Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Now available for pre-order...

The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry, edited by the estimable Corkonians Alex Davis & Lee M. Jenkins, with dandy entries by folks like Peter Nicholls, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Lawrence Rainey, & yrs truly (on WCW, LZ, & Olson).

Monday, March 26, 2007

Refinding Neverland

I think it’s fair to say that JM Barrie & the whole Peter Pan/Neverland mythos had precisely zero influence on my childhood. I didn’t even see the Disney film until a year or two ago, & soon afterwards we somehow landed a video of Mary Martin in one of those clumsy early-60s TV filmings of the old Broadway musical (the Native American princess Tiger Lily as a startlingly peroxide-blonde bobby-soxer) – which the girls are inexplicably fond of. It’s like my inability to accept a middle-aged fat guy in a wig playing Parsifal in a Wagner production: I just can’t wrap my head around what’s obviously a late-thirties woman pretending to be the boy who never grew up – my negative capability just isn’t capable.

It was only after seeing the Johnny Depp vehicle Finding Neverland that I decided, no matter how saccharine the movie’d been, I really ought to read the JM Barrie novel & find out what the undiluted, un-Broadway’d, un-Disney’d buzz surrounding Peter Pan etc. was all about. I was pretty intrigued: a beautifully, wittily written book, sunk deep in a certain kind of late-Victorian sentimentality, but with an edge of memorable strangeness and twistedness. All of that is of course wrung out by homogenizing machineries of Broadway & Disney, but it’s strong & rank in Barrie’s original, which – like all the best kids’ book – seems in some ways quite inappropriate for children.

One reads, at times, in parallel to one’s partner. Eric’s written about getting to know his wife’s “six best friends” – Jane Austen’s novels; luckily, J. & I already shared Tolkien when we hookt up, but trying to penetrate the world of children’s literature, which she knows about as well as Eric knows his Haggadah, has been a bit of an effort. We’ve trawled thru the strangely popular seas of Harry Potter, over which we’re agreed we’d choose Kipling’s Stalkey any day; I’m a trifle more enthusiastic about A Series of Unfortunate Events than she; and both of us were ravished by Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. So her obvious Xmas present last year was Geraldine McCaughrean’s Peter Pan in Scarlet, the first “official” sequel to Barrie’s Peter Pan.

One could buy the book with a good conscience, after all. Barrie had left all of the royalties from Peter Pan to a charity, the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children; but the copyright for that book runs out this year (look for a flood of cheap editions, scholarly editions, internet texts, graphic novels, etc.), and in order to keep their funding stream intact, the Hospital ran a contest for an “authorized” sequel, a contest which was won by McCaughrean, who seems to be a one-woman children’s lit factory.

Now J and I have never read a sequel by someone other than the original author that we liked. But Peter Pan in Scarlet is different – a wonderfully written, beautifully-detailed book that both stays true to the original’s conception, in all its weirdness, and deepens & makes more poignant that strangeness by more pointedly negotiating the borders between Neverland and the “real” world. Michael Darling, it turns out, has died in the Great War, whose shadow, it is suggested, might be part of the reason for the dark changes that have come over Neverland. Those changes are delineated in wonderful, simple but telling prose:
Dawn welled up, and Tootles glimpsed the shifting, oily sheen of the Lagoon. In her* memory, it had been a shining crescent of turquoise water over shoals of white sand. The Lagoon she saw now was darkly heaving: a horse’s flank slick black and streaked with foam. A mane of washed-up seaweed lay among the pebbles, busy with flies. All along the high-water mark lay strange, white containers, like birdcages or crab-pots. On closer inspection they proved to be the skeleton ribcages of mermaids, with here and there a backbone or a hank of yellow hair. Tootles looked nervously around and ran back to the cave.
McCaughrean never sets a foot wrong in Peter Pan in Scarlet, & that’s something I wish I could say for the last half-dozen “adult” novels I’ve read. Long may the Great Ormond Street Hospital stay solvent.

