Saturday, November 10, 2012

The New York Society Library

My blog post on this wonderful library

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bain or McBane?

Here is my take on the Presidential election--I think the phenomenon of people not voting their class interests, talked about in detail in Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas (and then parodied by people who pointed out, correctly, that millionaires on the Upper West Side also did not vote their class interests, has faded. Among people I talk to in New York, people in some way among the cognoscenti or the intellectual class, there has been a huge shift to Romney. In other words, people who one suspected of talking a left-wing game because it was socially au fait in new York while living their life in a much more, as it were, right wing way are now being fairly open about realigning their actual lifestyles and express political principles. And I think that, on the other hand, the sort of working-class whites who were the core of Hillary's support in 2008 and were at the most only reluctantly persuaded to vote for Obama are now much more firmly and enthusiastically in the Obama camp. That so much of the working class is now Latino has accelerated this renewed bonding with the Democrats, but just as I have seen some upper-crust demi-leftists shift to Romney, so I have seen those who perceive themselves as working stiffs lean towards Obama.  Whatever else the President has or has not achieved, he has made the Democratic Party the party, once again, of those who it ostensibly stands for. Whether this will be politically beneficial to him, we will see (I suspect, and hope, it will) but it is a clear break from the paradigm of the past thirty-forty years.

I have just been teaching Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition, where it is the old white of a fading patrician family. Mr. Delamere, who is the only Southern white to see the good points of an African American, whereas the worst offender in this regard is the non-elite Captain McBane. This was a common pattern--it was often the patrician whites who were the least racist, whereas the working-class whites, seeing people of color as potential rivals, were all the more fierce. I wonder if this historic pattern is changing, that the days of the benign if perhaps slightly hypocritical aristocratic white are over, and if in consequence there just might be genuine solidarity among the middle class,, and working class, of both races. If so it will take another fifty years to jell. But in this election Obama might well lose some of the votes from the better-off he won last time, and you perhaps are seeing that in the diminution of his lead in Connecticut as compared to last time, and so on.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Szentkuthy's Marginalia on Casanova

Today, ambition lacks nuance. Perhaps influenced by Americanization, world literary discourse traffics in gross superlatives, announces the next big thing, the cathartic breakthrough, in a declarative way that, as Paul de Man warned us in “Literary History and Literary Modernity, violates the way any true sense of innovation must exist in tense dialogue with the tradition it steps beyond. 

Even when rediscovering works from the past, there is often a frenetic, insistent quality on the greatness of these works, that they will alter the canon, that just as, fifteen years or so ago, it was proposed that Lake Champlain be considered the sixth Great Lake, so Proust, Joyce, Musil, Faulkner, Woolf will have to welcome somebody else to the club. This language, seeming to speak in the tones of aesthetics and culture, is merely hype and marketing veiled with a velvet glove. 

So I want to avoid this kind of hype when talking about the publication by Contra Mundum Press of Tim Wilkinson’s translation of the first volume of Miklós Szentkuthy’s  St. Orpheus Breviary, Marginalia on Casanova. But I think this is truly a seminal work, both because of the breadth of its range and the nuance and slyness whitch which it traverses this breadth. Szentkuthy reminds us that to be intellectually omnivorous is a wasted asset without a sense of irony; he is, in a sense, Arnold Toynbee as written by Henry James. He writes of the rise and fall of civilizations as if they were extended drawing-room conversations—that is to say in what James would consider a civilized way. Szentkuthy will unquestionably enter and alter the canon of twentieth-century literature as we know it. 

Szentkuthy--often known by his fans as SzM, bearing in mind that, as in Japanese, in Hungarian the last name precedes the first and his name was in fact Szentkuthy Miklós--was one of the youngest of the successive generations of Hungarian modernists that flourished between the wars. This period was no utopia—no one would confuse the regime of Admiral Miklós Horthy with anything resembling democracy or tolerance—but it was a time of true independence for Hungary, no longer in the uneasy condominium with Austria as it had been in the prewar years and infinitely more benign than the nearly half century of rigid Communist control that succeeded the second war and also was laden with the trauma of the Holocaust and its aftermath, which, as chronicled in the works of writers such as Imre Kertész, nearly annihilated and irretrievably dispersed the once-vibrant Hungarian Jewish community. In this era, Hungarian writers were genuinely modernist, much as was the case in Czechoslovakia—fully conversant with the Western European avant-garde and perhaps even exceeding them in self-conscious experimentation. In a sense, that the best-known cultural figures of this era from Hungary are composers like Bartók or Kodály who, albeit in a very intellectual way, used folk-motifs in their music. Although some Hungarian writers like Gyula Illyés were roughly analogous in their refracted populism, there were also figures like Szentkuthy who were rigorously intellectual, and highbrow even to the point of, as in the manner of Wallace Stevens, risking dandyism.  In his lifetime, Szentkuthy was best known for his 1934 Prae, still perhaps one of the most experimental works in the century, described by Zéno Bianu, in his introduction to the Contra Mundum edition, as a “completely fragmented narrative.” St. Orpheus Breviary was Szentkuthy’s epic riposte to this initial deconstruction, but as with all the truly worthwhile writers these epic assertions were questioned, called into doubt by Szentkuthy’s cognitive astute clowning, his deliberate refusal of his text’s overwhelming aspirations. Another factor came in here, though: Communism, whose iron grip prevented Szentkuthy from pursuing, or at least publishing, a work so obviously aesthetic and inutile in any banal sense. After doing five volumes of the Breviary in quick sequence, Szektkuthy paused. Instead, Szentkuthy wrote what seemed to be novelistic biographies, mainly of composers, but also of writers and artists. It is interesting that this was also the recourse of the Russian Formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum who presumably under Stalinist pressure renounced his linguistically provocative aesthetics and turned to a traditional biographical project on Tolstoy. Communism on the one hand would seem an unlikely correlate for the biographer, with its denial of individual agency in favor of the mass. But Eikhenbaum and Szentkuthy both turned to the form in order to delude and thwart their censors. Is there something Communist about biography?

