Friday, March 25, 2011

MATING by Norman Rush

A novel that takes 50 pages just to get itself underway had better contain some impressive local pleasures within those first 50 pages, and it had better blow my mind within the first one hundred. Mating fails on both counts. This novel was highly-praised and National Book Awarded upon publication, and that high hype leaves me all the more disappointed. Two problems loom over the entire book. First, despite Rush's age at publication, this was his first published novel, and he has yet to master one of the most important and difficult aspects of the novelist's art: pacing. This book lumbers so boringly through its first 100 pages that I doubt if most readers make it past them. Second, while more than one critic has praised Rush's prose, I remain immune to its dubious charms. The narrator's voice fails to grab me. I find it too flat and chatty and, worst of all, unconvincing. I don't 'hear' the character in the voice, and that's a fatal flaw in a 'voice' novel (a first-person narrative depending upon the narrator's distinctive voice to hold readerly interest). Comparing Rush's narration to the superior voice-work of Martin Amis in Money or Styron in Sophie's Choice puts into relief the banality of Mating's prose. Every reader can 'hear' John Self and Stingo. Rush's unnamed narrator is a comparative drone.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sebald News: A PLACE IN THE COUNTRY to be released Dec. 6

I've just noticed that is now accepting pre-orders for W. G. Sebald's collection of essays on European literature, A Place in the Country, which will be released Dec. 6, 2011. The Amazon page contains no additional information about the book except the number of pages (240). More info will surely be added in the coming months. In the meantime, here's Amazon's image of the cover:

A Place in the Country is a translation of Sebald's Logis in einem Landhaus, described on the highly-informative Sebald blog Vertigo as "a book of essays on Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, and Jan Peter Tripp." I'm looking forward to it.

UPDATE, 5/16/11: I've just noticed that Amazon is now no longer accepting pre-orders for this book and that the publication date has been pushed back to 2013. What's up, Random House?

UPDATE, 5/21/12: Now Amazon lists the prospective publication date as Feb.4, 2014. The wait lengthens...Will Random House publish this book before my beard turns gray?

UPDATE 1/6/13: And now the Amazon page states a publication date of Jan.28, it'll be at least another year before American publication.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Apollinaire, war-wounded, weary, dizzy from delirium, head haloed bandage-white where the doctors drilled his brain, hears the street outside his window celebrating Armistice, chanting A bas Guillaume! A bas Guillaume! A bas... Guillaume, this Guillaume, barrel-bodied kaiser of the Now, thinking himself reviled, collapses on the sweaty mattress and timely dies, murdered by a lynch mob of the mind.

Berryman jumped the barrier
one wintry Minnesota morning
after meeting Mr. Bones halfway
across the Washington Avenue Bridge.

For a moment they struggled
until a holmes&moriarty
left a single broken body
                                     lying limply

like a needled balloon.

                  So where did you go, Mr. Bones?

Crane leaped up, up, into the azure Caribbean, his rentboy body transfigured in sulphurous sunlight. Like Billy Budd he rose, but no blessing left his lips, no thoughts of sailors, poets, heiresses dribbled black ink on the pristine page of his mind. No thought. Only the aquatic adagio enraptured him. And an oddly remembered schoolboy rhyme: Full fathom five the poet lies. / These are fish that eat his eyes.

Dickinson died in the middle of May, the month when robins dangle worms and kittens climb for fledglings in the nest. She died as she lived: ice-cold, zero at the bone. Colder than the coldest Cassatt, her mind lay dying, turning in its groove. Her raddled breathing filled the house until the evening bells brought cease. Burn my poems, she instructed her sister. Burn them all. But Auden was half-right: poets make nothing happen.

Eliot smoked himself to death, a common enough recreation. Burned at the last by the fire he tongued, he lay on his bed like the evening spread out against the sky. Emphysema, the doctors said. Base mortality, the poet knew. And also knew his Greek: emphysema, bodily inflation. Oh dear God... Tie me down like Gulliver, my dears, ere I float away.

Frost went two years earlier, after the goddam doctors botched his crotch. Prostate cut out, leg veins tied like ribbons, blood flooding his lungs, the old bastard kept working. In his bed at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital--good Yankee name--he was midway through dictating an essay on Ezra, that mangy dog still barking in Italy, when the ravelled sleeve unravelled, and he never woke again.

Ginsberg didn't die howling. He was too old and Buddhist for that. When his body took his life in the spring of 1997, he died in peace, at home, among friends--a good death--rarer than radium.

Hughes, Edward James, familiarly Ted, OM and laureate, died of 'natural causes.' The same might be said of two of the women in his life, and his son.

Ignatow, David (1914-1997), American poet. How did he die?

I'll admit it.
I did it.
I tossed him off a cliff
into the egg-blue Mediterranean,
just to make this abecedarium

Johnson, ever quotable in his prime, remarked to his ever-quoting Boswell, "It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time...A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine." Years later, on his deathbed, Johnson whined, "I would give one of these legs for a year more of life, I mean of comfortable life, not such as that which I now suffer."

Keats knew physic and diagnosed himself, in that little room beside the Spanish Steps. Examining the handkerchief: "I know the color in that blood. It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that color. That drop is my death warrant. I must die." And the epitaph dictated to Severn, proof of a truth the poet knew: water washes granite away.

