Tuesday, August 31, 2010

vectors ii

The girls started a new school this Fall. Among the delights of which are a newfound emphasis on daily homework. It's been a hard adjustment all round. Tonight, for instance. Bathed, pajama'd, toothbrushed, & with her story read to her, Daphne (1st grade) is ready to hit the sack; I ask: Did you have any homework?

D: Oops. I forgot. It's downstairs.

Me: Well, let's go do it. (thinking it's the same old shit – you know, unscramble the sentence, copy the letter "G" 10 times in upper- & lowercase)

D: You have to help me. It's an interview.

So we do an interview about my "job," with the big words getting spelled out – "p-r-o-f-e- etc."

D: Do you wear special clothes to your job?

Me: You mean like socks? Just write "no."

D: Do you like your job?

Me: Sure, why not? No, no – write "yes."

D: What other job would you like to do?

Me: R-O-C-K S-T-A-R...
Thinking about those EP Thompsonian "vectors" of influence. It's a tall order to trace antinomianism from the mid-17th-century to Blake – a large historical stretch. What makes Thompson so satisfying as a historian is the scrupulousness with which he lays out the problem of tracing such vectors of influence, & then the thoroughness with which he pursues available evidence.

Which made me think of Greil Marcus's now 21-year-old Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, which tries to do something more or less similar with a rather ill-defined antinomian millennialism – a kind of spirit of rebellion at the state of things that opens up holes of possibility, that ruptures the continuum of the oppressive everyday. He finds it in the 16th & 17th centuries (and in earlier times), then goes out to trace it from Dada thru the Lettrists & the Situationists to the Sex Pistols, by way of Malcolm McLaren. When Johnny Rotten sings "Anarchy in the UK," he isn't just voicing a particular note of youthful rebellion ca. 1976, he's channelling an entire history of civilization-stopping anarchy, from the Ranters thru May 1968.

It's a beguiling thesis, woven with all of Marcus's all-too-often over-the-top, "lyrical" prose. Of course it's the vectors that bother me, & that seem to have bothered many of Marcus's reviewers over the years. The book trots out endless, mesmerizing accounts of Zurich Dada & Paris Lettrism & International Situationism, but it's hard to see this succession of ruptures as a clearly related progression (a "history"); when one looks for the connecting links (the "vectors"), one sees a series of isomorphisms, rather than causal relationships.

It's arguable, I know – McLaren himself was happy in retrospect to hitch his wagon to the SI star (tho Lydon thought it was all piffle). What I'm pursuing is a rather more concrete vector of influence: the SI & the Leeds scene of the late 1970s – you know, Gang of Four, the Mekons, Delta 5, (ulp) Scritti Politti. The Mekons especially: key members were art students at Leeds University when TJ Clark, a member of the English branch of the SI, came to head the art department there. Various critics – among them Greil Marcus, of course – have made much of this, even reading the band's whole output as a kind of Situationist statement.

But what do the musicians themselves have to say about it? Jon Langford, in an interview:
The first tutors I had in my first year – it's interesting. Leeds University is very interesting because I got there the same time that this guy TJ Clark arrived. Pretty famous kind of art historian. He was the only British member of the Situationist International in Paris in 1968. He looked like Che Guevera when he arrived. (PSF laughs) We arrived kind of like invisible, and he arrived in this big puff of smoke. The rebel inside the department. But basically, he had all these kind of idiots working there that he had to kind of shift sideways and get rid of. But, they were the people who were teaching me in my first year. And they were just these kind of Modernist, Pop Arty kind of loser guys, you know. They just had a formula for what they thought they should be crushing the life out of all the students. So, basically, they did me in. (Interviewer laughs) But he was more on the art history side.

When I went back – I dropped out when the Mekons signed with Virgin, and he actually really supported me through doin' that – Clark. And by the time I got back, you know, he'd filled the department with all these really interesting people like Terry Atkinson and Griselda Pollock. And they all thought we were great. ‘Cause we'd been off fightin' the Punk Rock Wars, you know. And they understood what we were doin' and that that was what was where it was going on at that moment. That I shouldn't be, like, sittin' in my painting studio doing gestural painting or whatever. We were actually more in tune with what was going on than the teachers, so... We got a lot of support from them. So, I actually went back in 1980. Was it 1980? Yeah. I actually went back and finished my degree. And I did some painting to get my degree, basically. But then as soon as I left, I formed another band.
Tom Greenhaigh, being asked specifically about Clark's influence:
The Leeds art school scene in the late 70's was a weird blip of highly radicalised activity with a lot of marxist and feminist teachers who certainly upset the institutions they worked in as well as some of the students. It's hard to imagine this happening nowadays.For me personally at the time I wasn't bothered and took it for granted and only a lot later began to read T.J Clarke for myself. I think we were influenced a lot by Terry Atkinson who had been involved with Art & Language, who was also at Leeds, who dealt with issues of cultural practice and the implications of
trying to operate within capitalist modes of production and distribution.[this is quite a big subject... just to say... my final show was all pictures of T.J.Clarke as the paradigm of the radical academic... but I have a great deal of respect for the man and his work... it's interesting that since he fled the UK and gone to Berkeley he has become good mates with Greil Marcus...]
(So it all comes back to GM...) But does this make the lads (& lasses, for it wouldn't be the Mekons without Sally Timms & Susie Honeyman) Situationists? Stay tuned.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Bob Archambeau embarrasses me again. Not so much with his fashion choices – that goes without saying – as with his blog, where he posts these big, meaty literary-historical meditations, while I’m bitching about the weather or department meetings or putting up Marx Brothers clips or other such silliness. Maybe – come to think of it – I’m just plain shallow, or sailing into shallowness even as I plunge deeper into decrepitude.

Anyway, I’m still thinking about Ruskin, & trying to fit him into my sense of how modernism emerges from Victorian culture. I’m hamstrung, of course, by having to learn Victorian culture more or less from scratch. Okay, I took a couple of Victorian classes as an undergrad, and was a reader for a Victorian novel course as a grad student, & even audited a Victorian poetry seminar along the way. So I’ve read a lot of the stuff, even if I still can’t get excited about Trollope the way J. does (there’s always a Trollope novel in some stage of multiple rereading on the nightstand).

