Saturday, July 28, 2007

Cultural Amnesia

But perhaps, if one could remember everything, one would be damned indeed. In the last few weeks of a slow dying, it might be better to forget. One hopes that there will be a saving mechanism to it, a kind of mental economy. In my prime I thought that H.L. Mencken's fate -semantic aphasia- was the most cruel affliction for a man who had given his life to words: a punishment for love. But from the inside looking out it might have felt like a release.

A release from memories of beauty might be just the ticket: what else, after all, would they do, except long for what you can't have, more life? Perhaps we will forget what was lovely and remember what was true. Already, at no great age, I sometimes fancy that I can feel that happening.

"Eugenio Montale," Clive James
Cultural Amnesia, 2007

What Are Years?

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt -
dumbly calling, deafly listening - that
in misfortune, even death,
encourages others
and in its defeat, stirs

the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.

So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

"What Are Years," Marianne Moore

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Journal Entry

Idea for a frightening story: It is discovered that the only remedy for cancer is living human flesh. Consequences.

The Notebooks of Paul Valery

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Four Poems

If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.
If there was nothing to regret,
there was nothing to desire.

"Four Poems," Vera Pavlova
Translated by Steven Seymour, 2007

The Return

Thus Alvan Hervey and his wife for five prosperous years lived by the side of one another. In time they came to know each other sufficiently well for all the practical purposes of such an existence, but they were no more capable of real intimacy than two animals feeding at the same manger, under the same roof, in a luxurious stable. His longing was appeased and became a habit; and she had her desire - the desire to get away from under the paternal roof, to assert her individuality, to move in her own set (so much smarter than the parental one); to have a home of her own, and her own share of the world's respect, envy, and applause. They understood each other warily, tacitly, like a pair of cautious conspirators in a profitable plot; because they were both unable to look at a fact, a sentiment, a principle, or a belief otherwise than in the light of their own dignity, of their own glorification, of their own advantage. They skimmed over the surface of life hand in hand, in a pure and frosty atmosphere - like two skillful skaters cutting figures on thick ice for the admiration of the beholders, and disdainfully ignoring the hidden stream, the stream restless and dark; the stream of life, profound and unfrozen.

The Return, Joseph Conrad

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The First Book

Open it.

Go ahead, it won't bite.
Well...maybe a little.

More a nip, like. A tingle.
It's pleasurable, really.

You see, it keeps on opening.
You may fall in.

Sure, it's hard to get started;
remember learning to use

knife and fork? Dig in:
You'll never reach bottom.

It's not like it's the end of the world -
just the world as you think

you know it.

"The First Book," Rita Dove

Communist Manifesto

A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.

The Communist Manifesto, Karl Mark & Frederick Engels

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Stone Raft

As they conversed around the fire after they had eaten, it suddenly occurred to Joaquim Sassa to ask, Where did you get this name Guavaira, what does it mean, and Maria Guavaira told him, As far as I know there is no one else with this name, my mother dreamed it when I was still inside her, she wanted me to be called Guavaira and nothing else, but my father insisted that I should be called Maria, so I ended up with a name I was never meant to have, Maria Guavaira. So you don't know what it means, My name turned up in a dream. Dreams always have some meaning. But not names that turn up in dreams, now the rest of you tell me your names. They told her, one by one. Then, poking the fire with her stick, Maria Guavaira said, The names we possess are dreams, what will I be dreaming about if I should dream your name.

The Stone Raft, Jose Saramago

Friday, July 20, 2007


"And then he went back to his job, as if nothing had happened." A sentence that strikes one as familiar from any number of old stories - though it might not have appeared in any of them.

The Zurau Aphorisms, Franz Kafka
Translated by Michael Hofmann, 2006

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Interrupted Forms

In dreams
insubstantially you have come before my eyes'
expectations, and, even in waking,
taking over the field of sight fleetingly
stronger than what my eyes see,
the thought of you has eyes to see
has eyes to meet your answering eyes
thought raises. I am speaking of a ghost
the heart is glad to have return, of a room
I have often been lonely in, of a desertion
that remains even where I am most cherisht
and surrounded by Love's company, of a form,
wholly fulfilling the course of my life, interrupted,
of a cold in the full warmth of the sunlight
that seeks to come in close to your heart
for warmth.

