Monday, July 11, 2016
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is a triumph, its worth well beyond the $30 listed on Amazon at the time of this writing. It is a treasure of my library very much akin to The Complete Illuminated Books. Dickinson's envelope poems and Blake's handmade illuminated poems represent an eternal discourse on the marriage of medium and content. Yet while Blake's process was an arduous task of writing and illustrating backwards (so that his self-invented press would stamp everything in the proper direction!) to produce copies to give out and sell himself, Dickinson's envelope poems represent a mind bursting with thought and a hand desperate to keep up. We must bear in mind that Dickinson did not intend for a publication of her "envelope poems"; she wasn't seeking to discover a new artistic medium. She was indeed a product of her time: a girl in nineteenth-century New England repurposing envelopes to capture her wild poetic thoughts somewhat in secret. Jen Bervin, in the introduction, brings in a charming anecdote concerning a book called The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (purchased by her father for her mother, of course), wherein the author describes a neat little way to turn the envelopes from received letters into scrap paper.
Reading and looking at these poems, one is struck with a sort of nostalgia for the past; a rush of the sublime; and a feeling of intrusion. Nostalgia: I have the sense that I am back in my grandparents' house as a young child, sneaking glances into their "junk drawer." It is filled with stubs of pencils, yellowing letters, rubber bands. I can almost see myself unfolding these dingy envelopes, seizing one of the pencil stubs, and capturing my poetic thoughts in the secret coves of the backyard garden. Sublime: Anyone with any familiarity of Dickinson's poetry is familiar with the level of sublimity she achieved, and this well beyond the envelope poems. Her apparent speed of thought gave way to a compression of language that births profundity. Intrusion: Perhaps trespassing is a better word, but there's this feeling that looking at her handwriting produces that makes one feel that Miss Dickinson herself could walk in at any moment and catch one looking through her private stacks of poems. (Indeed the book is so well produced, the images of the envelopes so well captured, that it seems one is holding each scrap in one's hand.) Perhaps this latter-most sensation has its roots in one of Dickinson's own poems: "As there are / Apartments in our / own Minds that - / we never enter / without Apology - / we should respect / the seals of / others" (A 842, p. 176-177).
This is a book that will remain in my library forever, to be passed down to my daughter.
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Sunday, July 3, 2016
- Free will versus determinism. A popular debate, of course; and The Selfish Gene presents what I believe to be a great way of thinking about the two seemingly mutually exclusive/conflicting philosophies. Our genes are deterministic, pre-programmed and unchanged from the start (in terms of a single human life); yet our consciousness has evolved to the stage where we can override the determinism of our genes via free will.
- Reductionism versus collectivism. A basic premise in reductionist frameworks is that breaking down an object or a phenomenon into its basic parts and understanding those basic parts will tell us everything we need to know about the complete object. In other words, if we understand an object's parts, we gain a better understanding of the object. Thoughts and examples presented in this book, however, offer a nice provocation to this premise. The gene on its own versus within a group of genes (or chromosomal unit) can present quite different behaviour.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don't read much contemporary fiction because, for the most part, it pales in comparison to older, mightier literature of the canon; and as I find myself "reading against the clock" (to borrow Bloom's words) it's hard for me to expend my precious reading hours on literature that doesn't have a payoff confirmed by many ages before myself. But I still take chances in the name of curiosity and, I suppose, keeping at least a pulse on the state of the literature of modernity. Yet, oftener and oftener, when I take the chances, I find myself disappointed and wishing I had allotted the time to, say, absorbing some unread Shakespeare, Borges short stories, or perhaps tilling the soil of some of Montaigne's wisdom. But--alas!--with this treasure of 2004 from one David Mitchell, disappointed I was not! Far from it, in fact.
If you haven't read this book, please do yourself a favor and stop reading these comments. Surely the best way to read this book is to simply take a chance and read it cold, without any prior knowledge (except the inevitable knowledge that we all seem to have that (1) it's a tough book; and (2) the Wachowskis adapted it for the big screen in 2009). Allow me to jettison the idea that the novel is difficult. For any real reader of books, the novel is one big homage, one big love letter to reading and books and authors and so on, both in its content and its form. The only two reasons I could see the book being avoided are the style of the opening story and perhaps the foreign structure of the book. But, be apprised, both of these elements serve to enhance the majesty of this masterpiece.
