Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Borges In The USA

Borges In The USA

(my parody of Miley Cyrus, Party In The USA, conceived while working on a guest lecture on Jorge Luis Borges's US literary reception).

Stumble off the plane at Buffalo
Blind and in a suit-and-tie
Welcome to the land of chicken wings
Am I going to get by?

Got to my lecture,
Gnomic works the first time.
My amanuensis tells me of the Buffalo Bills sign,
Working on my English diction
The avatar of metafiction

Jet-lagged they think I have a llama
Where in the world is Maria Kodama?
That’s when I went to the seminar
And they were parsing a Kafka text
And they were parsing a Kafka text
And they were parsing a Kafka text

So I take questions
On paper slips
And the alienation kicks away
Sphinxlike gaze like yeah
Oracular tone like yeah
Inaudible enigma,
Flavor of the month
And my canonicity is yea.
SÍ, Sí, Sí, it's Borges in the USA.
SÍ, Sí, Sí, it's Borges in the USA.

Lionized, philosophized,
Hailed as the precursor of flarf,
Mooned over by Harold Bloom,
Paul de Man and John Barth.

Ronald Christ and Jaime Alazraki,
Norman Thomas Di Giovanni,
This is not a Calle Florida party
All I see are critics
Why'd I have to be this cryptic?

Jet-lagged and treated like the Dalai Lama.
Where in the world is Maria Kodama?
That's when I went to the seminar
On The Babel library
On The Babel library
On The Babel library

So I take questions
On paper slips
And the alienation kicks away
Sphinxlike gaze like yeah
Oracular tone like yeah
Inaudible enigma
Flavor of the month
And my canonicity is yea.
Sí, Sí, Sí, it’s Borges in the USA.
Sí, Sí, Sí, it's Borges in the USA.

Feel like escaping to Tlön
Or seeking out a compass death
But I am hailed as a postmodern riddler
And I draw one more metaphysical breath

So I take questions
On paper slips
And the alienation kicks away
Sphinxlike gaze like yeah
Oracular tone like yeah
Inaudible enigma,
Flavor of the month
And my canonicity is yea.
SÍ, Sí, Sí, it’s Borges in the USA.
SÍ, Sí, Sí, it's Borges in the USA.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Was my vote for de Blasio not counted?

The vote count for the Sep 10 New York mayoral Democratic primary  on the New York Times web site, premised on 99 percent of the vote being counted.  shows no votes for De Blasio in that precinct and 55 for Quinn--but I voted for de Blasio as did at least one other person in my building. Given that the neighboring precincts were all carried by De Blasio, it seems very odd that Quinn is carrying this precinct by such an overwhelming margin and De Blasio has no votes, particular;y when I know I voted for de Blasio. This does not inspire confidence in the system; next time, I am using an absentee ballot. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Two Readings by me in NYC, October

Dear friends, i would like to alert you to two readings/talks of mine to be held in prominent Manhattan locations in October. On October 8, I will be speaking on Anthony Trollope's Phineas Finn and the Bildungsroman, at the Center for Fiction (formerly the mercantile Library), 17 East 47th st. Tickets can be ordered by clicking on this link

On October 25  from 6 to 8 pm, there will be a reception at the Instituto Cervantes, 211 E. 49th St., for my latest-co-edited book (co-edited with Juan E. De Castro and Will H. Corral). Light refreshments (wine and cheese) will be served and admission is free.

Hope to see you at one or both of those!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Anglosphere, The Internet, and the Special Relationship

We have all been reading about the perceived decline of the US-British special relationship because of the UK parliament not approving force in Syria.

I think something different is happening. After the Internet began, people across the English-speaking world, reached out to each other, found common interests, suddenly found aspects of literature and culture until then strictly national had become international. Both my work on Anthony Powell and my Australian work could not have happened in quite the same way without the Internet and the way it made people aware of cultural priorities and discourses in their own language.

This may be what happened with Latin America and Spain, as Juan de Castro chronicled in the last chapter of THE SPACES OF LATIN AMERICAN LITERATURE. In the 1990s, after the Internet, the valuation of Spain in Latin America became much higher, to the point where it seemed all Latin America was 'happening' in Spain, the Madrid newspaper EL Pais became the place to read about Latin American literature,      
I think after a time this reached a saturation point; the channels were no longer new. Also, translation software becoming better, and an increased interesting and desire for translation to avoid a perceived parochialism of the Anglophone, kicked in. In a sense it is as if people perceived not just the closeness of Bush and Blair but the 'Anglosphere' that was touted as an ideological satisfaction for the US, Britain, Australia, acting in concert in Iraq, as responsible for what went wrong there; so after the Iraq debacle there was a greater interest in translations, in multilingualism.

So I think this, not any quirks of President Obama or Prime Minister Cameron or Ed Miliband, as has been mooted in the press, is really the backdrop here. The relationship of the US and UK is as it has always been--with great commonalities of culture and outlook, with fundamental loyalty, but with national interests that do not always square. It is the hype of Anglophone unity that occurred after the first impact of the Internet that was the exception?

 I think similarities in can be seen in the Spanish speaking world. (The Francophone and Lusophone worlds were so recently political unities the same issues do not apply there I think).

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Discus Throw and the Public Sphere

Yunus Tuncel, Agon in Nietzsche. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press 2013. $29.00, ISBN 978-0-87462-823-4 271 pp. + index.

