About

Main

Contact

SEARCH

Archives

ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR NOVEMBER 2006

November  25,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

It is the pious fraud of seeing life on the surface, in a single file of ‘facts’ marshaled in a pretended chain of infallible cause and effect, an imagined sequence of fictitious logic regaling us in the result with but a miserable outline of chronology: the fallacy of seeing life through the impurity of the will, which Proust exposes as abject nourishment, inartistic vocation, un-Platonic philosophy. Our normal conception was denuded of reality as that of a person listening to an orchestral recital who, conscious only of a somewhat arbitrary sequence of single notes, denied the existence of chords. Life, real and full, was akin to an actualization of memory. In memory we could leap from one moment to another, or linger at will. But our memory, he says in effect, is at best a pale shadow of the reality experienced, yet never tasted to the full. Contemplation of action in the very instant of action was needed for the full celestial nourishment denied us in life. Memory precluded action; action excluded memory. But if, by some corresponding scent or sound, touch, sight or taste which we stumbled against in the common day, we were involuntarily transported to a forgotten past, we rejoiced in it extra-temporarily precisely because we were no longer tied to it in Time. What else was this involuntary memory but an intimation of immortality?

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

Why Did the Writer Cross the Road?  To Get to the Tenured Creative-Writing Professorship

I just finished reading Severance, a collection of very short, short stories, from the Pulitzer-prize winning Robert Olen Butler.  Severance is a conceit wrapped in a gimmick inside of an affectation:  The book consists of a collection of short stories, each exactly 240 words long, which is, supposedly, the number of words that might float through a person’s severed head (calculated at the rate of 160 words a minute based on some stray remark that that number represents how many words might be spoken in a heightened state of emotion) given the head’s one-and-half minutes of consciousness before it’s dead, dead, dead.  Got that?  It’s a clever, clever gimmick.  And, in the right hands (or heads) might have been pulled off (cut off?) with some sort of dignity and insight.  Indeed, literary mandarins the likes of Amy Tan gush (bleed?): "With Butler’s signature mastery of language, Severance delivers a ghost chorus speaking with poetic urgency, and each of these finales leaves us shivering and breathless."  She must have had in mind such haunting, ghost clucking choruses as this vignette concerning the severed head of a chicken:

little grit things in the straw here and I peck and peck and they’re gone and I go over there a wormy thing but it’s a leaf stem which I always grab but it never goes mush like an actual worm which I look and look and listen for and the flying ones come down . . . [oh, you get the idea—let's now walk with the chicken] . . . I am rushing now along the path and the clucking is for me and it is very loud and a great wide road is suddenly before me and she is beyond and I cross

Hurr, Hurr, Hurr—that’s a knee slapper (even though Butler has just murdered his chicken, he still hasn't learned how to murder his darlings).  If you want to know how to be dull in 240 words, Butler is the writer for you.  Worse, in these post-modern times, he thinks this bit of ludic indulgence is positively deep-fried delicious.  But it ruins the tone of the other pieces where he tries to get into the heads (sorry, I just can’t help myself—I’m seeing a doctor in the morning) of famous historical characters such as Lady Jane Grey and King Charles I.  Why do I bother to tell you this?  Because Butler, like every other two-bit writer, is the creative-writing creature at some backwater sweat-shop of higher learning, teaching other budding, bookish Beavis & Buttheads how to churn out workmanlike objects like this here chicken chopper.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  Creative writing is a spreading disease, like kudzu, that is choking out the literary life of this country.  It’s time to get out the Henry James herbicide!

On a side note, the book is beautifully produced with jagged edges on the pages mirroring . . . oh, you get it.  If you’re a sucker for the aesthetic physical qualities of a book, irrespective of its communicative qualities, I highly recommend this tome.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

November  21,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

I was struck by a story Nancy Mitford told about Evelyn Waugh, whose Catholic-convert piety contrasted strongly with a nature full of malice. She once reproached Waugh after a particular act of mental cruelty he had inflicted and said: "How can you reconcile your belief in God and your church with your odious behavior?" He replied, grimly, "Nancy I may be as bad as you say I am—and worse—but, believe me, were it not for my Catholic faith, I would scarcely be a human being." The expression on his face, she recalled, as he said these terrible words, was unforgettable.

--The Human Race: Success or Failure by Paul Johnson

 

In Praise of Snarking

The New York Times Book Review this week has a back-page essay by Rachel Donadio titled, Art of the Feud.  It’s a light, gossipy soufflé about various literary feuds from the late Twentieth Century to today.  Donadio pines for the good old days when literary critics would engage in fisticuffs over various literary matters. But, alas, such is not to be:

Often the lure of financial stability trumps the appeal of jousting. "Franzen once in a while says something that people might mildly disagree with," the novelist Gary Shteyngart said, referring to Jonathan Franzen [N.B.: Donadio then wisely lets us know who Franzen is—some writer who tangled with Oprah—which will be his only claim to fame in twenty years.] . . . "The rest of us, we’re quiet," Shteyngart said. "We’re none of us really heavy drunks, we all have health care plans, there’s too much at stake. We all have our appointments at universities. It’s not in our interest not to make nice-nice."