The lead persona of the Breviary, St. Orpheus, (who presumably emerges more in the subsequent volumes)  is so obviously a non-traditional object of biography—a phantom, a composite, an untenable hybrid of classicism and Christianity, hagiography and sensual song. The fact that St. Orpheus is a concept as much as a person makes the Breviary different from the other twentieth century examples of the roman fleuve with which it might be compared—Proust,  Robert Musil, Anthony Powell (who was also interested in Casanova, Venice, and voyeurism). All of these,  despite their intense intellectuality, tell the life story of one person. Szentkuthy’s more essayistic approach uses different eras and motifs to illustrate fundamental, constitutive tensions in his work and in European identity—between classicism and Christianity, between Eastern and Western, European and Asian identities, between narcissism and altruism,  Enlightenment and romanticism, between a civilization and a barbarism that not only, as Walter Benjamin intuited, potentially co-author documents but also share virtues and flaws alike.

The entire series does not focus on Casanova; only this first volume. As such, it is difficult to tell the reader just what they might be getting. Casanova is associated with sexuality, with promiscuity, even if in a very intellectual mode. But this book is not at all titillating or prurient. Indeed, Szentkuthy’s intellectual is, as a Venetian, somewhat like Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach without the sex; a dilettante speculating on himself. And yet, we miss a huge part of this book if we do not realize that, even if Casanova puts the experience of sexuality several levels away from his persona, it is always there, always a reservoir underneath or noumenon above, the persona’s garrulous musings. He is (91) "life, not literature”. He is just out of touch with reality. He is "aware of the essence of love” but does not exemplify or embody it. He is “vegetative instinct” and “curious about variants in female personality", a curiosity as probing, inquisitive, as it is merely voyeuristic. Poised liminally between instinct and intellect, in Venice Casanova is also poised between land and sea, continent and island. Rome and Byzantium. (”'Venice in Byzantium’, that is as colorful a tautology as Venice in Venice”, 166). If to stand between pure sensuality and pure intellect is “the unluckiest spot in the world” (252), especially in a twentieth century that insists on annihilating all such independent stances that defy its insensate intellectual currents—it is at the very least a productive one for author, character and reader.

In this handsomely produced edition, the odd numbers are on the left side, the even-numbered pages on the right. The book begins with zero, as if to say, in the spirit of de Man, every beginning must try to be a new beginning even if it knows it ultimately cannot, that encrusted expectations must be jettisoned with each new read.  Without zero, nothing can exist. This can stand for how genuinely innovative—without, again, merely participating in the rhetoric of the large,  the ambitious, or even the revived classic—that this remarkable book is, and will be again and again on the many rereadings it merits. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Eastwood series

Given his recent prominence at the Republican convention, I should mention I am doing a three-part series on the films of Clint Eastwood at Grace Church, 802 Broadway, starting at 6:30 PM on September 13, 20, 27. The movies to be shown and then discussed afterwards are, in order, Pale Rider, Unforgiven, and Gran Torino. We will talk about them in terms of faith, spirituality, American identity (and deconstructions thereof) and gender issues. Famed legal and feminist scholar Drucilla Cornell will be joining me for at least one of the discussions (on the 27th). Admission is $10 and includes wine and popcorn. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Russian resonances

In reading (sadly, the late) Lindsay Hughes's biography of the Tsarevna Sophia Alexeyevna, the regent of Russia from 1682 to 1609, I am struck by how many names of political figures in this era turn up as named of Russian writers in the nineteenth century--in two chapters I have already encountered Tolstoi, Griboyedov, Saltykov. In all cases, I assume these are actual families of the writers; one also encounters a name like Medvedev that occurs in later history but, after all, it cannot be uncommon in Russia to be named after a bear. One would not see this in England: names such as, to do a rough comparison, Dickens, Shelley, and Meredith do not occur in political accounts of the Restoration period (and yes I deliberately threw in the aristocratic Shelley to make the comparison reasonable). This tells us, I guess, what we already knew, that Russia was a far more hierarchical, class-stratified society than England, but in a way it also tells us that there was more crossover between the political and literary spheres which may explain a lot about Russia.

