Monday, December 31, 2001
Here is a list of the books in the box I keep in a corner of my office for review copies, each author &/or publisher having sent them to me for possible review in Poetry International. Book-reviewing is a low-status occupation among academics, but poets sometimes manage to review each other so that what emerges is something more than summary & judgement--something akin to a dialogue. In fact, the only kind of extended critical statements I've ever made have been in the form of book reviews.
Animal Soul, Bob Hicok
Open Gate: Hatian Creole Poetry, edited by Paul Laraque & Jack Hirschmann
Inside the Yellow Dress, Mary Ann Samyn
Waterlings, Veno Taufer (trans. from Slovene by Milne Holton & Veno Taufer)
The Borgo of the Holy Ghost, Stephen MvLeod
Slow Dance on Stilts, Marie Jordan
The Kingdom of the Subjunctive, Suzanne Wise
Here there was Once a Country, Venus Khoury-Ghata (trans. Arabic by Marilyn Hacker)
An Archeology of Revolution, M.B. Young
Morning Constitutional, Michael Magee
Zarathustra in Love, Gerry Lafemina
Nietzsche's Horse, Christopher Kennedy
The Triumph of the Water Witch, Ioana Ieronim (trans. from Romanian by Adam Sorkin with Ioana Ieronim)
No Word of Farewell, R.S. Gwynn
Passionate Renewal: Jewish Poetry in Britain Since 1945, edited by Peter Lawson
Nosferatu: An Opera Libretto, Dana Gioia
The World's Last Night, Margo Schilpp
Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination (New Edition), edited by Martin Espada
500,000 Azaleas, Efrain Huerta (trans. Jim Normington)
Rare Earths, Deena Linett
Changeable Thunder, David Baker
Carolyn Kizer: Perspectives on Her Life & Work, edited by Annie Finch, Johanna Keller & Candace McClelland
The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place (vol. 1), forward by Donald Hall
Time & Again: Poems 1940 - 1997, Edwin Honig
Humanophone, Janet Holmes
The Half-Finished Heaven, Tomas Transtromer, trans. Robert Bly
A Sacrificial Zinc, Matthew Coopperman
Roman Fever, Marcus Cafagna
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:17 PM.
Black coffee. Good bread. Snow. A quiet morning in a violent time. Still reading Duiker's biography of Uncle Ho & thinking about the role of revolutionary violence. A lot of the Vietnamese revolutionary heroes who threw out the French & then the Americans would now be called terrorists. The established clandestine organizations, they engaged in violence against both property & persons. And yet history appears to have vindicated their methods. A good biography puts the reader inside the life of the subject & this is a very good biography. Reading about Ho Chi Minh & his times makes me wonder which side I would have been on, how I would have acted, what I would have believed in?
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:10 AM.
Saturday, December 29, 2001
"These philosophers usually confine this observation however to human affairs isolated from nature, which they interpret exclusively in ternms of labor, or casual connections. But in every event there is something obdurate, self-sufficient, wholly immediate, neither a relation nor an element in a relational whole, but terminal and exclusive. Here, as in so many other matters, materialists and idealists agree in an underlying metaphysics which ignores in behalf of relations and relational systems, those irreducible, infinetly plural, undefinable and indescribable qualities which a thing must have in order to be, and in order to be capable of becoming the subject of relations and a theme of discourse. Immediacy of existence is ineffable. But there is nothing mystical about such ineffability; it expresses the fact that of direct experience it is futile to say anything to one's self and impossible to say anything to another." [John Dewey, Experience & Nature 73]
Reading is a direct experience of signs, which are themselves things, but not the things they represent.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:12 PM.
Friday, December 28, 2001
A pragmatics of change: Must be the turning of the year, but I have been thinking about time & change. Dewey, in the second chapter chapter of Experience & Nature, "Existence as Precarious and as Stable," argues that our natural bias toward preferring things "finished" and "stable" leads to a philosophical mistake, however understandable: the belief that "unity" should be accorded higher ontological status than multiplicity. That stability is somehow better than change, despite the fact that it is change & mutability themselves that lead us poor human beings to long for the peace & comfort of stability. Any pragmatics of change will have to begin with this in mind; philosophically, spiritually, peace simply has to be seen as an attitude toward contingency.
"One of the most striking phases of the history of philosophic thought is the recurrent grouping together of unity, permanence, (or the "eternal"), completeness, and rational thought, while upon another side fall multiplicity, change and the temporal, the partial, defective, sense and desire. This division is obviously but another case of violent separation of the precarious and unsettled from the regular and determinate. One aspect of it, however, is worthy of particular attention: the connection of thought and unity. Empirically, all reflection sets out from the problematic and confused. Its aim is to clarify and ascertain. When thinking is successful, its career closes in transforming the disordered into the orderly, the mixed-up into the distinguished or placed, the unclear and ambiguous into the defined and unequivocal, the disconnected into the systematized. It is empirically assured that the goal of thinking does not remain a mere ideal, but is attained often enough so as to render reasonable additional efforts to achieve it." [John Dewey, Experience & Nature 57]
In the following chapter, Dewey takes this insight to its next logical consequence, that all effects are potential causes & all cuases parts of chains of effects, giving the lie to simplistic philosophies of determinism.