This new book by my New School colleague Yunus Tuncel is the most authoritative and revelatory study of the concept of agon in Nietzsche so far. In his previous book, Towards a Genealogy of Spectacle, Tuncel, within a more general discussion of spectacle,  went into ancient sports and competitions in themselves; here, he concentrates on their manifestation in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche; along with the recent work of Herman Siemens, this is the major study of the subject. . Nietzsche used agon to represent an active spirit of conflict that for Nietzsche avoided the sterilities of bourgeois transcendence, including not just modernity and Christianity but the givens of the very classical philology in which Nietzsche had trained. 
            Agon, meaning conflict, is emblematically tied to Nietzsche’s thought and all subsequent uses of it—such as Harold Bloom’s in the influence books, are thoroughly Nietzschean. (I remember smiling when I saw that Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence had been translated into Modern Greek, with anxiety being rendered agonia). But it is often misinterpreted as simply meaning conflict or competition. Tuncel argues that agon is not a universalization of war, a rendering of all phenomena in the spirit of a Schmittian ‘state of emergency,’ but rather a “transfiguration of war.” (91) It is interesting to note that (unlike in the twentieth century) the Olympic games went on for the entire course of the Peloponnesian War, though Sparta was banned from the 89th Olympiad, shades of more recent Olympic boycotts. Even as nearly every city-state in the Greek world took one or another side, the contest that existed in a “chiasmatic relation” (91) to war — both like and unlike it — held steady.
For Tuncel, agon is not indeed so much about one-on-one combat but about multiplicity: as expressed in polytheism, human-animal hybridity (as seen in the metamorphoses and apotropaic totmes of Greek mythology, art, architecture), and the differing political configurations (monarchies, tyrannies, oligarchies, democracies) that coexisted within the overall umbrella of Greek culture. Tuncel, following Nietzsche, does not romanticize agon, reminding us that most of the games the Greeks played were “cruel and violent” (70). Indeed, latent throughout Tuncel’s exposition is a link between agon and agony, the arena of athletic competition and the amphitheater of tragic drama being the two public spaces where contests took place that resembled war but in the aforementioned chiasmatic relation.
            Yet if athletics was a way to have physical combat, and all its frightening, dynamic, and cathartic implications, in a clearing-space outside of war with its literal life-and-death struggle, agon is not just diversion, and despite its similar contrastive qualities, is very different from ‘play’ in the Derridean sense. Early on in Thucydides, we find the historian's great rendering of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, where the Athenian statesman raises the richness of Athenian culture (as opposed to Spartan) by saying that Athenians have meaningful leisure time, they have space in their life for sports and games, that while still able to perform well in war, war is not their life as opposed to the regimen of Sparta.  Yet Pericles was still seeing athletic contest as meaningful to society.  Whereas today, sports, for all people’s involvement with them, is a form of ’getting away from it all’ and, importantly, a place where, in the US for instance, Democrats and Republicans can find common ground talking about the World Series, and so on. In the ancient world, sports did not mean getting away from it all; it meant taking an irreducible sense of conflict and struggle and, in the deepest sense of the word, aestheticizing it. This is why, if we take stock of what truly mattered to the Greeks, Pindar (a poet extensively mentioned by Tuncel in both books) becomes nearly as important as Homer.
       Just as sports and political consequences were not cordoned off from each other, the same was true of sex. The recent headlines generated by the coming-out of basketball player Jason Collins as a gay man demonstrate how sports has been seen as a sex-free zone, that what goes on within the arena is for us as asexual as it is apolitical. For the Greeks, on the other hand, male sexuality, at least, was very much in play, and part of the drama of agon is its partaking not just of the energies of war but those of sexuality, of bodies in close juxtaposition to each other, soliciting both Eros and Thanatos.
          Nietzsche valued these aspects because, for him, even as agon demonstrated individual excellence and jutted out against the herd mentality he discerned in modern mass movements, he did not want unfettered individuality, and the famous Apollonian-Dionysian dyad of his early masterwork The Birth of Tragedy was an attempt to corral the individual within a more implicated and nuanced sphere of mystery and desire. In the later work, Nietzsche embodies agon more formally: in his practice of aphorism (emulated vigorously by Tuncel) where each saying is a thrust or parry, an invitation to contest. Tuncel's discerning of agon in the very technique of aphorism places a different cast on many of Nietzsche’s later utterances. Rather than pronouncements spoken authoritatively, they are invitations to dialogue: we can disagree with them just as we could, in theory, have striven to throw the discus further than the athlete depicted in the Myron statue. Tuncel illuminates what puzzles the modern reader about the later Nietzsche, that maxims of rapier cogency are interspersed with seemingly preposterous statements. Nietzsche is not closing out a game but beginning it. In taking Nietzsche seriously, we can say—as was said in a very different context—“Credo quia absurdam.”
           Tuncel is an embodied thinker; his thought is lived out in the page. Though philosophically rigorous, his prose sparkles with wit, sprezzatura, and an earned sense of the tentative. My one reservation about the book is there are times he contradicts his own insight, discussed above, and hews too closely to a “Nietzsche” line. For instance, Tuncel says, that, unlike ‘the modern world, for the ancient Greeks spectacle was an event within the larger world of the festival”; one could riposte that Bakhtin saw carnival, certainly at least analogous to the festival as an (early) modern phenomenon, and contemporary instances of spectacles, like rock concerts, are often surrounded by festivals, whether spontaneously at Woodstock or more concertedly at Lollapalooza or the Lilith Fair or Bonnaroo, or even something like Burning Man; all of these are attempts to revive some sort of festival spirit. The difference is, presumably, the state does not sponsor these; but should the state sponsor them? When it is a macro-state, not a city-state, do we really want these things to be so public, so part of the polity? This leads to the other area where Tuncel is too Nietzschean: though not at all sharing Nietzsche’s utter disdain for democracy, explicable in his own contest as a gesture of disdain for bourgeois modernity and false transcendence, he does say that “such concepts as democracy” exist “only on the surface” (234). I would prefer the views of two thinkers Tuncel cites, Chantal Mouffe and Lawrence Hatab, that we can have both Nietzschean ontological pluralism and a ramified democratic commonwealth; though certainly one wants to shy against any dismissal of thinkers just because they do not wholly endorse the particular version of democracy certain countries have now, an error often made when thinkers such as Schmitt, Heidegger, Nietzsche are discussed in general-interest periodicals. Thinkers comparable to Nietzsche—Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, William James, and even the not-exactly populist-Huysmans, Pater, Leopardi, Ortega, Unamuno, Croce—were able to assert idiosyncrasy and celebrate wayward excellence without resorting to explicitly antidemocratic rhetoric as the centerpiece of these assertions. Just as agon simulates war while integrating war’s psychological truth, cannot it also, as it were, simulate democracy while integrating democracy’s psychological truth? In addition, Nietzsche’s agonism can only be sharpened by juxtaposition with quite non-agonistic thinkers such as Tolstoy or, in a different way, Dostoyevsky, who though hardly ‘democrats' in a literal sense did affirm mutuality with the same dignified determination that Nietzsche affirmed radical individualism while jettisoning mere egoism or even subjectivity or voluntarism as we usually employ the terms. An individualism that leads to the Overhuman is, as Tuncel points out, qualitatively different from a narrow and expedient selfishness.
        Tuncel concludes by examining what forces dispelled agon in the late ancient world, and comes up with two: medicine and mime.  Medicine asserted its authority over the body, a clinical and taxonomic one as opposed to the experiential mode of athletics; mime made agon into mere entertainment (as also is thought to have generally occurred with respect to tragic drama). Although the arc of this analysis is Nietzschean—as antiquity lengthened, false transcendence obtruded and fractured dynamic being—the research and insights are specific to Tuncel. Ideally, one might look to Foucualt to address these questions, and indeed the medical and embodiment issues Tuncel brings up solicit both Foucault’s eaerly work on madness and the clinic and his later work on the history of sexuality.
           Nietzsche’s thought is itself agonic, invites agon, and that his aphorisms are intended to generate counter-aphorism, to open debate, not to close it. Nietzsche may not coddle a limp-wristed pluralism, but in the wider arena the way his work is rendered eventually invites counter-thrusts whose ultimate ambit can constitute a deeper pluralism. Yunus Tuncel’s exploration of agon in Nietzsche opens up Nietzsche’s deeper pluralism in a way few books have done before. It shows us that competition—brutal and violent as it may be—is necessary not only to a sense of beauty but also to a fully justified notion of conscience.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Gatsby, Austen, and the author function