Lowell pulled closed the squealing door of a New York yellow taxi. "Where to, mac?" asked a driver from Central Casting. "Over the river, my Charon," the poet straight replied, "and into the great steel trees...West 67th Street." "Gotcha." Home to Lizzie. Home. Descending from the Queensborough Bridge into the smog of midtown, he felt a fist clenching deep within his chest. He tried to cough, couldn't catch a breath, felt himself falling forward. Falling. Manhattan fading around him, he died into the whiteness between words.

Marlowe, drunken, wild-eyed, lunges forward with his knife. "Pay, you whoreson! Or I'll take it in your blood!" The sound of running, a shatter of glass. Tables screech and candles fall. Two men struggle in the fiery darkness until the steel blade finds its home. The tall man stage-whispers, "Greetings from Her Majesty, Kit," and stands unsteadily, Shakes himself, staggers from the inn.

Neruda died just twelve days after the death of Allende and the murder of Chilean democracy in an American corporate coup. (See Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power for the role of ITT and Anaconda and the Nixon administration's plan to "make the economy scream.") Soldiers ripped his house apart. "You won't find anything here but poems," the dead man said. The poet's body rejected Pinochet like a failed transplant. He bled with Chile, died with Chile, his funeral the first moment of protest in a generation of fear.

Owen, who knew better than the old lies, heard the congested coughing of a German machine gun just before he died. Dulce et decorum est to be hacked up like bloody sputum at the age of twenty-five.

Pound the fascist fuck outlived all the other, better Modernists, dying unromantically in a Venice hospital in 1972. Go figure. But give the rat bastard his due: he got Joyce and Eliot published, re-made The Waste Land, and in one hundred and twenty-three ways made himself indispensable to Modernism. And when he wasn't prostituting his poetry to crazy politics, he wrote some beautiful verse. An asshole can be a great poet too.

Quilty was more playwright than poet but nonexistent nonetheless. He expired from multiple gunshot wounds inflicted by a humbly umbral assassin at the end--or before the beginning--of a novel by Nabokov (pseudonym of Darkbloom, V.)

Rimbaud in a Marseilles deathroom screams in his agony, sweats tears of pain, goes down in a hellish season, leaves no epitaph. Poems and Paul darkly backward now, he dies a failed colonial, a century's cliche, a death of three dots... But there are, we must remember, worse fates for a poet. T.S. Eliot, for instance, died into the arms of Lord Lloyd-Webber. Meow.

Sexton's long drive to nowhere was limerickly predictable. Electric ranges obsolesced Sylvia's way, so she breathed the exhaust of an automobile to her death in 1974, a year when gas was cheap and life slightly more expensive.

Thomas's autopsy report allegedly stated death's cause as "an insult to the brain." All viewers of The Glenn Beck Show should consider themselves warned.

Updike died in the newspapers, and the newspapers died all around him. He's here only because Louis Untermeyer is even more minor, and I haven't read Ungaretti.

Virgil in his deathboat donned a Kafka mask and ordered the unfinished Aeneid burned. Unable to polish it, he preferred to polish it off. Dying, he thought the work already buried, never to be born. Swear, Tucca...Swear, Varius...Drown my child in the harbor at Brundisium. After the poet's death, those false friends betrayed him at the Emperor's word.

Wilde was neither the first poet murdered by moralists, nor the last. Broken in body by Her Majesty's Prisons, he dies in a Paris hotel room near the gonging bells of Notre Dame. That posh cunt Douglas, on the other hand, seemed to live forever.

X, the unknown, much-anthologized Anonymous, died somewhere of something at some time in the past, recent or distant, unless he or she remains breathing, as she or he most certainly does.

Yeats, last wild goose, became his admirers most unIrishly in the south of France. Most people don't know this, assume the echt-Irish poet died under Ben Bulben with a shamrock in his teeth. But no, he succumbed continental, rested in French earth for near a decade while the bombers buzzed above him and the troop trains rumbled west and east. Panzers, pass by. In '48 the tardy Gaels finally dug him up, lugged his bones to Sligo, and set a simple stone. Right here lies the poet Yeats. / Think on him and pay your rates.

Zukofsky died as he lived: into his poetry. A quartet playing Bach in the back of his mind, he thought a final comma, semicolon, period, til the lung's motion ceased and the poet became his book. Z became "A," as was prophesied. It was good enough for Shakespeare, after all.

Monday, March 14, 2011

"My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" (poem 754) by Emily Dickinson

Here's my attempt at a close reading of this familiar but difficult and enigmatic poem. My text is from the standard Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson.

My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--
In Corners

The first stanza provides our only glimpse of the speaker's life in the past, before the present tense action of the central four stanzas and the modulation to the future in the final stanza. In a metaphor that states and initiates the overarching conceit of the poem, the speaker's life is compared to a loaded gun, a deadly phallic weapon. But the cruel energy of the weapon is trapped in potentiality. The speaker's life, loaded with potential, was stagnant, neglected, left to stand in corners. We should note the plural on 'corners' because it suggests that the gun was a powerless object moved around the house at the will of others. The speaker is a powerless domestic figure, a person commanded but never commanding. We might at this point guess that the speaker is a woman even if we knew nothing about the author's gender, and this supposition adds a provocative and unsettling note to the poem: the notion that all those quiet, dutiful daughters and wives of 19th-century America were so many loaded guns just waiting to explode. Lizzie Borden and her ax are not far away. Dickinson is also close to a very modern feminist critique of patriarchy: even this speaker, remarkably conscious of the conditions of her existence, can trope upon her life only in terms of the patriarchal ideology that has interpellated her, formed and informed her self. Her life is a loaded gun, a weapon used by males, a virginal phallus that has yet to 'shoot its load.' Even at her most radical moment, her mind remains colonized by the male imagery that is the only imagery of power her society permits.

