Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Latest Alice

Lewis Carroll's Alice books ought to be irresistible to contemporary filmmakers: finally, with all of the high-tech animation & imaging techniques at their disposal, they can capture something of the metamorphic dream-logic of the two novels the shy, child-loving Oxford maths don Charles Dodgson published in 1865 & 1871, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. I came into Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland with a pretty open mind, in my ears one of my student's kvetches from a few weeks ago: "Tim Burton can't do anything but dark remakes of classic stories!" "But have you actually read Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?" said I, "or Frank Miller's Batman?"

The Alices that hit the screen are almost inevitably conflations of the two novels, with favorite bits of Looking-Glass (Tweedledee & Tweedledum, Humpty-Dumpty, the Walrus & the Carpenter, etc.) stuck into the elastic, picaresque frame of the first novel. (Frankly, I don't think I'd seen any of the film adaptations, animated or otherwise, until the last few years & the advent of my own kids. I remembered the books from repeated, obsessive re-readings from early childhood thru college – Wonderland as a perplexing, hallucinatory but generally jovial dream, Looking-Glass as a dark, scary, even tragic nightmare.) That's always struck me as in one way or another inadequate.

Burton's solution is ingenious, if ultimately also inadequate. He sets his film as a return to Wonderland (or "Underland," as the denizens call it) by a 19-year-old Alice. (Shades of Walter Murch's 1985 Return to Oz.) All of the favorite characters are there – the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, Tweedledee & Tweedledum, the White Rabbit – and Burton incorporates the "game" frames of the novels (Adventures revolves around decks of cards, while Looking-Glass is modeled on a game of chess) by structuring the film as a quest-adventure-conflict in which the Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham-Carter, for once not at all attractive with a three-times digitally inflated head), leading her army of amazingly conceived card-soldiers, is on the warpath against her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, radiant in white clothes, white hair, and black lipstick), whose troops wear helmets modeled on chess pieces. And oh yeah, Alice herself has to take up the Vorpal Sword and slay the Jabberwock. Stephen Fry voices a Cheshire Cat who looks remarkly like Sir John Tenniel's illustration, and Johnny Depp alternately out-crazies Jack Sparrow and out-emotes Stanislavski as the Mad Hatter.

Yes, the visuals are amazing, no other word for them. But one can't help leaving the film with the sense that Burton's entirely betrayed the novels. It's worse than Charlie, where Burton seemed compelled to invent a quite silly back story in order to "explain" Willy Wonka's wonderful, inexplicable eccentricities: his fidelity to the bulk of Dahl's novel redeemed that film, even made it superior to the "classic" Willy Wonka (J. disagrees). Here he's turned a pair of marvelously pointless, endlessly thought-provoking, picaresque dream-journeys into just another coming-of-age adventure flick.

At the end, Alice is told that she's welcome to stay in Underland (and boy is there a "spark" of something between her & the Hatter), but of course she opts to return to Victorian England. In the film's final scene she (wholly unbelievably, monstrously, patently anachronistically) becomes a partner in her father's old firm and sails East to open up the China trade (any guesses on what was in the caterpillar's hookah?). That, I'm afraid, is as much a dream as Alice's shaking the Red (chess) Queen until she turns into a kitten. But given the hokey journey to self-knowledge and self-reliance Burton has built his movie around, he couldn't very well have put her back into the realistic choices available to a Victorian woman.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Douglas Rothschild: Theogony

Okay, as of last night, we're back. All of us. The girls & I, miraculously intact after a 4-hour drive, met J. in Sarasota, where she was doing the Medieval/Renaissance conference at New College. She conferenced Friday; the heavens opened in a miserable deluge; the girls & I went book shopping. (Nice finds at a little 2nd-hand place: Thomas Meyer's The Bang Book, a lovely Clarendon Vergili Opera. The latter, perhaps playing on some submerged, deep-seated longing for dead tongues, has sent me back to the stacks of Latin primers around the house: A semi-resolution: 1/2 hour of Latin every day.)

I finished Delbanco's Melville in Sarasota, & will have something to say about this gem of a book. And simultaneously discovered that the big critical work I'd hauled along, David Loewenstein's Representing Revolution in Milton & His Contemporaries, is spotted with blank pages thru the second half. Let's see whether Cambridge UP can make this right.
Theogony, Douglas Rothschild (subpress, 2009)

Imagine Frank O'Hara as a dyed-in-the-wool, place-saturated, native New Yorker, who takes all five boroughs as his home ground, all their parks, neighborhoods, bodegas, apartment developments, social distinctions as his purview, rather than a Boston-bred artsy Manhattanite. Then imagine his "I do this I do that" poetics, with all their camp humor & delight in popular culture intact, stripped of their art world in-crowd talk & surrealist flights & focused on the immediate state of mind of the real New Yorker (continually worried about the rent, about what new enormities the mayor's about to perpetrate). Then put, him, equipped with an angry socio-political bullshit detector, into the most savagely repressive & bewildering moment in recent American history – the post September 11th morass. Then set him to work jotting down poems that angrily & painfully pin down the cost to the American psyche of our Republican masters' reactions to the World Trade Center destruction.

