Tag: avant garde lit

ulysses seen in modern art

All the reproductions are from Artstor.

Penelope Unravelling her Web by Lamp-Light Joseph Wright 1785
Penelope Unravelling her Web by Lamp-Light, Joseph Wright, 1785

Why re-read the mighty ULYSSES this year, when the centennial Bloomsday was back in 2004, or when we could wait til the anniversary of the book’s publication in 2022? It was because I’m Stephen Dedalus’s age this year. I’d like to go again when I’m 38, but I dunno, I don’t like Bloom all that much. Still too much of a nobody.

I resisted posting about it. There’s so much official commentary and unofficial posting already (a river of secondary text to match the sacred flow of language). God knows I was reading most of that shit (the CRITICAL ESSAYS edited by Clive Hart, Burgess’s REJOYCE, Ellmann’s ULYSSES ON THE LIFFEY, various anthologies and monographs) in order to put off the forbidding novel, but at least I didn’t dare think the commentary could supplement the actual work.

If anything we should be more like Beckett, stripping away the superfluous critical language (with more language, though?).

After the Meal Nestor Lit the King's Cigar Deborah Bermingham 1995
After the Meal, Nestor Lit the King’s Cigar, Deborah Bermingham, 1995

This time around I thought the Homeric parallels were overplayed. They’re not any more or less salient than the other systems at work: the organs of the human body, the rhetorical techniques, the color symbolism. Ulysses was not an uncommon name for boys in the 19th century, and every Ulysses of historical note gets mentioned in the book (like Ulysses S. Grant). So even that name is in a context of everydayness.

When I went into an MFA program I actually kept these lines from Stephen’s consciousness in chapter 2 on my phone for motivation:

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?

So elegant to make fable a verb (but it has been a verb since the Renaissance, the etymology dictionary tells me). Stephen is teaching Roman history to some well-heeled boys in the brutal call-on for comprehension way, and catches one staring out the window. But of course history is a fabulation. And Joyce’s hero Blake, the outsider artist with so much insight into the 19th century, on which Joyce’s book is the capstone. (There’s still some time left for another encyclopedic novel to appear and capture the 20th century with Lovecraft as a lodestar of sorts.) “The ruin of all space.” An apocalyptic tone is laid down, which I had taken to be a lament for the loss of rational coherence, but is also linked by Joycean scholars to the political violence of the 19th century. Liberation struggle and mysticism mix together for Joyce as it does for Yeats.


Proteus Cy Twombly 1984
Proteus, Cy Twombly, 1984

I first heard about ULYSSES from the Modern Library’s top 100 list. I didn’t like high culture of any sort in my tweens and early teens. It was pretty much all comic books and anime, which still included great stuff like AKIRA or FROM HELL. It’s likely that those books, owing to the timing, when the window of purity was still open, will remain the biggest influences on me.

And sure enough it was the Modern Library’s edition I took at the public library, with the portrait of the author with the eyepatch, which was cool, and the big S which leads to “Stately, plump…” I didn’t know anything about modernism except that it was interesting. I got excited just by running my eyes over the text because it looked different. The emdashes for speech, the ornate sentences with their alliteration and iambs and vowel rhymes — sometimes it was really gaudy, deliberately so.

And I still tilt my head like a happy dog when I see a novel that simply looks different, like Burroughs or Barnes or Bernhard.

But back then I was one pretentious, socially absurd dickhead. I could only sort of parse out the first half of ULYSSES, when the second half, if more difficult, is way more interesting. I was monomaniacal and had a hard time talking about things other than my interests. I sunk at least a couple of years into Joyce’s transformation of Dublin.


Calypso's Sacred Grove Romare Bearden 1977
Calypso’s Sacred Grove, Romare Bearden, 1977

What other literature was I reading at the time? Hemingway, sort of. No Vonnegut at all, unlike my friends — I wish I had read him instead of Joyce like a well-adjusted teen. I was peeking through anthologies rather than novels or collections, so I had a big dose of realist short fiction by white Americans, some of whom, like Faulkner, were close in time to Joyce and admired him.

The only naysayers (who I gave a shit about) were Woolf and Stein, who I couldn’t read back then but love to read now.


Other Yellow Perdo De Leon 2007
Other Yellow, Perdo De Leon, 2007

My Penguin Modern Classics version is what I bought for myself, just for the cover. Molly Bloom’s monologue down to the final Yes. Why don’t more books put the last page on the front cover?

It has a long introduction that’s probably very interesting, but otherwise I don’t recommend it. The print is large, which means this edition has like 200 more pages than the Modern Library version, which I think uses the same ’60/’61 version, which makes my Penguin version pretty useless since no one’s going by its pagination.


