Friday, April 30, 2010

2 in praise of lucidity

Above all, I found much of Lire Le Capital critically vague. It is perhaps a matter for regret that logical positivism, with its insistence on precision of intellectual commitment, never caught on in Paris. Anglophone philosophy left logical positivism behind long ago, but it is lastingly the better for having engaged with it. The Althusserian vogue could have unfortunate consequences for Marxism in Britain, where lucidity is a precious heritage, and where it is not generally supposed that a theoretical statement, to be one, must be hard to comprehend. (GA Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History)

Post-colonial theorists are often to be found agonising about the gap between their own intellectual discourse and the natives of whom they speak; but the gap might look rather less awesome if they did not speak a discourse which most intellectuals, too, find unintelligible. You do not need to hail from a shanty town to find a Spivakian metaphorical muddle like 'many of us are trying to carve out positive negotiations with the epistemic graphing of imperialism' pretentiously opaque. It is hard to see how anyone can write like this and admire the luminous writings of, say, Freud. Post-colonial theory makes heavy weather of a respect for the Other, but its most immediate Other, the reader, is apparently dispensed from this sensitivity. (Terry Eagleton, Figures of Dissent)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Harry Potter's vocational dilemma

It's kind of embarrassing to admit that I'm reading the Harry Potter novels, even more embarrassing to admit that I'm reading them again. But I'm not going all Adorno-Harold Bloom-highbrow when I say that it's an experience rather less than continuously pleasurable.

Here's the thing: P. (aet. 8) is deeply immersed in the books at the moment, most of the way thru #4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or, as I like to call it, HP and the Cauldron of Shit). So I thought the least I could do was to gamely keep up with her, or at least try to stay a few chapters ahead. Problem is, when an 8-year-old is obsessing over a book – or at least our 8-year-old – it's hard to get it away from her to read it yourself. So I powered thru Goblet & into the next, mammoth volume, HP and the Order of the Phoenix (which I'm irritating J. by referring to by a title that makes into a piece of bookish pornography). Just finished this 800-pager earlier today, to the detriment of things that really needed to get read.
Me: This book is 800 pages long. I could be reading Middlemarch.
J: Middlemarch is harder; you have to pay attention to the words.
Me: True.
Why re-reading, you ask? Well, as I've perhaps mentioned once or twice, I have no memory for narrative or character. I remember if I liked a novel or disliked it, if I found it riveting or revolting, I remember a striking character or a vivid scene or a particularly nice piece of writing; but there're very few novels I've read, even ones I've read repeatedly & even taught, whose plot I could accurately summarize. So I knew that if P. asked me even the most simple Hogwartish question about the HP books, I'd need to have them more or less fresh in my mind if I didn't want to destroy her entirely healthy sense of paternal omniscience.

For the most part, I find the novels pretty benign stuff. Not particularly well-written, by any means, but not awfully ham-fisted. The allegories are pretty thin, and I dislike the Perry Mason-ish wrapping up that seems to end every volume. Phoenix is of course grotesquely overlong. My memories of the last two books, HP and the Half-Pence and HP and the Healthy Fellows (or something like that), are dim, but I remember them seeming even longer than Phoenix, alas. I think the good guys win in the end.

The scenes in HP & the Order etc. where the batrachian Dolores Umbridge (slimy representative of the Ministry of Magic) takes over the Defence Against the Dark Arts class, banning actual spell practice & forcing the students merely to read their textbooks (theory rather than practice – I'm sure there's an anti-Adorno message buried there) reminded me of a moment in my own educational experience – my ninth grade history class, where some poor schmuck of a teacher (he'd taught driver's ed for 30 years, & suddenly found himself forced to teach American history because of budget cuts) had us sitting in class and reading the textbook aloud.

Of course, Dolores Umbridge is Rowling's jab at educational theorists who prescribe syllabi & courses of study from an ivory tower. But I've never been particularly happy reading Rowling's account of the educational experience of Hogwarts: the kids sit around in class praticing stuff the professor have just shown them (doing spells, mixing potions); for homework, they have to go back to the dorms & write essays (measured by inches of parchment) which look for all the world like regurgitations from their textbooks. The only exception (leaving aside Hagrid's Care of Magical Animals course and Sprout's Herbology) is Binns's History of Magic, which consists of interminable, boring lectures.

