27 May 2014

For The Years

Hogarth Press first edition, cover by Vanessa Bell
Published in 1937, The Years was the last of her novels that Virginia Woolf lived to see released. Coming more than five years after the release of the poetic and, to many people, opaquely experimental The Waves, The Years seemed like the work of a totally different writer — it looked like a family novel, something along the lines of Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, the sort of book a younger Woolf had scorned.  

The Years became a bestseller in both the UK and the US, and garnered some good reviews — in the New York Times, Peter Monro Jack declared it "Virginia Woolf's Richest Novel". Its fame quickly faded, however. After Woolf's death, her husband Leonard claimed he didn't think it was among her best work, though he'd been afraid, he said, to tell her that, given how long she had worked on it and how hard that work had been for her. As Woolf's reputation increased in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly among feminist academics, The Years tended to get shuffled aside in favor of the other novels and essays. Despite some advocacy from scholars and an extraordinary edition as part of the Cambridge Woolf, The Years remains relatively neglected. This is unfortunate, as it is a magnificent book.

25 May 2014

Another Armed, Angry White Man

At the Daily Beast, Cliff Schechter has a piece titled "How the NRA Enables Massacres", which, despite some hyperbolic language, is worth reading for the general information, as is his piece on a visit to the recent NRA convention. Schechter isn't reporting anything new, and the pieces are superficial compared to some earlier writings on all this, but it's always worth reminding ourselves that gun massacres in the US are part of a culture that has been carefully manufactured, protected, nurtured, enflamed.

I've written a lot about guns and gun culture here over the past few years. Writing those posts from scratch now, I would change occasional wording in some of them, clarify a few points, etc. (the hazards of writing on the fly), but you could take almost anything I've written previously and apply it to the latest massacre.

The place of hegemonic masculinity in this type of event is especially clear this time, but it's been present before and is a common component to why this sort of thing happens. It's a racialized hegemonic masculinity, too, the deadly scream of the angry white man — a sense of entitlement thwarted. In the book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, Michael Kimmel writes: "As men experience it, masculinity may not be the experience of power. But it is the experience of entitlement to power" (185).

The NRA and the gun manufacturers have become experts at stoking that sense of entitlement and profiting off of it. At every possible moment, the NRA, the manufacturers, and their minions point out as many threats to power as they can imagine, and then they offer their commodities as tools for stabilizing and strengthening that power.

22 May 2014

"America never was America to me"

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
I thought of my favorite Langston Hughes poem, "Let American Be America Again" while reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's extraordinary new essay at The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations" (for which we should just give Coates the Pulitzer right now):
If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy?

One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.
Read the whole essay. If you're a U.S. citizen, or even not, it's unlikely you'll read anything more important today.

Update 5/23: Coates on how he got to his current position on reparations. Including:
There is massive, overwhelming evidence for the proposition that white supremacy is the only thing wrong with black people. There is significantly less evidence for the proposition that culture is a major part of what's wrong with black people. But we don't really talk about white supremacy. We talk about inequality, vestigial racism, and culture. Our conversation omits a major portion of the evidence.

Storytellers: Escaping the Nightmare of Myth in Chaudhuri and Rushdie

Continuing on from yesterday's post about Amit Chaudhuri's A Strange and Sublime Address (a novella included in the collection Freedom Song), here's a bit more academic writing about the book. This time, my goal is to undermine, or at least question, the common opposition of Chaudhuri's "realism" to Salman Rushdie's "magical realism". The two writers have frequently been set against each other as polar opposites, but my argument here is that they have far more in common than might be obvious at first...

In his 2009 essay “Cosmopolitanism’s Alien Face”, Amit Chaudhuri tells of a conversation he had with the Bengali poet Utpal Kumar Basu:
We were discussing, in passing, the nature of the achievement of Subimal Misra, one of the short-story writing avant-garde in 1960s Bengal. ‘He set aside the conventional Western short story with its idea of time; he was more true to our Indian sensibilities; he set aside narrative’, said Basu. ‘That’s interesting’, I observed. ‘You know, of course, that, in the last twenty years or so, it is we Indians and postcolonials who are supposed to be the storytellers, emerging as we do from our oral traditions and our millennial fairy tales’. ‘Our fairy tales are very different from theirs’, said Basu, unmoved. ‘We don’t start with, “Once upon a time”.’ (91-92)
Chaudhury goes on to explore the implications of this statement, and of the desire to solidify an idea of pure cultural identity (“Our fairy tales … We don’t start with…”) against ideas of modernism and cosmopolitanism, but here I would like to take the statements in the above paragraph more on their surface and to explore the effect of the stated and implied Once upon a time…
Salman Rushdie’s Shame does not begin with exactly those words, but the sense of a fairy tale beginning is strong: “In the remote border town of Q., which when seen from the air resembles nothing so much as an ill-proportioned dumb-bell, there once lived three lovely, and loving, sisters.” The narrator quickly assumes the role of storyteller: “…the three sisters, I should state without further delay, bore the family name of Shakil…” (3), the narrative voice here asserting, for the first of many times in Shame, the kind of presence that most European novels of the 19th century sought to vanquish in the name of realism.

