Sunday, November 30, 2008

Leaves of Grass

There is that in me....I do not know what it is....but I know it is in me.
[...]I do not know is without is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary or utterance or symbol.
[...]Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or is form and union and is eternal is happiness.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly.
Propositions can represent the whole of reality, but they cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it--logical form.
In order to be able to represent logical form, we should have to station ourselves with propositions somewhere outside logic, that is to say outside the world.
Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them.
What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent.
What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language...
What can be shown, cannot be said.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Eisenheim the Illusionist

Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams.

“Eisenheim the Illusionist,” The Barnum Museum
Steven Millhauser, 1990

The Barnum Museum

It has been said, by those who don’t understand us well, that our museum is a form of escape. In a superficial sense, this is certainly true. When we enter the Barnum Museum we are physically free of all that binds us to the outer world, to the realm of sunlight and death; and sometimes we seek relief from suffering and sorrow in the halls of the Barnum Museum. But it is a mistake to imagine that we flee into our museum in order to forget the hardships of life outside. After all, we are not children, we carry our burdens with us wherever we go. But quite apart from the impossibility of such forgetfulness, we do not enter the museum only when we are unhappy or discontent, but far more often in a spirit of peacefulness or inner exuberance. In the branching halls of the Barnum Museum we are never forgetful of the ordinary world, for it is precisely our awareness of that world which permits us to enjoy the wonders of the halls. Indeed I would argue that we are most sharply aware of our town when we leave it to enter the Barnum Museum; without our museum, we would pass through life as in a daze or dream.

"The Barnum Museum," The Barnum Museum
Steven Millhauser, 1990

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


And there is the face, which is the most important experience for me and which seems to escape me. I am waiting for someone to arrive on the train. It is toward the end of the afternoon. The train is late. The taxi driver leaves his cab. He is youngish. There is really nothing very specific about him. If he ever went to a dance - which I doubt he would - he would have trouble getting a date. So, to this stranger, whom I very likely will never see again, I bring a bulky and extended burden of anxieties like the baggage train of some early army. Does he live with his wife, his girl, his mother, his drunken father? Does he live alone? Does he have a small bank account, a big cock, is his underwear clean? Does he throw low dice, has he paid his dentist's bills - or has he ever been to the dentist's? We see the light of the approaching train in the distance, burning gratuitously in the full light of day. At this sight, he takes a comb out of his pocket and runs it through his hair...What I do see in this gesture is the man - his essence, his independence; see in his homely face the beauty of a velocity that does not apprehend the angle of repose. Here in this gesture of combing his hair is a marvel of self-possession, and the thrill is mutual, it seems, the key to this time of life.

Journals, John Cheever

Monday, October 20, 2008

As I Lay Dying

I learned that words were no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride.

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Mind of the Novel

The novel, the self, and the knowable are all limited systems, all limited worlds; engaging one set of limits, the narrator (and author, and reader) implicitly engages the others. Although it is debatable whether the human self is created linguistically, it is certain that the textual self is, and it is compelling to consider the limits of self-awareness within a completely linguistic system.

The Mind of the Novel: Reflexive Fiction and the Ineffable, Bruce Kawin


Love never fails. As for prophesyings, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will lose it meaning. For our knowledge is fragmentary, and so is our prophesying. But when the perfect is come, then the fragmentary will come to an end. 

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, but on becoming a man I was through with childish ways. For now we see indistinctly in a mirror, but then face to face. Now we know partly, but then we shall understand completely as we are understood.

-Paul, I Corinthians 13, 8-12

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Art of Subtext

It may seem strange to say so, but the great fallacy of most written dialogue in fiction of our time is that all the characters are listening. But everyone knows we have become a nation of nonlisteners. What gives the writing of Eugene O'Neill, Tony Kushner, Lorrie Moore, Paula Fox, and William Gaddis its particular distinction is the notice it has taken of what people do not notice. In truly wonderful writing, the author pays close attention to inattentiveness, in all its forms.

In fiction, the forms of evasion are every bit as interesting, conversationally, as truth telling.

The Art of Subtext, Charles Baxter


The kindly flirtation between the two of them reminds me of something familiar that I have almost forgotten. It seems to be something shadowy, about language being secondary to the way it is used. The forgotten thing is about the nuances of sounds that only employ words as ballast for the flight of pitch and intonation. It is the pitch, and the intonation, that carries meaning. I had forgotten this.

Crabcakes, James Alan McPherson

Saturday, September 27, 2008


The Twelve Images of Sorrow are: the autumn moon behind three black branches, a mirror when it does not reflect a face, a single whit plum-petal hanging from a bough, the eyes of a beautiful lady at dusk, a garden in summer rain, frosty breath on an autumn night, an old man gazing at a river, a faded fan, a dead sparrow in the snow, a lover leaving his mistress at dawn, an old abandoned hourglass, the black from of the wild duck against the red setting sun. These are the sorrows known to all men, but there is a sorrow that is known only in Cathay. Our sorrow is the sorrow hidden in the depths of the rich, deep-blue summer afternoons, the sorrow of sunshine on the blossoming plum tree, the sorrow that lies like a faint purple shadow in the iris of a beautiful, laughing girl.