Ten 1990 Autographs No 1 Hell Dahong Liu 1990
Ten 1990 Autographs No 1: Hell, Dahong Liu 1990

Other than a handful of phrases cut out and some extra attributions popped in, I couldn’t notice any major differences between my copy and the Irish radio broadcast in 1982. Did they use the Gabler edition? Perhaps the differences come from the production, which happens sometimes. But I read along as I heard it, and really enjoyed it. The sound effects and music were tasteful. There’s a huge cast of narrators, one for every character (I thought some voices were doing double or triple parts, but apparently not!), and a reverb effect is put on interior speech, which helps sort out a prose that seems undifferentiated on the page.


Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds Francois Boucher 1769
Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds, Francois Boucher 1769

My arbitrary start-date for “modern art” is 1750.


Carnivorous Love Frank Moore 1993
Carnivorous Love, Frank Moore, 1993

Bloom’s streams of consciousness do feel like pointilism, as an Italian fascist critic once complained. Quite paratactic. Is the book sticking a net into a pre-existing torrent of atomized thoughts, or is it more like how Auerbach describes the narration style of the Odyssey in that other major text I read last month MIMESIS, where all the narrative elements are given a uniform externality above all other effects, like suspense or psychological realism.

He knows he will be cuckolded today. And lord who would have guessed the cuckoo meme would make a comeback thanks to the alt-right? Now you only have to think women are human beings and that philosopher kings and a CEO of America is a bad idea to be a cuck.

Bloom’s streams keep coming back to this sore point like a blister on the gum line but he keeps repressing.


Scylla Ithell Colquhoun 1938
Scylla, Ithell Colquhoun, 1938

“Nobody really wants to be James Joyce, though,” writes Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin.

When it comes down to it. Totally inaccessible and publishing poison, forced to self-publish with the help of two (inadequately celebrated) lesbians, thought to be a madman, and still cursed to this day. No one really wants to be James Joyce, living in borderline poverty with an insane daughter and a layabout son, quietly changing the world but very rarely, if at all, acknowledged for it. So completely out on the frontier his books were confiscated and destroyed by multiple governments.

No one’s made a pendulum swing like Joyce. From true avant-garde to the academic bureaucratic canon. Gass is right: vanguard art lives a short life, whatever its fate, be it recognition or obscurity. I once heard Stephen Wright, while reflecting on Melville’s poor fate, dying in the gutter when he had composed America’s gospel, that Thomas Pynchon had to be the luckiest writer alive. “To write books at his level and have the success he’s had…” But if your surreal door-stop masterpieces get published by Penguin Randomhouse, are they still avant-garde?

I used to get annoyed like the snob I am when writers like Ian McEwan get what I think is undue postmodernist cred. But even more annoying, now that I’m trying to be a writer, is every time an author or journal promises to be a bold experimentalist and it ends up being a posture. Everyone wants to play it safe while keeping up radical appearances. Literary fiction is more ossified a genre than epic fantasy. It’s not allowed to do much beyond entertain people with college educations. So perhaps the most artistically successful of the bunch are those without the delusions.


Wandering Rocks Tony Smith 1967
Wandering Rocks, Tony Smith, 1967

An entire entertaining realist bourgeois novel could be written in the style of chapter 10.

That’s how it is. Some great artists go broad, and some go deep. You have your Ozus, who in their late period seem to make the same film over and over, but it’s really more like each film is a slice of a metanarrative told with recurring stylistic motifs with incredible rigor. Or Bernhard, whose short novels could amount to a larger totalizing project.

But there’s also Weather Report: where every studio record seems to be exploring a new direction, and a later band could carve a career-long aesthetic out of one of them. And so too with Joyce’s stylistic exercises in each chapter. (Look what Beckett and Wallace did with chapter 16.)


Sirens Judith Linhares 1997
Sirens, Judith Linhares, 1997

Bloom lets out a fart while reading the last words of Ireland’s great martyr Emmet (the croppy boy of the song in the Sirens chapter).

Political blasphemy? The Joyceans say he read Bakunin and Proudhon with interest. He was anti-British and anti-nationalist. I’d call him an anarcho-pacifist, like Tolstoy but non-religious.

But Joyce is also about the modern, and one of the big crises of the modern, which Sterne also observed, is that without God, everything dissolves into sentiment. There’s a danger in repeating the ballad of the croppy boy so that only sentiment remains; not that useful for anti-colonial struggle.

But there are arguments to be had that the artist shouldn’t participate in that kind of stuff. Propaganda is fun to make, but can be awkward when you’re trying to do something poetic.


The Cyclops in Hotel Botanico Franz Ackermann 2001
The Cyclops in Hotel Botanico, Franz Ackermann, 2001

You may have heard the observation that Stephen represents Joyce’s fate had he chosen to stay in Dublin rather than exile. Dublin, provincial, bigoted, colonized Dublin.

