pseudopodium
La Brea lawn. Photo by Juliet Clark
. . .

Bloomsday 2022 Gift Guide

Hoyced the Bloomingdayl sailes!

Joyceans do not live by exegeses alone; we crave congenials with our genealogies. For your general all-round touch-of-the-poet Joycean, I warmly recommend these recent manifestations of congeniality.

Pride of Essex and host of hosts David Collard has wrangled online salons weekly since early 2020. And while David was saving (or at least boosting) my and other attendees' socially-distanced sanity, he was, on the side, sustaining his own (and now yours, purchaser-to-be) with the fresh-off-the-Sagging-Meniscus wonderworker Multiple Joyce, an addictive yet fat-free jumbo heart-shaped box of Joyce-friendly and Joyce-adjacent bonbons.

(There is a slight difference of opinion between myself and the grand Collard insofar as I prefer Gabler's edition of Ulysses to its precursors taking for granted that all editions are and will be mistaken, Gabler's errors have the advantage of being volitional and explicit, and "Nother dying" and "Mity cheese" more than compensate any doubts about the word known to all men yet [as David says] we can all unite to expel a chorus of raspberries at Danis "Usurper" Rose.)

My favorite Joycean, Fritz Senn came from the fannish pre-academic-respectability era of Joyce scholarship, and remains a model of rectitude, generosity, and wit not as trademarkable a regimen as Silence, Exile & Cunning Ltd., but awfully attractive all the same. I'm now enjoying the dadblanged heck out of his third book in English, Joycean Murmoirs ("once more a book that I have not really written comes out under my name"), a good old fashioned voice-driven fan history. If you find this first page excerpt charming, give it a try:

But I never had any doubt that my preoccupation with Joyce and I always mean the works and far less the author is a substitute (or "Ersatz") for a satisfactory life or the kind of success one dreams of in adolescence and can never stop desiring. Maybe a term like "sublimation" comes close to it. [...] One has to cling to something, I imagine.

And if you don't, at least try some of Senn's more traditional critical essays. I see he's got a new collection coming in a month or two, Ulysses Polytropos, available to pre-order for only, er, $120. Senn's no academic but I guess his current publisher is.


For this season's primary source re-reading, I decided to pass my blearing eyes over every page of Finnegans Wake for the first time since 1979. Even with the widely-spaced benefit of McHugh's Annotations (published 1980), it was rough going literally, since more-extended-than-usual subvocalization soon strangled my sixty-three-year-old throat into a persistent dry cough.

To my rescue came a McHugh upgrade, FWEET, and a vocal upgrade, last year's audiobook. Barry McGovern's performance is unprecedentedly skillful, unlikely ever to be approximated, and although costar Marcella Riordan outclasses most rivals, I can't help wishing McGovern had been granted the whole. These our troubled times are such that their recording's most easily obtained in streaming form, but unless you plan to stay awake, finger tracing pages, for thirty hours straight I'd recommend either the 23-disk CD set or the 105 low-quality high-convenience MP3 files. "Responsible" corporate entities have not seen fit to provide any placeholders, cue sheets, or titles to connect recording to book.


Update: I've indexed the audiobook's MP3 files with a TSV spreadsheet containing track number, traditional page number (and starting text, to help with nontraditional page numbering), and file duration (to help with other audio formats).

. . .

The mouse with the sting in its tail

Americans dream of gypsies, I have found, And gypsy knives, and gypsy thighs that pound and pound and pound, And African appendages that almost reach the ground, And little boys playing baseball in the rain.
- "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America" by Randy Newman
It’s training them to accept a poisoned environment, one in which their own emotional requirements are diminished and poor and sometimes vicious. Certainly uncaring towards the people with whom they have to share the environment. I think it’s part of the system that it requires the profit motive as a sufficient excuse for any crime, whether the crime be depraving the taste of children or poisoning lakes with asbestos. Profit is for a certain kind of person enough of an excuse for anything they do. If it earns money, they feel justified.

In Thomas M. Disch's ironic storytelling prime, his lyricsinging counterpart was Randy Newman: equally American,1 equally capable of abrasive satire or faux-or-is-it? naïveté.

At first thought it's odd that two such expertly offensive illusion-strippers should find their greatest rewards (in American terms) at the Disney Company.

On second, as previously noted, all that's required is to not say the quiet part out loud.

