Sunday, March 31, 2013


The PBS American Masters documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked can now be viewed online at the show's website. There are also some interesting outtakes available on the page. The documentary will probably be online for a limited time, so view it soon.

Friday, March 29, 2013

"Spring and Fall" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I've always read Hopkins's "Spring and Fall" as a sneakily sadistic little poem, its beautiful music pulsating against the psychological cruelty it dramatizes.

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

An adult and presumably male speaker addresses his question to a "young child," importantly female. To begin with a question is to signal the speaker's ignorance, the gulf of unknowing that separates him from the mind of Margaret. He does not know the cause of her grief, but even as he states the question that reveals his ignorance, he projects a childish sentimentality upon the consciousness that remains a blank to him.

Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Although still questioning, still uncertain, the speaker is now bold enough to force his own simile and metaphor upon the child he addresses. It is in his mind, not hers, that leaves are "like the things of man," a hackneyed Romantic cliche that should put readers immediately on guard. Our speaker is an impressive lyrical musician, but as a poet he is here considerably less impressive than his author.

Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

In the eighth line, our speaker becomes a poet worthy of his worldly creator: those wanwood worlds lying leafmeal rank among Hopkins's most impressive creations. But we should not allow their imagistic music to deafen us to the drama playing out in these lines. The depressive speaker here confesses the condition of his melancholic soul. His once fresh thoughts have been dried by life to wrinkly raisins, and his sole defense against the unadulterated mind of a child is to imaginatively adulterate that mind, projecting his own present melancholy into the child's future.

And yet you will weep and know why.

The italicized word punningly displays (in an admirably Shakespearean way) the violent force of the speaker's sadistic will. He insists, with all the force of Victorian patriarchy, that his imaginings will be the child's future. To say it in Jargonspeak: he will interpellate the child into his discourse of depression. Father-figure knows best. No alternative futures need apply.

Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.

The melancholic consciousness (that of the speaker and of his projected adult-child) is trapped in a mind of perpetual autumn where the names of seasons are so many Hamletian "words, words, words." The speaker's work of projection is now so complete (in his own mind) that he can adopt a tone of commiseration, of fellow-suffering. This may have been his motive all along. Misery does indeed love company, and it's more infectious than the plague.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

The deepest and most pathetic/bathetic truth of depression can be neither verbalized nor consciously known. It can only be expressed by the emotions and hypothesized to exist in the unconscious--'guessed' at in the ghostly self. Hopkins in these lines is a jaw-droppingly exact precursor of psychoanalysis.

It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Something as common (in all senses of the word) as self-pity lies at the core of a blighted consciousness that compulsively projects its blight even upon the greenest of worlds. In this final and mutedly triumphant psychological imposition, the speaker projects his blasted, self-pitying cinder-self upon the child. Her mind is still Romantically fresh, capable of being moved by nature; it is the adult speaker's mind, expressed in his projections, that has sealed itself into a self-perpetuating, self-pitying mantrap of grief in which nature, like his self, is a constant dying until cessation of breath brings its terminal literalization. His life can be described in a blasphemously liturgical formula: Death without end, amen. His only relief is the power-rush accompanying compulsive acts of cruelty such as the one dramatized here: the powerful projection of his living death into the mind of a child. The poem dramatizes a kind of mental molestation.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Shameless Self-Promotion: THE DEGAS MANUSCRIPT and BEAUTY AND TERROR by Brian A. Oard

My art historical mystery novel The Degas Manuscript and my book of art criticism Beauty and Terror: Essays on the Power of Painting are now both available as Kindle e-books at Readers interested in good writing about great art should check them out.

As a little tease, here's the prologue and the beginning of chapter one of The Degas Manuscript:

     They threw her body into the river at the Quai Saint Bernard. The black water swallowed her with barely a splash, and she spun toward its depths like a stick of driftwood, trailing a veil of bubbles downward into darkness. When buoyancy bounced her to the surface again, ten feet from the quai, the only sound was the crackle of carriage wheels on gravel as the men drove away.

She floated face-up, sightless eyes open to the sky. Tiny waves slapped her body as she drifted toward the bridges at the end of the Ile St. Louis. Her blonde hair fanned out on the water like the tentacles of an exotic sea creature, some squid or octopus caught in the nets off Tahiti and shipped to Paris for display in the markets at Les Halles. One fair tentacle reached out and entangled a floating cigar end, a brown stub that still bore the toothmarks of the solitary stroller who had absent-mindedly flicked it off the Pont D’Austerlitz half an hour earlier during his journey from somewhere to somewhere in the city at night.