(She has, by the way, converted me to Kipling’s Stalky & Co.; finally, a public school novel in which the boys are without exception dire & reprehensible – if immensely funny & sympathetic – shits. Finally, a bit of realism about life between 13 & 17.)

I think the key here is to pursue the Pound-Ruskin nexus, which even on its face doesn’t seem at all unlikely. Here’s the thing: Pound almost never mentions Ruskin; there’s a reference in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and a couple of scattered things in the prose (calls him a “goose” at one point), but I think it can be coherently argued that Pound is absolutely saturated, probably without even knowing it, in a Ruskinian cultural discourse. And Michael Coyle’s already made that argument in EP, Popular Genres, and the Discourse of Culture.

That is, the connection between aesthetic production and the state of the larger polity within which they're produced emerges in the early 19th century (according to Kenneth Clark, as quoted somewhere in Raymond Williams's Culture & Society); it's Ruskin who pushes that connection into an exploration of the social conditions upon which the artist ultimately depends, in the "Nature of Gothic" and then in The Political Economy of Art & the later works passim. So what Ruskin & Pound share is a sense of “culture” as an “organic” totality in which aesthetic productions reflect social relations, in which the general health of a society can be gauged by a close analysis of its artworks, and in which the health of the arts depends upon the health of the society as a whole.

What intervenes between the two figures is Aestheticism, with its doctrine of art's autonomy, of "art for art's sake." And EP, as Moody shows in his biography, is an aesthete thru & thru in the early work. When he turns "political" or "social" (Kenner, Davenport, & other date it to the post-Great War moment), he does so with little sense of how Ruskinian his ultimate stance will be. It's perhaps an impoverished Ruskinianism, for when Ruskin excoriates society, he always does so on a moral basis (at first Evangelical, later a more ill-defined "Christian"); Pound, on the other hand, has always seemed to me less concerned with the actual well-being of individual human beings under capitalism than on the wastage of potential artwork.

Now to work out the relationship of Ruskin to Wyndham Lewis, Eliot, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Mina Loy. Then there's a book.
But then there's Fors. (One of the Stalky boys – Beetle? M’Turk? – is a dedicated reader of Fors Clavigera, which seems less a mark of his social concerns than of his general bookishness.) Guy Davenport advanced a long time ago (in his "The House that Jack Built" essay) the notion that Ruskin, & Fors in general, is kind of a generative protomodernist ur-text, a "Victorian Cantos in prose." I'm of course fascinated by Fors; like those who read Tristram Shandy as proto-postmodernism, I want to see all of the digressiveness & parataxis & random trouvées of high modernism in the book. But it's not the same thing to say that Fors is willy-nilly protomodernist and to say that Fors is an actual model for modernist literary structure.

The problem is one of what EP Thompson, in his Witness Against the Beast, calls "vectors": if one's got a sense that there's something important shared between the 17th-century Muggletonians (Ludowick Muggleton's portrait, by the way, adorns Sussex University's ultra-modern chapel, which otherwise looks like a concrete & brick beehive) & William Blake, one must establish plausible, even probable "vectors" by which Blake would have been exposed in the late 18th century to Muggletonian ideas. (& Thompson does, at least to my satisfaction.)

The temporal stretch between JR & EP is much shorter, & the works & ideas were more widespread – Pound was 14 when Ruskin died, & cheapo editions of Fors & the rest of his works were all over the United States by the time of Pound's birth. But I'm still searching for that hard & fast accounts of Pound's – & the other modernists'* – reading of Ruskin, & what use they made of him.

*Joyce is a gimme; Stanislaus reports in his memoir that his brother absolutely doted on Ruskin, & even wrote a pastiche homage when he learned of JR's death in 1900.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

REAL culture

So we've decided that real education for our girls can't be trusted to the schools, public or private: we're going to have to introduce them to the Marx Brothers at home. They took to A Night at the Opera like fowl to duck soup; tonight we watched (courtesy of Netflix) Cocoanuts, the MBs' first film. I hadn't seen it before myself.

The movie's a 1929 film of a 1925 George Kaufman musical, and the remnants of the musical show – lots of schmaltzy songs, big production dance numbers, a fairly nugatory "plot." Production values primitive at best. The grandest moments – too few & far between – are the Marxes making zany.

Me, I've always worshipped Groucho as one of the grand masters of the word of our century. In another life, I will have a tongue as sharp as his. But I fear Daphne, our youngest, has cathected all too strongly on Harpo. It's not just his mute cuteness she admires, but his spirit of blithe anarchy, his fearsome jolly destructiveness. Show her a Marx Brothers movie, & then fear for the furniture. Perhaps we need to buy her a horn.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

1 week down, 14 to go...

So it's the end of the 1st week of classes. I ought to be all excited and, you know, tingly about the start of a new semester, opening the wonders of literature to all those fresh young minds and all that. And then I reflect that it's the start of my FORTY-THIRD semester doing this. That's including all those grad school semesters when I was just a reader or TA for some pompous windbag of a faculty member (thank Ba'al, at least I'm not as old as any of the folks I had to TA for!), and those years when I was picking up one or two classes a semester at a Chinese menu variety of schools – but not including when I was working on the dissertation, or that far distant & in retrospect idyllic sabbatical semester.

So when you go up in front of the class for the hundredth or hundred-and-first time, it's hard to muster the same enthusiasm you had back in the day. On the other hand, I've gotten much, much better at faking enthusiasm. And, to tell the truth, I really do still love the job. I'm probably a far better teacher than I was 15 years ago, when I was new here at Our Fair University: I know much more of what I'm talking about, I know what works & what doesn't work with students, I'm infinitely more patient (sometimes).