*The “lost boy” Tootles, in returning to Neverland for this sequel, has undergone a very witty sex change.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


My favorite local used & rare book dealer is working his way thru at least 3 vast collections he’s recently acquired, & I’ve been getting brief peeks into the riches that will eventually be up for sale. One collection, that of of all things a hotelier with a penchant for literature and history, is pretty astonishing: hundreds of Loeb Classical Library volumes, scores of volumes and sets of early modern dramatists, 65 volumes of Jules Verne in translation… Thus far, I’ve confined myself to a rather battered set of ET Cook’s 1911 biography of John Ruskin, but I’m waiting for word on whether I’ll need to sell a kidney to set myself up with Bullen’s 1885 8-volume edition of Thomas Middleton.

I’ve been marginally obsessed with Middleton for some years now, spurred on by the Shakespeare scholar Gary Taylor’s frequent assertions that Middleton is, if not actually better than Shakespeare, a dramatist who conforms more closely to modern habits of mind. (I remember Taylor, with dramatic curtains of belated-hippie hair and a rather outlandish set of couture decisions, addressing a Shakespeare Association of America audience in Miami some years back, & wondering how relevant to contemporary morals Shax’s obsessive interest in female virginity might be: “Are there any virgins here today?” he asked. And nobody spoke up.)

Middleton, from the 8 or 10 of his plays I’ve read, is very good indeed: his comedies are funnier than anyone but Ben Jonson’s, and his tragedies – Women Beware Women, The Changeling – are better than anyone but Shakespeare at his best (and maybe one or two of Marlowe’s). If Gary has his way, the 21st century will be the Middleton century in early modern studies.

Taylor’s been promising a huge complete Middleton, to be published by Oxford UP in a format similar to Taylor’s own Oxford Shakespeare, for maybe a decade and a half now. Rumor has it that the big book is at least in proofs now. Me, I’m hedging my bets – unless I see an ad from OUP with a projected date of publication, I’m inclined to take out a mortgage or sell a couple of guitars to get my hands on the Bullen edition, which, even as it hovers around the 120-years-old mark, is still the text that Middleton scholars turn to. Maybe I’ll even retool myself into a early modern drama person.
The spectacle of scholars leaping from one field to another has always fascinated and rather scared me. One’s graduate training, I’d like to believe, gives one the linguistic, textual, and theoretical chops to take on pretty much any text whose language one understands, but when one shifts period and genre, there’s an immense amount of catching up to do: early modern history, social history, linguistic and literary traditions, philosophical and ideological backgrounds, etc. Not to mention, in the case of Shakespeare at least, the vast library of critical works that have sedimented around the man’s works (at least some of which is worth reading).

So I’m vastly enjoying Gary Wills’s Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth (OUP, 1995), a book which I understand took quite a drubbing in Shakespearean circles. Whatever Wills is – the only other book of his I know is the delicious Reagan’s America – he isn’t a professional Shakespeare scholar. But he writes beautiful, crisp sentences, and lays out what strike me as very fresh insights as discusses Macbeth as a play written in the aftermath of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot: “Words like ‘train’ and ‘blow’ could no more be used ‘innocently’ in the aftermath of the Powder Plot than could ‘sneak attack’ or ‘grassy knoll’ in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor or John Kennedy’s assassination.” (What words, I wonder, will a hundred years hence mark the texts written after September 11?)
Ron Silliman, in his RSS-enabled weekly trawl thru the media, has fished out one of the latest manifestations of the intellectual pathology that calls itself “Shakespeare Authorship Studies” – or in plain parlance, people with too much time on their hands who want to argue that William Shakespeare didn’t write “Shakespeare.” This particular writer, Roger Stritmatter, is an Oxfordian: that is, he believes that Roger de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the chap who wrote the plays and then had them disseminated under the name of some nobody from Stratford. The “evidence” for this doesn’t even deserve the name evidence (and the evidence against is rather telling – Oxford died in 1604, & several of the late Shakespeare plays have clear topical references to events after then – such as, in Wills’s and many others’ account, the Gunpowder Plot material in Macbeth).

