Monthly Archives: March 2009

De Anima

You may remember that Aristotle attributes to Democritus a story of Daedalus making a wooden statue of Aphrodite move by pouring mercury in it (De anima, 406b). I wondered, however naively, for what purpose until I then remembered the story of Asterion’s birth.

I should consult a scholarly edition for more details, I suppose.

Dylan As Singer

I have a tin ear, and I once, remembering this opinion of Donald Fagen’s, played “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” for a date skeptical, let us say, of this:

An astounding record. You get to hear on this what a fantastic singer he was. His range, which now, as far as I can tell, has reduced to a perfect fifth, used to be enormous. He starts very high on the verse and then drops an octave in about a second and sounds like he’s doing a duet with himself. A perfect record.

While counting notes on her fingers, she proclaimed that he was impossibly off-key throughout. I’ve never thought much of it until now, when I just looked at the Amazon MP3 download best-sellers of Dylan’s songs. “It’s All Over” is, unless I’m missing something, an incredible #127. “Hurricane,” for example, is #6. You can talk about the effect of Dazed and Confused here, sure, but what explains this? I don’t have access to Itunes, but I’d like to know what that, presumably more popular, service has to tell us. (And if the customers have better taste.)

On “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”

The second stanza of this poem runs:

In the beginning was the Word.
Superfetation of τὸ ἒν,
And at the mensual turn of time
Produced enervate Origen.

An earlier version was:

In the beginning was the Word.
Superfetation of τὸ ἒν,
And at the menstrual turn of time
Produced the castrate Origen.

The changes were Pound’s suggestions, apparently. Generally speaking, Pound’s revisions of Eliot’s poetry tended not to be bowdlerizing; but it’s arguable that they are here. “Menstrual” and “castrate” both better establish the contrast between Origen and Sweeney shifting from ham to ham in his bath at the end.

On the Abrogation of Contracts

I seem to remember from the pellucid legal reasoning of one of the Yoo memos that the government has the ability to withdraw from any treaty at any time. That apparently does not extend, according to Larry Summers and Edward W. Liddy, to the abrogation of domestic contracts. I would have expected this willful stand out of a Gordon G., but Edward W.?

Web Transcription Perils

I learned from the wallace-l list, which I recently rejoined, that the D. T. Max article I mentioned earlier misquoted Larry McCaffrey’s interview with Wallace from the Review of Contemporary Fiction. The transcribed web version has Wallace reporting that “most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive” instead of “mediated.” The print version is available as a scanned pdf in EBSCO.

I last made this joke when a Malcolm Gladwell article identified Linus Torvalds as Norwegian, but it sounds like this one landed on the Bright Lights, Big City fact-checker’s desk. I did not notice the error when I read the article myself, I should note.

Map of the Interviews in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Is here. I created this quickly, without checking to see if some other enthusiast had done this before and with more detail.

A couple of things I noted: 1) I cannot find a place called “Drury” in Utah. I’ve pinned it in Salt Lake City. I don’t know if this is deliberate, the name of a place (or airport, though I would have seen that I suspect), or a suburb that’s not showing up on the maps (St. Davids, PA also takes some fiddling to find on google maps for some reason). 2) I seem to recall the interviewer being based on or having some similarities to Wallace’s sister. I don’t know if that would have any geographical relevance here. The New Haven interview (and frequency of I95 corridor in the represented selection) suggests that this may be a student at Yale or some other northeastern university. The academic nature of the questions we infer that she asks along with the title does suggest a student, though this could also be a type of independent art or book project. (She does seem to have a good amount of disposable income.) The feeling I get from the Roswell interview is that this is a man she sat next to on a late flight into the Atlanta airport and whom she went home (or partying) with when she missed her connection.

UPDATE: It seems as if a mailing list has picked this up. Is it the old wallace-l list? I used to subscribe to it and was unable to join when I tried again.

UPDATE #2: I found it, and it was.

“Must of”

I’ve written about the apparently inexplicable use of homophonic spellings with this construction in dialogue in M. John Harrison and Cormac McCarthy before. Here’s another example from Wallace’s Brief Interviews: “The bastard even must of faked that call” (26).