So, I keep thinking to myself, is this really the way they do it at Eton? The essay homework, especially, seems to replicate some of the least useful parts of my own education, while I seem to recall having Cuthbert Binns in a social studies class in 7th grade. Why aren't I more convinced by the picture Rowling gives us of the education of a young wizard? Why don't I want to teach at Hogwarts?

The answer came to me the other evening: Howgarts isn't really an old-fashioned "public school" at all, for all its house colors, prefects, & top girls & boys – it's a vocational school. It's not Stalky & Company with potions or Tom Brown's School Days with hexes, but a beauty school or car repair academy with wands and brooms. In the end, Sprout's greenhouses and Hagrid's paddocks are the most true-to-life portions of the Hogwarts panorama, places where the students are getting hands-on experience at things they'll need to know as mature witches and wizards. The other classes, where everybody sits at the desks, facing front (or passing magical notes), is conventional classroom with an overlay of exotic subject matter.

A real live school of Witchcraft & Wizardry, one suspects, would be far more like a martial arts dojo – lots of practice rooms with padded floors & walls, lots of open spaces, lockers, showers, & cubbies. Ah, but then Rowling would have had to reinvent The Karate Kid with wands, & one suspects that wouldn't have quite the cachet of a magical Tom Brown – or at least she probably wouldn't be able to recycle so many school-story stereotypes (kindly headmaster, cranky caretaker, grouchy librarian, etc).

Friday, April 23, 2010

endgame; unfriending the prophets

Tuesday is the last full day of classes, so everything is more or less winding down around here. For some reason, it's been an exhausting semester, even moreso than usual. Maybe I'm just getting old? Or losing my patience?

Our Fair University scheduled its "Authors Reading Series" at the same time as my postwar American poetry grad seminar this Spring, so an ungodly proportion of class time got sacrificed to going to readings: first, a prize reading of MFA program students; then Forrest Gander; and last night, my colleague poet & translator Becka McKay (whose new book, A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, is well worth checking out). Now all of these were good readings, & well worth attending, but they played havoc with my syllabus. As I muttered grumpily to my department chair last night, "Do this to me again & I'm quitting."

I did plenty of gadding about: First a trip to Boise to talk about biography & LZ, then the Louisville Conference; next month it's San Francisco for the ALA, where I'll be on a panel about biographies of 20th-c. American poets. That should be fun, but I'm wishing I could be in Miami (OH) for post-moot right now, or that I could be at the Duncan symposium in Chicago. (Or that I had Hermione Granger's time-turner & could be at both...)

Anyway, I have a few days of breathing room before the final flood of papers, exams, & portfolios washes over me. Maybe I'll try to read a book. Or write some of one.
Unfriend. That was the "word of the year" last year, according to the Oxford people. (I found it not once but twice in my last read-thru of Lyrical Ballads, but I suppose Wordsworth's "unfriended" is rather different from "unfriending" someone on Facebook.) I'm not the most assiduous Facebooker, but I suppose I'm as addicted as the next socially-maladjusted academic; ie, checking FB no less than 10 or 15 times a day, commenting obsessively on the things I like or don't like, following links, checking out profiles, & so forth.

I haven't unfriended people very often. (For those who don't follow this business, to "unfriend" means to remove someone from your "friends list" – to sever the connection that has people showing up in each others "news feed" etc.) That's mainly because I only ask to become friends with people whom I know, or whose work I know, & tend to ignore friend requests from people I don't know anything about. (Or, for that matter, from old high school acquaintances with whom I obviously have less than nothing in common anymore.) I've never quite understood the logic of becoming "friends" with 1500 people, unless you've got something to sell – oh, okay, never mind.

Facebook, for all the bitching people do about it, is pretty user-friendly about these kinds of things; if I want to maintain a "friend" status with a high school acquaintance, but my blood pressure can't stand the barking lunacy of the tea-party posts he keeps putting up, I can set the controls so that his status updates are "hidden" from me. And if I go so far as to unfriend someone, they don't even receive a notice – I just don't show up in their news feeds anymore. (I've been unfriended a few times – gosh, I wondered a while back, why aren't I getting updates from that ├╝ber-hip UC Davis poet/cultural critic anymore? Well, he's been trimming his friends list, & I was dead wood.)

