Monday, January 30, 2006

"We no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven. He have adopted Christianity merely as an improved method of agri-culture. We have built for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb. The best works of art are the expression of man's struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state is to be forgotten."

Walden, "Economy"

[ager = "field"; and how to stress that last sentence? If we take "our art" to be stressed in contradistinction to "The best works of art," then it is little more than another shot at the pettiness of 19th-century New England. I prefer to the two in apposition – so that, in a vague anticipation of Frankfurt school aesthetics, art's expressive aspiration has become normalized into an analgesic: the opium of the masses.]

Saturday, January 28, 2006

A few updates on the right, new links to newish blogs by folks I like & feel some distant connection to: Chris Funkhouser, who seems these days to be of all places in Malaysia; Tom Orange, blogging from Washington, DC, and keeping lots of political stuff front & center; & the estimable Jessica Smith, who's thrown over the post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E hegemony of Buffalo and is establishing herself among the textual scholars of Charlottesville. Check 'em out.
The other day eBay threw my way a DVD copy of Robert Fuest's (sometimes intentionally, sometimes un-) hilarious 1973 adaptation of Michael Moorcock's The Final Programme. Frankly better than I'd remembered it from a single rented viewing a decade or more ago, tho not a patch on the novel (which is not a patch on some of Moorcock's later, far more fragmented Jerry Cornelius books). Jon Finch and Jenny Runacre are splendid. Best of all is the "audio commentary" track, where Fuest and Runacre, both obviously a bit the worse for drink, gamely watch their way thru a film they obviously haven't thought about in a couple of decades. "Ooh, that's a nice bit, innit?" "How'd we do that special effect there?"

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Heidegger & Adorno

I’m always fascinated by the conjunction of figures who separately interest me but whom I could never imagine in the same room together. Rüdiger Safranski’s biography of Heidegger, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (Harvard UP, 1998; on the original title, see below), has an interesting chapter on Adorno’s attacks on Heidegger, particularly in The Jargon of Authenticity. Safranski doesn’t have much patience with the Frankfurt School in general, but he seems poised to give Adorno’s critique a pretty fair hearing. Then one comes upon this, Heidegger's former student-lover Hannah Arendt writing in a white-hot rage to Karl Jaspers, concerning a nasty Der Spiegel article about MH:
Although I can’t prove it, I am pretty much convinced that the real string-pullers here are the Wiesengrund-Adorno people in Frankfurt. And that is the more grotesque, as it has now been established (the students have discovered it) that Wiesengrund (half Jewish and one of the most repulsive people I know) tried to fall in line with the Nazis. For years he and Horkheimer have accused everyone who opposed them of anti-Semitism or threatened that they would do so. Truly an abominable crowd. (18 April 1966)
Gotta love that “the students have discovered it” – rather like the right-wing groups these days who solicit students for lecture notes and tapes of college courses taught by “leftist” professors.

And Heidegger himself? Richard Wisser, recounting a 1969 conversation with MH:
We talk about Adorno.... Heidegger: "When Adorno came back to Germany, he said, I was told: 'In five years, I'll have cut Heidegger down to size.' You see what kind of man he is." I: "A small statement but a great feeling of power. He was certainly mistaken in the matter, but there are many signs that the impact he has does not help further the reception of your thinking."..... Heidegger sticks with Adorno...: "I have never read anything of his. Hermann Mörchen once tried to convince me to read Adorno. I didn't."

In a conversation I deliberately use the expression "negative dialectic" as a key phrase for Adorno's way of thinking. "What does he mean by that – really?" Heidegger mischievously stretches the controversial adverb. I suggest that he understands his dialectic, in contrast to the positive Hegelian dialectic, to be a "denunciation" and a critique of what is for the sake of that about it which it is not and which is not allowed to be that way. I speak at length, perhaps too long, because I have recently published a review of Adorno's Negative Dialectic. "One reacts critically." Heidegger's commentary: "So he is a sociologist and not a philosopher." "But one who has more success with our 'revolutionary' studens than almost anyone else today. He practially causes critical protest, opposition. By reading him, it is possible to gain a philosophically supported position that is essentially a position of negation and that allows one to stand out, be different, act in reaction, agitate. Philosophical questioning in your sense is lost." Heidegger's response irritates me: "With whom did Adorno study?" I cannot answer this question and point instead to his origin as I interpret it; that is, to his publications. Heidegger does not go into it or into my comments on Adorno's Minima Moralia. He listens and then returns, to his question that had only been postponed, not answered, by my discussion: "No, has he really studied with someone?" "I don't know!"
The Safranski biography – in the US, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil – was published in Germany in 1994 as Ein Meister aus Deutschland: Heidegger and seine Zeit (A Master from Germany: Heidegger and his Time). One gets the pun on Sein und Zeit, of course, but the real bombshell is not the subtitle but the main title – "Ein Meister aus Deuschland." Safranski explains that oh yes, MH was a "master" philospher, & something of a mystic like Meister Eckhart; and he was "very 'German,' as German as Thomas Mann's Adrian Leverkühn," Safranski notes, making explicit the Faustian aspects of MH's career. "And finally, through his political activity he also had about him something of that 'master from Germany' that Paul Celan's poem refers to."

Celan's "Todesfuge" ("Death-fugue") has been a required text in German schools for decades, a constant, canonized reminder of the Holocaust:
Er ruft spielt süsser den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

[He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Germany
he shouts scrape your fiddles more darkly you'll rise up to the sky as smoke
then you'll have a grave in the clouds when you won't lie too cramped
(my adaptation of Felstiner's version)]
Safranski's bio has attacted some flak for not coming down hard enough on Heidegger's Nazism; I don't know – I haven't gotten that far into it yet. But in its original German version, with a title that attaches Heidegger to the single most famous poetic response to Auschwitz, it's hard to see how Safranski could make the connection any more explicit.

