That funny metaphor comes from Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe,” which i read along with the experimental novella “Sheep” in the same collection. Comments on it as well as some other entries below the jump.
In “Sheep” a sleeper cannot get herself to doze off, and, well, she counts sheep. We enter a dream landscape of a pastoral field with rolling green hills, and sheep jump the fence and each one is enumerated. We get all the way past 200. There are a few micro narratives involving shepherds and a Wolf, but there are also Cowboy western movies and pulpy spy films that run concurrently and sometimes intersect with the pastoral landscape. And then there are lengthy blocks summarizing new (for the 60s) findings in neuroscience regarding sleep and dreaming, as well as long quotations on recipes for lamb, or how to castrate and butcher sheep, building sheep fences, lullabies and old songs, dreams within dreams.
It’s a collage of information — on sheep, but also state-building and the Church (particularly with the Spy movie bits), a play on Foucault’s pastoral power. But you can draw all the connections you’d like. There’s some wild visual business like a micro essay on the benefits of wool with all the vowels eaten out of the text by moths.
Zoline’s prose was hard going for me because she deliberately builds run-on sentences. But between the found literature segments are pieces of beautiful lyricism. The narrative is in the present tense — outside of historical time, but with plenty of weirdness and lyricism to contemplate for the loss in “tone,” as Samuel R. Delany talks about it. If you’re gonna write in present tense this is one way to justify it, not just bc of “immediacy.” “Sheep” was a genuine use of the kind of surface-oriented experience you get in avant-garde theater and film, except done in prose. (And there are stage directions and cinematic actions like camera panning throughout, and even a cast party at the end.)
And then, coming from the North, from the woods which cast such long morning shadows, came the sound of whistling; not bird-song but song which had been schooled in that primary mode, up three noes, down two, up a long note, held. And after an interval, perhaps twenty beats of silence, an answering whistle from the East, off-screen, from beyond the bright rim of the bright hill. And then five sheep come out of the woods, six, eight, and then a figure of the Shepherdess, more sheep, a black-and-white spotted dog. The young woman gives a hand-signal to the dog whose milky blue eye constantly studies her hands, her face. The dog melts back among the trees, the sheep issue out, they forge up the hill, and when they stop to graze the dog nudges them on. The woman strides up the hill in the lead. She moves easily among the elements, her skin is bright and tweaked about the eyes from being so much out-of-doors. They gain the crest of the hill and stand waiting, looking to the East whose blush is shifting to blue, and then they can see far off, approaching, some sheep, a dog, the figure of a man. Phoebe stands with folded arms and an air of anticipation, the creatures churning about her legs, the wind mixing with her hair. At the edge of the page some tardy sheep hurry to join the flock, they jump the fence, Number 5, Number 6, Number 7, Number 8, Number 9.
Nietzsche’s “The Case of Wagner”
The case being not only Wagner as a particular topic but as an actual disease, for Nietzsche really believes his music is sick.
He starts out praising Bizet and CARMEN, in particular. Ah, how much nicer this is (it has melodies), thematically nuanced. Then in 12 sections he looks at Wagner and the larger artistic directions of European modernism, of which Wagner is the chief influence and symptom. i didnt follow it too well, but the tone is full of snark. It’s not really a hatchet job, more of a roast. Nietzsche ironically considers Wagner’s artistic/philosophical ambitions, blows them out of proportion, shows them to be the kitsch that we recognize today, what with the Valkyrie and Apocalypse Now playbacks and Viking helmets and all that shit.
Wagner’s ambitions were greater than music, when every other artist in any medium is striving to reach the level of music. Which is why Nietzsche here subordinates Wagner’s music under his theater. Basically the guy needed to be taken down a notch. But in Wagner’s art is the germs of modernism, for better or for worse. He’s not really the disease so much as the symptom for where Western culture is going. “There is no way out, one must first become a Wagnerian.”
Whenever i saw a reference to “My Saga” i thought it was like a prior, less provocative english title for his autobiographical novels. i had no idea he did a bit of travel writing for the NYT magazine. im interested in reading the My Struggle books but havent found the time, and id like to get to Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels first. And before even that i want to read A TIME FOR EVERYTHING.
But this trip to North America, starting in Newfoundland and then to New England and Michigan will answer for now. The route is a deliberate parallel to the landing of the Vikings — maybe that’s kitschy stereotypical Scandinavian stuff, but it’s more interesting than any thing else “American”.
What i like most is his honesty; his narration doesnt try to put the best part of himself forward. He’s quite a loser in these sections, landing in Canada unprepared and without a driver’s license, too introverted to talk with the locals to find characters for his piece. He clogs the toilet and is too embarrassed to call room service so tries to un-clog it himself without a plunger (very funny bit). And he couldn’t even keep a birthday promise to one of his kids to quit smoking.
There’s talk of books as well: LOLITA, ON THE ROAD, travel writing he reads on the trip to model his essay on. i like some of the observations, such as the culture vs. object aspects of history, the European vs. American gaze on the landscape (the two novels), and the hoax(?) Viking rune artifact in the midwest. But i also see what people mean when they say he doesn’t bother shying away from cliches, such as colonization being “human nature” or the need to name places for so and so reasons of familiarity.
He is appalled by the state of Detroit; there’s a chilling image of television screens everywhere with no one watching them. And he notes that even the Soviet Union at the height of its powers did not reach the level of conformity and uniformity that we have achieved.
Other things read:
Tina Rosenberg’s “D for Deception” (Why am i underwhelmed by these Atavist stories?)
Janet Malcolm’s IN THE FREUD ARCHIVES (i like her lengthy quotations and the juicy academic gossip/drama; very readable)