And Stephen is depressed, snippy, a bit of a shit. But cut him some slack: he hasn’t eaten in like two days. He blows his wad on alcohol, including two absinthes, which is insane considering how empty his tummy is.

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST is a bildungsroman, the purpose of which is to guide a boy’s way to bourgeois liberal subjecthood with a nationalist consciousness, which would be extra complicated for an Irishman. The bitter discussions with Haines who dreams of black panthers in chapter 1 reflects on this.

I cheered silently for Bloom as he tells off the anti-Semitic Citizen as he rides away. “Jesus was a Jew! Marx was a Jew!” A hooker yells out to him that his fly is down. Ireland and Israel will meet soon.

This chapter has long lists of names which devolve into absurdity, and it’s definitely worth hearing it read aloud in the radio play. There are also a lot of Wagner’s imagery and sensibility in this chapter, and everywhere in the novel.


Odysseus and nausicaa, Odyssey ellipsis Friedrich Preiler the Younger 1868
Odysseus and Nausicaa, Friedrich Preiler the Younger, 1868

How did the novel get attacked so much? Did people actually read it? How did they know there was shit and jizz as it happened? Was it rumors that got people outraged?

It’s not Bloom jacking off after getting an upskirt from young Gerty, very unseemly, that would offend the Duke University sensibility, but the incredible detail of lingering semen stains sticking his dick to his pants and messing with the foreskin. I also liked how exhausted he is afterward. Ah to be growing old.


Earth Birth (from the Birth Project) Judy Chicago 1983
Earth Birth (from the Birth Project), Judy Chicago, 1983

Oxen of the Sun. Still far and away the hardest level. The audio was a big help here.

A latin invocation of the sun (“quickening and wombfruit!”), a midwife bounces a newborn boy (“Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa!”), then a survey of English through time — it was good to read Auerbach concurrently or the actual writers being spoofed here would escape me.


Circe Frederick Stuart Church 1910
Circe, Frederick Stuart Church, 1910

Bloom has an incredibly self-loathing fantasy:

BOYLAN (bumps surely from the car and calls loudly for all to hear. ) Hello, Bloom! Mrs Bloom up yet?

BLOOM (In a flunkey’s plum plush coat and kneebreeches, buff stockings and powdered wig.) I’m afraid not, sir, the last articles…

BOYLAN (Tosses him sixpence.) Here, to buy yourself a gin and splash. (He hangs his hat smartly on a peg of Bloom’s antlered head.) Show me in. I have a little private business with your wife. You understand?

BLOOM Thank you, sir. Yes, sir, Madam Tweedy is in her bath, sir.

MARION He ought to feel himself highly honoured. (She plops splashing out of the water.) Raoul, darling, come and dry me. I’m in my pelt. Only my new hat and a carriage sponge.

BOYLAN (A merry twinkle in his eye.) Topping!

BELLA What? What is it?

(Zoe whispers to her.)

MARION Let him look, the pishogue! Pimp! And scourge himself! I’ll write to a powerful prostitute or Bartholomona, the bearded woman, to raise weals out on him an inch thick and make him bring me back a signed and stamped receipt.

BELLA (Laughing.) Ho ho ho ho.

BOYLAN (To Bloom, over his shoulder.) You can apply your eye to the keyhole and play with yourself while I just go through her a few times.

BLOOM Thank you, sir, I will, sir. May I bring two men chums to witness the deed and take a snapshot? (He holds an ointment jar.) Vaseline, sir? Orangeflower?… Lukewarm water?…

This is so funny and heart-breaking.

Stephen has an ashplant walking stick. How does a 22 year old carry a walking stick without looking like a douchebag?

In Bella’s house he uses his cane to smash up the chandelier, which in his absinth trip becomes the ghost of his mother. He screams “Nothung!” (Sounds like “no tongue.”) That’s the name of Siegfried’s sword in Wagner’s RING, which was buried for a long time under –you guessed it — an ash tree. (And the “ruin of all space” line gets a play back.)

It’s like being high on books.


The Mariner Paul Cezanne 1905
The Mariner, Paul Cezanne, 1905

I love this painting, and think it’d be a good choice for a cover for ULYSSES. That or Simon MacLeod’s “Sandymount Strand.”

Father and son united at last. But Bloom has a hard time connecting with Stephen, and like the narrator of this chapter, overworks himself to come off well. He’s as wrong about Stephen’s politics as he is about Shakespeare (all free-verse, he thought in chapter 8).


Night Sky #5 Vija Celmins 1992
Night Sky #5, Vija Celmins, 1992

My favorite chapter. I love the slyness of the catechism format, the references to astronomy and geology.

