Friday, July 27, 2018

Adversaria 2018

For my 600th post here at Mindful Pleasures (and likely my last for a while), a collection of random ruminations, pithy parentheticals, crabby comments, quirky quotes, and hopefully thoughtful asides culled from my notebook of the past year-and-more:

("Hopefully thoughtful" is probably the most we can ask for in Trumptime; "thoughtfully hopeful" is about as likely as the resurrection of Philip Roth.)

William Gass's obituary in Le Monde (newspaper of record for a country that still has a literary culture (of sorts)) refers to Gass as a prosateur, a word that deserves a place in the English lexicon, that ShakesJoycean trickbag of Tristy wordthefts and phunny portmanteaux. Prosateur: a prose stylist (fem. Prosateuse, for the old-fash and/or gynocentric). I'm attracted to its sonic similarity to provocateur, something all good prosateurs should be. (Gass certainly was. His best sentences are long-fuse wordbombs set to blow your mind.)

"One reads poetry with one's nerves." -- Wallace Stevens, in his notebook

Every dystopia is the utopia of its ruling class. (Until we understand this, we will not understand the actions of the Trump regime.)

Against identity politics as a motive for fiction: A novelist who cannot imagine her way into the mind of a central character radically unlike herself should probably find another line of work.

"[P]hilosophy must beware of the wish to be edifying." -- G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. (The same can be said of art.)

The problem for writers of fiction in 2018: How to capture the feeling of life in America today, this sensation of nightmare surrealism, of the inability to wake from a dark dream of slow-mo moronic fascism, this Trumped-out Amerika like a bad acid trip where we hallucinate ourselves trapped inside a sewer pipe and unable to move anything but our heads, Christopher Reeved inside a giant tube of shit--and always, in a shadowy corner of a tiny cupboard at the back of our minds, lingers the idea that these last 18 months have been a dream we're dreaming on the night of November 7, 2016, and in 24 hours we'll be celebrating the ignominious end of Donald Trump's political career... Oh, what the hell do you do when your worst political nightmare comes true? (This is the question the American left must answer in the streets.)

This is what fascism looks like: you wake up one morning and find half of your country cheering for your nightmare.

Picasso: "Art is a lie that tells the truth."  A fine definition of good fiction, a fair description of what a good novel does. Cien Anos de Soledad, for example, overflows with the fantastic, the surreal, the unbelievable, but most if not all of this comes in the service of truths about Columbian history, politics, culture and psychology. Likewise Catch-22 and the American way of war, Naked Lunch and addiction, Joyce and early 20th-century Irish life, Proust and erotic desire, Kafka and the darkest sides of modernity, Nathanael West  and American psychosis, Pynchon and techno-corporatism, Eugene O'Neill and familial resentment, Sade and domination, the books of Joshua and Judges and the unspeakable, giddy, Lacanian enjoyment of genocide.

A single episode of any Kardashian-related TV show should be enough to convince us that it's time for a French Revolution in these Whitmanic states. Indeed, compared to France in 1789, we have a far larger do-nothing parasitic aristocracy ripe for head-harvesting...

In an interview, Salman Rushdie tells the following anecdote: When he first met Robert Gottlieb of Knopf, Gottlieb handed him a copy of Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, a book that sold few copies, and told him, "I'm keeping this book in print because it's better than Anna Karenina." In the 21st century, America's commercial publishers appear to have jettisoned the idea that books deserve to be published simply because they're great. Today, even William Gaddis's The Recognitions, one of the few true classics of midcentury American literature, has fallen out of Penguin Classics into the relative limbo of Dalkey Archive Press.

William Faulkner was fundamentally a tour de force writer. His lesser achievements tend to be the books he carefully planned and deliberated over (e.g. A Fable), while his greatest (Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Go Down, Moses; some of the short stories) seem like orgasmic dam-bursts, gushings, overflowings, all written at white heat with steam rising from his ink and pen piercing paper.
That is to say, Faulkner wrote fiction like the ecstatic Romantic poet he secretly believed he was. Not the Melville of Mississippi, but Oxford's Keats. After the turbulently productive years of his 'long Thirties' (from about 1928 through 1942), he relaxed into 'mature' deliberation, his prose lost some of its hypnotically baroque texture (a development today's critics, their brains laved in Iowa Waiter's Workshop (not a typo) dogma, should loudly cheer), and he began to repeat stories like a tiresome old man on the porch at Varner's store.