We all have our appointments at universities. From thy own words, thou condemn thyself. So much for that beloved propaganda professors smear themselves with that university tenure encourages academic debate—it actually encourages the complacent twaddle of the comfy club chair with the big sign over the oak-paneled door, "Drones Only."  Will the congregation please turn to the immortal words of Revelations, Chapter three, verses Fifteen and Sixteen: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."

N.B.: Although not mentioned, hanging over this essay like a pall of maple syrup is Heidi Julavits, a self-styled literary auteur, who wrote an essay lambasting critics who actually had the gall to criticize other writers—in other words, behave in an unacceptably "snarky" manner.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

November  13,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

People in privileged positions mistook, and still mistake, the sorry fact of others of necessity adjusting themselves to subordinate positions, even cheerfully submitting to an acknowledged social inferiority, for positive enjoyment of their relative positions. Village hands proffering due respect to, say, a retired Anglo-Indian colonel settled in the village in his predestined niche of patronizing gentry—what could be more natural and, to judge by the smiles and cap-touching of village folk, what, to them, more gladdening? Galsworthy in The Silver Box reproduces the flavor of a typical conversation of the moneyed classes on the subject of the dispossessed. Among the things Mrs. Bethwick, wife of a Liberal member of parliament, has to say to her husband is, "I’ve no patience with your talk of reform—all that nonsense about social policy. Those Socialists and Labour men are an absolutely selfish set of people. They have no sense of patriotism, like the upper classes, they simply want what we’ve got . . . Quite uneducated men! Wait until they begin to tax our investments. I’m convinced that when they once get a chance they will tax everything—they’ve no feeling for the country . . . Education is simply ruining the lower classes. It unsettles them, and that’s the worst thing for us all. I see an enormous difference in the manner of servants." The Forsyte Sage contains the record of a caste which, while willing to impose a certain discipline of behavior and obligation upon its own members, so that the England they have loved may remain just as they love it best, with their own hegemony unimpaired, yet consider the rest of the population as almost a race apart. To love your own country, however, is something distinct from praising only colonels, bishops, and viceroys. Well may one ask, what is this famous love of one’s own country, usually taking the form of hating two-thirds of the people who live in it? It cannot be merely houses and scenery.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

November  12,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

Of all the charges which in their time stupidity and ignorance have levelled against Hugh, none is further from the truth than the suggestion that, having it in him to become a great writer of the stature, and perhaps in the manner, of Henry James, he deliberately surrendered this possibility in favour of money and popular success.  Every book he wrote contained all that at the time he knew how to include, and if his great facility and love of story-telling led him sometimes to carelessness and over-production, that was simply the way his nature worked.

--Hugh Walpole by Rupert Hart-Davis

 

Whither Hugh Walpole?

Walpole who?  What, you don't know the great Hugh Walpole, the early-to-mid Twentieth Century English writer who wrote over fifty works of fiction before his untimely death from diabetes?  He was extremely popular in his day.  He also hung out with the leading literary lights such as Henry James and Joseph Conrad.  Still no glimmer of recognition?  That's okay, because he was also a second-rate hack.

So, why should you care?  Just take a gander at the cover article for the current New York Times Book Review.  It's the continuing literary apotheosis for none other than Stephen King.  It seems Mr. King is a bit sensitive over the issue of whether he's a second-rate hack (you can quit worrying Mr. King--you most assuredly are a second-rate hack).  In his latest horror-genre offering he even appends a page from his raw manuscript showing the red-pencil mark up from his diligent editor (as if extensive editing a masterpiece doth make).  So Stephen King wants to be a literary lion, the Hugh Walpole of the late Twentieth Century.  Why should we deny him his laurels while he's alive?  His works will last just as long as Hugh's once he's dead.  What's the harm?  Well, that's spelled out in the New York Times article, which, perversely enough, thinks the following is a salutary development:

Beneath [Harold] Bloom’s notice, however, a cultural shift had taken place. Everything was up for reassessment. Music critics re-examined the supposed schlock of the ’70s (Abba, Led Zeppelin, Donna Summer) and found some value there. Martin Amis wrote a love song to the crime writer Elmore Leonard. The Modern Library and the Library of America issued handsome hardcover editions of Raymond Chandler. Quentin Tarantino delivered cheap thrills guised as le cinéma. Paul McCartney composed classical pieces while the opera singer Andrea Bocelli had multiplatinum sales. The French dug up the coffin containing the remains of Alexandre Dumas, that best-selling scoundrel, and carried it to the Pantheon. Cormac McCarthy, one of the few living novelists to have met with Bloom’s approval, left behind the tangled style of “Blood Meridian” and “Suttree” to update the Western with his Border Trilogy; he has since ventured deeper into genre territory with the one-two punch of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road.” Another of Bloom’s pets, Philip Roth, borrowed a conceit from science fiction in using an alternate reality as the jumping-off point for “The Plot Against America.” And the Red Sox won the World Series.

