administrative things

I owe it to visitors of this blog to explain that this “Ba Jin” project is very much in the rear view mirror. In short, future blogging will appear at a new wordpress linked below.

A blog called The Evan Dara Affinity linked to my blog posts on THE LOST SCRAPBOOK, which I greatly appreciate. It’s crazy to be in a ground-up critical bibliography, and more discourse on the underappreciated and under-analyzed Evan Dara is always welcome, and we still need a lot more.  First read-through blogging is an interesting way to stage the hermeneutic wheel, so to speak, but it’s high time for a second, informed reading.

My activity on this blog disappeared over the last year as I was completing an MFA. I’m ever so slowly getting literary production out there under the name my parents gave me, and I couldn’t find the balance between that and a reading diary.

Till now that is! I will continue to post up the best readings I can of fine literature and SF at my author page, SECOND SLOPE. It will be more of a diary than a reading diary, a kind of open workshop or laboratory.

The readership on Ba Jin was small but devoted and super kind. See ya later, I hope~

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poet as witless

Seamus Heaney
STATION ISLAND
FSG 1985

“Chekhov on Sakhalin.”

So, he would pay his ‘debt to medicine’.
But first he drank cognac by the ocean

With his back to all he travelled north to face.
His head was swimming free as the troikas

Of Tyumin,…

Maybe every artist has been there: when the world is full of suffering and violence, isn’t the leisurely activity of producing art an insult to the butchery most of humanity faces, what has afflicted most of humanity for most of history? Fiddling while Rome burns, as they say? Heaney in an essay posed the problem as Song versus Suffering, where the poet is a child of both.

Maybe it’s even harder for Chekhov, age 30, travelling now by steamboat to the far east of Russia, to the Sakhalin penal colony. “His debt to medicine,” doctors are supposed to be healers. This bit of reporting he wants to do is like a debt owed for writing frivolous stories and plays, or a down payment to justify more creative writing down the line.

And Heaney has his own fair share of violence. Not only the world wars and what they did to English verse, but of course the Irish troubles, the bombings, the repression, the hunger strikes, and the decisions he had to make for himself and his family. But much of his work in this collection does not face these events directly, but like Chekhov, his back is turned “to all he traveled north to face.” Chekhov enjoys a glass of cognac, Heaney writes a great little poem about sloe gin.

That far north, Siberia was south.
Should it have been an ulcer in the mouth,
The cognac that the Moscow literati
Packed off with him to a penal colony —

Him, born, you may say, under the counter?
At least that meant he knew its worth. No cantor
In full throat by the iconostasis
Got holier joy than he got from that glass

A little more guilt. The rhyming couplets help the make the connection. His guilt and hypocrisy manifests itself for him as an “ulcer in the mouth.” And there are sound echoes on the front and end of the middle two lines of the first quatrain, “cognac” and “pack,” “mouth” and “Moscow.” But at least he knows its worth, because he was born “under the counter,” a shopkeeper’s son.

Some sexy visions: the glass sparkling like diamonds on a lady’s bosom, but the coldness of the place he has come to brings him back. He chucks the glass onto the rocks (how decadent!) and the sound “rang as clearly as the convicts’ chains.” “It rang on like the burden of his freedom.”

The poem tracks him on the cusp of turning from the Moscow high life to the solemn duty of the writer as a witness. Leftist writers know the feeling too: are you really living your principles if you’re here honing your craft when you could be participating in an armed struggle movement, be it Spain or Rojava?

The last two sentences:

                                  In the months to come
It rang on like the burden of his freedom

To try for the right tone — not tract, not thesis —
And walk away from floggings. He who thought to squeeze
His slave’s blood out and waken the free man
Shadowed a convict guide through Sakhalin. 