In its prime, Disney's most strenuously maintained illusion was the coexistence of sole-authorship, innocence, and big money. That effort calls for some tolerance from both the exploiter and the exploited a little erasure here, a little reticence there.... With family in the music business, Newman was comfortable taking music as a business: he first succeeded as a pop songwriter and his soundtrack work stretches from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis through Marriage Story. Disch was notoriously bristly toward potentially helpful publishers and peers, and it's more surprising that he managed to supply Disney with a Brave Little Toaster sequel and the first version of The Lion King than that he got the worst of a familiar creatives-for-hire struggle. As the corporate conscience sang, "If your heart is in your dreams / (And your dreams are in our stuff) / Most requests are too extreme."


Cliff Edwards, AKA Ukulele Ike, the scatting singer of some entertaining off-color numbers in the 1920s, and a thuggishly-mugged character actor, was another established artist who slipped down the Mouse's hole more easily than might have been expected.

It probably helped that the role which provided him with booze and alimony payments carried its own faux-naïve ambiguities. In Carlo Collodi's original Avventure di Pinocchio it's unnamed except as "the Talking Cricket", and it's smashed "stark dead and stuck on the wall" in Chapter IV, albeit returning a bit later as a ghost, and a bit later still, without explanation, complete with exoskeleton.

On the repressive side of their job, Disney staff neatly tidied that contradiction away while softening and infantalizing the murderously delinquent puppet.

On the teasing side, though, they made Collodi's invariably stiff-necked and disapproving Cricket a tolerant insect-of-the-world with a Ukelele-Ike-ish eye for the ladies, and honored his slain-and-resurrected origins by dubbing him "Jiminy Cricket" Sir Jiminy Cricket to you. Oh, if only the Mouse had left The Little Mermaid alone and produced a no-suffering-whatsoever Gospel of St. Matthew instead!

1. Equally but not equivalently. Disch learned his American irony in Catholic Fairmont, Minnesota; Newman learned his in alternating doses of secular Los Angeles and New Orleans: more crassness, less repression or less self-repression, anyway.

Responses

Cheese digests all but itself. Mouse digests cheese. Mity mouse.

. . .

‘The City of Penetrating Light’ by Thomas M. Disch

(Expanded from my contribution to ‘A Personal Anthology’,
with many thanks to Jonathan Gibbs for the opportunity)

“You don't use irony; you have irony.” - Thomas M. Disch

In a supposed age of irony Thomas M. Disch was the most skillful ironist I knew.

And very much an American ironist; to misquote Auden, “Mid-America hurt you into poetry.” Bible-thumping hypocrisy and willful ignorance remained favorite targets, and Disch never freed himself from the villainizing and feuding endemic to our homeland; their garbage-incinerator stench pervades his last writings.

Which doesn’t make him a regional artist. Nullity is a gift for the whole human family, and few wrap it as snappily as Disch at his best.1

His novels were always crafty and some are treasurable concepts.2 On Wings of Song and The Businessman, at least, are much more than that. But the ironist’s razor-edge dance can’t be sustained indefinitely, and although Disch was equally effective on either the sardonic or sentimental side of the blade, both modes are difficult for readers to enjoy unalloyed except in bursts. I think of him first as a writer of short stories, and when I think of late-twentieth-century short stories I think of him first.

Because its stories build on one another and share a location 334 E. 11th St., currently home to the Tokyo Joe by Eco-nsignment Boutique 334 is sometimes described as a novel. To me it seems no more or less one than Dubliners, and I prefer to describe it as Disch’s most consistent collection.3

If I wanted to sell you on Disch, I might also suggest (depending on your own proclivities) ‘The Squirrel Cage’, ‘Descending’, ‘The Asian Shore’ and its comic mirror ‘Understanding Human Behavior’, ‘Getting into Death’, or ‘Xmas’.

If I thought you shared my own proclivities I might risk ‘Slaves’, with the sentence that seems to me his apotheosis:

There were red balloons and blue balloons and yellow balloons and pink balloons and green balloons and orange balloons.

For something more straightforwardly satirical, there’s ‘Et in Arcardia Ego’ (a rude response to the Star Trek school of space exploration), ‘Displaying the Flag’, ‘Hard Work or, The Secrets of Success’, or ‘The Jocelin Shrager Story’. In a naïve and sentimental mode, ‘The Brave Little Toaster’ deserved its success.

If I wanted to select a personal Disch, though, that would be his short monologue ‘The City of Penetrating Light’,4 which latched onto me in a basement in small-town Missouri and hasn’t yet loosened its grip: visceral nostalgia for what’s never been experienced and never will be, a sensation which is to envy as sublimity is to fear.

The story was first published in Fun With Your New Head in 1968 and never reprinted. I’m grateful to Gregory Feeley and the Estate of Thomas M. Disch for allowing me to share it here.


Among writing about Disch, I’m particularly fond of John Crowley’s ‘The Gothic of Thomas M. Disch’ and ‘Worldmaker’, and John Sladek’s ‘Four Reasons for Reading Thomas M. Disch’:

The America Midwest is dull. The landscape is under endless intensive cultivation, the way a clinically dead person can be under endless intensive care never allowed to die, but not exactly full of life, either.

Samuel R. Delany has been Disch’s most persistent champion, editing a collection of his work, devoting a volume of expansive exegesis to a single 334 story, and rarely missing a chance to mention his name.

1. Unopened packages are discarded in more than one Disch story.

2. Anyone who’s tried to take alien-invasion fiction seriously will especially treasure The Genocides.

3. Because of its realistic extrapolation and ironic undercutting, 334 is also sometimes described as dystopian, but its 2021 is blessedly decent compared to our own timeline.

4. Since Disch titled an early science fiction satire ‘Come to Venus Melancholy’ and titled a later collection of essays The Castle of Indolence, I suspect an allusion to James Thomson is intended.

. . .

Lord Kelvin's Monkey, conclusion

He [the historian] was therefore obliged either to deny that social energy was an energy at all; or to assert that it was an energy independent of physical laws. Yet how could he deny that social energy was a true form of energy when he had no reason for existence, as professor, except to describe and discuss its acts? He could neither doubt nor dispute its existence without putting an end to his own; and therefore he was of necessity a Vitalist, or adherent of the doctrine that Vital Energy was independent of mechanical law.

Science circa 1900 taught that orgasms shortened lifespans and that thinking was unhealthy for women. Popular and academic presses were full of confident (if conflicting) and well-credentialed (if unfounded) pronouncements about Will and Vital Energy and Racial Degeneration. Evolution implied progress toward perfection, organisms were treated as if they were (ideally) closed systems, and social phenomena were theorized as chemical or mechanical phenomena.

In later decades straying humanists would be unattractively preserved by coats of Freud, Jung, Marxist millennialism, behaviorism, computer science, or the remnants of evolutionist-determinism. Science circa 1900 was the particular tarpit proffered to Adams, and he obediently submerged himself.

The posthumous result for him, like other interdisciplinary victims, was (a bit unfairly) unflattering. His bold 1 stuck-in-the-tar attempts to future-proof historiography now stiffen somewhere between tedious and offensive, whereas the dull stick-in-the-mud particulars of his political histories, art histories, and personal histories seem almost as vital as ever.

Out of his depth or not, Adams remained a brilliant writer and a clever thinker. Some of Adams's many prognostications of calamity happened to hit on genuinely calamitous years,2 and similarly some of the Letter's remarks still strike a spark:

For purposes of teaching, the figure is alone essential, and the figure of Rise and Fall has done infinite harm from the beginnings of thought. That of Expansion and Contraction is far more scientific, even in history. Evolution, again, is troublesome, and has already yielded to the less compromising figure of Transformation. Expansion and Transformation are words which commit teachers to no inconvenient dogma; indeed, they are so happily adapted for Galileos who are wise enough not to shock opinion, that they seem to impose themselves on the lecture-room.

...

Matter indeed, is energy itself, and its economies first made organic life possible by thus correcting nature's tendency to waste.

And he sketched one development as straightforwardly as anyone might.


Oftentimes processes which can't be precisely controlled to produce precisely predictable outcomes can be radically disrupted to produce grossly foreseeable catastrophes. Burning a library or museum, for example, is an experiment whose result is far more certain and far less costly than waiting out centuries of writing, painting, and sculpting would be.

