Friday, July 28, 2006

Of auto-biography and literary thieves

The notion of Italian 'weak thought' has been an interest of mine, if largely unspoken, for some time now. It has also occured to me over the last few years that there is a parallel to be made, between what this 'weak thought' has come to signify, and recent trends in literature.  This is, admittedly, not the most original or precise thought, but it is a thought I have sometimes had, nonetheless. Likely both the good and the bad forms of New Confessionalism owe a debt of some sort to the Italians.

On another note, Ellis Sharp wonders what percentage of This is Not a Novel is straight-up erroneous. I would wager between 10-15% but frankly, do not care. It's not like the pleasure of reading this (not)novel stems from expanding one's bibliographical, oracular authority beyond the coctail soundbite or the gossip-quality of exotic reference–one might even say their constant and simultaneous trivialization and elevation to narrative norm is no small part of the point (about which more in a minute).

Still, the (not)novel frustrates me too, both at a surface annoyance level and for reasons perhaps best expressed by others. But also because it eludes classification and casual dismissal, for instance as mere form of mechanical repetition or photocopying, or mental masturbation. There is an art to David Markson's (not)novels, not least of all an extraordinary tenderness and humor, and not only in the presence of playful juxtaposition but more significantly as the heroic element of writing, even in soundbites and anecdotes and borrowed words, inevitably comes through. It reveals itself through thematic repetition, surely, but also in constant interruption, and in the subtlety of persisting in what might be called, for lack of a better phrase, the silent questioning that lies at the heart of 'literature' itself: as Blanchot speaking of Foucault might have said, the miracle and madness of "I speak." But also, why care?

Ellis wishes to set the record straight about Jean Genet's alleged Nazi collaboration (having arrived at this word, Ellis may not appear to have much interest in exploring what it might have meant in Genet's specific context–or indeed why the rumor may have any legs at all–but that aside). I had always thought something of the sort was at least half-self-acknowledged (for instance in Funeral Rites), but I have to trust Ellis's knowledge of the latest biography, I suppose. I certainly don't mean to trivialize it, of course, but in the context of Markson's novel it does seem an accusation operating rather already on the plain of common (coctail) knowledge (that is to say, also, in the absence of argument or linear narrativity, in Markson's hands, on the plain of what may still resist, or defer simplistic judgement). It is at least familiar gossip, taking part in the currency of what is common (if commonly erroneous) enough. For instance, just the other day:
"Him too? Jean Genet, saint and martyr for an entire epoch, was also a Nazi?" asks Jürg Altwegg, reviewing Ivan Jablonka's biographical study "Les vérités inavouables de Jean Genet" (Seuil). In the 1950s, Jean-Paul Sartre elevated the French dramatist to "Saint Genet, actor and martyr". Later, Michel Foucault saw in Genet the figure of a lunatic and criminal created in the mould of inhuman institutions. Jacques Derrida, for his part, exalted Genet's "subversive instinct". Now this myth is being subverted. "Jablonka's study reveals that Genet's legends and lies are at least partially rooted in the Second World War. Before chanting hymns to Palestinian terrorists and the Baader Meinhof Gang, Genet had sung praises of Hitler and the Nazis no less enthusiastically than Louis Ferdinand Céline. Genet was the lover of a French SS officer. He raved about 'blonde warriors' and praised the massacre at Oradour as pure 'poetry'. For Jablonka, Genet's Nazi leanings were the result of an 'intellectual and erotic fascination'. He did not expect anything good from Hitler, he was just delighted by all the horror."

If we are to believe that every act of writing contains en element of auto-biography, including Funeral Rites and This is Not a Novel, then it is perhaps ironic that on the last page the (non)protagonist who has come to be known, like Nabokov's butterflies, as simply "Writer" announces, in a moment that seems marked by both a sort of preemptive blackmail and poignant directness: "Writer's cancer....Farewell and be kind."

And with that the reader, always, in principle, just (democratic?) anyone, (Hugh Person...Hello Hugh) is thereby encouraged to begin, the endless task, not quite thinking and somewhat less than entirely self-assured, yet again.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Great moments in communication...

Note to spam-bots: your comments will not be approved. It only takes me a second to delete them by the hundreds. Don't waste your time. Really.

On 7/30/06, subfor subforini [] wrote:

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From: Matt
To: subfor subforini []

Go fuck yourself.

From: subfor subforini []
To: Matt

You too!!!!!!!!!!!!

(Image courtesy of BLDGBLOG; see here.)

rich get richer, & little-c-communism, the désoeuvrement of music, cont.

Here...(and out of sight)...

Incidentally, if you haven't been digesting these radio shows yet, well you should be (the latest one being, "Rich Man, Poor Man").

(The forthcoming album, it seems, will provide a bit of balance to the older stuff. Update: leaked samples here. For a good bootleg summer concert, meanwhile, this decade (his best yet, as far as I'm concerned), you might see here.

In other tangentially related news, Thom Yorke is apparently going solo. Not sure I feel much of anything about that one, to be honest. But, you know.)

Why do We Like Music?:
...Most of the "uses" of music mentioned in this article–learning about time, fitting things together, getting along with others, and suppressing one's troubles–are very "functional, but overlook much larger scales of "use." Curtis Roads remarked that, "Every world above bare survival is self constructed; whole cultures are built around common things people come to appreciate." These appreciations, represented by aesthetic agents, play roles in more and more of our decisions: what we think is beautiful gets linked to what we think is important. Perhaps, Roads suggests, when groups of mind-agents cannot agree, they tend to cede decisions to those others more concerned with what, for better or for worse, we call aesthetic form and fitness. By having small effects at many little points, those cumulative preferences for taste and form can shape a world.

That is another reason why we say we like the music we like. Liking is the way certain mind-parts make the others learn the things they need to understand that music. Hence liking—and its relatives—lies at the very heart of understanding what we hear. 'Affect' and 'aesthetic' do not lie in other academic worlds that music theories safely can ignore. Those other worlds are academic self-deceptions that we use to make each theorist's problem seem like someone else's.

Thanks be.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Shivering lives: in need of heroic readers (more than heroes)


    "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."

Some  readers may have already seen Benjamin Kunkel's essay  in the Sunday Book Review (bugmenot), in which he writes, among other things:

What Thoreau has to overcome during his time in the woods is not a lapse in mental health.  His great problem is to escape the mental health of his neighbors, their collection-plate opinions, their studious repetition of gossip.  Thoreau isn't against self-esteem (he admires a friend who has learned to "treat himself with ever increasing respect"); but his main task is to lose his esteem for society in which "trade curses everything it handles" and the singular natural resource of time is wasted in barren productivity.  Maybe he had vices out there in the woods, but that's not his concern, or ours.  The overwhelming impression is of his philosophical ardor, which he tries to fuse with his practical ardor.  There's not a note in the book of self-pity, or nostalgia.  And why did he quit his cabin in the end?  "It seemed to me that I had several more lives to live."   This accent of futurity is missing among contemporary memoirists.  They sigh over their past woes; sigh with relief now that they're better; or sigh the long sighs of nostalgia. (emphasis added)

Indeed, and not just among contemporary memoirists, but also American Presidents.

Anyway, I would like to concur, alongside Marco Roth, that in the current marketplace of literature's ongoing infantilization the legacy of the "heroic reader" may be something we can not afford to let alone.

The paradox of the heroic reader would seem to be, quite simply, that she must actively distance herself from the sick world (that is, submerge herself in the very limitless task, in the important and non-trivial stakes of reading, with all the terror this implies), in order to re-enter society with both sincerity and sympathy, and with an attention–dare we call it philosophical–to living (zoe) as opposed to mere endurance of the "safe" thrills of organized spectacle or pre-packaged experience.

Surely it is no exaggeration to imply, as Roth does, that overbrimming with "fresh talent" today that all looks the same (literally, with the same attractive author photo in the back of each new novel), literature and its would-be critics have lost sight of something crucial in "succumb[ing] to triumphal capitalism."  Increasingly light and harmless, overbrimming with clichés masquerading as novelty, or with pat and wildly simplistic explanatory formulas seemingly designed to grant the overworked Starbucks citizen access to a freshly flatte(n)(r)ing worldview, merely updated for the latest toys or accessories to self, you might say, (or in this case, conversation soundbites), and without posing a threat to either complicity or complacency, or for that matter challenging her critical and independent intelligence as literate, world citizen...even the new "seriousness" today remains–in short–philosophically impoverished.