                          --till a day
The Owner passed--identified--
And carried Me away--

The mysterious "Owner," surely a male figure, a suitor, a lover, now appears, and He changes everything. The Owner seems a psychologically familiar conflation of lover/husband/father/God, a 'lord and master,' to use a common 19th-century euphemism for a husband. The first 'owner' of the speaker's life would be her father, the next 'owner' her lover-husband, the ultimate 'owner' her Creator. The ambiguity creates at least a hint of incest to darken both the nuptial and theological interpretations, but this is surely the same hint of incest that is present in some form in much female heterosexual love, whether directed toward a Daddy-figure or an anti-Daddy. The word 'identified' is crucial here. The action of the poem begins with this act of identification. On the metaphorical level it's the owner of the gun noticing it and picking it up on his way out the door; on the erotic level, 'identified' is an intransitive verb meaning 'to be or become the same.' This one word is Dickinson's signification of sexual intercourse, the Owner 'takes' the speaker, the two become one. This interpretation is confirmed by the next line. The erotic, even orgasmic, connotations of the phrase "carried away" persist even into our time.

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods--
And now We hunt the Doe--

The marriage is now consummated on a linguistic level, as "Me" and "Owner" become "We." The owner carries the speaker away from domestic confinement into American national mythology's master symbol of freedom, the wilderness of the American frontier. The woods are "sovereign," denoting both 'kingly, regal,' a patriarchal space, and 'unlimited in extent,' the vast western woodlands in which the Puritans saw a howling wilderness and where later generations found the landscape of American pastoral. We are now in the realm of the frontier narratives studied at length by Richard Slotkin, the land of regeneration through violence. And it is also, we should add, a deeply patriarchal realm. They are killing does, not stags. The speaker in marriage conspires with the owner to destroy female intruders in a man's world.

And every time I speak for Him--
The Mountains straight reply--

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow--

The couple live their violent life in pastoral harmony with nature. The mountains echo the report of the deadly rifle, a sound figured as the narrator 'speaking for' the Owner. This topsy-turvy usurpation of male privilege--a woman speaking for a man instead of the usual vice-versa--is the first sign that the couple's frontier adventure is empowering the woman, that she's experiencing a distinctly female version of violent regeneration--also a male privilege in American myth. What might initially seem a brighter side of this empowerment is depicted in the 'smile' image, a complex and compressed conflation of face, sun, and firing gun barrel. But the word 'cordial,' from the Latin root meaning 'heart,' throws a violent bloody light over this glowing valley. This smile is not an insipid 'happy face.' It's the smile of a human being become as violent as nature. It's a smile that earns Dickinson the title Camille Paglia awards her in the last and best chapter of Sexual Personae: Amherst's Madame de Sade.

It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through--

The speaker's Sadistic empowerment in nature now issues in an image that answers the phallic gun of patriarchy that is the poem's controlling conceit. A Vesuvian face is, literally, a face through which emotions suddenly burst forth, but more important than this meaning is the other denotation which the speaker's emotion causes to burst through the very phrase 'Vesuvian face,' an image of a volcano in eruption, the face of a mountain exploding and bursting with hot, bubbling liquid. The image is vulval, vaginal, an anti-phallic symbol that would melt any male 'gun' tossed into it (as vaginas tend to do). This is the pleasure the face lets through, a triumphant and violent image of sexual power diametrically opposed to the imagery the speaker borrows from patriarchy.

And when at Night--our good Day done--
I guard My Master's Head--
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow--to have shared--

This stanza steps back a bit from the extremity of the preceding lines. The 'good day' of regeneration through violence is done, and patriarchy attempts to reassert itself. Man is 'Master' now, but the woman is no longer an unproblematic slave. Now she's a Hegelian slave aware of the dialectical relationship in which she plays a role. She protects the man, and to that extent she has a form of power over him, power that he has granted her, just as she grants him power through her act of self-subordination. The 'deep pillow' image, a Picasso-ish conflation of bosom, buttocks and vagina (three places in which a penis can deeply pillow), transfers the Master/Slave dialectic to an erotic plane where the couple 'share' each others' bodies in the night.

To foe of His--I'm deadly foe--
None stir the second time--
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye--
Or an emphatic Thumb--

We are still in the night, the speaker is guarding the man, holding in her hands the deadly gun of her life. We should note that Dickinson artfully blurs the line between tenor and vehicle in the poem's organizing metaphor. In the poem's first line, the gun is established as the vehicle and 'my life' as the tenor; in subsequent verses, the narrator is not the woman, but the-woman-as-gun, the woman who, through the man's mediation, has become the gun. The marriage of man and woman between the first two stanzas is also the union of tenor and vehicle. We can 'see' the speaker as a woman, as a gun, or as a woman with a gun; the 'proper' visualization would probably be a superimposition of the three. The most curious thing about this stanza is the odd final image of that "emphatic Thumb." Placed in parallel with the firing gun barrel's 'yellow eye,' the capitalized 'Thumb' is an image that gigantizes the speaker by miniaturizing the man's 'foes.' They are tiny bugs to be smashed under a thumb. She's a goddess who will treat his enemies the way Gloucester's 'wanton boys' treat flies. (Read King Lear, if you don't get my allusion.) She could keep Mick Jagger under her thumb.