I seem to end up reading an anti-Stratfordian book every year or so (which may say something about the time on my own hands), but I’m struck by a statement of Stritmatter’s which echoes most of the other anti-Stratfordians:
The beguiling notion that our author could write "King Lear" without ever suffering the ostracism of Kent, the madness of a hunted Edgar, the dilemma of Cordelia or the alienation of Lear allows us to reduce the play to mere entertainment, without ever contemplating its ring of terrible authenticity. A papier-mache author who accomplishes everything through sheer genius fortifies the American myth that anything is possible if you just click your heels three times and wish hard enough.
The Oxfordians’ main strategy, then, is to show how events in the Shakespeare plays find parallels in Oxford’s life and career. I don’t think one needs to comment on what an impoverished notion of imagination, or what a simplistic conception of the literary process – among other things, the way Shakespeare as veteran “content-producer” and script-doctor is forever overhauling old plots and old plays – this bespeaks. No, like Hemingway the playwright has to be forever “writing what he knows.” You can’t write a bullfight unless you’ve been to one or a boxing match unless you’ve fought one, or write about Lear unless you have youself suffered ostracism. Oxford’s “life, in myriad ways, illumines the Shakespearean oeuvre,” Stritmatter writes fatuously, “and becomes the touchstone for grasping the meaning of many obscure passages in the plays.” Well, I guess looking for parallels with the life of a colorful nobleman beats the hell out of interpretation when you’re confronted with an “obscure passage.”

The roots of the anti-Stratfordian pathology are only partly based in sheer snobbishness (how could these works have been written by a middle-class nobody, they must have come from an Oxbridge man with a title!). What I find more sympathetic in these folks is a very human desire to know more about the life of the writer whose works they so admire. (Though they ignore the fact that we know as much about Shakespeare as we do of any early modern dramatist except Jonson, and far more about him than most of the others.) It’s the same desire that keeps literary biographies flying off the shelves, even when the readers have read no more of Pound or Eliot or Plath than the half-dozen poems they encountered back in college. In sheerly literary terms, it’s a misguided impulse – biographical knowledge won’t in the end help you come to terms with Joyce or Proust or Kafka – but in human terms, it’s deeply understandable. A damned shame, then, that Aubrey never got around to interviewing Shakespeare’s daughter, or that Drummond of Hawthornden didn’t pump Jonson a little more assiduously for details about the Swan of Avon.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Last night’s bout of tongue-biting insomnia sent me back to another FSG freebie I’d forgotten I had until it slipped off the shelf into my hand as a potentially ideal sleeplessness-cure: James Fenton’s An Introduction to English Poetry. Says Katherine A. Powers (of the Boston Sunday Globe) on the cover:
I have never come across a book quite like this one: so unfraught, so uncontentious, so lucid and gentlemanly. I cannot imagine that even the most wised-up spouter of poetry would not find it irresistible.
Hmm, and hmm again. Well, if one takes a few things in hand – Fenton is a dyed-in-the-wool old-style formalist (Rbt. Frost style, that is, free verse as tennis w/out the net etc.), he doesn’t have an ounce of sympathy with modernism, much less our own post/late-modernism, he thinks concrete poetry is generally for the birds (pigeons)) – one almost agrees. Reader, I thought I would hate this book, or that at the least it’d put me to sleep. But it’s actually alright. Few of the formal-explainers (Hollander, Fussell, Attridge) do as neat a job as Fenton does showing precisely how the classic meters work; he scans the opening of “Tithonus” in a way that ought to make most alt-poets (who don’t know an amphibrach from a hole in the ground) embarassed. And his take on the workshop-ethos is right on:
In the writing of poetry we never know anything for sure. We will never know if we have ‘trained’ or ‘practiced enough. We will never be able to say that we have reached Grade Eight, or that we have left the grades behind and are now embarked on advanced training. We cannot hoop on a train to Paris, or a flight to New York, and go and show our works to an acknowledged master, and ask to be taken on as a student.