This is not to suggest that philosophy and the "heroic reader" are purely synonymous, obviously.  But for a while the literary critic, and lit theory in particular (if one goes back and actually reads it now, as one site where philosophy had temporarily sedimented)–did keep alive and remain faithful to this utopian impulse.  Here is Roth (subscription only):

We live in a cloud of vague dangers, neither clear nor present.  Unelected judges appoint our president, and a man in a suit (once a Greenspan, now a Bernanke) determines whether stocks, prices, and unemployment rates rise or fall.  Consent is all that is asked of us, or suspension of disbelief.  And it seems that our ever increasing supply of fictions does nothing but abet the cultivation of this decadent passivity, and idealogical apparatus all the more insidious for not belonging to the state.

This criticism of readers is as old as prophetic castigations of idol worshippers.  The concern has usually been that reading will lead to wrong actions or no action–to immorality or passivity.  So Wordsworth thought that the surge in popular novels and plays at the beginning of the industrial revolution had plunged English minds into "savage torpor."  He recommended we read more to cure ourselves–more Wordsworth.  Novelists too wrote against the wrong kind of novels and the wrong kind of readers.  This remains one of the strongests unsettled legacies of the long tradition of the modern novel, from the era of the French revolution, through Flaubert and Tolstoy, up through today.

The rescue of readers from their own pernicious tendencies must be counted among the many utopian projects of the past two centuries, and, like nationalism and communism, it gained an accelerated force at the beginning of the 20th.  The the evident aesthetic and political failures of socialist realism onward, novelists, critics and teachers have stuggled to create readers whose aesthetic sensibilities would trigger their social responsibility and, if lucky, their mental liberation.  Sometimes readers were to be dragged out of their everyday slough by an array of estrangement effects.  At others, they would find freedom and enlightenment through an understanding of the arbitrary nature of conventions governing language and narrative action.  The rise of "literary theory" was aligned with these utopian hopes and movements.  Looking back now, we can see the 20th century as the golden age of the reader as hero.

Where did this figure go?  Like so much else, the heroic reader has succumbed to triumphal capitalism.  We look around and find that we are in a consumer's world.  Even those who supposedly "care" for literature have turned themselves into fans and enthusiasts.  Does such and such a novel keep it real?  Does it pique curiosity?  Do I identify?  Do I like the sound of this voice in my ear?  The idea of the reader as canny consumer is so pervasive that one editor of a prominent literary magazine writes about herself as a member of "the service economy" and compares criticism to waitressing.  It was undoubtedly a moment of weakness.  But still:  is a taste for literature nothing more than a refined palate?  Is literary criticism really like being able to tell which wine tastes of wet stone and which of tart blackberry?

Banished by Amazon preferences and litblogs, the heroic reader lingers on as a memory mostly confined to academic criticism.  Pick up the lit theory of the late 1960s and early '70s:  There's Stanley Fish's vision of Paradise Lost as great test and trap for its Protestant readers; Frederic Jameson's liberation theology, in which readers bring the political unconscious of novels into the light of day; the stoical struggle of Paul de Man's "rhetorical" reading, in which the self must learn to deny that it is a self; and, most self-consciously heroic of all, Harold Bloom's quest to arrive back at "the great cyclic poem" by imagining poets as the best and most active unconscious misreaders.  It makes sense that academic literary criticism would carry a torch for "higher reading," since these people have devoted themselves to the belief that reading is the most important thing we do.

Of course these theories never made it into broader American culture.  (There was once a plan to have Andrzej Warminski, Gayatri Spivak, and a team of graduate students teach rhetorical reading in New Haven public schools, but it's not mentioned now without an embarrassed laugh.)  For a while, however, there were two complementary "heroic reader" theories that did make it.  These weren't necessarily the most rigorous or the most captivatingly "heroic," but they were the most directly American.  They offered a sense of reading that tallied with ideas of what it means to be a good citizen in a liberal democracy.  One proposed to enlarge our sympathies; the second would teach us how to overcome our own Romantic impulses and reach emotional and intellectual maturity.