Monday, January 23, 2006


Josh Hanson comments that that list of "touchstones" for the argument that poetry ought to be read in the light of "truth" seems rather long in the tooth – in short, mostly bits of wisdom from the 19th century & before – and he's right. (And just to quote myself again, it's an argument "which I didn't necessarily endorse, but claimed was 'at least as old and interesting as the argument for pleasure detached from truth-value.'") The great watershed is the rise of Kantian aesthetics, & more generally the rise of an enlightenment & post-enlightenment aesthetics which values other aspects of poetry than its possible truth-telling value. But that doesn't mean we ought to be so hubristic as to simply cast aside whatever's been thought before, say, 1800, as we'd throw out the old Ford Pinto in favor of a brand new Lincoln Navigator. I have no patience for arguments from authority, either, but then Eric asked for some "touchstones": take 'em or leave 'em. I suspect, however, that we could come up with a pretty impressive list of 20th-century statements of poetics that weren't ashamed of using "truth" as a determining metric of value, from Heidegger, (Riding) Jackson, & Zukofsky ("thinking with the things as they exist") thru the more polically inclined works of Rich, Forché, & Baraka.

Yes, it's indeed an old-fashioned stance to argue that poetry ought ultimately be evaluated on a truth-basis, & I don't offhand know anyone – aside from some mullahs, many American clerics & conservative commentators, & a few leftover Stalinists – who would endorse it in as bold a form as it's offered by, say, Pope. But one is still left with Eric's question: "When we take poetry of thinking (there must be a single word for that in German) seriously as thinking, what do we do with those thoughts, if we're not evaluating them on the basis of truth? I proposed pleasure, but hey! I'm a languid, frivolous man." Is the "thinking" done in poetry to be received in a manner analogous to what we do when we read a work of philosophy – trying the premises & the logic of the arguments as they proceed, testing the conclusions & assertions against our own sense of how the world is put together – & what do we do when we've accurately "tracked" that thought and found it lacking (cf. Ben's remark on "those writers we love—Rilke comes to mind—whose language is beautiful and thinking is crap")? Not perhaps lacking in rigor, but lacking in "truth"?

Perhaps what's most interesting about this whole discussion for me is the manner in which the terms have shifted from discussant to discussant: from talk about poetry and "thinking" – as opposed to something else that poetry does – "emoting," or "perceiving"; to talk of "truth" (as the object of thinking) and (or versus) "pleasure," or "truth" and "rhetoric," or "truth" and "imagination." Thinking's other, that is, seems constantly on the move, even as we all agree that however central thinking might be to the poetry we value, there's still something else – tho we use a variety of words to name it/them – that's indispensible to our experience of the poetic art.
Joshua Clover's Times review of Reznikoff's collected includes at least one sentence deliciously on the money: "The finest Objectivist verse is a Shaker table in the house of poetry, as opposed to, say, Confessionalism's Bakelite commode."
On the blog scene: James K. A. Smith has a blog on (mostly Canadian) "politics, culture, the Church, &c" with the lovely name Fors Clavigera. (Cf. my thoughts on Ruskin & blogging from way back.) Phil Gyford is posting Samuel Pepys's diaries as a blog, with copious annotations; what fun!
I'm dying to get a copy of The Ister, the Australian film about the Danube, Hölderlin's poem on the Danube ("The Ister"), Heidegger's lecture course on Hölderlin's poem, the Holocaust, and the course of postwar European history (among other things). Would love to screen it for my graduate seminar this semester, in fact. Doesn't look like an affordable US or Canadian version is coming anytime soon, tho – anybody out there in Europe or Asia (or any non-US-or-Canadian country) who can help me out by being a middleperson?

happy birthday L. Z.

Zukofsky would be 102 today. He had three birthdays: January 29th, the day he decided on when he had to have a birthday (enrolling for college, etc.), since his parents apparently mislaid his birth certificate; January 26th, the day he found when he discovered the document and misread the midwife's handwriting; and January 23rd, the "real" date. His mother died on January 29th; thru much of his life he was in the habit of celebrating his birthday on the 26th.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

[Puttering. A bit of long-overdue maintenance – I've added a few new links on the right. Let me know if I've overlooked your blog. & I'm getting a little tired of this Skia typeface, which only shows up rightly (for me) when I use Firefox; maybe back to Georgia or something.]

Saturday, January 21, 2006

poetry as thinking, the poem and truth

The conversation has gotten so complex and interesting that I don't see any point in summarizing any more, but wanted to pick a couple of threads out of the tapestry: First, Ben's lovely last post, which seems slightly to revise his first comments (or at least to recast them within a reception framework), and which quotes a passage from a Derrida interview I hadn't seen (I assume that's in the recent Fordham UP collection of JD's Celan writings, Ben?): "As I see it," Ben writes,
we must choose between saying (a) poetry is thinking and every aspect of the poem helps to perform it, or (b) poetry is thinking, but the poem as a whole is always more than that. The first rationalizes the poem tout court and constrains us to name all its varying effects "meaning." The second forces us to confront the limitations of thinking, to accept that there are experiences of language that refuse thinking's assistance.

Apropos of this second claim, here is Derrida from an interview in his book Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan (referring to his reading of the poem "Grosse Glühende Wölbung," in an essay that engages the work of Gadamer):

"One can inventory a multiplicity of meanings in a text, in a poem, in a word, but there will always be an excess that is not of the order of meaning, that is not just another meaning.... Rhythm, caesura, hiatus, interruption: how is one to read them? There is, therefore, a dissemination irreducible to hermeneutics in Gadamer's sense.... [N]ot only does this not discourage reading but, for me, it is the condition of reading. If I could prove something concerning a Celan poem, could say, as many people do, 'See, here is what it means'—for example, it is about Auschwitz, or Celan is about the Shoah (all obviously true!)—if I could prove it is that and only that I would have destroyed Celan's poem. The poem would be of limited interest if all it amounted to was what it meant, what one believes it means. I try therefore to make myself listen for something that I cannot hear or understand, attentive to marking the limits of my reading in my reading. This comes down to saying: Here is what I believe one can reconstitute, what that could mean, why it is captivating and beautiful and strong, while leaving the unsaid intact, inaudible. That will, moreover, authorize other readings. My reading is modest and does not exclude many other readings of this poem. It is an ethics or a politics of reading, also."
Second, there's Eric's "challenge" for me to present some "touchstones in that argument for truth as a primary value to poetry" (an argument, by the way, which I didn't necessarily endorse, but claimed was "at least as old and interesting as the argument for pleasure detached from truth-value"). Okay then:
•Aristotle, Poetics: "Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars."

•Julius Caesar Scaliger, Poetics: "Imitation, however, is not the end of poetry, but is intermediate to the end. The end is the giving of instruction in pleasurable form." (of course adapting Horace here)

•Giacopo Mazzoni, "On the Defence of the Comedy of Dante": "If, therefore, one has to reason about the end of this poetry, it can be definitely said that as an imitative art its end is the correctness of the idol, but that as recreation its only end is pleasure."

•Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Criticism":
True wit is nature to advantage dressed;
What oft' was thought, but ne'er so well expressed;
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.

•Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare: "Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.... This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has 'mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies, by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions."

•William Blake, "A Vision of the Last Judgment": "The Last Judgment is not fable or allegory, but vision. Fable or allegory are a totally distinct and inferior kind of poetry. Vision or imagination is a representation of what eternally exists, really and unchangeably."

•William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads: "Aristotle, I have been told, has said that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature."

•John Keats to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November 1817: "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination – What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth..."

•Emily Dickinson: "Tell all the truth but tell it slant..."

Phew! Maybe I'll add to this at some point – one could certainly add "Heidegger on poetry, passim," and bunches of Emerson – but that's more than enough for now. Take that, pleasure-boy! You gonna quote Oscar Wilde now, & tell me he's righter than all these heavy guys? (Tho of course Wilde was very rarely wrong...) I suspect one of the things that's going on in this discussion of truth in poetry (discussion #3 or 4, that is) is a kind of fuzziness as to what we mean by the term itself – to put it in its baldest terms, what Keats means by "truth" is doubtless rather different from a positivist or hard scientific definition of "truth," though probably closer to a Heideggerian notion.

More later...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

more on poetry as theory

Phew! That last post elicited a storm of comments (well, what counts as a "storm" for this humble blog):

It’s no surprise that when I called his bluff, Norman came up with a lovely example of thinking in verse by William Bronk. This from The World, the Worldless:
The Nature of Musical Form

It is hard to believe of the world that there should be
music in it: these certainties against
the all-uncertain, this ordered fairness beneath
the tonelessness, the confusion of random noise.

It is tempting to say of the incomprehensible,
the formlessness, there is only order as we
so order and ordering, make it so: or this,
there is natural order which music apprehends

which apprehension justifies the world;
or even this, these forms are false, not true,
and music irrelevant at least, the world
is stated somewhere else, not there. But no.

How is it? There is a fairness of person too,
which is not a truth of persons or even, we learn,
a truth of that person, particularly.
It is only fairness stating only itself:

as though we could say of music only, it is.

It’s hard to argue with that. One of the things that makes this piece so successful – and it’s characteristic of much of the best of Bronk – is the way it explicitly plays off of the structures and rhetoric of conventional prose argumentation – that is, it’s quite explicitly a “thinking” poem, a poem which begins as an epistemological/aesthetic argument, then flexes that argumentative structure into a kind of insight that would not be available in conventional prose. I see it as a more discursive cousin to one of my favorite of Zukofsky’s short poems, a piece that encapsulates his own epistemological thinking – #21 of Anew:
Can a mote of sunlight defeat its purpose
When thought shows it to be deep or dark?

See sun, and think shadow.
If one were looking for less austere examples, poems more invested in the color & gaiety of language, one could throw out Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as a text in which “thinking takes place within the rigors of form,” thereby becoming “not merely a description of ideas but an enactment” thereof. Ben Friedlander throws in Dickinson as an apt representative of thinking in verse, and rephrases what Norman has said quite felicitously: “poetry moves forward as thinking (and this is also true of post-Romantic philosophy) precisely by responding to the promptings (and coming to terms with the limitations) of the words that would register its movement.”

I can’t say I agree with him on his remarks on form, however – “What constitutes the promptings of language is where form comes in, but form in the ordinary sense is to my mind (so to speak) a subsidiary issue” – unless I’m a bit more enlightened as to precisely what Ben means by “form in the ordinary sense.” I confess to being something of an old-fashioned formalist – not that I believe you (yes, YOU! Caruthers! In the back!) should be writing iambic pentameter, but that I believe some degree of form, shape is if not of the essence to poetry than at least at the base of the art form. Things like a metrical frame, lines and line breaks, rhyme, sound patterning, word counts, mesotics, lipograms and the like are not merely the corporeal bodies that encase an inner "form" of poetry – the formally arranged poem is its body. That is, I smell platonism when you dismiss or subcontract out the discussion of "form in the ordinary sense," Ben. Please, tell me I'm misunderstanding.

Jane responds that he agrees with all of us, & that none of this is news, which is true enough. One of my points of course was that the assertion that poetry is a sort of thinking is a truth often asserted & rarely demonstrated; but another was that the situation about which Jane originally complained (ie an overreliance on Baudelaire & Hölderlin as exemplary figures in theoretical readings of poetry) might be usefully expanded: that perhaps part of the problem is theorists' overreliance not merely on particular exemplary figures of the lyric tradition, but on the lyric tradition conceived in a particular, very canonical manner – or even on the lyric tradition period, to the exclusion of a whole boat-load of other sorts of poetry: narrative, dramatic, discursive, philosophical, etc. I'd argue that it's only by a rather savage stretch that one would want to call the Bronk poem above a "lyric" at all, or by the absurd reduction of the term "lyric poem" to something like "poem less than two pages long."

Ben chimes in again with a comment that puts its finger on a lot of what's at stake:
I don't know if anyone doubts that poetry involves thinking. The problems arise when one wants to make a claim about the status of this thinking. Is it necessary, for example, for philosophers to take account of poetry's formulations and solutions to the classic philosophical problems (about knowledge, being, ethics, etc.)? If the answer is yes, then does poetry need to accept correction from philosophy—or is this the importation of an irrelevant standard? Is thinking central to poetry's task (as it is to philosophy's)? If so, what do we make of those writers we love—Rilke comes to mind—whose language is beautiful and thinking is crap? Also: if we do accept this or that poet's work as an instance of thinking, are we then obliged to adopt a position with regard to its conclusions? Or is this a possible difference from philosophy?
– a comment which, as Eric points out, wheels us right back to the ancient issue of "truth" and "pleasure." (Whenever Eric hears the word "truth," he reaches for his pleasure pistol / love gun...) (And when he evokes the "Baraka Zone," he reminds me of that Heidegger post from yonks ago that I still haven't finished .) But I can't quite sign on to his enlistment of poetry tout court under the banner of pleasure: "it strikes me that while poetry may offer some of the pleasures of thinking--of argument, of theory, of essay, in the root sense of the word--it does so precisely in the name of pleasure, rather than in the name of truth." For the nonce forget Sidney & Coleridge (tho recall that important word "immediate," and recall that even as Wordsworth writes of the pleasure of metre in the Preface, he sees it ultimately as the spoonful of sugar that gets down the poem's truth), and ask yourself: did Bronk write that poem to give you pleasure? Does that poem propose pleasure as its ultimate end? In some sense, are we not traducing the poem by using it simply as an instrument of pleasure, however intellectually refined that pleasure may be?

I know this could go on indefinitely, and could easily end in parody – does Heidegger read Hölderlin for pleasure? I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn! You! yes you, Selinger! Out of the Republic! – but I think the argument for truth as primary to poetry is at least as old and interesting as the argument for pleasure detached from truth-value. That is, poetry that thinks demands to be taken seriously as thinking, even if that thinking is cast in forms that we tend to aestheticize and thus exempt from evaluating on the basis of truth. (Back to Bob's disinterested aesthetic.) Basta for now.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

poetry as theory

Norman Finkelstein, not usually irascible, seems fed up with Heidegger & his children: "What if," he comments,
we were to hold criticism and philosophy in abeyance for a while and instead consider the claim made by some poets, including a number with whom you are quite familiar, Mark, that poetry is in itself a way of thinking. At issue then is not primarily what is "theorized" about poetry, but what poetry itself "theorizes." Furthermore, the fact that this kind of thinking takes place within the rigors of form makes it not merely a description of ideas but an enactment of ideas. If nothing else, this practice makes us take poets more seriously as thinkers and makes us read poetry more closely. What we discover, I think, is that poets tell us as much about poetry, as an art and as mode of thinking, as do "theoretically-inflected" (or infected) critics.
That's undeniably elegantly put, & with a gun to my head I'd have to agree with it lock, stock, 'n' barrel. But...but... Yes, poetry is indeed a way of thinking – but only sometimes. Without going into the whole history of the conceptual distinction between poetic "knowledge" and other sorts of intellectual activity (Wordworth's "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, where he proposes poetry's opposite to be not prose but the "language of science," is one foundational document), I think you'd have to agree that in a great deal of poetry, while there may be mental activity of one sort or another going on, often it's a stretch to call it "thinking," much less "theorizing." Indeed, reminded of the roots of theory in "speculation" (or more literally, the "looking at" something), I'd be inclined to think that it's rather the exception for the poem to engage in the sort of self-reflexive mental activity that one could call "theoretical."

But let me play devil's advocate for a moment: What you've just said can be read as a high-horsical defense of poetry – even an old-fashioned defense of poetry – by a poet fed up with the self-aggrandizing claims of theorists and critics: in itself a pretty old genre, no? We have all heard such claims before, and most of them coming (perhaps paradoxically) from poets who themselves wrote criticism and works of prose poetics. Can you give me one concrete example of how a poem, thru the "rigors of form," "enacts" an "idea"? (I think I have a pretty good one myself offhand, but you da man making the claims, so you have to go first!) My point is not that you're in any way wrong or off track, but that such claims about "poetry" and "thinking" are easy to throw around but difficult to demonstrate – tho it's crucial that they be demonstrated, so that the large claims made by some poets – not just claims about poetry and thought, but claims about poetry and political praxis – can be fairly assessed.

I'm inclined to believe, in a rather old-fashioned way, that the theory "done" by poetry and theory "about" poetry are two different things, and serve different purposes. The use-value of a theoretically engaged reading of a poem – its exchange-value is probably nil – has to be something different than whatever theoretical insight one might gain from the poem itself. Different – and not superior to – and by no means displacing the poem itself – but at its best valuable, & not to be lightly dismissed. Susan Howe on Dickinson's "My Life had stood a loaded Gun"; de Man on Shelley's "The Triumph of Life"; Poe's "Philosophy of Composition" on "The Raven" (the latter a case in which a manifestly nugatory poem generates an endlessly suggestive piece of theory).

Monday, January 16, 2006


While I have much sympathy with Joshua Clover’s kvetch about the frequent appearances of Baudelaire & Hölderlin as synechdoches for “lyric poetry” in the work of twentieth-century philosophers of aesthetics, I can’t help feeling he’s narrowing his own aperture a bit too closely. What about Derrida on Ponge & Celan? Lacoue-Labarthe on Celan? But the problem isn’t so much with the specific figures of Hölderlin & Baudelaire as it is with a narrowed conception of the poetic as lyric, a conception into which Celan indeed fits without much trouble. (The problem, that is, besides the general shelving of poetry as a useful subject for cultural criticism – and even tho JC gives Fredric Jameson an honorable exemption, I can’t recall more than a passing reference or two to any contemporary poetry in Jameson’s work [aside from the silly bit about Perelman we all know].) What would contemporary theoretically-inflected literary criticism look like if, instead of Baudelaire & Hölderlin as models, writers took Apollinaire, Pound, and Loy as exemplary figures? Yes, yes, a hell of a lot more interesting.
And check out Josh Hanson on poetry & praxis: he doesn’t answer the question (& nobody has yet), but he asks it in quite a pertinent manner.

Politics & Philosophy (& poetry)

Over the long weekend on the Gulf Coast – unfortunately cut short for reasons too long to go into – I was reading thru some of the old books on my shelves, notably Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, ed. Gunther Neske & Emil Kettering (Paragon House, 1990), a collection of documents & responses concerning MH's "Nazi" years – his rectorship at Freiburg University in 1933-4, & as notably his long postwar silence about his involvement with National Socialism & about the Holocaust. It's a fascinating collection, reprinting H's rectorial address, his own immediate postwar explanations of the rectorship, & his poshumously published 1966 interview with Der Spiegel. All of it was prompted, of course, by the publication of Victor Farías's Heidegger and Nazism (Temple UP, 1989). There's a big shelf of responses to the Heidegger "affair" by now: books by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jacques Derrida, & Jean-François Lyotard, a detailed "political biography" by the historian Hugo Ott, & probably another dozen books over the last decade.

But some of the pieces in Martin Heidegger & National Socialism, while they by no means at the cutting edge of the debate (which has no doubt gone I have no idea where) are still notable:
•Emmanuel Levinas (a Jew and a wartime prison-camp survivor), in conversation with Philippe Nemo, speaks of the huge impact Sein und Zeit had upon him as a phenomenological study, a "verifiable" examination of the human being's experience in the world. He finds MH's later work much less compelling, & faults it for its emphasis on exegeses of Hölderlin & etymological explorations – neither of which is as compelling to EL as the phenomenology of S&Z. Interestingly, the biographical note at the end of the book cites a statement by Levinas to the effect that his knowledge of MHY's involvement with the Nazis made him unable to read H's later work with the same intensity with which he had engaged the earlier. (Shades of Eric & Baraka!)

•Jacques Derrida, also in an impromptu statement, agrees with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe that "Heidegger's silence" constitutes a "wound to thinking" – his silence, not so much about his own involvement with the Party & the rectorship, but about the significance of Auschwitz. JD speculates that had H made some sort of definite statement – the rectorship & all that surrounded it were a terrible mistake, Auschwitz was one of the absolute horrors of human history – then H would probably have been immediately forgiven, & thinkers would have been "relieved" of the very real task of thinking the relationship between H's still-central thought and National Socialism.
Of course, the name "Ezra Pound" springs to mind in this connection; at least for me, who have invested quite a lot of psychic energy into Pound's work over the years. And of course I recall having lived thru the Paul de Man "affair" at its ground zero, the Cornell University English Department. Cornell in the late 80s was something of a hotbed of de Man worship, & after the news had first been broken about PdM's pro-Nazi wartime journalism, it was the poet David Lehman – an Ithacan, tho not a Cornellian (and not yet the impresario of the Best American Poetry franchise) who took the lead in pillorying de Man, & by implication all of post-structuralism, in the American popular press (first in an article in I think Newsweek, then in his book Signs of the Times). Lehman was promptly persona non grata, to say the least, in Cornell academic circles, even as he continued to associate with certain faculty members & to attend creative writing department functions. The enormous volume of "Responses" to de Man's wartime journalism Werner Hamacher edited a couple of years later for U of Nebraska P went a long way towards confirming the suspicions of those who thought that post-structuralists were really just sophists, adept at making the "bad seem good." Not a high point of late-20th-century literary criticism.

But leaving aside de Man – for his involvement with the Nazis was much less intense, & ultimately much less interesting, than Heidegger's, or than Pound's involvement with Italian fascism – I'm fascinated by the sorts of reactions that get triggered among the partisans, scholars, or followers of a philosopher or poet when attention gets drawn to this sort of unsavory involvement.

[to be continued – in the next installment, a typology of justification/vilification, and What This Has To Do With Zukofsky]

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Fetish II

You’ll have to forgive me – it’s the first week of classes & my attention is too scattered for really concentrated thinking, beyond what I’m going to say during the next class meeting (& how to disguise my ignorance in front of dozens of keen-eyed undergraduates). Or beyond how to arrange books on my new (I estimate) 75 linear feet of shelf space. My original plan was to make the closet sort of a modernist & proto-modernist wonderland: On the Left, Ruskin & Joyce; on the Right, Pound, Eliot, & Williams; and Dead Ahead, modernist criticism. Getting these big blocks of books out of my study shelves (probably 100+ Joyce books, maybe 130+ Pound) would serve to free up lots of space for contemporary poetry & allow me to tidy up some of the “public spaces” in the house – which at the moment are decorated with Easter Island-like tottering stacks.

In the event, it turned out there was a lot more shelf space than I’d anticipated in that closet. Pound, Eliot, & WCW were swallowed up on the Right, so for good measure I threw in my Stevens collection (could’ve thrown in the Objectivists, for what it’s worth). Modernist criticism (when one left out modernist poetry criticism, which has its own home in the study with all the other poetry crit) barely made a dent on the back wall, so I added sections of Marx & Marxist thought, Frankfurt School, & Marxist cultural criticism. Still a lot of shelving to fill. Maybe everybody should send me a copy of their book.

Without rewriting Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” I can’t help but note a funny double feeling: my sense of immense pleasure in shlepping armloads of books from one room to another, then lovingly arranging them, given a peculiar twist by my concurrent realization that no, I’m not doing any intellectual labor by moving books, despite what my reptile-brain seems to believe. Ought to write an essay on the arrangement of books someday (ought to get around to reading that Roger Chartier book): I think it’s the first thing I notice when I’m visiting – how have they arranged their books? (That is, if I don’t have that sinking recognition that “these folks don’t have any books” – which Marjorie Perloff once noted of the Bush Sr. household.) I was tunneling thru Our University’s library yesterday putting together a reserve shelf, and I had my normal reaction to the Library of Congress classification system: Why the hell isn’t Heidegger on poetry somewhere closer to Gadamer on Celan? why is This next to That? I understand the LoC’s logic on almost every occasion – I just don’t always happen to agree with it.
Reading David Reynolds’s Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (Knopf, 1995), a book I’ve avoided for one reason or another for a long time. It’s not bad at all – indeed, cumulatively it’s very good indeed, serving up a wealth of very interesting information & some pretty relevant interpretations along the way. It’s just that on a sentence-by-sentence level, Reynolds’s prose is so “workmanlike,” so flat and assertive, leaving nothing to suggestion or implication, that I often feel like I’m reading one of my 3-year-old’s more advanced nonfiction books. And then I look up from Reynolds, & realize I’ve gone thru 10 or 20 pages, and learned quite a lot that I’m glad to know.