There are courses in creative writing, and it may well suit some temperaments to sign on for the tuition. But to pretend that such teachers are the equivalent of, say, voice coaches would be foolish. It would be very surprising to find a serious opera singer who had not been coached. It would be very surprising to find a poet of whom one could say: she was coached by X, in the way that Callas was coached by Tullio Serafin.
Over unnumbered beers and half a botter of single malt the other night with a pair of colleagues more recently emerged from the MFA-mill than I, found myself marvelling at how things have changed in the X number of years since I was in those corridors: mostly a matter of professionalism, of professionalizing. Of following the prizes, the contests, the paper-chits of publishing here or publishing there. Or maybe I was just out of it, too busy reading Limited Inc. & Geography of the Imagination to subscribe to APR.
The not-always-dyspeptic John Latta has a dandy set of musings on the shift from eclecticism to doctrinarity in small press publishing, and remembers the salad days of Baxter Hathaway’s Ithaca House Press. When I was in Ithaca you could still find the little books almost paving the streets between the used bookstores, & together they formed about as eclectic a snapshot of late-70s early-80s American poetry as one could ask for. They spot my shelves – Ray DiPalma, Bob Perelman, David Melnick (Eclogs, still one of my fave books of all time), CS Giscome, JL himself, and the first effort by one Ronald Silliman (Crow, that is).

But isn’t eclecticism a function of eclectic editing? Where did I hear that Ithaca House’s alt-poetry bent was due largely to David MacAleavy, working then on an Oppen dissertation, later to be encountered in the halls of whatever skyscraper George Washington U’s English department was housed in? And where are the paeans to that wild man Jack Shoemaker (Sand Dollar, North Point, Counterpoint, etc.), publishing Ron Johnson, Michael Palmer, Leslie Scalapino, and – at the same damned time – Wendell Berry? As for Burning Deck and the ageless Waldrops, any press who’s doing Pam Rehm and Gale Nelson covers about as broad a chunk of contemporary “verse” as anyone alive.
Pippa (aet. 5) lost her first tooth today. And lost it, somewhere in the sands of the playground. Twinkle the Tooth Fairy (that’s Toothe Faerie to you goths) will have to settle for an apologetic note.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

FSG freebies

One of the more trifling and fatuous manifestations of Ron Silliman’s manic desire to divide the poetry world down the middle (sheep : right / goats : left) is his periodic boastings about what a small proportion of his poetry collection is made up of books published by trade houses.* (I believe it’s precisely 2% – or maybe he only owns two books from trade publishers, I can’t remember.) I can see his point, however: the last time I winnowed the poetry shelves, it seemed like every other book heading out the door was from Athenaeum, Random House, or some other mighty New York name.

Nonetheless, I’m a sucker for free books, & Farrar Straus & Giroux – now of course a subsidiary of Holtzbrinck – is remarkably happy to throw free books my professorial way at a moment’s notice. Right now I’m skipping thru James Fenton’s Selected Poems, just to get an idea of in precisely what ways boring English poetry differs from the cisatlantic variety. John Betjeman’s Collected Poems is useful both as a doorstop and as a reminder of how right Hugh Kenner could be: in certain quarters of English society – ie, where poets laureate are chosen & where books of poetry receive a wide readership – modernism simply never happened. Betjeman (1906-1984 – a near contemporary of Louis Zukofsky’s) is a walking, talking, versifying, & highly popular coelacanth – a 20th-century Victorian. But he’s better than Billy Collins.

All I know about Federico García Lorca, alas, I learned from Jack Spicer, and now that I finally have the Spaniard’s massive Collected Poems before me, I’m a bit at a loss as to where to begin. Any suggestions from anyone out there – favorite poems, favorite volumes? Steve Collis, you must know more about García Lorca than just an obscene Shane MacGowan lyric.

I never had a teacher or mentor who took Robert Lowell very seriously, so I happily missed the whole “Age of Lowell” buzz entirely. That is, I’ve never found him a poet that must come to terms with one way or another, & therefore I’ve never felt the need to savage his memory, to kowtow to his ghost, or even to spend much time with his work. Of the 4 collections I’ve read, I prefer the impacted formalism of Lord Weary’s Castle & The Mills of the Kavanaughs to the “ground-breaking” confessionalism of Life Studies & For the Union Dead. The recent FSG Selected Poems, which is before me now, seems to offer a handy way of assessing career without swallowing the whole bolus of his work. Of course, I wouldn’t even be offering it the inch-&-a-half of shelf space it’ll take up if it weren’t for some pregnant remarks by Peter O’Leary, a fellow whose recommendations I’m inclined to take seriously.