As long as we are discussing things Russian, my mother is going to be part of a group art exhibition in Moscow later this year. Details to come.

Finally---is the Pussy Riot verdict the new Khovanshchina?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Russia and Syria

I am at a loss to understand Russian policy towards Syria. Whereas earlier it was rational, if hardly admirable, now it has become totally counterintuitive.  Russia has achieved the rare feat of seeming to be both anti-Israel and anti-Sunni Islam, by keeping afloat an inveterate enemy of Israel who has oppressed his own majority Sunni population for years. To do this to simply spite the Untied States is the action of a far smaller power than one assumes even a diminished post-Soviet Russia is. To act as the champion of Middle Eastern Christians, honorarily and absurdly extending that designation to the Alawites just because they are not Sunni? Shades of the Crimean War and ‘protecting the holy places’, and Russia was far more feared geopolitically then? Besides, the Assad regime stands as the moral opposite for all the Orthodox Church stands for. I have just been rereading The Brothers Karamazov and Father Zossima would certainly not approve. The entire idea, popularized by Samuel Huntington in the 1990s, that a post-Soviet Russia could find its geopolitical role as spearheading an orthodox population is preposterous. Bulgaria, Romania, Ethiopia all remember the Moscow-fostered oppressive regimes that brutalized them in the Cold War period. Despite what people said during the Kosovo war, the Serbia-Russia relationship has always been very distant (cf. book eight of Anna Karenina). I think the current Russian regime has somewhat offended Georgia, no? Armenia, in case you were wondering is not Orthodox in the strict sense (non-Chalcedonian) and of course most of the Christians actually in Syria as well. That is all a crock. There are all sorts of policy options for Russia in the Middle East, including a friendlier relationship with Israel (and Putin’s relatively friendly visit there recently was an interesting token, and of course the only Russian-speaking population in the Middle East today, side i guess from all the Russian advisers in Syria, is in Israel) but this bizarre association with Assad until death do them part is ruining these possibilities. So Russia is supporting an un-Christian regime loathed by Muslims and Jews. Not a winning policy. Turkey was originally against a regime change in Syria because it saw this possibility as helping the US too much, but, as in Libya, they realized their credibility with the broader arab world depended on a change in policy. Why has Russia not followed suit? In general, Russia and, perhaps even more surprisingly, China, are far too supportive of a host of regimes that will simply not be there in the medium-term future, that while we are all still active and vigorous will topple—Syria, Iran, North Korea. It is a losing strategy for them, and as unpopular as the US is in the Islamic world it has to be said that the US, inter alia, has had elements in its foreign policy favorable to Islamic peoples Russia and China simply have not—any popularity they have in this world is totally due to expediency and not due to any sense of shared values. Which is why Russia has very little room for maneuver….

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tempest, dance fllms, and pizza

Saw the movie of Des McAnuffs' production of The Tempest, starring Christopher Plummer, last night. I last night. I realized that when Miranda teaches Caliban the language she does so under Prospero's supervision: they are a two-person academic department, with Prospero as chair and Ariel as secretary. Alas, they would get terrible student evaluations from Caliban! I also felt as much as Prospero and Miranda despised Caliban they needed him for company, otherwise it would have just been a Robinson Crusoe scenario--there was a sociality in their tense relationship that this production brought out. This was the best production of the play I have ever seen in that they managed to embody the whole play rather than just making it a star turn for Prospero. Indeed one realizes how much Prospero is absent in the middle of the play, at first giving us a release from his at times overbearing authority, than once Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo start capering about we realize we need a little Prospero. In addition, the Caliban-Stephano-Trinculo alliance was, in a quasi-Marxist sense, a proletarian alliance of the subordinated of two worlds against their masters---which inevitably ends in tears among misunderstanding and ethnic strife. also, this production eschewed the obvious New World applicability of the play for a firmly Mediterranean Tempest--in the filmed talkback afterwards, Plummer showed he was thoroughly aware of the Aeneid allusions in The Tempest, and Caliban (Dion Johnstone) looked half like a Tuareg tribesman (I guess perhaps now a militant of Azawad) venturing onto the coast, half like a Green Man from the Barsoom books. The feminine-androgynous, shimmering-blue Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo) also had a science-fictional feel. But the focus was as much on the Neapolitan/Milanese characters as o the island’s weird transplanted denizens, and really for the first time I had a full sense of their relationships, motivations, and why there are so many people in the play Gonzalo especially emerged as salient for his sagacity and principle.

As opposed to other live simulcasts of theatrical performances I have seen, Plummer and McAnuff made clear this was a film of a performance, and was to be perceived as a film, albeit a quickly and inexpensively made one, and not just a mere transcription Coincidentally, the day before I had seen Richard James Allen and Karen Pearlman show several of their dance films, as well as two by other hands, at the Gibney space near Union Square. Pearlman and Allen made clear that they were not just dancing as such but dancing for film, that the body was put into the picture with the already-present intent of filmic mediation as a kind of third space. Thus they could d a Second Life-style simulation and not have to constitute a quantum difference from the more straightforward films of themselves dancing. This capacity of film to both convey and frame liveness (in Philip Auslander's use of the term) was evident in these two very different performances.

