Monday, June 29, 2009


Here on the upper West Side; the weather is holding beautifully – little rain, low humidity, a veritable paradise after Florida. Alas, I packed precisely two books for the trip (still awaiting the various cartons we shipped) – Guy Davenport's Tatlin! and the last 2 vols of Fors Clavigera. And now I've finished Tatlin!, & fear that Fors will last until the rest of the books arrive. Or I may have to go out & buy more.... (Always a distinct possibility in NY)

(And yes, despite myself, I'm blogging from Starbucks – which beats blogging from my phone...)

Friday, June 26, 2009

lights out, for a bit

We're leaving this afternoon to spend much of the rest of the summer in New York; dunno how much sustained internet access I'll have, & don't fancy blogging from Starbucks. So the updates here will probably be even sparer than they've been lately. But for those who're interested, I'll no doubt be twittering, & I'll certainly be posting occasional Facebook updates.

Time to read some books, I guess, & get some actual writing done.

Would be nice to hook up with anyone who wants in the city; drop me a line.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hunt on Ruskin

Just finished John Dixon Hunt's The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin (Viking, 1982). A very good read, all told. It's maybe the 4th Ruskin biography I've read, in some ways the most likeable. Tim Hilton's 2-volume monster remains the book of record for me, but I can't imagine anyone who's not already addicted to JR launching out on the uncharted seas of Hilton's big 2nd volume. Wolfgang Kemp's The Desire of My Eyes – well, I read it while I was doing heavy research at the HRC in Austin, & don't remember a thing about it; might've been good. John Batchelor's John Ruskin: No Wealth but Life is still the one I recommend to beginners – very gracefully & sympathetically written, very strong on Ruskin's late political & economic obsessions.

But Hunt is very good indeed, in the 400-page compass of his life. A trifle more suggestive than explicit when it comes to critical & interpretive moments; me, I like my literary biography to be thoroughly "critical." Hunt does however throw out a couple of ideas that seize my imagination: The likeness of Ruskin's mind & work to a Kunst-und-Wunderkammer, a chamber of curios of the sort so beloved by the Victorians & Romantics, but blown up to an enormous scale; and the extent to which all the natural & cultural phenomena with which Ruskin was so fascinated were interconnected in his mind, & how the fragmentary & digressive forms of his late work are an attempt to forge literary form to embody those interconnections.

Hunt himself is a scholar for whom I have an enormous deal of respect, even awe. How did his generation – & here I'm thinking as well of Frank Kermode, Annabel Patterson, et al. – manage to be so prolific? I can't find a birth date, but Hunt's first book – on the Pre-Raphaelites – came out in 1968, so he was probably born sometime in the 1940s. In the purely literary field, he's published lives of Andrew Marvell & Ruskin, edited a collection of essays on Ruskin, & written a commentary on The Tempest. On the other side of the fence – garden history & theory – he absolutely dominates the field, having edited at least 4 books & written 8 of his own, including most recently a full-length study of Ian Hamilton Finlay. His bibliography makes me weary just looking at it.
I'm beginning to get a trifle nervous – we're leaving for New York this Friday, for the better part of the rest of the summer. So before then I need to get my book orders for the fall in, figure out what books to pack & ship, sort out my list of priorities, etc. All in the baking heat (broken for a bit yesterday by a line of torrential thunderstorms; welcome to hurricane season).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

fish are jumpin'

Okay, so summer's here. I think it hit 95 or so today, with humidity at about 300% & the heat index up around 112 or so. Just amazing to step outdoors & feel the heat settle on you like a big fat hand o' God. There's a reason south Florida as a region didn't really get shaking until the invention of air conditioning.

Post-"season" – which ends at Easter or Passover, whichever comes later – is the ideal time to be down here: suddenly the roads clear up a bit (all of those Long Island drivers have gone back to Long Island), you can actually get into restaurants without waiting half an hour, lines in the supermarkets are bearable. It would be just grand – except for the bloody weather.
Here's a soflo phenom that puzzles & irks me not a little bit: South Florida is the world's capital – yes, I so assert, the world's capital – of valet parking. You can get valet parking not merely at restaurants, but at shopping malls, at concerts, hell, for all I know at church. Our Fair University is thinking of setting up a valet parking system.

But in most of the places I've lived (you know, the civilized world), valet parking works like this: You come up to your destination, you see that all the handy spots are taken, & you hand your car over to some spotty 17-year-old who drives it off somewhere in the next county & then sprints back. Sure, you have no idea where the car's gone – it's probably out back of the K-Mart down the street – but hell, you only shell out the money for a valet when all the obvious & handy spots are already taken.

In Florida, however, it works a bissle differently: Here, after the obligatory (& wholly rational) handicapped parking spaces, all of the prime parking – that is, everything within eyeshot of the restaurant – is reserved for valet parking: roped off, coned, razor-wired. So the valet drops the car into a spot about 12 feet from the entrance & is back at his desk before you've had a chance to give your name to the maitre d'. If you want to be so primitive as to park your own car, you wind up scrounging for space around the dumpsters two buildings down.

Is it like this everywhere these days? How out of it am I?
Okay, maybe it's not a good idea to be reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, China MiƩville's Perdido Street Station, & Modern Painters I at the same time. My head is in a kind of genial Protestant preacher-"did you ever notice the angles at which snow clings to the Jungfrau"-steampunk-slasher place right now.

Monday, June 22, 2009

father's day

A fine holiday, all told: breakfast in bed, lunch out, an afternoon movie, friends over for supper, a stack of lovely & unexpected presents (media of all sorts, a sheaf of the sort of coloring books Jessica S. loves, a striking illustrated version of Kingsley's Water-Babies). It all made me think of my own father, who died a little over 11 years ago, & whom I find myself missing more every year.

He came from a dirt-poor country family (Tennessee? Kentucky? I only know he was born in Arkansas), & was probably the first to go to college – who knows if there were any high school graduates in his family? They drafted him out of his senior year at the tail end of World War II – not the Pacific Theater, but the occupation forces in Austria – and the GI bill sent him to the university to study art. Which he abandoned, as he would abandon a number of pursuits over the years, taking degrees & graduate degrees (a master's in education, another in history, & yet another in English), reĆ«nlisting in the service when things didn't pan out & then going back to school.

Eventually, he settled down for the long haul, enduring assignment after assignment to a dreary listening post on the East German border (he was a Russian linguist – some of my earliest memories are of military housing at the army language institute in Monterey) before he retired. The military paid the bills, gave the family direction, kept us in healthcare (filled my mouth with second-rate fillings, which I'm now replacing one by one). But he hated the discipline, he hated the interminable paperwork & bureaucracy, & he hated the the pointless wastage of our Vietnam adventure.

I wouldn't quite call him an autodidact, but he filled cases & cases with books, the books he wanted to read & the books he thought he ought to read. And read them, probably more assiduously than I have (underlinings & marginal notes, notecards filled with references to look up, notebooks filled with reading notes). He came from the generation that believed in literary "greatness" – no library should be without sets of Kafka, of Proust, of Mann, of Joyce. He read them, & nodded to their majesty, & returned to what he really loved – Dickens & Tolstoy. During his last summer, in between bouts of his illness, he was working his way through War & Peace in Russian (again); when it became clear that his fall relapse would be his last, he turned to an English translation. I bought him a clutch of Ian Flemings at a library sale during that last stretch of illness. He turned them over, read some pages, & decided that he'd rather have another go at Great Expectations, for which I can't blame him.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

the rankings game

Yes, it's true – every year J & I pick up a copy of the new US News & World Report "America's Best Colleges" issue. Yes, we know the rankings are largely subjective, perhaps even bogus – but it's always entertaining to see whether Our Fair University (of which we are both wage slaves) will pull itself out of the fourth (lowest) tier, & the issue does after all provide a wealth of interesting statistics about colleges around the country.

But how do they arrive at those rankings, a ladder so controversial that one non-profit organization has started a grass-roots movement for colleges to entirely opt out? Well, they ask college presidents to evaluate a list of peer institutions on a scale from "marginal" to "distinguished." These are meant of course to be confidential documents, but thanks to Florida's "sunshine" law, the Gainesville newspaper has obtained a copy of the survey submitted by Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida. Eye-opening indeed, as the snippet below shows.