"Cathay," In the Penny Arcade
Steven Millhauser, 1981

August Eschenburg

And so at the tender age of sixteen I learned an all-important secret: all words are masks, and the lovelier they are, the more they are meant to conceal.

"August Eschenburg," In the Penny Arcade
Steven Millhauser, 1981

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cleaning Piece II

Make a numbered list of sadness in your life.
Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers.
Add a stone each time there is sadness.
Burn the list, and appreciate the mount of stones for its beauty.

Make a numbered list of happiness in your life.
Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers.
Add a stone, each time there is happiness.
Compare the mount of stones to the one of sadness.

"Cleaning Piece II," Yoko Ono

Sunday, September 21, 2008


My father had once told me the story of how, when he was in the work camp, a truckload of giant logs was brought in to be chopped. He was on ax duty with a gang of twelve. It was a dreadfully hot summer and each swing of the blade was torture. He hacked at a log and there was the unmistakable sound of metal hitting metal. He bent down and found a mushroom-shaped chunk of lead embedded in the trunk. A bullet. He counted the rings from the perimeter to the bullet and found they matched his age exactly.

We never escape ourselves, he said to me years later.

Dancer, Colum McCann


Do not allow the critics to make you so good you cannot become any better. Correspondingly, do not allow them to rip the cartilage from your carcass.

Dancer, Colum McCann

The Market of Symbolic Goods

No one has ever completely extracted all the implications of the fact that the writer, the artist, or even the scientist writes not only for a public, but for a public of equals who are also competitors.

"The Market of Symbolic Goods," Pierre Bourdieu


What monstrous things, our pasts, especially when they have been lovely.

Dancer, Colum McCann

So Long, See You Tomorrow

What we, or any rate I, refer to confidently as a memory - meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion - is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life to ever be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.

So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness

A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

"Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit," Wallace Stevens


A child has no choice but to accept the immediate experiences of his life at face value. He isn't moving on, he simply is. Children agonize over an overdue library book or an accidentally broken gas meter with all the emotion that an adult experiences at the threat of prison.

Stop-Time, Frank Conroy

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Children are in the curious position of having to do what people tell them, whether they want to or not. A child knows that he must do what he's told. It matters little whether a command is just or unjust since the child has no confidence in his ability to distinguish the difference. Justice for children is not the same as justice for adults. In effect all commands are morally neutral to a child. Yet because almost every child is consistently bullied by older people he quickly learns that if some higher frame of reference all command are equally just, they are not equally easy to carry out. Some fill him with joy, others, so obviously unfair that he must paralyze himself to keep from recognizing their quality, strike him instantly deaf, blind, and dumb. Faced with an order they sense is unfair children simply stall. They wait for more information, for some elaboration that will take away the seeming unfairness.

Stop-Time, Frank Conroy

New Consensus for Old

What we got instead was a fatal double irony: academic radicalism became functionally indistinguishable from free market theory at exactly the historical moment when capitalist managers decided it was time to start referring to themselves as "radicals," to understand consumption itself as democracy.

New Consensus for Old: Cultural Studies from Left to Right, Thomas Frank

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Two from The Emperor

It is because man is by nature a bad creature who takes damning pleasure out of giving in to temptations, especially the temptations of disobedience, possessiveness, and licentiousness. Two lusts breed in the soul of man: the lust for aggression, and the lust for telling lies. If one will not allow himself to wrong others, he will wrong himself. If he doesn't come across anyone to lie to, he will lie to himself in his own thoughts. Sweet to man is the bread of untruths, says the Book of Proverbs, and then with sand his mouth is filled up.


Mediocrity is dangerous: when it feels itself threatened, it becomes ruthless.

The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuscinski

Wired with Brian Eno

Q: If I could give you a black box that could do anything, what would you have it do?

A: I would love to have a box onto which I could offload choice making. A thing that makes choices about its outputs, and says to itself: this is a good output, reinforce that, or replay it, or feed it back in. I would love for this machine to stand for me. I could program this box to be my particular taste and interest in things.

Q: Why would you want to do that? You have you.

A: Yes, I have me. But I want to be able to sell systems for making my music as well as selling pieces of music. In the future, you won't buy artists' works; you'll buy software that makes original pieces of 'their' works, or that recreates their way of looking at things. You could buy a Shostakovich box, or you could buy a Brahms box. You might want some Shostakovich slow-movement-like music to be generated. So then you would use that box. Or you could buy a Brian Eno box. So then I would need to put in this box a device that represents my taste for choosing pieces.

Q: I guess the only thing weirder that hearing your own music broadcast on the radios of strangers is hearing music you might have written being broadcast!

A: Yes, music that I might have written but didn't.

Wired Interview of Brian Eno, by Kevin Kelly
May 1995

Saturday, August 9, 2008

After Photography

Undoubtedly some would welcome filmmaker Wim Wender's vision of the future as deliverance: "The digitized picture has broken the relationship between picture and reality once and for all. We are entering an era when no one will be able to say whether a picture is true or false. They are all becoming beautiful and extraordinary, and with each passing day they belong increasingly to the world of advertising. Their beauty, like their truth, is slipping away from us. Soon, they will really end up making us blind."

After Photography, Fred Ritchin

The Emperor

And how could we save ourselves from suspicion? There is no deliverance from suspicion! Every way of behaving, every action, only deepens the suspicions and sinks us the more. If we begin to justify ourselves, alas! Immediately we hear the questions, "Why, son, are you rushing to justify yourself? There must be something on your conscience, something you would rather hide, that makes you want to justify yourself." Or if we decide to show an active attitude and goodwill, again we hear the comments, "Why is he showing off so much? He must want to hide his villainy, his shameful deeds. He's out to lie in ambush." Again it's bad, maybe worse. And, as I said, we were all under suspicion, all slandered, even though His Most Gracious Majesty said nothing directly or openly, not a word -- but the accusation showed so in his eyes and his way of looking at his subjects that everyone crouched, fell to the ground, and thought in fear, "I am accused." The air became heavy, thick, the pressure low, discouraging, disabling, as if one's wings had been clipped, as if something had broken inside.

The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuscinski

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism

Either liberalism must extend the freedoms of those who are not themselves liberals and even to those whose deliberate purpose is to destroy the liberal society -- in effect, that is, must grant a free hand to its assassins; or liberalism must deny its own principles, restrict the freedoms, and practice discrimination. It is as if the rules of football provided no penalties against those who violated the rules.

Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, James Burnham

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Art as Experience

When the old has not been incorporated, the outcome is mere eccentricity. But great original artists take a tradition into themselves. The have not shunned it but digested it. Then the very conflict set up between it and what is new in themselves and in their environment creates the tension that demands a new mode of expression.

Art as Experience, John Dewey

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Average

His peasant parents killed themselves with toil
To let their darling leave a stingy soil
For any of those smart professions which
Encourage shallow breathing, and grow rich.

The pressure of their fond ambition made
Their shy and country-loving child afraid
No sensible career was good enough,
Only a hero could deserve such love.

So here he was without maps or supplies
A hundred miles from any decent town;
The desert glared into his blood-shot eyes;

The silence roared displeasure: looking down,
He saw the shadow of an Average Man
Attempting the Exceptional, and ran.

"The Average," W.H. Auden
Summer 1940

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Politics and Markets

The world is not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide. It is not so managed here below that in practice they coincide. It is not a correct deduction from the principles of economics that self-interest always operates in the public interest. Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened; more often individuals acting separately to attain their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to attain these. Experience does not show that individuals, when they make up a social unit, are always less clear sighted than when they act separately.

The Collected Writings, Vol. IX, 1971-1989
John Maynard Keynes

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Left and Right

When someone asks me whether the split between parties of the right and parties of the left, between men of the right and men of the left still makes sense, the first idea that strikes me is that the man asking this question is certainly not a man of the left.

Qu'appelex-vous droite at gauche, Beau de Lomenie

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Modernism in Art, Literature, and Political Theory

Both avant-gardism and modernism responded to the increasing commodification of Western culture, the one by somehow decorrupting or extracting the otherness out of the commodified object to produce art, the other by fleeing the commodified object altogether in quest of art as 'pure form'.

"Modernism in Art, Literature, and Political Theory," Walter L. Adamson

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mao II

Beckett is the last major writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major works involve midair explosions and crumbling buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.

Mao II, Don DeLillo

Monday, June 9, 2008


The unbuilt is characteristic of those arts whose realization requires the renumerated work of many people, the purchase of materials, the use of expensive equipment, etc. Cinema is the paradigmatic case: anyone can have an idea for a film, but then you need expertise, finance, personnel, and these obstacles mean that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the film does not get made. Which might make you wonder if the prodigious bother of it all -- which technological advances have exacerbated if anything -- isn't actually part of cinema's charm, since it gives everyone access to moviemaking, in the form of pure daydreaming. It's the same in the other arts to a greater or lesser extent. And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality woudl be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, and art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.

Ghosts, Cesar Aira

Saturday, May 31, 2008

An American Childhood

But like anyone, I could recall and almost see fleet torn fragments of a scene: a raincoat's sleeve wrinkling, a blond head bending, red-lighted rain falling on asphalt, a pesteringly interesting pattern on a cordovan shoe, which rises and floats above that face I want to see. I perceived these sights as scraps that floated like blowing tissue across some hollow interior space, some space at the arching roof of the ribcage, perhaps. I swerved to study them before they slid away.