The idea of realism led to third-person narratives unburdened by the presence of a narrator, and the success of that style has created a sense that storytelling was a more primitive tradition, a tradition that the 19th Century European novel first refined and then progressed beyond. The realist European novel is inextricable from a particular idea of European progress, and the aesthetic is strongly located within a specific, and quite narrow, time and place. Storytelling may be universal, written narrative may have a long and multicultural history, but the realistic novel is a particular technology.

21 May 2014

Notes on A Strange and Sublime Address by Amit Chaudhuri

Here are some thoughts after reading Amit Chaudhuri's first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, which I read in the collection Freedom Song (which is what the page numbers below reference). I struggled with Chaudhuri — his goals for fiction are not mine. Nonetheless, I found it to be a productive struggle, and enjoyed writing about the book for a seminar on postcolonial fiction from Southeast Asia.

Over the next few days, I'll be posting here some of the material I came up with during that seminar that I doubt I'm going to develop into something more polished, at least immediately, but which seems worth preserving, even if my ideas are based on false premises, misreadings, or other potential pitfalls of quick apprehension...


He did not know what to do with his unexpected knowledge. But he felt a slight, almost negligible, twinge of pleasure, as meaning took birth in his mind, and died the next instant. (117)

Here we have the protagonist, Sandeep, discovering the pleasure of meaning in a word and name (“Alpana”), but the moment could be extended to the novel as a whole and, in particular, its perspective on the city of Calcutta. If we accept Majumdar’s proposal that this novel presents a flaneur’s-eye-view of life and the city, then the cityscape of the novel is less a stable conglomeration of stone and steel than it is an ever-flowing multiplicity of sensations. It is a place full of objects, but the objects live in constant moments of being, and those moments of being are created within the perceptions of the people who come in contact with them. Thus, there is no one object, no one city; rather, there is a practically infinite field of encounters, and those encounters erupt and fall into memory within the space of an instant.

19 May 2014

No, That Is Not DFW's Copy of Ulysses. It's Not Even Ulysses.

Not from David Foster Wallace. Not Ulysses. (photo via Tony Shafrazi)

I, too, immediately thought, "Wow!" when I saw it.

I, too, accepted the idea that it must be David Foster Wallace's copy of Ulysses, because, well ... you've heard of David Foster Wallace, right?

I'm teaching a course in literary analysis in the fall and so am collecting whatever images I can find of the ways (reasonable or absurd) that serious readers annotate what they read. I zoomed in on the image to see if I could figure out the logic (or illogic) of it. But the pages didn't look like Ulysses to me. Nor, for that matter, did the style of annotation resemble what we know of DFW's style from the books at the Ransom Center. I zoomed in, and though the resolution was quite low, I made out what seemed to be two names: Maureen O'Sullivan and, at the top, Robert Mitchum. It looked to me like a biography of Robert Mitchum.

It was easy enough to use Google Books to find a Robert Mitchum biography with this page layout: Lee Server's Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care".

I sent a Tweet to the person who originally posted this; I assumed he'd just been joking, as anything with a bunch of weird annotations could jokingly be called DFW's something-or-other. Though I don't know his motivations, this still seems the most likely explanation. That everybody immediately and without any research assumed it was true and not a joke was ... illuminating.

I continued to wonder what the book was, though, and why someone had ... decorated it ... in the way they had. I didn't have time to track it down, but Bibliokept did, and came up with some interesting stuff. Check out that link — it's a fun detective game.

The image is still compelling and fascinating, despite not being a book of DFW's nor a copy of Ulysses. In some ways, it's more impressive that it isn't a complex text like Ulysses, but just a popular biography of a movie star.

What are the lessons here? 1.) Don't believe everything you see on the internet. 2.) Sometimes things are even weirder than they seem at first.

18 May 2014

"Well, it's of a bold reporter whose story I will tell..."

photo by William J. Smith/AP, via Washington Post
Via a series of Tweets from Tamara K. Nopper, I learned that William Worthy recently died at the age of 92.

I knew very little about Worthy the man, but his name has been one I've known since childhood, because of a Phil Ochs song about him, "The Ballad of William Worthy".

My father was a DJ at a radio station in Massachusetts in the 1960s and played that song one day, because though his politics were rather different from those of Ochs or Worthy (he voted for Nixon and generally supported the Vietnam War), he loved to challenge authority and get in trouble. That he did. As he told it, a bunch of little old ladies wrote letters to the station to demand that this upstart DJ be fired. The station manager screamed at him never to play anything like that damned song ever again.