Return to Ithaca is a useful metaphor for realist fiction. Reassuring foundation. Obstacles are overcome. The world is understood, and the hero understands himself. Joyce mounts up these ridiculous inventories of the Bloom residence, like a realist novel’s narration turned to 11. Of course, if you want to write realistically you need a good instinct for which details are pertinent to your story. Georges Perec did not have such an instinct, and was content to be exhaustive in his sociological listing — no wonder Joyce was such an inspiration for him, if not a revelation.

ULYSSES kills the 19th century, and in its heart of hearts it’s still in that realist vein. And so are the other great modernists of this period: Proust, Woolf, Mann and Musil.

Father and son sneak in, talk about culture, share old rhymes from their old languages. Joyce is at pains to avoid sentiment in this and the previous chapter, but all the same, it’s very sweet.

They look at the “heaventree of stars.” And they part.


Infinity Dots Yayoi Kusama 1996
Infinity Dots, Yayoi Kusama, 1996

And with Chapter 17 the novel ends. “Penelope” is not an ending but a slice of an infinite space which might actually envelope the rest of the novel we traversed.


I’m a little sad to put the book back on the shelf. And it’s very hard to read anything else, which sucks since I have a growing pile of books. It’s not necessarily that Joyce’s novel is so amazing (honestly, I’m over that guy at this point), but I had only just begun to get into its logic, and now anything else is too hard for me to comprehend.

I value how novels and paintings don’t have an instrumental value; I’m skeptical they even have an intrinsic value. And while I never got on board with Stephen’s notion of literature “affirming the spirit of man” or whatever, I do feel larger after this odyssey somehow. How grand we are this morning…


written on water


from the encyclopedia britannica:

Atrocities and sexual abuse of the enslaved captives were widespread, although their monetary value as slaves perhaps mitigated such treatment. In an infamous incident of the slave ship Zong in 1781, when both Africans and crew members were dying of an infectious disease, Capt. Luke Collingwood, hoping to stop the disease, ordered that more than 130 Africans be thrown overboard. He then filed an insurance claim on the value of the murdered slaves.

something to note about Zong is that it’s a nonsense word. the name of the boat on which this senseless atrocity occurred was meant to be Zorg, meaning care, but somehow became a senseless syllable. but poet Philip points out in her essay at the end of the book, it also sounds like Song. these more ellusive relationships between words give a sense of what she’s up to in ZONG! which has to be one of the most galvanizing works of experimental literature produced on this continent in this century.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.06.21 AM

this is page 101. see what i mean by written on water? it’s like the signs are drifting away on a liquid surface. it’s a fascinating struggle to read, which you can, left to right and top to bottom and “reading” the white space, like free music.

the source is a short legal document included in the book, the decision of that insurance claim, which is Philip’s only concrete piece of evidence for this event. like all modern history, we’re in a suffocating hermeneutics, trying to reach past the surface into the depths, which here is also the final resting place of all those people tossed overboard like the cargo which the trans-Atlantic slave trade made them to be.

ZONG! is organized into six books titled with a latin words for bones, salt, skin, ratio (the legal term “reason” as opposed to dictum), iron, and ivory.

each book is distinct in terms of its linguistic performances. “Bones” is like its title, keeping the lines more coherent, laid out in more familiar compositions, before the water seems to spread out the language, disintegrating it into hidden and transformed meanings. Philip breaks down the words in the legal document, so that legal language gives way to words within words that wouldn’t be noted in an etymology dictionary, as well as new characters.

a good example is on page 63: a syllable, seemingly pure sound, goes through a transformation with offshoots, which is arranged in a neat cluster:

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.22.41 AM

S.O.S. written out as es oh es, split and shunted into os, the latin word for bone.

and then “save” turns into “salve”: salve our souls.

Philip’s work is a compelling answer to the question of how to produce literature after Derrida. in effect it’s like she can do a multimedia piece within one medium, by focusing on the pure sonic qualities of english. the pulling apart increases in extremity as we try to approach that unknowable thing that is the historical reality of slavery. the rationality, the drive to mastery in wester thought gets pulled apart, the master’s house torn down, so that we approach contact with the dead, which speaks in only sound; shouts and shrieks communicating nothing except perhaps anguish. the turn to irrationality, spiritualism, seance, the culture and rituals of indigenous Africa societies, has been an important contribution from black artists to modernist aesthetics, as D.G. Kelley points out in his intro to Robinson’s BLACK MARXISM.

part of the litter of new words Philip works with include latin words, french, fon, hebrew, greek, twi, and more. she then includes a lot of mythology from these cultures. at the same time, her first epigraph is from celebrated modernist poet and white supremacist Wallace Stevens: “the sea was not a mask.” it’s more than appropriate, yet it’s interesting to open square in the middle of Euro-american tradition. there’s been discussion of placing Philip between “white” high avant-garde art and the “black,” “pre-modern” cultural practices that her work evokes. ZONG! embodies a search for a lost or hidden tradition, a vain voyage from the diaspora back home.