How do you like that last snide sentence?  And further, you literary snobs, youse, if you don't like Stephen King, you don't like the Red Sox, either.  Pathetic.  But there is an evil lurking here.  Why the rush to tear down standards?  Think low.  One can then promote one's friends (and they can do the same for you).  And you all wind up healthy, wealthy and wise.  Make no mistake--the abolition of taste has nothing to do with democracy or egalitarianism and everything to do with the pursuit of the almighty dollar.  Get thee behind me Hugh Walpole!

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

November  10,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

One must be pitiless about this matter of "mood." In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so. Joyce said of the underlying structure of Ulysses—the Odyssean parallel and parody—that he really didn’t care whether it was plausible so long as it served as a bridge to get his "soldiers" across. Once they were across, what does it matter if the bridge collapses? One might say the same thing about the use of one’s self as a means for the writing to get written. Once the soldiers are across the stream . . .

--Paris Review interview with Joyce Carol Oates

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

November  9,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

George Meredith’s was ‘the laughter of the order of the smile.’ He indeed defined the function of the Comic Spirit as doing what in modern parlance may be described as God’s Fifth-Column work among men: the sabotaging of worldly confidence and complacency by the Comic Spirit, the wisdom of the world being, with God, but foolishness. Unlike the dramatizing socialist, Bernard Shaw, then merely in the making, Meredith thoroughly distrusted that most disastrous of all human enthusiasm: our insane eagerness to sacrifice the present for the purpose of furthering a hypothetical future. A perpetual sacrifice of a certainty for a perpetually deferred hypothesis is an absurdity distasteful to the Comic Spirit. As Meredith himself envisages the Comic Spirit, "men’s future upon earth does not attract it; their honesty and shapeliness in the present does; and whenever they wax out of proportion, over-blown, affected, indelicate; whenever it sees them self-deceived, or hoodwinked, given to run riot in idolatries, drifting into vanities, congregating in absurdities, planning shortsightedly, plotting dementedly; whenever they are at variance with their professions, and violate the unwritten but perceptible laws binding them in consideration one to another; whenever they offend sound reason, fair justice; are false in humility of mined with conceit, individually or in the bulk, the Spirit overhead will look humanely malign and cast an oblique light on them, followed by volleys of silvery laughter." This is a satisfying statement of the work of God’s Fifth Column. But the image of the Comic Spirit indulging in immoderate laughter is itself not immune to comic criticism.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

 

Fact, Fiction or God’s Fifth Column, Part II: Plot as Opium of the Masses

Gerhardie’s book, God’s Fifth Column, is an imaginative work of history in the sense that Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians is an imaginative work of biography.  That is to say, rather than present a so-called "exhaustive" and "objective" description of a historical era, Gerhardie offers an intimate portrait, a sketch in light pastels, if you will, which, in its economic use of line, captures more thoroughly than a frog-march through the forests of fact the essence of an age. Certainly, time itself may serve as a skeletal frame upon which to draw this sketch, but it has no conception born of human agency behind it—such as the spurious Whig and Marxist views of history that everything is slowly moving towards some progressive happy-hunting ground.

Gerhardie, consistent with this view, feels that fiction should be treated in the same fashion and that truly great works of literary art, although using plot as a skeletal frame as the background upon which the work is fashioned, should not serve as the end itself:

But journalism as exploitation of suspense, trading as it does on human restlessness, is equally despicable whether it takes the form of detective fiction, films, plays or magazine stories. Art, communicating the eternal reality of the Platonic Idea which invests objects and persons alike with the breath of life, is constitutive, not conceptual, and as such it is independent of artificial stimulants. The criterion of a genuine work of literature is that you can open it at any page to savor each passage for itself, without the narcotic of induced excitement in the shape of knowing what has come before and speculating on what is to happen next, commonly called ‘a plot.’ If a book is worth reading at all it is worth reading more than once. Suspense is the lowest of excitants, designed to take your breath away when the brain and the heart crave to linger in nobler enjoyment. Suspense drags you on; appreciation causes you to linger. Detective-story writers, like opium-sellers, pretending to be giving the public what it wants, are driven by their own suspense of hoping to get out of it what they can. Goethe believed that an artist should not attempt to please anyone save himself: if so he would have a chance of pleasing other men of his own caliber. Crime fiction, on the other hand, consciously designed to fit the mentality of the lowest common denominator, and sometimes avowedly produced in response to a ballot held to guide the writer in his choice of theme, is something so divorced from sincerity that it strikes one as almost immoral.

