The child in the famous Fort-Da (gone-there—this is a game in which a child casts an object away and then retrieves it by a string, over and over) section of Beyond the Pleasure Principle is Freud’s grandson, Ernst, the oldest child of Freud’s favorite daughter, Sophie. Sophie died very suddenly of influenza just before the book was published. (The chronology seems kind of fuzzy, but seminar professor says before writing.) Think about all the other ways the story could have gone. Think about how much more overtly it could have been a story—the dead daughter, the grandson preparing himself to tolerate her absence with the game. “My ideal mourner,” Freud calls the child, whom he also says “showed no sign of grief” after his mother’s death. But it’s Freud, clinician; Freud, theorist—this isn’t the fluffy, narrative stuff of memoir. The concealment of the relationship is crucial—Freud says “the child’s mother” and “the writer of the present discourse” when he could say “my daughter” and “I.” The occluded “I” obscures the narrativity, the markers of effort and the fallibility of interpretation.
What happens when you smash that up against the issues of narrative in Dora, wherein the hysteric is characterized by her inability to tell the story of her own life clearly and coherently? (There, the class of people likely to be in analysis are also the class of people likely to read modernist fiction, which makes it weird—telling?—that illness and stylistic modernity are conflated.)
Tags: Academia · literary criticism
Andrew O’Hehir’s review of Sex and the City 2 is, like all the rest of them, a pan. (Undoubtedly well-deserved; the trailer made me want to scream. Not in a good way.) But check out that slightly tortured Ulysses reference at the end of the first paragraph.* Really had to work to shoehorn that one in, huh? The quotation is not itself particularly relevant, and at first glance, Ulysses isn’t, either: if I were looking for a snappy line on the tragedies of marriage, I’d hit Madame Bovary first.
But Ulysses is relevant as a symbol: it’s the critic’s assertion that he’s better than the movie he’s reviewing. Although O’Hehir showers contempt on the characters, plot, and creative team, the review makes clear that his condescension isn’t aimed at the movie’s potential audience (though it would still function as condescension towards anyone who liked the movie):
It’s offensive to an entire audience who came of age with these women and who remain breathtakingly loyal, and out of nostalgic affection may not have the heart to turn away from them. It’s offensive to King’s own creations, toward whom he now seems to feel nothing but contempt. It’s offensive because it keeps cattle-driving a franchise once based on sparkle and economy toward new heights of painful, frantic emptiness. I kept telling myself, over and over, that Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte — the real, flawed, funny, recognizably human ones, not these lobotomized zombie replacements — would never do anything so dumb.
This is kind of a party-line assessment, which just might be because it’s true, but it’s nevertheless an even-handed one: it’s not about contempt for the concept of the series, or for the kind of women whom it portrayed or to whom it was sold. But there’s something of the Frankfurt School culture-industry attitude here: “cattle-driving” and “emptiness” and “lobotomized” smack of the idea that the masses are being offered cultural pap. I do not dispute that this movie is cultural pap: again, it looks execrable. I just think that setting it up, implicitly, against Ulysses is a telling move. I like to catalog these references, and this is a particularly good one, because it uses Ulysses to shame Sex and the City 2: it sets up a contrast between the timelessly venerated and the momentarily reviled. It’s kind of like killing a fly with a machine gun.
This is the thing that fascinates me so much about contemporary uses of Ulysses. When a writer wants to pull this kind of maneuver, it is almost always Ulysses that he presses into service. We never get Ulysses on the side of trashy middlebrow entertainment, even though you could pull plenty of quotations that would support it: Tit-Bits and Ruby, Pride of the Ring and The Lamplighter. But that’s not what Ulysses means to us. It means capital-A Art. It means the difficult, the enduring, the transcendent. It means canonicity, most crucially. I think only Shakespeare takes up as much space as Joyce (and particularly Ulysses) on our collective-unconscious canonical map, gets as much referential play, carries as much weight in the textual economy. We mean something when we reach for Ulysses. Andrew O’Hehir means something—invokes something—a whole set of attitudes about art and aesthetics and culture getting bundled imperceptibly in, like Irish immigrants in steerage. But there’s no checkpoint, no—if you will—Ellis Island for this kind of socioaesthetic baggage. Especially in aesthetics, ideology doesn’t announce itself. And because it only reveals itself to the people most likely to agree that pop culture is trash, a Ulysses reference is a particularly good smuggler.
*What does it say that all but one of those search results that features the name of the narrator of the episode being quoted spell it incorrectly (“Daedalus” instead of “Dedalus”)?