But Lordy, the baggage that comes along with those few weekly hours in which you're actually doing what you've been hired to do! Yes, this will be the Year Of Committees for yr humble blogger, whose chair has finally cottoned onto the fact that, as Full Professor, Professor S. hasn't really been properly put thru his paces administration-wise. Oh boy I love committee work. (And here I tip my glasses down on my nose, the signal to my undergrads that I'm speaking ironically.)

This afternoon was the semester's first department meeting. And boy I love those too. (tip) A visit from the Dean, who relays his impressions of the new President of OFU – some of 'em creepy as shit – but wait, let's try and give them the most generous interpretation possible, okay? Are there going to be more budget cuts this year? Only God and the Shadow know, and there's no Lamont Cranston in sight to ask.

Here's the new faculty members, smiling and handsome and heartbreakingly young. (Definite chili peppers to be dispensed on Ratemyprofessors. But for yr humble blogger, sliding inexorably down the slope of portly middle age? Nope.) Here's the various shit we'll be tackling over the semester. Here's the mildly contentious issue saved for the end of the meeting, which ends up burning more time than anyone expected. End of meeting. The cool kids head for the pub. We head out to pick up the kids and make dinner.
But all told it's off on the right foot, or some foot, this semester. I'm a week ahead with class reading, have a decent handle on the scholarly work I should be doing. At the moment I'm powering thru volume 12 of the Ruskin Library Edition (Lectures on Art & Architecture & miscellaneous stuff from the late 40s–early 50s); Anselm Jappe's book on Guy Debord; Hello Cruel World, selected lyrics of the Mekons (I don't really read that one, but follow along with the recordings).

After spending much of the summer rereading all (!) of Milton's poetry, I'm dipping back into Geoffrey Hill's Scenes from Comus, & making yet another attempt at Simon Jarvis's The Unconditional (which is breathtaking in its verbal mastery, but just beyond my comprehension as yet); Middlemarch; bits of Badiou and Zizek.

There's been a soupçon of coolness in the breeze lately; the pool water is perfect; the girls, fresh from a week and a half at a new school, are alarmingly sweet and distractingly, surprisingly pretty (where'd they get those genes? not from my side of the tree...). Food tastes good, and the SodaStream provides an endless supply of environmentally sound seltzer. Things could be worse.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ruskin lectures

The first day of classes – well, the 1st class, day 1 of Milton – is over, & went fairly well. You know: I read the syllabus, made them turn off their little electronic toys, read them the riot act about getting up & going out for potty breaks, & tried to assure them that they wouldn't be spending the next 15 weeks in the presence of a lunatic (at least not me; I can't vouch for Milton). And then launched into a 45-minute capsule summary of Western cultural history from the birth of Xrist thru the beginning of the 17th century.

The aim was not wholly to drive away those of lesser fortitude, but if I lose a few folks who aren't interested in Renaissance Humanism or the politics of the Reformation or the doctrines of Calvinism & Arminianism – well, I won't shed too many tears.
I seem to have reached a watershed in the Ruskin reading, having finished the 3rd & final volume of The Stones of Venice the other day. (I'm reading roughly chronologically, by the way, so I will return to Modern Painters III – V.) And suddenly, mirabile dictu, the shape of the man's career & thought is falling into place for me. Now I've always admitted to being a really slow learner: I've read some of these books a couple of times now, & have read a half-shelf of Ruskin studies & biographies – but only now do I feel firmly in grasp of the direction of the career. So, to recap:

Modern Painters I (1843): everybody who's ever painted landscape has traduced its actual appearance – until JMW Turner, who is the greatest landscape painter of all time; acres of examples of how things really look, & how they've been faked by Poussin et al.

Modern Painters II (1846): an aesthetic theory to buttress the art criticism of the previous book: things are beautiful to our eyes because they possess certain relationships/shapes/colors that manifest aspects of the deity ("ideal beauty"); and they're beautiful because they manifest healthy life ("vital beauty")

Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Stones of Venice (Part I, 1851, II & III, 1853): architecture is meant to delight the eye, to provide visual pleasure – therefore the mere act of putting up buildings is not architecture at all but "building": true architecture lies in ornament, sculpture, coloring; Gothic architecture is the true Xtian architecture, debased by Renaissance neo-Classicism; we can trace the spiritual course of the Venetian republic thru its architecture, at its greatest when the city is pious, falling into Renaissance decay when the city becomes decadent; modern architecture turns the eye of the beholder away from nature, deprives him of the vital aesthetic pleasure; and simultaneously, in its insistence on repetition and uniformity, it reduces the workman to a machine, rather than a fully autonomous human being (“Nature of Gothic”)

So it's here, in the "Nature of Gothic" chapter of Stones II, that one sees the beginnings of Ruskin's decisive turn towards social issues that will flower in the magnificent Unto This Last and find its dotty apotheosis in Fors Clavigera. A kind of cusp in his thinking.

To tell the truth, much of this is summed up beautifully & in a very user-friendly manner in his 1853 Lectures on Architecture and Painting, which he delivered in Edinburgh. Ruskin was by no means a practiced lecturer at this point (tho later in his life the lecture would become his preferred format of communication, and his books became largely collections of his lectures – like Helen Vendler's, say): this was his first go, & he was surprised at his success.

There are four lectures in the 1853 series. The first two present the kernel of both Seven Lamps and Stones in a handy two-hour stretch. The third reiterates his assessment of Turner (ie summarizing much of Modern Painters thus far). And the fourth represents his latest "find," the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Millais, etc. In the face of all sorts of public rejection of the PRB, Ruskin asserts that they are in essence pursuing the same goal as Turner (whom he calls "the first Pre-Raphaelite"): the accurate representation of visual reality. While Turner was going after the appearance of things thru something like proto-Impressionism, the PRB were doing a sort of photorealism avant la lettre: but the ultimate goal is the same – to get at what God's creation actually looks like.