The river branched into channels and the current quickened. She was drawn under the bridges, past the island of silent mansions and toward the Ile de la Cité, where the low walls of the Morgue stood sentinel before the soaring buttresses of Notre Dame. Pulled by contending currents, her body was tossed for a time against the embankment below the Morgue, her arm and forehead striking the cold stone again and again as if obstinately demanding entry. Ultimately, the swifter current prevailed and she floated spinning like a pinwheel along the southern edge of the Cité. She spun past Notre Dame, its towers rising into blackness; past the large barracks that faced the cathedral and seemed equally silent and uninhabited; under the Pont St. Michel, stamped with the wreathed N’s of the ruling Bonapartes; past the Palais de Justice, the Préfecture de Police and the blood-stained prison of the Conciergerie; under the Pont Neuf, where an empty bottle tossed from the bridge splashed and bobbed near her head; past Henri IV sitting obliviously astride his bronze horse, and into the wider, calmer waters at the end of the island.

For a long time, her body bounced against the sides of barges and bathing platforms moored along the quais. And then she floated onward, under the bare metal frame of the Pont des Arts and along the endless, gaslight-splashed walls of the Louvre. The shattered, shimmering reflection of the palace walls in the river bathed her in the sparkle of a thousand yellow diamonds.

The current drew her body down, pulled her into the darkness, into an alien world. But the flitting fish seemed accustomed to her species, not frightened as they darted above and below her body and passed through the flowing folds of her gown. She floated with the fish past a massive bridge pier that stood like a lone, ruined tower in a land of inky blackness. She was dragged down until her shoulder hit the bottom, stirring an invisible cloud of gravel and mud. She bounced upward, began to rise, but her motion was checked by a jagged pile of refuse, a mound of old wood and fragments of stone thrown off the bridge two years before when a wagon overturned during Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of the Louvre. Her arm caught on a board jutting out from the pile, and her body curled around this piece of wood, enclosing it in a lifeless embrace. Its sharp nails snagged her dress and held her motionless amidst the rushing water.

She hung suspended there for hours. The current eventually pulled her body horizontal and drew her arms out, but the dress remained caught on the nails. She seemed to ride the passing river as a falcon sails on waves of wind across the sky.

Slowly the river’s surface brightened into wavering day, and weak sunlight filtered down to find her lying there, unmoving in the ever-flowing water. The commotion of a passing boat pushed her body down and loosened the dress. But only when two paddlewheel steamboats splashed closely overhead, stirring the water to a froth, was she jarred completely free. She floated up to break the surface on a sunny Paris morning.

The current carried her past the Tuileries Palace and its adjoining garden, where top hatted promenaders trod on their shadows in the morning light. Near the Pont de la Concorde, she was caught in the wake of a boat ferrying tourists from the Louvre to the Universal Exposition. Her body was set spinning by its force, turning clockwise with arms and legs outspread. On the bridge, a well-dressed man leaned over the rail and rubbed a wind-blown cinder from his eye. The girl’s legs floated into the reflection of his top hat as if attempting to kick it off.

She drifted under the bridge and past the lush green trees of the Champs-Elysées. She proceeded slowly, rising and falling in the water. When she passed the garden of the Invalides and reached the Pont de l’Alma, she looked like a sleeper floating face-up on a watery bed, but a sleeper with eyes open and far past awakening. She would not be jarred into consciousness by the piercing screams of the Englishwoman who paused on her way to the Exposition, looked down into the smoky mirror of the Seine, and saw the eyes of a young girl staring back at her.

My Dear Manet,

Yes, I am telling this story to you, my dear fellow and sometime-friend. Now that you have been dead for three decades, my secrets should be safe with you. Listen closely. Did you enjoy that introductory lyrical effusion? I wrote it entirely for your benefit. You were always a great admirer of poetic morbidity, especially when it flowed from your friend Baudelaire. (I remember the day you took me to see Baudelaire in the nursing home; that sad afternoon will be part of this story.) But I can confess to you now that I never shared your poetic enthusiasms, and the process of writing those preceding three pages has caused my estimation of poets to sink even lower. It is easy, Edouard–too easy–to rhapsodize about the beautiful and the dead.

