This Swell Big Purple Akesplanck
. . .

The Death & Rebirth of Criticism out of the Spirit of Improv

Forgetful Muses: Reading the Author in the Text
by Ian Lancashire, Toronto, 2010

Fearing another polemic, I flinched at the opening Barthes joke. No need; the point is that Barthes and Foucault helped make room for scholarship like Lancashire's own.

Barthes's target was a particular sort of Critic (James Wood or Jonathan Franzen or Allen Tate, say) who allows only a particular sort of Work (a well-wrought urn full of well-burned ash), the titular "Author" being the Critic's implausible prop. With Critic and Author removed, Franco Moretti recently went on to elbow Reader, Theorist, and Work out of the Howard-Roark-ish Researcher's spotlight.

More generous, Lancashire instead invites another figure onto the stage: the Writer Writing. His book directs the tourist's attention to the distance between conscious intent and the actuality of creation, both as living process and in posthumous analysis in two words, muse and style.

Comfortably switching between the roles of researcher and reader, Lancashire can treat the "General Prologue" as Chaucerian Work or as bundle of characteristic tics; he can study Shakespeare as Author and as tic-bundler; he can turn Agatha Christie's pageturners and then winnow them for symptoms. To show his peaceful intent, he goes so far as to intersperse goofy monologues from his own first-draft stream-of-consciousness, who proves as insulting towards his fister as any other vent dummy. And again I marvel at how free discourse flows to bicker.

Even more more again I marvel at how, gathered at the Author Function, we collectively manage such both-ands. When Lancashire uncorks his inner Jerry Mahoney, by what magic do the undergrads believe that communication has occurred?

The accuracy of that belief is questionable, yes, but not its transient certainty. I still recall the shudder with which Henry James's overstuffed suspension settled into clear solution, counterpane into windowpane. And farther back in adolescent memory how the fraudulent assemblages of T. S. Eliot and cheesy pop musicians gathered warmth and depth and breath. And, more near and less pleasantly, watching in embarrassment Jean-Luc Godard's miraculous constructs scurf, slough, and collapse into scrap. How do the imprecise and formulaic grunts of Homer or Dan Brown transform, in the susceptible listener, into vividly imprecise and formulaic experience?

A question which may animate a less particular sort of Critic.

. . .

The Miracle of the Snooter

Top Shelf did lovely work with the hardcover edition of Alec: "The Years Have Pants"; this may be the first time I've really traded up by replacing slimmer volumes with a big collected.

The one flaw I've encountered's a tear, which I probably contributed myself while swinging the book around to get full benefit from its medicine ball heft. At any rate, so thick's the paper stock that the sheet was not ripped all the way through but only scalloped in the midst of "After the Snooter" and in the form of a curly proboscis!!!

Discos are not my scene.

. . .

The Chronicle of Hired Education

Last night the dayjob sent me to Las Vegas for a conference. Unexpectedly I and some co-workers were called into a high-stakes meeting with Donald Rumsfeld, currently working as a consultant for the city of Chicago.

While discussing his plans, he revealed that since 1999 or so he'd been using the quiz component of Blackboard as an AI but restricting himself to true-false and yes-no questions. "No wonder the Bush administration's decisions lacked nuance!" I exclaimed. Donald glowered, but brightened up once I explained the utility of questions which accepted ranges or sets.

On a sadder note, as we left the meeting one of my comrades became lost forever in the desert sands.

. . .

The Chronicle of Hired Education (2)

"After MP (2)"
by Jonathan Mayhew

More concise and convincing than John Williams's Stoner. Having pried open the top of Mr. Chips's skull, scattering rock chips, glass chips, chips & gruel, we observe the scribble-scrabble within: the tangled anxiety of Trying-to-Influence. (I haven't yet found Michael Palmer's original but suspect it's less dry martini and more sloe gin.)

. . .