I'm hankering to get a few volumes further down the line to where Ruskin finally sheds his rather irritating Evangelicism, stops beating on the Whore of Babylon and so forth. But these lectures, after the rather heavy going of some of Stones of Venice (volume I, after all, is a sort of extended primer on the principles of architecture, from the floor to the roof), are really an energizing breath of fresh air. Heaven knows why they aren't in print somewhere.

Ruskin speaks!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bravo! someone else out there is reading Ruskin. And phrasing the attraction beautifully: "the prose style which dazzles as it persuades.... a mind so wide in its enthusiasms and penetrative in its way of looking - creatively perceiving - which is a poetry of its own."
Just listened, with delight, to Geoffrey Hill on Milton at the 400th birthday celebrations at Christ's two years ago. The talk – a bit of analysis, reading of some Milton & some Hill, & a good deal of portentous rambling – reminds me weirdly of LZ's Wallace Stevens lecture at U Conn in April 1971 (later published as "For Wallace Stevens" in Prepositions, & looming large in my own reading of LZ). Maybe expand on this at some point – tho I do want to write about the WS lecture, "duration," a sentence from Badiou's Spinoza essay, & mortality.

Friday, August 20, 2010

experiment over

So how'd that "experimental decoupling" thing work out?, you're wondering. You know, when I stopped linking blog posts to my Facebook page, just to see whether anyone would actually come by & read Culture Industry without being jogged by an announcement on FB. Well, the answer is a resounding ambiguity.

Didn't help matters that I just restarted regular blogging after a considerable summer hiatus, during which time I lost most of the regular readers I ever had. But the numbers would suggest that out of my 8 regular readers, at least 5 of them have totally switched over to FB for their browser homepage. The loyal 3 kept coming back, & there was the regular Google-directed random traffic (you know, people searching for "Ruskin pubic hair" [hit #4 on Google] or "Richard Thompson Henry the Human Fly" [#3] or "Diana Kirke nipple" [#1] or other weirdness).

But the more I thought about it, the more I missed those 5 people who weren't visiting because I wasn't telling them to visit on my FB updates. They're smart, neat people whose reading eyes I value; it's not their fault that the digital world has become so busy & complicated that my humble blog isn't their first browsing stop after the coffee hits the cup.

And hey, I'm not proud – none of that "fit tho few" shit around here, I'll take any reader who wants to read what I've strung together. And thank them for it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Granite Pail textualities

One of the great services Cid Corman (1924-2004) rendered to American letters – beside his own poetry, his translations, and his visionary editing of Origin – was his championing of Lorine Niedecker's poetry. She appeared frequently in Origin, and after her death – she had named Corman her literary executor – he edited a posthumous volume of uncollected verse, Blue Chicory (Elizabeth Press, 1976). There were, I gather (I've never actually seen a copy of the volume), serious textual problems with Blue Chicory; Corman printed a number of poems there from his transcriptions of a recording of Niedecker reading, rather than from her own typescripts.

Much better is the 1985 selection Corman made for North Point Press, The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker. I've owned that book for almost a quarter-century, and have read it many, many times. Textually, it's quite solid (as opposed to the train-wreck of Robert Bertholf's From This Condensary: The Complete Writing of Lorine Niedecker [Jargon, 1985], a volume whose textual notes are largely incomprehensible & which is riddled with flaws – among them the inclusion of an LZ poem that Bertholf found among LN's papers & printed as hers); more importantly, it's a good selection, displaying both Niedecker's exquisite talent for the short poem and her more ambitious mid-length sequences.

Somehow I never got around to buying the revised edition of The Granite Pail that Jonathan Greene's Gnomon Press issued in 1995. And of course, after Jenny Penberthy's exemplary edition of Niedecker's Collected Works came out from U California in 2002 – an edition that's everything From This Condensary isn't, in terms of textual fidelity and user-friendliness – and, for that matter, in completeness – it somehow seemed beside the point.

But now that I've got a copy of the 1995 Granite Pail (which I'll call "GP2" for short) beside the 1985 Granite Pail ("GP1"), there's no way someone as anal-compulsive as me could resist a textual comparison of the two volumes. Changes are few. There are six additional poems in GP2, added Corman implies at readers' request. There is one typo corrected ("name" for "mane" – see "Three Americans" – GP1, p. 102 & GP2, p. 120). And then there's this characteristic revision. In GP1, we read the poem "Laundromat" (91):
Once again a public wedding
a casual, sudsy
social affair
at the tubs

After all, ecstacy
can't be constant
Let's call this "Laundromat 1." In GP2 (105) we read another version, which we can call "Laundromat 2":
Casual, sudsy
social love
at the tubs

After all, ecstacy
can't be constant
An amusing wee poem about marriage, love, & the perennial necessity of doing laundry, sharpened to my ear by Niedecker's omission of the first line's explicitness ("a public wedding") & sneaking companionate marriage back into the poem's second line ("social love" for "social affair").

But why, thought I, did Corman print one version in 1985 and another in 1995? His goal, he notes in the prefatory material to the collection, was to present LN's "latest judgment" on each poem. So, diving into Penberthy's textual notes, I unravel this:

In October 1964 LN sent Corman a single-copy holograph collection entitled "HOMEMADE POEMS," which included "Laundromat 1." Two months later, as a Christmas gift, she sent LZ & Jonathan Williams a pair of similarly hand-made books (their contents roughly the same), entitled "HANDMADE POEMS," each of which included "Laundromat 2." So LN revised the poem between October & December 1964, and sent the revised version to LZ & Williams.

She also sent this revised version ("Laundromat 2") to Corman for publication in Origin in July 1966. But when it came time to edit Blue Chicory (1976, remember, after Niedecker's death), for some reason Corman reverted to "Laundromat 1," the earlier version he'd received in "HOMEMADE POEMS." And when it came time to assemble The Granite Pail (GP1, that is) in 1985, Corman used as copy text not the "latest" version of the poem, which he himself had published in Origin, but the earlier version, as preserved in Blue Chicory.

That minor glitch, I'm happy to say, is fixed in GP2. I'm not yet sure what to make of the book's typography & design. As big a fan as I am of David Bullen (he did The Poem of a Life, after all), I think his cover work for GP1 is atrocious. GP2 is at least palatable, if not inspiring. But I'm very much wedded to the miniscule typography of GP1; the poems seem to float on the pages like island, demanding microscopic attention. That's all swept away in GP2, which is set in a far larger typeface. I wonder – the generation of readers coming to LN by way of The Granite Pail – how different is their experience of the poetry from that of my generation, coming to it by way of a rather different Granite Pail?

Lumber: The Stones of Venice III

The house is beset with lumber, in the old-fashioned sense – stacks of things, mostly books, useful or un-, but with no clear place to be put away or stored. I have cartons of books I've inherited over the years from friends, colleagues; I have great sifts, middens, of unsorted papers; I have successive Troy-like layers of acquisitions, being gradually sorted & (sometimes) shelved; I have the usual "working" stacks of projects at hand. My study is probably an official fire hazard, a labyrinth that I can't trust visitors to safely pick their way thru.

It makes me think, as I wind thru the innumerable indices to the last volume of Ruskin's Stones of Venice (1853), of the sorts of lumber that fill one's mind. How much of my own imagination is occupied with the songs from some portion of my 13000 track iPod? How much with scenes from Beneath the Planet of the Apes? To what degree does the artwork of Barry Windsor-Smith dwarf that of Giorgione, in terms of mental territory occupied?

Ruskin ends Volume III – or at least he did in 1853 – with a sustained, lyrical (but subdued) plea for a revival of Gothic architecture in England:
an architecture that kindles every faculty of its workman, and addresses every emotion in its beholder; which, with every stone that is laid on its solemn walls, raises some human heart a step nearer heaven, and which from its birth has been incorporated with the existence, and in all its form is symbolical of the faith, of Christianity.
This was of course before the biggest flowering of the (caps) Gothic Revival, where English architects took JR's advice & ran with it into a a wonderland of sham-Gothic and pseudo-Gothic – missing, to his dismay, the point.

In 1881 he added an Epilogue to the book. Given the moment in which it was written (post-Fors, post breakdowns, post his shift of focus to political economy) one might expect more thunder & fire from the Epilogue; but it's surprisingly subdued, if pretty scolding nevertheless. There's one lovely moment, where he berates the ignorant tourist who would try to appreciate Tintoretto's Paradise without knowing anything of the Church Fathers or iconography:
"But if I'm really good, and mean to try to see it, what's to be done?"

Well, you've got to read Homer all through, first, very carefully; then with increasing care, the Prophet Ezekial; then, also with always increasing care, the Gospel of St. John, and then – I'll tell you what to do next.

"But have you?"

I should rather think so! I knew the Iliad and Odyssey and most of the Apocalypse more or less by heart before I was twelve years old: and have worked under them as my tutors ever since. The Gospel of St. John, everybody, in my young days, knew at least something about, and I've read it myself some thousand times, syllable by syllable.
That's the mental furniture that's behind the prophetic thundering of late-period Ruskin (not to mention the evangelical nagging of early Ruskin).

Now I don't know that I've read anything a thousand times (& I suspect a bit of Ruskinian exaggeration there), tho there are certainly some texts I've read scores of times, & even a few poems I know by heart.* But while I'm fascinated & repelled by JR's repetition-compulsion here, I want to embrace the man for the beginning of the next sentence:
That's all mere alphabetical work, the knowing it...
Yes, yes – knowing one's way around the text, knowing what comes next & what goes where, it's like knowing one's ABCs, knowing how to sound out the letters of the words: reading, real reading, takes place only afterwards, when one's gone thru the "alphabetical work" of mapping the surface of what's there.

Is this a matter of old-fashioned "surface" & "depth" reading? Ruskin would say so, I'm sure, but that's only part of it. You can't, that is, even read a "depthless" work immanently, in terms of its movements & structures, without an intimate knowledge of its contours.

I wish I knew the Iliad & the Odyssey better; I wish I had Revelation by heart. Oh well – back to the grand essay on Beneath the Planet of the Apes & Barry Windsor-Smith.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Civic Duty

Capitalized, of course.

So when we came home what was there waiting for me but that damned jury duty summons. And when I got round to phoning the 888 number they'd helpfully provided, I found it was too late to request a postponement. So, being a good citizen & all that, I left behind my "Sure, I'm a Marxist" (pix of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, & Karl) & big red star t-shirts, dressed in something approximating what I'd wear to teach , & shlepped the half-hour north to arrive at the Palm Beach County courthouse at (gulp) 8am yesterday morning.

I'd decided to be a good citizen this time around & keep an open mind at the voir dire phase (as opposed to last year's "yes, I have a terrible ingrained prejudice against ambulance chasers who mount suits on behalf of Eurotrash-dressed Palm Beachers against nice-looking south Asian doctors"); mind you, that wasn't going to keep me from telling them I don't trust police testimony because of the culture of mendacity in every law enforcement department I'd ever encountered – or that I really couldn't sit for a long trial, since yes, someone else could cover my classes, but then they wouldn't be my classes, would they? and then I'd have to waste precious class time reorienting students to the fact that Milton wasn't a plaster saint but a really deeply conflicted, maybe even psychotic fanatic, and that yes, I've got an open mind, but if you bring up Ted Kooser or Billy Collins in my workshop I will throw a book at you.

So I spent some 5 hours in an over-air-conditioned jury waiting room watching first The Living Sea, then Stephen Spielberg's The Terminal (guy gets stranded for 7 months in JFK due to passport snafus – terribly appropriate choice, but terrible movie), reading maybe 50-75 pages of Carlyle's Past and Present. Then, a half hour after we'd been called back from lunch, & a few minutes into the dire Will Smith vehicle Hitch, I & a score of others were called up for a jury – only to find, as we assembled, that somebody'd copped a plea, & we were sent home. So I didn't really get a chance to do my civic duty, even as I did my civic duty.

Maybe the only irritating part was sitting thru the introductory video by the droopy-dawg head judge, lecturing us on the precious right of trial by jury, which our Founding Fathers had fought for & which our brave boys & girls overseas were defending right now. I get the point, okay – but could you deliver it with just a shmidgen of affect? Like, make me believe you – this isn't a macroeconomics lecture.

And alas the whole business made me miss dropping P & D off for their first day at a new school. Damn you, trial by jury!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"back in the blogging days..."

(or, an index of how old & out-of-touch I am:)

(An exchange between two Facebook friends, younger poets, whose names I've omitted:)

Friend #1 (in her status update): Allen Grossman is my second cousin (twice removed) --- for reals.

Friend #1 (commenting on her own status): Should I let him know the good news (kidding)?

Friend #2 (commenting): Is he the one who wrote How to Do Things with Tears?

Friend #1: I think so?

Friend #2: I liked that book, even though it's very Poundian.... He wrote a book of prose called The Sighted Singer that I read with great interest back in my grad school days, which was kind of Blakean/rational-in-a-weird-way. [Two other younger poets, whose names I've omitted] really like his writing, I think. I remember them writing about him back in the blogging days.

Friend #1: Thanks for the info! I'm totally going to lose some street cred being this closely associated with SoQ :)

Friend #2: Hey, he's published by New Directions. I think he's kind of "marginally" quiet. Not that those distinctions are as relevant as they used to be.
I leave the analysis of this to more supple, elastic, & indeed younger minds than my own. But man, that "back in the blogging days" hurts...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bad John Cale

I can't claim to be totally domesticated to the new electronic economy of music: I still like my stacks of CDs, even the tottering shelves of LPs that I haven't really played in years. (My really very good turntable is somewhere under a stack of papers & books.) But my discovery over this summer of a search engine devoted entirely to music blogs may have been the tipping point. I'd done some music downloading over the past couple years, but now I discovered that by typing in a few search terms I could lay my hands on mp3 versions of almost anything I wanted – including things that I'd been searching for for years.

Case in point: The 1983-5 nadir of John Cale's career, when he bounced back from the deep-dish weirdness of Music for a New Society (one of the most unsettling albums ever to find its way into the "pop" stacks of your local record store, strange both musically, lyrically, & even in terms of production values) to record a trio of seemingly tossed-off records – Caribbean Sunset, John Cale Comes Alive, and Artificial Intelligence. Cale fans scoff at these records. For me they have deep personal significance, in the way that mediocre music experienced intensely at a vulnerable moment of one's life can have.

I'd been following Cale since 1980 or so, with Sabotage/Live; I'd bought his entire back catalogue at a shop in Chapel Hill on a road trip with my parents, and I snapped up Honi Soit (1981) and Music for a New Society (1982) as soon as they hit the shelves, much to the bemusement of my high school friends, to a person fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Gap Band. Caribbean Sunset I bought in college, and it was on the Caribbean Sunset tour that I saw Cale play the 930 Club in Washington; I would see him again a year later in Charlotte, supporting the Comes Alive album. (I still have the t-shirt from that show somewhere.)

So it was with some delight that I downloaded some blogger's pristine rips of the vinyl versions of these two albums. (They've never been released on CD, for some reason; Artificial Intelligence, which really is Cale's slightest record, has been available on CD for some years.)

So how do they hold up after all these years? Well, that was the period of my life when I listened to every new album with the intensity Empson brought to a particularly ambiguous Donne poem, so hearing these records again is more a matter of being reminded of every drum-beat, every guitar embellishment, every vocal turn. Caribbean Sunset, to be frank, isn't bad at all. Maybe 40% of the album is, if not outright filler, then underdeveloped songs; but the rest is solid Cale – in the case of the title track, "Model Beirut Recital," and "Villa Albani," first-rate Cale. My main reservation – and this is true as well of Comes Alive – is Cale's lead guitarist, David Young, who's just too damned reserved and tasteful for my taste. Cale is best with freakout guitarists: Chris Spedding, Phil Manzanera, and the sublime madnesses of Mark Aaron on Sabotage/Live and Sturgis Nikides on Honi Soit.

It's hard to listen to John Cale Comes Alive without remembering intensely those smoke-filled shows in Washington and Charlotte. Cale was a fashion disaster: wayfarer sunglasses, a black suit over a black sleeveless shirt, and velcro-closure white sneakers. His Flying V guitar was secured to its strap with multiple wrappings of black electrical tape. I lost count of how many Heinekens he downed over the course of each evening. Carrying maybe 30 extra pounds, he looked like a cross between Tinto Brass and Dean Martin, and moved like an inebriated penguin. (Don't believe me? Search "John Cale 1984" on Youtube.)

But they were electric performances, captured pretty darned well on Comes Alive (if a trifle cleaner and tighter than I remember). It doesn't match the wondrous madness of Sabotage/Live, but it beats the hell out of the solo piano/guitar performances Cale would later mount (recorded on Fragments of a Rainy Season), when he's just taking himself too damned seriously.* On Comes Alive, he's just a first-rate rocker with an incomparable catalogue of weird songs. I'm glad to rehear these records. And hey, if Cale gets around to issuing CD versions, I'll even buy them.

*Even the recent double set Circus Live (2007), which has some really excellent versions of the Cale catalogue, and covers some tracks I'd given up hoping to hear live, feels just too "arty" much of the time.

Shakespeare skirmishes

So I picked up, right before we left for points north, a copy of Ron Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups (Random House, 2006). I got it for a song at the local second-hand place, priced next-to-nothing because of the copious markings some retiree had left in it: kinda reassuring, evidence that someone out there is still buying & reading carefully semi-serious books.

I read a decent amount of Shakespeare criticism, & know my way around most of the major textual controversies, which are the subject of much of Rosenbaum's book, especially the debates over the relationships among the three Hamlet texts and the two Lears. And even tho I've followed the hardcore scholarly debates, I wondered if a non-academic writer would be able to cast interesting light on what's at stake. After all, here's a book on Shakespeare by a professional writer that isn't an anti-Stratfordian tract or a specimen of "quote-and-dote" bardolatrical "appreciation."