"Interrupted Forms," Robert Duncan

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Economic Development and Democracy

Marx believed that the proletariat was a revolutionary force because it had nothing to lose but its chains and could win the whole world. But Tocqueville, analyzing the reasons why the lower strata in America supported the system, paraphrased and transposed Marx before Marx ever made his analysis by pointing out that "only those who have nothing to lose ever revolt."

"Economic Development and Democracy," Seymour Martin Lipset
Political Man: The Bases of Politics, 1960

Happiest Moment

If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say that the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.

"Happiest Moment," Lydia Davis
Samuel Johnson is Indignant, 2001

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The End of History

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom will serve to get history started once again.

"The End of History," Francis Fukuyama


Foremost among the larger issues at stake in the Eichmann trial was the assumption current in all modern legal systems that intent to do wrong is necessary for the commission of a crime. On nothing, perhaps, has civilized jurisprudence prided itself more than on this taking into account of the subjective factor. Where this intent is absent, where, for whatever reasons, even reasons of moral insanity, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is impaired, we feel no crime has been commited. We refuse, and consider barbaric, the propositions ‘that a great crime offends nature, so that the very earth cries out for vengeance; that evil violates a natural harmony which only retribution can restore; that a wronged collectivity owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal’ (Yosal Rogat). And yet I think it is undeniable that it was precisely on the ground of these long-forgotten propositions that Eichmann was brought to justice to begin with, and that they were, in fact, the supreme justification for the death penalty. Because he had been implicated and had played a central role in an enterprise whose open purpose was to eliminate forever certain ‘races’ from the surface of the earth, he had to be eliminated.

Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt

Works on Paper

All of painting, but also literature and all that goes with it, is merely a process of going round and round something inexpressible, round a black hole or a crater whose center one cannot penetrate. And those things one seizes on as subject matter, they have merely the character of pebbles at the foot of the crater -- they mark out a circle which, one hopes, draws ever closer to the center.

Works on Paper, Anselm Kiefer

Monday, July 16, 2007


Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme -
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice
The painter's vision is not a lens
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All's misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

Collected Poems, Robert Lowell

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Flesh and Stone

Moving around freely diminishes sensory awareness, arousal by places or the people in those places. Any strong visceral connection to the environment threatens to tie the individual down. This was the premonition at the end of The Merchant of Venice: to move freely, you can't feel too much. Today, as the desire to move freely has triumphed over the sensory claims of the space through which the body moves, the modern mobile individual has suffered a kind of tactile crisis: motion has helped desensitize the body. This general principle we now see realized in cities given over to the claims of traffic and rapid individual movement, cities filled with neutral spaces, cities which have succumbed to the dominant value of circulation.

Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, Richard Sennett

Friday, July 13, 2007


may my heart always be open to little birds
who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there's never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

Other Seasons, Other Creatures, e.e. cummings

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Work

Inaki Echevarne, Bar Giardinetto, Calle Granada del Penedes, Barcelona, July 1994. For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and it's the Readers who keep pace. The journey may be long or short. Then the Readers die one by one and the Work continues on alone, although a new Criticism and new Readers gradually fall into step with it along its path. Then Criticism dies again and the Readers die again and the Work passes over a trail of bones on its journey toward solitude. To come near the work, to sail in her wake, is a sign of certain death, but new Criticism and new Readers approach her tirelessly and relentlessly and are devoured by time and speed. Finally the Work journeys irremediably alone in the Great Vastness. And one day the Work dies, as all things must die and come to an end: the Sun and the Earth and the Solar System and the Galaxy and the farthest reaches of man's memory. Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy.

The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano


The method of writing smooth narrative can’t be right. Things don’t happen in one’s mind like that. We experience, all the time, an overlapping of images and ideas, and modern novels should convey our mental confusion instead of neatly rearranging it. The reader must sort it out.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf
February 12, 1927

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Dreams of a Final Theory

At the other end of the spectrum are the opponents of reductionism who are appalled by what they feel to be the bleakness of modern science. To whatever extent they and their world can be reduced to a matter of particles or fields and their interactions, they feel diminished by that knowledge…I would not try to answer these critics with a pep talk about the beauties of modern science. The reductionist worldview is chilling and impersonal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works.

Dreams of a Final Theory, Steven Weinberg

Monday, July 9, 2007

Doctor Faustus

Was I not correct in saying that the artist's states of depression and productive elation, his illness and health, were not sharply separated from one another, but rather that in his health and under its aegis, so to speak, elements of health were at work, while those elements of illness that contribute to genius were being transferred to health? It is beyond dispute, and I thank a friendship that brought me great sorrow and dismay, but always filled me with pride, for the insight: Genius is a form of the life force that is deeply versed in illness, that both draws creatively from it and creates through it.

Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Heroism of Vision

It is common for those who have glimpsed something beautiful to express regret at not having been able to photograph it. So successful has been the camera's role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. House-proud hosts may well pull out photographs of the place to show visitors how really splendid it is. We learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph. Photographs create the beautiful and - over generations of picture-taking - use it up. Certain glories of nature, for example, have been all but abandoned to the indefatigable attentions of amateur camera buffs. The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.

"The Heroism of Vision," Susan Sontag
On Photography, 1977

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Waking the Lion

I shall end with an allegory. We know that the lion is stronger than the lion-tamer, and so does the lion-tamer. The problem is that the lion does not know it. It is not out of the question that the death of literature may help the lion to awaken.

Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton


But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed. If at times some kind of self-deception nonetheless made me feel that I had done a good day's work, then as soon as I glanced at the page next morning I was sure to find the most appalling mistakes, inconsistencies, and lapses staring at me from the paper. However much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed so fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again. . . . There was not an expression in the sentence but it proved to be a miserable crutch, not a word but it sounded false and hollow. And in this dreadful state of mind I sat for hours, for days on end with my face to the wall, tormenting myself and gradually discovering the horror of finding that even the smallest task or duty, for instance arranging assorted objects in a drawer, can be beyond one's power.

Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald
Translated by Anthea Bell

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


"What would cure him, if if were to arrive, will be love. He may not believe in God but he does believe in love and the powers of love. The beloved, the destined one, will see at once through the odd and even dull exterior he presents to the fire that burns within him. Meanwhile, being dull and odd-looking are part of a purgatory he must pass through in order to emerge, one day, into the light: the light of love, the light of art. For he will be an artist, that has long been settled. If for the time being he must be obscure and ridiculous, that is because it is the lot of the artist to suffer obscurity and ridicule until the day when he is revealed in his true powers and the scoffers and mockers fall silent."

J.M. Coetzee, 2002

Independence Day

A fundamental mistake of the Americans has been that they considered the revolution as completed when it was just begun.

Noah Webster, 1789

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Cocktail Party

Ah, but we die to each other daily
What we know of other people
Is only our memory of the moments
During which we knew them. And they have changed since then.
To pretend that they and we are the same
Is a useful and convenient social convention
Which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember
That at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.

The Cocktail Party, T.S. Eliot

The Dyer's Hand

Much as I loathe the typewriter, I must admit that it is a help in self-criticism. Typescript is so impersonal and hideous to look at, if I type out a poem, I immediately see defects which I missed when I looked through it in manuscript.

The Dyer's Hand, W.H. Auden

Monday, July 2, 2007

ABC of Reading

The reader will often misjudge a condensed writer by trying to read him too fast.

ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Boring People

We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.

"Boring People," Lydia Davis
Samuel Johnson is Indignant, 2002