from Kurt Indermaur at: Viviculture Weblog "I was thinking some more about my resolutions. So far I only have one, and everything else derives from it. Today, for instance, I thought of making time. Too often I've been focused on how little time I have, and how I could save a little more. It's kind of a "glass half empty" point of view, and leads to stress; to clipped, strained, compressed conversations; to restrained, confined lives." And here's another good piece I just turned up, from Talking Leaves [Winter 2000]: "Busyness and impatience go hand in hand, and are reinforced by the technologies we use. On a computer, no speed is too fast--the faster the word-processing, data-processing, or internet-connecting speed, the better. In a motor vehicle, the only limit to desirable speed is usually safety--generally, the faster we travel in our wheeled, winged, or hulled boxes from one place to another, the happier we are. Contrast this with human conversation (a noncomputerized way of relating to others), or with riding a bike or walking. These activities seem to be inherently pleasurable in ways that technologized substitutes aren't, and they can therefore proceed at their own pace. But too much time spent with the faster technologized methods can instill impatience with slowness of any kind, rob slowness of its pleasure, and make the "natural" something we just don't have time for." [Cris Roth]
I often find myself agreeing with things Kurt blogs & share his fascination with the weather. Now he's got me thinking about resolutions for the new year. I, too, want to keep developing a more focused attitude toward time. At my sanest--out walking by the river--I will say to myself, "There is enough time," which to me means accepting the time I have as sufficient to my needs. The best way to keep from feeling one is wasting time is to make each act count for something, not frantically, but perhaps deliberately. There is a certain amount of fatalism in this attitude, but it is a fatalism--or resignation--that can lead toward peace. I was telling someone at dinner a couple of weeks ago that turning 40 hadn't bothered me a bit, but turning fifty (this year) had made me feel very acutely the limited span of a human life.
My resolution, then, will be to settle down in time--less jittering & frittering. And Cris Roth is insighful here, too--as much as I love burning up the gigahertz processor on my new laptop, technologies (especially electronic technologies of reading) often have me skating over the surface of texts rather than reading them deeply. So I want to continue thinking about the metaphors of surface & depth in my life & especially in my reading.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:32 AM.
Thursday, December 27, 2001
Reading without words: Carole gave me a little book of historical dog photographs for xmas. Dogs make me happy. We have four dogs in the house this week, three of them ours & one who belongs to a friend on vacation. To read a photograph, I think, you start at the surface--the plane of the paper--& go down or inward, both literally (in the sense of perspective) & figuratively (in the sense of meaning or interpretation). I look at these pictures--ordinary portraits taken between 1850 & 1940--& I see the possibility, however slight, that human beings might learn to share this planet with other species. There is plenty of sentiment attached to our relationships with dogs, but there is nothing sentimental about the virtues humans can learn from dogs. The prime virtue, I think, is emotional transparency. Everything I value follows from that. Arf!
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:38 PM.
Wednesday, December 26, 2001
Read till you drop: NATIONAL POST ONLINE [Toronto]: ". . . But if you look closely at the publication in their hands, it's likely five or six weeks old. And if you could look inside their handbags and backpacks, you would probably find one or two other partly read books. The calm such readers project, with their near motionlessness, their slow page-turning, is an illusion. Although they might be enjoying and be completely focused on whatever it is they are reading at the moment, just below the surface these readers are anxious." [via Metafilter]
Metafilter Comment by "pracowity": Read the best works over and over, regardless of your short time on earth, and ignore the latest tripe, no matter what Oprah instructs you to digest. Don't read Hamlet once, or three times, or five, and consider it done; don't wish for a condensed, modernized, simplified, illustrated version from which you could have three neat, sanitized conclusions drawn for you; and don't say you have no time for good reading when you have time for garbage television, mindless mall shopping, and trivial pop songs repeated dozens of times. If you must consume, and be consumed by, the likes of Stephen King, make that consumption your screen-staring time; reserve reading time for the best things.
That's where I was yesterday morning when Blogger went down & though I can't exactly recapture my train of thought, but the article & discussion on MeFi had me thinking about my own reading habits, which are fairly canibalistic. Writers read to steal from other writers, alas. And I also read many books at a time, though I usually have on main book that I am reading straight through at any given time, then a bunch of books I'm "reading" for teaching or some particular project or inquiry. The main book I tend to read as a reader, others as a writer of teacher, instrumentally.
Tuesday, December 25, 2001
Christmas Day. Carole is over at the barn with her new horse Tim (the Enchanter). It's snowing pretty hard. The dogs are sacked out by the woodstove.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 8:55 AM.
Reading Spam: Mike Sanders at Keep Trying noticed the same NYT piece I did this afternoon, about spam. For me, for now, spam is a managable problem. My email server catches some of it & I filter out a lot of the rest with a couple of different programs--but what is it with these Korean porn sites? They are merciless! And the other day I got one of the new "personalized" porn spams, from a "sexually active 19-year-old" who told me that she & her roommates at San Diego State would like to make me happy. I was born in San Diego & fifteen years ago I taught at SDSU & I maintain an editorial relationship with a journal published there--it's very touching: somebody is clearly going to a lot of trouble just to make me happy.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:20 PM.