As for the opening story's style. Like that of, say, Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, Mitchell chooses to write in the manner of a late nineteenth-century travelogue (Mitchell's first of 7 total styles!), and as has happened with the aforementioned Pynchon book, this will act as a sort of colander that will sift out certain readers from others right from the start. Some will think, "There's no way I can read a whole 500-page book written in this manner" and the will to endure the work will wane if not depart; others will delight in their Golden Age syndrome, only to be disappointed about 40 pages into the book. Thus, as I've already informed, my advice to those who are turned off by the opening style is to persevere. There is major payoff.
For me, the structure of the book is the highlight that elevates a contemporary novel into the annals of art. As one of Mitchell's characters lays out: this book proves that we must stop begging for literature to be original in the way we're asking and realize that art is the how, not the what. Stories are recycled throughout the ages of artistic creation--this is well known. But forms change. What does this sound like? Well, to me, this alone is the metaphor of a cloud: same material, an infinitude of possible forms. So, yes, the stories interlink in various ways and repeat themselves in various ways, though they're seemingly so different due to being far removed historically. Anyone can flip through the book, finding the story divisions, reading the titles, and conclude the manner in which the chronology is set; and Mitchell himself indulges in invoking the concept of the sextet explicitly in the stories themselves (the book's own analogy of a Matryoshka egg is my favorite!). Lastly, whoever was in charge of the production of the printed Random House US paperback delighted this reader endlessly with the little cloud at the tops of the pages (no doubt this is intended as the reproduction of a certain birthmark). Cheers!
Reading Cloud Atlas, I kept thinking of this as a Ulysses for our time. Just as Joyce contrived to create a collection of episodes in the day of a life of Leopold Bloom around the story of Homer's Ulysses, while also playing with the style and voice of every episode, and including things like making each episode correspond to a particular human organ, so too does Mitchell create a glorious artistic contrivance with his masterpiece. In fact, one of the later episodes in Ulysses narrates scenes of birth and is written in the various phases of the English language from beginnings to the present as the episodes progresses! Well played, Joyce and now Mitchell! But there's one place where Mitchell sets his work apart from Joyce: the stories aren't simply a day in the existence of one fellow (well, ahem, let's just leave that alone here, shall we?). Each story and the bridging story between the sextet are immensely enjoyable and enthralling on their own. And only as you begin to see the interlockings of the sextet will an already enjoyable experience be pitched into a time of literary transcendence.
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Friday, December 6, 2013
It had been a while since I read Salinger--the last piece I remember reading was the Franny and Zooey, which story Amy Hungerford of Yale has an excellent lecture--but I was immediately reminded of an author whose work is more recent in my mind. That author is Raymond Carver, a master of the minimalist/compressionist story. At the mention of these aesthetic movements, other names come to mind: Hemingway, Salter, Didion, to name a few; but Carver and especially Salinger stand out in my mind for other reasons. For example, with Hemingway there's this attention to the sparseness of the short, declarative sentences to construct his prose; with Didion the prose is as a series of impressionist paintings, strung together to convey a milieu and story. But with Carver, there's a longing that achingly stretched its fingers toward some truth or understanding and never finds it. The form of the writing doesn't call as much attention to itself as it does the emotion (though, admittedly, the same argument could be made for Hemingway; I suppose I'm getting into degrees of feeling). And, finally, with Salinger, there is a subtle level of depth and profundity that couples with the characters' gropings for enlightenment in the face of seemingly insurmountable quotidian circumstance.
"Bananafish" spearheads the collection, and as much as I would like to talk about this incredible work of short fiction, I want to deny it its proper attention and skip to lesser-addressed stories of the book. A staple of writing fiction is the tenet "show, don't tell," which means, for example, don't say "Johnny was mad." Instead, say "Johnny clenched his fists until the fingernails pressed crescents into his palms." You see the difference? One is simple a statement, narrative, some information; the other is emotionally charged. When you read prose like the second example, you begin to feel what the character is feeling. Now, taken a step further, we could also omit the explanation as to why he's angry, and instead reply on showing the source of the anger. Taking it to this second level is what Hemingway and Carver and Salinger do so well. One only need read Hemingway's "Up in Michigan" or Carver's "What's in Alaska?" for exemplification.