*By the way, any tendency on my part to rib Ron shouldn’t be mistaken for personal dislike (a swell guy, the fews times our paths have crossed), dislike of his poetry (I like and admire much of it), or disagreement with the general aesthetic tenor of his blog (I usually agree with it).

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Rosmarie Waldrop II

[This one from earlier this evening, when RW read before a standing-room-only crowd at the "Board of Trustees Room" of Our University's Administration Building. A lovely event.]

I have it from my friend the poet C. S. Giscombe, usually a quite reliable source, that the ideal introduction for a poet should run no more one minute.* For the poet being introduced, waiting nervously to see whether the introducer will mispronounce a name, get a book’s title wrong, or spiral off into the mindless repetition of vague encomia, the one-minute rule might seem quite the godsend. But Rosmarie Waldrop, this year’s Lawrence A. Sanders visiting writer-in-residence, has only herself to blame – herself, and her ceaseless, energetic activity – if her introduction seems less a punchy one-minute warning than the overture to Parsifal. Introduce Rosmarie Waldrop in one minute? Give me an easy one, like summarizing Proust in thirty seconds!

When I introduced Rosmarie Waldrop two days ago, I felt as though I had exhausted my breath in enumerating her honors and accomplishments – that the Republic of France has named her a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, that she is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, that she is the recipient of awards and grants from the NEA, the Fund for Poetry, the Howard Foundation, and the DAAD Berlin artists’ program; that Burning Deck, the “small” press she runs with her husband Keith, has been one of our primary outlets for innovative poetry & prose over the past three decades; that her many translations – of Emmanuel Hocquard, Anne-Marie Albiach, Jacques Roubaud, Paul Celan, and especially Edmond Jabès – have made her one of the principal mediators of contemporary European poetry for an Anglophone audience; that her prose works, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès and Dissonance (if you are interested) set her squarely in the ranks of the most interesting contemporary poet-critics.

But the prospect of hearing Waldrop reading her own poetry has for better or worse given me a second wind. The handiest overview of Waldrop’s poetic career, the 1997 Another Language: Selected Poems, includes a blurb which I initially found rather curious: “A thinker and a poet is an extraordinary combination. Waldrop is both.” What, I wondered, is so “extraordinary” about the combination of thinker and poet? haven’t poets, from Lucretius to Dante to Eliot, been among the foremost thinkers of their eras? The etymological roots of “poet,” however, mean not thinker but maker – the poet is someone who makes things: she fashions speech, she crafts words into resonant shapes, she weaves language into tensile baskets that carry burdens of narrative, of emotion, of sensation – only occasionally is she a thinker as well. Waldrop is indeed both thinker and poet. From the early, spare free verse of 1972’s The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger, through the remarkable historical and linguistic meditations of A Key Into the Language of America (1994) to the extraordinary trilogy of prose poem sequences collected in last year’s Curves to the Apple, Waldrop’s poetry has grown into a durable and keen instrument to explore and probe the gendered social body of our language, the social language of our embodied gender. A poet born into one tongue and adopting another in which to write, a translator dedicated to melting down and recasting texts into other languages, Waldrop’s chosen field of play is the “between,” the “Lawn of Excluded Middle” – between languages, between genders, between poetry and fiction, between verse and prose. And while she navigates these various conceptual “betweens,” Waldrop never loses sight of the primordial pleasures of poetry – the resonant shapes of words on the tongue, the surprise of unfamiliar verbal combinations, the energy of torqued syntax and counterpointed etymology. The “lavish dissonance” of her work – if I may be permitted to recast two of her titles – emerges into the resolution of an exquisite polyphony of thought and music. As we are about to hear. Let’s welcome Rosmarie Waldrop.

*This by way of Aldon Lynn Nielsen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Rosmarie Waldrop I

[A new feature: the texts of introductions to visiting speakers/poets. Rosmarie Waldrop is spending the week at Our University as a visiting writer, and this evening delivered a lecture on poetry & poetics, "'The Language of the Gods'" (note quotation marks).]