In The Liberal Imagination--a book from 1950 that the America of 2018 sorely needs--Lionel Trilling writes of adolescence as "the age when we find the books we give up but do not get over." That's perfect, just perfect.

Clarice Lispector seems to have been so impressed by the park scene in Sartre's La Nausee that she made it her body of work, dove into it the way Turner dove into the sunlit skies of Claude Lorraine. Because she first came to semi-prominence in America in the 1970s, her work championed by French feminist literary theorist Helene Cixous, Lispector has been reified as a feminist writer, but it seems more illuminating, and closer to her texts, to read her in light of existentialism, that great philosophy of anti-reification: Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Heidegger, the Pessoa of The Book of Disquiet (the great unacknowledged classic of 20th-century existentialist literature), the Beckett of the 40s and 50s, early Robbe-Grillet.

For me, D. H. Lawrence is an almost sui generis paradox: a humourless novelist whom I cannot take seriously. (I speak only of Lawrence the novelist. Lawrence the poet is one of the major writers of English Modernism (largely on  the strength of the poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers), his short fiction can be quite good, his travel writing excellent, and his Studies in Classic American Literature is one of the foundational texts of American literary criticism. It's important to remember in this officially xenophobic time that a work of such importance to America's understanding of itself was written by a foreigner.)

"The book we begin tomorrow must be as if there had been none before; new and outrageous as the morning sun." -- George Steiner, "The Pythagorean Genre," Language and Silence

In mid-December night falls fast, like a wino from a highwire.

Reading Freud's book on Wit (the opening pages of which might have decisively influenced the style of Finnegans Wake) is like watching a comedy team in which the straight man never gets out of the clown's way. The jokes are (usually) good; the analysis is laborious (emphasis on the second syllable), falling prey to the irony inhabiting all 'serious' writing about comedy: the examples will always overpower the text because the examples solicit a physical reaction (laughter) alongside the intellectual one, while the analysis appeals to the mind alone.

Jarry's Ubu Roi--a great play to read in this time of Trump, just as Pasolini's Salo is the movie to watch--contains my all-time favorite stage direction, "A clown explodes." I recall this every time I see Trump speaking without a script, every time I see Sarah Huckleberry Sanders speaking, period.

Ideas in fiction, especially the ideas closest to us, should be dramatized, tested in fictional action, not merely stated. Similarly, an idea in our lives is mere verbiage unless and until it is lived.

In Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, Pope Northrop I commands the totality of literature to dance to the music of Poussin's time.
Nicholas Poussin. A Dance to the Music of Time. ca.1635.
Wallace Collection, London.

"The only important elements in any society are the artistic and the criminal, because they alone, by questioning the society's values, can force it to change." -- Samuel Delany, Empire Star (Needless to say, this naively Romantic sentiment hails us from the heart of the Sixties. Ignore the naivete and feel the provocation.)

The Jean Genet of his five early novels (Our Lady of the Flowers, Miracle of the Rose, Funeral Rites, Querelle, The Thief's Journal) is both the foremost French surrealist novelist and the foremost French disciple of Proust. Perhaps only Claude Simon has an equal claim to the latter distinction.

Description of the prose style of Notre Dame des Fleurs in Frechtman's English translation, Our Lady of the Flowers: hardboiled Proust.

"No man is a hero to his valet," a line that Proust or Wilde might have written, is in fact from Hegel's Phenomenology, paragraph 665, a passage that finds GWFH in a surprisingly Proustian mood.

On being 'inappropriate': Art is an inappropriate act, and life the most improbable, inappropriate thing of all. Most of our universe is empty, and atoms are mostly air; so it seems the most appropriate thing of all is the void. Given a choice between MOMA and the void, I'll take Manhattan--and then, with Leonard Cohen's help, I'll take Berlin...

Walt Whitman throws his arms so wide to embrace the All that he risks dislocating his shoulders. But the All he embraces is most often a matter of matter, defiantly material, a vulgar (in the best sense) challenge to vulgar (in the worst sense) religions: "The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer..." (Song of Myself, section 24).