e … that can t c … an a sa … d tale it … is i ran … t run fro … m the sun … s rays i am h … am h … am i a … m cur … se o … f go … d by g … od cur … se d as … they are h (133)

we can see the unrelated words within words. ran/rant, go/god, cur/cursed which cues an echo of ye ole god/dog joke.

but the most important one here is can/cant. slavery is the story that cannot be told and must be told, to repeat the sound bite. at bottom Philip is offering this as the telling of slavery, which is in one way a very disarming and provocative thing to do, but also given western literature’s service to power makes intuitive sense as a way of doing it with a certain ethical commitment. the problem of language and discourse is that ultimately they get in the way of “truth” (which becomes a woman named Ruth in ZONG! who receives letters from an unknown speaker). we put up words when what we really need to do is clear away, but we can only clear the words away by putting up more words; it’s the joke of theory. but here is Philip tearing words apart and scattering them away. grammar chains up words in iron and suffocates them in packed boats, every text a slave ship. so the next inevitable time some magazine or celebrity or college frat makes their smarmy appeal to “free speech,” keep in mind words from Philip’s concluding essay:

our language … is often … preselected for us, simply by virtue of who we understand ourselves to be and where we allow ourselves to be placed. And, by refusing the risk of allowing ourselves to be absolved of authorial intention, we escape an understanding that we are at least one and the Other. And the Other. And the Other. That in this post post-modern world we are, indeed, multiple and “many-voiced.” (205)

Philip “absolves” herself of authorial intent in part by giving credit to Setaey Adamu Boateng, who ive only heard described as an African spirit. but indeed the form of the text is a relinquishing of control over the language. Philip, who was a lawyer before writing full time, produced ZONG! partially as a process of letting go, of facing the lacunae, the impenetrable darkness of this history, since the document itself is one of “amnesia,” forgetting who is human on this planet.

stutter, memory


i dont mean to be cute: DICTEE by Theresa Cha is hard to talk about.

it’s a postmodern, feminist avant garde book. you might call it a novel; it has memoir and poetry in it as well. it draws on cinema and conceptualist art. there are photos without captions, and reproductions of handwriting.

it’s organized in nine sections. you get a table of the program: each section is named after a muse (and there’s a prologue with a proper invocation of the muses). but one of the muses, Elitere of Lyric Poetry, isnt real. Theresa made her up. pull apart the word: Eli Tere…Tere in Teresa. El i… Elle y Taire. She is silent.

there’s an epigraph from Sappho: “May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.” she made that up too.

the text comes in english, sometimes broken, as well as french and hangul and chinese characters. the experience will be different depending on your linguistic background. and like the Elitere thing above, Cha makes multi-lingual puns. “Speak fucking english!” Cha mounts some incredible wordplay, nearly all of it i unquestionably missed. it’s part of her response to the experience of an immigrant writer, an exiled writer, a politically orphaned writer. this is no rah rah rallying cry for the ~Asian American Community~. that’s all bullshit. no identity, no speech. it’s an incredible political charge brought to Beckett’s concerns with silence and the representation of an incommunicable experience.

it resonated with me on a deeply personal level. my mom’s side of the family are ethnic Chinese who fled from Vietnam as part of the mass exodus from Indo-China in the 80s. Who do they blame? the communists, naturally. they embraced the US and thoroughly assimilated. my mom badly wanted me to be that cliche Asian Achiever that i simply wasnt. it made me angry and i couldnt understand it, until i got into punk and anarchism (very white things, in the very white pacific northwest). my family is anti-black, and i cant say they’re just bargaining their way into the white dream — Asian people are anti-black in their distinct way. i often think to myself that i hate my chineseness more than my whiteness.

but it’s not like the finger should be pointed to Uncle Sam instead. this is where Cha sustains incredible complexity. towards the end she gives us a page with a single line:

Tenth, a circle within a circle, a series of concentric circles. (175)

it’s tenth of a list of what i think are schools of thought, including tai-chi. i have no clue. but the concentric circles image reflects on the US, among many other things. there are concentric circles to US imperialism/neocolonialism, which operate distinctly yet concurrently. Cha includes an appeal from Korean Americans in Hawaii to intervene in Korea due to Japanese imperialism, which the US neglects because of their own interests in the Philippines.

one of the strongest sections is Clio / Epic Poetry, which is centered on Cha’s mother (the chapter is flanked with two portraits taken of her, in youth and old age). she describes the process of assimilation:

They have not questioned. It is all the same to them. It follows directions. Not yet. They have not learned the route of instruction. To surpass overtake the hidden even beyond destination. Destination.

I have the documents. Documents, proof, evidence, photograph, signature. One day you raise the right hand and you are American. They give you an American Pass port. The United States of America. Somewhere someone has taken my identity and replaced it with their photograph. The other one. Their signature their seals. Their own image. And you learn the executive branch the legislative branch and the third. Justice. Judicial branch. It makes the difference. The rest is past.

