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2007.03 =>

[FEBRUARY 2007.]

I dreamed that perseus.tufts.edu included George W. Bush in its list of Latin authors. Ha ha, I thought, that's cute, everyone thinks he's a Roman emperor. But no—it turned out that in his youth, Bush had found time to do a translation of Cicero, and it wasn't half bad. I was flummoxed. Had I misjudged everything?


I Am Home From an Academic Conference

Continental Airlines is not a very competent outfit and will be one of the first to fold when the airlines start going out of business. Also: do not eat the enchiladas in the Houston airport. When I finally staggered into the Oakland terminal at one in the morning they were playing a Muzak version of “Octopus’s Garden,” which was my cue to cackle maniacally and exclaim, “WE’RE ALL MAD HERE!”

My last conference anecdote should probably be the Q&A after the Eliot panel (see below), where no one dared ask the Onomastics Professor anything until he finally raised his hand and asked whether we thought it was a valid methodology to use onomastics to prove that Eliot wasn’t gay. Awkward silence. Eventually the professor who had presented on Colonel Sanders turned around and said, “I always thought of Prüfstein being German for touchstone.”

“Touchstone?” asked the Onomastics Professor. “You mean Prüf—?”

Prüfstein. And you know, Touchstone’s a clown.”

“Oh,” said the Onomastics Professor.


I Am Still At an Academic Conference

Part two: after the Eliot panel, I went to the keynote presentation, where Laura Kipnis who wrote The Female Thing tried to make the Lee Siegel nonsense into a synecdoche for literary criticism; you will be glad to know she didn’t succeed. Then I went to the pizza reception, where I inhaled a Budwieser and 45 slices of Papa John’s and briefly listened to the jazz quartet whose leader had strewn flyers around the tables advertising his jazz workshops, in which anyone can learn to express himself or herself through improvisation.

Jamey’s hobby is listening to jazz, especially new young players. He also enjoys playing basketball and is very much interested in Metaphysics and spiritual pursuits as they apply to the growth of the individual. He has hit 50 free throws in a row!

I told a nice French lady that I was exhausted and had to go to bed, then spent an hour walking around sketchy parts of Louisville (cemetery -> electrical substation -> lumber mill -> ball bearing factory -> Harley dealership) playing the extreme sport of trying to get on the same side of the freeway and railroad tracks as the Days Inn. When I finally got there, the desk clerk looked me over and said, “You don’t look like you’re here for the car show... and you don’t look like you’re here for the gun show... it must be the literacy thing!” Close enough. “That’s right,” I said.

But the next day’s panels were good; my paper on Lolita came off well; the other Nabokov panelists are great and I skipped the official dinner so we could go out to an Argentinian restaurant where I ate (not beef!) a milanesa, which was basically a delicious plateful of fried cheese.

You're making me want to go to the MLA!


I Am At an Academic Conference

Came into Kentucky from the air Thursday morning after a night of snatching sleep on planes, listening to Kaija Saariaho's beautiful grinding cello music, looking at myself in the dark window. The little melodramas we constantly stage. Reading Virgil. From the air flatness and haze, land cut into odd shapes along a grid, hills covered with the brown fuzz of leafless trees. The railroad depot swelling from a single track into a dozen parallel lines, like muscle fibers, then contracting again. Taxi to the university. Panels. A good one on cognitive poetics; then the sleepnessness caught up with me and I wandered into a T.S. Eliot panel. Six or seven people in the room. A bent man in his sixties walks up to the podium and announces that his interest is in onomastics, the study of naming. He passes out some heavily marked-up photocopies of a dot-matrix printout listing his name and address and the thirty or forty articles on names that he has published over the years.