The consolations of narrative: Most evenings for the last few weeks I've been reading Duiker's biography of Ho Chi Minh. Duiker finds the right balance between detail & action in this bio, making for a textured & energetic narrative. And this morning I've been pouring over one of my old maps of Hanoi--I lived in the Ba Dinh district, near uncle Ho's Soviet-Gothic mausoleum & could see its floodlit facade from the roof of my apartment building.
That was six months ago. I spent most of the summer in Hanoi in 1998, living on the northern edge of the Old Quarter, & lived for nearly a year in a western suburb of the city in 2000-2001. I lived alone in Hanoi & it was a very intense, inward-facing experience in many ways. I think that studying Vietnamese also contributed to a fair amount of self absorption. In any case, by the time I came home I was fully ready to return--despite my deep love for the city, I was lonely. I've never been more appreciative of my home here by the river as in the last six months--not because I see how much better it is than Hanoi: the opposite, in fact. Hanoi has a lot more going for it than South Colton: good restaurants, cheap beer, good icecream, fantastic fruit, perfect bread, beautiful streets, public space, cosmopolitan attitudes, intelligent conversation, lovely people . . . What's not to like? In fact, I loved it & want to return as soon as I can manage; at the same time, the house on the road by the river is a space I have created myself with Carole & has the dogs & the sunrises over the reach of water. So: happy here. And for the last several months I found myself veering away from thinking about Hanoi, even neglecting to return email messages from friends there--it was & is such a complex dream that I haven't felt ready to undertake thinking about it very much.
But this morning I pulled out one of my old maps of Hanoi & spent half an hour walking those streets again, pronouncing the names of temples & squares & lakes quietly to myself, reading them back into memory. Elbowing my way along the streets of the Old Quarter again. This is, surely, a text I will spend the rest of my life understanding. And that is a great consolation.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:30 AM.
Just after sunrise on the 23rd, Carole brings coffeee upstairs & we sit in bed watching the whitening sky. For me, this is the definition of comfort. All week she has been letting me stay in bed while she gets up & stokes the fire in the woodstove, takes the dogs out & makes coffee. Very nice, but I feel a little guilty about it. We're essentially ignoring xmas this year, except to bake cookies & pies & relax.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:50 AM.
Friday, December 21, 2001
Reading a wetland: "I spent an hour or so today picking up garbage. There's a little pond/marsh/wet spot down the road that had accumulated quite a load of trash - a whole big bag-ful, in fact. I wanted to do something about it before it disappeared under tomorrow's snow, only to ooze out in all its disgusting glory in the spring. I started out feeling smug and self-righteous, and angry with litterers, but the physical labor of it, and the obvious evidence of my work made me finish with the simple satisfaction of a job well done. // While I was still in my angry muttering phase, I found it really difficult to think of good, descriptive insults in the English language. "Litterbug" or "pig" seem more insulting to bugs and pigs, and don't really convey the self-absorption, indifference, and disregard of people who turn wherever they happen to be into a public dumping ground." [from the Viviculture weblog 12.21.01]
This really strikes a chord with me: Carole & I often pick up the same kind of trash at the end of our road. We're the last house on a dead-end road before the river & lots of people park down there & leave their stuff, or go over on the rocks & then leave their stuff behind. Carole has the more zen attitude--she just gets a garbage bag & takes one of the dogs picks the stuff up. I tend to mutter moral pronouncements about the assholes who did this. Is it extending the metaphor of reading too far to suggest that the litterers are illiterate--that is, that they are unable to read the natural world? A failure of education, a social failure, a community failure--resulting in the sort of alienation that allows you to leave your crap behind you. Interesting, too, that the trash inventory here was about the same--when the culture shits, it shits the same everywhere.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:37 PM.
Thursday, December 20, 2001
Permanence & Change: Aristotle, Plato, Dewey & Feyerabend, along with some posts from the Yahoo historyofphilosophy discussion list: [coming in the morning]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:02 PM.
Again from Jerry Kendall, one of the best things I have ever found on the web: Amateur Enterprises. Remember that an amateur is a lover. This is the New Surrealism, a healthy & stimulating antidote to the stuffy old New Formalism. A Google search for "new surrealism"--a term I thought I just made up--turns up this; so much more interesting & engaged & alive than "expansive poetry," which amounts to so much cultural mudslinging & bullshit in favor of the status quo.
I don't know where I'm going as a poet, but I sure as hell know where I'm not going.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:48 PM.
