He Hasn’t Been Posting Anything: Maybe He’s Been Reading

Going into summer with a sabbatical (& trip to Hanoi) on the far side of it, I haven’t had much writing mojo, though that feels like it’s about to change. I have been reading voraciously & indiscriminately, however:

The Brothers Karamazov: One of those big 19th century novels I never got around to reading until now. Is it as great as The Idiot? Probably, but I’m still more drawn to Myshkin than to any of the three Karamazov brothers. I’ve always wanted to write a poem with the line “I am not Prince Myshkin nor was meant to be,” but have never found a context for anything so arch.

Incomplete Nature by Terrence W. Deacon: One of those big philosophical books by a scientist that confronts the big problems that science would like to pretend have been solved or don’t matter. Deacon proposes, with a great deal of detail & a series of rigorous arguments, to show how mind emerges from nature. I wish an editor had been a little more strict with the prose, but after finishing this long book I put it aside for a week, then picked it up & read through it again.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler: Philip Marlowe at his most incisive & laconic. A work of genre fiction that confronts moral ambiguity as only a great work of literature can. The language is crisp & loaded with nuance. (This sounds like a book blurb because I’d have to write an entire essay to do justice to my admiration for Chandler’s novel.)

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré: Toby Bell, like all of le Carré’s good guys, is going to suffer terribly for doing the right thing, while the bastards who did the wrong thing will almost certainly find ways to slither to safety. It is le Carré’s genius to show the process by which an ordinary man (it’s almost always a man) achieves moral clarity, then to show how he will be punished for acting on that clarity.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson: Since undergraduate days I have had an equivocal relationship to Emerson (while absolutely loathing Thoreau). As an example of biography, Richardson’s volume seems a nearly perfect exemplar of the Big Bio genre, gracefully detailed but with strong narrative motion. Emerson was among the first Americans to really grapple with Cartesian dualism & while he comes down too close to Plato for me to find him convincing, he really made a run at finding how mind emerges from nature. Richardson’s portrait also frees Emerson from a lot of the Transcendentalist goo that has stuck to him over time.

Seveneves by by Neal Stephenson: I’ve only read one other Stephenson novel (Snow Crash), having given up on The Diamond Age because of the cloying cuteness of a central character & a general sense of undigested sentimentalism. Snow Crash invents a plausible near-future techtopia with characters as subtle as any in literary fiction; Seveneves also creates a believable world that makes the end of life on earth its dramatic backdrop. (Though in addition to the seven Eves & their eden, there is also a Noah’s Ark–more than one, actually. The action starts in the relatively near future, but then leaps mid-way some thousands of years into the future. Surprisingly, the plot survives this fast-forwarding. I’m hoping for a sequel.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson: Another space opera. The plot is pedestrian, characters flat, and the ending diffuse: as a novel, this book is a mess, but it is nevertheless compelling g as an argument for what might be called biological pluralism. Robinson argues that “life is a planetary phenomenon,” by which he means that organisms (including humans) cannot thrive–or even survive–in biospheres other than the one in which they evolved. Intersteller colonies will inevitably fail.


Catching My Breath

Well, my part in my department’s immediate business is winding down & the semester is two-thirds over. I have a couple of days clear & then Spring Break starts, during which I’ll be writing a conference paper on Basho’s & Peter Matthiesen’s representations of suffering in their travel writings, trying to see if there is something distinctively Buddhist in the writing when it depicts suffering. I’m starting, actually, with Auden’s famous “Musee Des Beaux Arts,” as a kind of touchstone. I’m looking at a couple specific passages, my presentation focusing on close reading & a rhetorical analysis. I probably won’t do much tomorrow but clean the house, straighten my office, and get some exercise. On Friday I’ll try to pick up the discussion of Buddhism from a couple of posts back.