“To try for the right tone — not tract, not thesis –” SAKHALIN OBLAST isn’t completely a sociological tract, it’s a literary artifact too. Which speaks to the larger issue, which is that Song vs. Suffering, or Poetry vs. Protest, is beside the point. The debate assumes that poetry is somehow outside of history. No need, then, to put every poem on trial to gauge its usefulness to historical development. It’s Chekhov’s and Heaney’s freedom to try for the right tone, and (continuing the medical imagery in the poem) to squeeze their slave’s blood out. Chekhov came from a family of serfs, but in Heaney’s case I take it to mean the writer’s first responsibility is to her body, her body as a circuit of the common property of language, to shape that language in the ways her body will permit.
And it happens that in the case of Heaney’s body it was a refusal, but never a full retreat, from acknowledging the political violence in Ireland head on. History is there, but like the music of his language, the artful assonance chains in his 10-syllable lines, it isn’t quite manifest. He’s content to look at quiet objects. Restraint. Taste. Language makes ugly things beautiful. That’s art, boy, William H. Gass would say.

notes on a film i saw months ago and not since

I was hoping ARRIVAL would get a nod for best score at the Oscars. The sequence of approaching the spacecraft that looks like a floating almond, a low cloud deck rolling down the mountains, and then entering the thing from the bottom into a brutal corridor with rounded edges and a texture like dead tree bark — the music has low hum with a voice occasionally getting a noise in. And later on these growls from the double-bass, and a steady pizzicato rhythm from the low strings. The crew set down a bird in a cage, back lit by the screen and white fog, the “dank tank.” (Amy Adams gets hot-boxed in a shuttle craft before going behind the screen.) Anyway, this was some memorable surreal cinema business.

It was nice to see a mainstream science fiction film — for real sci-fi, not a violent fantasy set in space or the future, and one that was pretty intelligent and optimistic about the fate of the species.

The yellow peril stuff, with the naughty Chinese PLA, who the current predator in chief can’t stop insulting, was cringe-inducing, but they had to get all that military hardware in camera somehow.

In the Adamic language, word and object are at one. There is no remainder. The language of the heptapods may very well be this Adamic language, or the language of humanity before the tower of Babel. The film goes into the details of its mechanics quite thoroughly, but I can’t forget actually watching the substance come out of their tentacles, appearing both inky and fibrous like hair, and forming the circular calligraphy. Their writing is a natural production — the material body as the sign.

I was kinda disturbed by the end revelation and its implications. The story takes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis seriously, so that the heptapod’s language re-wires the brain so that you can see through time. Amy Adams learns that the universe is deterministic, and that the most authentic act of freedom is to surrender to it, even if it means bringing a child into the world who will suffer and die from illness at a young age.

But I’ve been reading a lot of Edgar Allan Poe lately, and in one of his more esoteric mystical pieces there is a notion that death is precisely the place where the Adamic language is grasped, and all that was ineffable disappears, that is, everything can at last be described. So maybe the language mystic Adams knows something her hardcore scientist lover Jeremy Renner doesn’t. Perhaps their love child is an emissary to the truth of cosmic being.

Amy Adams can perceive all events simultaneously, which is conveyed to us in pseudo-flashbacks and surreal visions, and it’s all very fascinating and formal film making. It’s a little cheesy at the climax, but it’s your straight ahead BILL AND TED kind of time travel (which is also what the heptapods are up to this whole time).What I want to emphasize is that viewing history in toto drains it of any consequence, which is also what Poe suggests in this piece happens when you die. So maybe Amy Adams is a living death, which is the inauguration into the language of heptapod. I mean, the design of their spaceship is like Thanatos incarnate.

 

 

in defense of something or other and offense of something else

Read this fun hatchet job on John D’Agata’s essay anthologies in the ATLANTIC.

I remember noticing how he mis-quotes the opening of “Once More to Lake.” Other factual glitches made me go, huh? But I chalked it up to some experiment, or alienation devices. After all, he’s got the authority of Graywolf Press and Iowa Workshop behind him. I like being a forgiving reader, even if it means occasionally being played for a sucker.

I identify this upswelling of discourse against playing with fact and fiction, against the “post-fact” landscape, as an effort from the conservative or soft left wing of the humanities against, not so much Trumpism, but against work of critical theory over the last couple of generations.

William Deresiewicz himself couldn’t care less about this conflict. He’s condemned the elite university systems in toto, and I say hear hear to that. But his position here, as I see it, is classically liberal. Postmodernism is an empty signifier; these days I only hear it from old white heterosexual men, like the ones in the comments, too busy defending what little cultural authority they have left to seriously investigate what’s really going on here.

I suppose that is why I’m writing this post. I can’t stand bad (ie liberal) arguments for positions I agree with.

And I take this review as a quarrel within a liberal framework of cultural studies.

See, I’m into playing with the boundary between factual and creative writing. The most interesting of the mainstream writers, like Anne Carson or Laszlo Krasznahorkai, have been writing short story essays and essayistic short stories. Vollmann’s novels are more thoroughly researched than one of D’Agata’s intercalary texts in his anthologies. Blanchfield’s PROXIES is after the same risk of inaccuracy, but in a much more responsible way.

Blanchot misquotes Holderlin in his famous essay. Did he do it on purpose? Was he lazily relying on his memory? Whatever the case, it’s a re-inscription that we have to work with.

Remember that the hard line between facts and fiction is a recent development, a bourgeois development, in the history of writing. We can go way back to the Jewish mystical writers, taking down knowledge from the angelic library in the higher realm in their mystical trances in Catalonia. They freely mixed quotation from the standard medieval literature but also made up other sources without differentiating them. It was a perfectly acceptable idea for centuries that truth can emerge via fictional writing.

Granted, John D’Agata is no Moses de Leon.

The problem as I see it is that D’Agata and many contemporary writers and artists like him go about this respectable tradition the wrong way. (I haven’t read the AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACT project, but everything I hear about it makes it sound like total bullshit.) They do it within the framework of authorship and private property. The old mystics and the classical novelists often elided their own authorship, because it gave their texts more power, in a way. The new guys are just “appropriation artists.” Kenneth Goldsmith’s stuff only seems interesting to the extent of how offensive it can be; maybe CAPITAL is good.

I was struck by Deresiewicz’s hostility toward the more modern and experimental pieces D’Agata picks. Gimmicky? the great Barthelme? The texts that do the most to break out of the conventional form of the essay are “formless, monotonous, self-indulgent, and dull”? D’Agata probably didn’t pick the best examples, going for a personal journey approach, which I kinda admired.

Deresiewicz has a conservative definition of the essay as a genre that fundamentally holds an argument and conclusion. I’m more sympathetic to the definition in the QUARTERLY CONVERSATION’S review; the essay as a representation of the rhythm of thinking. I’d merely define it as the representation of ideas, and they can be conclusive, suggestive, disjunctive, discontinuous, totally scatter-brained.

Why this hostility to the promiscuity that’s been going down in avant-garde writing for the last half century? The boundaries between poetry and prose, between the fiction and the essay, are bourgeois constructs meant to repress the inherent multiplicity of writing — not literature, writing.

“The multiplicity of writing” is the title of a short chapter in Raymond Williams’s amazing book MARXISM AND LITERATURE, and I can’t get over some of its insights. The novel/short-story and the essay are by definition hybrid genres. They can sustain any number of pre-existing prose forms: letters, Socratic dialog, history, biography, Romance, and so on. They do have something fundamentally in common in their mechanical workings, and Williams calls it the “Series.” The Series is specifically a series of conceptual propositions:

what really happened; what might (could) have happened; what really happens; what might happen; what essentially (typically) happened/happens. (148)

You can re-formulate this to talk about existence, what really existed, what could have existed, etc.

When was the last time any critics or theorists talked about the series? I think Williams’s analysis, and his old-school Marxism, deserve a comeback in these times.

Moreover, fiction and nonfiction as fields of writing each hold a paradox in their secret hearts. Nonfiction is conventionally subjective, but we expect it to be factual. Fiction is objective, that is, an objective world created by its author, but we value it for the truth it can reach.

The range of actual writing similarly surpasses any reduction of ‘creative imagination’ to the ‘subjective’, with its dependent propositions: ‘literature’ as ‘internal’ or ‘inner’ truth; other forms of writing as ‘external’ truth. These depend, ultimately, on the characteristic bourgeois separation of ‘individual’ and ‘society’ and on the older idealist separation of ‘mind’ and ‘world’, The range of writing, in most forms, crosses these artificial categories again and again.

So I post this partly as an effort to do better, as W.D. calls for at the very end of the review.

But this is also a basic plea, the same plea that under-girds this whole blog.

Please, folks, don’t hang up modernism just yet!

truth, approximately

Winner of the Ba Jin blog prize for Best 2016 book read in 2017

PROXIES: ESSAYS NEAR KNOWING: {A RECKONING}
Brian Blanchfield
Nightboat 2016

Nothing too thoughtful I can say about this fascinating and modern essay collection. It does a lot of thinking about itself already, whether it’s the many senses of the term proxy, or on the curious subtitle {Permitting Shame, Error, and Guilt, Myself the Single Source}. Blanchfield seems to have gone back to basics. On the surface, these seem like old-school, 18th century  essays: short, focused on a single subject (“On this, On that”). There’s only one space break in the whole text. However, the pieces do not use any research; if Blanchfield wants to mention Erich Auerbach or an essay by Berger, he must rely on memory and paraphrase. A 20-page section at the end called “Correction.” (what could the full stop mean?) contains a rolling list of errata.

Each piece starts out innocuously enough, expositional. He gives us the two main meanings of “frottage.” But then the rhythm of thinking takes a dip, and we land in something dark and personal. Some scenes, like a weird physical game between young Brian and his mother, are clearly painful for the author to render. The single-subject format provides an oblique way to account for (reckoning) a life that has been through New York, Boston, Tuscon, and also through Baptist church, academia, the NY gay scene at the tail end of the AIDS crisis. How ontologically multiple an ordinary life can seem.

How about the style? Every so often Blanchfield will build up lovely, sinuous sentences. On being asked why he, a poet, does not write the way he speaks:

Why is poetry pretentious? Is that the question? Certainly to answer “Well, there I was speaking as my representative shepherd” doesn’t help the cause. There are all kinds of ways to answer the question, including to define poetry as yet another art that pulls attention to the medium, language, defamiliarizing it from its usual invisible, directly communicative and expository functions, thereby discovering it afresh, activating and liberating it. But it is in usual, directly communicative and expository language that this explanation is offered, and so seems paltry, and even if one cuts to the chase and says, “You don’t tell a dancer that’s not how you normally move,” the defensiveness concedes the point. What was the point? (25)

The shepherd, evoking the pastorale, the happy place (this is from “On the Locus Amoenus”). In another piece, “On Propositionizing,” he constellates Heidegger, of all people, with Helen Keller’s famous breakthrough. These essays, so modest in tone, are actually flaunting the kind of analysis that is possible without recourse to wikipedia or fact-checking. If anything, our addiction to facticity and accuracy can even block off certain styles of thinking. Is this reactionary? Not at all, just a gentle reminder of the complexity of what we can know, and what we do know. Benjamin and Adorno, working under the failure of the German socialist revolution, were making the same claims. One can’t make do with facts and reason alone. We need to reckon with the irrational, the free-form paths of the mind. There’s a distinction to be made between epistemology and epistemophilia.

(I wonder if it’s a particularly USian thing to want facts, adult education, from all media, including novels and stand-up routines. This isn’t a recent thing either: Melville’s early novels were received like travelogues, and then were disappointing as such.)

Those who would claim that critical theory with its jargon and relativistic nuttiness is responsible for the “post-fact world” (the soft left’s version of the right’s complaints against “cultural Marxism”) are invited to see what an unconstrained thinking mind is capable of in this clever, modest, beautifully written project.

more golden notes

THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK
Doris Lessing

Harper Perennial 2007

About the homophobia of these characters. Anna admits in the first notebook set that she’s repulsed by homosexuality and views it as a political fad. Far later on, in the yellow notebook, Ella, the protagonist of The Shadow of the Third, is bothered by how salient the criticism of men has become as the basis of her friendship with Julia; she fears this makes them lesbians, “psychologically,” at least. Anna bases Ella off herself, but Ella is heavily unpoliticized as a person while Julia is still a red. Anna has the political orientation, which she voices in Free Women 1: namely the sexual division of labor. The men in their life coast on a labor-saving household run by a labor-saving wife, and the labor-saving secretaries they fuck. The open secret in this bizarre postwar Britain (where two good friends can share a therapist), is that marriage as an institution leads to affairs while the wife and kids are sequestered in a second house. Given our sanctity debates, this relation between homophobia and marriage was really interesting.

In each of the long dialog scenes in the novel, the narrator can pack in so many different sexualities, which is really apparent is the black notebook’s Colony memoirs. The thoroughness of observation is amazing, even something as simple like how Maryrose, after making a stinging comment against the boys after another unproductive meeting, feels the need to pander to their political thought (they use the jargon, she doesn’t): “I’m not saying it right, but you see what I mean…” (99).

Ella is a novelist who wrote a book about suicide. In part, it’s a sublimation of Tommy’s suicide attempt that blinds him. Mental illness and radicalism across the generation gap are two more issues explored just as resourcefully. Both Tommy and Janet are unsatisfied with their free mothers. The freedom (which they paid a dear price for) these children inherit is scary. It’s the rapid flux of issues, all crying for attention and acknowledgement of the other issues, which in a mental storm show us the limits of knowledge, after which follows collapse. In the Colony narrative, Paul gets blind drunk before his first mission and walks into a propeller. It’s a nihilist sublime, which Anna places near the beginning of the story, which in her memory is dyed with a “nostalgia” for death, a “longing for death.”

A sequence I loved was in later set of the black notebook, where we get a taste of the London literary world, “so prissy.” Anna’s cynicism makes so much sense here; even the most austere Communist Party would be more appealing. Actually it’s the world of TV and film producers looking for adaptations. One of them an American woman, after another stretch of bourgeois postwar conformist tedium (still tons of fun to read), this passage:

‘Are you thinking of visiting the States? I would be so happy if you would give me a call and we could discuss any ideas you might have?’ I hesitate. I almost stop myself. Then I know I can’t stop myself. I say: ‘There’s nothing I’d like better than to visit your country, but alas, I wouldn’t be let in, I’m a communist.’ Her eyes snap into my face, wide and blue and startled. She makes at the same time an involuntary movement — the start of pushing her chair and going. Her breathing quickens. I see someone who is frightened. Already I am sorry and ashamed. I said that for a variety of reasons, the first being childish: I wanted to shock her. Secondly, equally childish, a feeling that I ought to say it — if someone said afterwards: Of course she is a communist, this woman would feel as if I had been concealing it. Thirdly, I wanted to see what would happen. (266)

We’ve all been there, but maybe I shouldn’t speak for us. She reflects on her own inconsistency, one that mirrors her comrades in the Colony, who would physically touch the cook within Mrs Boothby’s sight, but had plenty of patience for working class racists at other instances.

“Of course things are quite different here in England,” the poor lady spits out as she tries to recover. Anna realizes she could be endangering her job. But she also reacts sharply against this being “embodied” by other people, ie embodied in their presence as a communist the moment she outs herself. But what the hell is a communist anyway? In mid-paragraph Anna switches to a memory of a Russian writer she met two years ago. The spoke “the same language — the communist language.” But “The fact was that the phrases of our common philosophy were a means of disguising the truth. The truth was we had nothing in common, except the label, communist.”

I glossed the final blue notebook set, with Anna’s encounter with Saul. The psychoanalytical issues didn’t age quite as well, and the dream sequences were tedious. This was the only spot in 600 pages that was anywhere close to dragging. But Saul, after inscribing some doggerel in the golden notebook Anna buys, gives her the first sentence for writing. It’s the first sentence of Free Women. Now the opening realist novel, taken as the master level of the text’s world, is brought to even keel with the notebooks. Is Anna fictionalizing herself beyond Ella and her name, endless mirrors and such? It’s a way to confront the jaded attitude with everything, with the creative powers of the novel and the political power of the left in its century of defeat — sure, the sixties are coming, but what we are seeing today is still the historical consequence of the left’s defeat. The text is a fixing up of bits and pieces, the remains of the past (modernity blown apart, like after a nuke), but also ominous dispatches from the future of an emptier world.

resolutions and hopes 2k17

Read Marx — actual Marx, not just Marxism.

Read BEING AND TIME, maybe over the summer.

At least 20% of the books you read this year will authored by women. Another 20% by PoC which may overlap.

Read more of the long novels.

Read faster.

Get more than one piece accepted for publication this year.

 

No hopes. In other words the usual.