You return and you are not one of them, they treat you with indifference. All the time you understand what they are saying. But the papers give you away. Every ten feet. They ask you identity. They comment upon your inability or ability to speak. Whether you are telling the truth or not about your nationality. (56)

identity replaced with photograph; the adopting country allows you to assert your existence on their terms, those of representation. “The rest is past.” this is the triumphalist delusion of linear history. trauma can be erased just by the beautiful experiment of US governance. it’s all in the past, get over it; your rise to citizenship cancels it out. really it’s America’s own crimes that are erased, throughout the century.

the other stand out section is “Erato / Love Poetry”. the text is laid out in a stereo-form, with each page acting as a column. you jump from one side to the other depending on where the text goes. on the left channel, a woman is watching a film (Dreyer’s Gertrude), on the other is an impressionist narrative of St. Teresa. we follow the unnamed woman, an immigrant, enduring an awful marriage with an abusive husband who cheats on her, but she stays for the baby. we also get another through-line of Joan of Arc. the three threads or layers actually move fluidly through the stereo format — it’s hard to keep track of it.

you can see it as another form of concentric circles, those of women in history who “transcended suffering,” i suppose, but Cha invites us to be more skeptical of celebrating women in this way. marriage here is one of the most oppressive and torturous institutions imaginable. and in these cases of pain, different women through time seem to rise out of the text, in a way similar to Walter Benjamin’s messianic conception of history. we get a still from Dreyer’s film about Joan D’Arc, that famous tear-stained close up. we also see a photo of St. Teresa dressed up like Joan of Arc for a play.

the feminist avant garde might be characterized as deliberately sloppy. films by Su Friedrich or Minh-ha may be scattershot and deliberately obscure, but sloppy i dont think they are, even if they refuse the coherency of a proper masculine closed system. Cha’s embracing of mythological and classical forms and her intricate placement of every element makes the book incredibly dense. the very last piece is a photograph of nine Korean women — nine muses. one of them is the militant and martyr Yu Guan Soon.

another photograph opposite the title page is graffiti on a wall scrawled by a Korean minor in a forced labor camp in Japan. he’s addressing his mother, likely never to be seen again. wholeness is false — Cha shows us that the honest way to do history is to haul up these fragments of misery.

her conceptualism drives the text to become spatialized, so to speak. although that’s really hard to follow through, since words still have to be read in sequence. the photographs of handwriting, actually reproductions of photographs, probably do most to hold the reader in that liminal spot between text and image, line and space. here she tries to give voice to a yearning and experience that really can never be understood. the space itself is kind of a festival, all the same, with its own rituals, and everyone inside is free to “become” something, not their true identity, which is meaningless anyway, but just becoming, again and again and again.

she has arisen


THOMAS THE OBSCURE is one of the most challenging novels ive read. it has sentences like these:

The tomb was full of a being whose absence it absorbed. An immovable corpse was lodged there, finding in this absence of shape the perfect shape of its presence.

the central image of the book and perhaps all of Blanchot’s thinking is the absence or negative presence of a shape being its ideal form. as a critic he described Henry James as portraying the negative of a story rather than the story itself. to him this is what a literature that honestly faces the crisis of Modernism will do.

the language in THOMAS is highly paradoxical, so that the signs themselves seem to cancel each other out. this is not that different from what conventional realist fiction does (see the quote on two slopes). in a classical novel the signs clearly denote things that credibly exist, in fact they do so to the extent that the signified things are annihilated. once we have a name for the thing, the thing is superfluous, unneeded. Once we name ourselves we have in essence committed suicide. interesting idea! Adam committed a massacre in the garden.

Blanchot is demonstrating this death drive built into language, bringing what was always buried in letters to the surface. his fiction does not illuminate but shrouds everything in darkness — obscurity? eh? — annihilating all tangible narrative. and readers like narrative. i suspect most readers who just want some entertainment will take a plot they cant put down along with shitty writing. i mean, i read THE DA VINCI CODE too. narrative is a drug, a widespread addiction, and ive long suspected we’d be better off without it. so many folks in my life who like reading but aren’t interested in pursuing literature complain that most of the novels they try, as recommended by the NY Review or whatever, are really boring with only the occasional patch of lovely language. i think it’s because the author is so busy with all that other business of setting, characterization, plot set-up. that’s all from drama, fiction doesnt really need it! get em out of there, i say; more room for good prose. beautiful language without plot, which this novel is, leads to withdrawal symptoms, as you can see on the Goodreads reviews. why cant he give us a simple story? Blanchot has a response: “A story? No. No stories. Never again.” but anyway, asking Blanchot for a simple story is like asking for a flashlight to shine on the darkness in order to see the darkness better.

not to overstate the case, THOMAS does have stuff happening in it. like other modernist literature it’s fixated on mythical parallels, namely Orpheus entering Hades to find Eurydice. like Camus’s Mersault, Thomas is aloof, socially absurd (but not a murderer, at least, not unambiguously so), and like Sartre’s Roquentin he’s an existential thinker (although he only speaks in the next-to-last chapter, a long monologue). i think this novel is better than either of those.

Thomas has motivation too! we meet him at the beach. he’s in search of something, a kind of limit-case, an encounter with the outside world. he drifts into the ocean; it’s rather sublime:

It was then that the sea, driven by the wind, broke loose. The storm tossed it, scattered it into inaccessible regions; the squalls turned the sky upside down and, at the same time, there reigned a silence and calm which gave the impression that everything was already destroyed. Thomas sought to free himself from the insipid flood which was invading him. A piercing cold paralyzed his arms. The water swirled in whirlpools. Was it actually water? One moment the foam leapt before his eyes in whitish flakes, the next the absence of water took hold of his body and drew it along violently.

there’s the absence/presence motif. it gets stranger, though. Thomas as a being disintegrates into “a mass of cilia and vibrations.” it’s as if by trying to encounter the ultimate other, you actually get a strange mixture of self-annihilation and solipsism; everything and nothing is the self, existence and nonexistence at the same time. it’s really weird, and it’s amazing that Blanchot sustains this experience for the entire novel.

like a children’s story, Thomas tries again, this time in the woods, and similar strangeness happens. then at the restaurant in his apartment building he falls in love on sight with Anne, the Eurydice to his Orpheus. when he leaves a bad impression (banging on tables is no way to behave) he reads a book, but the words threaten to consume him, and a monstrous being materializes in his room. and this is to say nothing of the talking cat!

im glad im typing this post on Easter Sunday. im arguing that Blanchot’s depiction of our encounter with language is a slippage between life and death, the passage where Orpheus looks back on Eurydice’s shade — he couldnt resist the opportunity to gaze on her in this unique form.

She could not speak, and yet she was speaking. Her tongue vibrated in such a way that she seemed to express the meanings of words without the words themselves.


Gently, her fingers drew together, her steps left her and she slipped into a pure water where, from one instant to the next, crossing eternal currents, she seemed to pass from life to death, and worse, from death to life, in a tormented dream which was already absorbed into a peaceful dream.

this self-contradicting, self-annihilating, suicidal language comes in massive paragraph blocks. like Beckett, the wall-to-wall black text on the white page leads to a gray book. im really pleased with how Station Hill designed the book: extra white space on the top and bottom, and lots of blank space between the chapters — welcome respite after plunging into all the darkness.

spoiler alert! Anne gets sick and dies. her death is what prompts Thomas to speak. Anne was presumably hot, but not visible enough to Thomas, even in a well-lighted place, until her capacity to die makes her so. isnt that what really makes other people interesting to us, their ability to cease to exist? that “you dont know what you’ve got” cliche? i love Joan Didion’s work but that “we tell ourselves stories” quote is so overplayed that i get annoyed. we should take a clue from Blanchot. we die in order to live.

Thomas’s monologue identifies a second Thomas, an obscure Thomas. All of the text in this chapter is really important since it outlines an odd philosophical position by Blanchot: that the true horror of existence is not our fear of death, but that we cant die. life and death are mutually exclusive to the detriment of our happiness; once we die, life is a non-issue, and while we’re alive, death is an impossibility. when i put it that way you go, “well, duh!” but we’re so obsessed with death, or at least i am, and we as a civilization act on the repression of death, the results of which i dont think have been that great. (Blanchot has a lot in common with psychoanalysis, it seems).

anyway, the impossibility of death in life gets articulated here, and then Thomas encounters his obscure self:

This Thomas forced me to appear, while I was living, not even the eternal dead person I was and on which no one could fix their glance, but an ordinary dead person, a body without life, an insensitive sensitivity, thought without thought. […] Represented in my feelings by a double for whom each feeling was as absurd as for a dead person, at the pinnacle of passion I attained the pinnacle of estrangement, and I seemed to have been removed from the human condition because I had truly accomplished it. […] a marvelous companion with whom I wished with all my might to blend myself, yet separate from me, with no path that might lead me to him. How could I reach him? By killing myself.

Intimacy is the height of loneliness, and Thomas has never felt more intimate with others than when he is gazing on them from a distance. Death is the encounter with Being. it’s really, really confusing, and im sure i havent understood it well at all. but meaning is why soldiers kill and rape, why those cotton sheets in my wallet with portraits of war criminals have any worth. meaning is overrated.

and the last chapter is amazing. not only is it the most beautiful imagery in the book, but Blanchot expands his attack on language to an active disbelief in linear time and the idea of humanity. this is a bleak, bleak book after my own black heart. dont read it too carefully; you may understand less but, if it works for you, you’ll feel more at home.

i award it all the stars we cannot see.