It’s a sunny, breezy day in Princeton, New Jersey, and I am sitting at a dining room table built by two of my three housemates (the one in the architecture school, not the one in the English department with me), and the table is covered on books on reading James Joyce, and cups that no longer have coffee in them, and here, select cadre of blog readers, is my hunch: my hunch is that I am kind of shooting myself in the foot with this no-first-person-ever blog rule. I have been known to be somewhat rigid as a human. I like systems and rules. I like clarity. Categories.
But I am writing this paper, right? And the paper is about how James Joyce really freaks us out, for various cultural and institutional reasons, and the undercurrent of the paper, and the thing that I have come to during my time defining my academic interests and then beginning to investigate them, is that what I am interested in is the interplay between the “intellectual” and all the stuff that “intellect” is supposed to define itself against. David Pierce wrote this book called Reading Joyce that I picked up for my paper because I expected it to be a good example of the construction of a reader that happens when academics try to explain Joyce to “regular people”—and you know, it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all. I haven’t gotten to sit down and read it straight through yet, but the fact of the matter is, this book does it right. Pierce offers expertise gently, opens space for critical engagement, doesn’t foreclose interpretation or condescend. I had to rework the entire section of the paper on guides to Joyce to account for the unexpected excellence of this book.
Anyway, the point is: the collision of the intellect and affective pleasure. One of the things that makes Pierce’s book work so well is the strong, reliable first-person voice he uses. It made me think about my strong aversion to the first person. It made me think about how I really, really, really want to do some writing about the train trip I am taking this summer but probably none of it would be appropriate to put here given the way I have thus far defined my mission statement here, but what, really, I’m going to start another blog which I will maintain for five weeks and then abandon? Really? That doesn’t seem like such a hot idea. But I really do want to write about that trip. So I think that I’m going to. Be prepared for a little first person, internet. I am (probably) not going to start writing paeans to the perfect crispy crust on my fried egg this morning or anything (although: damn), but internet, it is time for me to remember how much I love to put a good sentence together, and it is time to remember that sometimes things work sideways and unexpectedly. So I hope it is okay that I might start trying to reduce the intensity of my drafting process and letting some personal stuff slip through the cracks.
Just not right this second. Because of James Joyce.
Tags: blog · first person
Dear Harold Bloom,
I love you. Let’s get married.
But: what about this?, my reader enjoins. And it’s true, Harold Bloom. I think you are a lunatic. I think you are straight-up crazy nuts. Also, you are approximately one million years old, and I am twenty-six. But I do not want to marry you just to make myself Mollie Bloom (which is not to say that wouldn’t be a really compelling side benefit). I respect your lunacy, and I love you anyway. I love you for your lunacy. I love that every paper I write about anything to do with canon (which is a good proportion of all the papers I write, given that it’s kind of a thing with me) provides me the opportunity to come across some new nutty remark of yours. And Harold Bloom, I love your nutty remarks.
Like this: “If aesthetic merit were ever again to center the canon Finnegans Wake would be as close as our chaos could come to the heights of Shakespeare and Dante.”
You said this in The Western Canon, Harold, and Penguin liked it so much they slapped it on the back of their edition of the Wake. Do you know why? Because no one else has ever said anything of the kind, because it is crazy. (Forgive my italics, Harold; I’m underslept and overenthusiastic.) It is a whole symphony of crazy. It is variations on the theme of crazy. It is crazy because it imagines some golden age of aesthetic purity long departed. It is crazy because you still really think Shakespeare is God (actual, literal God—Dante and Joyce can maybe fight it out for Jesus, but Shakespeare is the inventor of the human). It is crazy because if you got everyone who’s ever read both to line up in the schoolyard (and it really wouldn’t need to be a big one) and run either to the side marked Ulysses or the side marked Finnegans Wake I am pretty sure you would be standing alone. You don’t have to stand alone anymore, Harold. (I mean this metaphorically: I am all but positive that I would be on the Ulysses side, too, if I ever got around to hacking through Finnegans Wake. But think of the fights we could have about this in your mahogany-paneled study.)
Harold Bloom, you might think I am being flippant, just because I put in a footnote about how you take so much pleasure in tweaking the nose of the common reader that your exception can be considered to prove the rule. I am not. I am being absolutely genuine. I think there is something valiant in your denial of materialism, of the world as it is and always has been. The promise of a better world is an appealing one, Harold, even if that promise comes in the form of a eulogy for something that never was. I will believe in Philistines with you, Harold; I will believe in Kulturkampf. The Ragnarok of art. These are the end times, Harold; let’s spend them together.