That's the long sequence "The Minor Arcana," something of a masterpiece of making the political personal in an age of electronic media. But all of the sections of Theogony are quirky, moving, and deeply impressive, as strongly rooted in polis as Olson's rambles around Dogtown – and a hell of a lot funnier.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Spring Break Biographies

I suppose Spring Break is now officially more than half over. Tomorrow afternoon I bundle the girls into the car & we cross the penisula to Sarasota, where we'll hook up with J., who's flying down from New York to New College for a medieval/renaissance conference. It'll be nice – a new place to explore, & a chance to hook up with the excellent Robert Zamsky & his family. But I'm not looking forward to the 4-hour drive: it'll be the longest road trip the girls have been on, & their first with only one parent – and the grumpy, taciturn one at that. "Shut the frack up! I'm listening to All Things Considered! Didn't I tell you the rest area was in another 20 miles? You can hold it!"

I've actually gotten some significant work done in the first part of the week, & might get some more out of the way. Of course, my besetting sin, when I've sent a project off to its editor, is to take a half-day's holiday & go book shopping. Yesterday included a run to South Florida's (probably all of Florida's) best second-hand bookshop, Bookwise, where I picked up a stack of literary biographies: Paul Mariani's The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane (Norton, 1999), Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work (Knopf, 2005), & GE Bentley, Jr.'s massive The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (Yale, 2001).

(The very massiveness of Bentley's book set me to thinking about paper stock in biographical publishing: is it a good thing or a bad thing for a biography to be a thick book? Do potential readers go for the fat book over the thin one? Clive Fisher's Hart Crane: A Life (Yale, 2002) is a good 70 pages longer than The Poem of a Life, but it's considerably slimmer, due I'm sure to a thinner stock. I like it that I wrote a big biography, but my groaning bookshelves prefer the thinner books these days.)

The Bentley's a book I intensely coveted when it first came out. A ravishing beautiful job of production (the endpapers reproduce in color Blake's engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, for instance), for one thing. And a quick read of the preface & some dipping thru the text convince me that this will be a mostly "just the facts" kind of biography, but as many of the facts as Bentley can shovel in, particularly as they relate to the economics of Blake's career as a fine & applied artist. I think I've read 2 or 3 other Blake biographies – Jacob Bronowski's & Mona Wilson's perhaps, & certainly Peter Ackroyd's, soon after it came out. But it's really hard to get enough of WB.

I'm not sure why I bought Mariani's Crane. I already own Fisher's, the two books seem to tell pretty much the same story (candy magnate dad, tortured relationships, final cruise-ship dive, etc.), and I'm not even that big a fan of Crane's work. I read Mariani's life of WC Williams back in the day, & found it consistently useful if dreadfully, Victorianly overlong; maybe he's restrained himself this time around. (Then again, Crane killed himself in his early 30s. If he'd lived a full lifespan, Mariani might have written another thousand-pager.) I suspect this will be something of a case study for me in comparing biographical approaches: clearly Fisher and Mariani were working independently at much the same time, dealing with the same materials. As usual, it'll be instructive to see what different edifices they construct out of their shared "factual" bricks. (This kind of case study has been going on in my reading room for some time now: 5 different Ruskin biographies, 5 or 6 Pounds, who knows how many Shakespeares: next up, the vast plains of Virginia Woolf biography.)

The real winner here, or at least the book that's totally derailed me from the Hegel & Lawrence Stone I meant to be reading today, is Delbanco's Melville. Delbanco starts with an advantage: he's writing in the wake of Hershel Parker's ├╝ber-massive, 2000-page 2-volume life of Melville, a book which aimed to chronicle every known fact about HM. Having that kind of spadework already done is a gift to the interpretive biographer, which is what Delbanco unapologetically is. What's totally enthralled me in the 50 or 60 pages of Melville I've devoured this morning is the extraordinary deftness & grace of Delbanco's writing, the way he's able to weave a impressive density of cultural background & literary interpretation into a breezily readable narrative. The book wears its depth lightly, as opposed to something like David Reynolds's similarly learned Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (1996), which all too often pretty much sinks the reader in digression.