“Today I want to discuss the name of J. Alfred Prufrock. Hugh Kenner reminds us that this Teutonic surname appeared on a storefront in St. Louis around the turn of the century. Note the conjunction of German prufen, or English “proof,” with Rock, which means a coat, or else the solid rock on which Prufrock wishes to found proof of his existence, as Peter is the rock, or petrus, on which the Church was founded. Now it has been suggested to me that Prufrock might suggest a prude in a frock. But this seems highly unlikely for several reasons. Note that “Prufrock” is missing two letters from this combination, to wit, the “d” and the “e.” Furthermore, a frock would connote effeminacy—yet we see clearly that Prufrock is obviously not sexually abnormal. Consider Alfred Prufrock calling himself an “attendant lord,” which may recall Alfred, Lord Tennyson. There has been an attempt to claim that Tennyson was deviant. But this has not been proved, and at any rate it would not mean that Prufrock was deviant. Now we might think of Eliot’s dedicating the volume to Jean Vardenal, who was killed at the Dardanelles. This might remind us of the potential “death by water” in Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, when Leander swims the Hellespont and is detained by an amorous sea god. But this homosexual encounter does not prove that Marlowe was homosexual. I am aware that some have attempted to claim that Marlowe was deviant. In fact, I must admit that I used to be a member of the Christopher Marlowe Society until it was taken over by papers with titles like “Queering Christopher Marlowe.” You know, I’ve noticed that people who claim that Eliot was sexually abnormal tend to be sexually abnormal themselves. So you might say that they aren’t looking at the facts—they’re just, you know, trying to build up their own thing. There has been an attempt to claim that Vardenal was Eliot’s male lover, initiating a pattern of furtive homosexual activity on Eliot’s part. But there is no evidence for such sexual abnormality, and at any rate, even if Vardenal was that way, it wouldn’t mean that Prufrock was that way, and even if Prufrock was that way, it wouldn’t mean that Eliot was that way. I once had a fraternity brother who assured me that Eliot was that way, and then he turned out to be that way himself. In conclusion, Prufrock is a Teutonic name.”

I was half asleep and unsure how much of this I was actually hearing; I had the sense that the man was repeatedly slugging himself in the jaw, out of convinction that both he and the audience needed it, until he finally fell down and we all applauded. The last speaker was a genial older guy who told some anecdotes about members of the Keats and Eliot families who are buried in the same cemetery as Colonel Sanders. He passed around photos.

Jeez, how the Hell did you stay awake through all this? Tell that guy "Rock" is also "skirt" in German. Hmmm, I guess that would REALLY pertain to cross-dressing.


J. came home and told me about a critical article on Absalom, Absalom! and the cinematic imagination of the South; I was skeptical cause that book don’t seem very cinematic to me; J. explained that the argument contained a lot of theory and the “concept of the suture.”

Ah, I exclaimed, you mean the argument works by a simple mathematical transformation into Bullshit Space! Where nothing is equal to itself, and everything is equal to everything else, so that when you transform it back into regular space it has become completely unrecognizable! Hats off to dear old Herr Doktor Professor Bullshit.

what, are you racist against german people?! god, offensive much? the suture is totally "monsieur le professeur du merde du vache" anyway.


Giving Up Ground

I don't know to what extent one's intellectual habits are fixed at twenty-eight, but I've sedimented a great deal in the last couple of years, and it now seems a good forecast that I'll never be much of an essayist. Which is a shame, since I admire the form endlessly and so many of my favorite novelists have used it to fine effect; but I'm more and more reluctant to speak in my own voice. (Or to mark one of my constructed voices with an authorial imprimatur, if you prefer that phrasing.) I don't trust my own bald opinions any more, not even when I voice them privately. And this isn't just to reiterate what Musil says, that a good essay is always richer than the sum of its systematizable content; because even the subtlest and most carefully self-qualifying of Musil's performances always presupposes some definite knowledge of errors to be corrected, or at least exposed, and it's his magnificent bravado that I can't imitate. Five years ago I was pretty sure that I had seen through the surface of American life and letters into their essential form, and that I could explain this form to anyone committed enough to listen. Now I think that I have only physical objects, a vocabulary and varieties of human temperament—which items don't add up to an essay, however oblique. It's only when refracted through a prism, such as fiction, that they take on any form at all. For instance, to the extent that anything has worked on this website, it's worked because refracted through diarism, and the diarism itself has no value except as a vehicle for sentences, and the sentences themselves might as well be taken as nonsense, because their virtue never lies in their content; it's all euphony and the rigging of subordinate clauses. Translated into a Fregean logical notation they would sublime away entirely, like dry ice.

Of course I do write essays as an academic. But that’s just a job.

The author's own voice? Paging Dr. Foucault! The patient is trying to come back alive...


More on the Horse

It's hard to sustain enough interest in contemporary bad writing even to censure it; but bad writing of the past can still delight, since I don't see it nearly as often except in Joyce's and Orwell's parodies. My Valentine's Day gift to fans of "Eumaeus" and "Politics and the English Language" is these introductory paragraphs from Learning to Ride by Captain Piero Santini, published 1941. Note especially the bewildering heap of verbs in the final sentence, sucked bloodless and wan through noun constructions and the passive voice.