Glad for one thing to be reminded of the Whitman poem Zukofsky returned to the most, the bitter “Respondez!,” which Whitman wrote around 1855 and revised into the following version around 1871, reflecting on postwar events. Reynolds is right – it’s the “most cynical” poem of 19th century America – almost cynical enough to serve as commentary on the opening of the 21st century:
Respondez! Respondez!
(The war is completed--the price is paid--the title is settled beyond recall;)
Let every one answer! let those who sleep be waked! let none evade!
Must we still go on with our affectations and sneaking?
Let me bring this to a close--I pronounce openly for a new distribution of roles;
Let that which stood in front go behind! and let that which was behind advance to the front and speak;
Let murderers, bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions!
Let the old propositions be postponed!
Let faces and theories be turn’d inside out! let meanings be freely criminal, as well as results!
Let there be no suggestion above the suggestion of drudgery!
Let none be pointed toward his destination! (Say! do you know your destination?)
Let men and women be mock’d with bodies and mock’d with Souls!
Let the love that waits in them, wait! let it die, or pass still-born to the other spheres!
Let the sympathy that waits in every man, wait! or let it also pass, a dwarf, to other spheres!
Let contradictions prevail! let one thing contradict another! and let one line of my poems contradict another!
Let the people sprawl with yearning, aimless hands! let their tongues be broken! let their eyes be discouraged! let none descend into their hearts with the fresh lusciousness of love!
(Stifled, O days! O lands! in every public and private corruption!
Smother’d in thievery, impotence, shamelessness, mountain-high;
Brazen effrontery, scheming, rolling like ocean’s waves around and upon you, O my days! my lands!
For not even those thunderstorms, nor fiercest lightnings of the war, have purified the atmosphere;)
--Let the theory of America still be management, caste, comparison! (Say! what other theory would you?)
Let them that distrust birth and death still lead the rest! (Say! why shall they not lead you?)
Let the crust of hell be neared and trod on! let the days be darker than the nights! let slumber bring less slumber than waking time brings!
Let the world never appear to him or her for whom it was all made!
Let the heart of the young man still exile itself from the heart of the old man! and let the heart of the old man be exiled from that of the young man!
Let the sun and moon go! let scenery take the applause of the audience! let there be apathy under the stars!
Let freedom prove no man’s inalienable right! every one who can tyrannize, let him tyrannize to his satisfaction!
Let none but infidels be countenanced!
Let the eminence of meanness, treachery, sarcasm, hate, greed, indecency, impotence, lust, be taken for granted above all! let writers, judges, governments, households, religions, philosophies, take such for granted above all!
Let the worst men beget children out of the worst women!
Let the priest still play at immortality!
Let death be inaugurated!
Let nothing remain but the ashes of teachers, artists, moralists, lawyers, and learn’d and polite persons!
Let him who is without my poems be assassinated!
Let the cow, the horse, the camel, the garden-bee--let the mud-fish, the lobster, the mussel, eel, the sting-ray, and the grunting pig-fish--let these, and the like of these, be put on a perfect equality with men and woman!
Let churches accommodate serpents, vermin, and the corpses of those who have died of the most filthy of diseases!
Let marriage slip down among fools, and be for none but fools!
Let men among themselves talk and think forever obscenely of women! and let women among themselves talk and think obscenely of men!
Let us all, without missing one, be exposed in public, naked, monthly, at the peril of our lives! let our bodies be freely handled and examined by whoever chooses!
Let nothing but copies at second hand be permitted to exist upon the earth!
Let the earth desert God, nor let there ever henceforth be mention’d the name of God!
Let there be no God!
Let there be money, business, imports, exports, custom, authority, precedents, pallor, dyspepsia, smut, ignorance, unbelief!
Let judges and criminals be transposed! let the prison-keepers be put in prison! let those that were prisoners take the keys! (Say! why might they not just as well be transposed?)
Let the slaves be masters! let the masters become slaves!
Let the reformers descend from the stands where they are forever bawling! let an idiot or insane person appear on each of the stands!
Let the Asiatic, the African, the European, the American, and the Australian, go armed against the murderous stealthiness of each other! let them sleep armed! let none believe in good will!
Let there be no unfashionable wisdom! let such be scorn’d and derided off from the earth!
Let a floating cloud in the sky--let a wave of the sea--let growing mint, spinach, onions, tomatoes--let those be exhibited at shows, at a great price for admission!
Let all the men of These States stand aside for a few smouchers! let the few seize on what they choose! let the rest gawk, giggle, starve, obey!
Let shadows be furnish’d with genitals! let substances be deprived of their genitals!
Let there be wealthy and immense cities--but still through any of them, not a single poet, savior, knower, lover!
Let the infidels of These States laugh all faith away!
If one man be found who has faith, let the rest set upon him!
Let them affright faith! let them destroy the power of breeding faith!
Let the she-harlots and the he-harlots be prudent! let them dance on, while seeming lasts! (O seeming! seeming! seeming!)
Let the preachers recite creeds! let them still teach only what they have been taught!
Let insanity still have charge of sanity!
Let books take the place of trees, animals, rivers, clouds!
Let the daub’d portraits of heroes supercede heroes!
Let the manhood of man never take steps after itself!
Let it take steps after eunuchs, and after consumptive and genteel persons!
Let the white person again tread the black person under his heel! (Say! which is trodden under heel, after all?)
Let the reflections of the things of the world be studied in mirrors! let the things themselves still continue unstudied!
Let a man seek pleasure everywhere except in himself!
Let a woman seek happiness everywhere except in herself!
(What real happiness have you had one single hour through your whole life?)
Let the limited years of life do nothing for the limitless years of death? (What do you suppose death will do, then?)

Monday, January 09, 2006


I am aggrieved to learn from Josh Corey that the Bookery II, one of the grand bookstores of Ithaca, is in the process of closing. I remember when it opened, way back in the day: the Bookery proper (which I gather is still going strong) was Ithaca’s best high-class used and rare bookstore (“high-class,” that is, in that it specialized in good-condition hardcovers, rather than the well-used softcovers one would find at the Blue Fox or the Phoenix), and it only seemed natural for the same folks to open a new bookstore. The Bookery II, when I shopped there, was a first-rate scholarly bookshop. Ithaca was a theory town, and the Bookery II was a theory shop. I still have the first round of Baudrillard’s American publications that I bought there, with the shop’s inventory information pencilled onto the flyleaves. (If you so desired, you could get your theory from the horse’s mouth, since the shop also carried a wide range of foreign language volumes.) The only thing the Bookery II lacked was a decent poetry section – and I gather Josh has had a lot to do with rectifying that lack over the past few years. The place will be missed.

Bookstores have been my second home for decades, at place after place:

•In Ithaca, the Bookery II and the wonderful Blue Fox, where it seemed that anything would turn up, if you visited enough times (and where I bought stacks and stacks of the old Ithaca House poetry publications for a song). And the vast, barn-like enclosure of the Phoenix, some miles away in a town called (wonderfully) Dryden.

•In the DC suburbs, a family-run series of second-hand shops called I think the Bookshelf, where grand books could be found for a song – a boxed edition of Heimito von Doderer’s The Demons for $5, for instance. I picked up signed hardcover editions of Reznikoff’s By the Waters of Manhattan and Holocaust there for $10 apiece. (Unsurprisingly, the chain went broke three or four years after I started patronizing them.)

•In DC itself, Bick’s Books in Adams-Morgan and Bridge Street Books in Georgetown, where Rod Smith made sure the poetry sections were second to none, and where he conducted first-rate reading series. And the vast labyrinths of the various branches of Second Story Books, which seemed to bring in scholary texts by the truckload on a daily basis.

I’ve been spoiled by the bookstores of Ithaca, Washington, and New York, and I think I know most of the decent bookshops on the trails I’ve habitually driven – the East Coast from DC to Florida, Florida thru Georgia to Tennessee, DC to Ithaca thru central Pennsylvania. One of the trials of South Florida is the real paucity of decent bookshops. Yes, there’s Books & Books in Coral Gables, which approaches being what in a large metropolis would be a middling bookstore, and there are a couple of decent second-hand places nearer at hand – here is Boca, a shop called Bookwise and in Ft. Lauderdale a dealer named Hittel – but it’s inescapable that there simply isn’t a book culture in this corner of the country, the sort of critical mass of readers and buyers who provide the market for good new bookshops and the materials for good second-hand ones.

Perhaps it’s just as well – one of last week’s projects was installing a new set of shelves in a downstairs hall closet in order to alleviate some of the untidy stacks that have been accumulating around the house. If I were left to my own devices – no voice of reason at my side, no children who need a bit of space of their own – I’d probably be putting shelving up on every wall of the house, and filling it. My conservative estimate of Guy Davenport’s book collection was somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand volumes. There were cases from floor to ceiling in most rooms of his house (exceptions: the kitchens, the bathroom, & the one bedroom he used as a studio), and several of his closets were stacked from floor to ceiling with things he didn’t immediately need (e.g.: one closet absolutely full of mass market mysteries). Guy once told me he received an average of a book a day – review copies, gifts, various things over the transom – and I don’t believe he ever disposed of any book, aside from those paperback “bound proofs” he had used in reviewing things. He cancelled his subscription to the Library of America when he no longer had any place to shelve the books. Visiting his place was rather like being a six-year-old in a candyshop.

One colleague of mine calls it fetishism, and of course he’s right. But there’s fetishes and fetishes, hobby-horses and hobby-horses. Perhaps I should have been a librarian.
Our “cold snap” (for those of you in climates with real weather, that means lows in the 40s) seems to have passed, so now I get to nurse my cold by basking in a 75-degree sun. Sometimes life is hard.
New poems here.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Space & Time

I’ve been following Robert Archambeau’s various cartographical takes on the field of contemporary poetry with some interest, acutely aware of how useful such an encompassing “map” might be to readers & students of contemporary poetry. I suspect, however, that the accurate construction of such a chart – not necessarily the laying out of the various axes, which a single person could do in an afternoon, but the placing of particular poets, & particular moments of poets’ careers, upon that map – is almost certainly a job far beyond any single reader: more a job for a research team: Bob and a half-dozen grad students.

And I've also been thinking of various sorting mechanisms that thus far might have been overlooked. Think for instance of Robert Kelly, that grand, vastly prolific figure who seems to fit so poorly into available maps of contemporary writing. I myself have been guilty of bunging him hastily into a “post-Zukofsky” mold, but by so doing I’ve willfully neglected at least 2 historical facts of Kelly’s career: on the one hand, his participation in the late 50s and early 60s in the “deep image” business – something that has no precedence in Objectivist poetics – and his publication by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press, which has the effect of presenting him in the company of the radical (and still largely unassimilated) modernist prose of Wyndham Lewis, the paleo-poetics of Clayton Eshleman, and the pop-grunge-whatever of Charles Bukowski. Deep Image is an element of Kelly’s early aesthetics, a chosen “group” affiliation; Black Sparrow is a fact of his work’s dissemination, but a fact that one must account for, just as one accounts for Creeley’s publication by Scribner’s, Zukofsky’s by Norton, & Coolidge’s by Harper & Row.

Which is to say that one ought to add yet another dimension to Bob’s by now 5- or 6-dimensional map, one that is organized by publication venues, and that plots the changing aesthetic stances of publishers; and this perforce returns us to something like traditional narrative literary theory – that is, it necessarily introduces a diachronic dimension to our mapping, rather than the synchronic mapping of the field thus far proposed – organized around the figures of publishers: John Martin, James Laughlin (New Directions), Jonathan Williams (Jargon), Douglas Messerli (Sun & Moon, Green Integer), Leslie Scalapino (O Books), Jack Shoemaker (Sand Dollar, North Point), James Sherry (Roof), and many others, not to mention the influence of poets working as editors at major trade houses – Donald Hall (Harper), Denise Levertov (Norton).

(Maybe I’m just expressing my hankering for informative literary history that is able to synthesize large amounts of data, and to draw the sorts of connections that one doesn’t get merely from reading the poets’ books and the poets’ biographies – Alan Filreis’s book on Stevens in the 1930s, for instance, which not merely changes one’s view of WS, but rewrites the entire landscape of 1930s American poetry. There has been no even half-way decent overview of post-war American innovative poetry that can compare with the various histories of modernism out there.)

For all the stones one might want to hurl at Ron S’s Calvinistic division of the poetry world into elect post-avant and reprobate School of Quietude, the place where I find his blog most enlightening is precisely in the steady stream of historical data that keeps coming out of it – who published whom, who knew whom, who was reading whom when. It’s this kind of stuff, I think – along with many thousands of hours in the San Diego and Buffalo archives – that’ll make it possible one day to draw up a Bourdieu-map that shows the contours of post-war American writing.
Me, I’m nursing a nasty new year’s cold, girding my loins for the first day of classes – Monday – and enjoying two of the holidays’ most welcome arrivals: the five-CD boxed set of Naked City’s complete studio recordings, and the Alfred Hitchcock 15-DVD “Masterpiece” collection. And staying out of the shower, just in case.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Passion of the Kitty

Culture Industry doesn't get enough comments, much less really aggressive and weird ones, to pass over the (of course anonymous) note that came over the transom this afternoon in response to my citation of Adam Gopnik's review of The Narnian, a biography of C. S. Lewis – a fine scholar of medieval and early modern literature who's much more fun when he's writing criticism than when he's trying to scare you into the door marked "Salvation" or when he's browbeating children with ill-advised allegorical fictions. Gopnik takes Lewis's The Lion etc. to task for being a bad allegory:
a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side... A powerful lion, starting life at the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth.
My gentle reader responds:
That is a load of rubbish.Have you ever heard of the Lion of Judah? Who do you suppose that is?Jesus was never personified as a donkey,a lamb yes, but not a donkey.He merely rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.You need to spend some time reading the Bible before you sit and comment on it.In the Bible God is described in many ways.He can not be put in a box or given a particular tag.Getting to my point...Don't speak if you haven't got a clue!
Hmmm. Well, for the record, the words that got you so exercised, my friend, were not mine but Adam Gopnik's, but since I endorsed his sentences, I guess it's up to me to respond. Yes, I have indeed read that miscellaneous collection of scriptures known as the Bible – the whole thing (Apocrypha and all) a couple of times, and some parts many, many times over. And yes, I've heard of the "Lion of Judah." Revelation 5.5: "And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof." Which refers of course to Genesis 49.8, where the dying patriarch Jacob blesses his sons; of Judah he says, "Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?"

Who do I suppose the Lion of Judah is? Well, my friend, as with all of those snazzy symbols in Revelation, it's pretty much open to interpretation, which is why people have been fingering the "Beast" of chapters 13ff. as various world leaders for the past however many centuries (for my money it's got to Dubya). For the sake of argument, however, let's grant you that the L o' J is meant to be Christ here: but it's worth pointing out that tho in terms of sheer body counts Christ appears pretty much like the Heavenly Terminator in Revelation, he's almost invariably referred to, not as a "Lion," but as the "Lamb" (the Lamb, in addition, who was slain).

My own fundamentalist upbringing unfortunately didn't include a very comprehensive survey of historical interpretations of New Testament imagery; someone else (Peter?) might fill us in on the extent to which Christian tradition has exploited imagery of Jesus as Lion. For the nonce, however, I'd set my anonymous reader (since he's clearly already as well read in scripture as he believes he needs to be) a course of readings in hermeneutics: the art of interpretation. He could do worse than Angus Fletcher's Allegory, or even C. S. Lewis's The Allegory of Love. Then he might have something to contribute to a discussion of whether an allegory works or not.

Walter Scott: Reliquiae Trotcosienses

So we're back from New York, where I saw a lot of the people I wanted to see, and didn't see a lot of the other people I wanted to see; where I didn't drink nearly as much as I ought to have, but managed to have a pretty decent time anyway. It's unseasonably warm back here in St. Peter's Waiting Room, & the house smells of cat.
Read a lot of poetry over the break, much of which I'm itching to comment on, so by all means stay tuned. But the book I'm really excited about at the moment is a recent Strand acquisition, and far more esoteric than even the most wacked specimen of alt-poetry: it's a recent volume from Edinburgh UP, Walter Scott's (we don't, mind you, call him Sir Walter anymore – that smacks too much of the leather-patched tweeds, brandy, and pipes – and besides, who can take the knighthood seriously anymore with all these Sir Eltons and Sir Micks running around?) Reliquiae Trotcosienses; or, The Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns. What this volume amounts to is a guidebook to Scott's gothic folly mansion of Abbotsford and the astonishing collection of historical knicknacks, trinkets, and books that he amassed there, all written in the third person, in the voice of Jonathan Oldbuck, the protagonist of Scott's second novel The Antiquary.

Scott, as you all know, despite being the most successful and profitable author of his day, was involved in a rather horrendous financial crash in 1826, and for the last five years of his life was writing at a breakneck pace (or one might say, a Joyce Carol Oates pace) – every damn thing, novels, political pamphlets, histories of Scotland and France for children, a six-volume biography of Napoleon, heaven knows what else – in order to get himself out of debt. All of the profits from these major projects were funnelled thru a trust, which after making payments on his immense debts paid him a modest salary and allowed him to keep his estate (which might otherwise have been seized). But Scott made arrangements on the side to do little jobs for pin money, one of which was Reliqiae. One suspects that he enjoyed working on this little book (alas incomplete), even despite the fact that he was laboring under such adverse financial circumstances and in very ill health indeed. The editors of the present edition (which is not a volume in the Edinburgh Scott series, but has been issued in a format uniform with the series' other handsome volumes) have done really heroic work, not merely in deciphering the Laird of Abbotsford's handwriting, but in reconstructing English sense out of his largely punctuationless manuscript and wandering syntax: this is not merely a first draft, but a first draft written by a guy whose short-term memory is on the blink, and whose orthography is eccentric to say the least.

Astonishingly, Reliqiae, while it's by no means an easy read, is absolutely engrossing. So many of Scott's obsessions come together here: His fascination with physical artifacts and their connection with the historical past (Scott owned Rob Roy's dirk and sporran, and when I was at Abbotsford in 2000 I remember seeing James Graham's – "Bluidy" Claverhouse's – armor on display); his wry admission that the antiquarian obsession, as pursued mostly by well-to-do types in the early 19th century, was an eccentricity that sometimes bordered on madness, and at the best of times had something fundamentally risible about it; and most importantly, his conviction that physical history could never come alive without the aid of narrative, of story-telling. Of course, that's by no means a surprising conclusion for the first (and for my money, still the greatest) of historical novelists to come to.

I dote on Scott. I began Heart of Midlothian, the first of his novels I read, ten years ago on a snowy Northern Virginia day a week or two before I moved to Florida. I read thru most of the rest of them lying on the beach, in surroundings as far removed from Scotland as could be imagined – a breath of cold Calvinism to brush away the hot hand of the luxurious sun. He can be the most otiose storyteller imaginable, but he can also engross a reader who's interested in history and in the great seismic shifts of cultural and economic forces (as Lukacs was) like no-one else. If you haven't read him, by all means don't start with Reliquiae: begin with Waverley, or better yet Old Mortality, and if you have the kind of obsessive bent I do, you may just end up trawling thru Jonathan Oldbuck's gabions along with me.