Also, Harold Bloom, allow me to be crass (I bet you don’t mind that): I am pretty sure that I would get a tenure-track job out of our marriage. And—perhaps you have not heard—those are hard to come by these days. What with the ranks of the very senior professoriate soldiering on and all.
What do you say? I will read Ulysses out loud to you as you grow slowly blind and deaf (but O, Harold, never dumb). I will read you the Romantics (not the lady ones). We can negotiate on Finnegans Wake in the pre-nup. So long as you never run out of crazy, I will make sure you never run out of cognac. If you were to shuffle off this mortal coil at the advanced and dignified age of one hundred, Harold, I would only be forty-six. You will never see me mottled and wattled. That has the whiff of immortality about it, doesn’t it? I think we will be very happy together. So I think there can, Harold Bloom, be only one response to this (modest) proposal:
yes I said yes I will Yes
With love (obviously),
P.S. Harold Bloom, I reserve the right to take all this back as soon as I get my first full night’s sleep in a week and some distance on this paper on Ulysses. But for now, I am stone-cold serious. Move quickly.
Tags: first person · literary criticism
April 23rd, 2010 · 1 Comment
I’m looking at this picture, and having some inchoate thoughts about photography.
That perhaps its peculiar appeal and also its danger are about the fact that it makes composition invisible. I think you could make the somewhat dumbed-down analogy of the present:photography::the past:painting, and all that would remain to be explicated is the single colon—that is, what’s the relationship between an age and its primary visual art form? Is there any kind of social mimeticism there? Again, this isn’t an actual argument, or even really a fully fleshed-out thought, but what if the thing about photography is the way in which it looks ineffably right and real when it’s well-done? Think about the way photographs have become iconic, have condensed social moments and international events (not to mention landscapes and movie actresses and so on) and given them a sense of immediate coherence. A crystallization, a self-evidence. Think about our highly contemporary concerns about a narcissistic generation, hooked on self-presentation: YouTube and Facebook and reality TV. Might the connection be in something to do with the gaze? Being worthy of the gaze? Being shored up, ordered, and underscored, but in a way that erases its own artifice? Invisibly but powerfully framed?
You know, just a thought.
Tags: visual art
Tino Sehgal’s show at the Guggenheim is the sort of thing that tends to put me on my guard. It has the whiff of emperor’s-new-clothes about it. It’s very susceptible to the my-kid-could-paint-that school of contemporary art skepticism, and performance art is so often not my cup of tea, and there’s a lot of buzz. So I was a teeny bit surprised to find myself turning to my very erudite friend Dave halfway up the rotunda and saying something along the lines of, “You know, I think I buy it.”
In the atrium, a very beautiful couple is performing a choreographed sexual encounter: intricate, measured, looping. (It’s also pretty hot: you secretly keep expecting them to actually take off their clothes.) There is nothing on the walls. It is apparently the first time in the Guggenheim’s history this has been the case. The people you encounter as you walk upwards along the rotunda get older: the first interlocutors are children; the last are elderly people. I think we could then read the atrium-dancers as the moment of conception, but that’s not necessary. In fact, I think too much thought here as to the specifics of the intention isn’t necessary, because of how much the piece itself prioritizes your own experience and not its design. It’s high-concept, sure, but it’s not pushy—that is to say, it’s genuine in its intentions towards you. It’s in good faith, and that’s really important to me in art in general, but I think particularly important in art that actively wants to make the viewer into a participant.
For me, this piece isn’t about the quality of the interactions themselves—a lot of people with more interest in performance or interactive art than I’ve got might disagree, but I think it’s about the fact of the interactions, and about their centrality. The blank walls turn you back on yourself. So much of what we do in museums has nothing to do with the art. It has to do with bouncing off the art and into the person or people we’re with, trying to learn something about them and ourselves and what’s between by parallax; it has to do with the crowd and the low, constant noise; it has to do with people-watching and with the way you relate to yourself, other people, strangers, the broader world. Museums are social, material, and interpersonal spaces. This piece is an endorsement (one might even say a celebration) of that fact. It obviates the excuse of art objects and focuses on their functions and effects.
It’s also a really pleasurable experience. It flatters the participant, to some extent, I think: it plays to your self-regard in the way it devotes itself to approaching you and drawing you out. Still, Dave and I had only one interaction of the designated kind (it was Sunday and pretty full, or, alternately, we are terrifyingly unapproachable, or, alternately, the child to whom we talked about Hegel when he asked us about progress rather reasonably put us on some sort of do-not-call list) and I found it really enjoyable just to walk slowly upwards and figure out the schema and check in on the progress of the atrium dance (at one point, a very small blond child tottered into the performative space and got very close to the dancers and seemed overawed) and watch the people around us having conversations.