The other day, I found myself so exasperated by the latest series of posts in one chap's ongoing magnum opus of cultural history – posted in five or six daily installments, a relentless attack on contemporary poetry as symptomatic of the decline of Western values in the wake of some vaguely-defined "postmodernism," and "substantiated" with a series of cursory readings of 70s-era work by such up-t0-the-minute hipsters as Robert Bly, James Wright, & WS Merwin, & punctuated with snarky asides about the intellectual & moral vacuity of the contemporary academy – that I found myself engaged in a comment battle. "Elijah" (as I'll call this chap) is it turns out himself a fugitive from the academy, the editor of a fairly well-respected poet's posthumous collected works, & a fervent member of the Baha'i faith, in whose beliefs I suspect he grounds his prophetic calls for a renewal of "mimesis" in poetry in order to pave the way for the single-society world order towards which we're all evolving.

I have a soft spot for utopianism, but little patience with soft-headed utopianism, or with blanket condemnations of contemporary poetic & intellectual culture that seem to be grounded on little more than ideologically-saturated mantras. And heaven help me, but I told Elijah so, announced that my patience was at an end, & unfriended him. (He'll be okay – he's got an audience of some 1200 folks out there, or at least that many "friends.")

But it made me think. Elijah of Facebook has set himself up, not as a rational analyst of society & culture, but as a prophet, a voice crying in the wilderness. Stanley Fish, in How Milton Works, has a beautifully apposite description of Milton's method in the Apology:
almost everything in the world appears to be going in one direction, but a single just man (like Abdiel and the solitary heroes who periodically turn up in the otherwise bleak narrative of books XI and XII of Paradise Lost) knows better, and loudly proclaims his better knowledge – all the while refusing to defend or support it by the usual evidentiary standards, refusing to measure himself "by other mens measures."
That's Elijah right there, staunch in his own rightness, never conceding an ell or an inch to counter-argument, satisfied in his ignorance of the last 30 years of the poetry he rails against.

But it occurs to me, if a real-live prophet appeared among us, a thinker whose ideas were so radically against the grain of contemporary trends and common knowledge, wouldn't he similarly appear no better than a crank, a "lunatic of one idea" (Stevens's term)?

Of course, Elijah's not the man – it's all too easy to parse out his "radicalism" as a slightly gamey casserole of Baha'ism & 50s-style cultural conservatism: Jacques Barzun + mysticism. I love reading the Hebrew prophets, and I love reading latter-day prophetic types like Blake, Milton, Ruskin, etc. – but Ishtar help us, soi-disant prophets can be so boring.

Friday, April 16, 2010

a shilling life

My idiosyncracies may not be particularly fruitful, but they're mine, & I have to own up to 'em. It occurred to me the other day as I finished Francis O'Gorman's Ruskin (Sutton Pocket Biographies) (Sutton, 1999) that I've got a real taste for what I can only call "highbrow fast food." That is, while I have more than a half-dozen full-length biographies of John Ruskin on my shelves (& have even read a bunch of them), I also persist in running thru the various super-short capsule "shilling lives" I come upon.

The recent history of the capsule biography – has it been written?? – is I suspect a capsule history of 20th-century intellectual marketing trends. We see capsule biographies, as in Diogenes Laertius' lives of the philosophers, in Plutarch, or in Johnson's Lives of the Poets, emerging even before the full-length biography. And they don't go away with the advent of the post-Boswellian doorstop biography: witness Leslie's Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography, and its various spinoffs.

In the latter part of the 20th century, it seems, short-scale biographical/critical studies, aimed at a wide readership, have gotten even more popular. Should this be dated to the inception of the Frank Kermode-edited Fontana Modern Masters series in 1970? Oxford UP responded to the popularity of the Fontana volumes with its own Past Masters series, & in recent years there seems to have been a spate of "Very Short Introductions," pocket lives, & even graphic novel-style adaptations of various figures' lives. (The interchangeability of many of these series is striking – various volumes of the OUP "Very Short Introductions" series are actually reprints of "Past Masters" volumes.)