Though I than He--may longer live
He longer must--than I--
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

This is the most difficult stanza of the poem, so I'll begin interpretation with an attempt at vulgar paraphrase: It is possible that I will outlive him / But he must outlive me / For I have the power to kill him / And only he has the power to kill me. This is what Dickinsonian marriage comes down to, in the end, at the shitty end of life: the one who granted us life is the one who must take it away. A theological reading is possible, but any "The Lord Giveth..." sentimentality is undermined by the ice-cold cruelty of Dickinson's tone. The man must live longer than the woman because he must kill her. This final mercy killing is the love-death that brings to synthesis the poem's themes of eros and thanatos, love and violence. We can read it otherwise, in many other ways, but we should beware of any interpretation that lessens the violence of the ending, for that violence is true to the rest of the poem. Throughout the poem, Dickinson grants us a deeply disturbing vision of love and cruelty, a vision equalled in English only by Blake's "The Mental Traveller."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Poetry after Auschwitz: What Adorno Really Said, and Where He Said It

Gore Vidal remarks somewhere upon the irony that George Santayana is remembered today only for his warning about forgetting. (All who remember Santayana are doomed to repeat that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.) Theodor Adorno seems to have suffered a similar fate, remembered by most nonspecialists only as a German gloom-meister who pronounced that after Auschwitz, poetry could no longer be written. Few realize that what Adorno actually wrote was more complex and subject to revision in his later work.

The original quote (always taken out of context and rarely footnoted) occurs in the concluding passage of a typically densely argued 1949 essay, "Cultural Criticism and Society," reprinted as the first essay in Prisms. Here is the entire passage,  from the English translation by Samuel and Shierry Weber:

The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation. (Prisms, 34)

It's a difficult passage from a difficult essay, made more difficult by being wrenched out of context. (One really must read the entire essay to understand the closing lines. If you find an inexpensive copy of Prisms in a secondhand bookstore, grab it.) Adorno's meaning, particularly what he means by the word "reification," becomes clearer when read in light of two earlier sentences in this same page-long paragraph: "In the open-air prison which the world is becoming, it is no longer so important to know what depends on what, such is the extent to which everything is one. All phenomena rigidify, become insignias of the absolute rule of that which is." Here's my paraphrase/interpretation of the key sentences: To persist, after Auschwitz, in the production of monuments of the very culture that produced Auschwitz (Adorno might have spoken of Strauss's Four Last Songs  rather than generalized "poetry") is to participate by denial in the perpetuation of that barbaric culture and to participate in the process (reification) that renders fundamental criticism of that culture literally unthinkable.

This is a harsh, devastating idea, and Adorno eventually came to consider it something of an overstatement. In his late work Negative Dialectics he offers this conditional revision--a revision that is, in its own way, perhaps even more devastating than the final paragraph of "Cultural Criticism and Society." I quote from the English translation by E. B. Ashton:

Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living--especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier. (Negative Dialectics, 362-363)

This is a great and terrible passage, philosophy written with Kafka's ice-axe, history as a nightmare from which there is only one awakening. It's impossible for me to read these lines without thinking of Primo Levi, of Jean Amery, of Paul Celan (whom Adorno may well have had in mind as he wrote). This passage deserves to be at least as well-known as the line about poetry and barbarism.

Friday, March 11, 2011

THE FEMALE EUNUCH by Germaine Greer

Next month marks the 40th anniversary of the first American publication of The Female Eunuch, a book that's still readable, still provocative, still beyond-the-pale outrageous at times. Today it serves as a reminder that once upon a time, not too long ago, feminism was a genuinely revolutionary movement. At the time of Greer's writing, "second wave" feminism had only just emerged from the New Left and had yet to trifurcate into (a) the gender-equity branch of corporate capitalism, (b) an area of specialization for bourgeois careerist academics, and (c) a Victorian anti-sex discourse puritanical enough to warm Jesse Helm's nonexistent heart. If feminism had followed a less careerist and more Greerist path--or, alternatively, if it had returned to its Modernist roots in Simone de Beauvoir's existentialism instead of pretending that Judith Butler and Kate Millet were major and original thinkers--it might've been less 'successful' (as success is measured in corporatist America) but more useful as an ideology of revolutionary change. Feminism would've been less easy to co-opt and de-fang--or to hold in protective custody on the game preserves for radical ideas that America's college campuses have become.

The Female Eunuch is dated, as any 40 year-old topical polemic must be, but my most serious complaint is that the chapters aren't long enough. In a book this radical and important, size does matter, and Greer's chapters aren't big enough to successfully contain their enormous topics. The 'Sex' chapter, for example, a mere eight (!) pages, could and should have been an entire 300-page book (or an even longer and deeper one) with individual chapters on each of the topics briefly discussed here. I would've liked to have seen more of Greer's truly amazing discoveries in 17th- and 18th-century medical books (the quote from Samuel Collins reads like the tip of an iceberg of remarkable medical prose that remains unknown and unread today); the chapter's critique of the technologization of sex (a process synonymous with the names Masters and Johnson, those masters of johnson mastery) is still provocative today; and Greer's criticism of tame, vanilla, popular culture sexual imagery as basically counterrevolutionary is deeply compelling. (Her example--not as dated as we'd like to believe--is a 'sex scene' from an early Jackie Collins novel. Greer's reading of the passage is delightful, like Virginia Woolf with a filthy mouth: "Miss Collins's heroine is prudish, passive, calculating, selfish and dull, despite her miraculous expanding tits.") I could've read a whole book of this sort of stuff, so I was disappointed when this chapter, and most of the others, came to so sudden an end.

Monday, March 7, 2011

SUPERLATIVES : A List of the Greatest Things

Inspired by Woody Allen's oft-cited list of 'things that make life worth living' from the film Manhattan, here's my ridiculously exclusive list of the Himalayan heights of beauty and sublimity. These are some of my personal "greatest things in the world."

Greatest Aria: Waltraud Meier's performance of the 'liebestod' (final aria) from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, as recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Daniel Barenboim (available on CD from Teldec, 1995). No matter how many times I listen to Meier's liebestod, it never fails to destroy me. But it's a "good destruction," as Hemingway would say. This is music as orgasmic transport.
Waltraud Meier as Isolde

Greatest Jazz Song: Charlie Parker's instrumental version of "Loverman." This is the most awesomely moving couple minutes of jazz that I have ever heard. Listening to it, I feel the vibrations of Parker's saxophone deep inside my chest. The music plays me.

Charlie Parker, American Genius

Greatest Modernist Novel: Ulysses by James Joyce. No reader of this blog will be surprised by this choice. As I've said before, it's the Rosetta Stone of Modernism. It's also funny, sad, and mind-blowingly accomplished. And it's a love story, a book about love, "the opposite of hatred."
Marilyn Monroe reading Molly Bloom's soliloquy. A detail from one of my favorite photographs.

Greatest Work of 19th-century Aestheticism: The Renaissance by Walter Pater. The unholy bible of English Aestheticism, this is one of the most beautiful books in the language, a masterpiece of impressionistic prose. More than a book about art, this is a manifesto for living.
The exquisite Mr. Pater and his rockin' stash

 Most Beautiful Painting: The most beautiful painting in the world is Peter Paul Rubens' Moonlight Landscape in the Courtauld Gallery, London. Little-known today, it was revered in the eighteenth century and deserves to be rediscovered. No reproduction can come close to doing it justice.
A poor snapshot of the most beautiful painting in the world

Greatest Film: Persona (1966), directed by Ingmar Bergman. I could list twenty or thirty of the greatest films ever made (and I'll probably do that in a future post), but Persona is my current choice for the greatest of them all. This is an apex of the art of film, a work as inexhaustible as the greatest novels, as rewatchable as a great novel is rereadable. It's intelligent, erotic, shocking, and always several steps ahead of the viewer. I have never read a satisfying interpretation of Persona--and that might also be a mark of its greatness: the greatest art resists interpretive capture.
Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in 'Persona'

 Greatest Live Rock n Roll Performance: Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. One witness (who inexplicably remembers the Sixties) described Hendrix's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as sounding "like the Vietnam War exploding inside your skull." The comparison is apt, for Hendrix performs heavy aerial bombardment on the National Anthem and takes a field full of revelers into the sonic heart of a darkness their country was creating half a world away.
Jimi Hendrix deconstructing the discourse of American patriotism in a time of war

Greatest Romantic Poem in English: "Ode on Intimations of Immortality" by William Wordsworth. A single poem that encapsulates most of Wordsworth and much of the movement he co-initiated. If you haven't read it for a while, re-read it and feel its staggering beauty.
Wordsworth: A Portrait of the Once-Radical Artist as Victorian Gentleman

Greatest Opera Ending: The ending of Rigoletto, a magnificent tragic coup de theatre that reminds us of the strong affinity between grand opera and Greek tragedy.
The tragic final scene of Rigoletto

Greatest Portfolio of Portrait Photographs: Richard Avedon's In The American West. When I saw an exhibition of this series a few years ago, I understood that these images were the flipside of Avedon's portraits of the famous and fashionable. These are images from the other America, portraits of the maimed and moneyless victims of the American Dream.
From Avedon's series 'In the American West'

Greatest Visual Meditation on Sex, Power and Death: Titian's The Death of Actaeon in the London National Gallery. One of my criticisms of Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae is that the book almost entirely ignores Titian, an artist whose late work reaches a height of sublime cruelty that Paglia's beloved Sade never achieved.
Titian, The Death of Actaeon, ca.1565-76

Greatest Narrative Poem of the Post-Classical Era: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. I prefer to read the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso in the sublime translation by Allen Mandelbaum.
Dante and his three realms, from an old Florentine fresco

Most Sublime Image in Western Poetry: The 'river of light' near the end of Dante's Paradiso. Paradise isn't nearly so much fun as Hell, everyone agrees, but this breathtaking image makes it worth the trip. Botticelli and William Blake both tried and failed to illustrate this scene; its beauty is beyond visual representation.
Blake's attempt looks more like Dante panning for gold