There’s sort of a paradox to the piece: it seems to me to go a long way towards emphasizing the unnecessariness of art objects themselves, but of course, there isn’t an absence of art object—the piece itself is art, just not of a static, tangible kind. The concept is the object. You’re still processing it intellectually in much the same way you would process a more compartmentalized art object—and you need to be, for it to do its job of realigning your art-experience. So this is either a sort of half-measure (that is, a gesture in a direction that the piece can’t pursue to its logical conclusion) or a reconciliation to the fact of art as a premise: a necessary jumping-off point. I’m not sure it actually much matters which one of those things this piece is, though: it still works for me.
Tags: visual art
A little while ago, I had a quick exchange on Facebook with a friend who said, in the tone of admitting something gauche, that she didn’t like Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”. I responded, sort of flippantly, that it’s the best breakup poem ever. Then I thought a little bit more about my own feelings about the poem—it’s not one I like unambiguously or even particularly passionately, but it is one that somehow recurs to me in a specific set of emotional circumstances.
“One Art” isn’t a great lyrical poem. It’s no great shakes read out loud. The rhythm gets jerky, particularly in the middle lines of the stanzas and over the linebreak to the last lines. The line “so many things seem filled with the intent” is fine, but following it with eight (eight!) heavy monosyllables really takes the momentum out of the whole thing: “so many things seem filled with the intent/to be lost that their loss is no disaster” is really underwhelming—that line seems like it really should start with an unstressed syllable, and it gets irretrievably bogged down when you have to carefully articulate the consonants that divide “lost” and “that” and “their.” The middle-to-end of the third stanza (“places, and names, and where it was you meant/to travel”) is similarly mushy.
I also particularly hate “(Write it!),” the interjection in the last line. It’s obvious. It feels a little like being bludgeoned with the bottom line of the poem, like, yes, we get it, this is hard to admit. It serves the crucial function of setting off the final admission (that loss feels, in fact, like disaster), but there should be some more elegant way to get that point across.
The thing is, despite all of these clear-headed objections to the poem, in times of loss, I end up saying to myself in my head, “now practice losing further, losing faster.” (The line is actually “Now practice losing farther, losing faster,” but I don’t seem to be able to correct that in my memory of the poem.) I go back to this poem regularly when I’m really sad, and then the directive tone of the poem seems particularly, compellingly poignant, and the setup of the penultimate stanza, which widens the scope and begins to admit ambivalence, seems skillful and kind of perfect. And when you’re really sad, you forget that “(Write it!)” is obnoxious and just hear it as a little stutter-step before the big blow of “disaster.”
The fact is, the poem endures, and I think it endures largely because it articulates something pretty fundamental about loss. Like Dickenson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” which I actually prefer as a poem, “One Art” is about not the great catastrophic moment of loss but its aftermath, which may ultimately be worse, as the beloved object recedes from the space it (he) used to occupy. Unlike Dickenson, though, Bishop gives us the loser returned to daily life—surrounded by objects and obligations and situated in a personal history. The poem plugs gamely along for its duration, if not chipper then at least normal (it deals with keys, a watch, houses—you can picture it doing its grocery shopping, paying its bills), until, very suddenly, in the final two words, it collapses in a heap. That collapse is then read retroactively into the rest of the poem—all its mundanity becomes a staving-off of the fundamental fact.
To master the art of losing is to cease to feel the pain of loss. And “One Art” seems to me ultimately very conflicted about even that stated goal of mastery: conflicted about the final giving up, the biggest loss, what Dickinson calls “the letting go.” Your keys aren’t really gone until you stop looking for them, you know? The poem skirts disaster—fears feeling the full weight of loss, but also, I think, fears not feeling it. The art of losing can’t be mastered, because once it is, there’s no mastery involved.
So, I made a promise about writing on the internet again. This is not my best work, and obviously I shouldn’t be telling you that right at the top, but the idea is to get things going again. I’m thinking two posts a week. Haven’t picked days yet. Stay posted.
