Stone Buildings - photo by Juliet Clark
. . .

Agreeing with Cavafy


Whether I am happy or unhappy I do not question.
But I do, with joy, keep one thing in mind
that in the great addition (their addition that I hate)
that has so many numbers, I am not one
of all the many numbers there. In the total sum
I have not been numbered. And for me that joy suffices.
- translated by Theoharis Constantine Theoharis

Some people describe life as a shopping list carried in a bucket (that's how big their shopping list is, they have to keep it in a bucket!), followed by an inventory of assets and an itemized bill.

How do they sum a sequence like -1 + 2 - 3 + 4 - 5 + 6 - 7 + ... ?

Does a scuffed-up crumpled sheet have a sequence at all?

I can't keep accounts on happiness and grief. But I know what I like, and I like knowing a no-’ccount goes off the books or never on them.

. . .


There's a Certain Tendency to confuse personal interest with moral judgment. It's not enough to feel unengaged by Jane Austen: either she (the long-dead human being) was a tool of empire or you (the individual who wanted something other than a Jane Austen novel) are a sexist fool. (OK, I'd probably guess you were a sexist fool, but I know that's stupid.) Something of the Tendency might also feed the widespread confusion of non-endorsement with censorship, as if each prospective reader, publisher, or host held the equivalent of the MPAA or Comics Code seal.

For the most part, social media simply intensifies the toxicity of normal gossip. Every account its own tabloid (at least until a real tabloid steps in). But Facebook's design also reinforces that Certain Tendency.

I had a pre-Facebook friend who I haven't seen in the flesh for many years but still feel warmly toward. She uses Facebook in a professionalized brand-maintenance way; I don't, and in an office setting my flesh-friendly comments landed like sabotage. Only after a mob began to gather did I sensibly decide to drop out of a setup which was neither real-life-friendly nor Facebook-friendly. Yet I felt a qualm about "unfriending" her. It looked like a personal judgment made public, like cutting them at the Tsarina's ball.

But I've knocked around enough to sense how someone might make those sour qualms into a tall cool glass of qualminade, along the lines of the Drama of the Gifted Quiescent Blog but with pitchforks. It's only recently I saw the process for myself, and I'm impressed. For those more at virtual-home on Facebook and Twitter, deciding to not-read someone's posts is, just as it seems to be, a declaration. And exclusion of the accused is built-in while you elaborate your declaration to an audience of your newly trimmed peers. Any particularly insistent defenders can be added to the trial docket with equal ease.

All the fun of a Poetry War with none of the annoying poetry.

. . .

Assume the position

by Percival Everett

Three police procedurals with a likably quirky and fallible protagonist and a shocking twist you won't believe!!

Or, hell, you probably will. Even if you never heard of Oedipus and didn't cut your genre teeth on Trent's Last Case and never saw Dark Angel on the late-late show, thirty years of blockbusters have established the good-guy-who's-really-bad as a convention which no more needs justifying than, say, a Tom Cruise love interest. Mystery readers who've reviewed Assumption felt satisfyingly tricked. Of the two academic papers on the book, one accepts the revised characterization at face-value and the other doesn't even mention it (which is a neat trick in itself).

I believed it, too, but my "it" was something stranger in reviewerly terms, if more familiar in fleshy ones. I took the ending at its word rather than at its face value:

"This is the way is is, Warren, simply the way it fucking is. Sad, sad, sad, sad, sad. Shitty, shitty, bang, bang. Nothing makes sense and that's the only way that any of it can make sense. Here I am, the way I am, not making any sense. Blood in the water. Blood on my shirt."

Generically, Assumption is a story series with the sort of showy dismount favored by writers whose ambitions reach past the commercial district. Back in the day, each novella could've appeared separately in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, with the third generating plenty of hate mail. For me, the insinuations which came increasingly (and maybe too abruptly) thick and heavy didn't (and don't) feel like clues laid to prop a backwards-reading; instead, they detoured us to structural collapse: solution by dissolved form.

The distinction partly comes down to reality effect. "Innocent" passages of the final story are detailed, individualized, and localized. Whereas the "guilty" intrusions are vague, off-the-shelf stuff, thudding the same "BOMM! BOMM! BOMM!" soundtrack used by every thriller trailer of the past, well, thirty years. The kind of bullshit which comforts juries but no one else.

I'd also been softened up (or simply concussed) by earlier apparently-realistic wholeheartedly-affective formal experiments. For reasons outside the immediate reading experience, I often find myself turning to Dhalgren:

"But thinking that live streets and windows are plotting and conniving to make you into something you're not, that's crazy, isn't it?"
I'm not a poet.
I'm not a hero.
But sometimes I think these people will distort reality in any way to make me one. And sometimes I think reality will distort me any way to make me appear one but that's insanity, isn't it? And I don't want to be crazy again.
I don't.

Most of all, my interpretive preference was swayed by hope for shared witness.

I sometimes hear shaming justified as punitive rehabilitation. A learning experience, so to speak, and I suppose it generally is, in one sense or another. It most often serves to exile (or confirm the pariahdom of) its target, strengthening the border between in-group and out-group, and confirming one's own claim to centrality. As evidence, those who consider themselves most securely in-group are notoriously shameless. Bullies (whether self-made or hammered-out) and their slaveys treat shame as weakness: the only thing that shames them is shame itself.

Censors are rarely fooled by the pretenses of the "cautionary tale"; they sense how easily the supposed warning becomes the irresistible script, a second-hand experience which your first-hand starts to grasp for.

BART: Wow. A drifter!

FUTURE BART: Lousy sheriff... Run me out of town... He's lost my vote...

BART: Cooool.

Shaming is a cautionary tale with an army and navy. Unless you have your own tribe to back you up, even if you're annoyed by the shamers' presumptions, you may later watch yourself act them out or remember having acted them out. At my lowest ebb, I recall the sudden relief of not bothering to argue with the world or myself, just doing the expected thing and waiting for the movie to be over instead of stretching it out to tedious length. If going with the flow sent me over the falls, well, I guess that's where I was meant to be.

Everett's decent-but-no-genius deputy sheriff is a black man in an overwhelmingly white-and-armed community. Wherever he goes, he's viewed with suspicion; should external reminders of bigotry be momentarily lacking, he can fill the void with memories of his father's jeremiads. He's got a place in the sheriff's department; he feels at home in a trout stream; he has to watch what he says in front of his mother.... It's not a lot to fall back on.

None of which is meant to deny that the last story's Big Kill was "really" done by anyone other than the guy who confessed to it. I don't think Assumption is a realistic story of false memory. Instead, I think it's a story that realism can't tell: the incomprehension of "Did I do that? I couldn't have done that, could I?" "Did he do that? He couldn't have done that..." "Did we do that? ..." The "No, not again" sensation of turning on the news and seeing another house idol, another icon we took as proof that life could escape that particular script Assumption freezes those final drowning moments of denial, the thing that catches in your throat even after you've begun to accept it as part of your throat....

Do I believe my own theory, as the man says? I'm not as certain of it as I am that, for example, Delany consciously embedded the funky clues that invalidate a Kid's-just-crazy interpretation of Dhalgren. The finales of both Erasure and Assumption felt rushed to me, which may betray readerly incompatibility. And in at least one interview, Everett seems to endorse the clever-clew-stringer take.

But I do feel a reasonable doubt, and the only menace I'd like to hang is the jury.

. . .

Confessional Pleasures

It breaks me, I buy it.

. . .

From an otherwise innocuous cog-lit volume's bullet-pointed list of

answers that have been given [to the question "What is literature for?"], starting with the negative or dismissive ones:

Now, masturbation (solitary and unwitnessed, presumably) is a familiar exemplar of self-indulgence. But what's being contrasted to "sex without procreative intent"? Even in financial terms (our culture's current exemplar of properly motivated action), intentionally-procreative sex offers ambiguous awards unless you're a slave-owner supplementing your assets. Whereas I understand there's a fair amount of evidence that cooperative sexual acts have proven utility in strengthening social bonds, or, at minimum as a (sometimes brutal) rebuke to solipsism.