I have several shelves groaning with unread biographies right now – Wordsworth, Defoe, Conrad, Pope, Gray, Dickens (2x), Browning, Swift, etc – & I'm at some stage of reading lives of Wordsworth, Thelonious Monk, Andy Warhol, Leonardo, Dickinson, William James, Foucault, & Wittgenstein (those last 2 re-reads). It's all fun, even the bad ones (and lemme tell you, I'd rather read a bad biography than a bad book of literary criticism any day). And the best part is that I can justify it all to my superego by gesturing towards that book on biography I keep talking about writing.

Monday, March 08, 2010

all about appearances

Been pretty much exclusively a Firefox browser lately. One word: Zotero. But there's another, much more superficial, reason to switch: Personas, these snazzy "skins" with which you can customize your browser. The internet equivalent of those colorful cases for your cell phone. This is how the browser window looks at the moment:

Now If I can just find a skin that features Theodor Adorno...

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Five Years

It's that time of year when I clap my hand to my head – zut alors! sacre bleu! – Culture Industry has been around another year! (As the guys on NPR say, "You've wasted another perfectly good hour on Car Talk...") I could do the usual, lament the fact that my blogging has been desultory (for going on four years now), that I don't update often enough, that I haven't noticed your book (which I will, eventually) –

But this time around I do sense a sea change in the intertubes, a generalized shifting of momentum from the open-ended blog format to more quick & to the point social networking-style things. Much of my traffic gets driven from Facebook links these days, it seems, or even from tweets. And yeah, I'm less interested in updating the blog just to say that I had a great lunch but a lousy afternoon, since I can do that on Facebook & have half a dozen "friends" (most of whom I've never met) say they "like" it.

I'm still quite taken with the weblog as writing format, however: it gives me the collapsible space to post a funny footnote or natter on at length on things I know little about; it's simultaneously casual & semi-formal, like those tuxedo t-shirts that were all the rage back in the '70s. So Culture Industry remains online for the foreseeable future. I can't promise 3 updates a week, but I can promise (sometime soon) a mediation on what it means to call it the English Civil War or the English Revolution, & why it matters. As usual, my heartfelt thanks to those who keep dropping by; and warm welcomes to those who blundered here by googling "furry animal bestiality wifeswap culture."

Friday, March 05, 2010

Spring Break!

Yes, as of 10.00 last night – the end of my graduate seminar – I'm on Spring Break. I guess I won't take a road trip to Florida, being in Florida already; and anyway, it doesn't feel very Floridian these days: this has been the coldest winter in living memory down here, and we're in the midst of another cold snap (which means lows in the 40s at night, & daytime highs that make you consider putting on a sweater – yes, no sympathy from Chicagoans or Northeasterners).

So how do I plan to party down? Well, I suspect I simply won't. J. is off to New York this afternoon, so I'm anticipating the adventure of a full week's single parenting (something neither of us have yet tackled, I believe). At least the girls will be in school, so I'll have the days to devote to Spring Break kinda things – you know, polishing up & sending off those 3 essays that are sitting on my hard drive in 90% finished form, working up my classes for the next few weeks, maybe even working on a few poems. At least, for the first time I can remember, I'm entering the break without a stack of student essays or tests to mark. Thank Astarte for small blessings.

And of course I'll do some reading. Last night I finished John Ashbery's As We Know, which I'd started maybe a half-dozen times over the years but never made headway on, so much so that the binding of my old paperback (never strong) has entirely separated from the pages. For some reason, the Library of America big Collected Poems 1956-1987 has made tackling the book easier. Really, it's that pesky "Litany" – took me a long time to figure out how to negotiate reading those two parallel columns that theoretically should sound simultaneously. (Turns out Pennsound has a recording of Ashbery reading the poem with Ann Lauterbach, which would have helped immeasurably.) I love mid-period Ashbery, but are the poems really supposed to evaporate from my mind as soon as I read them (or as I read them)? (Note to self: worry about early-onset senility...)

I keep dipping into, making progress on Robert Sheppard's big Complete Twentieth Century Blues, marvelling at the formal variety, loving the pornographic aggressiveness of the language & images, & then getting exhausted by the relentless montage. This is a funny book, a mean book, sometimes even a heart-breaking book. Maybe even, if such a thing still exists, an important book. It deserves a big essay on it one of these days. Not, however, to be written over Spring Break.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ashbery, Ginsberg, & the Velvet Underground

[Tony Scherman & David Dalton, in Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol (Harper 2009), describe the opening night of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable (a multimedia spectacle centered on the Velvet Underground) at the Dom in the East Village, 8 April 1966:]

A reporter from New York University's newspaper, the Washington Square Journal, corralled Ginsberg in the opening-night audience. The poet was in tiptop rhetorical form: "We're living in an expanding universe," he said, or shouted, to the young reporter. Ginsberg loved the show, whose "multiple association symbolically represents the LSD experience, but we need some flesh orgies and copulation on the stage." In the coming weeks, Barbara Rubin would arrange for Ginsberg to join the Velvets onstage and chant Hare Krishna while [Gerard] Malanga did his whip dance. (It may have been shortly after this that [Paul] Morrissey finally drove Rubin out: she "left the Factory one day screaming, never to return.")

