Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Sordid Lifestyles of the Artistic and Famous

Just in case you wanted to know, Michael Chabon is mad good in bed. Oh, and let's have one more look at how William Faulkner was a crazy alcoholic. But it'd be mendacious to say that I didn't devour both of these articles. Like a vacuum cleaner. The J.M. Coetzee one was really nicely done, too.

But I feel like I read these things (and this is why I've resolved to avoid literary biographies) for entirely the wrong reasons; namely, 1) to deplume the writer of all her mystery and 2) to gain insight into "what she meant" in her literary work. I've talked about the first reason before, although not very luculently. In fact, I think I'm setting myself up to contradict that post.

The point is, I don't think we're supposed to like authors, the way we like our friends, or dislike authors the way we dislike people that don't tip waitresses well. Because putting them on the same level as normal people, with all their pettinesses and faults and insecurities, causes one to unconsciously degrade the art that they make as well. Maybe. It takes away from the nobleness and beauty of their art, which good art is, even if the art's subject matter is ignoble and grotesque. So just because I desire to familiarize myself with artists doesn't mean it's good for me.

Re: the second reason. I'm all for attempting to discover what a writer means by something he writes. I'm not (yet) Mr. Stanley Fish, who is all "the true writer is the reader" and "interpret the text however the hell you want." But I don't think that this is the proper way to go about it, by snooping through his private life and trying to reconstruct his state of mind at the time. On the one hand, it makes everything super-mundane; I'm reminded of Wallace's review of a Borges biography in the NYTBR a few months ago - he felt (like Coetzee, re: the Faulkner biography) that the biography sucked the magic out of Borges's stories by reducing them to reflections of Borges's broken heart/other piddling emotional trauma.

So don't read those articles. And if they do publish that unpublished Hemingway novel, don't read that either. But who am I to tell you what to do.
A book is the writer's secret life, the dark twin of a man: you can't reconcile them. - William Faulkner, Mosquitos

Monday, March 28, 2005

A Brevity on the Fallibility of Language that Eventually Gets Tangled Up Inside Itself and Dies

So if you haven't read Mr. Scott David Herman's Dense-But-Maybe-Trues (part 1 and part 2), you are ignorant and blind and should remedy this appalling faux pas immediately.
So self-consciousness — which it seems was meant to prevent misunderstandings caused by one person saying too little and then the other person reading too much between the lines (i.e. we can all just come right out and say every little thing we really mean and let's put aside these petty games and social pretenses) — what it does is give everyone infinitely more lines to read between, or to imagine can be read between, and so infinitely more energy gets expended at trying, ad inf. ad naus.
Which, well, we're reading Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction (self-urticating, but maybe true) for Theory of Knowledge, and this is exactly his point w/r/t meaning and text in Chapter 2, i.e. the author attempts to explain his meaning(s) using language, and to clarify it (them) he uses more language, but the more language there is, the more open to interpretation the entire text becomes, or as SDH says, there are "infinitely more lines to read between."

So the more we say, the less that gets understood? It's like the universe (or God, or Buddha, or whoever) is purposely out to prevent us from ever comprehending ourselves, each other, and/or the nitty-gritties of life. If the only way we can communicate is through language, and language itself is such shaky ground, how are we ever supposed to get anywhere?

SDH seems to imply, at the end of part 2, that if everyone could return to naked earnestness then the problem of infinitely regressive articulatory self-consciousness could be solved. Universal nude sincerity would put everybody on the same page, at least w/r/t IRASC, thus eliminating the need to talk about the way we perceive or don't perceive ourselves. It's the assimilation/nativist argument. Immigrants are bad because they have different values- they're at a different location in the cultural spectrum. People can't communicate if they're on disparate pages. Therefore, we should either assimilate them (force them into our value system) or force them out and forget about them altogether. The ultimate goal is one universal value system.