Is it all an index of a general readership's thirsty demand for immediate enlightenment? Or is it a symptom of our painfully shrinking attention spans?
Herewith an assessment of some of the Ruskin "shorties" out there (if you know of others, do let me know):

Quentin Bell's Ruskin (George Braziller, 1978), which came from my father's library, & was the first Ruskin book I ever read, doesn't quite fit in the "capsule biography" category; it was first published in 1963 as part of the Hogarth Press's "Writers and Critics" series, & is actually quite a substantial assessment of JR's life & career, clocking in at around 150 beautifully-written pages. This is probably still the first book (not by Ruskin) I'd press on someone wanting to know more about Ruskin.

George P. Landow is one of the best of the old-school Ruskin scholars, proprietor of the excellent Victorianweb research site. His The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton UP, 1971) is exhaustive & exhausting, but his Ruskin (1985) in the Oxford "Past Masters" series does a splendid job of surveying the life & work in about 90 pages.

Robert Hewison is the most prolific Ruskin scholar I know, paying particular attention to Ruskin's art criticism (of the many Ruskin books he's published, several are exhibition catalogues). Hewison's John Ruskin (2007), in the OUP "Very Interesting People" series, is on its face longer than Landow by about 30 pages, but in reality quite a bit shorter, as it's printed in a larger typeface with far more generous margins & spacing. The "Very Interesting People" series is really just another Oxford recycling project – the series, which features David Levine-style pen & ink caricatures on the covers, & describes itself as "Bite-sized biographies of Britain's most fascinating historical figures, amounts to paperback reprints of some of the more substantial entries in the 2004 Dictionary of National Biography. As befits a DNB entry, Hewison's life of Ruskin is sober & informative, but it's far less lively & searching than Landow's.

Alas, Francis O'Gorman's Ruskin (Sutton, 1999) is the loser among this bunch. The Sutton Pocket Biographies are "Highly readable brief lives of those who have played a significant part in history, and whose contributions still influence contemporary history." For "highly readable," I'm tempted to read "dumbed down." Fontana's Modern Masters & Oxford Past Masters, for all their implicit popular appeal, never condescended: Jonathan Culler on Saussure or Barthes, Martin Esslin on Artaud, Donald Davie on Pound (all Fontana), Anthony Kenny on Aquinas, Rosemary Ashton on George Eliot, Peter Singer on Hege (all Oxford) – all of these were highly sophisticated advanced introductions. But O'Gorman, who's done his share of real Ruskin criticism, seems to take his assignment from Sutton as a kind of scholarly holiday, chance to ramble over the life & trot out a few touchstone quotations from Ruskin; the Sutton Ruskin is breezy, readable, & in the end as forgettable as a 50-minute History Channel biography.

So there, Ruskinian Padwan: begin with Bell, if you can find him. If not, read Landow (read Landow anyway). Hewison is optional; O'Gorman is not recommended.

Of course, what I'm really hoping for is the graphic novel Ruskin (cf. the "For Beginners" series). If there's an artist who's itching to draw JR, I'm game to script it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

collected works

The semester is winding down, I suppose; there're only a couple more weeks of classes, for the nonce I'm not facing anything that I have to grade, & I'm thinking forward to the Fall. Book orders, that is. I'm teaching a graduate poetry workshop, which is always fun, always an adventure. Between now & the end of July, I guess, I'll settle on a half dozen or 8 recent books of poetry to discuss. Suggestions for assigned texts would be welcome. (If you want me to consider your book, of course, I need to have read a copy – hint, hint.)

The undergraduate Milton class is a bit more of a challenge. I love teaching Milton, have done it maybe four times before. The first couple of times I assigned the more or less recent Riverside Milton, edited by Roy Flannagan; it's got all of the texts I'd want to teach (and many more), presents them in original spelling, and has fairly useful introductions to each selection. But the book, to be frank, isn't a patch on the Riverside Shakespeare and the Riverside Chaucer, two really landmark, rock-solid edition: where they have neatly segregated textual notes and super-clean glosses and explanatory notes, Flannagan bungs all of his annotations – textual, word-defining, interpretive, explanatory, speculative, and (occasionally) just plain wrong – into these huge blocks at the foot of the page. Hey, I live for this scholarly stuff, & even I'm put off by the way the book's presented. (I find I've blogged this same kvetch almost 4 years ago; sigh.)