Hmmm. Well, I'm not surprised that Machen consigns Our Fair University – along with five other institutions – to the "marginal" category; nor am I surprised to see the U of Miami & Florida State in the "good"category. But what in the world was he thinking in rating the University of Florida – his own institution – "distinguished"?

To put this in perspective: Of course, Machen's out to pump up his own school's rating, no doubt about it. But who else made his "distinguished" list?: Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, & Yale. (He had to think twice about Stanford & Berkeley, which he originally marked "strong." You can see his entire list in PDF here.)

Which means that, in the mind of the president of the U of Florida, UF is better than: Cornell, Duke, Dartmouth, Georgetown, the U of Texas, Johns Hopkins, & the University of Chicago. In what bizarro universe could this possibly be the case?

Methinks there is a serious disconnection from reality happening in a presidential mansion in Gainesville these days.

[Our local paper, of course, is distressed that the prez of UF has been dissing our hometown school – even as the prez of OFU hastens to dismantle whatever shreds of credibility we have.]
UPDATE: Actually, Bernie Machen doesn't look quite so bad when compared to Clemson's president James Barker, who appears to have given his own institution the only "strong" score on the form, consigning the majority of the other universities in the country to the "marginal" category. Margaret Soltan's been following this one.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

reading (around) Ruskin

Spent much of the day pitchforking thru great stacks of old mail around the house. My papercuts have papercuts. Must have opened 150 envelopes or more.
Taking a break from Modern Painters & reading some secondary texts on Ruskin. Giovanni Cianci & Peter Nicholls's Ruskin & Modernism (Palgrave 2001) seems to hit almost all of the obvious interesting points of JR's influence, direct & indirect, on the high modernists – except for (a) Pound, which has been covered in a number of articles over the years & (b) Joyce, which I'm not sure has received its due. Essays all a bit too short – they feel like conference papers, which I guess they are; but most of them quite solid.

Then turned to an oldie, George Landow's The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton UP 1971). They don't publish them like this anymore: solid 450+ pages, footnotes at the foot of the page where you can use them. The style is clear without being simplistic, the pace measured without being otiose (too often). Me, I need someone to say things like this, this clearly (part of a discussion of JR's version of ut pictura poesis, in the context of Romanticism):
As long as critics considered poetry a mimetic art, its natural analogue was painting; but once it became an art whose central operation and purpose were expressive, poetry's natural analogue became music.
That makes a lot of sense. How one gets from Sir Joshua Reynolds & Pope to Pater. (Note how Landow's sentence, clearly no grand shakes stylistically, derives a certain authoritativeness from the chiastic juggling of "poetry" and the pronominal substitution "it.")
Bloomsday – or pre-Bloomsday – last weekend went just fine: good time had by all. I venture to think my talk was actually "entertaining," as they kept billing it; entertaining enough for the pub to keep me fed and drinking for the rest of the evening, which was fine by me. We ran thru our scratch set of 3 songs, then played another three, then found ourselves in an actual session, with other (real!) musicians sitting in.

Friday, June 12, 2009

archive fever

Undine is doing archival research, & man am I jealous. Some observations she makes:
•I'm in Research City, spending long, concentrated days in the archives, enjoying hours spent seemingly inside the head of the authors whose letters I'm reading, and wondering if, with all this typing and transcribing, absorbing words and sentence structure, I'll start to sound like these authors once I'm done.
•It may be easier, on the whole, to be a tortured creative genius and fill notebooks with tiny handwriting in black ink than to decipher that handwriting years later.
•No matter how much energy I think I have, it is never as much as that of an author who likes to write letters.
Some of the most intellectually energetic weeks of my life were the three months I spent doing groundwork for the LZ biography at the HRC in Austin. One can intellectually accept, even endorse, all of the post-structuralist arguments about the death of the author, all the substitutions of an "author-effect" for the old-fashioned author, & still get swept away with a kind of immediacy when you're actually holding in your hands the letters, the drafts & notes, that a given poet wrote. (I've written about this before.)