Moralism can be as much of a scourge as its erstwhile fuckfellow, religion. Both, at their worst, try to paralyze critical thought under a lava flow of dogma. (To my Joycean ear, magma sounds like moral dogma, and dogma like canine regurgitant--which is exactly how it feels in the mouth.)

"The great thing about playing with Cecil is that when you play with him, you know you're going to go all the way, and you're not going to stop until the music gets where it's going." -- one of jazz pianist Cecil Taylor's sidemen, quoted in the re-readable article "The World of Cecil Taylor" by Adam Shatz, New York Review of Books online.

You lose your grip
and then you slip
into the masterpiece
             --Leonard Cohen, "A Thousand Kisses Deep"

One way American artists can fight fascism is to win back the carnivalesque for the side of liberation--of life, of excess, eroticism, freedom, self-exploration, Dionysian transgression, anarchism. All in opposition to the nauseating fascist carnivalesque of the Pussygrabbin' Prez and the child-molesting Republican Party of Roy Moore and Denny Hastert.

At a time when one of our two viable political parties has become a cartoon caricature of repressive desublimation, those of us on the other side can recapture eros from the forces of death by the counterforce of a liberating desublimation. (See Marcuse's late essay "The Aesthetic Dimension" and Adam Philips' essay "Against Inhibition.")

All consensual sexual acts are matters of taste, not ethics or morals.

"There are no dirty words." -- Leonard Cohen

No false modesty: At the root, perhaps, of my distance from our current leftist identity politics is the fact that my ideas on sex (a matter of acts, not identities), gender (a socially constructed grid floating upon a fluid reality), race (a scientifically meaningless category designating superficial evolutionary adaptations to environmental differences), etc. are so far ahead of theirs that until they catch up with me, I have nothing useful to say to them.

Given the fluidity of sexuality over the course of a life, defining oneself in terms of one's sexuality, sexual partners or sexual acts constitutes a severe mutilation of the omniperverse human self.

Kafka's "A Country Doctor," a lesser-known tale that deserves to be widely read, is perhaps the most nightmarish thing his formidable imagination ever conceived. It's darkly marvelous, Kafka unbound, the author tossing all inhibition to the void, writing--it seems--directly from his unconscious, and creating this dreamy, Expressionist phantasm that reads like the best short film Guy Maddin has never (yet) made.

It is little remarked that in The Shining Stephen King created an impressively complex portrait of an alcoholic adult victim of child abuse. Jack Torrance is a psychologically astute characterization and by far the most impressive thing in the book. If we can read past its generic clich├ęs and pulpy residue, we find in The Shining a fairly successful psychological novel in which the supernatural elements can almost be interpreted as psychological externalizations.

I can now no longer claim not to have read Jane Eyre, and I found the book less ridiculous than I feared. Also less sentimental, more gothic Romantic, and somewhat better written than I expected. I do, however, find myself in agreement with the critic who remarked that if the book had been one chapter longer, Rochester's hand would've grown back.

Puritanisms come and puritanisms go, but the three stately plump volumes of the Grove Press Marquis de Sade remain in print. He was neither a great writer nor a great thinker, but I wager his perpetually influential books will still be read when our current puritans of right and left have been time-transformed to dust.

Wizened, weary, wasting, wise Harold Bloom, frail now in his mid-80s, remarked in a rare recent interview that bebop is the kabbalah of jazz. Putting words in that loquacious mouth, I might expand on this point: If the Great American Songbook is our Torah (and it is), then bebop is indeed our kabbalah, a genre of radically (re-)visionary commentary, and John Coltrane is our Isaac Luria. The Bloomian analogy is perfect.

Building my own analogy upon this, I will argue that Philip Roth is a bebop prose stylist and present as supporting evidence (Exhibit No. 1 for the goateed prosecution) James Wood's close reading of a passage from Sabbath's Theater in How Fiction Works (a wildly mistitled little book with some valuable things inside). Roth's darting among various registers of discourse, ably analyzed by Wood, analogizes closely to the intervallic leaps in a Coltrane solo.

Thought experiment: Imagine a culture that takes as its sacred text Walter Pater's The Renaissance. An aesthetic culture, a culture of pleasure, hedonism, beauty, a pansexual culture, a culture of appreciation, an intelligent culture.

Reply to Hegel: The only Absolut spirit I recognize comes in a vodka bottle.