Finally, no account of my life in the past tow days could be complete without the triumphant tale of my at last  getting to eat at Nicoletta, the much-talked-about, super-chic pizzeria on the corner of Second and Tenth. As these pictures demonstrate it was more than worth the wait! It was delicious and utterly pleasurable,  and once one got in there the atmosphere was quite informal and comfortable. 

Friday, June 1, 2012


I vowed early on not to blog too much about sports, as aware that many who otherwise share interests with me lack my obsession, but tonight's extraordinary event--Johan Santana's pitching the first no-hitter in Met history...deserves mention. When I went  to  the Met conference at Hofstra month before last, the fifty-year futility of the franchise in his respect was a leitmotif. That the moment of deliverance has finally arrived is a real tonic for a franchise that has been star crossed by an abrupt ending to their 2006 playoff drive, traumatic collapses in 2007 and 2008, a series of injury-riddled, mediocre seasons, financial instability, bad karma--all of this negativity was lifted in an instant by Santana's extraordinary achievement. That it was done by such a special player, a Venezuelan lefthander of incredible agility and intelligence someone who has starred for two estimable franchises, the Mets and the Twins, who has come back from shoulder surgery of a sort that has severely damaged many careers, makes it even more worth it.

Sometimes pessimism is a concession to the realities of life, but more often pessimism is a burden, a residue of negativity with which we saddle ourselves The way Santana's achievement dispelled Met fans' pessimism is a good augury for how we should always assume that better possibilities are near. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Brechtian Imperative

(a slightly shortened version of this appeared in the printed program of the Eugene Lang College production of Judith of ShimodaMay 3-6, 2012)

     Judith of Shimoda---an adaptation by an exiled German of a Finn’s translation of a Japanese play about an encounter with Americans, translated into English-is irreducibly hybrid. Zishan Ugurlu’s production stretches this hybridity further into the performance, giving an extra dimension to the play that at once complicates it and aerates some of its density. And dense the play is. Not only does Brecht, as always, deliberately prevent full emotional entry into the play by his distancing devices, but the story is unobtrusively sly. It is not simply a Japanese Judith, a Judith of Shimoda. The Hebrew Judith stands up for her people as a national heroine, kills her male opposite number rather than placating him, and there is no hint in the Biblical account of anything but acclaim for her.  Okichi’s offense is not only to placate the enemy but to dissolve cultural barriers between "us” and “them;” that when she is reviled, the crowd vilifies her as “the Yankee Okichi” is no accident. Okichi is as much like La Malinche, who betrayed the Aztecs to Cortés, as Judith. Brecht’s tale is a subversive sequel to the Judith story that tells us not only its dark underside but the reality of how heroes can be despised for precisely the same qualities that exalt them.
      By using two Okichis for the two different eras of Okichi’s life, Ugurlu has dramatized the change in Okichi’s confidence and in her treatment by society. As I sat in on the audition and several rehearsals, I watched as Ugurlu elucidates the various talents of the cast, stitched them into the play, and then, at strategic moments, temporarily undid this stitching to let more of the actors’ real-life attributes into the fabric of the play. We are taught in the arts to take the measure of ourselves and then plunge straight into the discourse no more looking back on our ‘real’ selves than, to allude to another Biblical character, was Lot's wife encouraged to look back to the cities on the lain. By urging her actors to periodically replenish their characters with themselves, Ugurlu was interrogating the opposition between affective and performative, ego and scene. One of her periodic aperçus during this process was “Brecht and Stanislavski”, which I first heard as an opposition (Stanislavski the advocate of identification, Brecht of distancing) but later understood as a linkage. Both thinkers, by different means, were rending the distinction between inner and outer.
   Theater people often caution against overacting, and this process was no exception to that. But even more striking was how the actors were never allowed to fall into the prosaic, to make an abstention from histrionics into a pallid ordinariness. The compelling moments of high drama in Judith of Shimoda stand out aghast a baseline that it already catalyzed and quickened. Even in the sinews of the rehearsal process, one saw the Brechtian imperative to assume nothing, to be perennially both self-conscious and daring. Eugene Lang College production

Monday, May 7, 2012

Feathered Friends

Company SoGoNo's dance piece “Bird Suite,” which I saw at Triskelion Arts in Williamsburg on Sunday, April 30, is not just interested in using birds as a metaphor. Bird Suite gets into the birdiness of birds, their feathery idiosyncrasies, their beauty and strangeness. The piece, choreographed by Tanya Calamoneri, presents, not an abstract but a highly concrete idea of what birds are.  Birds represent the heights of our lyric inspiration, but also an essential inhumanity. As someone who lives with both cats and birds, I can easily anthropomorphize my cats; birds are a distant, different matter. 