Changes in human culture aren't micromanaged by the Second Law of Thermodynamics or by biological evolution, but human culture can easily make both of them more perceptible. To return to meteorology:

Probably intervention in atmospheric and climatic matters will come in a few decades, and will unfold on a scale difficult to imagine at present. [...] Such actions would be more directly and truly worldwide than recent or, presumably, future wars, or than the economy at any time. Extensive human intervention would deeply affect the atmosphere's general circulation, which depends on the earth's rotation and intensive solar heating of the tropics. Measures in the arctic may control the weather in temperate regions, or measures in one temperate region critically affect another, one quarter around the globe. All this will merge each nation's affairs with those of every other, more thoroughly than the threat of a nuclear or any other war may already have done.
- "Can We Survive Technology?" by John von Neumann, 1955

Neumann wrote those words about the prospect of intentional intervention, but they apply just as well to the unplanned intervention mentioned elsewhere in his essay:

The carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by industry's burning of coal and oil more than half of it during the last generation may have changed the atmosphere's composition sufficiently to account for a general warming of the world by about one degree Fahrenheit.

Or, as Adams phrased it forty-five years earlier:

From the physicist’s point of view, Man, as a conscious and constant, single, natural force, seems to have no function except that of dissipating or degrading energy. Indeed, the evolutionist himself has complained, and is still complaining in accents which grow shriller every day, that man does more to dissipate and waste nature s economies than all the rest of animal or vegetable life has ever done to save them. “Already,”— one may hear the physicists aver —“man dissipates every year all the heat stored in a thousand million tons of coal which nature herself cannot now replace, and he does this only in order to convert some ten or fifteen per cent, of it into mechanical energy immediately wasted on his transient and commonly purpose less objects. He draws great reservoirs of coal-oil and gas out of the earth, which he consumes like the coal. He is digging out even the peat-bogs in order to consume them as heat. He has largely deforested the planet, and hastened its desiccation. He seizes all the zinc and whatever other minerals he can burn, or which he can convert into other forms of energy, and dissipate into space. His consumption of oxygen would be proportionate to his waste of heat. He startles and shocks even himself, in his rational moments, by his extravagance, as in his armies and armaments which are made avowedly for no other purpose than to dissipate or degrade energy, or annihilate it as in the destruction of life, on a scale that rivals operations of nature. What is still more curious, his chief pleasures, so far as they are his own invention, consist in gratifying the same unintelligent passion for dissipating or degrading energy, as in drinking alcohol, or burning fireworks, or firing cannon, or illuminating cities, or deafening them by senseless noises. Worse than all, such is his instinct of destruction that he systematically exterminates or degrades all the larger forms of animal life in which nature stored her last creative efforts, while he breeds artificially, at great expense of his own energies, and at cost of the phosphorus and lime accumulated by nature’s mostly extinct organisms, the feebler forms of animal and vegetable energies needed to make good the prodigious waste of his own. Physicists and physiologists equally complain of these tendencies in man, and a large part of their effort is now devoted to correcting them; but the physicist adds that, compared with this enormous mass of nature’s economies which man dissipates every year in rapid progression, the little he captures from the sun, directly or indirectly, as heat-rays, or water-power, or wind-power, is trifling, and the portion that he restores to higher intensities would be insignificant in any case, even if he did not instantly degrade and dissipate it again for some momentary use.” [...] The sun can keep up its expenditure indefinitely, subject to occasional fits of economy; while man is a bottomless sink of waste unparalleled in the cosmos, and can already see the end of the immense economies which his mother Nature stored for his support.

1. Henry A. Bumstead, the most enthusiastic professional physicist among the Letter's readers, wrote Adams: "I have for some time had the impression that historians were too much devoted to 'facts,' and nothing like so ready as we are to venture into the deep waters of speculation."

2. Looking back at Adams's speculations after his death, Bumstead was struck by the "fact that he predicts a 'change of phase' about 1918, and that the world does find itself in an unprecedented state or suspense and transition at this time."

. . .

Lord Kelvin's Monkey, 3

Kelvin's firm misguidance was no anomaly. As recounted by geologists Jeff Dodick and Nir Orion, mathematical physics has laid down the (dubious) law from James Hutton's perfectly Newtonian balance to Harold Jeffreys' proof that continents couldn't move. Underlying the law-laying was a hierarchy decided more by political than material realities: deduction from established premises encourages certainty; allowing a choice of narratives does not; in battles for dominance, certainty beats admitted fallibility.

Still, the historical sciences remain, for lack of a better word, "science": explicable, falsifiable, and governed by empiricism; agreeing on valid evidence, systematizing that evidence, and working toward (or against) consensus that the systematization matches the evidence in a worthwhile way.

"Soft" (that is, specifically human) sciences such as sociology and psychology should sit higher in the hierarchy of certainty insofar as they announce quantified generalizations which allow ample wiggle room for exceptions and can be tested at will by the generation of new evidence. Unfortunately, the result of regeneration's been a replication crisis. A meaning-making species which investigates a meaning-making species will find plenty of meanings. Stabilizing them is another story, and another, and another. Even leaving the question of ethics aside (as has often enough been tried), with beasties as labile and slovenly as homo sap there's little hope of establishing a clean lab or clearly delimited cause-and-effects.

What about disciplines set within the intersection of "historical" and "soft"?

In 1852, Thomson contented himself by saying that a restoration of energy is “probably” never effected by organized matter. In 1910, there is nothing “probable” about it; the fact has become an axiom of biology. In 1852, any University professor would have answered this quotation by the dry remark that society was not an organism, and that history was not a science, since it could not be treated mathematically. Today, M. Bernhard Brunhes seems to feel no doubt that society is an organism [...] As an Organism society has always been peculiarly subject to degradation of Energy, and alike the historians and the physicists invariably stretch Kelvin's law over all organized matter whatever.

In Adams's terms, I expect most of us have reverted to 1852. Inside the blip of human existence the crawl from Big Bang towards Big Lukewarm is barely detectable. Our sun is slowly expanding, not quickly shrinking, and by the time it blossoms no humans will be lolling on a beach to catch the rays. Narrative history incorporates more statistical analysis than it used to but hasn't become "mathematical" in a predictive or formulaic sense except when packaged as propaganda.

Instead of history hardening, sciences may have softened. The organism and the species have become more permeable and pluralistic concepts, and even the inorganic sciences have repeatedly struck limits on their ability to predict and control outcomes. Avoiding the over-trampled murk of post-Bohr physics, let's take the mundane field of meteorology.

High on the success of their nuclear bomb simulations, post-WWII mathematicians, physicists, and engineers tackled weather as both natural threat and potential weapon, only to be halted at a durational border. Daily and weekly regional weather forecasts can be drastically improved by tracking technologies and computer analysis. And we seem able to make some broad generalizations about global climate trends. But the territory between is unmappable:

If Laplace’s mathematical intelligence were replaced by a computing machine of unlimited speed and capacity, and if the atmosphere below 100km were spanned by a computational lattice whose mesh size were less than the scale of the smallest turbulent eddy, say one millimeter… [all predictions would prove inaccurate within a month] not because of quantum indeterminacy, or even because of macroscopic errors of observation, but because the errors introduced into the smallest turbulent eddies by random fluctuations on the scale of the mean free path (ca 10-5mm at sea level), although very small initally, would grow exponentially… The error progresses from 1mm to 10km in less than one day, and from 100km to the planetary scale in a week or two.

Although history hasn't become the sort of "real" science Henry Adams had in mind, could it attain the relatively respectable status of a latter-day historical science? After all, like geologists and paleontologists, human-historians attempt plausible guesses at the service and the mercy of whatever evidence happens to turn up, no matter how irreversible, indeterminate, incomplete, or inconvenient it might be. Models tend to be narrative rather than timeless formulae, deductive along the lines of Sherlock Holmes rather than Euclid, attentive to anomalies rather than discarding them as noise. Any universally applicable systematization threatens to become a map larger and more rigid than the territory itself. Instead, simpler models of causality accrete with no clear way to quantify their relative effects.

I suppose, as with most such categorizations, it's a matter of degrees. In a (human) chronicle or history, outliers are even more likely to play leading roles. And since it's almost unheard of for us to perform any halfway complex action for only one reason, Ockham's Razor is more likely to maim than reveal, and potential models proliferate. Over the long run historians can provide as verifiable a prediction and exhaustive a summary as any lab report: "Everyone died." In the meantime, irreducible ambiguities and the tides, currents, backwaters, eddies, and catastrophes of human culture block most hope of objectively settled generalizations.

Which makes "history as a science" look an awful lot like the sort of history Henry Adams actually practiced: attentive to a wide range of evidence, aware of competing models, straightforward about his choices, and uncomfortably aware that his impressively coherent narratives might at any time be shattered by new or revived or rejected evidence, or swept away by an attractively novel interpretive angle, or might unknowably be built on little better than noise.

That may sound discouraging, but it's just another way of saying "Everyone hasn't died yet." Carry on, historian!

... to be concluded ...

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