...back to art, I'm always coming back to art: In a dark time, art is our refuge, our weapon and our transcendence (our transcending dance). Art is eros, the life that transcends death--where death is understood not as the banal end of this painful vapidity of pulse and breath and absence of thought, but as that vapidity itself, the daily Beckettian death-in-life of conformity, atomization, alienation, repression, oppression, depression, all the forces that deprive human beings of freedom and authentic life, all the dark Blakean mills that crush life into mere existence. A fatuous existence is my definition of death. (I embolden that line because it's an epigram to live by.) The garden variety corpse-chewer is definition number 2 or 3 in my mental dictionary. It's a banality. Happens to everybody.

"...all writing worth reading comes, like suicide, from outrage or revenge..." -- William Gaddis, Agape Agape

Let the imagination run like a wild tiger; it will kill nothing that does not deserve to die.

Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, like Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter and even The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, can be easily interpreted as a hermeneutical novel. (Is this a distinctively American 19th-century subgenre? And if so, why here? why then?) Like the Dick, the Portrait is substantially about the difficulty of interpreting its title character. James repeatedly foregrounds this in the novel's Wagnerian leitmotif: other characters frequently find Isabel Archer 'hard to read.' The ambiguities of James's novel are not so much its "problems" as its point. The characters' and narrator's inability to 'read' Isabel is clearly an allegory of our own reading of the novel. And of other people. And of ourselves. (Yes, even in the rarefied air of Henry James--perhaps especially here--we collide unexpectedly with the psychoanalytic unconscious.)

The greatest prose is a kind of vers libre, a poetry free and unbroken.

A characteristic rhetorical movement of John Donne's Songs and Sonnets can be likened to the act of turning a glove inside-out. In "The Good Morrow" and "The Sun Rising," for example, the speaker begins by stating a straightforward, traditional poetic argument. This is the glove inside-in. Over the course of the poem he methodically turns the glove inside out (turns the argument around), pulling out the palm, unfurling the fingers, until by poem's end his argument is exactly the opposite of his initial position, but still, eccentrically, it works--very like a glove turned inside-out, strange-looking but still functional. It still fits the hand. (Months after writing this in my notebook, I discovered that I unconsciously lifted the glove trope from the clown Feste in Twelfth Night, act 3, scene 1: "A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward." I've long considered Feste's lines in this scene to be deconstruction avant Derrida; now I add that his image is a fine commentary on Donne.)

When in despair, quote Flaubert.

"The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy." -- Gustave Flaubert, letter to Mlle. Leroyer de Chantepie, Sept. 4, 1858

Death is an unoriginal ending. Avoid it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

On Gertrude Stein

I'm inclined to agree with Picasso biographer John Richardson's view of Gertrude Stein as Modernism's preeminent example of artistic grandiosity, a writer with a ridiculously elephantine estimate of her own genius. I cannot read even a few paragraphs of Three Lives without erupting in derisive laughter at her prose voice--best described as the tone of a failed children's book writer: "They lived in a little house. The house was little and made of red bricks. The little house of red bricks was on a prairie. The prairie was where the little house was." That sort of thing. And as for her acclaimed and notorious, Dalkey Archived 'masterpiece,' The Making of Americans--well, the word 'excrementitious' is not exactly the first that comes to mind, but it is perhaps the best. Probably the least-read canonical work in American literature, the book's grinding repetitions seem designed to induce a soporific trance in the--I hesitate to say 'reader,' for I can't imagine anyone actually reading this bilge--let's say, the glancer, the browser, the poor, unfortunate soul who plopped down 15 bucks for 800 pages of a boring rich woman's opaque effusions about...what exactly? effusing?


as brilliant a reader as the late William H. Gass considered Stein a great and important writer. So I'm willing (just a hangnail's width of willing, an armhair's diameter of willing) to suspend judgment and say Trudy is simply not to my taste.

Stein, always her own most enthusiastic admirer (Alice was her wife but she was her own eternal husband), compared her prose to Cezanne's brushstrokes. I see the similarity, understand her point, and still dislike her prose. (I'll never see enough paintings by Cezanne; the first page of Three Lives gave me more than enough of Stein's prose.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

LOVE AND DEATH after all these years; or, A Fiddle for Fiedler

Here's the question (or one of them, at least) begged by the central thesis of Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel: Did classic American writers, as Fiedler contends, flee from Freudianly 'mature' adult heterosexuality into dreams of queerness, or was a more primal queerness, a polymorphous perversity of the American psyche, rather the cause of such a flight from 'civilization'?