 Photo Credit: Nicholas Birns    I am amazed by how little I noticed birds before I had birds myself, and how much I notice them now, how alert I am for all manifestations of the avian. We cannot look down on birds. We cannot look down on them both because they are above us physically and because they can do the one thing we cannot naturally do: fly. (We can swim much more than fly, we can keep up with the fish in their motion a lot more than with the birds). No wonder poets such as Keats and Hardy used birds as symbols of attaining notes of concord we cannot reach yet embodying a fundamentally different consciousness.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Heller “Bird Suite” starts out with ”Hatch”, in which four performers, Erin Cairns Cella and Christine Coleman, Dages Juvelier Keates and Mariko Endo Reynolds, d wear blue, feathery costumers, including fluffy blue headdresses, and are hunched over as if about to hatch out of an egg. Raucou bird calls emanate from above as the birds stretch out of their feathered pods of origin.  So compact and controlled were their bodies I had difficultly believing these were people at first, or at least anything but small children, but the dancers’ ability to conceal and unfold was convincing of the action of birds and their ability to foreground or camouflage themselves, to crouch or unfurl, to be self-sufficient or self-advertising, depending on the circumstances and on their whims. First cocooned, then gloriously spread out the blue birds established a tone at once fun, weird, and captivating. Lithe and portable, animated yet supine, the dancers in “Hatch” evoked ideas of motion existing amid stillness. The four dancers squat, extend, contort, gyrate, bespeaking both the necessity, the contingency, and, finally, the insufficiency of motion. As T. S. Eliot put it in “Burnt Norton”: After the kingfisher's wing/ Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still.”
          All the performers are female, raising the question: Why are girls likened to birds? Perhaps it is their voices? I cannot see any other reasons why birds are more female than male. If anything, my male parakeet sings more concertedly than his female counterpart. It is probably, indeed, a comment on the way the identities of women, more than those of birds, are culturally constructed. Indeed, ‘Bird Suite”, if it wanted to, could have gone into issues of gender as well as language, and Calamoneri’s previous work such as “The Art of Memory” has been cogent in its intellectuality, but Calamoneri and the SoGoNo performers preferred to concentrate on the spectacle, the phenomenology, of birds themselves, leaving, of course, these sorts of inferences to be drawn from them. 
Photo Credit: Julie Lemberger, Adam Amengaul
     Different parts of the suite had different emphases. “Catbird Sonata” performed by Heather Harpham, emphasized the lyricism of birds, the way they are torch singer’s vocalists: sound over shape.
Photo Credit: Julie Lemberger
“Aviary,” a solo performance by Cassie Tunick, solicited images of freedom and captivity associated with birds; at one point, Tunick holds a cage up to the audience, reminding us how we imprison birds ostensibly as a way of nurturing them even as we celebrate birds as a major trope for untrammeled liberty. The surface red eroticism of “Flamingo”, performed by Cella and Keates, with its overt references to Las Vegas showgirls, contrasted with the subtler yet dapper white eroticism of “Ain't No Swan Lake,” performed with both dazzle and understatement by Coleman. Keates, Reynolds, Cella, and Soraya Odishoo, who also did the sound design for the piece. Just as the White Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass ends up being more alluring then the red, near-narcissistic perfection became more exciting than gaudiness. But the red might perhaps have the advantage of greater discursivity, bringing issues out into the open.
           Even before the overt references to “Swan Lake” and “The Firebird” I had thought of classical ballet, how different a form it was from what we were seeing here, with its modern, postmodern, and Asian influences, yet also how the two forms were, at a distance, comparable, measurable across the same spectrum. Why the birds/ballet connection? Why do at least two major ballets center around birds? For one thing, birds are natural performers. They are decorative, elaborate, flamboyant, strutting their stuff. In both voice and appearance, birds cry out for attention. They also, as far s land-base creatures are concerned, have unusual forms, do strange things with their bodies: birds as residual, Lilliputian dinosaurs, cold-blooded others, which our bodies at their most trained and prehensile can only faintly approximate. The dancers were so good, so exhilarating, they at times defied gravity, but we will always be more bound to the earth than our feathered friends.
   Photo Credit: Adam Amengual (for both)   The lighting ofAndy Dickerson, the music that included original compositions by Odishoo and Danny Tunick as well as recorded songs, and the costumes by Mioko Mochizuki all added to the delightful and pertinacious quirkiness of “Bird Suite.” The costumes were especially good at addressing the difficult question of how faithful, how 'mimetic' humans in bird costumes should be? Should they try to 'be’ birds as much as possible, or, to refer to T S. Eliot again, should they be like the cats in “Cats,” who, whatever their virtues are in no danger of being mistaken for a cat even by the most dimwitted dog or rat. The costumes here, on the other hand, avoided silly approximation or caricature in going at least halfway in making the performers look like birds, certainly suggesting the extravagance, the vulnerability, the otherness that we see when we see birds.
       There is joy, fun, glamour irreverence here; but also a serious effort to understand the mystery of birds, to use human bodies in performance to reflect in what it must be like to be a bird. The Triskelion space added to the enjoyment by its placing the audience in proximity to the dancers and with ideal sight lines. But it is still good that "Bird Suite” should be seen again at a larger space in Manhattan this fall! I highly recommend it; this is the kind of dance piece I would see angina and again to appreciate Company SoGoNo’s winning comprehension of the incomprehensibility of birds.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Unfinished 19th c novels, African Solutions?