As Undine's specific comments above: 1) Yes you will, at least in bits & pieces; part of what Leon Edel calls "transference" (tho I think he presents a severely emaciated version of the process); probably in the end not a good thing, so be aware. 2) Of course it's easier to write the notebooks than to read them; hell, I'm not even a "creative genius" & I can't decipher my own handwriting from six months ago. 3) I wonder if the species as a whole hasn't declined since the 19th century, energy-wise. God knows Ruskin seems to have churned out a couple dozen pages of manuscript & correspondence every day, & he didn't have to resort to heavy doses of caffeine, nicotine, & amphetamines (like Sartre). Then again, I suspect the absence of radio, television, electronic media, & telephones – plus the fact that all cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. was done by others – added to his writing time.
Random LZ archival notes:

•A prominent LZ scholar once opined to me that Zukofsky's increasingly "crabbed" (LZ's own word) handwriting, beginning mostly in the 1950s, was due to the psychological constraints of his marriage. Interesting theory, but Occam's razor suggests something more prosaic: the invention of the ballpoint pen. LZ, you see, was a lefty, & in the days of fountain pens would perforce have to write rather slowly & carefully in order to avoid smearing the still-wet ink. Once a "dry" writing instrument was invented, he could follow his natural bent & write as microscopically as he pleased. (This is clearly evidenced in a long early letter to Carl Rakosi, written on a train from Chicago to Madison, where his pen runs out halfway thru & he finishes in pencil – in much smaller script.)

•One thing that hit me more & more as I read thru the correspondence – & not merely the HRC's collections, but various other collections around the continent, along with bales of photocopies sent from various hands – was the extent to which every letter is in some sense addressed: that is, every bit of "evidence" you glean from a writer's correspondence has to be weighed & calibrated on the basis of the writer's relationship with the addressee. Probably necessary to extent this to most notebooks & journals as well (as Claire Tomalin does in her brilliant Pepys biography): even if the journal is entirely private, somewhere in the writer's mind there's an intended or ideal audience, & the writing is to some degree addressed to that audience.

more B-day mishugas

I can't say I've gotten much substantive work done this week, what with a thousand piddly errands to run, the girls on a truly crazy summer camp schedule, & much of my mind dominated by the madness going on in the corridors of Our Fair University. So I haven't really thought much about the "entertaining" half-hour talk on Joyce I'm supposed to deliver tomorrow (in "Edwardian dress, if possible").

A quick Google search reveals almost no decent Joyce jokes on the internet. The closest to funny is an anticlimactic thing:
Charles Dickens walks into a bar.
CD: Give me a martini.
Bartender: Olive or Twist?

James Joyce walks in an hour later.
JJ: Give me a Guinness.*
Bartender: Hey, Charles Dickens was in an hour ago.
JJ: mmm.
B: He asked for a martini, so I said "Olive or twist?"
JJ: mmm
B: Because, you know, he wrote this book Oliver Twist...
JJ: What a shitty joke.
Okay, so no jokes. What I'm really worried about is nailing the fiddle break on Paul Brady's version of "Mary and the Soldier."

*Convicted Joyceans know, of course, that Joyce's spirit of choice was Swiss white wine, which he described as "drinking electricity" – as opposed to red wine, which was "drinking beef."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Kafka-land, Florida (academics only), part 2

Well, the comments stream for the Chronicle of Higher Education's article on Our Fair University's peremptory firing of five tenured faculty members has metastasized, & some really ugly name-calling has started – no doubt simply reflecting the overall morale of faculty here. At a Board of Trustees meeting today, Our Maximum Leader (ie the President of OFU) gave us the short version: OFU
respects tenure as much as any other state university..... As president of this university I want that quote to be entered into the record in a way that cannot be misunderstood and shouldn't be accepted as anything but what I mean it to be. This university supports tenure. That's a fact.
Well, that's always nice to hear, but is it borne out by what's been going down? Five tenured faculty, all of them with more than 15 years' service here, given pink slips & told to clean out their offices by August – not even the one academic year's notice mandated by the collective bargaining agreement.