Movie Comment : The Constant Nymph (1943)

If I was teaching gender studies, or just wanted to shake the kids up, I'd ask them to imagine Peter Lorre in Joan Fontaine's part. And while watching Peter Lorre, vice-versa.

. . .

A Comic of a Life

Some supplemental notes on the first half of
Alec: "The Years Have Pants" (A Life-Sized Omnibus)
by Eddie Campbell

"To draw comics is not enough if they do not keep the life that has gone. To draw comics may never seem enough when they speak of a life that has gone."
- Rube Goldberg
  1. Not that it's Top Shelf's job to coddle casual reviewers, but casual reviewers might be better off if Top Shelf had packaged "Novels" and "Shorter Works" as separate volumes. Instead, three extended closed works are immediately followed by a roughly equal mass of rambling fix-ups. Since casual reviewers don't research or read notes, and since casual reviewers know that a standalone Work is always more important than decades of Groove, the poor dears may well whip out a readymade critical narrative of artistic decline.

    If, however, our casual reviewer read "Alec" in order of publication (roughly the order in which I first read the series), he would find a few miscellaneous pages, then the first-novelistic The King Canute Crowd, then the bounded jumble of Little Italy and The Dance of Lifey Death, then the novelistic Graffiti Kitchen, followed by the loosely knotted motifs of After the Snooter, then the novelistic How to Be an Artist, then the remainder of the Snooter sprawl; duck out to read the novelistic The Fate of the Artist from First Second, and dash back in time to exit the theater to "The Years Have Pants" medley-march.

    In short, it might become clear that compositional closure is a matter of opportunity rather than age.

  2. Reading the first three through-composed books closely together, I began to think of them as a Pronoun Trilogy: first, third-person past-tense; second, first-person present-tense; third, second-person future-tense. (The fourth through-composed "Alec" book, The Fate of the Artist, elides the artist's voice altogether.)

    Admittedly, The King Canute Crowd's captions soon relax into the first-person present-tense mode of barroom narrative, but the tone continues to be third-person-recent-past: the anticipatory nostalgia of youth working something out, in guardedly stiff tableaux which remind me more of Manet than Monet.

  3. Graffiti Kitchen dismissed the guard and delivers the most unified look, the tightest narrative, and the hottest emotional matter of the series. (The most affecting matter, however, remains the illustrated edition of Edward Lear's "The Jumblies" that closes The Dance of Lifey Death.) Those who think post-1970s comics history pivots on a crisis of masculinity (not me) should note that the Kitchen includes even that archetypal 1980s masculine crisis, blue-collar lay-offs.

    Later pages don't lack bad behavior and foul moods, but they're grounded in the tradition of domestic comedy, the young man having outgrown Henry Miller's manufactured crises (as all will, we hope). Later books don't lack form, but the forms are a book's form rather than an experience's, the novelist having learned to live out his daily strip (as all must, should they learn to live).

  4. In these quarters, How to be an Artist seems more of a piece and less of a critical history than I first took it for. It helps that this edition drops the "Chapter Fourteen" which originally ended the book and which included the original book's five weakest pages: a recommended-reading list presented in an Amazonian grid of thumbnail cover images. Freshly clipped and capped, How to be an Artist rests perfectly at ease.

    Yet I find that I miss the last couple of original pages, with their self-mocking dream of future glory and their traditional closing gag the book doesn't miss them, but I do.

    And with the kind permission of The Artist, here they are:

How to be an Artist p. 120
How to be an Artist p. 126 How to be an Artist p. 127

. . .

by Anselm Dovetonsils

She loves me.
She loves me not.


Dovetonsils sculler Renfrew Q. Hobblewort overreacts:

Exciting Dovetonsilium discovery! I am wracked with doubt as to whether the implied third element is a repetition or a hint at a trinary reality. Thesis fodder!!

. . .

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth, translated by John Hoare

Untouched and absolutely perfect source material for an artsy 1970s movie, should anyone be in the market to produce an artsy 1970s movie. The Coen brothers are about due, aren't they?

It also would have made a more convincing John Cusack vehicle than Kleist hacked out, but I guess that's all fire under the stable now.

More regrets:

He spends an hour or two every day writing his memoirs. They will probably possess no significant literary value, for Count Mortsin has no experience as a literary man, and no ambition as a writer. Since, however, he is a man of singular grace and style he delivers himself of a few memorable phrases, such as the following for example, which I reproduce with his permission: "It has been my experience that the clever are capable of stupidity, that the wise can be foolish, that true prophets can lie and that those who love truth can deny it. No human virtue can endure in this world, save only one: true piety. Belief can cause us no disappointment since it promises us nothing in this world. The true believer does not fail us, for he seeks no recompense on earth. If one uses the same yardstick for peoples, it implies that they seek in vain for national virtues, so-called, and that these are even more questionable than human virtues. For this reason I hate nationalism and nation states. My old home, the Monarchy, alone, was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men. This mansion has been divided, split up, splintered. I have nothing more to seek for, there. I am used to living in a home, not in cabins."
- from "The Bust of the Emperor" by Joseph Roth

. . .

The imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book

We thank Dr. Josh Lukin for recommending The Prison and the American Imagination and related reading:

The Prison and the American Imagination offers a passionate and haunting critique of the very idea of solitude in American life. Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought: Wiley CPA Exam Review 2012, Financial Accounting and Reporting by O. Ray Whittington Paperback $40.95
Smith's book is remarkably inventive and wide-ranging with its close interweaving of literature and history, its refusal to rely slavishly on Foucault, its close reading, and its refreshingly lucid style. All the information you need to master the computerized CPA exam!


accelerated depreciation on my debt to society?

. . .

Sliced Turkey

I know everyone's excited about the Big Game, but let's take a moment to honor a real hero:

Operational Excellence helps Cal Dining save 5 cents per meal
(via Chris Tweney)

With savings like this, students can easily afford to proactively incent the world-class executives who've made the University of California famous. And to think some doubted the worth of that three-million dollar Powerpoint file!


I'm a little sad to see that Mr. or Ms. Cal Professor committed two typos in a paragraph complaining about others' "crimes against the English language."

I'll accept "chalk-full" as vocational dialect and "mist cursory" as a description of her/his annoyed mutter.

. . .

Fear more the heat o'the sun

For thirty years I've shelved William Congreve's comedies near the center of my personal canon, and it shames me that I can't contort myself to enter what contemporaries considered his most serious work: monotonic blank verse tragedy, heroically coupleted epistles and translations, sheepish elegies, and authentically bootlicking Pindaric odes. I gaze and glaze and it's as if Preston Sturges spent the 1950s filming CinemaScope epics about Mamie Eisenhower.

Congreve's shorter lyrics, many meant for singing, go down more easily, like vodka punch at a dull party. They push a glossy, genial cynicism or, since most of the singers are male, genial misogyny unencumbered by Herrick's manic invention or Rochester's Black Jack medical calling.

Tell me no more I am deceiv’d;
That Cloe’s false and common:
I always knew (at least believ’d)
She was a very Woman;
As such, I lik’d, as such, caress’d,
She still was constant when possess’d,
She could do more for no Man.
But oh! her Thoughts on others ran,
And, that, you think a hard thing;
Perhaps, she fancy’d you the Man,
And what care I one Farthing?
You think she’s false, I'm sure she’s kind;
I take her Body, you her Mind,
Who has the better Bargain?

Indicating how little in this thin-blooded vein sparks Congreve's interest, three of the better poems share a closing (and maybe a germinal) image: the sun, lost without regret.

Doris, a Nymph of riper Age,
Has ev’ry Grace and Art;
A wise Observer to engage,
Or wound, a heedless Heart.
Of Native Blush, and Rosie Dye,
Time has her Cheek bereft;
Which makes the prudent Nymph supply,
With Paint, th’injurious Theft.
Her sparkling Eyes she still retains,
And Teeth in good Repair;
And her well-furnish’d Front disdains
To grace with borrow’d Hair.
Of Size, she is nor short, nor tall,
And does to Fat incline
No more, than what the French wou’d call,
Aimable Embonpoint.
Farther, her Person to disclose
I leave let it suffice,
She has few Faults, but what she knows,
And can with Skill disguise.
She many Lovers has refus’d,
With many more comply’d;
Which, like her Cloaths, when little us’d,
She always lays aside.
She’s one, who looks with great Contempt
On each affected Creature,
Whose Nicety would seem exempt,
From Appetites of Nature.
She thinks they want or Health or Sense,
Who want an Inclination;
And therefore never takes Offence
At him who pleads his Passion.
Whom she refuses, she treats still
With so much sweet Behaviour,
That her Refusal, through her Skill,
Looks almost like a Favour.
Since she this Softness can express
To those whom she rejects,
She must be very fond, you’ll guess,
Of such whom she affects.
But here our Doris far outgoes,
All that her Sex have done;
She no Regard for Custom knows,
Which Reason bids her shun.
By Reason, her own Reason’s meant,
Or if you please, her Will:
For when this last is Discontent,
The first is serv’d but ill.
Peculiar therefore is her Way;
Whether by Nature taught,
I shall not undertake to say,
Or by Experience bought.
But who o’er-night obtain’d her Grace,
She can next Day disown,
And stare upon the Strange-Man’s Face,
As one she ne’er had known.
So well she can the Truth disguise,
Such artful Wonder frame,
The Lover or distrusts his Eyes,
Or thinks ’twas all a Dream.
Some, Censure this as Lewd and Low,
Who are to Bounty blind;
For to forget what we bestow,
Bespeaks a noble Mind.
Doris, our Thanks nor asks, nor needs,
For all her Favours done
From her Love flows, as Light proceeds
Spontaneous from the Sun.
On one or other, still her Fires
Display their Genial Force;
And she, like Sol, alone retires,
To shine elsewhere of Course.
To a Candle. Elegy.
Thou watchful Taper, by whose silent Light,
I lonely pass the melancholly Night;
Thou faithful Witness of my secret Pain,
To whom alone I venture to complain;
O learn with me, my hopeless Love to moan;
Commiserate a Life so like thy own.
Like thine, my Flames to my Destruction turn,
Wasting that Heart, by which supply’d they burn.
Like thine, my Joy and Suffering they display,
At once, are Signs of Life, and Symptoms of Decay,
And as thy fearful Flames the Day decline,
And only during Night presume to shine;
Their humble Rays not daring to aspire
Before the Sun, the Fountain of their Fire:
So mine, with conscious Shame, and equal Awe,
To Shades obscure and Solitude withdraw;
Nor dare their Light before her Eyes disclose,
From whose bright Beams their Being first arose.
The Decay. A Song.
Say not, Olinda, I despise
The faded Glories of your Face,
The languish’d Vigour, of your Eyes,
And that once, only lov’d Embrace.
In vain, in vain, my constant Heart,
On aged Wings, attempts to meet
With wonted speed, those Flames you dart,
It faints and flutters at your Feet.
I blame not your decay of Pow’r,
You may have pointed Beauties still,
Though me alas, they wound no more,
You cannot hurt what cannot feel.
On youthful Climes your Beams display,
There, you may cherish with your Heat,
And rise the Sun to gild their Day,
To me benighted, when you set.

Probably I only noticed this reuse because the image was presented so plainly, and always with the same associations. They could easily have been varied, by, for example, cautioning against flights too near the sun. (In Congreve's two myth-based libretti, Apollo appears only to lead the audience in a drinking song after a heroine's tragic death.) Or by referencing the use of pinhole projection to view sun-spots.

The era's new-found sense of propriety likely snuffed any such impulse. 1 Congreve wouldn't want to risk The Double Dealer's workshop scene:

For as the sun shines every day,
So, of our coachman I may say

BRISK. I’m afraid that simile won’t do in wet weather; because you say the sun shines every day.

LADY FROTH. No, for the sun it won’t, but it will do for the coachman: for you know there’s most occasion for a coach in wet weather.

BRISK. Right, right, that saves all.

LADY FROTH. Then, I don’t say the sun shines all the day, but that he peeps now and then; yet he does shine all the day too, you know, though we don’t see him.

BRISK. Right, but the vulgar will never comprehend that.

His casts included no author's mouthpiece; each part's in its place and he in his, the untouched retoucher. His gifts were observational and structural, not egocentric the impulses of a novelist, just a few years too early for novels. His teenage romance 2, Incognita, thrills to the sound of its own voice 3 and the sight of its own Tinkertoy mechanics, but must respect generic proprieties with traditional characters of wood.

Which confined Congreve-the-observer to the wicked stage, Puritan bait. Congreve's sense of the proper was dear to him, and he seems to have felt genuinely wounded when an increasingly stringent hypocrisy turned against his plays. His damning response was a defense of his craft, not his faith. And by the end of the century, Fanny Burney's Evelina would feel properly scandalized by Love for Love, despite novel-deep submersion in a wickeder plot.

Out of the light, Congreve can see rather than be seen. In lyric first person, he displays a cabinet of withdrawal; he has nothing to show except what he's found. The only verse in which a Romantically-schooled reader might recognize human feeling is an exsanguinated Keatsian swoon:

On Mrs. Arabella Hunt, Singing.
Let all be husht, each softest Motion cease,
Be ev’ry loud tumultuous Thought at Peace,
And ev’ry ruder Gasp of Breath
Be calm, as in the Arms of Death.
And thou most fickle, most uneasie Part,
Thou restless Wanderer, my Heart,
Be still; gently, ah gently, leave,
Thou busie, idle thing, to heave.
Stir not a Pulse; and let my Blood,
That turbulent, unruly Flood,
Be softly staid:
Let me be all, but my Attention, dead.
Go, rest, unnecessary Springs of Life,
Leave your officious Toil and Strife;
For I would hear her Voice, and try
If it be possible to die.

Suicide by appreciation: the liebestod of the critic.

1   Donald McKenzie helpfully cites James Boaden's later praise for "To a Candle": "Here we have none of the perverse ingenuity of the metaphysical poets. The points of contact seem obvious, and not to be missed; but such a parallel, so continued and so exact, was never made out before."

2   By which I mean a romance written by a teenager.

3   This aside seems made to footnote:

Now the Reader I suppose to be upon Thorns at this and the like impertinent Digressions, but let him alone and he’ll come to himself; at which time I think fit to acquaint him, that when I digress, I am at that time writing to please my self, when I continue the Thread of the Story, I write to please him; supposing him a reasonable Man, I conclude him satisfied to allow me this liberty, and so I proceed.



Tsui Hark? Well, I haven't myself read his lyric poetry, but I doubt it's as interesting as Peking Opera Blues.

. . .

We Have Always Already Never Been Modern

Robert Musil and the NonModern
by Mark M. Freed, Continuum, 2011

I picked this up because I felt peevish over somebody-wrong-on-the-Internet calling Musil's work "an attempt at an answer to aesthetic questions," and I thought Freed might at least give Musil credit for more ambition than that.

As it turned out, Freed instead credits Musil with ambition to pass an oral exam on Heidegger, Habermas, Lyotard, and Latour. By his dozenth intervention, I was picturing Percival Dunwoody, Idiot Time-Traveler:

I've come from the future to warn you: turn off the stove!


nescientity is the mother of intervention
Forget it, Jake: it's Continuum.
Musil was actually studying to pass an exam on Mach, Nietzsche, and Simmel...which yielded better results, it would seem. Thank god.

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