What is it with the African solutions to TV versions of unfinished Victorian novels? In the recent TV adaptation of Edwin Drood, the reunited Edwin and Rosa go off to Egypt just as Molly and Roger in Wives and Daughters TV version went off to somewhere that looked like either Darfur or the adjoining areas of Chad to find domestic bliss. It is all slightly facile and neo-colonialist, though it does not mean to be. It is as if the social problems of Victorian England can be solved merely by exporting them to a colonial blank space" which of course is not at all blank in reality. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Lit theory course description fall 2012

 The rise of literary theory has been the most exciting development on literary studies in the past half-century; yet it is also one of the most challenging, the most controversial, and the most poorly understood.  This course seeks to give a map of the main currents of contemporary theory. Why did theory come about? Who was ‘for’ it and ‘against’ it? What kinds of texts does theory explain, and how does it explain them? Does theory diversify our view of literature or does it impose a monolithic prism? Is theory for those who love literature or those who hate it? What does it say about whether literature is made ‘for’ entertainment, philosophical edification, or both? We will read  Percy Lubbock, George Orwell, Cleanth Brooks,  Roman Jakobson, Wayne Booth,  Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  and Gayatri Spivak to see what they, and we, have to say about these questions. We will also read three very different novels, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, R. Zamora Linmark's Rolling the Rs, and Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding to see how primary texts bear theoretical scrutiny and also ask questions of theoretical formulations 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Anthony Powell's What's Become of Waring

In mid-March I had a whirlwind visit to London to address a special meting of the Anthony Powell Society, held at the Conference Room, St James Piccadilly where I worshipped the next day. (Enjoyed it, but still have not found my perfect London church after trying at least seven parishes). I also had the special treat of taking a long train (from London Paddington to Westbury in Wiltshire) and taxi trip (driver, the amiable J. S. Grey) out to the Chantry, near Frome, Somerset, where Anthony Powell lived for the last forty-eight years of his life, and being warmly hosted by his son John, who with his older brother Tristram is now the custodian of his father's legacy, and who showed me all manner of Powell papers and artifacts, as well as giving me At Lady Molly's in German, which I somewhat surprisingly am able to read with facility. (Funniest line: “Der Verlobte war Widmerpool.”)

The focus of my talk was Powell's work aside from A Dance to the Music of Time, and we particularly discussed Powell's five short, comic pre-war novels. Of these, What's become of Waring (1939) has always seemed the most difficult to place, partially because as many critics---most recently and cogently Michael Henle in his 2003 Balliol talk--have pointed out, certain of its traits--the first person narration the greater sense of intellectuality--seem to resemble Dance more than the other four 1930s novels. The narrator’s taste for Stendhal, on whom he moots writing a treatise, Stendhal, Or Some Thoughts on Violence, seems more in the manner of a Nick Jenkins than the "Jenkins manqués" who have populated the earlier books: Zouch, Lushington, Atwater, Blore-Smith. Moreover, several characters appear who seem to have direct inks to character in  Dance: Hugh Judkins, the narrators boss at the publishing firm for which he works , Judkins & Judkins (Which Judkins do you prefer? Judkins, emphatically) .is, like Daniel Tokenhouse in Dance, modelled partially on Thomas Balston, Powell's boss at Duckworth in the 1930s. (Perhaps unconfidently, this novel was the only one of the 1930s books not published by Duckworth, a firm that Powell had left the year before) The Manasses in chapter 4 appear to be linked with Rosie Manasch in Dance as Manasses and Manasch are both forms of Manasseh, the older brother of Ephraim in the Bible. (In other words a Jewish name is obviously meant; my late friend the poet Samuel Menashe would want me to observe that his surname had this etymology as well). The séance scene is premonitory of that in The Acceptance World. Yet in form and execution the book is very much in the métier of its compeers and Powell himself said, in Messengers of Day, that he felt his style was getting it a rut and that it would have to change, the impact of war accelerating perhaps but not fundamentally altering the inevitable process.

I feel the character of "Tiger' Hudson--bluff, verbal but not intellectual, likable--is in an way of the ancestor of the kinds of people Jenkins befriends in Dance--Jenkins befriends people who share some of his traits but not all of them. Also, Hudson's breakup with Roberta Payne only to get together with Beryl Pimley is the reverse of what Zouch does in From A View with Joanna Braddon and Mary Passenger and this is a point on his behalf. Hudson is one of the factors that, to my mind, make the book so sunny. This heralds one of the principle pleasures of Dance: Jenkins's multitude of diverse friends and his talent for friendship. 

Though Powell says that whenever he reread the book he felt the unease of the last ominous months before war, I have a completely different reaction; the book seems sunny, summery. It is less sinister than Agents and Patients or From A View to a Death; the greatest villainy is literary fraud. The book has the shimmering, comic lightness of some of Shakespeare’s breezier comedies, where an underlying melancholy gives backbone to some diverting plot-strands and intriguing scenes.

T. T, Waring's fraudulence--the fact that this acclaimed, mysterious young travel-writer is not who he seems (I am not giving away the plot; though I do in Understanding Anthony Powell)--is surely some sort of comment on some innate fraudulence either in the publishing industry the writers of AP's own generation, or both. (Stephen Holden, who alas was ill during my visit, was to serve as my interlocutor on these issues; I hope to resume this conversation hopefully in a London pub meet). Waring's portrait of a writer of Powell’s own age group, and the compromises that writer has made ot achieve success, seem undoubtedly to be some sort of early mid-life self-assessment on Powell's part. The famous lines at the end, to the effect that everyone in the book wants power, tacitly exempts the narrator, or at least implies that he wants a different sort of power; the power of a writer who, like Powell--as I reflected as my taxi from the Chantry drove me back to Westbury--had both subtlety and integrity.

Believe it or not, this is not my first copy of What's Become of Waring--that alas was lost many years ago-but it has clearly served its years, as musty and foxed as any book languishing on the inventory shelves of Judkins & Judkins. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Impromptu Haiku

Inspired by the Berenice Abbott photos on the 7th floor of the New School's A building, I wrote an impromptu haiku:

Blanched modernist dreams
plangently out of synch with
dead gleaming present

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Inefficiencies of Neoliberalism

An incident at my bank today made me wonder: are we, with respect to neoliberalism, in the period equivalent to 'the era of stagnation' in the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union? So much attention has been focused on the injustice of what the French Left sardonically calls la pensée unique that little emphasis has been laid on its inefficiency. It does not even, within its own terms, work. Information that should be far more efficiently available is often delayed or misplaced entirely; transaction that should be fungible must be done in a specific location; physical presence is often required when a virtual presence would be fine. Neoliberalism seems compatible with digital culture and virtual realities when it is simply a matter of cost-saving; when it comes to maximizing these channels to make the world more truly efficient and productive, it fails. It fails, one suspects, because neoliberalism, for all its rhetoric of empowerment is in fact deeply hierarchical and dedicated to disempowering people, and it is forced into an inefficiency that, as in the case of the Soviet Union, will end up dooming it because to open things up even slightly would give the excluded access to the tools of power that they do not currently have, and thus, for neoliberalism, finish the whole game. 

Neoliberalism also thinks that regarding every relationship economistically will not inflect the future of that relationship that a human being can come under purely economic regard by another human being, whether or not representing an institution, and have the previous relationship restored when the economic interest is no longer there. Instead, regarding people economistically shatters any anterior connections of social capital, decimates any previous emotional or attitudinal investments. It is like sowing a field with salt; there will be no new growth. And in this way, every time neoliberalism makes a human relationship purely economic, it is condemning that relationship to permanent inefficiency. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Hunger Games

     I finally, over a period of ten days or so, read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy (actually I read them interspersed with a reread off Gibbon's Decline and Fall... which made it even more interesting). I really liked them: not for the style, which is unremarkable, but for the plot and ideas--and yes, novels can be good-plot no-style and make a contribution just as a ballplayer can be good-field no-hit and do so. I was intrigued by the clear American Idol metaphor, which obviously has really reached today's generation of children. Kids today are so suffused with competitiveness, whose injunctions to "race to the top," to do well in school as training for adult jostling for money, status, sex, power, all seen in the most quantifiable, calculated terms, much as it is very clear who is the winner or loser in the Hunger Games. I think Laura Miller's analysis really falls short in not understanding that what motivates this sort of response among readers of  Collins's trilogy are the fundamental inequalities of neoliberalism, not just a frisson of danger in an overprotected world that, as describes by Miller only describe the most privileged of today's children.

It is interesting to think about the readership of the book, in that, in line with a predominant trend of recent years, it is more female than male, and is perhaps the final seal in the undoing of the stereotype that males like science fiction and fantasy, female readers realistic, domestic narrative. The combination of hairstyles and outfits with hand-to-hand street fighting, and a strong female protagonist Katniss  Everdeen, who is highly principled and energetic, speaks to a further undoing of the gender binary in fiction readership that to an extent has been there since the eighteenth century In teaching Eighteenth Century Fiction at Lang last term, and discussing the differently gendered readerships of, say, Fielding and Richardson--, I mentioned this syndrome--the new female readership or genres such as sf,  fantasy, historical fiction, military fiction that used ot be exclusively male--and suggested that it represented a 'solution' to issues that had clustered around the novel form since its inception.

Of course, one of Collins’s points is that all the strands that go into the Hunger Games--fashion, war, sports--are various kinds of spectacles, media events, and Collins captures very well her fictional dystopia of Panem's employment of the 'society of the spectacle'. One of the most moving moments in Mockingjay, the third book, is when Beetee from District 3 manages to override the Capitol's propaganda machine and inert counter-propaganda, so it becomes a mode of dueling spectacles, dueling media articulations. Also interesting is the highly 'postmodern' way that the Panem government is at once strengthened and weakened by this media spectacle it uses the Hunger Games to chastise and admonish its victims, but also creates a kind of media fiction that can to a certain extent be 'gamed,' as Katniss and Peeta do by threatening to ingest the berries (a very romantic, Pyramus and Thisbe style moment at the end of the first book, but also a manipulation of the frame of the Hunger games against their devisers).