What really boggles me about all this is how it was done. The College of Engineering went thru a massive restructuring this spring (with one suspects absolutely minimal faculty input). Several departments were merged, among them Computer Science & Electrical Engineering. But on top of that fairly common merging activity, the following arcane horizontal structure was cross-cut over the three remaining departments ("Ocean/Mechanical," "Computer/Electrical/Computer Science," & "Civil/Environmental/Geomatica" –dig those snazzy names)*:

Yes, that's right: every faculty member, of every rank from instructor thru full professor, belongs not merely to a department but to a "Functional Unit" as well, based one assumes on her or his "function" within the college. (Those units, in case you can't read 'em, are "Pre-professional Program," "Innovation Leadership Honors Program" [huh?], "Undergraduate Programs," and "Graduate Programs/Research.")

If the administration wanted to lay off a handful of faculty from a given department, by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement they'd be obliged to lay them off in order of seniority, instructors & assistant professors first. But lo & behold, by some unaccountable fluke, it turns out that the "Functional Unit" devoted to "Undergraduate Programs" consists of nothing but tenured faculty. So they're slicing the pie, not in a traditional department-based direction, but on the basis of a set of "Functional Units" whose precedent I've never seen in the academy. (Feel free to enlighten me, by the way.)

If one were paranoid & distrustful of authority, one might suspect that the "Functional Units" were expressly established to rid the college of a handful of highly-paid tenured faculty.

But Maximum Leader has told us that "This university supports tenure." And I believe, just as I believe we have always been at war with Eurasia.

*If you're a glutton for punishment, the entire presentation from which this snippet is drawn can be yawned thru here.

UPDATE, via the Palm Beach Post education news blog:

The President's full statement (dig the 3rd person):
This president respects tenure as much as he did when he arrived. I need to go on the record saying that because I think if it will be a negative impact on this university it will be brought about by the rhetoric of those making the statement that this is an attack on tenure. The fact is it’s not, period. So the suspicions are misguided. FAU respects tenure as much as any other state university. As president of this university I want that quote entered into the record in a way that cannot be misunderstood and shouldn’t be accepted as anything but what I mean it to be. This university supports tenure. That’s a fact.
(Thas a fact, Jack.) Now I don't wanna get all Orwellian, but it's kinda fun (once you've sorted out the grammar) to parse the logic of that there 2nd sentence.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Kafka-land, Florida (academics only)

This brief piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, on Our Fair University's bold new approaches to "efficiency," is worth a look. Especially interesting are the comments from those on the ground, especially #2 ("jonathon") & #6 ("FAU Prof"). If the administration spent half the time they used concocting such arcane reorganizational schemes on actually improving things around here, who knows where we'd be?

bloomsday countdown

Mission accomplished; Ulysses read in a week flat, & without eating my mind. I suspect it's a book I could read 4 or 5 times a year. This time, without the pressures of seriously teaching the thing, without worrying about reading all of my marginal notes & making those various connections – well, actually making the connections is one of the great pleasures of the book, but this time thru I didn't feel compelled to follow thru with everything – the reading process was pretty much an unmitigated pleasure. Tho frankly, the older I get, the less patience I have with that tiresome, pretentious prat Stephen D.

A limbering-up session on the stringed instruments last night. We sounded pretty good, I thought, tho perhaps that was only thru the alcohol-earphones. Now I just need some Joyce jokes, of which there seem to be surprisingly few good ones out there.
Louisiana State University Press is having a humongous summer sale. I went there on a colleague's recommendation – Evelyn Scott's The Wave, a mostly forgotten cinematic-modernist epic novel on the Civil War (with the bonus that Scott & I share a Tennessee hometown) – & discovered that Jay Wright's big collected poems, Transfigurations, is on sale for a song. A book every serious poetry bookshelf should include: let's see if we can't buy it out of stock, okay?
Midway thru the first volume of Modern Painters again, & disinclined to go over (blogging, that is) ground I've already covered. But also working my way thru an extraordinarily rich collection of essays, Ruskin and Modernism (ed. Giovanni Cianci & Peter Nicholls), that rather deftly makes a lot of the basic connections I've been thinking about.
Did I mention LeFanu's Uncle Silas? That one's a grand read indeed.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Ulysses, at speed

I haven't read Ulysses in a couple of years, after several years of reading the novel at least once, sometimes twice annually. Then I got a call a couple weeks back from someone doing publicity for a brand new Irish pub up the road – "Tim Finnegans," of all things, & proudly without an apostrophe – wanting me to come in this coming weekend & give a half-hour "entertaining" talk about things Joycean as part of their grand opening Bloomsday celebration.