I’m surprised that Wallace, of all the writers I’ve seen this in, didn’t think about this. Perhaps if he did, he had more a direct free indirect style justification for it.

Wallace’s “Death Is Not the End”

I’ve done some preliminary rummaging around on the internet for commentary on this short piece from Brief Interviews and have found little. The title appealed to people writing about Wallace after his death, I suppose, but I didn’t see much commentary on the story itself. (The archives of the wallace discussion list seemed to be closed to search engines, and I actually didn’t track that down and search the archives, which a good scholar would have done.)

Though the phrase is common, one possible source, given the main character’s profession, is William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, The Greeny Flower”:

I have learned much in my life
   from books
     and out of them

about love.
     is not the end of it.

If I were teaching this story, which I might in the fall, along with Oblivion, I would probably ask some leading questions about various ideas of artistic inspiration. The unworthy vessel of the body which breathes the air of genius, etc. The poet is clearly not meant to garner much sympathy from the reader (I seem to remember some shuddering remark about speedos from the cruise essay, for example, the footnote about the Guggenheim is realistic enough, but not inspirational). The crass materialism of the pool and the deck, combined with the aggressively low-middlebrowish reading material, suggest a very satisfied and complacent artist, who, according to prevailing interpretations (see the Cormac McCarthy interview I linked to in the last post, for example), is not, can not be, a good artist.

The final sentence of the story, which begins “It is the height of spring, and the trees and shrubbery are in full leaf and are intensely green and still,” shows sensory experience beginning to fold in of itself, producing ever-increasing abstraction, until at the end we have the kernel of another of the much-decorated poet’s Stevensian poems. All from a bloated suburban nightmare. (I say this somewhat mockingly, as I don’t really find the pool with its expensive Spanish tile to be very garish, though it’s hard not to see it that way within the context.)

The coy final footnote I think calls our attention to the fact that the thought so detailed will be inscribed into the form of the poem which will capture the thought-experience in appearance and suggestion. Another possibility is that the moment of increasing lucidity describes the poet’s death, but I don’t find that plausible. I think the immortality mentioned in the title is that of the words, poetry, art, in general, which is to be contrasted, inevitably, with the somewhat sordid (or at least banal) circumstances of its production.

Another difficulty is the narrator’s voice, which is unlikely to be confused with the poet’s. The detachment starts off from a great height, but, by the end, the narrator and the poet are very close, if not unified. Given Wallace’s interest in speaking with the dead (James Incandenza’s wraith, “Good Old Neon”), that might be another way of visualizing the level of access to the consciousnesses of the living possessed by the disembodied, an interesting metaphor in-and-of-itself for writing.

Shelby Foote’s Standards

This is from the NYT interview with Cormac McCarthy:

Saul Bellow, who sat on the committee that in 1981 awarded him a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, exclaims over his “absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences.” Says the historian and novelist Shelby Foote: “McCarthy is the one writer younger than myself who has excited me. I told the MacArthur people that he would be honoring them as much as they were honoring him.”

Shelby Foote was born in 1916. I had wanted to mock this when I started the post, but then I started running through a list of writers born after I was who I thought might excite me and it turned out to be much closer to zero than I had expected. Probably a lesson there.

The Legal Memo as Literary Genre

Can anyone think of a book which uses them almost exclusively? Real life has provided some very good models, as you know if you follow the news. I could imagine someone publishing the Yoo memos, as is, in chronological order, in 1997, and winning all relevant prizes.

I feel like there’s an obvious example, but I refuse to research it; and I know that one of my erudite readers will supply some examples, if they exist.

An Odd Gesture

In this revealing and sad New Yorker article on David Foster Wallace and his unfinished novel, D. T. Max writes the following:

Doug Hesse, a colleague, made the mistake of praising an essay of Wallace’s. “He did this gesture of wiping the butt with one hand and pointing to his mouth with the other,” Hesse remembers. “I learned really really quickly not to go beyond the equivalent of ‘How’s the weather?’ ”

Clancy, I believe, knows Doug Hesse and perhaps could ask him about this, but I’m not sure what this gesture was supposed to mean, exactly. On one hand, it seems like an open invitation to punch him in the mouth; but I get the feeling that it was done with a kind of self-deprecation. I’m reasonably sure I’ve never seen anyone do this in person.