This, then, is the exploitation of the Word for profit—the generic term of this remunerative if thoroughly un-Platonic pursuit being ‘journalism.’ But in no sphere was journalism so intellectually corrupt, the gang purveying this aesthetic drug so vast, so well and meticulously organized as in the films of the ‘twenties. The initial stumbling of crude film melodrama before the First World War gave way to the unbelievably fatuous superstructure of a whole photo-magazine world upon the sordid and sorry realities of life on earth. The Hollywood city of cardboard and tinsel, pretension and fake and fatuity, and its eruption in the wide world on so vast a scale is so extraordinary that no generic term vast enough can be devised to give vent to one’s feeling of mass inanity. It is—with negligible exceptions—an epidemic of the most pathetic pretence, and it speaks for the general level of humanity able to absorb—and with what relish!—such putrid cat’s meat.

Did I mention, by the bye, the huge news story that Britney just filed for a divorce (oh, and there’s been something in the news about a change in control in both houses of Congress and some guy—Rumhead, Bumfeld, Slumshed, something like that—resigning from a high government post)?  Gerhardie would have long ago choked to death in a pool of his own bile if he lived long enough to see just how prescient his prediction has become.  He puts his finger on the reason, by the bye, that movies are in large part inferior to literature—they are driven, consumed, by plot.  They are cheap cotton candy which has been drained of any flavor other than that found in the most sugary syrup in order to supply a purer form of opium that even the most tawdry of detective fiction tends to adulterate with some pretension to literariness.

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

November  8,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

H. G. Wells’s Outline of History was widely read, but changed nothing. It did not avert a new war, did not produce a world state. "The only thing that man learns from the study of history," says Hegel, "is that men have learned nothing from the study of history." There are no facts, properly speaking, giving birth to principles because, as Coleridge insisted, unless an investigator first had a principle of selection he would not have taken notice of those facts upon which he grounded his principle. You had to have a lantern in your hand to give light, otherwise all the materials in the world were useless, for you could not find them, and if you could, you could not arrange them. To the objection that any principle of selection came itself from facts, "To be sure!" answered Coleridge, "but there must have been again an antecedent light to see those antecedent facts. The relapse may be carried in imagination backwards forever - but go back as you may, you cannot come to a man without a previous aim or principle."

The capacity, the range, of a historian’s thought was, according to Coleridge, determined by the variety, sustained order and originality of his associations. But, if so, why should the writer of history pick out an arbitrary order at this own discretion rather than sit back and wonder at the human chaos? It is an old-maidish pedantry to pick out of this universal chaos and confusion a few selected threads and call it sense and order.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

[N.B.: Of course Gerhardie is a genius—that is to say, he agrees with me. What is the difference in kind between fiction and non-fiction, history and historical fiction? Nothing. It is only a difference in degree—history tries to be more "faithful" to some preconceived standard, but, whatever yardstick is utilized, the reduction of the "facts," such "stubborn things," into some pre-determined mold necessarily results in a less faithful, a less truthful, that is to say, a more fictional, rendering of the past. All is fiction. Bow down you stiff-necked empiricists and behold the True Guide: Lady Literature.]

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

November  7,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

"But who shall restore us our children?" That is the indelible scar, the deepest and abiding sadness, against which no consideration of gain, no eupeptic writing off of casualties, balancing of numbers from the ledger of the quick and the dead, dare measure themselves. Priests and laymen alike, seeing in the sacrifice something to put to the credit of the temporal account, merely wallowed in rhetoric. Consolation indeed there was, but it was not of this world.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

November  3,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

All profundities are simplicities, profound only because they have to be dug up for morons who had buried them beneath the debris of their own crudely complicated experiments in living. The real questions are the childish ones. The adult’s attitude to life is crusted over with inanities. It is demonstrably plain that, were the whole matter of victualling the world on a non-national footing taken right out of the hands of the strutting male and handed over to a dozen sensible women who do not want to have their children killed, politics, which are nothing but a glorified form of housekeeping, would long since have been deflated to the problem of running a canteen.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry

November  1,  2006

Patrick: Lagniappe

What everyone wants in his heart of hearts is not communism or capitalism, but a home of his own with no one to boss him, confining his love of gregariousness, not to a factory with its foremen, but to a club. What people want by and large everywhere in the world is to be left alone to find their own gaiety of heart, all having plenty of money to spend in well-lit crowded cities, shops working in two shifts and open half the night, restaurants, open-air cafes, plenty of leisure, and deep vistas of fragrant countryside to go to for holidays. They don’t want to be badgered by party bosses.

--God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

Click Here to Comment or View Comments on This Entry