For mine is a story of beauty and death, of art and murder, and of you and me. It is the answer (long delayed; forgive me) to the question you asked outside the old Opera at the end of that summer masked ball back in 1867. Do you remember? Of course you don’t. Your memories are dust now, like the skull that contained them. You asked me who the killer was, and I lied to you. Now I have finally decided to tell you the truth, to answer your question honestly and in detail. My answer (and the reason I lied) can only be understood when the story has been told in its entirety, so I must write the whole thing, from the day I held her body in my arms to the day we both traveled out to Asnières and saw our futures floating in the river.

It’s a mystery story, then, like those of your beloved Edgar Poe. I still have the volume of Poe you gave me many years ago. It’s lying on my desk right now in the same condition as those unfortunate victims in the author’s ‘Rue Morgue’: spine broken, skin torn, insides spilling out. But I guess none of us is what we used to be. Berthe, Caillebotte, and even The Immortal Pissarro are all dead; Renoir is a cripple; Monet, your dark doppelganger, is almost as blind as I am; and as for Mary, the rich American–well, noon is like midnight for her, too. Why does age so often attack painters in the eyes? Are we all like Oedipus, cruelly punished for some unknown transgression? (You have made the Odyssean journey to the Underworld, Edouard, so answer me, answer me.) Simply to see these words as I write them, I’m forced to bend down until my eyes are almost resting on the surface of the paper (this hurts my back, but that’s another volume of stories), and if I could see well enough to catch my reflection in the studio mirror I would probably be mildly amused at the sad irony of the spectacle: the famous artist, the highly respected draftsman, rendered incapable of drawing anything, reduced to wasting good paper by covering it with words.

I try to resist the tar pit of self-pity, but sometimes it’s insufferably boring to be a blind and bitter old man. It’s a hellish kind of life when half the world hates you and the other half are damned fools.

To the story, then, the mystery. I’m sure you remember the day it begins, the day I visited your exhibition on the Place de l’Alma. It was the last week of May in 1867. Across the river from you on the Champ de Mars, Napoleon III’s Universal Exposition was drawing hordes (or should I say ‘herds’?) of tourists from around the world, but very few of those cattle wandered into your little building to see the show you mounted in protest when the officials refused to hang your paintings in the Exposition Palace. It was a pleasant, sunny day, but was it a Tuesday or Wednesday? Or Thursday? I can’t recall. I do know that before leaving my studio I would have paused to play Narcissus for a moment, checking my image in the mirror. What did I see? A young bourgeois in a black frock coat and top hat, a painter who dressed like the wealthy banker’s son he was. Yes, I’m beginning to see myself now. I was 33 that year and looked even younger, although in some undefinable way I already felt like an old man. Because my deep-set eyes gave me an expression people considered ‘melancholy’ and ‘Romantic,’ I was in the midst of a multi-year campaign to erase this Italian inheritance from my face. For fifteen or twenty minutes every morning I would stand before the mirror and direct at my reflection gazes that were ‘piercing,’ ‘ironic,’ even ‘furious,’ and which no soft-hearted soul would dare call ‘Romantic.’ My efforts were at best an incomplete success, and as I stood there that morning I surveyed through ‘sleepy’ eyes the fashionably loose cut of my coat, the immaculate white of my shirt collar, the carefully careless appearance of my cravat. I admired the way my face-framing fringe of black beard looked like a chin strap attached to my hat. And I was satisfied that the image in the mirror agreed substantially with the recent self-portrait hanging beside it on the wall....

To continue reading, purchase the Kindle e-book at Amazon.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A NEW LITERARY HISTORY OF AMERICA, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors

Neither a narrative history nor, strictly speaking, a reference book, this cinderblock-tall, dictionary-thick collection of essays (each averaging 4-5 pages) vies with The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry as the ultimate lit-geek occasional book. (An 'occasional book' is exactly what it looks like: a book to be dipped into occasionally, read randomly and desultorily, a few pages at a time.) Readers seeking a traditional narrative history of American literature should try Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury's From Puritanism to Postmodernism, which ably covers most of the bases, outlining the overall shape of our country's literature and how that shape has changed over time. Marcus and Sollors take all of that as read and give us a massive, chronologically arranged compendium of essays by various writers and scholars on topics ranging from the poetry of Walt Whitman to Bell's telephone, from Lolita to Miles Davis, from Cortes' conquest of Mexico to hardboiled prose to hiphop to Hurricane Katrina. This format creates an unavoidable unevenness--some of the essays are merely competent--but the highpoints of this collection are very high indeed: novelist Richard Powers on Saint-Gaudens' Shaw monument; Mary Gaitskill on Norman Mailer; Ilan Stavans on the amazing journey of Cabeza de Vaca; a standout essay on the naming of America; Ishmael Reed's contentious take on Huckleberry Finn; T. J. Clark on Jackson Pollock; Sollors on The Sound and the Fury; an analysis of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address; the art of Bob Dylan; the decline of Ernest Hemingway. Of course there are blind spots, especially in the final 200 pages (no examination of 1990s 'gargantuan postmodernism' (Infinite Jest, The Tunnel, Mason & Dixon, Underworld); not even an index listing for 1980s minimalism (not my favorite ism, by any means, but still fairly important); no discussion of the impact of academicization and MFA programs), but the plenitude of what's here successfully distracts us (most of the time) from what's missing. All in all, Marcus and Sollors have compiled an exceptionally good book, a wunderkammer of America and its literatures. Keep it on your desk, your nightstand, beside your toilet if you're into Joyce. This heavy book is never less than enlightening.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Situation of Criticism at the Present Time

