Monthly Archives: January 2008

Wyndham Lewis on de Sade

I gave a talk on Wyndham Lewis yesterday, and as I was reviewing his always provoking Time and Western Man, I noticed this quite-apt passage on de Sade:

Whatever the Marquis de Sade said about life or things in general, you could be in no doubt as to what his remarks would come back to in the end; you know that they all would have the livery of the voluptuary, that they would all be hurrying on the business of some painful and elaborate pleasure of the senses, that they would be devising means to satisfy an overmastering impulse to feel acutely in the regions set aside for the spasms of sex. (133-34)

Havelock Ellis on Oneiric Neologism

I’ve been going through John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu in preparation for teaching Coleridge this week, and I found an interesting footnote on the aforementioned phenomenon from Havelock Ellis’s The World of Dreams:

There is abundant evidence of the invention of new words in dreams—see, for example, Havelock Ellis’s selvdrolla and jaleisa

Lowes then notes that “Xanadu,” “Abora,” and “Alph” are all perfectly “normal formations, when judged by the semasiology of dreams” (396 n).

“Selvdrolla” seems to be, at least for now, google-less.

The Modern Apocalypse

Is the title of the graduate seminar I’m teaching now (borrowed from Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending). Here’s the course description:

The twenties and thirties were revolutionary, violent, low, and dishonest by turns. They were also haunted by the promise of a better world. This seminar will examine how writers of the British Isles envisioned the future and diagnosed the present in the interwar era. We will read works written in an overtly apocalyptic mode and those whose vision is more restrained, more concerned with the changing perception of time in the emerging modernity of the present. Also of interest will be literary reactions to Weber’s progressive “disenchantment” of the world and rationalization. We will read for signs of the political theology and aestheticizing of politics that led to fascism. Some of our reading will expand into Transatlantic, Colonial, and Continental contexts, though the focus will remain on Anglo-Irish work. Of particular interest will be the focus in recent modernist studies on literary representations of nationalism, and we will also read recent critical work on national identity in modernism by Jed Esty, Pericles Lewis, and others.

In preparation for the course, I’m reading a number of things I hadn’t yet encountered, such as Frederick Carter’s The Dragon of Revelation, for which Lawrence wrote Apocalypse as the introduction. Carter was apparently part of a group of English occultists that included Austin Spare, who Hitler wanted to commission for a portrait.


Look up “mormolukee” in the OED.

The weapon featured in Ocean’s 11 is named EMPusa.

Also, in case this was a bit thin:

“I feel an urgent need to inform you,” Wagner writes, “briefly and decisively, of both my opinion and my anxiety…. In my attempts to assess [Nietzsche]‘s condition, I have been thinking for some time of identical and very similar experiences I recall having had with certain young men of great intellectual ability. I saw them being destroyed by similar symptoms, and discovered only too clearly that these symptoms were the result of masturbation.” He concludes: “I believe I have said enough to enable you to make a serious diagnosis along the lines that I have indicated” (Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, Norton, 1987). (From Jonathan Lieberson’s “Bombing in Bayreuth,” NYR, 11/10/1988, [subscriber]).


Almost looks a bit like Nietzsche leering down there, doesn’t it?

How Exotic!

I suppose that statements such as following, from a NYT article on the most prominent Blackwater shootings, should cause me to revise the attitudes I expressed here slightly:

This flat, arid corner of the country, settled by cattle ranchers, is not different from many small towns that propel young men and women into the military. It is a place where working-class people hold traditional ideas about what it means to be an American, where churches outnumber restaurants and children learn to handle weapons not long after learning to read and write.

Just think of it—children handling weapons… (It’s called hunting—also, in riverine areas, some of these primitives string liana to whittled bone for recreational aquaculture.)

The Value of Teaching Literature

Stanley Fish has attracted significant attention, at least from those of who us who feel compelled to comment on such things, with his NYT posts on the value of the humanities.

Before Fish’s posts, I read this response to an MLA panel. Dr. Crazy cogently notes that socialization to literature varies widely within different student populations. I want to respond to this paragraph in particular:

To give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile. Most of my students do not come from families that discuss books over dinner – or art, or advances in science, etc. If they don’t learn how to have conversations about these things, they face a disadvantage when they leave college and enter the broader world. (I should say, I think this may be one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities in the context of higher education at my kind of institution, as it doesn’t matter what degree one has if one can’t hobnob with people from higher class backgrounds when one is done.)

I have student evaluations (for an American literature survey) that indicated that they felt that having suitable material to discuss at a dinner party was the main benefit they took away from that class. I was rather nonplussed after reading that at the time. A bit later, I began to wonder what type of dinner conversation this student imagined that would involve banter about Whitman, Pound, and Ishmael Reed—knowing what I did of the conversation of the pink-collar and of the pharmaceutical salesfleet. Of the banking demimonde of Atlanta and Birmingham. Of an SEC or ACC football reunion. Fearing that some snobbery was bubbling up, I then thought that the very possibility of the TLS‘s latest piquance or even, more plausibly, some semi-learned etymological discussion of a nautical oddity from O’Brian could start the revolution. Such a moment alone would justify all that we do.

Part of where I’m going with this is my personal skepticism that Literature is discussed anywhere at all, outside of isolated pockets of Fussell’s X-factordom and the ideographic professions. (The entire Corrections on Oprah event supports this interpretation.) I believe that CR has agreed with this sentiment before, though I don’t remember where. Like Dr. Crazy, I have a working-class background, though I’ve never thought too much about it in the context of academia. For whatever reason, I entered very early into the universal fraternity of compulsive readers, with only the predictable consequence of having a reading vocabulary much larger than the spoken vocabulary I was accustomed to hearing being a noticeable shibboleth when I began to spend time with other voracious readers from higher class backgrounds.

I suspect that, whatever their class background (which tends to be quite uniform) literature professors are so differently oriented in their approach to reading that an admittedly useful indoctrination into NPR-values and the middle mind is unlikely to be anything other than an unanticipated consequence of our teaching. I then read A White Bear’s related post about the unconscious focus-group mentality and the need to develop the intensely subjective and meaningful responses that characterize the compulsive readers who teach. I doubt, however, that the critical apparatus and technical aesthetic vocabulary of much sound pedagogy is going to lead to that reaction, which AWB describes as a necessary—but missing—step. As any reader of “Mr. Squishy” knows, the applied demographers are far too subtle to combat this way. It is only through the cultivation of narcissus that the proper inner, resistant life, can be led.

But that doesn’t quite work either. I wanted to come around to Fish’s arguments in this post, but I tend to agree with a comment I read on the original post that suggested that arguing with Fish on his own terms is a waste of time.

“Would of”

In M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing, a character named Alice says, “We would of iced them, Vic, but what do you do?” (68)

To my ear, “would’ve” and “would of” are homophones, which is why they are confused in writing. Alice, if she’s literate, very possibly would have made this mistake. But this is dialogue reproduced by the narrator. I don’t think you can credit the notion that it is rendered dialect, as there’s no difference in pronunciation. I also don’t think that having characters’ speech rendered as those characters would write it on their own is quite covered by free indirect technique, which is not on display here as far as I can tell.

I’d be interested if anyone has an explanation for this, or if you’ve noted similar examples.

I should also mention that I’m glad to be reading this book, as I’m contemplating a project on transformative spaces, zones, objects, etc. as national metaphors. Nova Swing seems to, in the early going at least, owe a lot to Roadside Picnic (which provides one of the epigraphs and is the finest example of the genre I know, far exceeding the hotel room miniseries you may remember), and I’m always looking for more examples.

Locally Coextensive Properties

A number of folks have called attention to Jerry Fodor’s recent LRB columns in which he criticizes the theoretical coherence of adaptationism as an explanation. The exchange of letters in the most recent edition has Fodor writes that his critics “admit that the theory of natural selection can’t distinguish among locally coextensive properties while continuing to claim that natural selection explains why polar bears are white.”

He then goes on to suggest that adapative phenomena will likely be explained by “endogenous constraints on phenotypes.” Developmental pathways are constrained. Linkage of traits is endogenous and thus cannot be explained by reference to exogenous variables. I’m not sure how Fodor addresses the “selection of/selection for” argument. He seems to imply that it is an epistemological question and thus outside the explanatory domain of adaptationism as a theory.

I hope that the Moretti event on Graphs, Maps, Trees will be out as a book before too long. One of the main topics of discussion there was the relation between theories of physical and cultural evolution, and I have long believed that the ideas above serve equally well or perhaps even better to describe cultural evolutions, in particular that of complex narrative artforms. I’m much interested in utility of developmental constraint modeled after evolutionary biology as an explanation of ideology, classically considered, for example. The idea of natural selection being unable to choose between locally coextensive properties would change considerably if the properties were co-deterministic, as they might be if there were a teleology of form or morphological tendency guiding their development. Now, there seems to be no reason to believe that this is true of biological evolution, but I think it is of cultural evolution. (Are there people who have gone so far as to say that biological evolution provides the complete explanatory apparatus for cultural evolution?)