By the time I was old enough to be taught the contents of the record collection at home, I heard that story and listened to the song. It was a catchy tune, and because I associated it with my father's amusing rebellion, I took a particular liking to it and quickly learned the words. And thus I have carried William Worthy's name with me ever since.
William Worthy isn't worthy to enter our door
Went down to Cuba, he's not American anymore
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay
But Worthy was much more than just a journalist who went to Cuba. His is a story worth learning, a name worth remembering.

Fassbinder's Romantic Anarchy

RogerEbert.com has just published a good overview of the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Godfrey Cheshire, "Regarding R.W. Fassbinder: Letter to a Young Cinephile", inspired by the major, two-part Fassbinder retrospective at Lincoln Center in New York, currently underway and then continuing in the fall. If you're in traveling distance of New York City and you have any interest in film, you should try to go to some of these. (Also, the Mizoguchi series at the Museum of the Moving Image. I can't get to the city until both festivals are over, and so my jealousy of you will be intense, though at least I may get to see some of the Mizoguchis at Harvard Film Archive's similar series.)

I've written about Fassbinder here before, and created a video essay last summer for Press Play about Fassbinder's earliest films. He is simply, completely, unquestionably my favorite filmmaker, the one whose work most deeply and consistently fascinates me, challenges me, and engages me. This is a personal response, and I don't expect anyone else to be as besotted as I am with RWF, especially given how idiosyncratic a lot of his work is, but on the other hand I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have an interest in cinema and is not in some way touched by the most accessible of his works — indeed, I'm not sure I know how to communicate with someone who gets nothing from either Fear Eats the Soul or The Marriage of Maria Braun; I would feel alienated at a certain level from any such person.

17 May 2014

A Solution to Grade Inflation

Wikimedia Commons
I'm in the midst of grading student papers and portfolios, and so this blog post by Adam Kotsko hit home, particularly the end:
...the only real solution to grade inflation is to decouple college from debt and brutal meritocratic competition. Then people could study what they want to if they show an aptitude for it, and we could afford to do that because we’re the richest society ever in human history and maybe we can get by with fewer baristas so that people can enrich their lives, get in touch with their cultural heritage, and learn useful skills. It would cost money, but there are huge piles of money in corporate coffers and rich people’s bank accounts that are doing nothing but either sitting there or else promoting asset-price bubbles — so we could just take all that money away from them and do something that contributes to something with a recognizably human meaning and purpose. And then our grades would not be inflated and everyone would be happy.

16 May 2014

For Giger: Against the Gigeresque

For Press Play, I wrote about the late H.R. Giger:
H.R. Giger's imagery so deeply influenced the imaginations of film production designers, tattoo artists, fashionistas, magazine illustrators, skateboard designers, and just about everyone other than My Little Pony animators that at this point it's difficult to separate Giger from the gigeresque. What was once outré, repulsive, and disturbing became the Thomas Kincaid style for the cyber/goth set, a quick kitsch to perform a certain idea of taste. You hang Christmas Cottage in your living room to display your pleasant, unthreatening Christianity; I put a poster of Giger’s Li I on my bedroom wall to show how transgressive I am in my deep, dark soul. Each is a sign that communicates immediately, without any need to look for more than a second, because each communicates not through itself but through all the associations is has accumulated.

Of course, this is not fair to Giger the artist, who was much more than his most popular tropes. But that's about as useful as saying van Gogh is much more than a sunflower, a starry sky, and a bandaged ear: obvious, yes, but also beside the point. Giger is mourned and remembered because of the gigeresque.

04 May 2014

The American Shore by Samuel R. Delany from Wesleyan University Press

Now available for pre-order. Here's the Wesleyan University Press page for it.

Here's an excerpt from the introduction, should your appetite need whetting:
It may, on a quick glance, appear to be a book about a short story. On further examination, it may appear to be a book about how science fiction works, or a contribution to the literary and cultural theory of its day. It is those things, but not only those things. Like so much of Delany’s writing, its strategies and concerns nudge our view wider. Much as the best science fiction’s trivalent discourse easily lures us into considering the meaning produced by the intersections of world and text, and thus provides a powerful space for reflection on both, so Delany’s dive over and between the lines of “Angouleme” stands as a model for and instigator of various levels of thought about all the signs and languages that produce and obscure our lives. No great text ever ends if there are still readers to read it and re-read it, to diffuse it and re-fuse it, reveling in the possibilities of polysemy and dissemination. Even the briefest moment of meaning can be, itself, a meaning machine.  Signifiers and signifieds want to dance till the end of time.