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. . . 2002-05-12

Results of Tonight's Literary Salon Discussion of Recent Proofreading Jobs

  1. Science fiction blockbuster proposal (by Lisa Goldstein, David Cleary, & Ray Davis):
    The Viscous Circle - Enslaved humankind suffers under the alien yolk!

  2. Obituary (by Lisa Goldstein, Darrend Brown, & Ray Davis):
    I first met John Doe forty years ago. At that time, I was an unknown struggling young writer fresh from the sticks and green as grass. But soon afterwards I learned proper story construction and bought a second-hand dictionary. I walked with corrected posture and a spring in my step, and I stopped wearing ties that clashed with my suit. Many novels were published. Many were treated kindly. And today I can look back with pride and satisfaction and with no little affection for that unpolished young man.

    Yes, this indeed was John Doe.

. . . 2002-05-14

Make the voices stop

At a similar literary salon about, oh, maybe seven or eight years ago, the favorite first lines game was played, and I quickly realized that I didn't have any.

Partly that's because so much of my favorite writing occurred before the late-twentieth-century vogue for hooky opening sentences; partly it's because I dislike that vogue, which will seem as eccentically simplistic to future readers as an earlier era's focus on moments of moral sublimity seems to us. Grabbing the reader by her arm and yanking seems a rude way to initiate a conversation, and when I remember particularly enthralling beginnings, I remember their structural effects rather than the wording of sentence one: the early and peculiar disappearance of Madame Bovary's initial narrator, for example. (Back at that salon, the only opening line I could recall right off was a condensed version of the Bovary gambit, as played by Beckett in Mercier and Camier: "The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time." The rest of the book being I-less.)

On the other extremity, I'm a sucker for endings that snap close with a satisfying click, and I recall (and re-read) a good many last lines, with special fondness for those whose persistent startle ripples backward through the entire work, restructuring it retrospectively into something far richer than one had even dared to hope for as one kicked joyfully up surfacewards holding one's perfectly timed-to-the-last-page breath.

(Oddly, few of the examples I'm about to offer really count as "spoilers": to understand their defiance of expectations, one must have developed those expectations in the first place. The truly itchy can feel free to request story-wrecking explanations from me.)

Such an ending is more likely to speed the traveller on with a slamming of the door than with a gentle swinging to, treating readerly expectations so aggressively that they could almost be called rebuttals to their own books. (Ulysses is one such rebuff after another.) Closure is, after and above all, a refusal of further story.

1.
Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.

2.
"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédéric.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.

3.
I remember them all with such happiness.
4.
I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.
5.
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
6.
He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it.
[The first remains the most chill-enducing and daringly experimental ending I've ever read, as befits Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the pinnacle, in English literature, of characterization through narrative voice: The plot is resolved in the imperative! or, more accurately, via the narrator's very use of the imperative! Aided by the unemphasized selectivity of her seemingly conventional last paragraph wrap-up! (I think we can agree that exclamation marks are called for here, given the tightrope-acrobat precision of the performance.)

The second concludes Flaubert's most brilliant closing movement: that of the infinitely self-undermining Sentimental Education -- whose influence can be clearly seen in my third entry, from M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, and perhaps also in Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (as cited in Eclogues).

Next, and speaking of characterization through narrative voice, the befuddled detective of Henry James's The Sacred Fount finally manages to reach a conclusion. Fifth is Dashiell Hammett's last word on the murder mystery genre (or perhaps on fiction in general) in The Thin Man, and lastly Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl abruptly becomes non-Highsmithian -- and freezes.]

Some end with a flourished signature:

1.
And by what I have written in this document you will see, won't you, that I have obeyed her?
2.
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.
3.
Having seen this time what I needed to see, I started writing; and in time wrote all that you have read.
4.
"You and Capablanca," I said.
[Janet Frame's Faces in the Water throws mental health into our eyes like vitriol; Virginia Woolf's Orlando shoots its arrows of desire right through the temporal barrier; Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone goes home; Raymond Chandler's The High Window gives everyone a fucking break.]
Some with a gleeful or furious or heartbreaking -- but perfectly definite -- denial of closure:

1.
That is said nowadays by the most modern of the physicists. If that is true, then that is how it is with Pooch and with Carmen and with all the others.
2.
I'd always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I'd never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn't long to wait.
3.
Something further may follow of this Masquerade.
4.
Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes.
[Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog; Barbara Comyns's Mr Fox; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man; and the devastating final sentence of John Crowley's Engine Summer, whose subject (in several senses) might be said to be the tragicomedy of incompletion.]
And some are simply, disturbingly or delightfully, accomplished:

1.
"Nothing, Mamma. I was just thinking."