But this itself raises so many problems, e.g. Which value system should be the value system? And can language accomplish this? that I feel quite out of my league and uncertain of from what angle to attack this or whether it even has attackable angles that I think I'll be quiet now.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Pleas of Adoration for a Common Reader

But there isn't enough time! And there are too many books!

Shush, says Anne Fadiman. I am here to totally renew and refresh your love of reading.

Oh man, says I. Prove it.

And she does. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is, sans doubt, the best thing I've read this year. Ms. Fadiman leads the type of life that I want to lead, a life of books and books and books. They are an inexorable part of her life: her first glimpse of the carnal world at age 14 was through a book. Her son Henry sharpened his teeth on the pages of Goodnight Moon. Every night, she and her husband read The Odyssey aloud to each other. And for her birthday, she once went into a used-book store and came out with nineteen pounds of used books.

Nick Hornby wishes he could write about books with the tenderness and familiarity that Ms. Fadiman possesses, her easy rapport with words (other people's as well as her own). And don't I wish it too.

As a rule, I dislike book covers made less than 30 years ago. Perhaps I am like Proust's grandmother, who only likes things that a) are functional, or b) have historical value. What semioses literature to me will always be the paisley hardcover with the title in white capital letters on the spine.

That being said, I love, love this cover. For a while, I considered expropriating the center image for my site layout, but then I decided that I really couldn't do it justice. Plus it would probably be illegal. But nevertheless I'd like to shake the hand of whoever came up with this particular ex libris. The dangling shoe is my favorite touch.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Happiness vs. Pleasure

I'd like to rewind back to January, before I had this blog. There I was, a younger, spryer (sprier?) self, reading Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Falling in love with it. Coming upon this following passage with something akin to the eerie familiarity you feel when you're walking around in the basement and come upon your second-grade journal.
Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition. (298)
vis-à-vis Dorian Gray's
Who wants happiness? I have searched for pleasure.
The things that bring pleasure, in many ways, are actually the opposite of the things which bring happiness. To long for pleasure is to long for novelty, which is why pleasures are fleeting and don't last. Happiness can't be sought-after. Happiness occurs accidentally, but once it happens, you want it to happen again and again. Things that bring happiness bring happiness everytime.

Somehow it all seems more mundane when written out.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Freedom of Thought

It is a fearful question with no certain answer, the question of

I was going to do a post on the just-finished The Metaphysical Club, but I didn't really know where I was going with it, so I'm going to talk instead about this David Foster Wallace article I just finished reading instead, entitled "Laughing with Kafka."

Actually I'm not going to talk about it because it's late in the day and I have to pack for a trip tomorrow. (I'm bringing Gulliver's Travels and a book of plays by Euripedes.) I'm planning to go off and ponder the role of ex-formation in referential jokes. It now makes sense why referential jokes should be funny, but it doesn't really explain why they usually aren't.

Why you should mostly stop making referential jokes:
1. They're kind of lazy.
Think of your own jokes, or don't say anything at all. You're not allowed to earn funniness without the sweat of your brow.
2. They're not as funny when you say them.
3. They don't provoke genuine laughter.
Any hilarity is usually a combination of "I get the reference" and "The original joke was funny."
4. They mark a cultural regression.
There will come a day when we stop having original jokes to reference and begin referencing referential jokes. Oh dearie me.

Saturday, March 19, 2005


There's a pretty terrific moment in time when one first meets a word, just as when one first meets a person, when one can appreciate the word on one's own terms. Hello, Mr. Eee-shee-oh-lay-ted. Aren't you dashing? I'll bet you have a particularly long definition, something abstract and multi-layered. Just look at the society you travel around with: sitting complacently on the page, modifying the word ocean and preceding the phrase motionless lightfoot guardians.