On a flight to Portland, watching This Is It on the teeny JetBlue screen. The disclaimer here is that I was never a Michael Jackson fan–I never got an impression of him uncolored by the freakshow of his public image. Last summer, while I was moving out of my apartment in Brooklyn, a girl in high-tops flung open the door of her family’s brownstone and yelled down the block, “The King of Pop is dead!” And that was the first time I’d thought about Michael Jackson for awhile, and what I thought was that it seemed to me the action of a merciful God, not to let this man live on inside a ruined body and life.
And it’s weird in light of that reaction to see that he was still comparatively able so close to his death. It’s weird to see him as anything other than a symbol of some ruinous strangeness. Because the ruinous strangeness is there, but it’s not crowded everything else out. This is not to say that he’s not nuts; he is. “Are we misunderstanding something here?” says the director, and the white-suited star says, “We’re sizzling.” Or: “Just bathe in the moonlight,” he instructs during a session on musical arrangement, “just let it simmer,” and he raises his shoulders and his hands like he’s going to lose it. This might once have sounded like the special language of a specially gifted artist, but now it sounds more like a set of hollow touchstones. He’s struggling: “I’m trying to adjust to inner ears. When you’re raised using your own aural, your own auditory ears.” The people he works with are tiptoeing around him. But he’s creatively engaged. He’s making decisions. And perhaps most importantly, he’s going through the motions. He can still make his body and his voice do those things well enough that you remember how impressive they are.
There’s something remarkable about the way he moves, something about it totally unlike the way the men around him move, all the dancers, every one carefully culled and choreographed. None of the other dancers collapse into themselves the way he does. He’s less hard-hitting than they are in his movements, and I don’t think this is just because he’s near to death. His movement seems to come from a different place in him than it comes from in the other men. Their motion seems to emanate from some essential kinetic core, while his is like an external force rippling through him. Which has sort of always been the thing about him, right? That his movement is sort of magic and inexplicable? (The obvious example here is the Moonwalk.)
Dancing isn’t a display of strength for him, and it’s not a performance of masculinity. It’s not exactly that there’s nothing sexual to the way he moves, or nothing sexy (although he’s unquestionably less sexy, in this degraded state, than he was) but there’s absolutely nothing interactive in the sexuality in his performance. When he touches a female dancer’s pulsing thigh, it might as well be her shoulder. When his movements trace hers, it’s not sexy; there’s nothing vibrating between them. His is a solitary kind of charisma.
This isn’t exactly new–I think of him in the “Thriller” video and there’s absolutely no sexual chemistry between him and the girl, whoever she is. So there’s that as something that’s constant, but there’s also something that’s been lost in comparison to the Michael Jackson of yore. The major difference, I think, is that he no longer seems to be enjoying himself. There’s a loss of a certain buoyancy. He’s less light on his feet than he used to be, of course, and less fluid, but I think the most crucial loss is of this kind of driving energy. It’s hard to tell how much that’s reinterpretation in light of hindsight, or reinterpretation in light of his public image–our sort of inability to trust the intention behind his motion, and thus to read it as authoritative.
More devoted people than I have tried to solve this problem. What I can’t figure out is whether or to what extent the charisma and the crazy are inextricable from one another. And as much as this is falling back on something really uninsightful and cheap, he’s just so interesting. What was it that he meant?
Tags: music · pop culture · Uncategorized
October 14th, 2009 · 1 Comment
And thus it was that our heroine figured out how to install plugins via FTP her very own self. Henceforth she regains her blogging powers and will require much less tech support.
November 5th, 2008 · 2 Comments
For the first time in my political life, I have had the chance to back not a compromise and not a lesser evil, but a candidate whom I support not with the desire to stave off disaster but with the hope (truly there is no better word, and I know because I have tried to find one in order to avoid sounding like a campaign poster) of something extraordinary that might result. My generation has come of intellectual and moral age in a time that has felt to many of us hopeless and surreal, like some terrible dadaist performance art, and to all of us, I think, cynical. And only because so many people have burst collectively into tears and into song have we now realized how numb we have been, and how ready we are to take this seriously, earnestly, how willing we are to change our lives if changing our lives can change the world.
President-elect Obama, you have spoken of a call to service. That call has not previously been issued in my lifetime. No one has asked us to change our lives, no one has urged us to be better than we are. But when you call, I think my generation will answer. We will work and teach and fight, we will give our time and our energy and our resources to the service of our country, which you have reminded us is ours and needs us. We will try to have civil conversations with people with whom we passionately disagree, and to take care of our friends and neighbors when they are sick and sad, and to learn humbly about others and ourselves. We will try not to lapse into believing that the arc of history is beyond our reach and that our good conduct is unnecessary. When you call us to, we will hope, and we will work.
Tags: the world