|. . . 2006-11-03|
According to her cap, her name is Ada Best; her rule, "You must be dab at life."
* * *
La Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Onto a balcony overlooking the street walks a middle-aged dame with an empty champagne bottle, an empty champagne coupe, and a scowl. She lifts the glass, lifts and tilts the bottle, and seizes her face into a frozen grin. Looking down a 45° incline, you'll find the middle-aged man with the camera.
* * *
Mosquitoes collect on the net, shuffling and stumbling over confused stabs of the proboscis. English couples jostle like a clutch of balloons outside the osteria at 17:55, each holding a bit of guide book.
The Lagoon: Byron's ghost swims through water the texture of saliva studded with cigar butts and the remains of a gondolier's lunch.
The Venetians love their little dogs as much as ever, but are still working on pooper-scooper technique. One afternoon, I saw a tanned-and-bleached lady plastic-bag her darling's excrement only to flip it into the Canal.
That's the moment that made me think of Byron.
|. . . 2006-11-05|
I usually classify myself as a trimodal organism: peevish, giddy, and avuncular.
Possibly, however, the second and third states could be collapsed into silenian. If I'd been the first to get this idea for a company, I'd have incoporated — even if it is a little like when a co-worker named his consulting firm "Sadistic Software". Me: "Do you think that's wise?" Him: "Why? Everyone loves sadism!")
The link to the consulting firm isn't original with me, but for the life of me I can't remember or uncover who supplied it. Was it you?
It was me... I presumptuously took over the Death Wish in American Publicity Material while the usual provider was in other climes.
Keep the home fires burning!
Does one bring the wine and garlands, or do they supply?
All team members are expected to bring value to the table at Silenus. The lead consultant will stay under it to coordinate.
|. . . 2006-11-07|
You won't take this advice, but if you reside in Venice for less than three weeks, don't bother attempting the interior of San Marco's. Imagine the midtown subway at rush hour with three-quarters of the platform cordoned off after a week of heavy thunderstorms, all for the sake of a profound religious or aesthetic experience....
It's too absurd. Or rather, it's too much effort for the absurdity you get. The knob only goes to 10.
Here's a substitute itinerary:
Very early in the morning, walk to the piazza and stroll very slowly around the Ducal Palace, enjoying the column carvings. Alongside you'll observe a thick outer wall of tourists waiting to buy tickets or to be led inside: flies trapped in an amber of flies. How absurd.
Then stroll slowly around the basilica. There are pleasant things to see there.
Bringing your eyes groundwards, you'll find a maze of cafeteria tables on which — huh — people are standing. Many people. These tables lead up to the still-closed entrance "for groups only", and they're jealously guarded by tour guides. To their side stands a smaller but growing queue of our fellow polite go-it-themselfers waiting for some other, less exclusive, closed door. It's very absurd.
A good while before the church opens to the dammed, nature begins a flood of her own.
At first, it's just a bit soppy, as if the janitor's been through. But soon you see pools, with air bubbling and water actually jetting from the pavement.
As the water rises and spreads towards them, the law-abiding ground-dwelling independents stir, back away, panic, and finally leap, hoping for a few inches of space on the packed cafeteria tables. Some miss; some wade; few retreat.
Find a place to while away another hour or two — say at the Correr, winding through tour group interstices — and then return to enjoy the full effect: A tangled solidly constipated bowel of tables above the lapping waters; the photograph-weary cafe tables and chairs sunk calf-deep; a one-fat-guy-wide channel of dry splitting the piazza and full of tourists attempting Audrey Hepburn poses....
In humanly comprehensible terms, this is the peak of absurdity. Climbing any higher would just be for the stats.
Regarding, I guess, the Tyro pyro:
What *is* that thing he's standing on? Is it a korokodil? A dinnozaur?
I thought it looked more like a stiff seal or a stuffed fish. Anyway, you can see why the Venetians would want to swipe-and-switch saints. Flying lions are much cooler.
|. . . 2006-11-10|
We eat, we drink, we eat and drink prodigiously, with gusto, it would do your heart good to see us, you'd get bored, you'd be appalled, you'd resent me, no, this will not become a food column, albeit I am a column of food.
I will meet two obligations, that's all.
1. La Zucca, Venezia
Admirers of strong flavors and grace under pressure will have no trouble finding a good time in Venice. La Zucca stood out by its lack of frenzy. Frenzy's fine, some of my best friends are frenzied, but modulation is nice, too.
Especially the kitchen wasn't frenzied, nor slow, but lent focused attention to each dish qua dish, which tells with that stuff that's not boiled dough or fried squigglies — you know, vegetables.
The overall effect was very California cuisine, except with Italian produce, and except for the cost. Those familiar with the Bay Area, imagine if Alice Waters priced the way Berkeley Bowl does. As if observation and accuracy were necessities of life instead of luxuries accessible only by the wealthiest.
After we paid, our extremely efficient server (who might've owned the place) came back and gave us each a stack of business cards, I guess to hand out to our fellow movers and shakers, so here you are.
2. All'Allegria, Udine
Udine is a good town to get out of. That's why we went there, and why we slept for three nights in a comfortably sterile and soundproof hotel on the same block as the train station and the bus station.
But on our last night, after many rebuffs, we were determined to extract some pleasure from Udine's hard nut. A kind Venetian gentleman had recommended some restaurants. With his list, we ventured forth. Then returned to the hotel rebuffed. Then ventured again.
Cranky, tired, and in my case bruised and bleeding, we made unpromising material all'Allegria. We fell into the hands of a master.
I tell you, Myrtle, it was just like meeting Charles Boyer. Solicitous without smarminess, engaged without familiarity, quick to suggest, quick to catch demurral, he seated us, he soothed us, we fascinated him, later he conveyed the chef's fascination as well. When we asked for a wine suggestion, he apologetically wondered if we'd be willing to take a fresh selection with each course; he opened, poured, discoursed, succinctly, sufficiently.
In all this, not a hint of the obsequious, only noblesse oblige. He represents the kitchen: he controls our food; we are at his mercy; he is a warm-hearted man.
I took notes, it seemed the thing to do. Prosecco to soften the edge of evening. First course: Thin slices of peppery salami, of crudo di San Daniele, of cooked prosciutto, startlingly fresh, almost milky. Second courses: Pasta e fagioli. Cjarsòns, large ravioli with a sweet-and-sour filling, covered with grated smoked ricotta, a line of ground spices on the side. Stanig Sauvignon Blanc, from Colli, full, perfumed. Third courses: Frittura mista, squid, sardines, zucchini, something crayfish-like. Frico, a sizzling slowly roasted loaf of cheese and potato, served with polenta and perfectly intense arugula. Tenuta Beltrame, a Cabernet Sauvignon from coastal Aquileia, tasting of surf, bridged the dishes; our host expressed special satisfaction in our approval, the wine was made by his best friend. Finishing with an air of vanilla and stone fruit, Malvasia di Nonino ÙE grappa.
We were by no means alone. The dining area filled with the locals who had filled the bar; next to us was a table of physicists, from Germany, from Poland, from Russia, from the UK, attempting ethnic jokes, possibly part of the conference for whose sake Udine's galleries had been closed; their voices were muffled by the womb.
King of Hosts! We were hungry, and you fed us; we were weary, and you gave us shelter; I left a tip.
wot no risi e bisi?
In northeast Italy, October's not big on fresh peas. On the other hand: mushrooms!
|. . . 2006-11-14|
It's good to treat Keats humorously; Keats did. But if the poem's speaker was meant to be an unreliable narrator, he's in awfully distinguished company.
Poetry [...] expands the mind by giving freedom to the imagination and by offering, from among the boundless multiplicity of possible forms accordant with a given concept, to whose bounds it is restricted, that one which couples with the presentation of the concept a wealth of thought to which no verbal expression is completely adequate, and by thus rising aesthetically to ideas. It invigorates the mind by letting it feel its faculty — free, spontaneous, and independent of determination by nature — of regarding and estimating nature as phenomenon in the light of aspects which nature of itself does not afford us in experience, either for sense or understanding, and of employing it accordingly in behalf of, and as a sort of schema for, the supersensuous. It plays with semblance, which it produces at will, but not as an instrument of deception; for its avowed pursuit is merely one of play, which, however, understanding may turn to good account and employ for its own purpose.- Immanuel Kant
Kant famously found in beauty purposefulness without purpose, and infamously proposed the aesthetic sense as a foundation of good god-fearing existence. Beauty is the one Truth we mortals directly and certainly know as an immortal might; "understanding" or "reason" can be argued with, but the judgment of "taste" is unshakeable.
A cultured skeptic might've objected. "What do you mean by 'purposeless'? I gave the artisan his instructions myself, and I know my purpose. He was bound to apprenticeship for seven years, and so he must know his. As for the inarguability of taste, last week a rascal of a printer lost his hand over just such an argument, and I believe he's recanted."
In anticipation, Kant set up a hierarchy of beauties. The genius is a genius because he doesn't really know what he's doing; other artists are minor because they do know what they're doing: they're imitating the genius. Natural beauty's on a higher plane than artistic beauty because artists can give their reasons but God, um, can't. Decorative abstractions and instrumental music are "freer" beauties than portraits or songs, not because the former lack any compositional principles, but because Kant doesn't know what those principles are. Lilies and brightly colored birds provide purer moral pleasure than a beautiful horse because Kant understands the purpose of a horse.
If a lily ever revealed its motives, humanity might be in big trouble. Fortunately, "it is absurd... to hope that another Newton will arise in the future, who shall make comprehensible by us the production of a blade of grass according to natural laws which no design has ordered. We must absolutely deny this insight to men."
Taking these apparent instructions to heart, Keats straightforwardly (maybe too straightforwardly) attempts to both condense and exemplify Kantian aesthetics. The "Ode"'s speaker starts from a position of ignorance. O felix vacua! The concept of the urn thus lets him experience beauty, speculate freely, and rise to ideas. His last line doesn't refer to Barbara Stanwyck: Stoopid Beauty is Truth. (In Kaufman's retelling, it sounds a lot like Gracie Allen: "Did I ever tell you about my brother's urn, George?") Similarly, Goethe didn't mean a fast-talking Rosalind Russell type — it's the Sweet Dumb Feminine that draweth us ever onward.
I guess it's easy to poke holes in all this. But when I first read the Keats, and when I first read the Kant, I did immediately and intuitively sense something right — I had sometimes felt a sort of disinterested pleasure which did seem ethically important somehow. And we've all heard complaints from academics and working artists who became unable to enjoy the artifacts which originally enticed them into their fields, "shouldn't watch sausage being made" and all that....
However, I also know of fiction writers who still love reading novels, musicians who dance, stand-up comics who laugh easily, horror directors who scare easily, sausage makers who eat sausage.... Even after you've learned a technique, you don't have to think about it all the fucking time. What "aesthetic experience" requires isn't so much suspension of disbelief as suspension of knowledge.
Some people are better at turning out the lights than others. Reading Fors Clavigera, I found I shared a formative experience with my fellow aesthete Ruskin, and probably with lots of other bored or sickly kids:
I soon attained serene and secure methods of life and motion; and could pass my days contentedly in tracing the squares and comparing the colours of my carpet;— examining the knots in the wood of the floor, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses; with rapturous intervals of excitement during the filling of the water-cart, through its leathern pipe, from the dripping iron post at the pavement edge; or the still more admirable proceedings of the turncock, when lie turned and turned till a fountain sprang up in the middle of the street. But the carpet, and what patterns I could find in bed-covers, dresses, or wall-papers to be examined, were my chief resources, and my attention to the particulars in these was soon so accurate, that when at three and a half I was taken to have my portrait painted by Mr. Northcote, I had not been ten minutes alone with him before I asked him why there were holes in his carpet.
Resting on surface, wrapping ourselves voluptuously in surface without ever going past it... misses things. (Like where carpets come from.) The wittiness of Kaufman's series lies in its following the prescribed rule of ignorance. He gives the "Ode" a close reading cold, unsullied by historical context.
The results, of course, are dominated by his own un-Keats-like tastes and habits of thought. And the possibility of such misreading is enough to argue against the poem's and Kant's viewpoint. Some level of expertise or habituation must be attained before "intuitive" "immediate" apprehension becomes possible. After sufficient exercise, the muscle memory makes aesthetic experience come easily, but it's no more innate than anything else in culture.
I can even remember some of the process myself — it wasn't until age 19 that I became able to appreciate static visual art. I was too Kantian an aesthete. Since I derived exactly as much pleasure from looking at a natural landscape (or at a brick) as I could from a painting, what was the point of the painting? A lot of conversation and a generous dose of LSD were needed to help me understand experientially how surface contemplation might be guided by someone other than the observer.
And so my sense of "rightness" (in urn, in Kant, in Keats) was intuitive and immediate, yes — but not universal and not immortal. It may arise exclusively in individualizing capitalistic cultures with pretensions to genteel faith; I may be merely a sickly, bored product of my time and place. That's fine; I don't need universality or immortality. Contigency suffices. My criticism only aspires to an existence proof: Kilroy Thought Here.
A scrawl on a wall. Message flattens into material; the material hangs on. Where Kant and Keats no longer convince as argument, they still provide an artifact to attract our attentions, on which we can hitch a leash, a long leash, from which our wits can wander.... As the poet sang, "I was a fine idea at the time. Now I'm a brilliant mistake." Mistake on, dude.
|. . . 2006-11-16|
An odd thing happens over the decades. (Besides smells and hairs and stuff.) The fearsomeness of death lessens — but so does the allure of suicide. Entropy gets where she's goin'; no need to crack the whip....
As I become old and in the way, I trip over things more. That's like being at one with the universe, right?
The past is where it is, right? And here is where we are now, right? And in between them is...what? Is it entropy, or entelechy?
I don't know, but it sure is funky.
Peli points out a similar-yet-different.
|. . . 2006-12-18|
[The hallmark of an essay is] that its inner substance is as hardly translatable into conceptual thinking as a poem into prose language.... Its thoughts are intricately bound to a terrain made of feeling, will, personal experiences and such connections among complexes of ideas, which recieve and refract light only in the mental atmosphere of a unique inner situation. They do not lay claim to universality... they are snapshots of situations that can only be grasped through snapshots. They respond to a suppler, though no less strict logic.
And maybe your bilingual elves could also find time for Musil's untranslated bedroom farce, "Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer"?
Forget that imperialist stooge Santa. Polygots Paul Kerschen and jessie ferguson graciously took time from frantic end-of-semesters to draft a translation themselves. I and my fellow simpletongues thank them for their generosity.
|. . . 2006-12-30|
Woe then to the Depopulator, who is so farre from making riddance of the corners of the fields, that he rids whole fields, and takes away all occasions of gleanings and harvest, in debarring and forechoaking the worke of tillage, by converting errable into pasture, and ruinating the habitations of husbandry, by turning them into sheep-coates; Our times cannot make good that saying, Nunc seges est ubi Troja fuit : Now corne growes where houses stood; but we may take it up with a lamentation; where hospitable Farmes, and plentifull fields of corne have beene, nothing remaines but a champant wildernesse for sheepe, with a Coate, a pastorall boy, his dogge, a crooke and a pipe.Depopulation Arraigned, Convicted and Condemned,
by the Lawes of God and Man: A Treatise Necessary in these times;
By R. P. of Wells, one of the Societie of New Inne.
|. . . 2006-12-31|
Josh Lukin told me someone at the MLA said prison writings are to contemporary America as slave narratives were to nineteenth-century America. I expressed skepticism. I mean, I wish it were true — our two most distinctive national barbarities have enough in common — but I don't believe the punitive system's raised anything close to abolitionist fervor yet. Unincarcerated people such as lit department academics will protest individual cases of injustice, but when it comes to extended indignation they prefer other issues.
But then I read this:
How things are with us asks about the state of our soul. We may not want to respond to such a question. We may doubt we have a life with enough radiance or enough despair to collect what senses are left to 'soul.' My reply: our soul is left in our sentences, if we can find ourselves there.- Brett Bourbon, Finding a Replacement for the Soul:
Mind and Meaning in Literature and Philosophy, 2004
Here is my soul. It's right here, in this sentence.
Jack Spicer, dead linguist, knows the feeling.
Josh Lukin wants more nuance in the set-ups:
What HBF said was (something like) that to study the contemporary U.S. while ignoring the institution, culture, and literature of incarceration was like studying the 19th-century U.S. and ignoring slavery. That statement protests against the current blindspots in our consciousness rather than making a claim that one would wish were true. He did speak of prison literature from Jack London on, noting that in their review of the 2,000-page 2006 Heath Anthology of American Literature, the NYT devoted a chunk of space to denouncing the fact that it contained 27 pages of prison lit.
I'd note that HBF and a few other people in the radical caucus (Bill Mullen comes to mind) are among the few academics in lit departments who do take issue with and publicly (to the extent that they have "public access") oppose/decry the carceral system as a whole, teaching prison literature *and* teaching prisoners all the time. Probably there are a few more such radicals in Horowitz's book. Manning Marable is very good on the issue as well, but is, I think, not a lit person.
I understand, but we differ as where the nuance should go. Ignoring contemporary incarceration is not like ignoring eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slavery insofar as that ignorance holds in the vast majority of literature classrooms (and the NYTBR, for that matter). The comparison's considerable rhetorical force comes from how it doesn't apply.
Kip Manley intuits correctly that my stupid joke was also triggered by the EXTRATERRITORIAL EXECUTION OF THE YEAR!. "So, y'know, I figure 'My country, right or wrong' will count as a preemptive plea bargain when the war crime trials start. Is that just me or what!?" [SILENCE] "Well, I wanna tell ya...."
LATER: Partly prompted by my rude burlesque, Josh has posted a fine summary of what sounds like a fine panel. See, rude burlesque can achieve great things! Indirectly.
|. . . 2007-01-01|
Enough of this lowbrow stuff. Here are a couple of compositions by Artur Schnabel.
The performers don't convey the persuasive intellectual conviction of a group like the Arditti Quartet, or of Schnabel himself. The record's a year older than me, and almost as scarred and dirty. My turntable and cartridge are crap. Plus Schnabel didn't even have long hair. Still, what fan would pass up this chance?
Good luck figuring out who holds the rights.
Tucker scratched his head and thought a moment. 'A long-hair is an extra refined person,' he said. 'You take an Afghan Hound - that's a long-hair.' 'Do Afghan hounds read Musical America?' asked the cricket. 'They would if they could,' said Tucker. (from The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, via bhikku)
Professor Longhair, perchance?
That's Doctor Professor Longhair to you, bub. (Unless you're a girl.)
|. . . 2007-01-02|
A more exact way of putting the analogy would be "Ignoring the penal system now is like ignoring slavery then." Which is why in literary discussions (as distinguished from political, historical, or economic discussions), I've usually raised it when meeting questions like "How dast Jane Austen not protest the slave trade?" and "How could rakes maintain a class-based definition of rape?"
But don't I wish a contemporary "abolitionist" movement could grow the clout of more middle-class-ish interest groups? Don't I want future readers and viewers to regard us with Whiggish contempt? Of course.
Don't I think ear-catching statements in the prophetic declarative at the MLA make a good move in that direction? Beats me. I understand effective activism about as well as I understand the weather, or knitting.
Josh Lukin provides evidence that the answer to my final question should have been "Yes."
|. . . 2007-01-08|
I've finally transferred some chunks of John Ruskin's Fors Clavigiera from my commonplace file to the web. The selection is too thin and too aribitrary to be useful for research, but might be able to satisfy mild — or stimulate deeper — curiosity.
Letter LXXXI isn't included, and so you'll just have to take my word that Ruskin responded positively to the newspaper clipping an American sent him concerning “Justus Schwab, the most prominent Communistic leader.”
|. . . 2007-01-12|
The library's copy of The Moral Order is either stolen or misshelved.
'The Moral Order is extraordinary in its range ... Sometimes the book appears ...' -- Sociology, September/October 1983
"Such a prediction, of course, belongs to the realm of a utopian faith ... rather than to that of tested scientific theory." -- The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 90, No. 4. (Jan., 1985)
Accuracy in media...?
|. . . 2007-02-09|
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Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2006 Ray Davis.