I lean toward the latter idea, the queer 'vice' of Fiedler's 'versa.' Fiedler's idea is married (gay-married?) to a moralistic Freudian concept of sexual development that commonly led American literary critics astray in the 1950s and early 1960s (cf. Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians), so we probably shouldn't hammer the Fiddler too hard for playing a zeitgeisty tune. But it's fair to point out that instead of being 'too Freudian,' L.A.F. (what a laf!) was not nearly Freudian enough. A shift of emphasis to Freud's ideas of polymorphous perversity and originary bisexuality, would've flipped his book into a less moralistic, more radical, and probably more correct direction. If Love and Death had been, that is to say, influenced by Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death (published, unfortunately for Fiedler, the same year), he might've written a book still provocative 60 years later. As it stands, Fiedler's once cutting-edge work now seems a curiously conformist and surprisingly crabby performance. It's a book rendered obsolete by the subsequent half-century of American novels and hobbled by a rather weakly argued case overall. That said, Love and Death remains valuable for its critical insights into specific texts, and for the intelligent epigrams Fiedler throws off along his highly questionable way. A good example of the latter is this sentence from early in the book, an indictment Love and Death itself does not escape:

"American literature is distinguished by the number of dangerous and disturbing books in its canon--and American scholarship by its ability to conceal this fact."

Monday, July 23, 2018

Religion, Our Biggest Mistake

Perhaps the worst mistake in human history was made by those unknown people, lost in the dark backward of pre-literate time, who first decided to take tall tales literally, thus beginning the Religious Error. Contra that good atheist Gore Vidal, it's not monotheism that's our species' greatest mistake. The more fundamental error (in the etymo-scatological sense of 'issuing from the fundament') is the reification of an imaginary 'spiritual' realm into that vast pseudodoxia epidemica we call religion and spirituality. The first human beings who understood that they could control other human beings by deploying certain carefully selected fictions (which the deployers themselves might have considered factual) set our species upon the path that has led to murder, genocide, war, and the meaningless deaths of millions. But for the intellectual laziness and/or enforced ignorance of the vast majority of the human race--a situation favorable to arbitrary power since time immemorial--we would have outgrown the gods millennia ago. At the very least, given the vast advances made by science since the Enlightenment, there is neither need nor excuse for religious belief today. It is indeed the opium of the people (tragically redundant in an age of Oxycontin), and it has a similar side effect: wastage of life.

The only serious question I have about religion (and spiritual belief generally) is whether it is best analogized to opium (Marx) or a virus (Dawkins). The wasting drug or the wasting disease?

Philip Roth once said in an interview that he was the least religious person he knew. He could say that only because he never met me.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

VINELAND by Thomas Pynchon

While not Major Pynchon (that Bugs Bunny-playing-R. Lee Ermey military officer quired up from the pages of V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, and Against the Day), Vineland is essential to an understanding of the worldview underlying those greater novels. For Vineland is Pynchon's most explicit, angry, even at times hopeless, statement on the Sixties counterculture and its failure--indeed, its self-betrayal--as seen from the vantage point of Reagan's 1980s. Fascism as the thanatozation of eros, the fascisization of America beginning with Dick the Trickster (and culminating 30 years after Pynchon's novel with the triumph of Don the Con), the psychology of revolution and its subversion by power, the erotic fascination of fascism--all these themes that energize major Pynchon by implication or subtext are here explicitly, even pedantically, stated. Aesthetic diminution is the predictable price of preachiness, but Vineland stands as perhaps the best skeleton key to the TP oeuvre.

I'm trying and failing to think of another case where a minor novel is so truly essential to a writer's major works.... It's as though A Fable somehow illuminated Absalom, Absalom!.