Actually, what got me thinking about music this morning was that I haven't been very interested in it lately. Driving in to work the other morning, the local public radio station cued up some warhorse & rather than fishing around for a CD, I just turned it off. Roadnoise. The purr of the Subaru's allwheel drive. It occurred to me then that I had been doing the same thing at home. In October I had obsessively listened to Dylan's Love & Theft & in November to Leonard Cohen's Ten New Songs, but these days I'm either not listening to anything or listening to Romantic chamber music--Brahms cello sonatas & piano trios, Schubert string quartets. Maybe it's only because it's winter & I can't drive around with the windows down blasting the rocknroll. Actually, after the Cohen there was a week of listening to A3's Exile on Coldharbour Lane--self-described as "country-acid-house music," so maybe it was just time for some purity. Or maybe it was running across Ruth Franklin's essay-review, "Good Vibrations," in The New Republic [courtesy of Jerry Kendall] on the history of musical temperament: "It is the beauty of pure intervals that equal temperament restrains. Galileo described the pure perfect fifth as 'a tickling of the eardrum such that its softness is modified with sprightliness, giving at the same moment the impression of a gentle kiss and of a bite.' You can strike C and G together on the piano, but that is not what you will hear." Even purity is complicated & historically contingent, it turns out.
Listening vs. reading: After Carole left for work this morning (I'm on Winter break), I lay on the couch in the livingroom with a big fire going in the woodstove & listened to Schubert string quartets. I particularly like the 9th Quartet (in G Minor), which has a wonderful clarity of structure. Perceptually, listening to music is an experience related to but distinct from reading. There was a time several years ago when I could almost read music; that is, with a bit of help I could follow a score. That experience, which is generated from the same text as the experience of listening to a piece of music, engages a different part of consciousness. Not sure where I'm going with this . . . back to the experience itself, then: it's possible to speak of the music "flowing over" or even "through" one when "merely" listening; but when reading the same music, one enters into the music. So the continuium, then, would be: reading -- reading music -- listening to music with the middle term being a "node" or region of consciousness in which processes interact to create a third thing. Or, topographically: One is entered into by music when listening, but one enters into the text when reading.
" . . . poor readers make many more regressive eye movements than do better readers. In this case, comprehension would seem to depend on textual review. // A related task in music is sight-reading, that is reading an unknown score while performing the music. T. W. Goolsby has pointed out that music educators have adopted language reading as the basis for instruction and evaluation of sight-reading. He questions whether this is appropriate. If sight-reading music is simply another instance of language reading, then the same pattern of eye movements should occur, but if the pattern is different, then sight-reading can't be explained simply by the principles that operate in language reading. // In a study of vocalizing (e.g., humming) during sight-reading, Goolsby observed major differences between reading music and reading language. First, he found the opposite pattern of eye movements to language reading: i.e., poor sight-readers made fewer regressive eye movements while better performers had many more such movements." [N. M. Weinberger: University of California--Irvine 1998]
Tuesday, December 18, 2001
"A recent Gallup Poll found that 45 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, and 39 percent believe that Darwin's theory of evolution is not supported by the evidence." It's no wonder Americans can't read, since they obviously cannot even think straight. The point of evolutionary theory & of science in general, friends, is to exclude the supernatural experimentally & see what turns up. So complaints from the religiously minded that evolution is naturalistic are, well, correct . . . so what's the problem? I am actually quite sympathetic to Hamlet's remark to Horatio that "There are more things in heaven & earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy." Philosophy, in this context, means science. Hamlet has seen a ghost. I have had experiences that "science cannot explain," but that does not invalidate science. Science does not claim omnipotence--only religions do that. Whether it's Dante with his belief in the power of reason to lead the soul up to the threshold of faith, or Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus intimating that there are simply some things humans "cannot speak about," the insight is the same: there are aspects of reality before which we must fall silent. But the rest is open to endless investigation. Afterthought: And no need to be cowed before reality--we ought to keep interrogating the silence.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:51 PM.
Reading reading: "Reading does not make anything, does not add anything; it lets be what is; it is freedom - not the kind of freedom that gives being or takes it away, but a liberty that receives, consents, says yes, can only say yes, and in the space opened by this yes, allows the work's amazing decision to be affirmed: that it is--and nothing more." [Maurice Blanchot]
"One of the most basic tenets of an authoritarian state is one that claims rights for itself that it denies its citizens. Surveillance is perhaps one of the most glaring examples of this in our society." I like to remain calmly skeptical & detached if at all possible, but the surveillance society is fast upon us. And when subverting a technology that could potentially be a benefit & aid to freedom of speech isn't enough, the FBI is knocking on doors.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 1:07 PM.
Monday, December 17, 2001
I am a professional writer, though as a poet I use the word guardedly; but I am for the most part an amateur reader. Okay, I have to admit--& it pains me--I am also a professional reader. That is I read books in order to review them; worse, people send me their poems & I decide which ones will be published in the Wallace Stevens Journal. Well, it's a very small pasture in which I am the big bull. But I want to assert my continuing amateur status as a reader despite these moral failings.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:11 PM.