Girl, Interrupted

Notes on Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. I ignored this when it came out a few years ago, consigning it to the category of Chick Lit. That was a mistake. Thememoirfocuses on the year and a half during the late 1960s that Kayman spent as a patient at McLean Hospital. She was eighteen when she went in and twenty when she came out, “stabilized” but skeptical of conventional wisdom, a trait that makers her a good writer. There isn’t a wasted word in the 168 pages of text. The portraits of her fellow patients — other adolescent girls — are moving and funny, but not sentimental. Kaysen refers in passing to some of the famous people who have passed through McLean — James Taylor, Robert Lowell* — establishing the class affiliation of the patients. She points out that you don’t get to stay there unless someone keeps paying the bill each month.

When theteen-agedKayson refuses to consider going to college despite her obvious intelligence and verbal gifts, I found myself reacting with incomprehension until I realized that this was the most radical form of rebellion a young person of her class could engage in, whereas, where I came from, going to college was very often considered a kind of betrayal of one’s family. Remember Huck’s father berating him for going to school? Something like that. Going to college, I aspired to transcend my class; Kaysen does the same thing by “attending” McLean Hospital.

Kaysen’s personal recollections are for the most part objective, with a minimum of interpretation, so that when she does reach for the larger meaning of her madness her observations are grounded in direct experience; furthermore, she rejects easy conceptualization at every turn, refusing to create meaning where she does not see it. This gives the book an unsettling quality that emerges from this rhetoric of negation and refusal. The effect on the reader is a sense of the author’s integrity.Girl, Interrupted presents a fragment of the 1960s. From her genteel madhouse, the young Kaysen looks out on theassassinations, riots, the hippies & the Yippies, the Vietnam War & Watergate. These details are sketched sparingly, like the distant city in aRenaissance landscape, but they serve to establish both the cultural and personal context for the story.

*She might also have mentioned Alice James, sister of Henry & William — and perhaps William himself, the records are missing and there is only circumstantial evidence.

Summer Reading

A colleague with a self-improving streak mentioned that he and a student were having a contest to see how many books each of them could read this summer & so, having a self-improving streak myself, I asked if I could go along for the ride. This blog used to be called Reading & Writing, so it is appropriate, I guess, to keep track of my books here. I’ll also encourage Stephen & Louis to post what they are reading in comments, or link to their own online lists. What, though, do we mean by reading? I read some things, for classes, say, in one way & other things, for research, or pleasure, etc. in other ways. What counts as reading for this competition?

And Your Point Is?

Note: Originally posted on 2.8.2009, I’ve moved this back to the top because Robert Bernard Hass has been kind enough to respond in comments. I have also written a response to his comment and would love to hear the view of others, which is why I’m also going to cross-post this to the Plumbline blog.

What the hell is the point of this? I didn’t think much of Alexander’s poem either, but I tried to sketch a few reasons I thought the piece didn’t work. Jack Foley, whoever he is, has simply delivered an insult without content. Another writer at CPR (which I tend to think of as a literary organ of the rump New Formalism), makes a sronger case. Robert Bernard Hass’s objections make sense, as far as they go, but I find the assumptions underlying his conclusion problematic:

Perhaps what was most troubling about this inaugural event is that one of our most celebrated poets (Ms. Alexander was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) seemed so woefully underprepared to seize the opportunity to take poetry from the periphery of our awareness and make it more culturally relevant. With such a huge audience on hand, her inaugural moment had the potential to inspire a nation, to find, as President Obama himself has often iterated, old ways to be new. Unfortunately, Ms. Alexanders poem, so devoid of the rhetorical resources poets have always relied upon to celebrate exceptional accomplishment, failed to capture the American imaginationas President Obama had done, so eloquently in his speech, only moments earlier.

An understanding of the the rhetorical situation is essential, I agree, but I suspect that no rhetoric can reconcile electoral politics with the “politics of the unconscious.” (Modern) poetry can only assent provisionally to ideology. The modern poet must write from an alienated position. It occurs to me, in fact, that those poets (like me) who see modernism in terms of a fundamental break in the culture of the West are likely to see a parallel fundamental disjunction between poetry & politics. On the other hand, poets (& readers) who see Modernism as just another literary style will tend to see the relationship between politics & poetry as, if not unproblematic, then at least not fundamentally problematic.