So a couple of Milton courses back, I switched to Merritt Y. Hughes's John Milton: Complete Poetry and Major Prose, an edition that first came out in 1957, & that's now in print from Hackett. It doesn't have original spelling – which in the case of Paradise Lost may not really be an issue, given that Milton was blind at the time & didn't really have control over the orthography – but its annotations are rather lighter than Flannagan's (maybe too light), and its introductions are much sketchier.

What I'd really like to use is David Kastan's super-fine recent edition of Paradise Lost, plus a volume of the prose, plus a volume of the short poems. But the only semi-affordable prose I can find is Patrides's U Missouri edition of the Selected Prose, which seems to be running about $25 these days (for a wee paperback); and any available decent volume of the short poems is simply outrageously expensive. (You see, I'm thinking of my students.) I suspect I'll hie me to Barnes & Noble sometime in the next few days to check out the recent Modern Library Complete Poetry and Essential Prose, which looks pretty darned decent from what I can see of it in the Amazon preview.
Looking back over Milton again has made me think of that odd notion of "covering" or "mastering" an author. I've read all of JM's poetry, much of it multiple times, and I've probably been thru between 50% & 75% of his prose. There aren't a lot of writers I can honestly say I know the whole of. (Of course, I've read everything LZ ever wrote, but he's an exception.) I know all of WC Williams's poetry, but his fiction, plays, and much of his prose are terra incognita. I've read all of Shakespeare's plays and most of his other poetry, but there are a few items of the canon that I've managed to avoid. Faulkner, I know maybe 6 or 7 novels. Woolf, all the novels except 3, but very little of the stories or essays. There are large bodies of writing out there I'd love to plunge into, but am daunted by the sheer breadth and variety of achievement: Wyndham Lewis (I've read Apes of God and Tarr, but nothing else); George Eliot (Daniel Deronda and – too long ago – Middlemarch).

I can understand why some people become Joyceans and more or less get stuck there. It's a large and very rich universe, the big 4 (Dubliners, Portrait, Ulysses, & the Wake) & their minor outriders, but it's also a wholly manageable bigness. I could happily reread Ulysses every couple months till I die, if I had the time. Or Melville, for that matter, though there's a bit more variety there – a Dickens-sized corpus, rereadable on a yearly basis, if that's your inclination.

Which is why I'm fascinated and daunted at the same time by the big maroon monster to the left of my desk: the Ruskin Library Edition, all 39 volumes of hugeness. They probably average out to 500 pages or so apiece, and even after you shave off the 2 volumes of bibliography and index, that still leaves you with something like 18,000 pages of Ruskin to tackle. Quentin Bell, in the preface to his excellent little book on Ruskin, recalls spending an entire year reading thru the Library Edition – but he was careful to add, he wasn't reading anything else, either.

I've probably read more Ruskin than most scholars of 20th- & 21st-century poetry (maybe more than some Victorianists): several volumes of Modern Painters, all of Fors Clavigera, one of Stones of Venice, 7 Lamps of Architecture, Praeterita, all of the social & political volumes, and between a half-dozen and a dozen of thises & thats. Most of these have been read in other editions than the Library Edition, but I reckon I've covered the material in maybe 12 or 13 of the LE volumes. Which leaves a daunting amount of Ruskin still to be read. I'm not surprised that there are a few Ruskinians out there who seem to do nothing else – David Hewison, for instance, who at last count has published 6 or 7 books on Ruskin. And I'm not surprised that there aren't more, for the sheer bulk of the guy's output feels like a kind of vortex into which one can get sucked & never write about anything else again.

For heaven's sake, I've spent too many years being introduced as "the LZ guy" (why not, "that guy who writes for Parnassus," or "minor poet, not conspicuously dishonest"?); perhaps the only move I could make into deeper obscurity would be to become "the Ruskin scholar MS."