From Coetzee’s Diary of A Bad Year, With Some Comments on James Wood’s Review

Where did the prosecutors [who argued in court that amateurish Al-Qaeda suspects only seemed that way] learn to think in such a way? The answer: in literature classes in the United States of the 1980s and 1990s, where they were taught that in criticism suspiciousness is the chief virtue, that the critic must accept nothing whatsoever at face value. From their exposure to literary theory these not-very-bright graduates of the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase bore away a set of analytical instruments which they obscurely sensed could be useful outside the classroom, and an intuition that the ability to argue that nothing is as it seems to be might get you places. Putting those instruments in their hands was the trahison des clercs of our time. “You taught me language, and my profit on it is I know how to curse.” (33)

I won’t be so hasty as to identify the narrator’s thoughts with Coetzee’s here, but I’ve never bought the “reality-based community,” Republican-pomo theory of the Bush administration. I think that oft-cited remark was simply an isolated, mischievous pseud (as above) high on 90% approval. (The real governing theory similar to—but different from—what Coetzee describes above is easy enough to guess.)

(I see that “Tiffany” connotations have ascended even to Coetzee’s cold and mandarin* heights [35]).


James Wood’s review suggests that Anya was “cheekily correcting [the narrator's English]“. I think instead that she relies on the spell checker.

Anya and Alan didn’t strike me as “uninteresting caricatures” either. Alan, in particular, has deviousness and ambition that far exceed the average taker of the online versions of The Economist and the WSJ. To think that Eurydice saltshowered errs boldly.

Wood also falls into the habit of arguing against the opinions as if they are not dialogical and openly displayed on the page. Disregarding the “critical piety” of confusing author and character, he argues with positions he doesn’t like. (The narrator’s too harsh on Guantánomo for Wood’s taste, though I think that the idea of the political prison, not the particular manifestation of it, is what the narrator contrasts to music.)

I also find it interesting that the opinions begin with Hobbes and Machiavelli. There are several levels of possible recursion there. (Would Señor C have three million in the bank had he not won the Nobel? Wood suggests that this version had not.)

*Wood uses “mandarin” in his review, but I had not read it when I wrote that sentence.

Another View of 18th C North Carolina

(Compare with this):

Surely there is no place in the world where the inhabitants live with less labour than in North Carolina. It approaches nearer to the description of Lubberland than any other, by the great felicity of the climate, the easiness of raising provisions, and the slothfulness of the people. Indian corn is of so great increase, that a little pains will subsist a very large family with bread, and they may have meat without any pains at all, by the help of the low grounds, and the great variety of mast that grows on the high land. The men, for their parts, just like the Indians, impose all the work upon the poor women. They make their wives rise out of their beds early in the morning, at the same time that they lie and snore, till the sun has risen one third of his course, and dispersed all the unwholesome damps. Then, after stretching and yawning for half an hour, they light their pipes, and, under the protection of a cloud of smoke, venture out into the open air; though, if it happens to be never so little cold, they quickly return shivering into the chimney corner. When the weather is mild, they stand about leaning with both their arms upon the corn-field fence, and gravely consider whether they had best go and take a small beat at the hoe: but generally find reasons to put it off till another time. (William Byrd, History of the Dividing Line [Run in the Year 1728])

The Unit

I’ve watched almost all of the first season of this David Mamet creation over the last couple of days, and today in the public library, I noticed that the volume it is based on, Eric L. Haney’s Inside Delta Force, was held. Unable to resist, I’ve been reading it.

The thing that’s left me head-scratching in particular is that Haney writes about (and gives a picture of) a letter written in Farsi on Royal Saudi letterhead to be carried by all operators in the aborted hostage rescue, asking the putative Iranian readers (as good Muslims) to render assistance. Haney writes that they knew the helicopters were going to fail, because of Navy turfmongering and Carter’s military frugality, and intended to make it to the Soviet border to surrender themselves.

The show has a none-too subtle exoteric Straussian ethos, I think, though the “SERE” episode may have tried to reverse course on that a bit. I also don’t approve of wantonly evacuating Atlanta as throwaway plot point, as if it’s just another thing to do. But it’s entertaining. I think it’s worth comparing Mamet’s views on masculinity to the Adorno-Horkheimer piece on Odysseus. (The episode where the Mexican drug czar’s family is rescued has what is I think the most glaring plot hole in recent memory, unless I badly missed something—Nimrod is sent into the wilderness well before anyone has any idea what he’s hunting, and that couldn’t have been a coincidence, could it?)


I watched the final episode of the first season, which managed to combine some freedom-kissing frogbashing with the most improbable plot yet. It was fairly stomach-churning.