Since I was sixteen I have always come to language as a writer; despite the fact that I have been a voracious reader all my life, I have not thought much about the actualities of reading, as opposed to writing. Intuitively, this weblog was begun & continues in the spirit of a reader. That is why I feel comfortable about posting links to the NYTimes on the current political situation as well as links to John Dewey on education or metaphysics. Those are the texts I devour as a reader, man. Don't be surprised, then, if the back of a Shredded Wheat box shows up as a text here. (Actually, though I continue to eat the stuff--with walnuts & raisins added--I'm a purist & have never felt the same about SW since Post acquired it from Nabisco in 1993. I also use soy milk instead of cow's milk. And as long as I'm inside this parenthesis, I remember that my mother used to make "hot shredded wheat" for my father & me: put two biscuits of SW in a bowl & cover with boiling water for thirty seconds; drain off the water, add butter & brown sugar. Not bad at all on a cold morning. My father, I always thought, went over the top when he added a fried egg to the mix.) So, I'll read anything. I even read most of a People Magazine today in my dentist's waiting room--a very, very sad commentary on the state of our popular culture. The worship of skinny female shoulders seems to obsess us. And since Dr. Ormond was "fitting me in," I also went through a good part of Popular Science, which I would have thought had folded long ago. PS was one of the staples of my childhood; it fueled my imagination. Popular Science is actually the mirror image of People--it's a pop culture magazine for people who don't like reading about people, who prefer things instead. I can identify. "Popular," of course, comes from the same root as "people."
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:39 PM.
Sunday, December 16, 2001
China, in Harsh Crackdown, Executes Muslim Separatists ". . . But this rally was different. The man, Metrozi Mettohti, 34, was given the death penalty for trying to "split the country" and for storing weapons as part of a persistent and occasionally violent separatist movement among China's Uighurs, the Turkic- speaking ethnic group of nine million people, most of them Muslims, concentrated along the country's far western border." [NYT 12.16.01]
One of the perhaps unanticipated results of the War on Terrorism is the proliferation of the rhetoric of anti-terrorism. It begins with the US declaration of a war against "evil" & has been picked up by Ariel Sharon, who is using it as cover for a policy of state-assassination; the Hindu Nationalist Party in India has also chimed in with its own use of the terminology of terrorism & now the Chinese. At this rate it won't be long before the Potsdam Police Department here in rural New York will be referring to drunken college students as "terrorists" & demanding that they be allowed to take appropriate measures. The problem--at least if you care about clarity--is that the same blanket of language gets laid over many disparet situations & we lose our ability to think about them coherently. Language is a sneaky bastard & you have to watch it every second.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 2:47 PM.
It is possible that I am the best choice among all my colleagues to teach a course on hypertext (however unqualified I feel personally), since I have tended to be a hypertextual reader since I learned to read. I rarely read one book at a time, though I often read stacks of related books. Literally stacks, I make piles of books around my office. Also, I tend to find my own way through most books--that is, with rare exceptions, I do not feel bound by the author's ordering of material. Those exceptions are very interesting, though. Usually narrative. For instance, every night this week I have read a few pages of Duiker's new biography of Ho Chi Minh & will almost certainly continue in this fashion right on through to the end. Despite all the post-structuralist attacks on narrative over the last fifty years, narrative remains a great solace of the imagination.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:41 AM.
Over at Metafilter (I'm not a member or I would post there), there is a mention of the Slate article making light of plagiarism. I was heartened to see the negative tone of the original post & comments, but was bemused by the third comment, which suggested that Slate was "militantly liberal." Man, if Slate is militantly liberal, what the hell does that make me? Well, Carole called me an "anarcho-syndicalist" last night. Whatever that means.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:33 AM.
Thursday, December 13, 2001
The stack of books for the hypertext honors course next semester: Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Jonathan Culler); Hyper / Text / Theory (George P. Landow); Of Two Minds (Michael Joyce); Othermindedness (Michael Joyce); Writing Space (Jay David Bolter); From Text to Hypertext (Silvio Gaggi); Travels in Hyperreality (Umberto Eco). Oh yeah. Forgot to mention a sort of "critical edition" of Vernor Vinge's True Names & Borges "The Garden of Forking Paths" & "The Library of Babel." That's probably enough--they're only freshmen, even if they're honors students. The other thing to put right out front is that I can't teach the course as a theoretician, but only as a writer. A writer who is interested in exploring theory, which is why I'm including the Joyce & Bolter texts, etc. And I'm skeptical about a lot of the theoretical claims made for hypertext. In fact, I've been feeling a little psychotic lately spending so much time jitterbugging around the internet, blogging & doing research for this course. Hypertext may just be reading for those whose attention spans have been corroded by chromosome-eating drugs in childhood, television & the fumes of petrochemicals.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:57 AM.
Wednesday, December 12, 2001
First post to a new weblog: So like an idiot I said to the philosopher next door, "Sure, I've been wanting to read the Philosophical Investigations for a long time--it would be great to read it together." Actually, I think this began with the philosopher saying he had turned right to the poem "For Wittgenstein" in my new book, Magical Thinking. And I said, "How come poets all think Wittgenstein is a poet, but philosophers insist he's a positivist?" This weblog is the result of that question.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 11:56 AM.