As for Salinger, let's take a snippet from "Uncle Wiggly Up in Connecticut." Here we have a female character who gets drunk, is mean to her little daughter, short with her friend, and so on. We have the familiar anodyne of alcohol to relieve suffering (thanks for that inspiration, Ms. Dickinson). We witness a woman who stifles her feelings and represses the past in exchange for a drunken present. And it is in the final juxtaposition of her heavy-handed drunkenness and her daughter's youthful innocence and fragility that Salinger delivers the emotional punch without stating why. Certainly we can deduce the source of these frustrations and draw a conclusion as to why the woman acts as she does, but the power, the emotion Salinger evokes, comes from, I argue, two things: (1) the trope of the daughter's Donald Duck night table (at least, I think it's Donald Duck; I'll have to reread when I have the book with me); and (2) the woman's question to her friend, "I was a good person once, right?" on the heels of a memory wherein she was ridiculed and hurt by someone. In these brief, seemingly perfunctory images, Salinger is able to convey so much. The power lies not in what is narrated but in what wasn't narrated. Even in the memory of the woman's dress being made fun of, very few words are needed to made it click for the reader.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Titian's Abraham and Isaac (1542-1544)
The struggle of spiritual faith and logical reasoning.
The struggle of loneliness and late-life achievement.
Like any other human activity, religion can be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done. It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity. Indeed, or current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history. We have yet to see how it will work. It is also true to say that our Western liberal humanism is not something that comes naturally to us; like an appreciation of art or poetry, it has to be cultivated.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
This week I've been thinking about details in the arts. I'm thinking of the intricate layering of Bach's powerful, divine music; the almost painfully realistic details of Jan van Eyck; and the sprawling, nearly neurotic prose of Proust. The small image of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434) to the left does the masterwork no justice. Click the image or view the image at this location. Zoom in on the image, spend time grazing over every piece of it, and, above all, savor the fine details. This is an oil painting on wood panel, and Jan van Eyck has obviously given much attention to detail: look at the fabric of the foreground characters' clothing, look at the chandelier, look in the mirror! I would post a picture of one of Bosch's triptychs, but looking at both van Eyck's picture and Bosch's would effect a sort of Stendhal syndrome that wouldn't allow you to read the rest of my post!In his Cornell University lecture, Vladimir Nabokov urged readers to give themselves over to the authors words. Good readers take in and process and feel and see and hear and smell every detail because good readers recognize that the author has taken time to use her or his creative genius to construct a world the reader can live in. In fact, Nabokov views writing as a medium of connection between reader and writer. The two parties, through the world the author has created for the reader, can meet at the top of the mountain and have a conversation. So, the more refined the details are, and the more we as readers take in these details, the more realistic and powerful this mountaintop communication between reader and writer, or observer and painter, or listener and composer, will be. Is too much detail gratuitous and superfluous? Well, look at van Eyck's painting again and ask yourself if it would have the same power with less detail. The same theory, in my opinion, can be applied to literature.I've also been reading Stanley Fish's latest book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, the basic premise of which is that good readers and good writers (to allude back to Nabokov) love sentences. And it's true. I've never thought to focus on sentences as the objects of my literary affections--usually I refer to really enjoying an author's style (form, tone, etc.)--but Fish is right. Words by themselves are discrete objects wandering around looking to join with one another to establish meaning. Sentences string words together in such a way as to construct meaning. So when it comes down to do it, a writer's merit can be measured by her or his ability to write sentences. And those sentences--thinking in terms of content--work to create details that paint a picture that tells a story. Sentences, then, are time capsules of details, waiting for the reader to discover them.