I was hoping for something like the penetrating light Janet Malcolm shines on the Hughes/Plath industries, & on literary biography in general, in her The Silent Woman, or on Stein's life & writing in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. Alas, Rosenbaum's book simply demonstrates what can go wrong with the whole New Yorker approach to writing this sort of thing, the mixture of interview, factoids, & personal narrative. Somehow, the issues at hand – tho I confess I'm only around 100 pages in to a book that's almost 600 – never seem to come alive. The thumbnail sketches of protagonists – Gary Taylor, Harold Jenkins, Frank Kermode – seem strangely unfocused, or downright wrong. (I admire Sir Frank immensely, & his edition of The Tempest is still important, but while he's obviously among the preeminent British literary critics alive, I don't know anyone who'd call him "perhaps the preeminent British Shakespeare critic.") The interviews go on & on, rambling & foregrounding Rosenbaum himself in ways that Malcolm is careful never to do.

I dunno. The book's got some 500-ish pages in which to redeem itself (I'm really looking forward to what Rosenbaum has to say about Harold Bloom, the self-appointed Dr. Johnson/Falstaff/Zero Mostel of our day), but if the first 1/6 is any indication, it may well be a tedious slog.

Stones of Venice III, however, winds down to its conclusion quite energetically.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

punctuation, with reference to Milton & Lisa Robertson

Yes, the Modern Library Milton I'm teaching from this Fall has quotation marks; that is, when characters in Paradise Lost talk, their speeches are indicated with good old-fashioned (American style) quotation marks. E.g., Satan at IV.31-34:
Then much revolving, thus in sighs began.
"O thou that with surpassing glory crowned,
Look'st from thy sole dominion like the God
Of this new world...
The original 1674 text of course has no such marks, but looks a lot more like what Roy Flannagan gives us in the Riverside Milton:
Then much revolving, thus in sighs began.
O thou that with surpassing Glory crownd,
Look'st from thy sole Dominion like the God
Of this new World...
All decisions on punctuating Milton, and for that matter on spelling, are pretty much up to the editor, since it's generally assumed that JM, who dictated his poem when he was blind, left his amanuenses responsible for those "accidentals." Flannagan sticks pretty closely to the early printed editions for punctuation, as do most editors (one exception is Gordon Teskey's excellent Norton Critical edition, which opts to punctuate as lightly as possible). Flannagan is notable for presenting something close to an "original-spelling" edition, while most editors have tended to modernize the spellings of the poem (except for such items as "thir" for "their," which might reflect Milton's pronunciation).

But none of the editions I have lying around at the moment – Flannagan, Hughes, Teskey, Shawcross – I can't be bothered at the moment to pull down Fowler – insert quotation marks, as Kerrigan et al. do in the Modern Library edition. It's part of the overall modernizing push of the ML edition, an attempt (I take it) to make the book as user-friendly as possible for students. They've ironed out most of the early editions' italics, done away with the Germanic capitalizations (see the Flannagan quotation), and tried to make the punctuation as helpful as possible. I have no problem with any of this: if I want to see what Milton's amanuenses & printers made of his script, I can easily open up Flannagan or check out the early editions on EEBO; my students are going to have trouble enough with Milton's syntax and referentiality without having to also struggle with early modern orthography. (One of J.'s students once wrote in an essay that Shakespeare was difficult because he wrote in "old broken English.")

But what about those quotation marks? They're definitely a modern intrusion. Quotation marks, as I understand it, didn't become standard equipment for the English writer until sometime in the 18th century. Milton himself never used them, even when he had the use of his eyes to write and read proof. What you get over & over again in Paradise Lost (& this reflects the fact that he had early on conceived of the project in dramatic terms) is large block speeches, introduced by speech tags ("To whom thus Adam."), and marked by slight indentation of the first line. (Milton doesn't do short speeches in PL – none of that Senecan backing-&-forthing – which is part of what makes Eve's humble one-liner at 10.162 so wonderful: "The Serpent me beguiled and I did eat.")

But I've decided I don't mind the quotation marks in the Modern Library edition. Even if they're a modern intrusion, they don't change the overall texture of the text, and they'll probably be a bit of an aid to my students (and for that matter to me) in keeping straight when someone's talking. Of course, if this had been an 18th- or 19th-century edition, those quotation marks on lines of poetry would look rather different:
Then much revolving, thus in sighs began.
'O thou that with surpassing glory crowned,
'Look'st from thy sole dominion like the God
'Of this new world...
Orthographical standards in the 18th and 19th centuries specified that each line of direct speech in verse should be preceded with its own quotation mark. That's the convention at work in The Cantos, as for instance in Canto V:
"Yet feared this might not end him," or lest Alessandro
Know not by whom death came, O se credesse
"If when the foot slipped, when death came upon him,
"Lest cousin Duke Alessandro think he had fallen alone,
"No friend to aid him in falling."
(Is Pound being intentionally archaic here? I don't think so – the replacement of the every-line quotation marks with quotation marks only at the beginning & end of a quoted passage in the later Cantos, my sense is, reflects a shift in general printing standards rather than a shift in Pound's orthographical aesthetic.)

It's pretty obvious that those every-line quotation marks wouldn't work for Milton, would end up being unbelievably fussy & intrusive decorating his 40- or 50-line speeches. So the opening & closing quotes – double in the American convention & all – make sense to me.
Of course, trust Lisa Robertson to do something new & eye-opening with orthography. Among a number of arresting moments in Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip (Coach House, 2009) is this, in "About 1836," in which the speaker asks "the dog of Latinity" to tell her about boredom.
The dog replied:

'At the edges of the villages of Europe
'there is boredom.
'The villages of Europe
'don't want your thinking.
'They want
'not a world.
'In these villages
'one rereads the soiled timetables
'of minor trains
'and finds therein
'Grace. This is called
'an environment. Now
'you weep its surplus.
'Nowhere is like that.

And the dog said

'I am going to call it hegemony when [....]
Did you catch that? First of all, note the effect of this archaic orthographical device, when applied to heavily enjambed, short-lined free verse – I can only call it "weird, in a cool way." (Note how I'm slipping into my highly-theoretical professorial voice.) But truly strange is its fracturing – the fact that there is no closing quotation mark after "that." The quotation ends without a mark of ending. It's not a typo; she does it again, several times, over the course of the poem.

The effect is odd, at least for this reader. Just as I was beginning to "naturalize" the every-line quotes, suddenly I was jerked into awareness of them by Robertson's very violation of their conventions. And I remained hyper-aware of the quotation marks for the whole of the poem. They became a repeatedly meaningful punctuation, rather than a default indicator of speech.

I want to relate this to the pervasive quotation marks in Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette, but it's something I want to think about more.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

experimental decoupling

What with all the "blogging is dead" chit-chat chit-chatting around the internet (see here for Josh Corey's typically thoughtful response), it seems a bit of an odd moment for me to re-enter blogging with a bit of enthusiasm. While I'm just as fond of Facebook as the next person, I remain rather fonder of the open-ended opportunities for brief squibs or lengthy pontifications the blog offers. But facts are facts: even considering that I've never met half of the people designated as my "friends" on Facebook, and I really haven't the foggiest notion who some of them are, and considering that maybe half of them have deliberately hidden my updates from their feed – any little verbal butt-scratch I post on Facebook gets read by probably three or four times as many people as visit Culture Industry on any given day. In short, blog visits have been dropping in direct proportion to Facebook activity.

So I confess: Like many other folks, I've been using Facebook updates to drive traffic to the blog. (Facebook, by the way, makes this easy and painless.) But I think I'm going to try decoupling the two activities for a while, to blog without advertising it on Facebook. Just to see who comes around.

The semester, by the way, looms. I just finished the pre-teaching read-thru of Paradise Lost (that's the "refresh my memory so's I can talk about it intelligently before actually teaching it, when I'll be reading thru it once again"). Probably been thru that particular long poem a dozen times, start to finish. I'm rather in awe of David Kastan, who in the preface to his excellent Hackett edition of the poem recounts having taught Paradise Lost something like twice a year during his fourteen years at Dartmouth. Now that's knowing a text.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ruskin Editions

Oh, by the way – this comment came over the transom last post, courtesy of someone with the wonderful handle of "Epaphroditus Bainton" (don't I recognize that name from William Byrd II?):
I'm looking for good editions of Ruskin. Do you have any advice on the best ways to get at this material (especially Fors Clavigera)? There's the reprints-on-demand on Amazon, but I'm wary of forking out 35-50 bucks for what might be a cheesy reprint.
I've probably blogged this before, but there's no harm in promoting JR. For starters, there're a couple of good selections out there:
Selected Writings, ed. Dinah Birch (Oxford World's Classics) is a fine all-round introduction
Unto This Last and Selected Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (Penguin) is good on the political stuff
And there's millions of used copies of John Rosenberg's great The Genius of John Ruskin floating around.

But the big news is this: Cambridge University Press has released a print-on-demand paperback reprint of the entire Library Edition, the gold standard of Ruskin editing. You can buy the whole thing for $1750 (oof!), or settle for single volumes at between $43 & $50. Now I don't like the quality of CUP's POD things very much (that is, the bindings); but I suspect they're better than some of the other reprints I've seen floating around, & one would be assured that one was getting the very best in terms of the text itself – and it's been a long time since I've seen an original of the Library Edition going for anywhere near as – er – affordable.


It's that time of year – time to return home from the "vacation" & gird one's loins for the upcoming semester, which begins in a couple weeks' time. I had high hopes for substantial blogging, at least during one leg of our trip, but all of my writing energy got channeled – quite productively, thank you – into the project at hand.

A scattered six weeks, all told. We spent the first four & a half dividing our time between Manhattan & Fire Island, where I got lots of sun, ate badly ("badly" in the sense of limited offerings at the general store & an unfamiliar kitchen), & powered my way through 2 score pages on Guy Davenport: a biggish essay (in the old sense) – a bit of memoir, a smidgen of criticism, a trifle of reviewery, & a good deal of patch-elbowed tweedy appreciation. It was immensely fun to write, & enough fun to read that you should be seeing some version of it in Parnassus fairly soon. Now, thankfully, save for a brief review or two my writing responsibilities have tapered off.

Then the better part of a week visiting my mother in Tennessee, a visit fractured by an unexpected and rather traumatic hospital visit (everybody's okay, thanks). Then the girls' first real road trip: one day we drove to Cincinnati, where we were entertained royally by Norman & Alice Finkelstein, got to spend some quality time with Lisa and Bill Howe (& even ran into the too-long-since-I've-seen-him Keith Tuma), & admired the beautiful architecture & topography of the city, which I'd never visited before. The next day, on to Cleveland for a couple days with some old friends of J.'s – a lovely & restful windup to the whole whirlwind excursion.

We caught a flight at the crack of dawn today, & got home midday to find the house in pretty much pristine condition, thanks to a really sterling house-sitter. Golly, but he deserves laurels, for the upstairs air conditioning has been pretty much nonfunctional the whole time; the final round of repairs got done – you guessed it – this very morning, just in time for us to come home & throw him out.

I joke about coming back from New York as being something like Christmas, given the number of cartons we always end up mailing home. This time was worse than ever: SIX cartons, mostly of books. Of course, a large contingent of poem-books from The Strand, as always. And of course all of the books we shipped up there in order to work on our own projects. And a huge bundle of things that fell into my lap by way of a dedicated Ruskin-collector friend who's outgrown his own shelf space. Not that I have shelf space for all this. But I'm making plans (few of which, alas, actually involve getting rid of books.) Do I really need all those poetry anthologies in my study? Couldn't they go to my office on campus?

(I always have space for your new poetry collection, however.)