Contra all this seriousness, I feel compelled to remind myself that Vineland is also, in more than a few places, very funny, laugh-out-loud outrageously funny, with several excellent examples of TP propelling the jams with the business ends of his nether appendages... It is a fuckin' Pynchon novel, after all.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

THE ENCHANTER by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov's The Enchanter, while impressively written and translated, is surely the most minor and conventional Nabokov book I've ever read. An early, skeletal, melodramatic conception of the Lolita narrative, its best-left-in-manuscript quality was probably recognized by the author, who never made more than a gesture toward publishing it during his lifetime. As usual in these cases, the estate should have trusted the author's apparent instincts. Nabokov is at his best with all stops pulled; The Enchanter, while it has its pleasures--the expressionistic suicide at the end, Nabokov's handling of the terror of desire and its frustrations--reads as a relatively muted, hedged and hasty performance. It's not a necessary addition to the V.N. canon; all but completists can safely skip it. In the inevitable context of Lolita, this little book is nothing more than an idea Vlad got right the next time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

My Dostoyevsky Problem - A Confession

For me, Dostoyevsky is Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, two of the most impressive works of fiction I've ever read, the former a formally and stylistically original novel written in a voice that reverberates through the next 150 years of world literature, and the latter a hallucinatory, proto-Expressionist, proto-Freudian, proto-Kafkaesque fever dream of guilt, paranoia and murder. These two books, and maybe The Double, are the Dostoyevskys that impress me most. The later, longer Dostoyevsky I find considerably less compelling. The unquestionably canonical Big Late Three--The Idiot, The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov--have never successfully captured my reading mind. Oh, I've read parts of them, of course. Over the years, I've begun each novel multiple times and have read the first quarter of The Idiot, the first 150 pages and the "Stavrogin's Confession" chapter from The Possessed/The Devils/Demons, and from The Brothers K the opening chapters, "One Onion" and, of course, "The Grand Inquisitor." But none of these--sometimes impressive, sometimes intriguing, sometimes annoying--excerpts has appealed to me with sufficient force to send me plowing through the whole ponderous, reactionary, Russian Orthodox shebang. Maybe Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment is Dostoyevsky enough for me. As for the other three, maybe I'll finish them next year, maybe the year after, maybe...

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Rushdie's Top Ten: A Video Lecture

Here's a video of a lecture in which Salman Rushdie introduces a classroom of apparently catatonic students to ten of his favorite books: the soi-disant Arabian Nights, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gulliver's Travels, Great Expectations, the tales of Borges, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Tin Drum, Calvino's Our Ancestors trilogy (The Baron in the Trees, The Nonexistent Knight, The Cloven Viscount), and The Master and Margarita. One heavenly hell of a reading list. (No word on whether the spirit of Oliver Sacks was summoned to 'awaken' the students...)

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Thought on Jung, Freud, and Oneiric Hermeneutics

Jungian dream interpretation, as evidenced by the doctor's long essay on dream symbolism and alchemy ("Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy" in The Portable Jung, Joseph Campbell, ed.), seems more a tribute to Jung's cleverness as hermeneut than to the validity of his hermeneutic. All the presented dream fragments could be interpreted by Freudians, according to their hermeneutic, with equal validity and likely greater material interest.

A distinction: Jung's mysticism leads him into a kind of dogmatism which Freud's scientism serves to counteract. Freud, whom Jung rejected as too dogmatic, turns out to be the less dogmatic thinker, likely due to his grounding in empirical, self-corrective, falsifiable science.

Also, Jung's hermeneutic is given a false air of validity by his suppression of the dreaming subject. Having no information about the dreamer, no material facts to act as a check on Jung's interpretations, we are given the false choice of either accepting Jung's obsessive, repetitive pronouncements or not reading the essay. Compare the rich contextualization of Freud's dream analyses and case histories, which sometimes compare favorably to tales by Balzac and/or Kafka, and which provide more than enough information for later readers to radically reinterpret Freud's evidence. Compared to Sigmund, Carl Gustav looks like a quaint Victorian spiritualist riding his bouncing table.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