The first theory was once an axiom of liberal-arts education back when we had liberal-arts education:  reading novels could be "good for you"; it could even improve American morals.  You didn't learn anything from novels exactly, not useful knowledge, not information necessarily, certainly not the Truth, but the right kinds of novels were supposed to act as a check on our freedom and selfishness by educating readers into sympathy with others.  There was always something horrifying and terrifyingly banal about this assumption.  Horrifying because it tried to socialize the wild imagination of readers–especially those young readers most likely to experience literature as liberation from the limitations of place, time, social codes, their own gender, race, and class, their families, or morality itself.  Terrifyingly banal because once you'd learned to read the educated way, a lot of the illicit thrill went out of reading novels.  The novel just wanted you to behave.  There's an analogy with the present cult of diet and exercise:  the boy who runs through the grass until his lungs burn and the world looks both brighter and darker becomes a calorie counter and times himself in the mile.

The most thorough defenses of what David Bromwich nicknamed "literature as moral vitamins" appeared on the scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time that can now be seen as the death throes of American liberalism and the liberal arts.  (Then, it was thought of as a mere crisis period; the enemies were presumed to be the antiliberal left and French theory, rather than fundamentalists, demagogues, and rampant consumerism.)  Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum both attempted to make the case for reading novels as socially desirable and even necessary activity for a society that would be both good and just.  For Rorty, the relation of reader to novel and also of author to character demonstrated the kind of solidarity that could hold secular and democratic countries together even if we accepted that truth was unknowable, shot through with irony and contingency.  Nussbaum thought novels could offer revisions to liberal utilitarian calculations.  They would rehumanize a technocratic elite and teach them to account for exceptions to teh sort of generalized rule-making that prevailed among professional ethicists and lawyers.  Not just any novel would do, of course.  A canon was available and it appeared to be a closed one:  adapted, with variations, from F.R. Leavis's older "Great Tradition," it often sounded like Austen, some Dickens, George Eliot, and Henry James.  Instead of Leavis's favorite, D.H. Lawrence, Rorty substituted Nabokov and Orwell; Nussbaum offered Beckett and also stepped back to Shakespeare and the ancient Athenians.  One because an ethical reader, in short, by reading ethical writers–writers devoted to the task of creating charactgers who were, as much as possible, autonomous.

Despite this late attempt to rescue the liberal view that, in John Dewey's phrase, "art is more moral than moralities," the model already had encountered serious opposition.  Crucially, it bred a feeling of superiority among novel-reading liberal-arts types that had first been exposed during the '60s revolt of the antiliberal left.  It turned out that characters who existed in novels as objects of sympathy (put-upon women, poor people, colonial subjects, prisoners) had ideas of their own about life.  They didn't want sympathy, they wanted power.  And so, at the high school level, the whole post-1968 model of reading for group empowerment and identiy formation supplanted the cult of sympathy and developed into niche marketing (chick lit, anyone?).  On the political level, the short-lived triumph of minority politics was followed by the long counter-revolution in whose shadow we've spent our lives.  One of its major triumphs has been the careful corruption of minority "Yes We Can!" rhetoric of empowerment into an excuse for majority bullying.  Liberals are now told that corporate bosses, policemen, and politicians have feelings that must be respected; that we must care for the strike-breaker, the prison guard, and the executive's wish for privacy.  To do anything else would be elitist.

But would it be uncivilized?  Becoming a responsible citizen and even an adult is precisely about knowing when to judge and condemn and when to sympathize and care.  Yet how does one know that is real, what romantic?  What a true judgement and what an act of faith or misplaced trust?  To try to answer these questions, the second type of American heroic reader was called forth in the aftermath of World War II amid a host of European influences.  In his 1948 essay "Art and Fortune," Lionel Trilling argued that we needed novels to make us feel fully alive; he proposed that we read novels precisely in order to re-experience a developmental process and win our way to full adulthood.  The aim was to achieve knowledge without loss of power, but with a recognition of limitations.

The right new novels in the hands of the right new readers could bring about a change, a synthesis in the ongoing "dialectic of reality and illusion."  In Trilling's account, the novel that best staged this multi-layered dialectic between worldly and literary experience was Stendhal's early-19th century "novel of ideas," The Red and the Black.  In the character and fate of Julien Sorel, Trilling saw the heroic readers of the future as well as hope for novesl.

For Trilling, when Julien borrows a gardener's ladder to climb into the bedroom of his boss's daughter, with a pistol in his pocket and a knife, pirate-style, between his teeth, he rises to the level of a novelistic objective correlative.  Within a single action, Stendhal captures the farcical elements of Liberal France in the 1830s, a culture in which a young man's dream of romantic heroism had been degraded to one of upward mobility.  Julien isn't just an idea himself; however, later in the novel, as Trilling reads it, he becomes exactly the adult enlightened reader who learns to recognize his past actions as misguided–motivated by the pursuit of "specious goods."  Julien, though, doesn't quite make it.  (He gets bored of the aristocratic girlfriend he's seduced, but he never manages to figure out what he wants.)  And that failure too is a parable.

This kind of reading, let's call it allegorical transumption, depends on the reader's will to pass through identification into interpretation; call it a will to grow up.  This reader–while we're at is, let's call him he–with his novel (and friends to argue about it) would be allowed fantasies of seductions, rope-ladders, murders, strapping men, and women "inall ways shapely"–the trappings of old romances endlessly updatable for new situations.  But he would also have to understand that these demons must be sublimated into thoughts and arguments about the state of the world and the condition of his life.  By plunging into the lives of fictional others will all reckless abandon, he'd yet emerge clutching a pearl of greater price, a fuller understanding of himself, his motives and wishes.  He'd do this not necessarily to act on them, but to bring them to light and expose them to a world shared with others.

Both the will to interpret and the will to grow up flagged in the '60s, epitomized by Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation" and its argument for endless surface textual pleasure.  Sontag's call for an "erotics of art" anticipated and echoed sexual liberation's promise of eternal youth as well as the growing suspicion of psychoanalysis.  Yet, against Sontag, we can once more recognized hermeneutics as a kind of erotics, albeit more Civilization and Its Discontents than "zipless fuck."

Despite our culture's best efforts–from left and right–the liberal hero-readers of both the "moral vitamins" and "allegorical transumption" accounts can never be fully liquidated–even when History itself seems to have no more use for them.  They've been driven underground in a curious inverted repressed, but they may return as characters again.  No character returns unchanged from the underworld or from exile.  We shouldn't expect our new heroic readers to be as innocent in their quests for spiritual upward mobility as their many precursors.  The liberal hero is different from Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Don Quixote–those overly active readers betrayed into becoming characters in someone else's novel–but there's still a story to tell.

A contemporary novel that could dramatize the life of one heroic reading consciousness or even one reader's struggle between heroic reading and the impulses so effectively tapped by consumerism might just be the sort of novel to save us from our own savage torpor.  It would still be a novel, of course–just as Anna Karenina remains a novel critical of novels and already points the way to Tolstoy's ultimate renunciation of art.  The struggle would have to be set in one of the great metropolitan centers of our global commercial culture, New York or London.  Curiously, it seems difficult to write anything but minor novels and satires about these places now.  It used to be that the metropole was defined as the place everyone went to write and the plave everyone wrote about.  The former still holds, for the most part, but the metropolis now lies shrouded in myths of its boringness, its unrepresentability.  The inhabitants of these places who want the news from novels get "realist" writing purchased from developing countries or America's expanding borderlands and hinterlands.  We metropolitan readers have lives no less reall for taking place withing this history of reading.  Let us turn the gaze upon ourselves, if only the better to focus it again.

So then, not a call for yet another Great American Novel, exactly, but a demand to write conscious of history, nonetheless.  It is indeed an antiquated and perhaps "terrifyingly banal" assumption (not to mention, somewhat residually patronising and patriarchal), that literature may provide not only more than a business, more than a merely "safe and fun" activitity (on airplanes, say), but also equipment for living.  But is throwing out this legacy (call it "Theory," or call it both T.S. Eliot and Derrida, or call it Nussbaum and Trilling), really the only possible, wisest response to (American) liberalism's demise?  What might still be worth retaining, in its commitment to openness and a certain sense of futurity, especially, not to mention courage....It is, I think, an entirely appropriate and prudent question.

another stupid political post

You know the tides are swirling thick when even bedrock loser like William F. Buckley makes an opportunist splash, noting how poorly it reflects on Bush's character and all, that he has not yet voluntarily resigned.

Right, because thinking people the world over had always pegged Bush the next George Washington. It's only been that long.

Funny also, how F. Buckley is now referenced as some old and noble figure of integrity, calloused and wayward yet refined dignitary of some thing (from back when "conservatives" were not all pea-brained, "Jesus"-loving, bat-shit crazies). In truth the man was a complete fucking prick, a nasty and annoying snob with a truly vicious and cruel dominating side, not least of all when it came to those many decent and free-thinking professors he tried, relentlessly and unapologetically, to smear into oblivion and financial ruin, as either gay or "communist" (or both), back in the day.

(Most likely now he simply feels–like many Eastern conservatives–left out of the loop. The ruling fundamentalist junta of Texans and Exxon crooks probably ignores him.)


On this vain blog, it is a series; in the world that is the case, it is another sign of hope. From the editors' intruduction to the inaugural issue (via via):
‘Parrhesia’, as Foucault explains it, is a word which comes into prominent use in the democratic moment of the classical age. It is used first extensively by Euripedes in the second half of the fifth century, before it comes to occupy a more central place – and to become a hotly contested issue or possibility – in the political texts of the period (‘Fearless Speech’, pp. 78-83), and the philosophies of Plato (pp. 83-86, 91-107), Aristotle (pp..86-7), and the later Hellenistic period. (107ff.)
The topic of parrhesia which occupies Foucault’s last works on parrhesia, we would argue, has an incredible ‘timeliness’ for us today, in a world where our leaders talk about spreading democracy abroad while, to all appearances, it is increasingly questioned an curtailed at home, hemmed in by both legal changes and the emergence of new forms of populism and what Isocrates would have called kolakes (‘flatterers’). (p. 82, see pp.13-4) The issues surrounding the cassus bellum in Iraq, the unprecedented secrecy of today’s US administration or its increasingly public advocacy of torture, and (in Australia) the litany of causes celebres from the children overboard to the AWB, have raised the issue of the relation between truth-telling and politics with all the freshness with which it evidently presented itself to Isocrates, Plato, or the pseudo-Xenephon.

We see here a parallel with the work of Walter Benjamin. Like Foucault, Benjamin’s body of thought was devoted to the necessity of thinking the past through the crisis of the present. Benjamin was however concerned with the ways in which history consistently obliterated those moments and movements who thought of the possibility of utopian futures. As he stated in one of his earliest published works “The elements of the ultimate condition do not manifest themselves as formless progressive tendencies but are deeply rooted in every present in the form of the most endangered, excoriated and ridiculed ideas and products of the creative mind.” For Benjamin true critical thought wasn’t the product of the institution, a sanctioned reflection on the present. Excoriated it is thought that is constantly threatened and challenged as its seeks to uncover new truths, emerging out of a specific context, but searching for the possibility of shattering the petrified continuum of the present.

In essence, this journal takes as its aim the elaboration of the many problems that rest upon this self-context relation in the sense that Foucault analyses it. We are not here concerned with ‘telling the truth’ in the mode of the classical thinker, that is, as the members of our culture whose fortune or birthright it is to claim objectivity in judgement. In fact, as Foucault himself indicated so thoroughly, this position of objectivity is itself a matter for examination – Jacques Rancière’s article in this first edition engages with the same concern. We are concerned to examine the forms and problems of the various modalities of relationship. One consequence of this is that aesthetics can no longer be considered a well-demarcated discourse concerned with art narrowly conceived.

Subjectivity, not given but a part of the movement of socio-political contexts, is itself to be composed. In a similar vein, ethics loses its sense as the discourse of inalienable rights, or of moral codes, but must instead express the various modes interaction with oneself and one’s context. Again, politics must be understood no longer as the analytic of society, but must be broadened to include the various modes of individuation, subjectivation and counter-subjectivation.

The broadest goals of Parrhesia are to pursue the various knots which occur between these discourses, the knotting of concerns relating to doctrines of the subject an aesthetics, between aesthetics and politics, politics and ethics, and so on. While this is clearly a very large set of concerns considered together, we are convinced that it is at these points of knotting that active and critical thought is best disposed in our contemporary context.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Woody Guthrie on PBS (he was)

Curious what Max has against Despite Joe Klein, appearing briefly here (that middle link being the closest this blog will ever come to mentioning a certain ridiculously behind the times and over-the-hill mealy-mouthed and pious, fascist-compromising smughole, corporate welfare lacky/crazed militarist/soon-to-be-"independent"in-more-ways-than-he-wishes Senator from New England). Update: yup.

Friday, July 14, 2006

awkwardness unto death

The Sick New World embraces anti-mourning's latest prop, huggable urns, the radio informs...

But leaving that, where we found it, this is a rare confessional post about animal friends, specifically dogs, their being-unto-death philosophically considered, somewhat, and other things.


So many poems about the deaths of animals.
Wilbur's toad, Kinnell's porcupine, Eberhart's squirrel,
and that poem by someone–Hecht? Merrill?–
about cremating a woodchuck. But mostly
I remember the outrageous number of them,
as if every poet, I too, had written at least
one animal elegy; with the result that today
when I came to a good enough poem by Edwin Brock
about finding a dead fox at the edge of the sea
I could not respond; as if permanent shock
had deadened me. And then after a moment
I began to give way to sorrow (watching myself
sorrowlessly the while), not merely because
part of my being had been violated and annulled,
but because all these many poems over the years
had been necessary,–suitable and correct. This
has been the time of the finishing off of animals.
They are going away–their fur and their wild eyes,
their voices. Deer leap and leap in front
of the screaming snowmobiles until they leap
out of existence. Hawks circle once or twice
around their shattered nests and then they climb
to the stars. I have lived with them fifty years,
and now they are going, almost gone. I don't know
if the animals are capable of reproach.
But clearly they do not bother to say good-bye.

-Hayden Carruth, Brothers I Loved You All (Poems 1969-1977)

(Roger wisely recommends the above, and I have to agree.)

Keeping with the spirit of indirectly or barely thinking posts, I had planned on mentioning at least in passing Carruth, one of Vermont's finest poets, and this in lieu of a long and self-indulgent list of anecdotes about a friend who was a dog–a sister or daughter (and of course, mother, as all female dogs especially without pups are) of sorts; named "Sheena" though sometimes known simply as "my girl"–who passed away last week, lying in the summer night beneath a piano, having not eaten for three weeks. She often resembled in expression, somewhat uncannily, the animal pictured on the cover of Grenier's book (which I had read long ago, and should like to re-read now). Only the tiniest bit more blunt-nosed and muttish, curly-haired, retrieverish, perhaps.

Her will was strong, and she was I think sad, and reluctant unto death–as most are. As for "the end"–whenever this moment is ascribed–I suppose it was peaceful–as most people try to make themselves believe. And it was, at least in the sense that she had been awaiting death to (not)come, and probably died in her sleep, of a heart-attack or something similar (after consciousness had faded, I wish to believe).

She had lost her appetite, most likely as result of cancer–she was 16 (older than some), and we didn't do the expensive testing, tests that could only lead to more expensive and invasive treatment. We fed her on tuna oil, sardines, hamburgers and bread for as long as she would have it (mainly trying to keep her in fluids, and so as comfortable as possible). I confess to wishing for a drug, something to make her feel absolutely great–or at least no discomfort–one last time. To give her that gift–one last new experience/realm of pleasure–as a sort of inadequate thanks, but mostly just for her. But it wasn't to be.

The next morning her bony body was wrapped in a blanket and buried, in a spot she had chosen only days before (secluding herself away there by the garden, before being found and brought back inside one last time–we weren't ready yet). She had witnessed, such as dogs are able, the passing of two others (in that very house), but she was the first to go naturally (and the first not to be cremated). While not visibly in pain, by the end could barely lift her head. Or so I hear.

Having said imperfect goodbyes, I was off to do that Nature thing again, whereby one speedwalks through the woods (this time suburb-smelling woods), up mountains and by national civic memorials and massive powerlines in thunderstorms with a heavy pack of tasteless food, sweats rivers and drinks painstakingly filtered water, massages aching feet and sleeps in stuffy, 70-year-old shelters with other grimy and unshaven, snoring sweating people. People requiring a minimum of acknowledgement, but most often nice enough. People for whatever reason having decided to forsake the Starbucks world for seven months or so. Or rather, to forsake it for a week of swollen feet at a time, to binge on pizza, beer and hamburgers one fine anyday (or, in our case, other people's wedding cake and booze). Strange form of torture, this routine of binge and asceticism. Difficult to maintain in good spirits (Thoreau he was a pathologic liar)–once it becomes like any job, no longer novelty. Or so I hear.

Anyway owning and enjoying my own grumpiness somewhat, while hiking fast, was nothing terrible, and often the sensation of hiking was pretty great. Being cluster-bombed by aircorns at five in the morning, in a shelter with a metal roof, was even pretty great. The guilty chipmunk family, who are certainly legends by now, do it mostly for the sport, I wager, to provoke and tease the tired people into lurching furiously out and hurling back, which is entirely futile of course. Throwing anything one hundred feet in the air to much effect is strenuous and pointless work, and anyway they only fall back on the roof again.

Returning driving all through the night, at first mostly with trucks, the smells were distinct from state to state. Pennsylvania, warm mixture of wood (or something) burning and cow manure. One could sense their mood, the truckers, happily just fed, primed for the night (or was it the final push?–so many pulled off by the early morning, like logs before a river damn). The familiar rushing by of New Jersey and New York, windows down and radio blaring its preemptive alarm clock. (Should I stop? I should stop, and see so-and-so. No I'll keep going. Too late to call now; no time anyway.) Around New York, radio stations from Canada come in. Early morning on the American highway, reading billboards despite oneself, cultivating an interior and aloof, vague cynicism or rather numbness, at the spectacle of all this, tinged with the comfort of familiarity. Looking forward, perversely, to the toll-booth and the assurance of an encounter with someone more miserably bored than oneself, from whom you get to drive away, accelerating back to ticket-tempting speed in that moment of urgency before the dullness returns. Maybe change the station, light a cigarette. (No, not really, no more of those for me; I dislike everything they do to me, and in the immediate term they're just not pleasurable anymore. So I quit for the third time, having never really started up again. A part of this, admittedly, being the dagger looks from a certain other, earlier when she was in the drivers seat, and the car nearly left its tires on the road.) Somewhere between three and five the air cools to a chill at last, and the windows go up.

"Black eyes," is what I sometimes called her. For a period of several years, we were extremely close, possessive and overly-protective of each other, even. At middle age, she was convinced to chase sticks just deep enough to swim for the first time (always with that little Kierkegaardian leap dogs sometimes do, before losing her footing to the abyss), and to sneeze on command (or talk, and occasionally sing). Blond border-collie mutt, easily excitable, intelligent and sensitive, stubborn and neurotic, always performing 'work.' But also patient. Later in life, her eyes had that unconditionally adoring, happy look when sitting at attention, staring at my efforts in the garden these past few weeks from wherever she was planted (sometimes just so that her head was visible–she seemed proud of hiding herself this way, as if watching sheep in secret).

She may not have intended it, but her familiar gaze, in the absence of speech, often cleared a space for a certain silence in my life. Or maybe, performed a sort of witness (at once comforting and neurotic), to a relation with a silence that never belonged to anyone. A silence that has been torn from me now, by her departure.

How I admire films that don't avoid a certain silence, that attempt to speak alongside this silence without resolving it, in ways both more originally didactic or aesthetically documentarist. Or in a more metaphysical vein, always, Tarkovsky.

My speech is a warning that at this very moment death is loose in the world, that it has suddenly appeared between me, as I speak, and the being I address: it is there between us as the distance that separates us, but this distance is also what prevents us from being separated, because it contains the condition for all understanding. Death alone allows me to grasp what I want to attain; it exists in words as the only way they can have meaning. Without death, everything would sink into absurdity and nothingness. (Blanchot, The Work of Fire, 323-24)

And what of the mass anonymous graves being dug and filled, as we speak, in Lebanon (or rather just outside the city walls), as Israel continues its civilian massacre with U.S. motherfucking blessing. How will the work of mourning take place there?

Not at all without first shedding our current "leaders," obviously, and their delusional, triumphalist and dogmatic, paranoid and expensive slumber, or rather sleep-driving SUV limosine rampage, in which our very democratic immune system has been drugged into destroying itself.