Friday, August 31, 2007


More from Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature:
Certainly some people are natural recluses, but--leaving aside the difficulty of finding out whether they are actually pleased with their lives--they do seem somewhat abnormal. I am not criticizing them, but pointing out that they can hardly provide an escape for the rest of us from the dilemma endemic to a social species; awful though other people may be, most of the activities that we really care about must involve them. Solitude is necessary for many parts of our life, but it cannot be the climate of the whole. Nor do we need other people merely as scratching-posts, means to the adjusting of our own states of consciousness. Our nature demands for its fulfillment ends to aim at which lie outside ourselves

Long-range hybrids

At the FT, Robin Lane Fox on the life and legacy of Linnaeus.

A little help from my friends

At the Guardian, Jonathan Lethem on the life of pop music:
The Fifth Beatle in particular haunted me like a ghost of crime, a Ross MacDonald investigation, where the façade of a life in the present peels away to expose the wild truths of the past, the impostures - some of them brave, some shameful - on which our contemporary reality was founded.

Who was "Murray the K"? What was payola? Do you mean to tell me that someone had to be paid to play rock'n'roll on the radio, that something unfair occurred, that the music has bought its way into our hearts? The idea of payola was in itself easy to conflate with the idea of "the hook", or the "irresistible hit record", or "Beatlemania", the sense that pop was a kind of trick, a perverse revenge against the banality of daily life dreamed up collectively by 10 or 15 delta bluesmen and a million or 100 million screaming 14-year-old girls. Maybe if a killer hook was like a bullet or a drug or a virus, we all lived in a world permanently drugged or psychedelically sick with fever, or dead and dreaming, like characters in a Philip K Dick novel.

If so, I was grateful to live on the drugged, feverish or dead side of the historical trauma. On the side of conspiracy theories stood Sutcliffe, Best, Epstein, Voorman, Preston - this sequence of suspects who were also victims, seeming to indict the magic circle of four heroes of some wrongdoing or at least misrepresentation. But these "Fifth Beatles" also seemed to confirm the four in their status as iconic survivors - probably no one else deserved to be a Beatle, that might be the answer. And Bob Dylan, as Jimi Hendrix apparently knew, was your grandmother - full of gravelly authority and punitive conscience, nowhere near as fun, but titanically arresting - he was your grandmother in a wolf's costume, for certain.

But soon enough I, too, was engaged in a kind of game of reverent scepticism, a weird pursuit of exposing the flimsiness of the cartoon world I loved, as if testing its authority. I remember the day I learned Ringo's drumming was "bad". So bad Paul had done some of it for him. Then - I recall it as if it was the very next thing I learned, like geometry leading to algebra - I read somewhere the beautiful thought that Ringo's role was to be our surrogate in the band, the Beatle who was also a fan of the Beatles, in awe of the "real ones" from the nearest possible proximity. So maybe there was no Fifth Beatle, maybe there wasn't even a fourth! It was somehow inevitable to note next that George was given a free ride in the other songwriters' wake (yet you also could sense he was stunted or thwarted or cheated).

John explained bitterly that he wrote the hook to "Taxman", George's "best" song, just as Ray Davies was quick to note he helped his brother with "Death of a Clown", Dave Davies's greatest hit. So the sham notion of a "democracy of talent" within these great groups, with its analogous utopian implications for collective action, could dissolve into sour cynicism: the presiding genius probably could have done just as well with any other supporting cast. Or, paradoxically, the reverse: the urge to pronounce the solo careers so thin and cheesy that the magic was proven to be in the lucky conjunction of a bunch of ordinary blokes, raised temporarily above their station as much by history and our love as by any personal agency; if the Beatles didn't exist we'd have had to invent them, and perhaps we did. Maybe the search for the Fifth Beatle was always destined to end, like the list of Time magazine's Person of the Year, with the conclusion that the Fifth Beatle is YOU. For evidence, one only needs to listen to The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. Here was music to ride like a froth of sea foam atop a tsunami wave of adulation and yearning for, well, itself. What were little-girl-screams if not the essential heart of the Beatles' true sound, the human voice in a karaoke track consisting of the band itself? Getting by with a little help from my friends indeed.


An amazing and quite melodramatic article at the Times about a web growing across several acres of a state park in Texas:

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The telluric screw, or chemical patience

Thinking about unorthodox schemes of literary organization--dipping into Primo Levi's The Periodic Table (one of only a handful of books I believe everybody should read)--then into Paul Strathern's Mendeleev's Dream. The periodic table is a thing of extraordinary beauty--makes me think fondly of high-school chemistry, which was strangely boring and appealing at the same time--here is Mendeleev's original chart:

Quarantine island

A beautifully gruesome photo, from National Geographic via Nico, of a mass plague grave on Lazaretto Vecchio:

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dancer scorn

Rebecca Milzoff interviews Nico Muhly and choreographer Benjamin Millepied about the ballet they've collaborated on for ABT. I must say that this gives a very misleading impression of Nico's manner of speaking--there's something almost hostile about transcribing the incidental "like"s! As a "like"- and "you know?"- and "no?"-user myself, I flinch slightly in sympathy...

By special request

More Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes:
Incapable of making himself convincing to himself, yet it is the very conviction of others which in his eyes makes them into creatures of theater and fascinates him. He asks the actor to show him a convinced body, rather than a true passion. Here perhaps is the best theater he has ever seen: in the Belgian dining car, certain employees (customs officer, policemen) were sitting at a corner table; they ate their meal with so much appetite, comfort, and care (choosing the spices, the pieces, the appropriate tableware, preferring at a knowing glance the steak to the insipid chicken), with manners so perfectly applied to the food (carefully scraping off their fish the suspect cream sauce, tapping their yogurt in order to remove the seal, scratching their cheese instead of peeling it, using their fruit knife as if it were a scalpel), that the whole Cook service was subverted: they were eating the same things as we were, but it was not the same menu. Everything had changed, from one end of the car to the other, by the single effect of a conviction (relation of the body not to passion or to the soul but to pleasure, to bliss).

Five eggs or 5 American people dollars

Phil Nugent on Katrina.

There still hasn't been an arrest in our dear lost friend Helen's murder, but it sounds as though there's a chance things might get shaken up a little over the next month and cast up some new information. Oprah's doing a show on Katrina and New Orleans this afternoon, including a crime segment that will feature Helen's story. And there also will be pieces on 48 Hours and America's Most Wanted sometime in September.

(Here was Phil's essay about Helen at the High Hat--required reading...)

I think about Helen very often--most recently the other night on the subway as I gazed at an elderly woman wearing a very, very brightly colored top covered with dozens of little appliqued chickens! Helen was often known as Chicken, and she had a peculiar fondness for these much-maligned birds, which she believed made the ideal pets (along with cats and pigs)...

A page from the memorial 'zine put together by some of Helen's friends:
Oh dear, now I have made myself weep...

Et si je n'avais pas lu . . . ~ And if I hadn't read . . .

Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard):
And if I hadn't read Hegel, or La Princesse de Clèves, or Lévi-Strauss on Les Chats, or l'Anti-Œdipe?--The book which I haven't read and which is frequently told to me even before I have time to read it (which is perhaps the reason I don't read it): this book exists to the same degree as the other: it has its intelligibility, its memorability, its mode of action. Have we not enough freedom to receive a text without the letter?

(Repression: not to have read Hegel would be an exorbitant defect for a philosophy teacher, for a Marxist intellectual, for a Bataille specialist. But for me? Where do my reading duties begin?)
Interesting use of the conditional tense there--rather like Austen's "perhaps," I'd say...

I have not read Hegel!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I am afraid I have been grumbling a lot here recently along the "Nothing good can happen until I do my work" lines--but as a lesson that this is not true, I received a delightful e-mail a few days ago from a person who knows me well....

The text:

Jenny - a UK edition of the new Dick Francis (really written by Felix, his name's now on the cover!) just arrived. If you've not ordered a copy already then this one can be yours. Let me know....

And I had NOT ordered one (or indeed even known one was coming) and it DID become mine, and I have just finished reading it, and I am happy...

(The name Dick Francis appears comically frequently at Light Reading... See, for instance, item number six on this list.)

In a sense, you read these novels for the faint hint of the flavor the author's books gave you when he was in his heyday--if you have never read Dick Francis, you are perhaps (hmmm, strictly speaking that should read "undoubtedly"--but I have been borrowing a habit from Austen's narrators of using "perhaps" as a polite but steely way of asserting a true thing!) better off with one of the classic early ones. For real Dick Francisish pleasure, I read Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels; and for sublime-what-Dick-Francis-would-be-if-his-brain-was-taken-over- by-the-best-novelist-of-all-time, it's definitely Peter Temple. And yet really the thought of a new Dick Francis novel makes me smile! Here's the Amazon link for it, it's called Dead Heat--and I am certainly going to pass this copy on to my mother, because (a) she was such a good sport, she let me skip school for the day when I was in seventh grade so that I could go and get a book signed by Dick Francis during his appearance at a store in downtown Philadelphia (as per that list item I linked to above) and (b) the love interest in this one is a viola player, as is my mom--and the parts about music are COMICAL!