George Steiner, proud diasporist, once lamented (in an interview conducted, unfortunately, by a woman who seemed intent on pressing into Steiner's hand a one-way ticket to a settlement on the West Bank; Steiner, courtly old-world gentleman he is, politely and repeatedly (and thus rather comically) demurred) that although the Greek word xenos means both 'foreigner' and  'guest'  (elsewhere in the interview, he quotes Heidegger, "We are the guests of life."), it survives in English only as 'xenophobia,' not 'xenophilia.' The latter is an idea the world desperately needs right now. Speaking as a narcissistic xenophile, one who loves being a foreigner, who has never felt more heimlich, more 'at home,' than when traveling in a foreign country, blurring the 'other' line among all the other lines, I think it would be an excellent idea to counter Trump's fascist xenophobia not with the tepid, wishy-washy corporatist liberal xenophobia of "We must secure our borders, but..." but with the xenophilia of "Hello, refugee from Central American terrorism. Welcome to the richest country in the history of the world. How many IHOP pancakes would you like?....No, no, of course we're not going to rip your children out of your arms and put them in cages. What do you think we are, a bunch of crazy fascist assholes!?"

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Harold Bloom on the death of Philip Roth

As far as I know, Harold Bloom's sole public statement on the death of his friend Philip Roth is this paragraph posted on the Library of America's website:

"Philip Roth’s departure is a dark day for me and for many others. His two greatest novels, American Pastoral and Sabbath’s Theater, have a controlled frenzy, a high imaginative ferocity, and a deep perception of America in the days of its decline. The Zuckerman tetralogy remains fully alive and relevant, and I should mention too the extraordinary invention of Operation Shylock, the astonishing achievement of The Counterlife, and the pungency of The Plot Against America. His My Life as a Man still haunts me. In one sense Philip Roth is the culmination of the unsolved riddle of Jewish literature in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The complex influences of Kafka and Freud and the malaise of American Jewish life produced in Philip a new kind of synthesis. Pynchon aside, he must be estimated as the major American novelist since Faulkner." -- Harold Bloom

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Philip Roth, American Atheist

Here's a quote from Philip Roth that I don't recall reading in the last month's crop of obituaries and memorial essays:

"When the whole world doesn't believe in God, it will be a great place."

Roth said this in a 2010 interview on CBS Sunday Morning:

Here and elsewhere, Roth also remarks that he doesn't have a religious bone in his body.

Note the self-evident, matter-of-fact quality of Roth's atheism. He's neither an angry, embattled atheist raging against gods nor a backwards preacher sermonizing the deity's nonexistence. He comes across as someone for whom religion does not matter. He is secular and personally indifferent to it. He has matured out of it and put away its childish things and wishes the rest of the world would do likewise. I find this position wholly admirable.

The Cycladic Harpist

Harpist. Marble. Late 2000s BCE. Height: 8.5 in.
From the island of Amorgos in the Cyclades.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

The Cycladic Harpist transfixes me. It may or may not be a figure of Orpheus, but its soundless song nonetheless holds me spellbound. A sublime, ecstatic image of artistic inspiration (remember the breathy etymology of that word and look at the harpist's head, upturned to the enlightening glare of the seabright sun, inhaling the breezy Aegean air through that geometric nose (and inhaling with it the mysterious, Orphic, god-like power of artistic creation (a meaning that calls out to be hidden, like a mystical secret, inside a parenthesis within a parenthesis within a...))), the figure is rendered even more mysterious and poignant by the loss of its hands. The object becomes an image of time's dissolution and imaginative man's necessarily incomplete attempts at reconstitution, recovery. Just as the missing head of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" energizes the poet's imagination to fill the void (and Rilke promptly fills it with an image ("...sein unerhortes Haupt, / darin die Augenapfel reiften."; "his legendary head / where the eye-apples ripen.") inspired by an Arcimboldo painting hanging in another gallery of the Louvre), the harpist's timelost hands, like his unseeable harp strings, become absent images of his unheard music, negative spaces powerfully charged with potential meaning, like that masterful space between the Virgin's dramatically foreshortened hand and the Christ child's head in the London National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks:
Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the Rocks. Ca. 1500.
National Gallery, London.
(This space is cluttered in the more rhetorical Paris canvas by the inclusion of the angel's unnecessarily pointing hand:
Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the Rocks (detail). Late 1400s.
Musee du Louvre, Paris.)
The harpist's missing hands engage the viewer's imagination in an almost Modernist way (the greatest works of art are always already Modernist: Homer is packed with Joyce-style allusions to mythologies even more ancient), permitting/allowing/forcing the viewer to complete the artwork, to hear its unimaginable music. The harpist's mystery licenses our imagination. It is an image of inspiration that inspires us. Breathe it in.