It would be pleasant to introduce this year’s Lawrence A. Sanders writer-in-residence, Rosmarie Waldrop, merely by her honors – that she is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the recipient of awards and grants from the NEA, the Fund for Poetry, the Howard Foundation, and the DAAD Berlin artists’ program. It would be pleasant to introduce her under a single literary function: as a poet, or as a translator, or as an editor. That one must introduce her as all three, however, is a trifle overwhelming. Burning Deck books, the press she edits with her husband Keith Waldrop, has for over four decades been one of the most consistently rewarding sources of new poetry on the American “small press” scene, publishing books & chapbooks by some three or four generations of innovative poets & writers – American, British, French, & German. As a translator, Waldrop has established herself as a central mediator of contemporary European poetry for an Anglophone audience: she has translated Jacques Roubaud, Emmanuel Hocquard, Anne Marie Albiach, Paul Celan, and others, but will no doubt be irreversibly identified with the French Jewish master Edmond Jabès; the 17 books of Jabès’s work she has translated have had a profound effect on American innovative writing of the past two decades. Most of the major modernist writers were translators – Proust translating Ruskin, Eliot translating St.-John Perse, Benjamin translating Proust, Beckett translating Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Mexican poetry, & himself, Pound translating, well, everything – and Waldrop’s work as a translator is far more than a mediating or ancillary activity, but has profoundly informed her own 18 volumes of poetry, from her first collection in 1972, The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger, to the trilogy of prose poem sequences collected in last year’s Curves to the Apple. Her writing, that is, constantly moves in the space of “between”: between languages, between verse and prose, between poetry and fiction; it is constantly at play on what she has called the “lawn of [the] excluded middle.” I would perhaps overstep the bounds of propriety to mention that in her recent nonfiction volumes – Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès and Dissonance (if you are interested) – Waldrop proves herself a sensitive and sophisticated theorist of poetry and poetics: but this I think she will prove herself in the next hour. Let’s please welcome Rosmarie Waldrop.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

A Retrospective Arrangement

Culture Industry is now two years old. I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to do with a weblog when I started this one back in 2005. I knew there were models out there that I liked, models of day-to-day critical intelligence, of lively and amusing writing, of thoughtfulness. Culture Industry has not been particularly distinguished by any of those elements, but rather by contingency, haste, & a kind of poetics of reaction – ie that its entries are more often determined in reaction to other things – others’ books, others’ weblogs, etc. – than by any “ideas” of my own (“ideas” a commodity I realize I have a startlingly small stock of).

When I started posting entries here, I had in mind a sort of electronic Fors Clavigera, a place where I could put up readings & ramblings & polemics, notices of new & newly read books, even perhaps a bit of my own poetry from time to time. That latter function fell by the wayside a good long while ago: in the implicit economy of poetry, it turns out, readers (& why shouldn’t they?) are more likely to value your work if it appears on someone else’s website than on your own.

I’ve discovered that I am at best an uncomfortable polemicist – perhaps even a classical “liberal,” so willing to entertain all sides of an issue that I end up in a kind of Joycean paralysis or Laodicean lukewarmness.

The virtual community of the blogosphere is probably ultimately overrated, but nonetheless very real. (When one lives in Palm Beach County, one values any aesthetic community at all, even a virtual one!) But like all self-selected communities, the alt-poetry blogosphere all too often becomes a fishbowl of tiny & petty quarrels, of distinctions without differences. Long may that fishbowl flourish.

At any rate, two years later Culture Industry is on the verge of having had 50 thousand visits (no, I don’t know how many thousand of those are my own), nothing special in the poetry blogosphere & barely a blip on the radar screen of weblogs in general, but an intensity of attention that I had frankly never expected when I began the thing, & for which I am immensely grateful. Thanks for dropping by. I’ll try to make it a bit better in the future.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

So I guess I'm using the new Blogger – this by way of a test post, nothing more. They twisted my arm. Wouldn't take no for an answer.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Black Panthers

My MO when teaching Joyce is to do all the reading for the seminar before the seminar begins; then to read along with the students as the syllabus progresses, both primary texts & critical essays; and at the same time to work my way thru a couple of “classic” pieces of Joyce criticism & a couple of more recent things. The “classics” right now are SL Goldberg’s The Classical Temper: A Study of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1961) (a bit of a slow go) & CH Peake’s James Joyce: The Citizen & the Artist (1977) (luminous). The recencies are Enda Duffy’s The Subaltern Ulysses (1994) and Geert Lernout’s The French Joyce (1990).