The New Yorker review made the new Gatsby movie sound dreadful, but I am going to see it. Interesting the need to represent the author function (The Great Gatsby, by Nick Carraway; Carraway actually seen writing the book not just narrating the story within Fitzgerald's book) much as in the Jane Austen films of past two decades a character always has to be seen writing the book she is in, even though this is hardly the narrative technique or formal vision of Austen's books. I think this is attributable to some sort of anxiety about or alienation from the very idea of the printed book, a feeling that books are so alien to the lives of their prospective audience they have to be physically represented on screen.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A non-apocalyptic view of MOOCs

Massive open online courses have been trumpeted as the death-knell of liberal education, eliciting elegiac murmurs from those who like liberal education, or think they like it, and generating euphoric shouts from those who do not like liberal education, or think they do not like it. I see things differently. For me, MOOCs are but the academic manifestation of Web 2.0. Remember that the standard model of online education came in during the late 1990s and was very much Web 1.0: platforms like Blackboard were static, hierarchical and only interactive insofar as their clear model, the USENET groups of the early 1990s and the listservs of a few years later, were interactive. MOOCs as a platform are attempts for the online modality to catch up with how multimedia our classroom are--rare is the class in which I do not show a video or at least check a fact on the Internet--and indeed how multimedia our research is. When I am researching a topic these days, I am as likely to look at YouTube or Netflix as JSTOR or Project Muse, and that is true even if say I am researching the fifth century AD. There are so many resources out there that are relevant to any given topic.

Furthermore, the 'massive' in MOOCs is a clear reflection of the impact of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. Platforms like Blackboard centered around small classes and direct instructor-to-student contact, assuming that would foster immediacy and engagement. On social media, though, one can have thousands of friends of followers without limiting engagement, indeed the larger one's train of online interactants, the more effective one's clout (or Klout). The importance placed on delivering the message and responding to those who are interested in it, rather than fostering a designated community of pre-culled individuals, constitutes a sense of the identity and ontology of the learner, which MOOCs have in common with social media. In other words, it is not a small size that guarantees a community but an atmosphere of active participation and solicitation of intellectual involvement.