I hoped that sentences would ail the blowing scraps down. I hoped that sentences would store scenes like rolls of film, rolls of films I could simply reel off and watch. But of course, the sentences did not work that way. The sentences suggested scenes to the imagination, which were no sooner repeated than envisioned, and envisioned just as poorly and just as vividly as actual memories.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Maps of the Imagination

As writers, no matter whether our tendency is toward expansion or compression, we must gauge what to leave blank, and why. We need to be sure to choose our blanks, rather than simply omit parts of the fictional world that seem to large or complicated or bothersome to include....The challenge is to create a world that is realistically complex. Then we need to create such a persuasive whole that the reader isn't distracted by the necessary absences.

Maps of the Imagination, Peter Turchi

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Difficult Grace

[An original function of language] was to exclude from attention what was unimportant to the task at hand, thereby providing an ordering of the experience of the world. That exclusion, which characterizes rationality and discursiveness, is also useful to poetry, because it is in the balance between order and inclusion that poems are made. As Stevens said, "The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully. The "blessed rage for order" must win in the end because it is that which allows us to survive. However, if the battle against it is not a raging battle, the poem will seem to have excluded too much.

A Difficult Grace: On Poets, Poetry, and Writing, Michael Ryan

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

One-Way Street

The power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out.... Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of day-dreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.

One-Way Street, Walter Benjamin

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An American Childhood

Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.

I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.

An American Childhood, Annie Dillard

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Strong Opinions

Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it's hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects.

Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

January First

we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of this world.

"January First," Octavio Paz
Translated by Elizabeth Bishop

Invisible Man

Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many -- This is not prophecy, but description.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Monday, May 19, 2008

Invisible Man

"I thought you had learned about that, Brother."
"Learned what?"
"That it's impossible not to take advantage of the people."
"That's Rinehartism -- cynicism..."
"Cynicism," I said.
"Not cynicism--realism. The trick is to take advantage of them in their own best interest."

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Social Uses of Poetry

Poetry can be the linguistic equivalent of weight training – an experience of language in all its resistance, a world in which “more difficult” does in fact mean “better.” Or it can be hollowed out in service entirely to the referent, an almost weightless domain of “experience.” Whenever the latter happens, however, social institutions (including those that replicate themselves inside of us) institute an almost automatic hierarchy of such experiences & emotions. This is why it’s so easy for people to falsify memoirs of dark beginnings & upward striving. We want to believe. We want to think that poetry can heal the rift between mother & son, even in the light of a conflict started under false pretenses with no clear goal or end in sight. But no amount of poetry is going to solve the problems of Iraq.

Ron Silliman
May 10, 2008

Friday, May 16, 2008

Humboldt's Gift

There were even profounder questions. For instance, the history of the universe would be very boring if one tried to think of it in the ordinary way of human experience. All that time without events! Gases over and over again, and heat and particles of matter, the sun tides and winds, again this creeping development, bits added to bits, chemical accidents–whole ages in which almost nothing happens, lifeless seas, only a few crystals, a few protein compounds developing. The tardiness of evolution is so irritating to contemplate. The clumsy mistakes you see in museum fossils. How could such bones crawl, walk, run? It is agony to think of the groping of the species–all this fumbling, swamp-creeping, munching, preying, and reproduction, the boring slowness with which tissues, organs, and members developed. And then the boredom also of the emergence of the higher types and finally of mankind, the dull life of Paleolithic forests, the long long incubation of intelligence, the slowness of invention, the idiocy of peasant ages. These are interesting only in review, in thought. No one could bear to experience this. The present demand is for a quick forward movement, for a summary, for life at the speed of intensest thought. As we approach, through technology, the phase of instantaneous realization, of the realization of eternal human desires or fantasies, of abolishing time and space the problem of boredom can only become more intense. The human being, more and more oppressed by the peculiar terms of his existence–one time around for each, no more than a single life per customer-has to think of the boredom of death. O those eternities of nonexistence! For people who crave continual interest and diversity, how boring death will be! To lie in the grave, in one place, how frightful!

Humboldt's Gift, Saul Bellow

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Art of Literature and the Science of Literature

A writer can capture our attention before, in some cases long before, we reach what academic critics would accept as the “meaning” or “meanings” of works. The high density of multiple patterns holds our attention and elicits our response—especially through patterns of biological importance, like those surrounding character and event, which arouse attention and emotion and feed powerful, dedicated, evolved information-processing subroutines in the mind.

"The Art of Literature and the Science of Literature," Brian Boyd

Friday, April 25, 2008

Dark Back of Time

And the narratives we invent, which will be appropriated by others who, in speaking of our past existence, gone and never known, will render us fictitious. Even our gestures will continue to be made by someone who inherited them or saw them and was unknowingly mimetic or repeated them on purpose to invoke us and create a strange, momentary and vicarious illusion of our life...We lose everything because everything remains except us. And therefore any form of posterity may be an affront, and perhaps any memory, as well.

Dark Back of Time, Javier Marias

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Field of Cultural Production

This explains why writers' efforts to control the reception of their own works are always partially doomed to failure (one thinks of Marx's 'I am not a Marxist'); if only because the very effect of their work may transform the conditions of its reception and because they would not have had to write many things they did write and write them as they did.

The Field of Cultural Production, Pierre Bourdieu

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Faustian Economics

It is true insofar as scientific experiments must be conducted within carefully observed limits, scientists are also artists. But in science one experiment, whether it succeeds or fails, is logically followed by another in a theoretically infinite progression...

In the arts, by contrast, no limitless sequence of works is ever implied or looked for. No work of art is necessarily followed by a second work that is necessarily better. Given the methodologies of science, the law of gravity and the genome were bound to be discovered by somebody; the identity of the discoverer is incidental to the fact. But it appears in the arts there are no second chances. We must assume that we had one chance each for The Divine Comedy and King Lear. If Dante and Shakespeare had died before they wrote those poems, nobody ever would have written them.

"Faustian Economics," Wendell Berry

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mystery and Manners

Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

At the Whitney Biennial, 2008

Well, isn't that the fascinating thing about contemporaneity? That to be truly contemporary you actually have to be slightly ahead of yourself, you have to be decidedly UNCONTEMPORARY in order to prefigure, presage, and prepare yourself for what is to come.

"If This was the Review of the Preview," Jan Verwoert for Dexter Sinister
Found at the Whitney Biennial, 2008

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Contingencies of Value

What are commonly taken as the signs of literary value are, in effect, its springs. The endurance of a classic canonical author such as Homer, then, owes not to the alleged transcultural or universal value of his works but, on the contrary, to the continuity of their circulation in a particular culture.

Contingencies of Value, Barbara Herrnstein Smith

Friday, April 4, 2008

And Chasing the Isolated Splashes

And chasing the isolated splashes of my lamentations,
Putting on music rather than swallow sleeping
Pills, clutching half the blanket in my knees,
I love you with every nucleus of my cell
And I want to include you in each cell of my naked
Body, but don't strive toward the secret it conceals,
For it remains transparent until I clothe it
In a betrothal dress, in a wedding dress, and then it won't
Go dim -- more likely it will remain in tones of white.
I want you to give me I don't know what, give me
Who could get what. Come close, lift me into your palms,
And I'll break out into words. And you'll make out the truth
In their thunder. Only the truth. And nothing else besides.

"And Chasing the Isolated Splashes," Anna Russ
Contemporary Russian Poetry, 2008

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A High Wind in Jamaica

Grown-ups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail. But not so children. A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection. Parents, finding that they see through their child in so many places the child does not know of, seldom realize that, if there is some point the child really gives his mind to hiding, their chances are nil.

A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes

Mute Song

The author came across the term itself during a conversation with an elderly man while traveling through the northern portion of Lika, but there is no way of telling whether it is limited to only the Lika region. One might be predisposed to think otherwise. The elderly man claimed that he knew a 'mute song': when he was urged to perform it, he refused to do so, saying that, after all, it was 'mute'. (Included is a transcription of a conversation which the author recorded on tape; most of the recorded interview is not, however, fully comprehensible.)

The author: "How can someone sing silence?" The old man: "You don't sing the sings you. You are merely the vessel." Author: "When would you sing a mute song?" Old man: "When I feel that someone else knows it." Author: "Pardon?" Old man: "When I feel that someone else or several others know it so we can sing it together." Author: "Do you mean you are silent together?" Old man: "We're singing, you're silent."

"Mute Song," David Albahari
Words are Something Else, 1996

Monday, March 31, 2008

Other Colors

A writer's progress will depend to a large degree on having read good books. But to read well is not to pass one's eyes and one's mind slowly and carefully over a text: it is to immerse oneself utterly in its soul. This is why we fall in love with only a few books in a lifetime.

"How I Got Rid of Some of My Books," Orhan Pamuk
Other Colors, 2007

A High Wind in Jamaica

The children were bilious for a few days, and inclined to dislike each other: but they accepted the change in their lives practically without noticing it. It is a fact that it takes experience before one can realize what is a catastrophe and what is not. Children have little faculty of distinguishing between disaster and the ordinary course of their lives.

A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes

Friday, March 28, 2008

Dialoghi con Leuco

A true revelation, it seems to me, will only emerge from stubborn concentration on a solitary problem. I am not in league with inventors or adventurers, nor with travelers to exotic destinations. The surest--also the quickest--way to awake the sense of wonder in ourselves is to look intently, undeterred, at a single object. Suddenly, miraculously, it will reveal itself as something we have never seen before.

Dialoghi con Leuco, Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Style of the Mythical Age

But although the artist's problem seems to be mainly technical, his real impulse goes beyond this--it goes to the universe; and the true piece of art, even though it be the shortest lyric, must always embrace the totality of the world, must be the mirror of that universe, but one of full counterweight. This is felt by every artist, but is creatively realized only by the artist of old age...One cannot capture the universe by snaring its atoms one by one; one can only capture it by showing its basic and essential principles, its basic, and one might even say, its mathematical structure. And here the abstractism of such ultimate principles joins hands with the abstractism of the technical problem: this union constitutes the 'style of old age.'