Now I view Bloomsday parties about as seriously as J, who's an early modern drama scholar, does the Renaissance Fair. But I've started jotting down my best Joyce jokes, & various "deep" thoughts about this ungainly novel that no doubt 9/10s of the people present haven't made their way thru. (After all, why should they?) Anyone who wants to contribute "entertaining" things I should say is welcome to.*

Unfortunately, my OCD side led me to pick up the novel itself again last week. Tuesday, to be precise: in part to test out a little theory I'd nursed for some time. That is, the last few times I've read Ulysses have been in conjunction with teaching Ulysses, so I've spaced the 18 chapters out over 9 or 10 weeks. But for goodness' sake, I read Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's Uncle Silas in 3 days the other week out of sheer page-turnability: wouldn't it be possible to read Ulysses in the course of a week, without feeling that the novel had entirely taken over one's brain?

At any rate, it's Saturday night & I'm at the very end of "Oxen of the Sun." The early chapters tripped by at the rate of 3 or 4 a sitting; a flying visit to Tennessee over the past couple of days gave me airplane time to read thru a chapter on each leg of the flight (even counting inevitable dozing off). What's ahead is all downhill: "Circe," despite its imposing length, has always been one of my favorites, a very fast & funny gallop, & the 3 chapters of the Nostos section ("Eumaeus," "Ithaca," & "Penelope") are probably my favorite bits of the book. So I expect to have finished Ulysses in just about a week, & comfortably.

Rereading the book reminds me of just how radical it gets in its second half – or rather, beginning with its 11th chapter, "Sirens." Everything that comes before (save perhaps the newspaper headlines of "Aeolus" – which as Michael Groden shows Joyce actually went back & added late in the compositional process) is strictly realistic, a painstaking attempt to chart the internal monologues of his characters. It's only with the "fugal" form of "Sirens," followed by the various stylistic shenanigans of the later chapters, that the novel plunges off the diving board of realism into a kind of heaven of textuality.

*What's really daunting is that my old friend & musical partner OB volunteered us to play a mini-set of Irish tunes after the talk, & my bouzouki fingers are far rustier than my toastmaster skills.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Jenny Boully: The Body

The Body, Jenny Boully (Slope Editions, 2002)

The Body is subtitled "An Essay," a gesture I didn't give much thought to until I heard Dinty Moore, in a lecture on the unfolding wonders & potentialities of creative nonfiction, hailed Boully's book as being on the cutting edge of this institutionally emergent genre. And then I noted that Boully in her acknowledgments thanks not only the poets John Matthias & Robert Kelly, but the doyen of the "lyrical essay," John D'Agata. So maybe, I begin to think, there's something important going on in this generic gesture.

The Body consists of a series of footnotes to an absent text. A large part of how the book works is the reader's ongoing attempt to figure out precisely what that text might consist of: is it a memoir (as many of the 1st person notes seem to indicate)? is it a slightly salacious literary biography? is it a work of linguistic philosophy (references to Levinas & Derrida)? is it the history of a particular play (notes about varying "productions")? is it some combination of all of these things, & a great deal more?

Ultimately, the "text" to which The Body furnishes the footnotes must be as fragmentary, non-linear, & wide-ranging as those footnotes themselves. (The notes section of Nabokov's Pale Fire, & even the notes to The Waste Land, make documents far more coherent than The Body.) I like this book. I like its sense of mystery & inconsequence, its flashes of humor & raw emotion – but I find myself reading it not as an essay, but as poetry. That is, if one places The Body among the works of post-avant written in the past 30 years, even in its most radical formal gestures it seems to be working within a clear tradition. If one reads it among essays, however, it seems quite blindingly radical, out on the very limits of the genre. And I wonder if that isn't precisely the position the writer (the poet? the essayist?) wanted to claim in the subtitle.

[The Body is being released in a new edition by – you guessed it – Essay Press. It's worth looking at Craig Dworkin's learned & subtle reading of the book here.]