Greatest Physical Experience: Orgasm. A great, shaking, shattering, consciousness-obliterating sexual climax is all of transcendence we can know on earth, and all we need to know.
Hedy Lamarr in ecstasy in 'Ecstasy' (1931)

 Greatest Renaissance Drama: Hamlet. Four hundred years on, we're still trying to catch up with Hamlet. And just when we think we're winning, we realize he's lapping us yet again.
Title page of 1605 Hamlet

Greatest Recent Atheist Book: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Much smarter than Hitchens and much funnier than Dennett, Dawkins is a turbocharged intellectual delight.
Richard Dawkins models his 2010 Halloween costume

Greatest Place for Sacrilegious Sex: The altar of St. Stephen Walbrook, London. Designed by Henry Moore, it's rockhard but otherwise perfect for a quickie. The church is beautiful too.
Henry Moore's erotically inviting Stone Age altar at St. Stephen Walbrook

Greatest Work of Sculpture since Bernini: Rodin's Gates of Hell. Most of the Rodin works that have become curatorial cliches (including The Thinker) were originally conceived as part of this sculptural magnum opus, an elaborately ornamented pair of doors that may well be the greatest work of decorative art since the invention of stone tools.
Rodin's Gates of Hell

Greatest Pop Song: Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Dylan wrote plenty of songs more mysterious and poetic than this one, but some of the lyrics in "Tambourine Man" are the work of a Wordsworth turned troubadour. Magnificent.
Bob Dylan as Cate Blanchett

 Greatest Natural Color: The deep blue in the shadows cast by evergreen trees upon freshly fallen snow.

Greatest Artist in the History of Western Art: Pablo Picasso. I consider this obvious and wonder why people doubt it. Why is it unthinkable that the greatest artist in European history lived during our lifetimes? Picasso's works revolutionized not only painting but sculpture, graphic arts and even pottery. In the Western tradition, only Michelangelo comes close to the breadth of Picasso's achievement, but Picasso is more innovative, more revolutionary (this is surely a function of the times in which both men lived). Michelangelo's art records no break with the past as definitive as Cubism, for example.
Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Glass and Lemon, 1910

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1912

Late self-portrait by Picasso

Greatest Breasts: Eva Green's bosom should be declared a World Heritage Site. Natural wonders this stunning deserve preservation (and Sherpa guides).
Eva Green doing the Venus de Milo thing in 'The Dreamers' (2003)

Greatest Movie Goddess (pre-1950): Marlene Dietrich. She defined sexy, sultry cosmopolitan sophistication. I fall in love with her again every time I watch The Blue Angel.
Marlene Dietrich with Ernest Hemingway

Greatest Movie Goddess (post-1950): Catherine Deneuve. She was always beautiful and will always be beautiful. Exquisite actress too.
Deneuve at the peephole in Bunuel's 'Belle de Jour' (1967)

Greatest Writer of the Twentieth Century: Marcel Proust. A la recherche du temps perdu is my candidate for the century's premier work in the art of prose. Read it in English in the deservedly classic translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, et al. Other translators have since tried their hands, but Moncrieff definitively captured the organically proliferating Art Nouveau nature of Proustian prose.

Proust on his deathbed, photographed by Man Ray

Sunday, March 6, 2011


I am hereby officially begging (I am on bended knee as I type this post, a rather uncomfortable position), yes, begging the Criterion Collection to acquire and release the following films on DVD. Some of them are currently unavailable in the U.S. in any form.
  • Providence (1977), directed by Alain Resnais. An award-winning film by a leading director and starring John Geilgud in a critically-acclaimed performance. This is the only major Resnais film unavailable on DVD, and it seems like a natural for Criterion.
  • Face to Face (1976), directed by Ingmar Bergman. We live in a world where Porky's is available on DVD, but two of Bergman's major works are not. Surely the apocalypse is near...
  • From the Life of the Marionettes (1980), directed by Ingmar Bergman. Only available in the US in overpriced VHS format. (Porky's, on the other hand, can be purchased at any WalMart...)
  • The Decameron (1971), directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The first film in Pasolini's 'Trilogy of Life.' This is available on DVD from MGM, but as one of Pasolini's most beautiful films it deserves the full Criterion treatment.
  • The Canterbury Tales (1972), directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The second film in Pasolini's 'Trilogy of Life.' It can be watched in streaming video from Netflix, but is unavailable on DVD.
  • A Thousand and One Nights/Arabian Nights (1974), directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Third film in the 'Trilogy of Life.' Likewise viewable from Netflix but not on DVD. Criterion should consider a box-set release of the Trilogy of Life. It would be a wonderful complement to their impressive DVD of Pasolini's Salo, a film the director made as a kind of 'answer' or 'antidote' to the trilogy.
  • Chimes at Midnight (1965), directed by Orson Welles. A great actor and greater director directs himself in the role he was genetically engineered to play, Falstaff. The labyrinthine legal tangles of the Welles estate have kept this major film out of circulation for many years. If the problems are ever resolved, I'd love to see a Criterion disc with a commentary track featuring Jeanne Moreau.
  • The Compleat Guy Maddin. Criterion did a wonderful job with Maddin's Brand Upon The Brain! I'd like to see them do likewise with his entire body of work. Maddin, a Canadian surrealist (yes, that phrase is redundant), is my candidate for North America's greatest contemporary filmmaker. If you don't know his work, go to Netflix and check him out. Once you've seen a Maddin flick, David Lynch will look very corporate to you.
UPDATE: Wonderful news: Criterion has announced that they will be releasing the three Pasolini films on my list (the Trilogy of Life) on Nov.13, 2012. Sometimes it pays to beg.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