Tho, to tell the truth, "the Wyndham Lewis scholar MS" sounds even obscurer.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Julie Carr: 100 Notes on Violence

This winds up the "100 poem-books" project that I so sanguinely began a bit over (gulp) 2 years ago, expecting to dash thru it in maybe 14 months. It's not that I didn't read that many slim (& fat) volumes of contemporary (& older) verse in the year after I started blogging books & putting 'em under this rubric, it's just that, well, there were lots that I didn't feel were really worth blogging about; and there were others that just so knocked me out that I dithered around, thinking about what I'd write, until something else came up; and there were times when I just plain got lazy. So sue me. You can have your money back.

My OCD is awfully fond of numbering things & keeping track of them, however. (Hey, I just finished cataloguing all the books in my office at work!) I suspect I'll continue numbering "notices" of poem-books & tagging them with the tag "more poem-books."
100 Notes on Violence, Julie Carr (Ahsahta, 2009)

A beautiful, large-format book with some very ugly things inside, a kind of tour of the American culture of hurt, with special attention to domestic violence against women and the consequences of keeping handguns around the house. Carr has a delicate ear, & her segments are often kinds of mobiles of suspended syntax & thoughtful music (that music, interestingly enough, is often country music), pressed up against sections of dense statistics (gun ownership, death rates, etc.) or intimidating text-blocks presenting the roiling insides of people in the grip of "vengeance" or other varieties of Homeric anger. What's most initially compelling, however, beyond the formal variety of the 100 "notes," is the degree to which Carr speaks in a personal voice; her narrative of her own upbringing & its emotional violence, her lyrics of maternal protection, have an stark attraction that sets all of the book's news-derived material into a frame of emotional immediacy. Of course, she may be making up the "personal" bits – I don't know; and I don't really care: they work, they take the poem beyond reportage & ventriloquizing into a space of scary realism.

(Now that I think about it, the book 100 Notes on Violence most resembles for me at the moment is Rukeyser's Book of the Dead. Go figure.)


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Indefatigable Milton

With my normal skewed sense of immediate priorities, I'm reading around towards the Milton course I'll be teaching this coming Fall (get it – "fall"?). Paradise Lost moves along nicely at a book a sitting, especially in David Kastan's better-than-excellent Hackett edition (a revision of the Merritt Hughes standby). J. came back from the Shakespeare Association with a stack of book table display copies for me, including the luscious recent biography, John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought by Gordon Campbell and Thomas M. Corns. I've only read two lives of JM: Peter Levi's Eden Renewed (well-written but bad) and Barbara Lewalski's enormous biography-of-record.

But the real prize is Annabel Patterson's latest book, Milton's Words (OUP, 2009), a little examination of how Milton uses various "keywords" over his career. I'm only far enough in to be delighted with Patterson's deft prose and amazing gift for analytic summary, but she gives a lovely taste of what's to come in the introduction, where she looks at the fortunes of the rather rare word "indefatigable" (one of those polysyllabic Latin borrowings – Seneca, De Ira – that give my students headaches). Milton uses it only twice, once in Areopagitica (referring to Parliament's "indefatigable Vertue") and once in Paradise Lost.

But before Milton's epic, it was used twice by Milton's friend Andrew Marvell, both times in connection with Oliver Cromwell. In the "Horatian Ode," he addresses the Lord Protector thus:
But thou the Wars and Fortunes Son
March indefatigably on.
(Whoosh – three whole feet of the tetrameter taken up with a single latinate adverb – don't try this at home, kids!) And in "The First Anniversary of the Government under O.C.," Marvell writes of how "indefatigable Cromwell hyes / And cuts his way still nearer to the Skyes."

For his part, Milton takes the word and gives it – yes – to Satan, as the fallen angel describes to his comrades the dangers of his prospective venture to the newly-created Eden:
Who shall tempt with wandring feet
The dark unbottom'd infinite Abyss
and through the palpable obscure find out
His uncouth way, or spread his aery flight
Upborne with indefatigable wings
Over the vast abrupt. (2.404-9)
Of this, Patterson writes:
You can see that Milton has learned from Marvell the art of fitting that "uncouth" word smoothly into verse. You can see that here the first two un-words are not positives disguised as negatives but actual negatives, scary with the idea of free fall and unknown territory. You might infer, therefore, and especially because it is Satan speaking, speaking speciously, that 'indefatigable' is here also not a positive disguised by syntax as a negative, but a negative doubly darkened by its context. So what does it say to Marvell's second Cromwellian 'indefatigable', which also imagines a flying superhuman figure? I cannot believe that these astonishing words, used only twice by Milton, are not cross-references to each other and Marvell's, implying that Satan is the dark shadow of Marvell's heroic Cromwell. We know that by 1667, when he published Paradise Lost, Milton no longer shared his friend's admiration for Cromwell; he had also, by the way, demolished his own image of a heroic Long Parliament. (7-8)
I don't know whether Patterson will keep up this kind of wonderful intellectual nimbleness over all 200 pages of this small book, but I anticipate a kind of heaven of close reading, concordance work, and historical contextualization.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Ruskin & pubic hair