Convinced as I am that “forward” riding, understood as a method and not as an attitude, has come to stay, and will eventually spread to all forms of outdoor equitation, I consider it imperative that the rising generations be clearly enlightened as to its true features. The main reason, therefore, that has induced me to write the present book, besides the desire synthetically to crystallize the principles more cursorily dealt with in preceding works, is definitely to establish the minimum that, in my opinion, beginners should know on these lines before being allowed to take any active part in field or ring.

It is, I hope, superfluous to point out that I address myself exclusively to those who conceive riding primarily as an outdoor sport. By this I do not mean that I do not give a certain type and measure of school work due place and importance, but it does signify that I regard any training not directly and continuously aimed at open air activities of some kind not only useless but deleterious to both horse and rider... I consider that the tyro for whose benefit the following pages are written will have left the chrysalis stage when he will have learnt sufficient to venture abroad with reasonable safety and comfort to himself and his mount. The minimum a novice should know is:

(1) To mount and dismount correctly.
(2) To walk, trot and gallop correctly.
(3) To halt correctly.
(4) To back correctly.
(5) To circle, half-circle and “change” correctly.
(6) To jump varied obstacles of reasonable height, and/or breadth, correctly,

to which may be added the ability to control pace and direction.

“Correctly” has been repeated deliberately to stress the necessity for continually striving to conserve the proper attitudes from head to heel under all circumstances.


We ran out of book space again, so I improved the home by installing these shelves in back of my desk:

Points for the big nerds who can pick out the Norton anthologies and the three distinctively colored Bakhtin paperback titles sitting next to each other.

Other than that I am punching the clock like Trollope with his stopwatch.

i can't call either of those, but below the equator and east of the prime meridian, i believe i spy either the brothers karamazov or original meanings.

Hmm, these are just the lit crit shelves. Are you looking at Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction with its handsome orange-pink stripe? It happens to all of us.


“I saw with my own eyes young children flying from the windows of the apartments on top of the shops when the explosion arrived,” said Haydar Abdul Jabbar, 28, a car mechanic who was standing near a barber shop when the bomb exploded. “One woman threw herself out of the window when the fire came close to her.”

Mr. Abdul Jabbar said he rushed to collapsed buildings trying to help the wounded, but found mainly hands, skulls and other body parts.

“The government is supposed to protect us, but they are not doing their job,” he said. “I watch the TV and see the announcements on the imminent implementation of the security plan. Where is it, for God’s sake?”

“I wish they would attack us with a nuclear bomb and kill us all,” he added, “so we will rest and anybody who wants the oil — which is the core of the problem — can come and get it. We can not live this way anymore. We are dying slowly every day.”


Happy Birthday James Joyce

On the couch. Writing has reached the compulsive point of repeatedly taking a word out and putting it back in.

J.: “Virgil never finished the Aeneid, you know.”


January Was

I got a surprising and somehow excessive-seeming award from the department—it was like drawing the Monopoly card that announces you won a beauty contest—while J. got accepted to a Ph.D. program here at Berkeley. I finished the reading for my orals list, but won't be taking the exam until early April and don't even have to discuss it with anyone until March. So I have strange weeks. Following secondary sources into alleys that may be blind or sighted, reading more Henry James for pleasure, the hopeless but somehow unabandonable task of trying to sing. The gray sky. And if the sky were not gray, would it convince me that I was really on the earth—?

The work in progress I am calling Silver State, though it ought to get a better name, something from liturgy. In the absence of pressing material cares it keeps ambushing me, and I keep skirting it, and nonetheless parts of it are getting written. The late James is rising as an influence, and the compositional method has changed completely; there aren’t any chapters or line breaks, but it comes piecemeal in sections of two or three pages, starting with a few notes padded between carriage returns in the word processor which gradually acquire ancillary phrases and uncurl into long sentences which in turn generate their own ancillary notes, and so on until the sea drains from the archipelago and bares the deep structure beneath the isles. I don’t know that any of it is “compelling” (idiotic word, from the bookseller’s impoverished vocabulary—you don’t know what it is to be placed under a compulsion!), but some of the phrases please me greatly and will sit well in the desk drawer.

What did I print my books for, at such expense to my vanity? Surely not to read them all myself, when one copy is too much! If I do not go about asking all my friends to take them, is it not because I know by a very long experience that no one, however charming, will read them without compulsion? I myself read not—no! not even the Golden Fount or Mount or Count or whatever [it] is longer than half a page.

—Henry Adams to Margaret Chanler, January 27, 1905


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