Some call him trite and others call him genius, while still more call him mostly boring with a chance of sunshine. I call him a master of his craft. He sets out to capture a world he once knew in all its vivid details, which flood his mind as he lies on his sickbed in his sickroom, writing out the final moments of his life. This is far more than the psychoanalysis equivalent of free association (Henry Miller's Tropic of... books come to mind when thinking of disjointed free association; William S. Burroughs's fragmentary "cut-ups" too). This is an artist's ability to reach down into the depths of the human psyche and survey the strange elusive lands against the details that weave together the diorama of everyday life. Whenever I think of details, Marcel Proust comes to mind. Instantly. It's an association as tightly coupled as the associations Proust himself describes when he tastes the madeleines and lime blossom tea. Let's take a moment to enjoy Lydia Davis's superb translation of the most popular moment in Proust's magnum opus (the original French version of Proust's first volume, Du Coté de Chez Swann, is available for free on Gutenburg):
This is, in fact, to be a defining moment for Proust, who is attributed with voluntary (or Proustian) memory. But this is a small taste (pun intended) of Proust's ability to take a single action or object and meditate on it sentence after sentence, clause after clause. And, really, this is a very minor example; it just happens to be a portion of his work one cannot omit. Further along in this first volume, the reader encounters details of musical pieces and several paintings that will give you quite a literary workout. As most know, his prose is very demanding of the reader: there is very little dialogue, and there are subordinate clauses that stretch sentences for pages, shifting and tuning a deep meditative thought until Proust qualifies it with a single verb and ends the whole mini event with a bang. This is, of course, captured better in the original French, but as I've already mentioned Lydia Davis's English translation does justice to Proust's form. And she doesn't use British slang like some of the Penguin translators of the subsequent volumes.
But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside of me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.
But details aren't limited to the prose heavyweights. The iconic minimalist himself, Ernest Hemingway, does not eschew details as a result of his minimalist style; he just packages the details a little differently than, say, Proust or Milton. If we want to explain it in formal terms, we might say the difference can be described as between hypotaxis and parataxis, where Proust's writing exemplifies the former and Hem's the latter. In parataxis, we are given what Stanley Fish refers to as additive sentences. That is, we just keep adding to and adding to, without subordination. Consider this excerpt from "The Big Two-Hearted River, Part I":
The coffee boiled as he watched. The lid came up and coffee and grounds ran down the side of the pot. Nick took it off the grill. [...] He put sugar in the empty apricot cup and poured some of the coffee out to cool. It was too hot to pour and he used his hat to hold the handle of the coffee pot. He would not let it steep in the pot at all. Not the first cup. It should be straight.
Short, clear sentences with simple words. Taken from their context these sentences seem pretentiously banal--I've heard at least one person say that Hemingway, at this point, was just writing whatever because he'd secured an audience. That is, I suppose, Hemingway has established an ethos that allows him to ruminate everyday occurrences to a captive audience without care. I don't pretend that the above snippet or the entire story is without vulnerability to being construed as such, but banality happens to be the point of the details here, and Hemingway was almost insane about his style, sometimes spending hours writing only one paragraph that he was satisfied with. The onslaught of details wrapped in Hem's trademark sharp, cutting, raw, terse sentences, in the additive manner, move the reader headlong through the story. Then, here and there, Hem simply drops in one of Nick's thoughts, usually without a narrative indicator such as "he thought," which allows the story to produce the perfect simulation of a man alone in the wilderness with only his thoughts. Through not only detail after detail, narrative descriptor after narrative descriptor, the reader is able to feel the full arch of human emotion, from Nick's being content with the simplicity of Nature all the way to Nick's anxieties about the independence of Nature from humanity. Note: You'll really need to read both parts of "The Big Two-Hearted River" to feel these two spectra concerning Nature, but you'll get my formalistic points no matter which story you read.I've often heard readers' complaints that follow a pattern of "I don't need three pages describing a sunset" or "Why does this writer feel the need to weigh my mind down with exhaustive biographical exposition for a minor character?" (the psychoanalytic critic in me always stirs at this latter complaint!). There's also the common writing advice that urges authors to write only what's necessary, which ends up being an interesting paradox with most artists and seems to reveal the chasm that separates high and low art. In the world of cinema, Michael Haneke comes to mind. He is constantly berated for annoying, pointless lingering and empty space, while at the same time Haneke states that he "shoots only what is necessary" (I have no citation for this, and I'm not being graded for a change! Seriously though, check out this essay for the reference). Typically what happens is the two sides of the argument--those who herald the meticulous details and those who deride them--settle on the fact that writers like Proust are writers' writers and auteurs like Haneke are filmmakers' filmmakers. In other words, only an aspiring writer could admire Proust. I believe the fact is that there are no facts. We might do as well to argue over euthanasia or capital punishment because it's a battle of subjectivity. All I can offer is my opinion, and my opinion is that details can be savored just as the otherwise boring bits of everyday life can be savored. We need only to stop, settle ourselves, and yield to the artful details all around us.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
In grad school I criticized The Turn of the Screw using Freud's theory of the uncanny--not to say that I am the only one who has done this by any means. The debate over whether the "entities" in James's novel are real or not is as pervasive in the literary community as Achebe's war on the racism of Joseph Conrad. The book is more of a novella, and it's a good read whether you're reading it for leisure or "for serious". (Some consider it James's most accessible work, so it's a good entry point to his oeuvre.) There is definitely validity to the argument that the "ghosts" appear as a result of the protagonist's sexual repression, but, of course, this limits the work to a predominantly psychoanalytical reading. It is ripe for much wider inspection. The point in the context of my post is that James's novel is a perfect example of the uncanny. We, the audience, and the protagonist, experience exactly what Freud describes: something that frightens and entices us.