[William Etty, Female Nude (1820)]

John D'Agata was at Our Fair University some weeks ago, where he read a sustained stretch from About a Mountain, his long "lyric essay" revolving around the plans to use Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste storage facility. It was a riveting reading. Now, I'm still not quite sure what the "lyric essay" means, which is fine – I think it has something to do with elaborate digressions, lots of dictions shifting, & occasionally falling into meter – but I liked what I heard from D'Agata. It had the effect of jolting me from the steady round of things I've been writing & meaning to write – critical analyses, bits of literary history – to hankering to do something Montaignesque, Davenportian, even Ruskinian: a big, rangy, maddenly digressive essay on something that's been interesting me for ages. So why not write about Ruskin and pubic hair?

"I was told in art school that it was her pubic hair," Martin Corless-Smith opined to me in Boise back in February. The reason, that is, that Ruskin never consummated his 1848 marriage to Euphemia ("Effie") Gray. During the annulment proceedings 6 years later, Effie Ruskin testified that her husband told her "he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening April 10th." Ruskin, in his own affidavit, said that "though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it." But the doctors who examined Effie in 1854 and pronounced her a virgin noted nothing unusual about her "person"; she would go on to have 8 children with John Everett Millais. So how then had Ruskin misimagined the female form? what was the source of his "disgust"? what about Effie's body checked his "passion"?

For a while in the last century, the theory that Ruskin was freaked out that his wife had pubic hair – he knew only the hairless mounds of classical nude statuary and renaissance painting, the story went – had some currency (Mary Lutyens, who published three full books on the Ruskin marriage, is the source of this one). It's a story that has had legs – I know it's figured in at least 3 poems over the last couple decades (for the record, by John Matthias, Ben Downing, & yr. humble blogger). But Ruskin told his parents in a letter that he had undergraduate acquaintances at Oxford whose drawers were full of "pictures of naked bawds" – presumably unclipped ones. And the Victorian painter William Etty (see above) did pictures which presented the female form in fully unshorn form. So the pubic hair thesis, if not quite untenable, is rather less than convincing.

Was Effie having her period, as one scholar whose work I can't lay hands on speculates? Was it something else, heaven knows what? The precise reason for Ruskin's apotropaic reaction to his wife's anatomy is finally as unrecoverable as the first draft of Book I of Carlyle's French Revolution (which John Stuart Mill's maid burnt as scrap paper). And that's one of the reasons I find it so fascinating. Imagine – an essay ranging over the history of early Victorian representations of the nude (with special attention to pubic hair), over Victorian pornography (the "naked bawds" of the Oxford undergrads), over the sexual preparations & expectations of the young & hopelessly naive products of evangelical Scottish families – & going from there to Ruskin's discovery of JMW Turner's pornographic – yes, okay, he's a great artist, so I should say "erotic," but golly, some of them are just plain pornographic – sketches & the long and murky history of whether or not Ruskin burned them.

So that was what was on my mind when I stumbled over this article, an announcement in the Guardian that Emma Thompson has scripted a new film, now in production, that focuses on Ruskin & his marriage – or rather, on Effie Ruskin & her marriage to the critic. Now I yield to no one in my infatuated admiration for Emma Thompson, but I have deep misgivings about this project. Thompson's husband Greg Wise, who's producing the film & playing Ruskin, seems to have only a hazy grasp of his subject, judging by his remarks here: "He is a pin-up for many artists and was Gandhi's hero too." At any rate, if there's a major film in the works on the subject, maybe I should stop ruminating on Ruskin & pubic hair & get back to actually reading his works.