Are strengthened social bonds, then, "at best a form of entertainment"? If so, the book at least taught me something about entertainment.

. . .

The War of Art

What is it GOOD for?

. . .

A for Anything; or, Future Shuck

- in memory of Damon Knight, most prescient of Futurians

Yuval Noah Harari's speculations might be forgiven if they'd been extracted from a circa-1952 time capsule in some Detroit ruin. Within the postwar consensus of the 1950s and 1960s it was demonstrably possible for those less thoughtful than Knight, Pohl, and Kornbluth to believe increased productivity would result in less work for higher wages. But in the future we have, gains bubble directly up-uppity-up to the thinnest layer of surface scum, less-than-full-time jobs exist sheerly to let employers shirk minimum wage and health benefits, and those who've won such mini-jobs escape ennui by commuting from one paltry income to another, waiting for cheap dentists, hiding from murderous spouses, and suchlike.

Even Harari's cheerfully shabby Talmudic scholars, with their enviable nonemployed rate of 64%, are supported not only by an increasingly annoyed government but by the 71% of their wives who earn while hubbie studiously ignores the household chores and eight kids in other words, the familiar male bohemian lifestyle. Nice work if you can avoid it. (On the other hand I haven't found happiness scores for Palestine's unemployed 27% or the West Bank's unemployed 42%.)

In short but too long, "the meaning of life in a world" (which could be) "without work" is to crush as many other people as possible into a world of maximized work for minimized reward.

As for the greeny foamy microorganisms Harari seems to be addressing, they're rarely bored by the puzzle of how to gobble ever larger shares for ever extended lifetimes; the few left cold by pure greed can, I think, do without our concern given how many resources are already dedicated to keeping them entertained and enlightened.

. . .

Character building

That was the last wallop of the sculptor's hammer. Later damage remained mere damage, weathering, regression to the mean.

. . .

The Glib & the Glutinous

Roger Ascham can read me like a book. (And vice versa, obvs.)

Quick wits commonly be apt to take, unapt to keep: soon hot and desirous of this and that: as cold and soon weary of the same again: more quick to enter speedily than able to pierce far: even like our sharp tools, whose edges be very soon turned. Such wits delight themselves in easy and pleasant studies, and never pass far forward in high and hard sciences.

Moreover, commonly men very quick of wit be also very light of conditions: and thereby very ready of disposition to be carried over quickly by any light company to any riot and unthriftiness when they be young: and therefore seldom either honest of life or rich in living when they be old.

In youth, also they be ready scoffers, privie mockers, and ever over light and merry. In age, soon testy, very waspish, and always over miserable: and yet few of them come to any great age, by reason of their misordered life when they were young: but a great deal fewer of them come to show any great countenance, or bear any great authority abroad in the world, but either live obscurely, men know not how, or die obscurely, men mark not when.

. . .

"pretend you have a mind"

From Everybody's Letters, Collected and Arranged by Laura Riding (1933):

Myrtle Cottage,

Dear Lilith Outcome,

Now, now, don’t take offence where no offence was ever meant! The invitation to “your lady” was only by way of courtesy to a person I’d never met but hoped to meet not at all, as you read it, a sexual label. It’s a common form you know, so common indeed that I use it even to people I do know, saying for instance to Alan Thompson or Michael Henderson “I hope you’ll come for a week-end and bring your lady with you.” Up to date they have usually come nor have they requested me to avoid the term. However if amendment will assure you that I am still the same old Johnny Archer whom Hubey was not disinclined to call friend in the old days, here goes Dear Miss Outcome and dear Godfrey, won’t you please come and see us some time? Is that all right? I hope so.

And now Lilith Outcome a word or two of the gentlest with you. About that Boy. I am quite innocent there. He is a fine thinker for his age and wanted advice on what books to read. I said “I’ve just dipped into a book called Modern Literary Conventions, and it seems to me an interesting and stimulating affair. My friend Hubey Pitt had a hand in it. I know Hubey but I don’t know the girl he wrote it with nor have I read her other work for the good and simple reason that I hardly have a moment to read anything nor always the money to buy books. I should read Modern Literary Conventions, for it gogs one up!” Such more or less I imagine were my words. So Lilith Outcome don’t get waxy with a harmless and harried soldier of the pen who doesn’t know a thing about you except that you and Hubey Pitt are hand-in-fist and eye-to-eye pals towards whom I feel a friendly feeling (a) because I know Hubey’s even more particular than I am in the matter of pals (b) because I know Hubey’s ditto ditto over writers. Now Lilith Outcome is that all right? If it isn’t write another waxy one, and having boxed one ear, box the other : I can stand a lot from friends of friends of mine and from writers. And listen to me, Lilith Outcome, our lives are very short and mine is likely to be no longer than most people’s. You say “H. P. and I are not above being annoyed by this kind of thing,” and I reply isn’t it rather a waste of time, not to speak of an absence of magnanimity? We are not here so long that the sun should have cause to smile at us and not on us. Listen, Lilith Outcome, you and I are fallible human beings but as writers we have something that is rare in common and by Jeronimo I have no intention of allowing my soreness in the human affecting (if I can help it) the communion of the rare thing we have in common. There does not breathe a friend of mine who has had power to leave a lasting hurt, though I have had my shins bruised in my time, because I won’t let ’em : friendship comes first. So Lilith Outcome, pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and having, if you wish, caused my other ear to ring and sting, smile, smile, smile upon

Yours happily,
Johnny Archer.


Dear John Archer,

I am going to make a few statements to you about myself because you have made a few generalisations about me on my behalf. And there is no use in your saying, What a pity, in the name of literature can’t she let anything pass, and so on. It is just one of the laws of the universe that you will have to accept : that when you make a generalisation on my behalf you get a particularisation back. It just happens. For convenience please think of me, as I am sometimes described, as an automaton.

You make the generalisation on my behalf that, if I realised what a very common form of expression “your lady” was in your world, I would not mind its application to me. The particularisation you get back is that I resist its application to me the more common a form it is in your world. In my world in rendering an invitation to a woman it is not customary to add “and bring your gentleman” any more than it is to say “and bring your nightgown.” In my world it is a matter of indifference whether one wears a nightgown or not. In my world, in fact, there are only this person and that person, not people and nightgowns. Then you make the generalisation that I am a “girl.” The particular statement you get back is that since you are uncertain of the exact term to apply to me, it is not in your power to offer me an acceptable term. It is clear from your letter that you would not mind my calling you “boy.” But I submit that you have no basis for the implied generalisation in your letter that the term “girl” is more acceptable to me than the term “lady.” There are certain occasions when it might conceivably be, but I submit further that they do not come within the area of our correspondence. You will perhaps understand all this better if you remember that I am an automaton, with only precise responses. If the stimulus is careless, the response is nevertheless precise precisely unfriendly. An old Negro in Africa once called me a portent. As an automaton with merely immediate effectiveness, I had no response whatever to that. Portent may be the right word for Africa, and a continent, moreover, is not quite capable of producing a stimulus. But I defy you to name the right continent for “lady” etc., so far as I am concerned. End of second statement.

You make the observation on my behalf that I ought at least to do you physical injury, by way of friendly response, if the automaton me fails to yield a charming forgive-all and forget-all. The answer to that is that my response to a stimulus is always just so strong, and no stronger, according to the strength of the stimulus. I cannot hate you as a compensation for not loving you, even by special request. You make the observation that my life is short. The answer is that my life is, in respect to the fatigability of my responsive mechanism, everlasting. You make the observation that I am wasting time. The statement you get back is that I don’t know what you mean by time, unless you mean my time, and by that that there is a limit to my resources. My resources are the energy from which my responses derive, and that is only limited by the number of stimuli that evoke it; and my supply of paper, pen, and ink, and that is equally illimitable. So don’t worry about me. You make the observation on my behalf that I should have magnanimity. The statement you get back is that I wouldn’t accept that even from Africa. If magnanimity is an occupational deformity that writers are supposed to suffer from, namely, word-tiredness, then I am not a writer. You make the observation that the sun might possibly have cause to smile at me instead of on me. The statement you get back is that me and the sun we smile at each other in the game that any two can play at. You make the observation that I am fallible. That is untrue. It is a pity that, being fallible, you should have chosen a profession demanding infallibility and bound to bring you into contact with infallible people who cannot but hurt your feelings. My own infallibility, for example, makes me rather rude to the fallible when it gets pally.

You make the observation that we have something rare in common. The statement you get back is that what I have is not rare but, on the contrary, the only thing there is to have, all the rest being but flesh and friendship; and that the people I have it in common with are all the people there are to the degree that they don’t think it rare even though they have precious little of it. As to soreness, which seems a favourite topic of yours, I myself do not feel it : I am always too busy making responses to feel anything. My response to a stimulus that is merely somebody’s rough stuff accidentally bruising my shins is merely to remind myself that my shins are a part of my mind not my body that I have not, in fact, a body, that I have not, in fact, been bruised at all. Since you are so fated to shin-bruises, that might be a useful doctrine for you to adopt as an attitude, if not as a fact of your constitution : pretend that you have a mind. That will at least enable you to keep your sufferings to yourself and make people treat you as a superior heartless being whose shins it is really no fun to bruise, since it doesn’t hurt you.

You have written me a hit-the-heart-in-the-bull’s-eye letter, but you see I haven’t a heart.

Lilith Outcome.

. . .

Rebirth of the Earth-Pig Born

It only takes a slight twist of carrier or population for the common cold of aesthetics to feed a Real-Life global plague. Live long enough, you live through more than one epidemic.

When I was a teenager I watched the baroque cynicism of Henry Beard and Michael O'Donoghue downsized to the thudding LCD opportunism of P. J. O'Rourke, and then watched O'Rourke become, well, a real bad hangover.

When I worked with the divorced libertarians of DEC, I met the first generation of networked resentful misogynist pampered dweebs. I'm still a little amazed at how effectively they breed.

I'd often wondered how WCW and Zuk and such felt when trying to stay friends with Ezra Pound, and last year, as my Twitbook feeds filled with Protocols of the Elders of Clinton, I learned.

And while reading yet another two 4chan-to-Gamergate-to-Trump think pieces, a nagging peripheral memory finally pulled into focus: Cerebus.

Not so much Cerebus-the-character, who Jeet Heer picked as Trumpalike a year ago. More Cerebus-the-comic-book: a Shoah-slow train ride from geeky lulz to lunatic-fringe antifeminism through a series of cosmological mother-in-law jokes. Beginning with MAD parodies of teenage-boy-aimed comics, Sim took his hard-earned technique into realms in which it's a less, let's say, established bearer of light: the Flaming Carrot and Druckerized Lou Jacobi dropped wisdom on the moon; Druckerized Maggie Thatcher led execution-torture for the matriarchal dystopia; Druckerized Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway rotated with Druckerized Marty Feldman and Mick Jagger and Batman/Wolverine/Punisher.

If the timing was different, if the comic hadn't peaked thirty years ago, Pepe the Frog would probably have made an appearance there. On the web, Cerebus the Aardvark might've been photoshopped into The Deplorables. My alternate-forecasting skills aren't sharp enough to guess the reaction of the generous working-class Jewish-Muslim syncretist who created Cerebus.

. . .

The shouting crowd, loud band, and ringing acoustics transform me into an Irish Setter: look attentive, react to my name, and otherwise rely on scent.

. . .

Giddy Alienation Comment : King of Jazz (1930; restored 2016)

One thing you can say for Junior Laemmle (there aren't many more): he was a man of his time. The pleasures on offer here (including a definitive answer to the old question, "Are Jews white?") are less like a movie than like a visit to the Musée Mécanique.

Not recommended to those who can't see why they'd waste time at a magic lantern show when YouTube's right there on their phone.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .