Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sheila Heti, _Ticknor_

THERE REALLY WAS a George Ticknor -- one of the 19th century's leading scholars of Italian literature -- and he really did write a biography of the great 19th century American historian William H. Prescott (Conquest of Mexico, among others), but Sheila Heti's Ticknor is a tight little bundle of envy, resentment, thwarted ambition, and guilt, who is trying to write a memoir of his boyfriend friend, the great historian Prescott, but is continually sidetracked into fumings over being ignored by him in favor of more accomplished men, into recollections of his fitful lust for Prescott's wife, into vacillations over whether to attend the party at the Prescotts' to which he has been invited, and into pitiless self-accusations on all the above points.

Eventually Ticknor cautiously circles around to a tale from their school days -- a food fight in the dining hall, a thrown piece of bread that injures the young Prescott's eye, leading to partial blindness and a long convalescence (during which Ticknor himself is taking the Grand Tour)...did Ticknor throw the bread? If he did...does Prescott know? What long but never-mentioned shadow has the accident cast on their relationship? What mysterious role does it play in Prescott's later fame, since it is after his convalescence that he discovers his astonishing powers as a historian and becomes one of the most admired men in his community, while Ticknor lives alone, is the author of a handful of disregarded articles, and seems to dampen conversation wherever he goes?

Heti has calibrated the novel's (novella's?) tone with great exactness. Her Ticknor sounds a bit like what Henry James's John Marcher would sound like had he been genetically modified with the literary DNA of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man and Beckett's Molloy. The closest parallel, however, may be with Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse, another tale of a biographer whose admiration of his subject has gone green-with-envy around the edges, who like Ticknor intuits that biographer and subject are locked in a struggle from which only one of them will emerge alive.

"Every great man nowadays has his disciples," Wilde wrote, "and it is always Judas who writes the biography."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Susan Sontag, _Illness as Metaphor_

I WONDER WHAT Sontag's standing will be ten, twenty, thirty years from now. A natural question to ask when a famous writer dies, I suppose. Updike, for instance -- how will he fare with posterity? I don't care that much for him, though. Sontag has always represented the life of the mind for me, or one peculiarly compelling version of the life of the mind.

_Illness as Metaphor_ was actually the first Sontag I read, back when it ran in the NYRB in 1978. I was in my first year of grad school, and a fellow grad student mentioned that it was running serially in the New York Review of Books -- which I likewise had never read at that point -- and was amazingly interesting. So I drifted over to Current Periodicals in the library and settled down with it -- what I mainly remember is what a stretch it was. Who was this woman who knew so much and wrote about it all so commandingly?

Reading it again, thirty one years on, a lot of it seems plain common sense; I guess after Foucault and the innumerable Foucauldian analyses of knowledge, authority, and figural language, nothing in Illness as Metaphor seems particularly startling. Highly readable, though, with great range (the diaries of John Adams!) and a knack for lucid and memorable phrasing one rarely meets among the Foucauldians -- my college-age daughter tells me she read Sontag for one of her courses, "The Sociology of Health and Wellness," and that Sontag's line about the two kingdoms, that of the well and that of the sick, is constantly quoted in the other reading she did for the course.

As a working intellectual with no base in academe, was Sontag the last of her breed, the end of the line of the kind of writer/thinkers who made Partisan Review, Dissent, and (God help us) Commentary must-reads in the 1950s and 1960s? It's certainly hard to think of anyone else like her, although academe now has its fair share of writer/thinkers who range all over the place -- Martha Nussbaum, Elaine Scarry, Nancy Fraser, Anthony Appiah, Paul Gilroy. Being in a tenured professor in some elite institution's Program of Incredibly Cool Interdisciplinary Stuff leaches a little urgency out of their stuff, though, I think, and Sontag was always, always urgent.

I miss her. Granted, had I personally met the Sontag of those just-published early diaries, I would have run for the hills.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Paul Foster Johnson, _Refrains/Unworkings_

I HAD heard of neither Apostrophe Books nor Paul Foster Johnson (who has, however, published in some cool places -- Octopus, Fence, canwehaveourballback) when I came into possession of this volume, but on this evidence, both deserve attention.

The shorter poems identified in their titles as "R1," R2," et cetera, up to "R22," are, I assume, the "refrains" of the book's titles, so the other five considerably longer poems must be the "unworkings," and it is these that most intrigued me.

In the first, "Rhythmicon," which opens the book, a speaker dwells on a proposed memorial, which, in the spirit of Goethe's remark on architecture as frozen music, seems to sometimes be a building metaphorically imagined in musical terms or a piece of music metaphorically imagined in architectural terms. It turns out, when we get to the endnotes, that the Rhythmicon was an early (or the first) electronic instrument, designed and built by Henry Cowell and Leon Theremin, capable of translating harmonic input into rhythmic output -- and what with the translation of one element of art into another, or one art into another, or the non-aesthetic into the aesthetic, we glimpse art and aesthetics as the book's predominant concerns.

Sometimes we seem to be eavesdropping on a hammer-and-tongs disagreement over the is/oughts of art, as in "R8: Measure for Measure." A certain class of artist -- or of aspirants to that status -- gets a good going-over in "R5: Marcelled Men of War." The longer and more ambitious "Sonatina for Piano, One Hand" contemplates an art constructed around an unnameable trauma -- like that of Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who lost an arm in the First World War, but that is simply a starting point for Johnson.

Just about all the contemporary poetry I like reminds me in some way of Ashbery, and Johnson is no exception, with lateral leaps aplenty, and the Ashberyean penchant for constructing sentences of perfectly ordinary syntactical relations and perfectly ordinary lexical items that nonetheless hover tantalizingly beyond the outstretched fingers of reference.

I also hear Eliot, though, especially in the 11-page "Clone Memoir," which in its first-person-plural pronouns and the speakers' mood of having fatally missed a vanished opportunity by sloth. cowardice, and inattention, reminds me much of "The Hollow Men." The following (from pp 38-39) almost sounds like a "Hollow Men" outtake (or parody):

From a mess of grass
there was speech
in the roof garden
a complaint of the throat
affirming the roof garden
under little stars that lumbered

There's even an apparent pendant to the poem (as "Eyes that last I saw in tears" is a pendant to "The Hollow Men") in "R10: Lyric." And I couldn't let this topic go without noting that "Clone Memoir" even veers toward Eliot's "Marina" on p. 34: pine, fog, Shakespearean allusion....

The final poem, "Art of the Cities," begins as if were a revision -- or a precursor? -- to "Rhythmicon," much the same words as the volume's first poem but differently lineated, somehow sounding a bit closer to blank verse, but then taking off in pursuit of its own vector. A palinode? A kaledioscopic rearrangement, à la Stevens's "Sea Surface with Clouds"? A forking path? Damned if I know. Paul Foster Johnson is one clever guy and I hope to see more of his work.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

John Ashbery, _Flow Chart_

GIVEN THE MULTIPLE-UNIVERSES hypothesis, somewhere there is a world where one day each year is devoted to public readings of John Ashbery's Flow Chart, in its entirety. Excerpts are read at weddings and at funerals. It is the classic graduation gift, its distinctive square shape giving the secret away before it is even unwrapped -- Flow Chart is this world's Oh, the Places You'll Go!

I would gladly live on this world.

Marjorie Perloff, in the blurb on the back of my paperback copy, calls Flow Chart "a very long poem that recalls Wordsworth's Prelude," and yes, it does -- insofar as it seems autobiographical, only the autobiography may not necessarily be Ashbery's, and the speaker relates the story of his life as if to someone who knows the whole of it already and only needs the right triggering allusions (is Ashbery his own Coleridge, both the "I" and the frequently invoked "you" here?).

What do I most like about Flow Chart? The versatile voice, tacking from drily camp to painfully direct to Stein-ian impenetrability, sometimes in the same sentence? The final section, as powerful as the fifth and final movements of each of Eliot's Four Quartets in mapping the maker's relationship to his art and its audience, which interrupts itself to announce, "Excuse me while I fart. There, that's better. I actually feel relieved." The unfailingly persuasive rhythm, the wise sonorities that end in giggles, the nod and the wink as you are led to the abyss?