Mao ∞

found here

you dont get much more pop art than mao zedong.

Frederic Tuten’s novel was fun, and even though the Long March has been romanticized to death, it still made me pine for some kinda Vollmann style historical novel about it.

Imagine all these events concentrated into one year, in one army, under one leader: Washington and his tattered men crossing the Delaware and the agonizing encampment of the foot-bleeding, frost-bitten troops at Valley Forge; Columbus’s voyage to America; Napoleon’s wracked winter retreat from Russia; the flight of the Armenians from the Turks; the Seminole Indian Florida swamp resistance; the Lewis and Clark expedition; Hannibal’s passage over the Alps; the Watts uprising; the Oklahoma migration of the 1930s; the partisan activities throughout Europe in World War II; Che’s flight in Bolivia; the Confederate General Mosby’s guerrila war in Virginia, 1863; Moses and his followers fleeing the Egyptians; Castro’s eighty-man invasion of Cuba, his stay in the Sierra Maestra and the subsequent military struggles; the parade of the Barnum and Bailey circus through the main street of Chicago, 1903.

i believe the hype. it’s funny, because im literally 20 pages away from finishing INFINITE JEST, and i have a critical paper to hand in about BROOM, and Wallace’s work so aware of itself having come late to the pomo party — how to write when the exhaustedness of literature has itself been exhausted? Tuten and Barthelme were in a similar position after high modernism. MAO ON THE LONG MARCH is slim, has wide side margins, and is in a ugly-ass bold sans seriff print. no maximalism. It’s a very granulated mix of prose summarizing the Long March; long quotes from Melville and Hawthorne and others, usually about art; Barthelme-like dialog scenes with Mao and surreal or historical figures that debate politics and aesthetics; and a long interview with Mao at the end. it’s not cut-up, more like copy-paste (with sources in the back). i think citations are an obvious distinction between the hardcore Burroughs/Acker technique and a looser collage work like this. the lack of cites and risk of plagiarism in the former is part of the ambiguity it plays up.

but my favorite components are the parodies. Tuten makes a great example of making fun of your biggest role models.

Then it rained hard on the dead wet leaves. And you knew that if you said it all truly there would be enough there for a long time. Enough of the olives and Baked Alaska when the air conditioner blew at you hard in the fine little room behind the zinc of the bar at Sardi’s. Nick stood up and hit the waiter hard just below the temple. The man went down. The cool red borscht flew from his hand and spilled into rivulets. Three waiters came at us and you put the empty champagne bottle to your cheek and popped them down as they moved fast at you with a sudden rush. Hi ho, said Mary, as you counted the saucers and left a tip although you were poor. If it were true enough it would all be there. It would all be there if you said it truly.

that’s Hemingway. ive no clue how broad or subtle this is, since i havent read that guy since high school. there’s also Kerouac, Dos Passos, Malamud, and Steinbeck. notice the 20th century guys get riffed while the great USen 19th century writers are quoted in large intact chunks.

ive never really been that into pop art, but i respect it as part of the abstract channel to which Duchamp belongs. it smothers story with situation(s), which is quite an achievement here given the Long March — things are placed so that this obvious through line still gets lost within the equally distributed weight of all the other material.

this is one for the avant-garde index. and what a blurb from Sontag! “Soda pop, a cold towel, or a shady spot under a tree for culture-clogged footsoldiers on the American long march.”

barf passionately (quote)

9781584351689“Barf Manifesto” by Dodie Bellamy, WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD p. 53

The essay form I’ve always found oppressive, a form so conservative it begs to be dismantled. In the San Francisco avant garde feminist poetic circle of the early ’80s, a sort of patchwork personal essay was de rigueur. The feminist poetic essay riddled with collaged texts and vulnerability. It switched person at will, “I” flipping to “she,” inside magically flipping to outside, and back again. I didn’t know what to make of all these anti-logocentric Theresa Cha/Cixous/Irigaray inspired poetic prose things, spastically shifting and disrupting before my eyes with no apparent rhyme or reason. ’80s avant garde feminism produced lots of self-indulgent, sloppy work, but still it was exciting — and important — to undermine the patriarchal hegemony that created the MLA Style Sheet. Around the same time I discovered Kathy Acker, who in some novel had a character shit on a priest’s altar — which I’m sure she got from Bataille. Even though desecrating Catholic icons is so old school, has been so done to death, the zeal with which Acker does it is infectious. Passion in writing or art — or in a lover — can make you overlook a lot of flaws. Passion is underrated. I think we should all produce work with the urgency of outsider artists, panting and jerking off to our kinky private obsessions. Sophistication is conformist, deadening. Let’s get rid of it.