In visual art, a couple of paintings come to mind. In this sense I am associating the uncanny with aesthetics. That is, the uncanny is exemplified in these two pieces insofar as the pieces are beautifully done works that portray dark content. The first painting is, as you can clearly see, an execution of the Lady Jane Grey, who was executed on account of high treason in London. But the work positively attracts the eye in its rich use of color, shading, and lighting. Notice how the lighting obscures some of the figures in the background, giving a sense of foreboding--yet it is undeniable that the painting is nicely done and attractive, despite its content.
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche, 1833, oil on canvas
And again with Munch's work (below). Most are familiar with Munch's popular piece The Scream. In Evening on Karl Johan (a street in Oslo), the eye is attracted to the nightmarish illustration. Here, unlike Delaroche's painting, reality has been skewed into surreality. At first glance we ascertain that this is a simple street scene, but then the eye registers the skeletal faces, and, ultimately, the lone shadowy figure who walks against the grain. It is both familiar and unfamiliar.
Evening on Karl Johan, Edvard Munch, 1892, oil on canvas
Let's turn to classical music. The following three pieces share properties of Freud's uncanny in that the music is both beautiful and hauntingly mysterious. It evokes a fascination with something darker, something unknown. It is only necessary to listen to the first minute of each piece to understand what I'm saying. Note: You will need to crank your volume in order to hear all of the low subtleties.
Schubert's "Unfinished" 8th symphony
Debussy's "La Soirée Dans Grenade"
Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" 6th symphony
Again, I am limiting Freud's complete theory of the uncanny, so if you're interested please do yourself a favor and give it a read. It's an interesting theory that gives us a way of observing and discussing our fascination with the macabre in the arts. I really appreciate the efforts of psychoanalysis applied to the arts (i.e. psychoanalytic literary theory) because it makes sense: art is produced by and concerned with people, thus it follows that the same theories we apply to analyze people--whether mentally ill or struggling through a hard time--are applicable to the arts. On the other hand, I do acknowledge that some of what psychoanalysis gives us tends to be either too far-fetched (i.e. theoretical; not validated through experimentation) or too concerned with sexuality; but the efforts of the field cannot be denied their overwhelming plausibility most of the time.
In terms of, specifically, psychoanalytic literary theory, there's no better Freudian out there than Norman Holland. His books Literature and the Brain and 5 Readers Reading are among the best in literary criticism, and his "handbook" for Literature-and-Psychology is an indispensable resource. If you find that the sources (Freud, Lacan, etc.) prove too "out there," give Holland a try. He has done extensive research and studies, especially in the realm of literary interpretation, and has an uncanny ability to break the wealth of psychoanalytical theories into palatable arguments.
The next time you find yourself disgusted but unable to look away, consider it a brush with the uncanny!
[*] Including footnotes to this post is an homage to the late David Foster Wallace.
 "For serious" is intended to pay homage to Chuck Palahnuik.
 Some people say that Stanley Kubrick stole this motif from Debussy for several musical scores, including The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, both of which could be included in the discussion of the uncanny.
 Macabre is probably too strong a word, as is horrifying, terrifying, frightening, etc. But, by this point, you get what I'm saying. Feel free to use "not happy" as a substitute for just about every other adjective I've used in association with the uncanny.
 "...[O]verwhelming plausibility most of the time" is a great example of being critically correct.
 I couldn't resist.