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother's corseted waist.

2.
He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.
3.
The beautiful weather was compared with the Great Disappointment of '44, when Christ failed once again to appear to the Millerites.
[Robert Musil's Young Törless enters sentimental grad school; Djuna Barnes's Nightwood pays tribute to Aphrodite; Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon lights out for the hills.]

. . . 2002-05-15

Zoloft   What time is it?
  When time endlessly vanishes into a dark featureless void, each moment hopelessly indistinguishable from the next....
  Why, it's Zoloft time!
  [none-too-subliminal marketing swag via the generous donation of Kate Small]

. . . 2002-05-18

Ceci n'est pas un biscuit Neuraesthetics: Representing

In a 1989 study that's been much cited by those looking to improve their toddlers' SAT scores and investment portfolios, a bunch of 4-year-olds were tortured by being told that they could have a few pretzels now if they wanted, but that if they waited they could have some cookies instead. Researchers then tracked how long it took for the children to crack.

Unsurprisingly, it was harder for the children to delay gratification if the cookies were displayed in plain sight, or told to think hard about cookies while waiting.

But that effect reversed when representations of the rewards came into play:

"Children who saw images of the rewards they were waiting for (shown life-size on slides) delayed twice as long as those who viewed slides of comparable control objects that were not the rewards for which they were waiting, or who saw blank slides.

"... children facing pictures of the rewards delayed almost 18 minutes, but they waited less than 6 minutes when they pretended that the real rewards, rather than the pictures, were in front of them. Likewise, even when facing the real rewards they waited almost 18 minutes when they imagined the rewards as if they were pictures."

Which may provide insight into cave paintings and pornography and Marcel Duchamp, even if it does toss up advertising as a topic for further research....

See also "An information processing account of implicit motive arousal" by Oliver C. Schultheiss:

I suggest, however, that the verbal-symbolic system's very power to encapsulate a particular incentive in a string of symbols is a double-edged sword. Through the development of delay of gratification, individuals learn to use the verbal-symbolic mode of incentive representation and may grow used to the fact that goals represented in this way do not experientially arouse a strong motivational-emotional state. At the same time they may come to expect that they will experience such a state when they finally attain the incentive. Therefore, the development of gratification delay through symbolization not only enables them to pursue long-term goals, but may also make them more vulnerable to adopt and pursue goals that may not be emotionally rewarding in the end.

. . . 2002-05-19

The Blue Party Candidate

Midway through my much-aided private college education, the Reagan administration started making Academe a gated community. The results were apparent by the time I graduated, but I always figured, well, at least the state university systems are available.

Talking to younger folks, though, I've hit plenty of anecdotal evidence that even state universities are now available only to those lower-class compeers who are willing to assume crippling -- I mean, legs-chainsawed-off crippling -- debt while simultaneously working like a dog and trying to study full-time. And reports like "Losing Ground" and "Unequal Opportunity" provide the stats: college has become an impossible choice for many Americans, no matter how many sacrifices they're willing to make.

But a good deal of the resulting journalistic attention has been focused not on the destruction of upward mobility, but on scolding those middle and upper-middle class parents who aren't sufficiently greasing their childrens' way.

A memory from the Revolution: At Joe's Digital Diner in 1994, surrounded by chatter in which the phrase "power to the people" kept surfacing, I sat next to Sally, a very nice sincere lady who gave me a card that read "Hey Kids Let's Put on a Show": "In fact, wherever it says 'company name' on a form, I always put 'Hey Kids Let's Put On a Show'."

Since it was a revolution, we naturally bitched about work. Her new job was at an all-girl preparatory school which charged eleven thousand dollars a semester. Sally was trying to get the parents to understand the importance of "the new technology" so that they'd pay more for her classes; she planned to show them the QuickTime movies produced by "the city kids" at the Digital Media Center.

"I'll tell them, 'They have access to all this equipment. Do you want your kids to fall behind them?"

Let the answer be yes, I silently prayed.

Meanwhile, even purely vocational-training jobs like computer programming now require a college degree from applicants.

Obviously it's a lot easier to freeze the upper class if the lower class is kept in its place as well. This complete blocking-off of upward mobility helps explain how the complete blocking-off of downward mobility -- which has puzzled me on and off over the years -- has been made possible. You know how it used to be that fortunes and incomes could (given enough tenacity) be lost? But after decades of Golden Parachutes, the subtleties of an Old Boys Club aren't needed: a rich guy can be openly incompetent for years, or even openly criminal, losing vast amounts of money for stockholders and ruining thousands of lives, and still sit on top of the world, dumping.

I can't tell you how depressing all this is. So I can only hope you share my depression without need of description or explanation.

I've never -- not even during my own upwardly-mobile scramble -- felt so trench-stuck in class warfare.

Or class massacre, I guess, 'cause it's not like there's been much fuss being made.

It would be nice to think this state of affairs can't last. But it can, for generations. Henry Adams, who had no trouble predicting the rule of "wealth individualised," couldn't help but assume a socialist backlash would follow. Instead, it sometimes seems to me that we've just been living for decades, barely, off the ever-more-rolled-back leavings of the New Deal and G.I. Bill.

Hell, I'd even consider joining MENSA if they were working to give their poorer brethren and sistren a chance at a better life. But nah, I just checked, and they're still glued to their fucking quizzes.

OK, sorry about the dyspepsia. I'll go back to sticking my head in the sand looking for diamond digestifs tomorrow.

. . . 2002-05-20

Old punks never die; our clothes just smell that way

It's not exactly true that black Shows Dirt Less. It does Show Sweat Less, which is how a dancin', swingin', up-tight, nervous cat can still slip on his 1979 "Clash Take the Fifth" T-shirt once every two weeks, even though it's completely blank (i.e., black) at this point, all overlay having been washed away by harsh detergents over the years.

But what choice was there? Because, sweat stains or no, black still vividly Shows, for instance, dandruff, cigarette ash, dog hair, ice cream, face powder, text from 1995-era Cool Web Pages, and virtually all body fluids other than sweat.

Well, ask no more! (Don't get offended; that's me I'm ordering to ask no more -- see, I'm referring back to the rhetorical question in the previous paragraph. Rhetoric is nice 'cause it lets you talk to yourself and most people will still think you're sane, just kind of tedious.) Because Beth Rust is here with important news for neatnik punks, nihilists, goth honeys, priests, and fat geeks everywhere!

. . . 2002-05-22

Mea culpa, mea culpa, wouldn't you like to bea culpa too?

I feel crummy about the effects of my message to AKMA. It wasn't intended as chastisement: I fully agree with what he wrote about free Web publication of all academic papers and I want as many teachers and students as possible hearing (and repeating) his sentiments. I only meant to offer another supporting argument and a couple of links from last year -- scientists seem to have started organizing around the issue before humanities scholars have.

I felt crummy even beforehand, though, which probably skewed the implied affect of my message Wottsamatta-U.-wards.

Hairshirts don't improve conversational skills as much as one would hope. And they don't help you meet girls, either. It almost makes you wonder if it's really worth wrapping 'em on.

+ + +

Maybe the following pointless outburst of invective will provide some relief.

+ + +

On a certain tendency of journalism

"News" is what's just now being talked about, and "balanced news" concerns what's arguable (or pretends to be). "Old news" isn't news, no matter how essential the old news is, and no matter how little it was reported when new.

We saw that turned to use in the 2000 election, when early reports of undebatable problems in Florida (voters illegally turned away; grossly misprinted ballots; Republican party stalwarts counting votes) were drowned in a comic muddle over debatably bad UI design.

And here we go again, into a muddle over the relative vagueness or exactitude of pre-September-11 warnings.

Cheney's cautious avoidance of commercial airlines is amusingly characteristic, but the hypocrisy and cowardice of our current Executive branch has already been well established, and one new example is unlikely to change anyone's opinion.

What's important news now has been important news since last November (and arguably since the previous November): the Bush adminstration's favoritism towards its private business interests, including antagonism towards whatever might offend the Saudi royal family.

"Would the hijackings have occurred if Bush hadn't called off investigators?" is an obviously unanswerable question, but it's just as obvious that they weren't made more difficult. There's no need to prove some unthinkably vile conspiracy's "responsibility" for those thousands of deaths; Bush's, Cheney's, and Ashcroft's patent irresponsibility is damnation enough.

"Did they know?" is equally undecidable. What is decidable is that they didn't want to know.

Almost immediately upon taking power, Bush placed his familial, financial, and political ties above considerations of national safety. (All part of reducing big government and keeping business strong!) Just like Ashcroft placed his personal bigotries and religious beliefs above such considerations. (All part of saving Christianity!)

That seems more enduringly to the point than whether Bush was told in August 2001 that airplanes were capable of crashing into things. But, although it was a cause of news, and will be a cause of news to come, I have to admit that it's not news.

See also Avedon Carol's Sideshow....

+ + +

Update: Nah, it didn't.

. . . 2002-06-01

More honoured in the breach than in the observance

Google headline of the day:

 
Bush Honors Black Music, Hears 'Take the A Train' - Reuters

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

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2002 Ray Davis.