Much like social media--where the people with the most friends or followers are already-established celebrity, and those who have had their reputation emerge organically form the medium itself may have substantial but in aggregate terms far smaller followings--there is no structural autonomy in MOOCs, the canonicity of the topics and teachers spill over from the anterior world. Much like an All-Star game in sports, MOOCs attempt to leverage the fame already attained by their participants within a practice to a far larger group of people in different places and contexts and attempt to make them interested in their allure. MOOCs will be a threat to the way academia has traditionally operated when they do not just utilize star professors but generate them. As it is now, the stars teaching in MOOCs were all generated the conventional way--through doctoral training, on-site classroom observation, journal and/or book publication, and peer review.

It is as if Latin America were not a place where baseball players were found but where they went to play for lucrative rewards once they had become famous. Indeed, MOOC professors are the David Beckhams of their 'game', in that what people are experiencing is not just their skill at their craft--which his undoubted--but the aura of fame, the social capital, they have already accumulated in their 'home', To take an example of what I mean, when cinema started around the turn of the last century the people who did it, the people who starred in the movies, were new, one did not just have theatrical performers transfer over, new people became famous and more importantly there were new ways to become famous that the movies provided. When MOOCs generate rather than channel celebrity, they will have achieved structural autonomy as a platform.

Moreover, the institutions sponsoring MOOCs are established brands, category leaders, who are providing MOOCs for free more or less as ways of extending the brand. The admissions elitism, the social capital which came from high selectivity--in other words from keeping as many people out as possible--seems to be less of a priority than garnering publicity and fostering brand awareness. One can posit that elite universities have gotten all they can out of exclusivity and are turning the wheel to inclusivity, and even if one posits this in a dark, Adornian way as a cynical admission that all the hegemony that can be reaped from the exclusivity has been, that the allure of high-stakes admissions is now played out (something gestured at laterally by articles such as this one) context. In a way this makes good business sense Apple or Microsoft did not become category leaders by only letting a few exclusive customers buy their products after a rigorous vetting process. In a way it is a response to globalization, as so many of the applicants to high-prestige US universities are now from abroad. In another way, MOOCs can be seen as a way of justifying the expense of college tuition to stakeholders such as parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents of traditional-age undergraduates, that what the younger members of their family is getting is good and worth the expense. On a higher level, MOOCs are kind of an answer to the culture wars' of the 1990s, or perhaps a symptom of their unexpectedly benign resolution, as much of the attacks on 'political correctness' and so on in that era came or were addressed to parents who were baffled by trends in contemporary humanities academia; perhaps MOOCs might bridge the gap and make these stakeholders feel more included in the approaches and methodologies at play in the contemporary humanities classroom.

There seems to me a clear age gap between the students in practically oriented MOOCs, who I see as 'young' adult learners, in their late 20s or so, whereas the students in humanistic MOOCs (and this is a totally anecdotal sample, based on the people I know personally who have mentioned enrolling in MOOCs to me) tend to be older, people in middle age or after, busy, working people too distracted to study full-time but who nonetheless desire intellectual illumination. When people in their late 20s are interested in this sort of thing, they will (again anecdotally) be likelier to watch/listen to YouTube videos or TED talks, material they can digest on the go and not necessarily have to interact with. Older adults on the other hand, further removed from literally being in school, might want some interaction, a feeling, however remote and indirect, of engaging with a professor of the knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and wise sort they remember from their youth. In addition, MOOCs do offer some sort of institutional apparatus or connection, whereas TED talks do not come directly from a university. Indeed, MOOCs and TED talks both flank, but in neither case directly embody, the Open Badges movement which allows credentialing of expertise without any sort of affiliation with an existing educational institution, no investment in storied tradition or category-leader prestige. MOOCs have this residual aspect, and this accounts both for their heft and their ability to make news, but also lead to questions as to whether, in an educational era that will inevitably be less elitist and more democratic, they will in their present mode have staying power. A third vector here is the Yale YouTube videos, which give lectures from actual classes again without any interaction. In my (again, personal and anecdotal) experience these are largely watched by other professors, interested to see in what their distinguished colleagues are up to in the classroom.

Thus I see MOOCs as not an apocalyptic but a transitional phenomenon, whose thrust is less to indicate that traditional liberal education is being put out of business but that the expertise and allure the traditional model has fostered now is considered worthy of export beyond the traditional (in both age and ‘space;) populations it has served. As we have known as far back as Newman's 
Idea of a University" whuch as fate would have it I am teaching today) the theoretical and the functional interplay in the coalescence of a liberal-arts ethos, and though the modality may change in this century, the underlying pertinence of the model will not. I suspect the specific configuration of MOOCs will change, and the name itself may not be used, but the phenomenon will certainly have impact. Until and unless online-only education can produce, can generate, stars, though, I think the traditional academic platform will still have the pride of place.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Moby-Dick. Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty

I finally watched the first few episodes of Homeland, and as many have noted registered the resemblance of the Claire Danes character with the Jessica Chastain character in Zero Dark Thirty, the female interrogator/agent determined to zealously pursue al Qaeda terrorists at which the establishment blanches. Many have commented how the idea of the female intelligence agent seems to sanction government brutality by wrapping it under the mantle of feminism, or act as if the old-fashioned idea of authority is renewed if feminized; there is also the angle of Islamism’s views on women making Western feminism an almost inevitable corollary of the war on terror even if those waging it are au fond not particularly feminist. What I am interested in is how both characters persist in their quests even though their co-workers and superiors doubt them.

This could be likened to the ‘monomania’ exhibited in Moby-Dick (which I am current reaching) where Captain Ahab pursues the Great White Whale heedless of countless warnings not to do so for reasons of prudence, caution, temperance, and karma. The intriguing aspect here is that Ahab’s monomania is universally (and, in contrast, correctly) assumed to be bad, at least other than a few children’s edition s of the book which e. g. speak of Ahab as ‘an intrepid Yankee sailor’. But—and whatever our doubts about governmental excesses—the Chastain and Danes characters are assumed to be good in that nobody watching wants another terrorist attack. The two contexts are curiously comparable despite the huge time gap, as William Spanos and others have analyzed the ‘state of exception’ present in Moby-Dick by virtue of Ahab’s defiance of his employers’, Bildad and Peleg, mandate to concentrate on capitalist exploitation rather than revenge, and the presence of the quasi-Islamic Fedallah and the citation in the first chapter of a ‘bloody battle in Affghanistan’ do place it within the purview of the Islamic world. Is a female monomania, because more novel or softened by the good looks or soothing disposition of the characters, more acceptable than a more obviously fearsome male avatar? (Interestingly, the Danes character is far closer to Ahab than the Chastain by the very reason that she is given more vulnerabilities, those vulnerabilities in turn being necessitated by the greater narrative length of the project). Or do we have to face the fact that, as readers of Moby-Dick, we cannot unilaterally condemn monomania as much as we would like to do on first understanding Ahab? After all, the writer’s quest to finish the book, the readers quest to understand it, are, on the discursive ear interpretive level, as potentially monomaniacal as Ahab's quest to capture the whale, and indeed Melville and his readers are often praised for attempting the very thing that within the book Ahab is roundly condemned for pursuing.

Moreover, one cannot say all monomania is bad. Certainly Southerners thought not only John Brown but also Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson were monomaniacs on the subjects of slavery; yet it is good they were all so monomaniacal (even, in my view, Brown). It is easy for us to denounce monomania in a cause we do not believe in or are not affected by; what is there is a monomaniacal pursuit of something we admire, but which generates a disagreement with the means of its pursuit A real opposition to monomania would be to say: I urgently want this goal to be attained but I reject a monomaniacal way of pursuing it. And this would be a very hard stand indeed for most of us to maintain. As Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty show, there are any times we meet the monomaniac—and it is us. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Early thoughts on rereading Moby-Dick

I am  teaching a single-text course on Moby-Dick at Lang this semester,and as one would expect from such a great book (and given that the time of day and the specific aspects of the class are both very different) my thoughts are quote on another level from the last time I taught it (fall 2010), which produced this article. This time around, I am noticing the micro as much as the macro aspects, and more of the tonality of the book rather than its overall vision. For instance, one notices --given that the book is about a group of men at sea--how many women and female references there are in the book--including a 'these New Bedford chicks are really hot!" comment at the end of Chapter 6, which ishmael, or Melville, puts far more elegantly:

nd the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses. But roses only bloom in summer; whereas the fine carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens.

and, no matter how homoerotic Melville's affect or sexuality--and there were obviously gay strains seen in Moby and in Billy Budd, and he was in a sense 'in love' with Hawthorne--there is also a lot of hetero-erotic feeling here, there is a female side to the book, Bildad's sister Charity, Ahab's 'sweet, resigned; wife, etc. The other thing I am noticing is the humor, how funny it is side by side with the sweeping epic aspirations.....some books are epic, like paradise Lost, some mock-epic, like Don Quixote. Melville';s novel--which refers to both anterior texts--has epic and mock-epic side-by-side, parallel, so that the reader can enjoy both at once.

My class is also enjoying listening to this marathon recorded read of the novel, one of whose readers is the current occupant of 10 Downing Street... see this site. Some of the choices for readers are quite inspired, such as Witi Ihimaera reading "BIographical" (about Queequeg). 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Melville and Powell?

In chapter 3 of Moby-Dick, Melville describes the painting hanging in the Spouter-Inn as "...Hyperborean winter scene.—It's the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time." There is a clear resemblance here to the last paragraphs of A Dance to the Music of Time--I am inclined to take this more seriously because the Melville quote was in response to a painting which might well have betokened Powell's interest. I think I recall a copy of Moby-Dick being on the Chantry shelves. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

My Trollope society lecture on the 21st

Trollope Society Annual Winter Reception
Thursday February 21st, 2013
The Grolier Club
47 East 60th Street
New York, NY 10022
La Vendée: Trollope’s Early Novel of Counterrevolution and Reform
Speaker: Nicholas Birns, New School
Prof. Birns teaches courses in the history of the novel and related literature
in both the United States and Britain as well as on literary criticism and theory.
“I believe thinking about literature is a critical enterprise that calls
 upon our deepest intellectual reflection and discernment”
Drinks: 6:30     Talk: 7:00
$20  ($10 students or faculty)

RSVP: Midge Fitzgerald
6 Pier Pointe, New Bern NC 28562

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ambassador Barzun and multi-generation intellectuals

The news that former Ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun is likely to be appointed the next Ambassador to the UK by President Obama inspired various thoughts. Barzun is well-known as the grandson of the late Jacques Barzun, a distinguished (and long-lived) scholar and intellectual who, though not exactly aligned with me on many polemical issues, nonetheless was an exemplary homme de lettres. His grandson had a successful career in the tech industry before receiving his first diplomatic appointment. As admirable as that is, this stirred a soupçon of regret in me that Matthew had not gone into his grandfather's business. I thought of multi-generational baseball families like the Boones or the Hairstons; why can't there be multi-generation intellectual families? Wouldn't it be great if Matthew had written books in some way in a lineage with his grandfather? There are many families--like my own--where the child goes into academia as his/her parents had--but I cannot think of a single three-generation academic family. Maybe in the sciences...

Part of this, of course, is because academia, even at its most lucrative and rewarding, pays so little. My parents were able to enter academia, and to live lives as, respectively, a bohemian artist and a left-wing activist, because their parents had, for their time, a good deal of money, and this is indeed the sine qua non for many bohemian artists and left-wing activists. Equally, if your parents are such, the asceticism contingent on even the most laureled intellectual's life is no doubt seen as confining, and you want to go into business, make some serious money. One can see one generation sacrificing this urge, but less likely two...

In any event I wish Ambassador Barzun well on his likely next appointment, to the Court of St. James.