Jess Row's 2011 Boston Review article, "The Novel Is Not Dead," is an absolute must-read for readers and writers of contemporary fiction and anyone interested in the situation of literary criticism at the present time. In addition to arguing for the continuing vibrancy of novelistic fiction, Row compellingly criticizes the criticism of Virginia Woolf, indicts David Shields along similar lines, and begins and ends the article with a quote from Bakhtin that made my day.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The last lines of CONTINENTAL DRIFT by Russell Banks

After the end of his good, harsh 1985 novel Continental Drift, after all his narrative's downward spirals have wound themselves to nooses, after his protagonists have funnelled down their various American nightmares to the septic pits of death and living death, after all of this brutality and hopelessness and rage, a narrator we can only identify as the author steps to the page in full Melvillean voice to deliver an "Envoi" that ends in a bruised and bruising statement of the subversive potential of literary art:

Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives--no, especially wholly invented lives--deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book's objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.

Those words were written in the mid-1980s, a time almost as dishonest as our own, but they express an ambition--and more than that, a motivation for and justification of art--that seems virtually nonexistent in the literary fiction of our decade. The novel of today is no longer an anarchist's bomb; it's a career move, the next step up the ladder after that collection of short stories from your MFA days. Literary fiction has hardened into a rule-ridden genre as its authors have become academic promulgators of rules and professionalized players of the tenure game. Today we write not to change the world, but to change our addresses. The extent to which the mad, Ahabish ambition that flashes from Russell Banks's closing lines strikes us as foolhardy, naive or utopian is a good measure of how much we have lost along the twisting road from Yoknapatawpha County to Iowa City. But what we have lost is still out there, somewhere along the road, maybe floating like Finn down the middle of the Mississippi, that sopping cunt of the continent. Yes, the thing that will make our literature worthy of the heights of its past--those forbidding peaks named Faulkner and Melville, James and Wharton, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Dickinson and Frost--is still out there, waiting like Whitman at Robert Johnson's crossroads, crouching in the vastness of America... It's time for us to pick it up and run with it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


A 'skeuomorph'--the most useful word I've learned this year--is a design element in a new product imitating an older, more familiar product that the new product makes obsolete. Skeuomorphism gives new technology an aura of familiarity. A few exemplary skeuomorphs: e-book readers digitally imitating the paper page and copying the size and shape of printed books; computer keyboards imitating the quickly obsolete typewriter; early automobiles resembling and called 'horseless carriages.' Whether intentional marketing devices or side effects of technological innovation, skeuomorphs are all around us. We live in a skeuomorphic world.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Nabokov on LOLITA; an Attempted Pynchon Documentary; and other scrapings from the tube of you

Here are two excerpts from an old Canadian TV program featuring Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling discussing Vlad the Inscriber's best-known work. Too bad the first clip begins in medias res, but it's interesting to see and hear this pair chatting up Lolita.

On a tangentially related note (Pynchon's parabolic trajectory probably intersected the hermetic Nabokovian circle during their mutual Cornell days), the entire documentary Thomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P can also be viewed on the Tube.

The doc is not quite as terrible as its title, which suggests a urinary rewriting of Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man" ("One must have a mind of pee..."), but it didn't show me anything new.
And now for something completely different, here's an 18-second film of James Joyce, apparently photographed on two different days in 1920s Paris. Look for the child dressed as an Indian who runs behind him near the end of the second shot--a touch of Bunuelian irrationality.
And finally, here's a very short silent film of the elderly Claude Monet painting, talking, and chain-smoking in his garden at Giverny.