A literal translation of this book's French title, Mensonge romantique et verite romanesque (Romantic Lie and Novelistic Truth), would've been preferable to the melodramatic Deceit, Desire..., but whatever you call it, it's a disappointing work. It's sad when a book that begins as promisingly as this one crashes so quickly into reiteration and repetition. And reiteration. And repetition. And more repetition... The first chapter is amazingly good, the kind of criticism that forces us to go back and reconsider everything we've ever read in light of Girard's new paradigm of 'triangular' (or 'mimetic,' or 'imitative') desire. But from then on--and for the remainder of Girard's career to his present extreme old age--engaged criticism devolves into paradigmatic application. Girard has spent his entire career seeing mimetic desire everywhere--and probably never once imagining that its ubiquity is a product of projection. If the fox knows many things and the hedgehog knows one big thing, Girard is a hedgehog extraordinare, the intellectual as monomaniac, a dreary Johnny-one-note. (Among contemporary intellectuals, true foxes are rarer than polar bears in Trinidad. Camille Paglia thinks she's a fox, but she's an inverted Socrates who knows less than she thinks she knows. Edward Said could probably be considered a fox. Jean-Paul Sartre was a fox. Beauvoir? Well, The Second Sex was a foxy book. But I can't think of anyone above ground who still fits the bill--an indication of the extreme overspecialization that's crippling the contemporary mind. Noam Chomsky's almost a fox, but his vast knowledge of language, politics, philosophy, history, etc. is not matched by an equal appreciation of music, literature, or the other arts; Edward Said had a breadth of mind Noam does not possess.)

Since this work--and Girard's entire career--can be described in terms of projection and obsession, it's surely notable that in this book about desire and its vicissitudes, the name Sigmund Freud appears only once and is relegated to a footnote. Freud, who recognized mimetic desire half a century before Girard and called it the Oedipus complex and whose life's work was a tracing of the devious deviations of desire, is this book's unacknowledgeable precursor, the Bloomian 'strong father' from whom Girard must swerve into the protective enclave of Structuralist scientism. In the book's own terms, Freud is the secret mediator of Structuralist desire. Freud, as much as Saussure, is the thinker Structuralists imitate while thinking themselves original (in their arguments against originality). Psychoanalysis is the intellectual unconscious of this text, and perhaps of Structuralism generally. Hence, Girard's imprisonment of the Freudian contribution inside the blocky text of a footnote. And so it becomes apparent that Deceit, Desire and the Novel unintentionally exemplifies the very process it describes: Girard's swerve away from Freud is a mark of the deceit in this book's/author's desire to interpret the novel.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Camille Paglia has balls--bigger than Harold Bloom's, harder than Chris Matthews's, shinier than Alec Baldwin's in Glengary Glen Ross. It doesn't really bother me that some of her opinions are goofier than a cartoon dog (and some are just plain stupid). With Paglia we're forced to take wheat with chaff, gold with garbage; at her worst she's as self-embarrassing as Charlie Sheen, but at her best she's the most genuinely transgressive, mind-blowing literary critic of her generation. Sexual Personae blew through early-90s P.C. America like a pussy-scented hurricane. Call it Hurricane Camille. (She did.) I was an undergraduate English major when this book appeared, and I remember reading it eagerly, thrilled to have found the book I had wanted to read for years, the kind of book no one wrote anymore, a kind most American academics would've dismissed as a priori impossible. Sexual Personae is a big, broad, Texas-size work of intellectual synthesis that goes far beyond its subtitle to offer a vision of the evolution of Western (European and American) culture from pre-history to Oscar Wilde. In many ways it's a throwback, a 19th-century kind of book, a Golden Bough for the age of AIDS and body-piercing. But what impressed me more than the book's scope was its attitude. Here was a scholar speaking directly and passionately about art, with an absence of politically correct cant and theoretical dogma--both of which were in overabundant supply on American campuses of the early 1990s. This is not to say that Camille is not dogmatic. One of the more infuriating aspects of her work (I find Paglia's entire oeuvre infuriating and exhilarating in equal measure) is that she is guilty of virtually all the faults she criticizes in other critics. For example, she instructs her readers to despise dogma and yet adheres dogmatically to a biological essentialism and determinism that blinds her to sociopolitical causation and produces an untenable contradiction when she takes an implicitly constructionist view of homosexuality. (This latter contradiction is probably the largest and most serious crack in Sexual Personae's worldview. Her celebration of sexual rebels only makes sense in a context of Sartrean free will that directly contradicts the terrible--and deliberately overstated--determinism of her opening chapter.) She's also guilty of that universal sin of the theoretical critic, trimming artworks and artists so they fit the procrustean bed of the critic's chosen theory. This is most obvious in her relative treatment of Wordsworth and Coleridge, where she ignores the dark side of Wordsworthian nature so the poet better fits the Apollonian side of her Nietzschean critical paradigm and contrasts more sharply with her Dionysian Coleridge (also a caricature). She's not really anti-dogmatic in her work; she simply adheres to old, unfashionable dogmas (e.g. the Apollo / Dionysus duality; traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, etc.). Sometimes this is charmingly quixotic; sometimes it's simply obstinate. But enough generalities. What makes this book worth reading is its author's elephantine, Spenserianly-armoured balls. Big bronze bell-clapper balls. Sexual Personae contains more entertainingly outrageous sentences than any other book ever written by an American academic:

"For a fetus is a benign tumor, a vampire who steals in order to live." (11)

"The Latinist Fred Nichols tells me that a verb in Martial, used in poetry for the first time by Catullus, describes the fluttering movement of the buttocks of the passive partner in sodomy. There were, in fact, two forms of this verb: one for males and another for females." (133)

"The excretory voiding of one person into the mouth of another is Dionysian monologue, a pagan oratory." (239)

"A hundred nuns linked by dildos!...The orgiast nuns are like a polysyllabic Greek or German noun, spawning prefixes and suffixes and hyphenated by dildos." (241)

"William Blake is the British Sade, as Emily Dickinson is the American Sade." (270)

"Significantly, Dickinson shows little concern with disease. Her sadomasochistic horrors are confined to piercings, slashings, hackings, scorchings and dislocations." (654)

Sensational sentences aside, the best and most valuable parts of Sexual Personae are the Sade-istic reinterpretations of Spenser and Dickinson, the pages on Sade (although Paglia is wrong about the Marquis; she calls him a "great writer and philosopher," but most of the time he's a poor writer and a mind-numbingly monotonous philosopher), the readings of Donatello's David and Michelangelo's Giuliano de Medici, and the chapter on Swinburne and Pater, which rescues two of Victorian England's best writers from the oblivion of the unread. The book's most important contribution to literary theory--still largely ignored--is Paglia's concept of Decadence, which she defines as an Apollonian freezing of the Dionysian. This is a powerful notion and deserves further development and broader application.

Nothing in Paglia's subsequent books rises to the level of these sections of Sexual Personae. There are a few very good pieces in her other two essay collections (in Sex, Art and American Culture I recommend the "cancelled preface" to Sexual Personae, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders," and the MIT lecture; in Vamps and Tramps only "No Law in the Arena" comes close to the best of SP), but Paglia's post-SP career describes a disappointingly downward arc into banal pop-culture criticism (her Salon column) and dubious political bloviation. (Her little BFI book on Hitchcock's The Birds was good; I was unimpressed by Break, Blow, Burn.)

The fact that this book seems to have had little to no effect on academic literary criticism is hardly an indictment. Sexual Personae isn't a self-ghettoizing academic book; it's a defiantly popular one that pointedly ignores the common non-wisdom that equates 'popular' with 'non-intellectual.' It was written for readers, not teachers. It's a book to be read, re-read, and argued with. I have major disagreements with Paglia, but the fact remains that her goddamn book is a blast, blast, blast...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On Christopher Nolan's film INCEPTION (2010)

Christopher Nolan's well-reviewed film Inception didn't impress me very much. I expected a more difficult film and was disappointed to find a movie that could be easily followed by anyone familiar with Modernist and Postmodernist narrative strategies. (Having recently read Infinite Jest, I had no trouble following Inception.) Nolan is always careful to tell us exactly where we are at every moment of the film, and the only genuine ambiguity is the cheap and facile one created by the final shot. But my biggest disappointment was due to the film's poverty of imagination. This is a dream-film that understands nothing about dreams. While it takes place almost entirely (or perhaps entirely) inside dreams, its two hour and twenty-eight minute running time contains only one convincingly dream-like image, the freight train barrelling down a city street. The rest of the movie is too rational to create a convincing dream-world. Its only interest lies in what it unintentionally tells us about contemporary reality. The viewer's true 'totem,' the spinning top that tells us about Inception's status as dream or reality, is its MPAA rating. Who has PG-13 dreams? Answer: movie executives. The entire movie is being dreamed by an exec at Warner Brothers. Hence, like its difficulty and imagination, Inception's intelligence has also been greatly exaggerated. The film's sole value is as an unintentional revelation of corporatist ideology, several fundamental tenets of which can be abstracted from the movie:

1.The world is defined by corporate competitions in which even outlaws like Dom Cobb must choose a corporate side.

2. Governments are irrelevant because corporations control them. (Ken Watanabe can make Leo's murder rap vanish with one phone call; Watanabe-san is the film's David Koch.)

3. Resistance to corporate domination is useless. (The film doesn't even attempt to imply otherwise.)

4. There are no problems that cannot be solved by expert application of technoscientific rationality. (This valorization of reason is the reason underwriting Inception's too-logical dream-world.)

5. Sexuality does not exist (Has any movie about dreams ever been so sexless? Everyone who watches Inception should immediately afterward screen Caligula, just to even things out.)

6. The mind is structured like a computer game. (This 21st-century revision of Lacan is Inception's master principle; it probably contains all the others.)

Anyone interested in seeing a superior film on the dream/reality theme that is not a piece of stealth corporatist propaganda should check out Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour. Then go on to Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, Un Chien Andalou, L'Age d'Or, etc., etc. They're all available from Netflix (a corporation, alas...).