Writing maxims

Barthes on maxims:
An aphoristic tone hangs about this book (we, one, always). Now the maxim is compromised in an essentialist notion of human nature, it is linked to classical ideology: it is the most arrogant (often the stupidest) of the forms of language. Why then not reject it? The reason is, as always, emotive: I write maxims (or I sketch their movement) in order to reassure myself: when some disturbance arises, I attenuate it by confiding myself to a fixity which exceeds my powers: "Actually, it's always like that": and the maxim is born. The maxim is a sort of sentence-name, and to name is to pacify. Moreover, this too is a maxim: it attenuates my fear of seeking extravagance by writing maxims
Aphorism as joke (one that I wish I had written myself, only I have no gift for jokes, though I can write funny sentences--but they are funny because of surprise, momentum, hyperbole, not because of the structural things that make jokes work), from Roger Smith's essay "The Language of Human Nature" (in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains): "Quoting references to human nature in the eighteenth century is a bit like quoting references to God in the Bible."

I have a longstanding fascination with aphorisms--I love reading them (La Rochefoucauld, Blake, Wittgenstein, Kafka, etc.)--and I am interested in what it takes to write them. A long time ago when I was first teaching I had a funny writing exercise I gave my students which involved reading a lot of different kinds of aphorism and then asking them to write ones of their own, in different styles--the results were both amusing and fascinating--I do think that literature classes might make more use of learning about forms from the inside out, as it were...

("As it were" is a highly aphoristic verbal signal!)

And because I cannot resist

(though Ed has already blogged it--thanks, Ed, Jane, etc. etc.): a lovely and only slightly tragic story about four orphaned baby hedgehogs.

Aliens having sex

My friend Wendy (whose blog is a lovely mix of mostly swimming- and animal-related observations, all in the most gorgeous understated prose) got a new camera recently and has since been just outdoing herself with pictures of what's going on in her garden. Today's is my favorite so far (here's the blog post it goes with):

Monday, August 27, 2007

A panic boredom

From Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard:

The rib chop

I am in love this summer all over again with Roland Barthes. S/Z was the first book of his I read, and one of the first books of literary theory in general I ever read, too: I was sleeping over at my friend S.'s house, we were in high school (it was her stepmother's book, I believe she had done a master's degree in literature), and I am afraid I did something I must have done often before and would (will) certainly do again, which is ignore the obligations of guestdom and vanish into a book as though I were at home!

But I'm delving into his stuff again this summer as I think about what kind of a book I want this current academic one to be, and just went to the library in search of a passage that I remember Wayne Koestenbaum holding up for the students in his Daily Themes lecture class at Yale as though it were the repository of all writerly and bodily wisdom. Which I indeed think it might be....

Anyway, I think I'm going to have a slew of Barthes posts this week, but here's the passage I wanted, from Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes (the translation is Richard Howard's):
La côtelette ~ The rib chop

Here is what I did with my body one day:

At Leysin, in 1945, in order to perform an extrapleural pneumothorax operation, a piece of one of my ribs was removed, and subsequently given back to me, quite formally, wrapped up in a piece of medical gauze (the physicians, who were Swiss, as it happened, thereby professed that my body belongs to me, in whatever dismembered state they restored it to me: I am the owner of my bones, in life as in death). For a long time I kept this fragment of myself in a drawer, a kind of body penis analogous to the end of a rib chop, not knowing quite what to do with it, not daring to get rid of it lest I do some harm to my person, though it was utterly useless to me shut up in a desk among such "precious" objects as old keys, a schoolboy report card, my grandmother B.'s mother-of-pearl dance program and pink taffeta card case. And then, one day, realizing that the function of any drawer is to ease, to acclimate the death of objects by causing them to pass through a sort of pious site, a dusty chapel where, in the guise of keeping them alive, we allow them a decent interval of dim agony, but not going so far as to dare cast this bit of myself into the common refuse bin of my building, I flung the rib chop and its gauze from my balcony, as if I were romantically scattering my own ashes, into the rue Servandoni, where some dog would come and sniff them out.

The plot thickens

From John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693):
We must not hope wholly to change their Original Tempers, nor make the Gay Pensive and Grave, nor the Melancholy Sportive, without spoiling them. God has stampt certain Characters upon Mens Minds, which, like their Shapes, may perhaps be a little mended; but can hardly be totally alter’d, and transform’d into the contrary.


These native Propensities, these prevalencies of Constitution, are not to be cured by Rules, or a direct Contest; especially those of them that are the humbler and meaner sort, which proceed from fear, and lowness of Spirit; though with Art they may be much mended, and turned to good purposes. But this, be sure, after all is done, the Byass will always hang on that side, that Nature first placed it: And if you carefully observe the Characters of his Mind, now in the first Scenes of his Life, you will ever after be able to judge which way his Thoughts lean, and what he aims at, even hereafter, when, as he grows up, the Plot thickens, and he puts on several Shapes to act it.


Tim Adams at the Observer on Robert Macfarlane--hmm, this guy's books sound extremely interesting, better take a look--and his next one is going to involve retracing Sebald's East Anglian walks--but of course the book recommendation that caught my eye and had me fiendishly opening another window and getting the library call number (I am getting this ASAP!) is in the following:
Macfarlane's mentor in these nuances of 'fierce looking' was Roger Deakin, author of the marvellous swimmers' tour of Britain, Waterlog, and the recently published Wildwood; Deakin died at 63 of cancer last year and Macfarlane is one of his literary executors. For four or five years before his death the pair were rooted friends; Macfarlane was a regular visitor to Deakin's Suffolk farm, where the woods came up to the door and beyond, and Deakin would come and give the odd digressive seminar to Macfarlane's Cambridge students. Some of the wildest walks and nights under stars described in Macfarlane's book were in Deakin's company, and some of the best writing is in elegy to his friend, the great tarn-swimmer and woodsman. His voice breaks just a bit now when he talks about him, a year on: 'A lot of this book was born out of a sense of play,' he says. 'What I always found with Roger was an almost childlike sense of adventure, like something out of Just William.'
The sense of play is underrated, I feel; for me, that's the thing that keeps me bothering with all of this business, the point about play is that it is both immensely high-stakes and also very light-hearted. That's th e spirit I read and write and teach in--in fact though it will seem an incongruous word I have to say that my main association with classrooms is that they are a place where I can rather frolic!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Getting back to the self

My former student Paul Morton interviews Thomas Mallon at Bookslut. (Hmmm, I must confess that I am especially delighted to see Paul invoking the charismatic and sexually alluring heroes of Restoration and eighteenth-century comedies! Lots of good stuff here...)
Mary tells Fuller at some point that she doesn’t think any woman could approve, in their heart, of male-male love. This is one of the interesting things about historical novels. You get to study how the mores of sex changes so dramatically from one generation to the next. You couldn’t imagine someone like Mary saying something like that today.

If she were to use such a line like that today, either a fictional character or a person you met, you would disapprove of her and you would be right to disapprove of her. But she’s struggling with this in the ’50s and I think it would be unnatural for her to be so ahead of her time. Surely, there were people who were. But I didn’t want to make her prematurely pro-gay -- you know, what’s that famous phrase about people in the ’30s, “prematurely anti-fascist” -- prematurely pro-gay, because I thought it would be…

It would be a sign of insanity.

She would cease to exist to me as a realistic character.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Contemporary music

Alan Cane at the FT on a quirk of bird behavior:
Researchers in the US have found that female white-crowned sparrows reject males whose songs are out of date. Elizabeth Derryberry, a behavioural ecologist at Duke University, played female white-crowned sparrows a selection of male songs, some from 1979 and others from 2003. The birds solicited more mates from among the more recent recordings.

The recordings were of equal quality, and none of the birds tested had ever encountered in real life any of the males recorded. The newer songs were slower and lower in pitch than the older recordings, reported New Scientist.

Male birds also responded differently to the new and old songs, showing more aggressive behaviour when played the more contemporary songs. Ecologists believe that songbirds may change their songs to raise mating barriers to rival birds, producing the changes in song that the researchers observed.

Exciting vegetables

Paul Collins contemplates the first round of a "world's most boring book title" contest.

Heredity does not go as far as this

It has been fascinating as I revise this book manuscript to see the extraneous parts falling away and the true story emerging as I cut. Have you ever watched someone getting a haircut? A certain kind of haircut: imagine very long shaggy locks of hair, perhaps rather luxuriant but just too much of it, being trimmed into a very much more shapely sleek bob--all it takes is a couple strokes of the shears and two or three long locks falling away for the shape (startlingly, suddenly) to begin to emerge...

So I took the whole book to pieces and put it back together and then went ruthlessly through to see if I was really telling some kind of a story from start to finish, and it was amazing how many "locks" there were that still needed shearing away. What's strange is that it wasn't until so late in the process (I hope this book is really almost finished, at least for now!) that I could see the bones underneath.

I have abandoned my former chapter structure altogether, and I think I cut things from every chapter, but I have cut much more from the chapters on elocution and on culture than from the chapters that huddled round the more (as it were--the term is anachronistic, "biology" wasn't coined until the nineteenth century) biological material.