Lernout has in recent years become one of the big movers in Finnegans Wake-based “genetic” criticism, a peculiar, highly specialized tulip that seems to flourish best in the Low Countries. In The French Joyce, an early work, he’s probably trying to do too much – to provide a history of Joyce studies in France & simultaneously to offer a potted summary of post-structuralism. (Some would argue that the latter goal is hamstrung from the start by his reliance on the reactionary La Pensée 68 by Luc Ferry & Alain Renaut; I’m inclined to agree, tho I do find Ferry & Renaut useful for providing a history of Hegel’s reception in 20th c. French thought, as well as some institutional context for the rise of the new theory.)

But Lernout is mainly a close reader & a seeker-out of howlers – and one is amazed by the howlers he finds in the classics of French Joyce criticism: Hélène Cixous’s (Freudian?) slip of identifying the “Nothung!” of “Circe” as Sigmund’s sword; Jacques Derrida’s virtuosic juxtaposition of Bloom’s “I. AM. A.” (“Nausicaa”) & Stephen’s “I, I am I. I” (“Scylla & Charybdis”), hampered by the fact that the latter passage (presaging Bob Marley) actually reads “I, I and I. I”; Jean-Michel Rabaté’s identification of a Joycean source in “the Preface of the official Livre de messe of the Church of Dublin (the one Joyce must have used)” – which turns out to be the good old Book of Common Prayer, common to both the Church of England and the Church of Ireland, & which Joyce might have known, but which – raised as he was Roman Catholic – certainly wouldn’t have used.

Lernout can’t help coming across as what he admits he is – a guy who was really into theory in grad school, but who got disenchanted when he discovered what one could do with genetic studies – theory’s antithesis. He’s weakest on Lacan, relying largely on Stuart Schneiderman’s compulsively readable but not too illuminating Jacques Lacan: The Death of an Intellectual Hero. But then again, I don’t know many of us who had much of an idea what Lacan was doing before Slavoj Zizek, the wise-cracking colossus of Ljubljana, showed up. Maybe he’s “saved” Lacan for another generation.

I recall a conference at Cornell 4-5 years ago where someone remarked that trauma studies seemed to have “saved” Freudian psychoanalysis for cultural studies – the poor old thing was on the verge of dying off, before the hip new discourse came along and applied the defibrillator. (Of course, Freudian psychoanalysis has been dead as a doornail for ages in practical psychiatric circles. Sometimes my inner skeptic wonders whether it’s as if the chemistry departments were getting on with the stuff they do best, while the humanities programs are building huge edifices of thought on phlogiston theory.)
Enda Duffy’s book – & I can’t get out of my head a Russian student, some years past, solemnly rambling on about Edna Duffy and her fatal flaws, even as I kept interjecting “ENDA” and “HIS” – is postcolonial studies by the numbers. It’s not enough that Joyce was the only one of the high modernists who treated Jews with anything like affection, or that he hated all forms of authority – we’ve got to have a Ulysses which is “the book of Irish post-colonial independence.”

But Duffy reminds me of a factoid I used to know & had forgotten. Remember Haines, the obnoxious English cultural tourist whose nightly panther-dreams & condescending hibernophilia help to drive Stephen away from the Martello tower (“We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame”)? Joyce based him, as Richard Ellmann (that’s “priceless Richard Helmann” in one Lacan text) details, on one Samuel Chenevix Trench, not an Englishman at all but an Anglo-Irishman of such potent nationalism that he had his given name changed to “Dermot.”

It seems that Trench was given to actually taking potshots at the black panthers he dreamed, one instance of which gunplay drove Joyce from the tower for good. Five years later he would turn the revolver on his own head.

What relation, I wonder, was Samuel (Dermot) Chenevix Trench to Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1866), Archibishop of Dublin, probably the crucial member of the troika (another was Herbert Coleridge, the poet’s grandson) who in 1858 set in train the compiling of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles – the OED?

Joyce’s preferred source was Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary; he does not appear in the index of Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, tho every particle physicist knows that “quark” is from Finnegans Wake.