I give up. Let's just quote:

Once, a whale will be kind, and no other grief can exist after
that. (54)

Although we mattered as children, as adults we're somehow counterfeit
And not briefed as to what happened in the intervals to which this longing led us,
which turns out to be not so tragic after all, but merely baroque, almost functional. (77)

What right have you to consider yourself anything but an enormously eccentric though
not too egocentric character, whose sins of omission haven't omitted much,
whose personal pronoun lapses may have indeed contributed to augmenting the hardship
silently resented among the working classes? (150)

Excellent is the peach, and stirring the tales
of battle, the calls to emulation. But excellent also is the spat-out pit, the ideal
of zero growth, when it comes to that. (196)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell, _Outliers: The Story of Success_

IT DELIGHTS ME to imagine a travelling business executive in an airport bookstore quickly grabbing and purchasing the new Malcolm Gladwell book because of its title, which seems to promise foolproof advice on how to slash and burn your way to the top of the corporate foodchain, and then discovering while in flight that he has in fact committed himself to a roof-to-foundations dismantling of that Great American Business Myth, the self-made man.

Taking up a variety of examples of individuals who have achieved phenomenal, way-off-the-end-of-the-bell-curve success, Gladwell demonstrates that yes, they had talent, and yes, they worked hard, but they also had good fortune on their side, unusual opportunities, lucky coincidences -- that even being born in one decade rather than another (even one month rather than an another) made an incalculable difference.

Even one's cultural inheritance -- a good example of something over which one has no direct control -- can unpredictably redound overwhelmingly in one's favor (as it did for some of the sons of the New York City Jews working in the garment trade in the 1930s) or fatally against it (as it did for some Korean airliner pilots).

Gladwell's invocation of cultural differences as a key factor in one's success is likely to raise hackles -- but he is not ranking ethnicities in order of likelihood of success, so he is not simply resuming where the late-19th, early-20th century racial theorists left off, and he makes clear that what matters most is the unpredictable ways a culture's tendencies play out in quite specific contexts.

How does he do it? -- that is, digest the voluminous psychological research upon which his books are based and then make it all graceful, lucid, and vivid, even unto the experimental approaches used by the researchers, so the reader experiences something like the dawn of discovery? Talent, certainly, hard work, doubtless, and very probably something else, to judge from the thesis of this very book, but lucky us to be born at the right time to have the pleasure of reading him.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mary Jo Bang, _Elegy_

I READ THIS some while ago, but you know how it goes -- busy, busy, busy. I hope to blog a bit more assiduously this week.

Several of my impressions of Elegy have blurred in the meantime, unfortunately, though not the main one, which is that the book is not quite what its blurbs would lead one to expect. The front inner flap of the dust jacket tells us that the book "chronicles the year following the death of her son" and embodies "the most profound and private grief," and variations on this theme recur in the blurbs from Marjorie Perloff, C. D. Wright, Nick Flynn, and Fanny Howe. All of which sets you up for a sort of contemporary In Memoriam...which is not exactly what we get.

Bang's poetry is weird, witty, oblique, skittery, playful... and, though relatively subdued and often streaked with pain, Elegy is still Mary Jo Bang. A poem from her previous book, The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, pops in at one point (explicably enough -- Strange Balloon is a book of ekphrastic poems, and the poem in question, "Three Trees," was inspired by one of her son's paintings), and utterly different though the premises of the two books are, the tonality of the poem blends easily into both. Elegy is unlike her other books, but hardly utterly unlike -- it shares their Bang-ness.

Anyone picking this up expecting the transparently confessional -- as I did, and I should have known better -- will be...disappointed? I hope not. Thwarted, perhaps, initially, very likely confused for a bit, but perhaps also relieved that the book is not so frankly exploitative as it might have been, perhaps moved to see that emotional honesty can mean not the relinquishment of art but its closer embrace.