Here are a few paragraphs, then, that I have now entirely done away with from the book, and yet I like them enough in themselves to offer them up here on the blog...

By 1800, anxieties about regional differences in speaking had to some extent given way to ones about class, and writers attentive to questions of pronunciation increasingly targeted “cockney” rather than northern accents for the most passionate castigation, as in John Gibson Lockhart’s notorious 1817 attack on Leigh Hunt, John Keats and the “Cockney School of Poetry.” “All the great poets of our country have been men of some rank in society, and there is no vulgarity in any of their writings,” writes Lockhart; “but Mr Hunt cannot utter a dedication, or even a note, without betraying the Shibboleth of low birth and low habits. He is the ideal of a Cockney Poet.”

British novelists would become increasingly attuned to the sociolinguistic verisimilitude of representations of speech over the course of the nineteenth century, as when Gissing criticizes Dickens’ failure to take account of “the effects of conditions upon character” in making Oliver Twist (brought up in a workhouse) “as remarkable for purity of mind as for accuracy of grammar”: “Granted that Oliver was of gentle blood,” Gissing says, “heredity does not go as far as this.” The historical irony is that many features of the “cockney rhymes” so contemptuously singled out in Keats’s writings by Lockhart and later nineteenth-century commentators (laud-lord, vista-sister, Cytherea-ear) would become defining features of twentieth-century Received Pronunciation (RP), also known as BBC English, perhaps the country’s most generally admired dialect in the years following World War Two.

The promise that one might reinvent oneself by paying for a course of lectures in elocution would remain both alluring and problematic. Early twentieth-century England represented the culmination of the eighteenth-century social and cultural trend of equating social privilege with the right accent, a fact that had inconvenient repercussions for foreign-language productions of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, first staged in 1913 (Shaw wrote in a shorthand fragment that the play’s Swedish translator was stymied “by the fact, astounding to a Londoner, that in Stockholm all classes speak the same language”). Henry Higgins the elocutionist makes an excellent living in “an age of upstarts”: “Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year, and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand,” he says. “They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.” In a bet with a fellow linguist, Higgins takes on the job of transforming Eliza Doolittle from a flower-girl whose “kerbstone English . . . will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days” to “a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party”: “I could even get her a place as a lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English,” he comments.

In some ways, Eliza is extraordinarily malleable. Higgins says of her, “She has a quick ear; and she’s been easier to teach than my middle-class pupils because she’s had to learn a complete new language. She talks English almost as you talk French.” But Higgins displays a failure of imagination when it comes to the real-world consequences of his willingness to break down social boundaries, no matter how unreasonable such boundaries are allowed to be. Like Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Higgins simply can’t see the destructive side of his attempt to reinvent and perfect another human being, and Shaw’s play has an unhappy ending, unlike the sunnier Lerner and Loewe adaptation My Fair Lady (1956 [stage], 1964 [film]). The damage results through the confluence of Eliza’s desire to improve herself, Higgins’ desire to test his powers and a social system that promises mobility only at a very high cost, a fact highlighted in Shaw’s depiction of Eliza’s father Alfred, a literary descendant of the “educated dustman” who originated on the variety stage and in the popular satirical prints of 1820s and 1830s London as a way of critiquing the so-called “March of Progress.” Alfred Doolittle’s peace of mind is permanently destroyed when Higgins inducts him into middle-class morality by way of his thoughtless recommendation of Doolittle to an American millionaire as England’s “most original moralist.” The upshot (in Doolittle’s mournful account) is that in order to “reckonize and respect merit in every class of life, however humble,” the millionaire leaves Doolitte three thousand pounds a year, provided he agrees to lecture to the Wannafeller Moral Reform League, thereby forever sundering Doolittle from what Shaw depicts as the amoral and thoroughly enjoyable idyll of undeserving poverty.

On perfectibility

From Malthus's witheringly sarcastic Essay on Population:
I am told that it is a maxim among the improvers of cattle, that you may breed to any degree of nicety you please, and they found this maxim upon another, which is, that some of the offspring will possess the desirable qualities of the parents in a greater degree. In the famous Leicestershire breed of sheep, the object is to procure them with small heads and small legs. Proceeding upon these breeding maxims, it is evident, that we might go on till the heads and legs were evanescent quantities; but this is so palpable an absurdity, that we may be quite sure that the premises are not just, and that there really is a limit, though we cannot see it, or say exactly where it is. In this case, the point of the greatest degree of improvement, or the smallest size of the head and legs, may be said to be undefined, but this is very different from unlimited, or from indefinite, in Mr. Condorcet’s acceptation of the term. Though I may not be able, in the present instance, to mark the limit, at which further improvement will stop, I can very easily mention a point at which it will not arrive. I should not scruple to assert, that were the breeding to continue for ever, the head and legs of these sheep would never be so small as the head and legs of a rat.

It cannot be true, therefore, that among animals, some of the offspring will possess the desirable qualities of the parents in a greater degree; or that animals are indefinitely perfectible.


It does not . . . seem impossible, that by an attention to breed, a certain degree of improvement, similar to that among animals, might take place among men. Whether intellect could be communicated may be a matter of doubt: but size, strength, beauty, complexion, and perhaps even longevity are in a degree transmissible. The error does not seem to lie, in supposing a small degree of improvement possible, but in not discriminating between a small improvement, the limit of which is undefined, and an improvement really unlimited. As the human race however could not be improved in this way, without condemning all the bad specimens to celibacy, it is not probable, that an attention to breed should ever become general; indeed, I know of no well-directed attempts of the kind, except in the ancient family of the Bickerstaffs, who are said to have been very successful in whitening the skins, and increasing the height of their race by prudent marriages, particularly by that very judicious cross with Maud, the milk-maid, by which some capital defects in the constitutions of the family were corrected.

Wonderful Englishes

Ian McMillan reviews Dohra Ahmad's anthology Rotten English, which sounds quite wonderful.

"The goal is to use as much chainsaw as possible"

Matt and Ted Lee in the Times magazine on the new ice sculptures.(Photo by Ben Stechschulte for the Times.)

Here's the Okamoto Studio website. I have a minor obsession with ice--I mean, almost everyone loves ice, this is nothing special about me--but my imagination is extremely stirred by northern landscapes, and the sequel to The Explosionist is loosely based on my particularly favorite Hans Christian Andersen story "The Snow Queen".

The two places I extremely want to go to: the Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland (only the Canadian one might be easier to get to and also Jenny Diski explains why the actual ice hotel is rather evil in her quite wonderful book On Trying To Keep Still so I think I need a non-branded ice hotel experience--I desperately, desperately want to check out the whole reindeer thing) and the Harbin Ice Festival.

Here's a good Wikipedia article on ice hotels with a lot of links.

Bonfire of the brands

Neil Boorman on brand addiction and his decision to live brand-free:
It is a miserable business indeed, logging each of my lovely, branded possessions for imminent destruction. I find unworn clothes, still in their bags, price tags attached, stuffed behind boxes and furniture (classic symptom of a shopaholic). No one knows I have these things but me; I could easily stash them away for use in the brighter, branded future, when this insane project comes to an end. But what would be the point?

This is a taste of the branded items to be destroyed:

14 Ralph Lauren shirts: £910

2 YSL T-shirts: £150

2 Judy Blame T-shirts: £200

3 Lacoste polo shirts: £150

2 Vivienne Westwood shirts: £200

3 Siv Stoldal tops: £210

3 Nike T-shirts: £150

1 Kappa T-shirt: £40

1 Diadora track top: £40

2 Kilgour shirts: £240

2 Bernhard Willhelm sweatshirts: £300

That's just the tops - then there's the jeans, the jumpers, suits, coats, shoes, belts, caps and jewellery, luggage, a few bits of "name" furniture, electrical gadgets, cosmetics, household cleaners. The total cost? £21,115.
Hmmm--I wonder whether he has read Pattern Recognition...

The anti-war position

I saw a truly awful play last night, Charles Mee's Iphigenia 2.0. A cheap and unimaginative updating of Euripides, with none of the interest or complexity of the original. It's a pity, too, because the set's quite lovely--but as soon as the actor playing Agamemnon strode up to the front of the stage and started delivering an extremely talky and abstract monologue about politics, my heart sank--the writing's awful, the acting's pretty weak (due to bad direction, I felt, rather than lack of talent, it's a promising group), and the whole adaptation is muddled and ill-thought-through.

Mee doesn't seem to have intellectually figured out what he wanted to do--the Bush parallel is insisted upon very heavy-handedly, down to blond-Texas-style-party-girl daughter-casting, and yet the basic premise of the Euripides play (which I must reread, it's been too long...) does not really clearly have anything to do with Bush, this is hardly a man having inner torment or being torn as to whether or not to sacrifice his own child or whatever!

I spent most of the (mercifully brief) play trying to find a comfortable position to sit in that wouldn't make my leg muscles more sore than they were already and entertaining myself thinking of scathing observations to put on the blog.