The artist who has reached such a point is beyond art. He still produces art, but all the minor and specific problems, with which art in its worldly phase usually deals, have lost interest for him; he is interested neither in the 'beauty' of art, nor the effect which it produces on the public: although the artist more than any other, his attitude approximates that of the scientist, with whom he shares the concern for expressing the universe; however, since he remains an artist, his abstractism is not that of science but very near to that of myth.

"The Style of the Mythical Age," Hermann Broch

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Poetics of Space

Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality of those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.

The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

War and the Iliad

Perhaps all men, by the very act of being born, are destined to suffer violence; yet this is a truth to which circumstance shuts men's eyes. The strong are, as a matter of fact, never absolutely strong, nor are the weak absolutely weak, but neither is aware of this. They have in common a refusal to believe that they both belong to the same species: the weak see no relation between themselves and the strong, and vice versa. The man who is the possessor of force seems to walk through a non-resistant element; in the human substance that surrounds him nothing has the power to interpose, between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection. Where there is no room for reflection, there is none either for justice or prudence.

"The Iliad, or the Poem of Force," War and the Iliad
Simone Weil, 1939

Friday, March 14, 2008

On Being Blue

Flaubert directs our eyes to the room in which Emma Bovary commits her adulteries, and has the sense, so often absent in his admirers, to be content with that.

The warm room, with its discreet carpet, its grey ornaments, and its calm light, seemed made for the intimacies of passion. The curtain-rods, ending in arrows, their brass pegs, and the great balls of the fire-dogs shone suddenly when the sun came in. On the chimney between the candelabra there were two of those pink shells in which one hears the murmur of the sea if one holds them to the ear.

A muff, a glove, a stocking, the glass a lover's lips have touched, the print of a shoe in the snow: how is it that these simple objects can receive our love so well that they increase it? I answer: because they become concepts, lighter than angels, and all the more meaningful because they began as solids, while the body of the beloved, dimpled and lined by the sheeted bed, bucks, sweats, freezes, alters under us, escapes our authorities and powers, lacks every dimension, in that final moment, but the sexual, yet will not remain in the world it's been sent to, and is shortly complaining of an ache. The man with his fetish, like a baby with its blanket, has security--not the simple physical condition but the Idea itself. Those pink shells, the curtain-rods ending in arrows, the great balls of the fire-dogs: how absurd they would be in reality, how meaningless, how lacking in system, all higher connection. It's not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word.

On Being Blue, William Gass

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Master

He wanted to hold his young friend, help him now that the worst was over, take him home to his family to be looked after. But he also knew that, as much as he wanted to aid and console the soldier, he wanted to be alone in his room with the night coming down and a book close by and pen and paper and the knowledge that the door would remain shut until the morning came and he would not be disturbed. The gap between these two desires filled him with sadness and awe at the mystery of the self, the mystery of having a single consciousness, knowing merely its own bare feelings and experiencing alone its own pain or fear or pleasure or complacency.

The Master, Colm Toibin

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Master

In these days after his opening night and his return from Ireland, he discovered that he could control the sadness which certain memories brought with them. When sorrows and fears and terrors came to him in the time after he woke, or in the night, they were like servants come to light a lamp or take away a tray. Carefully trained over the years, they would soon disappear of their own accord, knowing not to linger.

The Master, Colm Toibin

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Where My Books Go

All the words that I gather,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night,
Beyond where the waters are moving,
Storm darkened or starry bright.

"Where My Books Go," W.B. Yeats

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Last Evenings on Earth

She told me that her sister Susan had killed herself with an overdose of barbituates. Her parents and her sister's partner, a carpenter from Missoula, were devastated and simply couldn't understand why. I prefer not to say anything, she wrote, there's no point adding to the pain, or adding our own little mysteries to it. As if the pain itself were not enough of a mystery, as if the pain were not the (mysterious) answer to all mysteries.

"Anne Moore's Life," Last Evenings on Earth
Roberto Bolano, 1997

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Our myths are so many, our vision so dim, our self-deception so deep and our smugness so gross that scarcely any way now remains of reporting the American Century except from behind the billboards...

But behind Business's billboards and Business's headlines and Business's pulpits and Business's press and Business's arsenals, behind the car ads and the subtitles and the commercials, the people of Dickens and Dostoevsky still endure.

Nonconformity, Nelson Algren
1956 (Pub. 1996)

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Faces of Joan of Arc

The next scene was the one in which Joan sees god, and Falconetti also wanted to see god, and wanted to believe, as Joan of Arc believed, that god was there, with her in the world.

She sat on a high wooden chair in the makeshift dungeon, and a man, an actor, was rehearsing the scene in which her hair is cut. As he bent close to her, his arms raised around her face, she could smell the odor from his body and his shirt and she thought to herself that god was in this man and that through this man she might see god. He was hovering over her as one might imagine the presence of a god, hovering, and when she looked up into his eyes she tried to see something or feel something or communicate something, but all she saw were his nose hairs, and she knew this wasn't a disqualification, but it was, in a way, a wall, and she couldn't get past it.