But there comes a time when imagination just doesn't suffice. One must venture bravely into the outside world (i.e. The American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd ed.) and prepare to meet the man behind Mr. Etiolated's ticking blue eyes. Further discovery has the potential to renew the semance, which, let's face it, hasn't really been very romantic thus far. Who knows? He might even be The One, able to stimulate one's language to unheard-of heights.
e·ti·o·late (ē'tē-ə-lāt') v., -lat·ed, -lat·ing, -lates. v.tr. 1. Botany. To cause (a plant) to develop without chlorophyll by preventing exposure to sunlight. 2. a. To cause to appear pale and sickly: a face that was etiolated from years in prison. b. To make weak by stunting the growth or development of. v.intr. Botany. To become blanched or whitened, as when grown without sunlight.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Vonnegut Battles the Pink Robots

Robots are something, aren't they? They're alternatively glamorous and crude, admirable and pitiable, chillingly automated and chillingly human-like. This is why they're so story-tellable, why we willingly shell out ten bucks to see Will Smith kick robo-butt yet don't bat an eyelash when we discover that [spoiler alert!] he is a robot as well the movie has nothing at all to do with the book. [Ed. What the hell, Jeff Vintar? I know his buttocks are nice, but lots of Will Smith rear-cleavage does not an Asimov movie make.]

In the old days, when a man had trouble turning his beautiful sentiments for a woman into a beautiful sonnet to the woman, he stole something from a book or enlisted the help of an eloquent friend. But things will be different in the future. When the narrator in Kurt. Jr's 8-page story "EPICAC" (from Welcome to the Monkey House) falls desperately in love with one Pat Kilgallen, who, in typical human fashion, refuses to believe the veracity of his love, he's able to one-up all his predeceding schmucks. To win Pat's love, he enlists the help of the smartest robot in the world.

Written before Asimov had hit his stride, this story is nevertheless an Asimovian tale told in Vonnegut's voice. By 'Asimovian,' I mean that the robot EPICAC is beyond anthropomorphized. He's like a Human Vers. 2.0 - he has all the basic human sentiments (e.g. dissatisfaction and loneliness), but they're always expressed in an unselfish manner. Conversely, it is the humans that are predictable and sympathy-repellent.

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
According to one of Asimov's stories, the "3 Laws of Robotics" are also the 3 Laws of Human Beings, or should be. If we disobey them, as we so often do, it is because we have faulty hardwiring.

This little inconsistency in human nature leads to all sorts of possibilities, which Isaac Asimov explored in length. In his stories, humans fall in love with robots, robots fall in love with humans, and robots do tasks of derring-do in order to save the human race self-destruction. But it is the secret little irony of all the Asimov tales (as well as this one Vonnegut tale) that by the end of them we're always rooting for the robots, a little bit frightened and a little bit sickened and a little bit saddened over how cold and calculating humans can be.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Statistically Improbable Phrases

There's some brouhaha over Amazon's new feature: Statistically Improbable Phrases. I can't see them, but according to one of the elite, they're located right at the top of the individual book pages.

The Search-Inside feature is really neat. It'll be a really useful tool when one tackles big novels - for example, the part of that Stanford guy's thesis on Infinite Jest when he discusses Wallace's use of the word "pirouettes" (and how it shows the parabolic structure of the book) would have been so much easier to write if he could only have searched inside the book for that phrase.



Proust - Aptness = Aptness

Because infinity - infinity = infinity.

I'm sorry, I'm almost done with Within a Budding Grove, and then I think I'll take a break from Proust for a while because there are definitely plenty of bloggers that have much better things to say about him than I do.

But tell me if this isn't the most apt thing you've ever heard.
Pleasure in this respect is like photography. What we take, in the presence of the beloved object, is merely a negative, which we develop later, when we are back at home, and have once again found at our disposal that inner darkroom the entrance to which is barred to us so long as we are with other people. (620-621)

Monday, March 14, 2005


So I finally got around to finishing McSweeneys #14 last night. I had received it for Christmas, read about a third of it, and put it down until now. There were: good stories, bad stories, and one or two horrifically boring stories. I think I caught the whole McSweeneys wave too late.

Meanwhile, reductive literary equations.
David Foster Wallace - Thomas Pynchon = Nicholson Baker.

I think that's being a bit too generous. It's more like David Foster Wallace - Thomas Pynchon - J.D. Salinger - any residual genius = Nicholson Baker.

I really, really despised Fermata. The creepy protagonist was just creepy enough to repel one's sympathies, but not creepy enough to be interesting. The plot was bland. And to make the whole thing worse, Baker tried to distract us from the novel's failings with oodles of clumsy smut. Tsk tsk, Mr. Baker.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Proust, re: Adolescence

There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase [adolescence] which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything. (423)

'...there are young people...whose masters have instilled into them nobility of mind and moral refinement from their schooldays. ...but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.' (607-608)
What Proust isn't trying to say: Go forth. Light up a Doobie. Couchez avec des jeunes filles, sans protection. Do it all for the sake of wisdom and experience.

What Proust is trying to say: I (Debbie) am unsure. I realize that his intended audience is the 20-/30-year-old French male, well out of adolescence but still regretting all his teenage faux pas. To them he is saying "Be at peace with your mistakes because they have shaped your intellect and character."

But is there any sort of lesson in there at all for the struggling pubescent besides "Revel in your screw-ups because one day you'll grow up and be sad that you have lost the spontaneity of adolescence?" Which is like 40% comforting in a delayed-gratification sort of way, but 60% irritating because that is exactly the type of thing that old people say - treasure your youth, &c. - and really the only reason they can say that is because they've conveniently nostalgia'd out all the terrible parts of youth.

It is also 100% disappointing because other than this one incident, Mr. Proust has shown himself to be very adept at putting himself in shoes that he no longer fills, recapturing the splendor of first loves and sidelong glances and explaining it all away quite beautifully and sensibly.

So, now that I think about it, it is more likely that I am misinterpreting him. Which illustrates my least favorite part about this phase: the inability to ever be certain of your own validity. (Proust would probably say that this is a good thing because it indicates an eagerness to learn. I would probably say oh shut up.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Pretty Little Flowers

From Within a Budding Grove, p. 472 in my Modern Library paperback edition, spoken by the eccentric M. de Charlus, previously supposed to be condescending and testicularly insensitive:
... the greatest folly of all is to mock or to condemn in others what one does not happen to feel oneself. I love the night, and you tell me that you dread it. I love the scent of roses, and I have a friend whom it throws into a fever. Do you suppose that for that reason I consider him inferior to me? I try to understand everything and I take care to condemn nothing.
Compare this to something I picked up from the DFW mailing list (wallace-l):
I would be saying that all aesthetic choices are equally valid, in which case there's no point in talking about them at all. I like what I like, you like what you like, and there's no way to reconcile that, or any need to. I doubt anyone here believes that absolutely. - PR
The "my aesthetic choices are better than yours" vs. "everybody's choices are valid" is a pretty tired old argument, I know. But I think it's at least a tiny bit interesting that the passage from Proust, which was probably meant to apply for "real" emotions, can also be taken as an argument for aesthetic toleration.

For the emotions we feel for art are often every bit as dear and sensitive as the emotions we feel for people.

Also, I'm not sure what Proust/the narrator is all about, re: girls. Well, actually I'm pretty sure I do know what he's about, I just think it's funny that it more or less corresponds with what the average college boy is about. Except he's French and uses prettier words about it. "Dude, those girls are hot." becomes "[They are] an amorphous, delicious mass... a sort of vague, white constellation in which one would have distinguished a pair of eyes that sparkled more than the rest, a mischievous face, flaxen hair, only to lose them again and to confound them almost at once in the indistinct and milky nebula. (550)" "Milky nebula" indeed, Mr. Marcel!

Monday, March 07, 2005

Literary Blogs (the other kind)

You kind of want to give lit blogs a hug when they get repeatedly insulted and patronized by print publications. You kind of want to rub* their arms and reassure them that it's okay, that publicity is publicity is good publicity. People are taking note of lit blogs, and that's a good thing.

It's the other type of literary blog that I'm worried about - wonderfully well-written weblogs that get passed over in favor of light and funny. I love getupgrrl. But I also love Laura Joldersma's lovely condensed prose and Michael Barrish's half-true whimsy. The noises I produce while reading Mind are either chortles or chuckles. Mayhaps some British combination of the two.

Ahem. Where's their New York Times feature?

But maybe we need to realize that newspapers are no longer the only key to fame and fortune and vindication. Or maybe we should stop worrying about the above and just be happy with our three Bloglines subscribers. Two if my self-subscription doesn't count.

*That's probably not the verb I'm looking for.

Sunday, March 06, 2005


Eyelids are all: "Make this post quick, before we descend."

So I am back and kicking (albeit droopily) from Boston. To those curious, I ended up bringing Proust (good for before-bed) and a book of plays by Sophocles (bus-reading). Giddy with baby-sitting wealth, I also ended up buying, oh, eight or nine used books at the Harvard Book Store, including Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (DFW), Immortality (Kundera), This is Not a Novel (Markson), and Ishmael (Quinn). I also grudgingly parted with a ten and a five for Cloud Atlas, as a result of hip from hypsters.

This is also the last time I begin reading this many books at the same time. Somebody that I admire recently remarked, his hand very much off-, that he read as many as six books at once. Evidently, this kept his reading interesting and fended off "Why isn't this book getting good yet?"-syndrome.

So the reason why the upper-right hand corner is so distressingly oversaturated is because I was practicing the highest form of flattery. But there comes a time, e.g.* now, when I need to admit to myself that I'm more or less terrible at multi-tasking.

*If you don't know the difference between e.g. and i.e., which I didn't until about two minutes ago, I recommend this clever little explanation.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Books to Take on a Trip?

Okay, so now that I am (somewhat) done climaxing over Wallace, I have to turn myself over to the more pressing matter of What to Bring, Book-Wise, on my Four-Day Trip to Boston.

The book one brings on a trip is everything. It has the potential, literally (literally), to be the perfect travelling companion, the one that offers new perspectives and clever insights.

It could also suck and leave you all alone in a foreign land.

The things that one ought to take into consideration when choosing a book:

1. Length
This probably isn't the time to take on The Anatomy of Melancholy. One's suitcase is only so big, and one is hopefully going to do at least a bit of non-reading activity on the trip. Yet something too small and lightweight is inadvisable as well, in case there's a terrible storm and one is stuck in the hotel room for the whole trip. You (this "one" thing is pretty irritating; I don't know how Virginia Woolf did it) need a book that's just right. Which for me is probably 200-400 pages.

2. Depth
This is tricky. On the one hand, you probably want to take a break from high-brow and open up something light and airy, something debonair to go along with a breezy respite. On the other hand, you might be of the type who can't go a day without exerting her mind at least a little bit; if your vacation is too carefree, you might want to contrast it with something that requires careful reading. In any case, something that tickles both your mind and your fancy is advisable.

3. Image
Okay, so this is the thing that I worry about a great deal and then pretend that I don't. The truth: some books are cooler than others. Your book is an accessory; it's a statement. Eggers says - "I am hip yet sensitive." Nietzsche and Kafka say - "I am fiercely intelligent person and wish to be perceived as such." Danielle Steele says - "My ovaries are middle-aged." The right book attracts the right company allows the right conversation. Success!

I will ruminate some more, but right now I'm leaning towards Proust. I still have about 200 pages left of Within a Budding Grove, and his book is kind of quietly intelligent. Or perhaps Middlemarch. Or maybe I should just forget everything and read Kevin Guilfoile's Cast of Shadows, which I won from a contest and feel like I'm kind of obliged to read. Plus it looks pleasantly scintillating.



More DFW-fawning

Hallelujah halleleujah hallellujah... David Foster Wallace has written something new, about the radio industry.

EDIT: Link is no more.