(I was also sitting next to a fellow with a very rustly plastic bag, most annoying; it was one of the more incongruous book-spottings I've seen recently, BTW, he was a late-middle-aged man there with a woman who I presume was his wife, not at all untypical theatergoers, and yet up until the very minute the house lights went down he was absolutely glued--as I used to be glued when I was a child, prompting my brothers at dinnertime to chorus "No reading at the table!" or "Mom, Jenny's reading at the table again!"--one of Christine Feehan's Carpathian vampire novels...)

By the end, though, I had decided that it was punishment enough for these poor actors to have to be prancing around stage (in many cases half-naked) and that I would refrain from savaging the production as it seemed to deserve....

A heavenly dinner afterwards, at what is surely one of the very nicest restaurants in New York. It's unusual partly because while the food and the service are both at a very high standard, it's significantly more casual than most of the top-end places you go to round here, which is very nice. They don't make a big deal about seating you without a reservation, and the food is simply the loveliest imaginable thing, light enough and nutritious enough to be not horrendously different from eating a normal meal and yet the Platonic perfection of whatever thing it is you're eating. The restaurant is Esca: I had grilled Portuguese anchovies with capers to start, then a divine hunk of seared tuna with a panzanella salad that had one or two bite-sized pieces of about six different heirloom tomato varieties, then sorbet for dessert (and this is the most delicious sorbet imaginable--flavors different every night, last night it was blackberry-plum, blueberry and--most deliciously--white nectarine, with a cookie that is basically pure crisped-in-a-waffley-Dutch-type-fashion butter). They bring a little plate of petits-four at the end and I always think, "Oh, we are not really going to eat all of those," and then the next thing you know they are gone... Delicious!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Your voluptuous spaniel

Maniacal Friday-afternoon blogging...

Half of this I'm keeping, but the second half proves irrelevant, so I will preserve it here instead, to enable ruthless manuscript-cutting...

The first quotation is Charles Bonnet writing to the Italian physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani, in the version published in the collection of Spallanzani’s writings that appeared in English in 1784:
You are not in possession of a sure and easy way of ascertaining what species can procreate together; and the experiments you propose attempting next spring, by putting your voluptuous spaniel in the company of cats and rabbits, promise not so far as those which you will make, by introducing the semen of this spaniel into the uterus of a doe-rabbit and a she-cat, and on the other hand, by introducing the semen of the male rabbit and cat into the uterus of a bitch. You hold in your hand a precious clue, which will guide you to the most important and unexpected discoveries. I know not, whether what you have now discovered, may not one day be applied in the human species to purposes we little think of, and of which the consequences will not be trivial. You conceive my meaning: however that may be, I consider the mystery of fecundation as nearly cleared up. What remains principally to be discovered, is the formation of the mule, and what occasions the different marks of resemblance between children and their parents.
I am sorry to say that Spallanzani did not succeed in bringing about the dog-cat hybrid he hoped for, but he retained his conviction that the experiments themselves were worthwhile:
Should any one of my injections prove prolific, and should the young partake, both in form and manners, of the female which conceived them, and the male that furnished the seed, I fancied, that the most singular mules, and such as had never been before seen, would now be produced. With respect to manners, two most opposite natures would be kneaded together and be confounded; the one, that of an animal susceptible of education, full of courage, abilities, and sentiment, all ardour, all affection, all obedience to his master; the other, that of an animal in internal qualities, far inferior, by instinct intractable, abhorring all subjection, faithless to its owner, affectionate only through interest, and born with an irreconcileable enmity to the former. Nor would the nature of these two animals engrafted together, be less different in a physical point of view[.]
Bonus link: the great eighteenth-century naturalist Buffon on the cat:
The cat is an unfaithful domestic, and kept only from the necessity we find of opposing him to other domestics still more incommodious, and which cannot be hunted; for we value not those people, who, being fond of all brutes, foolishly keep cats for their amusement. Though these animals, when young, are frolicksome and beautiful, they possess, at the same time, an innate malice, and perverse disposition, which increase as they grow up, and which education learns them to conceal, but not to subdue. From determined robbers, the best education can only convert them into flattering thieves; for they have the same address, subtlety, and desire of plunder. Like thieves, they know how to conceal their steps and their designs, to watch opportunities, to catch the proper moment for laying hold of their prey, to fly from punishment, and to remain at a distance till solicited to return. They easily assume the habits of society, but never acquire its manners; for they have only the appearance of attachment or friendship. This disingenuity of character is betrayed by the obliquity of their movements, and the duplicity of their eyes. They never look their best benefactor in the face; but, either from distrust or falseness, they approach him by windings, in order to procure caresses, in which they have no other pleasure than what arises from flattering those who bestow them.

The dictates of reason

Two quotations from Jonathan Swift, just to cheer you up for the day...

On population:
Encouraging marriage as all wise nations did, is an appendix to the Maxim of people the riches of a Nation; we ought to discourage it. The wretches we see with children.
On propagation:
Although reason were intended by providence to govern our passions, yet it seems that, in two points of the greatest moment to the being and continuance of the world, God hath intended our passions to prevail over reason. The first is, the propagation of our species, since no wise man ever married from the dictates of reason. The other is, the love of life, which, from the dictates of reason, every man would despise, and wish it at an end, or that it never had a beginning.

The rational and the desiring part

Jennie Erdal at the FT on various matters:
Some months ago I interviewed Margaret Atwood on the subject of poetry. She has a theory that poems come from a different part of the brain – the part that is in charge of melancholy. Atwood believes that if you were to write nothing but poetry, you might easily just feed that melancholy, and find yourself going down a long dark tunnel with no exit. The Door, her new collection of poems, is pretty dark, but when asked about this last week in a crowded tent at Edinburgh, she revealed her playful, ironic Atwoodian persona. All writers possess a fundamental optimism, she said. “To think first of all that you can start a book; then to believe you can finish it; find a publisher; persuade people to buy it; read it; and review it – well, I rest my case.”
(NB I do not agree with Erdal's earlier observations about Plato's Republic, I read it again not too long ago in Tom Griffith's excellent translation and found it extremely delightful and really very funny indeed...)

Get a Sight of the naked Body

One motif in the book I'm finishing concerns parallels between humans and horses, especially as they apply to questions of eugenic import. I've got a lot of really quite bizarre and interesting material, but one of my favorite passages comes from a rather demented book by Timothy Nourse, A Discourse Upon the Nature and Faculties of Man (1686):

Drifting into the mannequin

Sandra Blakeslee at the Times on a new study about the out-of-body experience:
The out-of-body experiments were conducted by two research groups using slightly different methods intended to expand the so-called rubber hand illusion.

In that illusion, people hide one hand in their lap and look at a rubber hand set on a table in front of them. As a researcher strokes the real hand and the rubber hand simultaneously with a stick, people have the vivid sense that the rubber hand is their own. When the rubber hand is whacked with a hammer, they wince and sometimes cry out.

The illusion shows that body parts can be “separated” from the whole body by manipulating a mismatch between touch and vision. That is, when a person’s brain sees the fake hand being stroked and feels the same sensation, the sense of being touched is misattributed to the fake.

The new experiments were designed to create a whole-body illusion with similar manipulations.

In Switzerland, Dr. Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, asked people to don virtual-reality goggles while standing in an empty room. A camera projected an image of each person taken from the back and displayed that image as if it were six feet in front of the subject, who thus saw an illusory image of himself.

Then Dr. Blanke stroked each person’s back for one minute with a stick while simultaneously projecting the image of the stick onto the illusory body.

When the strokes were synchronous, people reported the sensation of being momentarily within the illusory body. When the strokes were not synchronous, the illusion did not occur.

In another variation, Dr. Blanke projected a “rubber body” — a cheap mannequin bought on eBay and dressed in the same clothes as the subject — into the virtual-reality goggles. With synchronous strokes of the stick, people’s sense of self drifted into the mannequin.
The book that really stunned me around this sort of topic was V. S. Ramachandran's excellent Phantoms in the Brain (co-authored, I now remember, with Blakeslee). Another book recommendation, on an associated topic: Matt Ruff's wonderful Set This House In Order: A Romance of Souls.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Waifs, stray, orphans

The final (for now) installment, at Nextbook, of Marco Roth's memoir about his father. There's some desperately good writing here:
Given what I knew, his decision to keep his disease a secret from all but his two most trusted colleagues and his immediate family seemed strange. It was 1988, a time when the growing AIDS-awareness movement needed "innocent victims," that false category, to show that the disease was more than "God's punishment on drug addicts and homosexuals"—in the infamous phrase my father attributed to televangelist Pat Robertson. My father had not been quiet about humanitarian politics or his belief that biology was beyond good and evil. Only a few years earlier, he'd joined a group of doctors and musicians protesting the use of torture by US-supported regimes worldwide in their "dirty wars" against the Left. He'd visited torture victims in Danish hospitals and signed petitions. But now, facing a near-certain slow death, he suddenly developed a terror of softer forms of persecution: being forced to abandon his laboratory research, being hounded by rumors that would destroy his peace of mind; he feared, too, for how I would be treated at school and what my mother would have to hear from supposedly well-meaning friends. While still alive, he would donate his body to science, participating in a host of clinical trials for the antiretroviral drugs that, eventually, with reduced side effects, would make AIDS a treatable, albeit chronic, disease among those who could afford them. He would not, however, become a spectacle or a spokesperson. Privacy mattered more to him than the cause of "enlightenment" he'd spent much of his intellectual and public life defending.

So great was the power of this secret that I still feel a twinge of betrayal whenever I mention my father's illness in conversation. Also a great relief, followed quickly by something worse. For many years I'd only told a handful of people, mainly psychiatrists. It was my talisman, the sign of trust, as though by telling someone I gave them a special power over me, to wound or heal. I never knew how they would react. My nervousness would grow as the moment of truth approached, especially around women I've loved. Would I become, in that moment of revelation, a figure to be pitied rather than admired, an object for compassion instead of passion? Waifs, strays, and orphans are Dickensian tastes that mostly went out with my grandmother's generation. My father was right in a way to want me to stay dumb. What chances did I have in my girls-just-want-to-have-fun generation if I didn't keep things to myself? And what adolescent enjoys compacts of mutual pity? My first girlfriend sent me off to college health services for an AIDS test. Maybe she'd have asked anyone the same—testing your "partner" was practically part of the liberal arts curriculum in the early 90s—but I took it personally. "I haven't slept with my father," I told her, "or anyone else." "Do it for me," she said, and I did.

The Makepeace Institute of Integrated Dragon Studies

Shana Cohen has just informed me of a most exciting piece of literary news--Robin McKinley has a new novel called Dragonhaven coming out very shortly! Here's the publisher's website--mmm, this is now officially the book I most want to read in the world... anyone who can get me a copy in advance of the official publication date on Sept. 20 will earn extreme gratitude!

(If you have not read Sunshine, you are massively missing out, it is in my opinion pretty much the perfect light reading--I have read it at least three or four times, maybe more, and it was only published in 2003, so I do not even have the excuse of limited childhood book supply! All of McKinley's novels induce in me the need to reread compulsively, there is something uniquely delightful about her prose style and the nature of her imagination; I especially like what she does with those female main characters, and she writes so well about animals, too...)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The smell of napalm in the morning

It's not available online, but John Lahr has an interesting profile of Ian McKellen in this week's New Yorker:
McKellen's obsessive focus makes him a dangerous actor. "He likes the smell of napalm in the morning," the director Sir Richard Eyre said. He has a habit of inventing virtuoso challenges for his characters. While playing Richard III, for instance, with a withered arm, he stripped off his uniform to present himself bare-chested to Lady Anne. "In the soliloquy afterward, one-handed he had to dress himself, do all his buttons up, plus a clasp, take a cigarette out of his case and light it, and appear the perfect military man by the end," Eyre, who directed the 1990 Royal National Theatre production, said. "It was the apotheosis of technical virtuosity married to character." In Martin Sherman's "Bent" (1979), a play about the treatment of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, McKellen's character was forced by S.S. guards to beat his boyfriend to death and have sex with a dead girl to "prove" that he wasn't homosexual. "He did something that was phenomenal," Sherman said of McKellen's interpretation. "He was sitting there, and he defecated. It was very subtle--but you saw in his body the spasm, which is what a person does in a period of such shock. It was one of the most stunning things I've ever seen." Sherman continued, "After a month, he didn't do it any longer, because he was on to something else in the scene that he thought made it even more honest."
I saw that National Theatre production of "Richard III"--actually I would have to say I thought the film was better than the stage version...

Of course because I am an idiot I did not think of trying in time to get tickets to BAM, and now all of the Lear performances and all of the Seagull ones with McKellen are sold out! I am foiled!

Actually I have seen "The Seagull" several times also, once with Vanessa Redgrave in London c. 1985, and the other was the Central Park production with an excessively star-studded cast: both times I felt sorry for the poor actress--in the second case I believe it was Natalie Portman--who had to actually utter the words "I am a seagull," it is one of those speeches (rather like "My kingdom for a horse," come to think of it--a line handled very well in McKellen's film adaptation) which basically cannot be spoken these days with a straight face...


At the TLS, John Fanshawe reviews Roger Lovegrove's Silent Fields: The long decline of a nation's wildlife:
Underlining Lovegrove’s book is a patient study of parish records. (Scotland is excluded from the analysis, and has a separate chapter devoted to killing there, including a section on the “wanton slaughter by English ‘sportsmen’ in the nineteenth century”.) Writing in 1768, Robert Smith described stoats as “prone to wanton killing”, and in the Cornish coastal parish of Morwenstow, Thomas Trumble specialized in killing these remarkable little mammals, taking thirty-four in 1694. Amazingly, gamekeepers on the Elveden Estate in Suffolk accounted for 8,883 in the decade beginning 1920. Numbers like these pepper Silent Fields and are a constant source of surprise. From Elspeth Veale’s seminal 1966 study, The English Fur Trade, emerges parallel evidence of excess killing in pursuit of regal finery. Henry VIII passed a final sumptuary Act in 1532 – the same year as his vermin law – regulating a hierarchy of who could wear which fur. Not that he stinted on his own account, using 350 (albeit imported) sable skins to line a single satin gown in 1530. Even this pales by comparison with his forebear Henry IV, whose “splendid robe-of-nine garments was made from 12,000 squirrel and 80 ermines”.
And here's an interesting bit about rabbits:
Rabbits have become pests comparatively recently, swapping places with species like wild cat and pine marten – current red-list causes célèbres. Introduced to Britain by the Normans, knowledge of rabbits’ reproductive capacities meant that their warrens were first confined to offshore islands (another demonstration of changing times, given the massive efforts now dedicated to eradicating “aliens” like cats, hedgehogs and rats from many of those same islands). As land-based warrens were established, often by monastic communities, rabbits dispersed and colonized with predictable success.
Very Watership Down, eh? (Goodness, some of those covers are inappropriate. I loved that book when I was a kid, I read it again and again, but it's very dark--almost all I remember of it now are the violent fight scenes and also the really chilling episode where the main rabbits temporarily take refuge with the sinister other rabbits who have developed art and culture in exchange for letting themselves be snared, it had a very horror-story feel to me at the time--I wonder what I would think now? Must take a look and see...)

Backyard astronomy

This story about the introduction of Google Sky makes me imagine heated back-room argument at the New York Times about whether the term "mash-up" is acceptable usage...

(It was a terrible affliction to the paper's sense of decorum a few years ago--and a comical benefit to the eye-rolling reader--when two books called On Bullshit and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City were both demanding frequent attention--a lot of locutions of the "Mr. Flynn, the author of a book whose full title cannot be printed in a family newspaper" sort. Oh, I wish they would just get with the modern world! This is coy rather than decorous...)

The lovely alphabet

Eric Ormsby at the Sun on the first English dictionary, published by Robert Cawdrey in 1604 and newly introduced by John Simpson:
Some of his entries are surprising. "Sacriledge" is defined as "church robbing, the stealing of holy things," rather than as "profanation." Is there a sly gibe here at his ecclesiastical overlords? Other entries mystify. He includes "boate," glossed simply as "ship," and yet this old English word can hardly have been obscure. Latinate words are given a literal sense, which was standard practice in Elizabethan England. "Preposterous" is glossed not as "absurd" but as "disorder, forward, topsiteruie, setting the cart before the horse, as we use to say," and this reflects the word's original meaning. There are some lovely lost words, such as "gibbocitie" ("crookedness") or "gargarise" ("to wash the mouth") and some delightful old spellings, as in "gnible" ("to bite").

This is a gnarled, rude, fierce old dictionary and utterly without "calliditie" ("craftiness, or deceit"). It may not provide much "clavicordes" ("mirth") and it certainly "maffles" ("stammers"), but it also "inchaunts"("bewitches"). It shows the raw stuff out of which Shakespeare and Cawdrey's other contemporaries of genius fashioned their more sublime flights. In his Puritan soul, Cawdrey would have considered these mere "blatterings" ("vaine babblings"), but his rough alphabet formed the bedrock on which they rode.
Anyone who likes dictionaries and has never seenthe episode of Blackadder featuring Johnson's dictionary, by the way, has a treat in store--I find it so funny that every time I've watched it I am literally weeping with laughter...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Alphabet talk

I could not resist the barrage of media attention--did it strike anyone other than me that this book has just been unrelentingly reviewed?!?--and so I obtained a copy of Spook Country and rather devoured it.

I was uneasily conscious during the first third or so of it perhaps not quite living up to my impossibly high expectations, that Gibson style strikes me as slightly mannered when I first encounter it, but then I found myself in the rhythm of it and really quite mesmerized. The lightness of his touch is remarkable, what he does with the language just gets me: the plot itself feels fairly familiar, though familiar partly because Gibson imagined this world before it came fully into existence, the tropes and characters are also fairly familiar, and yet when it's working right it's just magically good.

The best way to describe the experience of reading it, I think, is to say that it's what magical action movies with a technology theme and a hint of metaphyics should be but aren't: this has that strange aura that's more commonly associated with film than with novels, and in the best possible way. In particular, there's an action sequence set in and around Union Square that is quite wonderful (hmm, in a slightly earlier scene at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine I got distracted by the fact of the aftermath of the fire there not being acknowledged, that huge open space was all boarded up into corridors last time I was there, like the awful warren of renovations beneath King's Cross Station--novelist's prerogative says you can have alternate-world variants, but I wondered whether this was deliberate or not...); the novel follows three different characters, all appealing in their way, but the most alluring is the Chinese-Cuban boy called Tito with his backtucks and his mysterious "protocol" or systema and his ineffable gods the Guerreros. Beautiful stuff.

Anyway, here's a bit of language that especially caught my attention. It's a description of a landscape I've passed often on the train, never without being struck by it, and Gibson puts this into a rather amazing string of words, nothing consequential but a glimpse of the pleasures this book offers along the way:
There were ghosts in the Civil War trees, past Philadelphia.

Earlier the track had passed near streets of tiny row houses, in neighborhoods where poverty seemed to have been as efficient as the neutron bomb was said to be. Streets as denuded of population as their windows were of glass. The houses themselves seemed to belong less to another time than to another country; Belfast perhaps, after some sectarian biological attack. The shells of Japanese cars in the streets, belly down on bare rims.
Bonus link: Gibson talks to Deborah Solomon in the New York Times Magazine. The sentence "It was a pre-Heimlich restaurant" strikes me as very characteristic, I like that--mordant's the word...

Gazing upwards, as it were

Sometimes all it takes is a single word for me to know something's blog-suitable. Herewith, Rebecca Mead at the New Yorker on the culinary adventures of Tom Parker Bowles:
Since 2001, Tom Parker Bowles has been the food writer at Tatler, the British society magazine. He is also the author of a new book, “The Year of Eating Dangerously,” in which he chronicles his global culinary adventures: fugu in Japan, ultra-hot sauces in New Mexico, ant-egg salad in Laos, dog soup in South Korea. “The thing about food writing is that there are only about fifteen adjectives you can use—‘delicious,’ ‘delectable,’ ‘unctuous’—so that is why I moved to the disgusting side,” Parker Bowles explained over lunch recently.

He had chosen to eat at Scott’s, a new restaurant in Mayfair that serves, among other traditional British dishes, a variation of stargazy pie, a Cornish delicacy in which the cooked heads of pilchards poke through the piecrust. British food is, in Parker Bowles’s view, wrongly maligned. “Potted shrimp, clotted cream, our scones and our baking—we have one of the richest food heritages in the world,” he said, through mouthfuls of smoked sardines with soft-boiled duck’s egg.
The word of course is stargazy...

Here's what the OED has to say:
1847 J. O. HALLIWELL Dict. Archaic & Provinc. Words II. 799/1 Starry-gazy-pie. A pie made of pilchards and leeks, the heads of the pilchards appearing through the crust as if they were studying the stars. Cornw. 1864 F. T. O'DONOGHUE St. Knighton's Keive: a Cornish Tale Gloss. 303 Star-a-gaze pie, a mackerel pie with the heads above the paste, gazing upwards, as it were. 1954 D. HARTLEY Food in England x. 246 Stargazey pies. These are properly made of pilchards... The cooks covered the body of the fishbut left the head sticking out. 1966 Punch 14 Sept. 385/1 To provide the dishes that one's forbears ateroast saddle of hare,..or stargazy pie, or syllabubwould be to proclaim oneself madly affected. 1970 A. PASCOE Cornish Recipes Old & New 30 (heading) Star~gazy pie. 1980 ABMR Feb. 75/1, I now believe that heavy cake, like starry-gazey pie, was originally made from pilchards.
I love how it is an adjectival back-formation from the already quite delightful (because hyphenated) verb star-gaze. One effect blogging has had on my prose style is to make me dangerously uninhibited about turning almost anything (even quite a long string of words) into an adjective....A good picture and a recipe from Ben Bush at the Food and Drink in London blog:

Monday, August 20, 2007

They were even using the word 'hermeneutic'!

Terry Castle has a very funny piece at the LRB. Hmmm, I wonder whether she is writing a full-length memoir, that would be excellent! The part about rubber stamps is especially good (Castle is traveling with her girlfriend and her mother in Santa Fe):
I get my first inkling that my daughterly snobisme (it sounds even worse in French) is about to be compromised when my mother spots the rubber-stamp store. We’ve been indecisive so far about what museum to do first; just then Stampa Fe floats into view. One of my mother’s polymer clay pals has said it’s great and she’s instantly psyched. Panting a bit, Blakey and I hoist her and chair up the stairs (it’s on an upper floor and there’s no elevator) and I wheel her in – unable to suppress my own rapidly growing excitement. For I too, I’m chagrined to confess, am a rubber-stamp addict. As Bugs Bunny might say: a weal wubber-stamp fweak. I’ve got hundreds at home; they’re taking over all the drawers in the work table in the spare room. Blakey rolls her eyes, sits down, pulls Richard Rorty out of her bag and prepares to wait for several hours.

I guess I left this part out earlier: that I’m as ‘arty’ as my old mum. Can’t help it: it’s a mutant gene, like homosexuality. And though I can neither draw nor paint I’m fairly good at working around my limitations. Like numerous five and six-year-olds – or Max Ernst and Hannah Höch, as we ‘creatives’ prefer to say – I do collage. Rubber stamps, along with scissors and glue and glossy pages ripped out from The World of Interiors, are an essential part of my praxis. (I have the art-world jargon down pat. Yeah, I work in mixed media. Gagosian’s doing my next show.) It has not escaped my notice that even in London at the very centre of the intellectual cosmos – the London Review Bookshop on Bury Place – there’s a rubber-stamp shop right next door. Titillating to admit, but as local surveillance cameras would no doubt corroborate, I have sometimes been seen to nip into Blade Rubber (‘the biggest range of stamps and accessories in London’) even before I go next door – Game Face on – to peruse the latest tomes on Stalinism or global economics.

What sorts of subject have I tackled? Blakey informs me that it is called ‘blog whoring’ to publicise one’s blog in print, so I won’t even mention Fevered Brain Productions, my digital art website. Oops, it popped out. Let’s just say I’m a neo-surrealist – a bit dark, a bit Goth, a bit grunge – a sort of lady Hans Bellmer. As a child I was enchanted by the Surrealists’ Exquisite Cadavers game – the one in which you make comic figures out of mismatched body parts. This love of the grotesque has never gone away: even today, I enjoy putting dog or cat heads on human bodies and vice versa. Always on the lookout for detached torsos, legs, feet, hands, eyeballs, lips etc – anything to dérégler the senses, if only a teeny bit.

In Stampa Fe my mother and I go on a mad bacchanalian spree. Piling stamp blocks into my basket, I am even less restrained, I’m sorry to say, than she is. (Given her eyesight problem and seated position she has to struggle and claw a bit to drag things down to her level.) I try to pretend that the stamps I’m grabbing up are ‘cool’ – that my choices express my highly evolved if not Firbankian sense of camp. Thus I eschew the ubiquitous Frida K; ditto anything with Day of the Dead skeletons on it. I avert my eyes from a stamp showing Georgia O’Keeffe in her jaunty gaucho hat. But somehow I end up with things just as bad: a Japanese carp; multiple images of the Virgin of Guadaloupe; a slightly dazed-looking cormorant; a sumo wrestler kicking one of his fat legs in the air; a woodcut style picture of little people with sombreros on putting loaves into a mudbaked Mexican oven. Despite a longstanding ban on rubber stamps (or coffee cups) with sayings on them – Cherish Life’s Moments, Happy Easter, You Make Me Smile – I succumb to A NEW THRILL FOR THE JADED. I’ll stamp the envelope with it when I send off my next property tax bill.

When we finish our sweep and I’m swaying groggily at the cash register – my mother slumped in her chair behind me like a satisfied pythoness – I’m forced to confront a terrible possibility: that Mavis and I may actually be more alike than I prefer to believe. (B. has sometimes intimated as much.) Even as the plastic machine regurgitates my Visa card with a malevolent whirr, I’m flooding with self-doubt. Whom am I kidding, after all? Is a lurching sumo wrestler in a loincloth really any less vulgar, aesthetically speaking, than my mother’s mermaids or kitty cats? Than a frog wearing a top hat? A poodle playing a tuba? An abyss seems to open up for a moment: I see, as if in Pisgah-vision, the appalling triteness of my sensibility. Forget Agnes Martin: I’m as banal and bourgeois as any of the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged ladies who do ‘scrapbooking’. (See Google for depressing lowdown on this new billion-dollar US leisure industry – the postmodern white-suburban-female equivalent of cyberporn.) And with my mother egging me on, just as she did when I was a child, I clearly can’t control myself. When B. finally comes to drag us away from the place we look like the survivors of a jungle plane crash who have had to resort to cannibalism to survive: the same foam-flecked lips, hollow cheeks and shifty, demented expressions.
And here are the visual aids....

3 painful hours and 32 dreadful minutes

I don't usually post here about particular students or indeed about people I know more generally, it's a privacy thing, but for some reason the month of August is a time of year when lots of former students check back in to tell me how they're doing, which is very nice. I have had various dinners and breakfasts and such and the agricultural image of reaping what you sow, though it is a terrible cliche, certainly comes to mind...

Tonight I'm having coffee with one of my very first Columbia students. Wei was in my first Literature Humanitiesclass, in the fall of 2000, and it has been very delightful ever since following his progress through the world. He's starting a PhD in history this fall, which is great, but he also at some point intervening fell in love with long-distance running, which is now an important thing we share.

So I thought I'd link again to his quite wonderful guest post about running the New York Marathon this past fall (scroll down, it's below some digressive thoughts of my own on running and eighteenth-century literature...).

Here are the last two paragraphs of the race report, which I especially love and which will make anyone who's ever run for quite a long time laugh in delighted sympathy:
3 painful hours and 32 dreadful minutes into the race, I entered the very last course of the battle, with one mile left to the race. My legs felt like they were being stitched up by strings. If I ran any faster, I might break the strings and tear my legs apart. My vision became blurry, losing concentration gradually. Every step I made caused me a great deal of agonizing sharp pain. It was too late to give up now. I had worked too hard to stop running! I had to finish the race even if I were to become incapacitated afterward. I slowly regained some energy as I saw a sign stated "100 yards to go". Fuel by my excitement, I ignored the pain and dashed through the finish line. I did it. I finished the marathon in 3 hours and 44 minutes with one month of training. It was a miracle. My therapist was skeptical that I could run a marathon with my bad ankle.

Training for the marathon has changed my life forever. This greatest physical feat made me humbled. I have a great respect for running and all serious runners. Some zealous runners might say running is fun. But I don't consider running fun. Fun doesn't involve with intense pain. Watching a movie, taking a stroll in the park, or reading a book is considered fun. Running is a discipline one has to master. It takes hours and hours of tedious stepping movements. It is painful! There isn't a real runner who hasn't had some kind of pain that is directly resulted from running. In that case, running is painful and boring! However, many runners like myself find satisfaction in running. Through running, I've learned a great deal about myself. I know how and when to push my limit. I stay with a healthy diet in order to enhance my performance. Running keeps me motivated, energetic, and confident. I know that every time I feel down, running will help clear my head. Running a marathon is the ultimate way to satisfy my life and quench my thirst for challenge. The conclusion of this marathon is the next chapter of my venture. I will run more and more as long as I can.

The trouble with lichen

A book I must read, Nicholas Money's Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard, described here by Burkhard Bilger in a piece on mushroom-hunters published last week in the New Yorker (not available online):
The kingdom of fungi is so vast and varied--it also includes yeasts, molds, and lichen--that early taxonomists labelled one of its branches "Chaos fungorum." One species eats granite; another grows in Antarctica, an inch or so every five hundred years; yet another thrives in a Chilean desert on a diet of fog. Fungal spores are so lightweight and compact that a single bracket fungus can release thirty billion of them a day. The air we breathe is thick with spores.

Given the opportunity of a weakened immune system, some fungi are more than happy to colonize our bodies. In "Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard," published in 2002, the mycologist Nicholas Money recalls seeing "photographs of ink-cap mushrooms growing in a patient's throat, a little bracket-forming basidiomycete in a gentleman's nose, dead babies covered in yeast, vaginal thrush gone wild, and a moldy penis that infected my nightmares for a month." In 1994, he adds, some teen-agers in Wisconsin had to be hospitalized after snorting puffball spores in the hope of hallucinating. The spores promptly lodged in their lungs.

All endowed widh speech

Quite a few of the passages I've been putting up here from the breeding book are things I'm cutting; this, I think, will stay, but I can't resist posting it in any case. There was actually a huge wave of interest in spelling reform in the late eighteenth century in Britain, but this particular passage is from the first volume of James Elphinston's Propriety Ascertained in her Picture; Or, Inglish Speech and Spelling Rendered Mutual Guides (London: Jon Walter, 1787):
FROM long and attentive discrimminacion ov livving speech, in dhe center ov Inglish purity: haz been at last completed a picture, hwich TRUITH can stamp widh dhe name ov INGLISH ORTHOGGRAPHY: dhat sacred depozzit, hware LONDON, in prime pollish, first sees hwat she says, and hwat dherfore she haz onely to’ prezerv; but hware dhoze, hoo cannot hear her, may also see it; and, confiding in a delinneacion so authenticated; may speedily imbibe in dhe remotest corners a purity, hwich Coarts doo not always bestow. Hwile all endowed widh speech, ar dhus interested in propriety; such members ov dhe Metroppolis, az hav had dhe good-fortune, (hweddher from dellicate edducacion, or from incorruptibel taste) ov keeping equally free from grocenes, and from affectacion; hav doutles a chance, if stil but a chance, for purity. But dhe distant hav no possibel chance, unless from repprezentacion. If dherfore a few cood, az non can, be sure ov edher acquiring or prezerving Propriety, widhout an attested Picture; widhout dhat Theory, strictly so called, hwich can alone emboddy livving Practice; indispensabel wood be such Picture or Theory, to’ dhe grait majorrity, even ov dhe Brittish Cappital.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Life stories

Paul Collins at Weekend Stubble on the problem of biography:
The longer I write biography, the more hesitant I become to use standard bio segues like "He was a broken man now." Broken to who?... To you? ... To him? Is he broken every minute of the day? The formulation is a specious one.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The living version

Luc Sante at the NYTBR on the new edition of Jack Kerouac's original manuscript version of On The Road, the first draft of which was typed in three weeks onto a single long scroll of paper (taped-together sheets of tracing paper--I love that stuff, haven't seen it since I was a kid, must get some and see what literary uses it might be put to--what I really wish I had, though, is a roll of the very old-fashioned stiff shiny toilet paper that my English grandfather insisted on having, it was a real curiosity!).

Some interesting reflections here on style:
Besides changing all the names (arguably necessary for legal reasons) and cutting or veiling the depictions of sex (very necessary in 1957), Kerouac altered the scroll to make it a novel mostly by garnishing it with sprigs and drizzles of literature. One of the most famous passages in the novel appears here — the ellipses are Kerouac’s — as “the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing ... but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.” In the novel he inserts “mad to be saved,” while the roman candles become “fabulous” and they are “exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ” Concerned that he might not have sufficiently overegged the pudding, Kerouac then adds, “What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?” None of this sort of eager-beaver poeticizing litters the scroll, which just keeps its head down and runs, and is all the more authentically literary thereby.
It's interesting, this question of whether material and/or style pull a writer in the direction of fiction or non-fiction. Certainly there is writing that only magically comes alive when it enters the fully fictional terrain. And yet I feel I more often read fiction that would perhaps better have been cast as memoir, with all its enabling particularities--"honesty" and "vividness" are of course literary effects, when we talk of a novel's truthfulness we are really speaking more of its style than of any necessary correspondence between what it asserts and what really happened in the world...

(Robert Polito said of Mary Karr's The Liars' Club--an amazingly well-written book, by the way, the language is quite magical--that she initially drafted much of the material as fiction, but that the voice and language only came alive once she reconceived the book as memoir. I am sure there are instances of the opposite, also, though I do not have any immediately to hand--but something like Rebecca West's recasting of heavily autobiographical material into The Fountain Overflows--my favorite novel of all time--would probably count, or the way someone like Dickens might sound excessively self-pitying or self-indulgent when writing about his actual childhood in a letter but transforms the material into something magical in David Copperfield.)

The innate human capacity for self-deception

Stuart Stevens has a wonderfully appealing piece in the Times about the lure of endurance sports. Really I am such a total novice that it is purely speculative, but for at least half of this piece (not so much the part where he wants to punch people!) he is totally taking the words out of my mouth, he explains the appeal of the whole business remarkably well, it is exactly what I think!

Hmmm ... interesting... I do not live in a part of the country where it would be practical to take up Nordic skiing, but as he says, really triathlon is the way to go:
Even though I was mediocre on my best days, my obsession with cross-country skiing gave me an entirely new perspective on life and self.

Then, when the season was over, I told myself it was time to grow up and get serious about pursuits worthy of an adult. Reluctantly, I moved on, working as a writer and as a political consultant, which, if nothing else, served as an outlet for my violent tendencies. But it didn’t take long to realize that my taste of the endurance life had created a hunger that normal life didn’t come close to satisfying.

Endurance sports brought order to my days. In an ever-confusing and chaotic world in which truth seems elusive, a serious training session or race made it inescapable. Truth, often ugly and disappointing but honest, was impossible to deny.

But as you get older and life becomes more complicated, it’s easy to start questioning the value of spending huge chunks of your days going in what amounts to glorified circles. One morning you wake up and it suddenly hits you — all the things you could be doing with an extra 15 to 25 hours a week. It’s an entirely rational epiphany and one that must, of course, be crushed immediately.

The key is to reassure yourself that what you are doing is perfectly normal and worthwhile and that it’s all those other people who clearly don’t understand the true meaning of life. I’m sure that’s how Jim Jones or David Koresh kept wavering disciples from leaving the cult — What are you, crazy? We have everything figured out. Here, drink some of this.

My personal garden of Gethsemane came after an encounter between my bike and a cement truck about a month before an Ironman race. Almost inevitably, I’d fallen into a triathlon stage, a near mandatory passage for someone like me — middle-aged, unaccomplished at any specific sport, afflicted with an equipment fetish and in desperate need of new ways to underperform. Why be good at one sport when you can be unimpressive at three?

Friday, August 17, 2007

The sheer joy of wild swimming

Sam Murphy at the FT on the renewed popularity of open-water swimming. I hereby make a vow that I am going to have as many outdoor swims as possible in 2008, I must go somewhere for a few days where I can do it a lot (Walden Pond!) and I must also find some way to do it regularly in New York. This isn't just a matter of triathlon obsession, it will be good for the soul...

When I was running along the Hudson the other morning, just at the point below 70th St. where I turn around because it is either the funny little landscaped bit and then homewards or else the slightly off-putting underpass bike path, I saw an older man who was poised quite statue-like at the barrier before the water. He was a rather peach-colored bronzey tone and from a distance I really did think he was either a kind of pylon of some sort or perhaps a statue--only as I got closer did I realize he was mostly naked, except for a tiny Speedo-type bathing suit, sort of leaning over the edge of the rail. I do not know what he intended, I think perhaps it is not really legally allowed to pop over the edge and go for a swim (and I wonder what he did with the rest of his clothes!), but I would like to think perhaps that was what he did anyway...

Cafe Society

Caryl Phillips at the Guardian on the genesis of the song "Strange Fruit".

Character flaws

John Baker asked me earlier this summer to contribute to a series he's posting on his blog about the phases involved in creating a text, and here are my thoughts. Hmmm--I fear I sound slightly awful, I remember writing this as a maniacal middle-of-the-night e-mail, it is rather horrifyingly resolute and opinionated! I sound excessively sure of myself...

Secret masterpieces

Oh, I must get a copy of Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines, newly translated by Luc Sante for NYRB books: "Novels in Three Lines collects more than a thousand items that appeared anonymously in the French newspaper Le Matin in 1906—true stories of murder, mayhem, and everyday life presented with a ruthless economy that provokes laughter even as it shocks."

Here's the featured excerpt from Sante's introduction--sounds pretty amazing, eh?
Fénéon's three-line news items, considered as a single work, represent a crucial if hitherto overlooked milestone in the history of modernism.... They are the poems and novels he never otherwise wrote, or at least did not publish or preserve. They demonstrate in miniature his epigrammatic flair, his exquisite timing, his pinpoint precision of language, his exceedingly dry humor, his calculated effrontery, his tenderness and cruelty, his contained outrage. His politics, his aesthetics, his curiosity and sympathy are all on view, albeit applied with tweezers and delineated with a single-hair brush. And they depict the France of 1906 in its full breadth, on a canvas of reduced scale but proportionate vastness. They might be considered Fénéon's Human Comedy.
Temperamentally, I think I am unlikely to take to a literary form of great brevity, but I am hoping that one of these days I will come up with the perfect structural device for a project that can be measured in teaspoonfuls...

The lovely semi-colon

Helen DeWitt on the trials and tribulations of being a person who really cares about punctuation.

The testes of our Grandsire Adam

I first learned this many years ago, but it's kind of one of those lessons you have to learn again and again as a writer: things that are interesting in themselves but mostly irrelevant to the main story detract from the book as a whole if they are left in. So: cut.

(The slogan for this kind of work: easy come, easy go...)

In any case, here's another bit that's going to have to go from the book (though I am tempted to include the references as one long footnote, since the book titles themselves are so irresistible...):
A high-profile confrontation between two London doctors in the 1710s and 1720s over the powers of the maternal imagination reveals some surprising aspects of contemporary accounts of resemblance between parents and children. Daniel Turner was a London surgeon best known for his treatment of venereal disease and other diseases of the skin, James Blondel a physician who practiced in London after emigrating from France. In 1714, Turner published a treatise on diseases of the skin that included a relatively uncontroversial chapter on the power of the maternal imagination to mark the skin of the fetus. Then, in 1726, a woman named Mary Toft claimed to have given birth to seventeen rabbits in Godalming, Surrey. She became a celebrity before being exposed as a fraud and thrown into Bridewell. Following this episode, James Blondel wrote a scathing critique of the idea that the mother’s imagination produced deformities in children, one which Turner understood as a personal attack. Turner accordingly responded with a passionate defense of the doctrine of the imagination in which he contrasted the supposed absurdity of that doctrine with what he felt to be the very real absurdity of the theory of preformation, which was coming to dominate scientific accounts of generation. Turner claims that his own credulity is not
half so great, in believing the Causes here assign’d, to be the real ones of the several Appearances, . . . as it would be, should I go about to persuade myself or others, that the curtail’d Hand [a pregnant woman took fright at the sight of an amputee and later gave birth to a child missing a hand], or the Similitudes before observ’d, were many thousand Years ago thus mutilated in Eve’s Ovarium, or the Animalcules . . . thus disorder’d at the same time by some Accident in the Testes of our Grandsire Adam.
In response, Blondel heaps scorn on Turner’s belief in the literal truth of the story of Jacob and Laban’s sheep and calls for what modern scientists might call reproducible results if the theory is to be accepted: “Let Dr. Turner endeavour by pilled Rods, Pictures, Frights, or otherwise, to have a Breed of Cattel different in Colour from the Males and Females they come from, or to change the Fleece of the Lambs in Utero as his Will and Pleasure, from Black into White, or from White into Black, then if he has any Success; then, (and not before) I will be ready to own him in the Right and my self in the wrong,” he writes.

It becomes clear over the course of the book that Blondel opposes any advancement of the theory of maternal imagination at the expense of the theory of preformation to which he subscribes. Blondel’s own beliefs incline more towards the ovist position (associated with Harvey), in which all parts of the fetus already exist in the egg before conception and in which the male semen is nothing more than a kind of manure for the ovum, than to the animalculist version associated with Leeuwenhoek. Both versions of preformation assume that the parts exist before conception, and that imagination accordingly cannot “obliterate the Lineaments of the Foetus, which were preexistent to Conception, and subsisting, even since the Creation of the World.” Blondel’s assertion of preformation could hardly be stronger: “there’s no Child born, but the Lineaments of its Body have been somewhere from the first Creation, and in that somewhere liable to many Vicissitudes. The Opinion, which is now generally received, is, that the somewhere was in a primitive Ovum, which had several Ovula involved one within another,” he writes, adding that there is not one fetus currently in existence “but has been successively in the Ovary of Two Hundred and Fifty Persons at least.” In this account, preformation represents a striking scientific advance, a theory that explodes the now outdated model of the mother’s imagination as chief engine of resemblance.
I am too lazy to find a way to reproduce the references, since footnotes won't paste in from Microsoft Word, but here are the lovely titles of the primary sources I drew on for these paragraphs (I am in love with the word "gleets"!)--listing them in chronological order like this tells its own comical story of irritable controversy and mutual thwarting!:

Daniel Turner, De Morbis Cutaneis. A Treatise of Diseases Incident to the Skin (London: R. Bonwicke et al., 1714).

[James Blondel], The Strength of Imagination in Pregnant Women Examin’d: And the Opinion that Marks and Deformities In Children arise from thence, Demonstrated to be a Vulgar Error (1726; London: J. Peele, 1727).

Daniel Turner, A Discourse Concerning Gleets. Their Cause and Cure. . . . To which is added, A Defence of the 12th Chapter of the first Part of a Treatise de Morbis Cutaneis, in respect to the Spots and Marks impress’d upon the Skin of the Foetus, by the Force of the Mother’s Fancy: Containing some Remarks upon a Discourse lately printed and entituled, The Strength of Imagination in pregnant Women examin’d, & c. Whereby it is made plain, notwithstanding all the Objections therein, that the said Imagination in the Pregnant Woman, is capable of maiming, and does often both mutilate and mark the Foetus, or that the same, as he insinuates, is not a vulgar Error (London: John Clarke, 1729).

James Augustus Blondel, The Power of the Mother’s Imagination over the Foetus Examin’d. In Answer to Dr. Daniel Turner’s Book, Intitled A Defence of the XXIIth Chapter of the First Part of a Treatise, De Morbis Cutaneis (London: John Brotherton, 1729).

Daniel Turner, The Force of the Mother’s Imagination upon her Foetus in Utero, Still farther considered: In the Way of a Reply to Dr. Blondel’s last Book (London: J. Walthoe et al., 1730).

(I like that "Still farther considered"!)

J. H. Mauclerc, The Power of Imagination in Pregnant Women discussed: With an Address to the Ladies, on the Occasion (London: J. Robinson, 1740).

John Henry Mauclerc, Dr. Blondel confuted: or, The Ladies vindicated, With Regard to the Power of Imagination in Pregnant Women (London: M. Cooper, 1747).

[Isaac Bellet], Lettres sur le pouvoir de l’imagination des femmes enceintes. Où l’on combat le préjugé qui attribue à l’imagination des Meres le pouvoir d’imprimer sur le Corps des Enfans renfermés dans leur sein la figure des objets qui les attrapées (Paris: Frères Guerin, 1745).

And so it goes...