Subjectively, I liked The Hunger Games much better than Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (and find Katniss far more tolerable as a heroine than Lyra). For one thing, it read easily and was exciting, whereas Pullman's trilogy was very ponderous, burdened not only by his leaden, polemical anti-Christianity but also by his apparent belief that hoary schemata such as the neo-medieval alternate history frame were at all original. I liked The Hunger Games about the same as I did the harry Potter books, but the feel was very different. For one thing, the Harry Potter books had a strong sense of the tug of tradition and were in many ways a testimony to the power of tradition and its institutions, even if these we 'of magic The Hunger Games has none of this, no nostalgia in its future-verse for our own world or certainly for the ancient Roman world it evokes (more on that later0 but hardly sees as idyllic or sustaining. Secondly, I, as a reader, was constantly distracted when reading Harry Potter by my knowledge of Rowling's sources or allusions; obviously, this is not a problem for the primary reader but if not a problem, is certainly at the very least a readerly effect for the secondary reader. In contrast, The Hunger Games read seamlessly. Of course, I thought of other authors--Collins's statement (that she took inspiration fro the story of Theseus and the Minotaur (which I would not have seem unless she had said it) made me think of Mary Renault--further afield, but palpably there, were China Miéville with his use of mutation as a metaphor for social oppression and renewal (the mockingjay as mutated, positively viewed animal could come right out of Perdido Street Station) and Stephen R. Donaldson with his self tormenting protagonists, of which Katniss is a worthy successor. The surname of Katniss Everdeen made me think of Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Hardy' Far From The Madding Crowd---Katniss is far more admirable than Bathsheba, but both are at the center of a love triangle, and Hardy's somber vision is not far from Collins's. But these literary reverberations were not distracting; and whereas Harry Potter was in a sense a tribute (I guess a loaded word in a Hunger Games context) to the very possibility of allusion, The Hunger Games is far more interested in just telling the story. 

The Roman theme is obviously a major one in Collins's trilogy. I like the way Collins waits to explain the origin of the name Panem in the phrase panem et circenses (she does not identify Juvenal as the coiner of this phrase, although she does mention that it was an individual; presumably Juvenal is too nasty even for a dark fantasy, which would have delighted him). But, importantly, she does tell the reader where Panem comes from; she does not just let only the knowing in on the origin. This is a very democratic use of allusion that is empowering to the reader.

Generally when sf/fantasy books evoke Roman themes, there are three valences. One is the 'decline and fall' topos (which made my rereading of Gibbon’s book so apropos) that uses the Roman metaphor to talk about the collapse of an often-unjust empire--the basic conceit of Collins's trilogy is 'the Christians in the catacombs versus the Romans in the forum.’ A second, related, aspect is an idea of America as Rome, a long-established metaphor in American culture recently explored by Cullen Murphy, and certainly Collins's Panem, in so many ways a direct extrapolation of the America of our own time (as some online commentators have noted, no other nation in the Panem universe is ever mentioned) is not far from the writer’s present. But a third aspect is the ready availability of Roman nomenclature to serve as a familiar but other tongue, a different sound, an alternate register. Thus the names in the book are not everyday, but also not totally unfamiliar--Seneca Crane, Plutarch Heavensbee, and perhaps most ingeniously Cinna the stylist. 

As the reader can tell, I got very into these books. My one qualm is about the ending of the third book. (Spoiler alert.) I had no qualms about the death of Prim; that is just narrative technique--modifying an essentially happy ending by someone beloved dying at the end--as was the denouement of the marriage plot, Gale obviously being St John Rivers to Peeta's Mr. Rochester. Mot difficult aspect of this sort of book is the transition into a new order--partially because there are such incongruities of scale between the individual effort of our point-of-view characters and the social change prerequisite to or at least concomitant with such an upheaval. For my money, I would much rather have had Coin succeed Snow--notwithstanding her severity and coldness--but then again I spent eight months volunteering for Hillary Clinton, her obvious model, just as George W Bush, one of whose press secretaries was named Snow, is an obvious model for her predecessor. Coin is imperfect, but it is the "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" syndrome--in a fallen world, even the good authorities will have structural resemblance, as political actors, to the bad ones. It is not Collins’s fault that she finds this dilemma difficult to negotiate; it is a problem of the genre; but the metamorphosis of Katniss into an assassin is stretching it a bit. I understand, though, that Collins did not want Katniss to become an 'official' or 'state' figure, and desire dot render her triumph a private one.  And of course, no matter who else dies, Buttercup the annoying but indestructible cat (reminds me of some I have known :) ) must survive...

In its infectious readability and its ability to spin an engrossing tale, The Hunger Games provides rich entertainment; in its serious critique of the way our values have run amok, it may well represent a moral turning point.