Tuesday, December 11, 2001
Satire, to be effective, has to be driven by passion. Cynicism won't do, which is why Seth Stevenson's "Adventures in Cheating," in Slate this week is such a mess. Another quality of good satire is honesty & Stevenson's piece is even more dishonest than it is cynical. (Hell, even intelligent cynicism would be welcome.) Things begin well enough--the author takes a light tone & is relatively dismissive of the mostly pathetic plagiarism sites on the internet. Anyone who has been teaching in an American college or university for more than 24 hours can spot this stuff, though tracking down the exact sources in order to make a case against a cheater burns up a lot of time that could otherwise be used in working with students who actually have some commitment to their own lives & educations. Stevenson's essay initially wins the reader's sympathy by pretending to be a genial expose, but as the piece proceeds the reader discovers that Stevenson has shifted his ground & has gone from sarcastic endorsements of cheating by morons to admiration for cheating by graduates of Brown University. Stevenson makes much of his Brown credentials. The scale of approval, it seems, is not the gullibility of the student, but that of the professor; a good piece of plagiarism somehow pays back the professor who assigned the paper for giving an incoherent assignment. But the logical slippage here consists of the fact that Stevenson substitutes an actual assignment for one he admits is "total hooey": "A 4-page term paper on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Investigate the semiotics of the 'addicted gaze' as represented by the mysterious film of the book's title. Possible topics to address include nihilism, figurative transgendering, the culture of entertainment, and the concept of 'infinite gestation.'" But he jest doesn't hold up in any deep sense because it doesn't address the incoherence, but only adds to it. This is, as they say, sophomoric. Predictably, he receives nonsense in return for his nonsense: "The novel's diverse characters demonstrate both individually and collectively the fixations and obsessions that bind humanity to the pitfalls of reality and provide a fertile groundwork for the semiotic explanation of addictive behavior." Here is how the Brown graduate concludes his essay: "If I were a just slightly lesser person, I might be tempted by this service. One custom paper off the Web: $71.80. Not having to dredge up pointless poppycock for some po-mo obsessed, overrated lit-crit professor: priceless." Now, if our young journalist had gone on to undertake even a superficial discussion of plagiarism as an ethical issue, he might have retrieved his satire; as it is, the essay simply ends with a noisy intellectual fart. And while issuing forth this bit of wind, the writer has the nerve to congratulate himself on his moral probity: "If is were a just slightly lesser person . . ." Tripe indeed.
Reading Bush's speech at The Citadel: Abrogating the ABM Treaty; anti-intellectualism; offensive weapons in space. The ABM treaty has of course been toast since this administration was installed, but the other two points, while not surprising, beg for further attention. The president said this afternoon that "the conflict in Afghanistan has taught us more about the future of our military than a decade of blue ribbon panels and think-tank symposiums."
This might be merely an observation about the value of experience in shaping policy, but in the current context--in which the executive branch daily asserts its right to act unilaterally--this is an attack on thoughtfulness itself & an attack on due deliberation. More generally, it is an attack on dissent & the questioning of the executive branch's directives. The decision--again unilateral--to deploy offensive weapons in space was slipped into a series of clauses about the use of technology to enforce a Pax Americana in the 21st century. Bush said, "Now it is clear the military does not have enough unmanned vehicles. We're entering an era in which unmanned vehicles of all kinds will take on greater importance--in space, on land, in the air, and at sea." Those "unmanned vehicles" on land & sea & in the air all have offensive capabilities--I can only assume that we are about to enter an era in which we put daisy cutters in orbit.
Monday, December 10, 2001
Reading the domestic political scene: I went to sleep last night after reading several pieces on the web about John Ashcroft & the erosion of domestic political freedoms. I had a very complexly elaborated dream in which I had returned to a Seattle completely transformed after fifteen years into a futuristic M.C. Escher version of reality, a place in which one had to know where the membranes in the floor were located in order to be go down a floor in the hotel, a place in which one could look out the window at the hotel across the street and realize that it was the same hotel in which you were staying. I watched three "immigrants" get run down by a tanker truck without anyone paying the least attention. Then I was trying to cross the drawbridge to get back to my old neighborhood in the University District, but as I was crossing the bridge began to rise . . ."To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve," the AG said last week before the Senate. From my perspective, this notion that questioning administration policy is far more offensive & dangerous than any of the particular measures Ashcroft was defending. The idea of dissent is among the most holy in the American political tradition & the one that guards all the others.
". . . Mr. Roosevelt writes you [the Editors of the Harvard Crimson] a letter to call any of us who may have presumed to beg our congressmen to slow-up if they can, "betrayers" of our native land. We are evidently guilty of lèse-majesté in Mr. Roosevelt's eyes; and though a mad president may any day commit the country without warning to an utterly new career and history, no citizen, no matter how he feels, must then speak, not even to the representative constitutionally appointed to check the President in time of need. May I express a hope that in this University, if no where else on the continent, we shall be patriotic enough not to remain passive whilst the destinies of our country are being settled by surprise. Let us be for or against; and if against, then against by every means in our power, when a policy is taking shape that is bound to alter all the national ideals that we have cultivated hitherto. Let us refuse to be bound over night by proclamation, or hypnotized by sacramental phrases through the day. Let us consult our reason as to what is best, and then exert ourselves with all our might." [William James, from "Answer to Roosevelt on the Venezuelan Crisis" (an unheaded letter, printed in Harvard Crimson, January 8, 1896 p4)]
Thursday, December 06, 2001
Though I'd rather think about William Blake & his connection to Ren & Stimpy, I also read the papers & listen to the news. I do not use the word lightly, but I think the United States is on the brink of fascism. Today the Attorney General of the United States went before the Senate Judiciary Committee & said: "To those who pit Americans against immigrants, citizens against non-citizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil. [. . .] Our efforts have been crafted carefully to avoid infringing on constitutional rights, while saving American lives." [CNN] This is of course mendacious nonsense. Will American citizens trade their liberty for a phoney dream of safety? The polls suggest a vast complacency. But then we are no longer a nation of citizens, but a nation of consumers & the latest product is patriotism; because we no longer know what it means to be American citizens, we have become a nation of sheepish patriots, cowering behind the assurances of an illegitimate administration that the extraordinary powers claimed by the executive branch will protect us from further damage. Ashcroft tells the Senate that those who disagree with the administration's draconian measures are the friends of terrorists. This is the worst sort of demagoguery & would have been denounced by right wing ideologues like Trent Lott had it come from Bill Clinton & Janet Reno. Dante's punishment for the hypocrites in Inferno is to have them walk an endless round smeared with their own shit--I can visualize John Ashcroft there in the 6th Bolgia of the 8th circle of Hell & it is an immensely satisfying vision. The idea that a citizen who voices dissent is a traitor is anathema to American values. It would not surprise me if the 2002 elections were cancelled because of the current "emergency."
When I was 19 & reading Blake & Jung (esp. his introduction to the I Ching) I believed in synchronicity; then I went through a long rationalist phase; now, a fifty-year-old weblogger, I have come to believe in synchronicity again. Weird things happen; poetry might again become a communal act.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:13 PM.
Sometimes weird things happen, as in co-incidences. I had just been thinking about & looking at the Dante / Blake nexus in the history of Western arts & I run across--who the hell knows how? this is the web!--a link on Jerry Kendall.com to an artist I had never heard of, but who must be the 21st century's William Blake. I wonder whether Blake's contemporaries found his paintings as creepily fascinating as I find Mark Ryden's? If Blake was adrift in the intellectual & spiritual systems of his day, Ryden is in an eccentric orbit around the contemporary earth. But Ryden, with his references to Buddhism, Alice in Wonderland, American pop culture Southern California division, & the sort of art-historical references one would hardly associate with William Blake . . . Ryden writes in his Artist's Statement: "I stuff myself full of the things I like: pictures of bugs, paintings by Bouguereau and David, books about Pheneous T. Barnum, films by Ray Harryhausen, old photographs of strange people, children’s books about space and science, medical illustrations, music by Frank Sinatra and Debussy, magazines, T.V., Jung and Freud, Ren and Stimpy, Joseph Campbell and Nostradamus, Ken and Barbie, Alchemy, Freemasonary, Buddhism. At night my head is so full of ideas I can’t sleep. I mix it all together and create my own doctrine of life and the universe. To me, certain things seem to fit together." It's the same problem / opportunity Blake confronted--everything in the world cut loose from stable systems of meaning & available to the processes of magical thinking.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:49 PM.
Wednesday, December 05, 2001
It was easier to be a visionary poet in Dante's Italy than in Blake's England. There are the obvious differences between epochs--particularly the difference between a unified (if corrupt) Church in Dante's period & a fractured & disputational Protestantism in Blake's. There is also the little matter of the Industrial Revolution & capitalism mitigating against Blake's visionary project. Which is why Blake can come off as something of a crank. "I must invent my own system or be enslaved by another man's," he wrote defiantly; but the defiance is at least part bravado: none of the systems available to him (Newton's science, Enlightenment models of painting & poetry) fit his needs. Blake created his own slightly off-center system & carried is off through the power of his imagination; lacking a public, social discourse--a shared language game--, however, cost him not only readers but clarity, even to himself, I suspect.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:32 PM.
Tuesday, December 04, 2001
Not too many academics keeping weblogs as far as I can see & not very many people who would call themselves writers if you sat next to them on a trans-Atlantic flight. This strikes me as a little odd: weblogging seems to me like an extension--as least potentially--of both critical & creative discourse. (I hate that word "creative," as in creative writer; much prefer imaginative since I'm talking about a kind of writing that privileges the imagination, however broadly conceived.)
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:10 PM.
Blake's wonderful misreading of Dante is one of the greatest works of genius in English literature.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:56 PM.
I don't post much on MWFs because that is the heart of my teaching schedule. And today I had a couple of colleagues in to observe me teaching the Inferno. The process made me acutely aware of the fact that I do not teach literature like a literature teacher, but more like a philosopher. That is, I am more interested in abstract systems than I am in the particular features of a text. This is astonishing given the fact that I am a) a poet & b) was educated by the close readers of the New Criticism. And perhaps I should add that c), in my own reading of poetry I pay quite a lot of attention the the details of a text, its language, structure & particular images. But that is for my use as a writer; it seems to me that what my students need is a broader & more nuanced understanding of the world. So I use Dante & Sophocles & the rest as pretexts rather than texts, though I feel a little guilty about it.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:28 PM.
Monday, December 03, 2001
(Re)reading Dante's Inferno: I first read this poem in my early 20s as a student & have re-read it countless times to teach it. It is difficult to describe the importance the poem had for me as a young writer & reader. The Comedy is one of the ur-texts of Modernism--Eliot based a good deal of his literary theory (which I now consider mostly reactionary) on the poem; but this was one of the first difficult texts I encountered with something like an adult consciousness. I remember my delight at discovering a moral universe quite different from my own; I remember my delight at Dante's juxtaposition of the particular & the abstract, the mundane & the philosophical. Mostly, it was a poem that showed me that the world could be opened to the intellect--a kind of knowledge that had been denied my by my fundamentalist upbringing. I can't say I take the same pleasure in the poem with each re-reading, but I do enjoy finding a few students who have something like the same reaction to it that I did all those years ago.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:54 PM.
Sunday, December 02, 2001
"We have lifted one example, quite at random, from among his Herr Naphta's] infinite attempts to rupture reason. But things got even worse when he turned to science--in which he did not believe. He did not believe in it, he said, for every man was perfectly free to believe in it or not. It was a faith like any other, only worse and more obtuse than all the rest; and the word "science" itself was the expression of the most stupid sort of realism, which did not blush at taking at face value the dubious reflections that objects left on the human mind and seeing them as the basis for the most dismal and vapid dogma anyone ever foisted on humanity. Was not the very idea of a world of senses that existed in and of itself the most ridiculous of self-contradictions? But as a dogma, modern natural science lived exclusively and solely from the metaphysical assumption that the forms by which we recognize and organize reality --space, time, causality--reflect a real state of affairs existing independent of our knowledge. That monistic claim was the most naked piece of effrontery the Spirit had ever had to endure. Space, time, causality--in monastic terms that meant evolution. And there you had the central dogma of atheistic free-thinkers and their pseudo-religion, which presumed to abolish the Book of Genesis and replace it with a stultifying fable of enlightened knowledge. . . Empiricism? The ether of space--that was exact, was it? The atom, that nice little mathematical joke, "the smallest, indivisible particle"--proved, was it? The theory of infinite space and time--that was definitely based on experience, was it?" [Thomas Mann, MM p681-82]
In the Modern period, since the Enlightenment, the person who rejected dogmatic religious belief almost always found it necessary to run across the field & join the ranks of Science, with it's worship of quantification, positivism & reductionism. Naphta is a ridiculous figure, a Jewish intellectual who has become a fanatical Jesuit, but the reader of the novel must give him credit: he has seen the alternative to religious belief--he understands it better that either Settembrini or Hans Castorp--& he refuses to embrace it, knowing the consequences. He is a monster, but a conscious monster. He & Herr Settembrini represent dogmatic faith & faith in Reson, respectively; neither of which turns out to be adequate to prevent the nightmare years of WW I with which the novel ends--the young hero plunging into battle.
The problem for thinking in the 20th & now the 21st century is how to remain uncaptured by dogmatic assertions about reality, whether in the voice of Naphta's Idealsim or Settembrini's Materialism.
Weirdly warm for December 3rd--no snow on the ground, though we had freezing rain last week. Days of low light & early dusks. I've been straightening up my study this morning--an interim step toward a complete gut-out over xmas break--& rearranging books. Uncovered my beat copy of Mann's The Magic Mountain, which I hauled to Vietnam last year & which damn near saved my life there, first precipitating a wild series of dreams that went on for a month, then helping me figure out the ensuing depression. Suitable that such a book should have such an effect on me, since it is primarily a book about the use of language to understand the human world against the background of nature. Hans Castorp also watches the weather & has certain opinions & expectations regarding its patterns.
"And then she kissed him on the mouth. It was one of those Russian kisses, the sort that are exchanged in that vast, soulful land at high Christian feasts, as a token and a seal of love. But even as we record this kiss exchanged between a notoriously "subtle" young man and a charming, slinking, and still equally young woman, we cannot help finding it it a reminder of Dr. Krokowski's elaborate, if not always unobjectionable way of speaking about love in a gently irresolute sense, so that one was never quite sure whether he meant its sanctified or more passionate and fleshly forms. Are we doing the same thing here, or were Hans Castorp and Clavdia Chauchat doing the same thing with their Russian kiss? But what would be our readers' reaction if we simply refused to get to the bottom of that question? In our opinion, it is analytically correct, although --to use Hans Castorp's phrase--"terribly gauche" and downright life-denying, to make a "tidy" distinction between sanctity and passion in matters of love. What's this about "tidy"? What's this about gentle irresolution and ambiguity? Isn't it grand, isn't it good, that language has only one word for everything we associate with love--from utter sanctity to the most fleshly lust? The result is perfect clarity in ambiguity, for love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, not is it without sanctity even at its most fleshly. Love is always simply itself, both as a subtle affirmation of life and as the highest passion; love is our sympathy with organic life, the touchingly lustful embrace of what is destined to decay--caritas is assuredly found in the most admirable and most depraved passions." [Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain; Vintage paperback edition, p590]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 10:14 AM.
Saturday, December 01, 2001
Words that belonged to us
Are being buried in time