Sunday, November 20, 2005

Stupid Days

Busy, busy days, barrelling towards the end of the term, trying to make up time lost to Wilma (tho no longer anticipating “Gamma”), “looking forward” to finals. I try to avoid doing what I ought to be doing – some of it perfectly respectable, to be avoided simply on Oblomovian principle, other bits just plain stupid. Reading around. The schizophrenia of re-reading Antony Easthope’s Poetry as Discourse and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s Poetry as Experience at the same time. (My own magnum opus: Poetry as Rhinoplasty.) Steven Helmling (who’s written a – quite good – LZ biographical essay), The Success and Failure of Fredric Jameson (SUNY, 2001), quotes a passage of FJ that is either of a ravishing, beautiful difficulty, or the most purple thing since Stephen Dedalus’s dreadful villanelle (are those last two words redundant?):
Barthes thought certain kinds of writing – perhaps we should say, certain kinds of sentences – to be scriptible, because they made you wish to write further yourself; they stimulated imitation, and promised a pleasure in combining language that had little enough to do with the notation of new ideas. But I think he thought this because he took an attitude towards those sentences which was not essentially linguistic, and had little to do with reading: what is scriptible indeed is the visual or the musical, what corresponds to the two outside senses that tug at language between themselves and dispute its peculiarly unphysical attention, its short circuit of the sentences for the mind itself that makes of the mysterious thing reading some superstitious and adult power, which the lowlier arts imagine uncomprehendingly, as animals might dream of the strangeness of human thinking. We do not in that sense read painting nor do we hear music with any of the attention reserved for oral recitation; but this is why the more advanced and rational activity can also have its dream of the other, and regress to a longing for the more immediately visual, or be sublimated into the spiritual body of pure sound.

[but no, this isn’t Pater – or EP, or LZ –]

Scriptible is not however the poetry that actually tries to do that (and which is then itself condemned to the technical mediation of a relationship to language not much more “poetic” than the doctrine of the coloration of orchestral instruments and the specialized, painfully acquired knowledge of their technologies); it is the prose stimulated by the idea of sound, or the sentences that something visual – unfortunately, our only word for it is the image – calls into being by suggestion and by a kind of contamination. We don’t write about these things, it is not a metaphorical representation that the sensory pretext summons but rather something related by affinity, that prolongs the content of the object in another, more tenuous form, as though to prolong a last touch with the very fingertips. (Signatures of the Visible 2-3)
James Buchan, Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World (John Murray, 2003) – and that, uncomfortably, is the British title; the US edition, where vulgarizations usually occur, is Crowded with Genius – brings alive the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment, Em’bro, that “precipitous city” thru which hurry (dodging the wind) the portly Hume, the capacious Adam Smith, the whoremonger Boswell, and the beleaguered James MacPherson, whose “Ossian” poems remain (as of two days ago, when I tried them once again) entirely unreadable. Dr Johnson read them, pronounced them fakes, and took none of MacPherson’s bluster:
MR JAMES MACPHERSON – I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think to be a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian.

What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reason to the publick, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your abilities, since your Homer, are not so formidable; and what I hear of your morals, inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to what you shall prove. You may print this if you will. SAM. JOHNSON
Hume glumly apologized to his friend Gibbon for what by 1776 seemed like a Scottish national imposture: “Men run with great Avidity to give their Evidence in favour of what flatters their Passions, and their national Prejudices.”
Somebody was having a party earlier this evening; a mariachi band echoed through the neighborhood for three hours, but now no noise besides the constant, depressing rain.

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