Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Nit-pickery

Just finished Michael North's Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern (OUP, 1999). Not bad at all; does a fine if uninspiring job of putting the grand warhorses of 1922 (Ulysses, The Waste Land, etc.) back into their contemporary context, pulls some interesting threads together. Provocative rebuttals of Huyssen's high culture/low culture "great divide" & Jameson's modernism/postmodernism schematizations. But doesn't have the same satisfyingly chewy theoretical density of Marc Manganaro's Culture, 1922: The Emergence of a Concept (Princeton UP, 2002), which is one of those critical books that enables you (as somebody at Cornell, acc. to the dire David Lehmann, said of de Man's "Rhetoric of Temporality") to save yr dope money for a week.

But the book immediately at hand is North's Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land (2001), which I keep assigning to classes largely for its critical essays (& of course to support independent publishing). Problem with these Critical Editions – & here I include every Norton CE I've ever used – is that you can't really trust the explanatory notes. Not TS Eliot's notes – everybody knows they're whacked – but North's notes: you know, the ones at the foot of the page, the ones most students take as gospel truth. (After all, they were written by this UCLA professor, he knows so much more than I do...)

I can't claim to have checked every note, but here's a few flyspecks in the notes to the poem itself:

•In a note to the Petronius epigraph ("NAM Sibyllam quiden Cumis" etc.), we're told that the quotation is "(Greek)." Well, 5 words of it are; but obviously the rest is in Latin.

•The battle of Mylae (1st Punic War) took place in 260BCE, not "206" as the note has it. (Okay, that's a typo – but who's reading proof here?)

•Headnote to "A Game of Chess": "Eliot takes the title of this section from a satirical play of the same name by Thomas Middleton (1570?-1627). First produced in 1625, A Game of Chess was suppressed because of the way in which it allegorized English conflict with Spain as a chess match." How many howlers can North fit into one note? Middleton was born in 1580, not "1570?"; the title of his play is A Game at Chess, not A Game of Chess; and the play was first produced in 1624, not 1625. These are well-documented matters.

•Headnote to "What the Thunder Said": "Eliot's headnote to this section helps us to see these lines as a description of the betrayal, arrest, interrogation, and crucifixion of Christ..." Eliot's headnote – "In the first part of Part V three themes are employed: the journey to Emmaus, the approach to the Chapel Perilous (see Miss Weston's book) and the present decay of eastern Europe" – does nothing of the sort.

Everybody thinks they're an editor, I guess; but who's editing the editors?

6 comments:

Sisyphus said...

I liked North's Reading 1922, but haven't read it recently enough to debate you on its inspiring/uninspiringness. What about his Camera Works? Did you like that? I thought it was great but too ... literary? That sounds silly now that I type it out but he looks at pop culture concepts, esp. photography and film, without going into how his writers might have interacted with or consumed actual popular representations. Still, it was wonderfully clearly written.

I haven't read the Manganaro; someday. I've a large pile to get through before that. Sigh.

Mark Scroggins said...

So this is what happens when you get tenure: it takes you 8 years to get around to reading a book, & by the time you do, the author's gotten another one out that you haven't even bloody heard of!

Camera Works looks rather interesting, though. (Shannon, take note.) And yes, North writes beautifully clearly (something not always true of Manganaro), & he seems to get things right -- at least when he's not annotating other people's poems!

Steven Fama said...

The picking of nits is a fine and noble past-time.

Good job on the footnotes.

And good luck with those who search for similar screw ups in your Zuk bio!

S.O.S. said...

I just purchased my copy of Camera Works, so thanks to you and sisyphus for the info.

Tony Tost said...

I agree on Reading 1922 being largely lackluster. This was my blurb-y note to self/Facebook about it:

North's stated desire to "return to the scene" of the year 1922 in the guise of an ideal reader who picks up not only Ulysses and The Waste Land from the bookshop shelf but also titles of realist and popular fiction, anthropology, philosophy, etc is a fascinating and potentially rich impulse and methodology, especially in complicating a po-mo tendency to bracket modernism as a reactionary, pig headed instance of Pound and Eliot playing cultural fascism.

It may be out of reading fatigue, but I found myself irritated by the fact that such an exciting method produced such familiar insights: North may be immersing himself in 1922, but his analysis is so snugly of his own later moment that his novel approach basically just results in expanding present norms over a wider-than-usual cultural spectrum. Many of his figures are flattened to instances of projected psychologies and desires, which get to be framed as the complex real against which the texts themselves are then read as more simplistic, fixed symbols. For instance, I'm not sure how insightful it is to say that the mythical method Eliot describes in Ulysses has its exact double in the popularity of Egyptian-style clothes and design prior to and especially after the discovery of King Tut's tomb; yes, they are both instances of the past circulating in the present as signifier, but to leave it at that slides by the more interesting differences: for Eliot, this appearance of the past is the totalizing, unifying structure, whereas in the commodity sphere this particular appearance of the past is one in a multitude of novelties.

Anyway, there's stuff like this all over the book, though there are also stronger sections; I thought the chapter on world travel and photography opened up the most interesting line of inquiry.

Craig said...

As far as I'm concerned, the definitive reading of The Waste Land was given in comic-book form by Martin Rowson. I might even send you a photocopy if you haven't read it.