculations." It is telling that Mailer does not propose a Cartographer, and more telling still that he does not propose a Theorist (or Sociologist). A novel is as close as we get to a map, to a theory, of the social. Thankfully.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Keeping up with John Latta...

...isn't easy. Just noticed I'm very much behind. Three posts, in particular, are relevant to my current interests:

More later.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Pressure of Reality

(From my notes, reading Tony Tost's PhD dissertation, Machine Poetics. Tony begins with Stevens's definition of "the pressure of reality": "the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.”)

Wallace Stevens:

It is not only that there are more of us and that we are actually close together. We are close together in every way. We lie in bed and listen to a broadcast from Cairo, and so on. There is no distance. We are intimate with people we have never seen and, unhappily, they are intimate with us. (The Noble Rider, 1945, p. 638)

Martin Heidegger:

When the farthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically; when any incident you like, in any place you like, at any time you like, becomes accessible as fast as you like; when you can simultaneously "experience" an assassination attempt against a king in France and a symphony concert in Tokyo; when time is nothing but speed, instanteneity, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from all Dasein of all peoples; when a boxer counts as the great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a specter over all this uproar the question: what for?—where to?—and what then? (IM, 1936, p. 40 [28-9])

Friday, January 06, 2012

In Swift and Accurate Pursuit of the Modern Imperative

I have resolved to read everything John Latta posts to Isola di Rifiuti this year. It has already borne fruit.Yesterday, he quoted Williams:

If the attention could envision the whole of writing, let us say, at one time, moving over it in swift and accurate pursuit of the modern imperative at the instant when it is most to the fore, something of what actually takes place under an optimum of intelligence could be observed. It is an alertness not to let go of a possibility of movement in our fearful bedazzlement with some concrete and fixed present.

This alertness is of course what the Pangrammaticon is all about ("all the usage..."). I am literally obsessed with "what actually takes place under an optimum of intelligence". As Cyril Connolly put it in his introduction to the Unquiet Grave:

All grief, once made known to the mind, can be cured by the mind, the manuscript proclaimed; the human brain, once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow. (xvi)

And this brings us back to the beginning, to my confrontation with a fully functioning human brain in the process of making a poem, namely, Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot", i.e., I am not Palinurus, i.e., I am immune from sorrow.

Last year, Tony completed his PhD dissertation on Pound, Stein and new media. While he was writing it, he noted that Flarf reminded him of "Pound's proposed arrangement of sound in a working factory" (comment to this post). I read the dissertation last summer and I think I'm about ready to bring my modicum of intelligence to bear upon it. So, this year at the Pangrammaticon we will be reading a lot of Tost and Latta. We are in pursuit of the modern imperative!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Liberal's Last Sonnet

(After Glenn Greenwald)

Tired with all these, for Obama's fall I cry:
As to behold "Muslim children slaughtered
by covert drones and cluster bombs,
and America’s minorities imprisoned
by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason,
and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency,
and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State,
and American citizens targeted by the President
for assassination with no due process,
and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for 'espionage,'
and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret,
and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran."

Tired with all these, I'd have Obama gone
save that my bleeding heart just cannot stomach Ron.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

There Is Nothing that I Need

He chose the way of the cross. There is
nowhere you must go. His body was ample payment.
When you are in the mind, everything I am saying
will seem false. But I wish to tell you that myself.
It’s a language I have ceased to need. There is nothing
I have to wake for. To sleep from. I have no dreams.
I smiled at the genie and said please forgive me.
But there is nothing that I long for.
The panel issued a statement describing Bush
and Cheney as "forthcoming and candid."

I am relaxed and I have all the time I need or want
at this moment. I will be the builder of my experience.
I usually don’t ask for anything at this point.
Poetry is not my salvation because I need no
salvation to be redeemed from. It's just that
I've been thinking and I want to be sure:
The panel issued a statement
describing Bush and Cheney
as "forthcoming
and candid"?

I think I went a little overboard this year!
I sorted through it to see what I might need.
I am quite public about my need to
apologise for my past. Certainly your saving
grace is that there is no need that I could ever
have that is deeper that this one. Now, I would
want them to buy me. Let me revise that,
there is NOTHING that I NEED.
The panel issued a statement
describing Bush and Cheney
as "forthcoming and candid."

Monday, January 02, 2012

"The loneliness which is the truth about things"

[Update: after posting this, I was informed (see comments) that Frank Cioffi had died the previous day. It seems fitting, in acknowledgement of this strange coincidence, to dedicate this post, humble as it is, to his memory. He helped us to think through our loneliness to the end. May he rest in peace.]

It just occurred to me that I might have been remembering the quote wrong. Sure enough, I've now located it in a book I read many years ago. In his contribution to The Impulse to Philosophize, "Congenital Transcendentalism and 'the loneliness which is the truth about things'", Frank Cioffi writes:

I take the phrase ‘congenital transcendentalism’ from Santayana who defined it as ‘the spontaneous feeling that life is a dream’. ‘The loneliness which is the truth about things’ is a phrase of Virginia Woolf's. The thesis I will advance is that many expressions of doubt or denial of the shareable world are self-misunderstood manifestations of the state indicated by Woolf's expression. But the loneliness of which Woolf speaks must not be construed as the kind of loneliness which can be assuaged by family, friends, lovers or company. Nor is it the loneliness which a convinced solipsist might experience. It is rather the loneliness of ‘that “I” and that “life of mine’” which is ‘untouched whichever way the issue is decided whether the world is or is not’ (Husserl, 1970, 9).

He concludes the same essay by saying that Woolf's phrase sums up "the unique ontological structure of being" (p., 138).

We can easily construct supplements: "the friendship which is justice among people", "the common ethnographic texture of becoming" (clear, no?). I like the idea of a loneliness that brings us closer to truth just as much as I like the idea of a friendship that brings us closer to justice. Naturally, both experiences can be perverted and succumb to illusion.

Update: I probably read it in Cioffi's Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer. But Cioffi does not provide a reference and I have still not been able to locate the phrase in Woolf's writings.

Power by Acquaintance

Bertrand Russell distinguished between "knowledge by acquaintance" and "knowledge by description". Likewise, we might distinguish between "power by acquaintance" and "power by prescription". The first suggests "friendship". This gives us a clue to term I've been searching for, a pangrammatical supplement for friendship.

"According to Russell, knowledge by acquaintance is obtained through a direct causal (experience-based) interaction between a person and the object that person is perceiving. Sense-data from that object are the only things that people can ever become acquainted with; they can never truly KNOW the physical object itself," Wikipedia tells us.

Virginia Woolf talked about "the loneliness that is the truth of things" (though I can never remember where I heard this.) Perhaps that's our answer: loneliness is to knowledge as friendship is to power. Interestingly this also means that loneliness is to bigotry as friendship is to loyalty.

Knowledge by acquaintance suggest loneliness as power by acquaintance suggests friendship.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Friendship and _____ness?

Picking up on Thomas's comment to my last post on this subject, it seems to me that we some sort of thingly "relationship" (a relation between things) to supplement the personal relationship (a relation between people) that constitutes friendship. (That is, I want a "condition or state" of things, not people.) The suffix "-ness" or perhaps "-ment" may be a clue.