"The Faces of Joan of Arc," John Haskell
I Am Not Jackson Pollock, 2003

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

No Country for Old Men

Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldn't even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People don't pay attention. And then one day there's an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It's just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment of history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment.

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

Friday, February 15, 2008

An Imaginary Life

Always to be pushing out like this, beyond what I know cannot be the limits -- what else should a man's life be? Especially an old man who has, by a clear stroke of fortune, been violently freed of the comfortable securities that make old men happy to sink into blindness, deafness, the paralysis of all desire, feeling, will. What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings off into the unknown, pushing off from the edges of consciousness into the mystery of what we have not yet become...

I have become braver in my old age, ready at last for all the changes we must undergo, as painfully we allow our limbs to burst into a new form, let the crust of our flesh split and the tree break through, or the moth or bird abandon us for air. What else is death but the refusal any longer to grow and suffer change?

An Imaginary Life, David Malouf

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

An Imaginary Life

But we are free after all. We are bound not by the laws of our nature but by the ways we can imagine ourselves breaking out of those laws without doing violence to our essential being. We are free to transcend ourselves. If we have the imagination for it.

An Imaginary Life, David Malouf

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An Imaginary Life

Do you think of Italy--or whatever land it is you now inhabit--as a place given you by the gods, readymade in all its placid beauty? It is not. It is a created place. If the gods are with you there, glowing out of a tree in some pasture or shaking their spirit over the pebbles of a brook in clear sunlight, in wells, in springs, in a stone that marks the edge of your legal right over a hillside; if the gods are there, it is because you have discovered them there, drawn them up out of your soul's need for them and dreamed them into the landscape to make it shine. They are with you, sure enough. Embrace the tree trunk and feel the spirit flow back into you, feel the warmtn of the stone enter your body, lower yourself into the spring as into some liquid place of your body's other life in sleep. But the spirits have to be recognized to become real. They are not outside us, nor even entirely within, but flow back and forth between us and the objects we have made, the landscape we have shaped and move in. We have dreamed all these things in our deepest lives and they are ourselves. It is our self we are making out there, and when the landscape is complete we shall have become the gods who are intended to fill it.

An Imaginary Life, David Malouf

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Interview with Borges

STUDENT: You said that in your life that you’ve been thankful for happiness, just as you’ve been thankful for pain, and you justified the inclusion of blindness. Why are you thankful for pain and blindness?

Jorge Luis Borges: Because for an artist, and I try to be one, everything that happens is material for your work; sometimes it’s very difficult. Happiness doesn’t require anything more; it’s an end in itself. Unhappiness has to be transformed into something else; it has to be elevated to beauty. For an artist everything that happens to him has to be clay for his mold, and he must try to feel things this way, even if these gifts might be atrocities.

Found at

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Irresponsible Self

It is easy to imagine that the press of modernity makes authentic encounter uniquely difficult, that we are all belated exceptionalists. But this is postmodern provincialism, surely, and Franzen in his heart, seems not to believe it either. We are not uniquely doomed by modern conditions; if we are doomed, then we are doomed in rather old-fashioned ways, as Cervantes and Sterne and Svevo knew. We are doomed because humans always flow over their targets; their souls are gratuitous and busy, clogged with aspiration and desire. This is the dark theme of Franzen's novel; this is its truest touch. All the rest is 'social news,' and may be turned off, as it deserves.

"Jonathan Franzen and the 'Social Novel', " James Wood

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Oryx and Crake

"The male frog, in mating season," said Crake, "makes as much noise as it can. The females are attracted to the male frog with the biggest, deepest voice because it suggests a more powerful frog, one with superior genes. Small male frogs --it's been documented-- discover if they position themselves in empty drainpipes, the pipe acts as a voice amplifier, and the small frog appears much larger than it really is."


"So that's what art is, for the artist," said Crake. "An empty drainpipe. An amplifier. A stab at getting laid."

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

Friday, February 1, 2008

A Cat in an Empty Apartment

Dying--you wouldn't do that to a cat.
For what is a cat to do
in an empty apartment?
Climb up the walls?
Brush up against the furniture?
Nothing here seems changed,
and yet something has changed.
Nothing has been moved,
and yet there's more room.
And in the evenings the lamp is not on.

One hears footsteps on the stairs,
but they're not the same.
Neither is the hand
that puts a fish on the plate.

Something here isn't starting
at its usual time.
Something here isn't happening
as it should.
Somebody has been here and has been,
and then has suddenly disappeared
and now is stubbornly absent.

All the closets have been scanned
and all the shelves run through.
Slipping under the carpet and checking came to nothing.
The rule has even been broken and all the papers scattered.
What else is there to do?
Sleep and wait.

Just let him come back,
let him show up.
Then he'll find out
that you don't do that to a cat.
Going toward him
faking reluctance,
on very offended paws.
And no jumping, purring at first.