Few incidents better illustrate the shift from New York's fifties artistic subculture to the new sixties version than the reaction of Ginsberg's fellow poet John Ashbery, recently returned to New York after almost a decade in Paris. Standing in the midst of the strobe lights and guitar feedback and biomorphic slide-projected shapes, Ashbery was traumatized. "I don't understand this at all," he said and burst into tears.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Richard Blevins; Tom Mandel

Captivity Narratives, Richard Blevins (Meeting Eyes Bindery/Spuyten Duyvil, 2009)

To get past the obvious: Blevins is an Olsonian, a real live Olsonian – he took over editing the Olson/Creeley correspondence after George Butterick's death. As poets, Olsonians (my limited experience has shown me) tend to have a certain repertoire of moves that Olson has made familiar : an obsession with history, a tendency to splice documents into the work itself, a self-reflexive awareness of their own position as poem-makers, even as they write. Blevins has all of these (as does, say, Susan Howe). What he doesn't share with the Big Man is his (liberating?) formal sprawl, his taste for the cosmic & the anciently recondite – the Big Gesture, sometimes registered in geological epochs.

Captivity Narratives
is a pair of intense investigations into a couple of figures with whom I was not at all familiar before cracking the book: the photographer Fred Holland Day (1864-1933), one of the first advocates for photography as a "fine" art, & the maker of mysterious, often homoerotic pictures; and Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914), a poet whose work I was vaguely aware of, but whose fame has largely waned since the days Carl Sandburg championed her. Blevins reads these two figures relative obscurity as their own versions of "captivity." His poems are as much about the researching – sometimes down to the details of library visits & overnight travel – as they are about FHD and AC themselves, but the effect is to position Blevins's own work something of a (necessarily interminable) detective story. (The biographer in me finds this irresistible.) I'm particularly taken, among the stretches of short-lined verse, rambling narrative prose, and sheer notebook-entry fragments, to find Blevins casting his impressions of Crapsey into her own invented form, the "cinquain."

Four Strange Books, Tom Mandel (Gaz, 1990)

Elias Bickerman's classic study of anomalous Hebrew Bible texts, Four Strange Books of the Bible (1985), focuses on Jonah, Daniel, Koheleth ("Ecclesiastes" for you Christian-types), and Esther. It's easy to see why he calls them "strange": Jonah is not a book of prophecy, but a kind of Three Stooges parody of the Isaian prophetic call; Daniel is a strange, back-dated collage of various tall tales and prophecies; Koheleth advances a depressing stoic philosophy that seems at odds with much of what the rest of the HB advocates; and Esther is a fairy tale that manages not even to mention the Hebrew deity.

Perhaps on some rereading I'll figure out a bit better precisely how Tom Mandel's wonderful Four Strange Books plays off of Bickerman. Right now I'm just reveling in the pleasure of this late-discovered (for me) classic. Mandel may at the moment be becoming my favorite of the Grand Piano poets (I read his To the Cognoscenti over the holidays in something of transfixed delight). He has an unerring eye for the movement of the everyday, a stern sense of juxtaposition, and a wonderful knack of shifting diction. The opening of the title poem, "Four Strange Books," which plays on various phrases of biblical & archaeological resonance, is one of the most striking, hieratic moments in poetry in the last two decades:
A tract was sealed in the catacomb of cylinders
by three youths called Ejection, Sacrifice,
& Trellis. To a skeptic the treatise speaks
of things still possible.

What it says will never do. If they reach
toward me I will collapse. Touch me then
my shoulder with strengthened lips; that
man was swallowed!


Monday, March 01, 2010

cheeky footnote #146

[from Stanley Fish, How Milton Works (Harvard UP, 2001), p. 577:]

15. I should acknowledge that this picture of Milton and his world is one that some critics reject and find repellent. See, for example, Lucy Newlyn, Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader (Oxford, 1993), who complains that readings like mine "suggest...a Milton who subjugates fictive play to didactic tenor, manipulating intertextual reference so as to underline the powerful and abiding coherence of Puritan ideology" (71). That about gets it right.