On that front, I'm working thru Modern Painters II again, this time in the Library Edition, after a detour thru the bulk of the mid-period works on political economy. I'm also trying to tackle the secondary literature in a less scattershot manner than previously. For instance, I've just finished John D. Rosenberg's The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin's Genius (Columbia UP, 1961), which can be said to have inaugurated "serious" modern Ruskin studies. It's a very smart book indeed, a cleanly written and enthusiastic overview of JR's career. Rosenberg doesn't mince words when he finds Ruskin falling into silliness or incoherence; nor, a bit more wincingly for me, does he restrain himself from gushing when he finds Ruskin compelling, particularly on the political economy: Unto This Last is great because "Its power is that of truth [my emphasis], as relevant to our age of superabudance as to Ruskin's of relative scarcity." Ouch. But then again – he's right, isn't he? and when's the last time you read a critic use the word "truth" without a trace of irony (& isn't that a trifle refreshing)?


It seems somehow anticlimactic that Culture Industry's 750th post is literally a placeholder – a kind of busy, hasty, "I'm not dead yet." It's been a gruelling semester. Conferences & lectures here and there, longish stretches of solo parenting. This past week has been the girls' spring break, which meant lots of juggling back and forth, last-minute favors called in from babysitters, etc. And now J. is away having a marvelous time in Chicago at the Shakespeare Association of America, while I'm left with the responsibility of replacing a bunch of busted home electronics, planning an Easter dinner of sorts, and generally keeping the premises from going up in smoke.

Forrest Gander just wound up a stretch at Our Fair University as the Generous Benefactor Visiting Writer. Gave a nice talk on translation Tuesday & a lovely reading last night, and by all accounts ran a provocative & very fruitful intensive workshop. A very nice man, something which doesn't always go along with being a very good poet.

The postperson & Mr/Ms UPS have been good to me lately. Michael Heller's latest collection of poems, Beckmann Variations and Other Poems, turned up in the box the other day – I can't wait to read this one, if only to see whether he's been able to top the magnificent Eschaton from last year. Today the brown truck dropped off Bob Archambeau's long-awaited Laureates & Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry; okay, I'll admit to having blurbed this one, so you know I recommend it.

I fired off an email to Cambridge University Press the other week:
Dear Cambridge University Press:

Several years ago I purchased a copy of David Loewenstein's Representing Revolution in Milton and His Contemporaries: Religion, Politics, and Polemics in Radical Puritanism (CUP, 2001, ISBN 0-521-77032-7). I don't remember where I bought it -- either at a bookstore in New York City or from a vendor at a conference; at any rate, I recall investing a rather large amount of money in it, something like sixty dollars. (And no, I have not retained a receipt from when I purchased the book. There is only so much paper one can save.)

The book sat on my shelf among my Milton titles until a few weeks ago, when I began reading it in preparation for the Milton course I'll be teaching this coming Fall semester. The first few chapters are just fine: informative, if rather blandly written. So, in anticipation of Professor Loewenstein's insights into the political resonances of Paradise Lost, I leapt forward to the Milton material in the second half of the book. You can imagine my discomfiture to find that throughout a rather long section of the book, a significant number of the pages are entirely blank! To be precise, where pages 180-1, 184-5, 188-9, 192-3, 196-7, 200-1, 204-5, and 208-9 ought to be, there are only clean swatches of utterly white paper. While nothing really surprises me anymore, I have a hunch that Professor Loewenstein is not the sort of scholar who indulges in radically postmodern formal games; this is, in short, a defective copy of the book, and at the moment mostly useless to me.

How can I go about replacing this beautifully bound but internally flawed Cambridge UP production? I would be more than happy to post the book your way, so that the folks around the office can admire its "write your own Milton criticism" approach, if in turn you'd post me a copy that includes the missing swatches of Professor Loewenstein's analysis.

Yours truly,
Lo & behold, CUP has done the right thing; in my university mailbox yesterday, I found a brand spanking new copy of said volume, this one with all of its pages printed on. If anyone wants a nicely bound CUP book to play Tom Phillips or William Blake with, drop me a line (& some postage).