"A Cat in an Empty Apartment"
Wislawa Szymborska

Found by MDD on 3quarksdaily

Words Are Something Else

The lines that follow, pages I cannot yet predict, events, sounds, things that happen: all of this is just an attempt. The words I'll use, the sentences I'll string together, the questions, the statements: all of it is unreliable, nothing is leading to some known goal, none of it possesses the firmness of the undeniable. What I'll describe is unknown to you; you will never learn what it is I meant to say. The story you will read is yours alone. Between your reading and my intentions lie endless rifts of incomprehension and human isolation.

"An attempt at describing the death of Ruben Rubenović, former textiles salesman"
Words Are Something Else, 1996
David Albahari

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—

The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

Emily Dickinson, 1862

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Complete text to Proverb, by Steve Reich

Monday, January 28, 2008

Two from G.

I cannot continue this account of the eleven-year-old boy in Milan on 6 May 1898. From this point on, everything I write will either converge upon a final full stop or else disperse so wildly that it will become incoherent. Yet there was no such convergence and no incoherence. To stop here, despite all that I leave unsaid, is to admit more of the truth than will be possible if I bring the account to a conclusion. The writer's desire to finish is fatal to the truth. The End unifies. Unity must be established in another way.


The state of being in love was usually short-lived -- except in the unhappy cases of unrequited love. Far shorter lived than the nineteenth century romantic emphasis on the condition would lead us to believe. Sexual passion may have varied little throughout recorded history. But the account one renders to oneself about being in love is always informed and modified by the specific culture and social relations of the time.

G., John Berger

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Being in love is an elaborate state of anticipation for the exchanging of certain kinds of gifts. The gifts can range from a glance to the offering of the entire self. But the gifts must be gifts: they cannot be claimed. One has no rights as a lover -- except the right to anticipate what the other wishes to give.

G., John Berger

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Animals do not admire each other. A horse does not admire its companions. It is not that they won't race against each other, but this is of no consequence, for, back in the stable, the one who is heavier and clumsier does not on that accoutn give up his oats to the other, as men want others to do to them. With animals virtue is its own reward.

Pensees, Blaise Pascal

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Natural History of German Life

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist is the extension of our sympathies...Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

"The Natural History of German Life," George Eliot

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How Fiction Works

The risky tautology inherent in the contemporary writing project has begun: in order to evoke a debased language (the debased language your character might use), you must be willing to represent that mangled language in your text, and perhaps thoroughly debase your own language. Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace are to some extent Lewis's heirs, and Wallace pushes to parodic extremes his full immersion method: he does not flinch at narrating twenty to thirty pages in the style quoted above. His fiction prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to decompose -- and discompose -- his own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him.

How Fiction Works, James Wood

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Space is all one space, and thought is all one thought, but my mind divides its spaces into spaces into spaces and thoughts into thoughts into thoughts. Like a large condominium. Occasionally I think about the one Space and the one Thought, but usually I don't. Usually I think about my condominium.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol

Friday, January 11, 2008

Timon of Athens

I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing's a thief.

Timon of Athens, William Shakespeare

Thursday, January 10, 2008


There is no discourse so obscure, no tale so odd or remark so incoherent that it cannot be given a meaning.

Paul Valery

Found in From Gutenberg to Google, Peter Shillingsburg

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Letter to Sophie Volland

Sentiment and life are eternal. Someone who lives has always lived and will continue to live forever. The only difference I know between death and life is that now you live as a single entity (mass) and that later, after dissolution, twenty years from now, you will live in scattered distinct molecules . . .

The rest of the evening I was teased about my paradox. They offered me beautiful living pears, thinking grapes, but I said : Those who love each other during their life and who insist on being buried side by side are perhaps not as crazy as you might think. Perhaps their ashes touch, blend, and join together. Que scays-je? What do I know? Perhaps they have kept a residue of warmth and life that gives them pleasure deep in the cold urn that encloses them . . .

Oh, my Sophie, then I could keep the hope of touching you, feeling you, loving you, seeking for you, joining with you and becoming one with you when we are no more! . . . Let me keep this fantasy; it’s sweet; it guarantees me eternity in you and with you.

Denis Diderot, October 17, 1759
Letter to Sophie Volland

Sleepless Nights

Everything groans under treachery. The yellow, thirsting grass when the rain betrays it day after day without mercy, and the sun all the while smiling away in the sky for brown legs and warm water for ungrateful swimmers. At times, thinking of the unfortunate ones I have known, it seems to me that they live surrounded by their own kind. The windows resent the curtains, the light its woven shade, the door its lock, the coffin its loathsome, suffocating pile of dirt. But what can they do? The grass shrugs, the windows grow sullen, the light gives out a sardonic glow, the door swells and requires a shoulder to push it open, the coffin hibernates in a long, not displeasing slumber.

Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Wealth of Nations

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour comes to be confined to a few very simple operations...The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations...generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Flaubert's Parrot

Don't think that I belong to that vulgar race of men who feel disgust after pleasure, and for whom love exists only as lust. No: in me what rises doesn't subside so quickly. Moss grows on the castles of my heart as soon as they are built; but it takes some time for them to fall into ruin, if they ever completely do.

Gustave Flaubert, 1846
Found in Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes