Saturday, December 26, 2009

Interviews (with apologies to Gertrude Stein)

Room where is the room. Where is the room. A convention. A convention an elevator a convention and an intervention. Intervene how does it intervene what are the stakes. The stakes are high and they intervene in the discourse, a very fine discourse. Where is the room in an elevator.

An intervention an intervention a convention and it intervenes it just intervenes. It intervenes and a job. A job a job and a pedagogy. The diligence is spreading.

Best of luck to all those interviewing, and a happy MLA '09 to all!

(For a more classic take, here once again is the Chaucer blogger's Margerye Kempe at the Feest of MLA.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

White children and their natives

Aaron's recent post on the American "bad boy" in Avatar made me think in general about children's narratives that construct a "native" with which the child may have an adventure.

The American bad boy is very, very familiar: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Rip van Winkle, etc. Avatar seems to fall into this (primarily nineteenth-century) tradition as well. There's an extensive literature, from Fiedler to Jehlen and beyond.

I found myself thinking about Aaron's claim that this is a specifically American construction. I think that's right, but it put me in mind of its early twentieth-century non-U.S. cousins as well, who deviate from the model in interesting ways.

Related to the bad boy is the jolly uncle, e.g. the professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Albus Dumbledore, technically a grown-up but a boy (not a girl) at heart. Jolly uncle is British and is there to let you in on some arcane knowledge that will help you on your boyish adventure. He'll also help you subvert the mean (female) housekeeper. It helps that he is an Oxford(ish) professor -- a puerile pedant, as it were.

Swallows and Amazons is also British, and offers yet another model. Here the mother is not to be resisted, because the mother is supremely pliable, an ally in the children's play. She will set you up with regular shipments of butter, eggs, milk, and cake made of butter, eggs, and milk, and will allow herself to be designated a "native" from whom the conquering children can get their various dairy products for free. We don't have a fun uncle/mean mom dynamic here; the mother is perhaps the most fun character of all, the best at playing, the ideal imaginary Indian. She's so good at playing that she is easily conquered.

Oddest of all to think about in the context of Avatar was Anne of Green Gables. Avonlea is a female utopia, and Anne peoples her woods and lakes with other girls and women, in part quite clearly because her tragic past has forced her to invest in objects in lieu of friends (her first best friend is her own reflection in a cabinet), but ultimately because creating alien others -- dryads, naiads, animated plants -- is a form of creative play that marks Anne as interesting.

Yet those creations are also a way of staking claim. As soon as she arrives at Green Gables, before she even knows that she will stay, Anne begins to name things, and thereafter they are in a sense her gentle friends -- hers. She is a second Adam, in her childishness experiencing her own days of prismatic color and offering the adults around her a cherished glimpse. Her "marriage" to her first real friend, Diana, in the garden (a little homespun Eden) confirms rather than undermines her status as namer and master of her environs; Diana never reaches Anne's imaginative capacities, and only ever shows the initiative of an Eve by her multiple failures to adequately enter into Anne's imaginary realm. If anything, Diana acts as the female principle of fun-squelching, not because she is mean but because, like Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly, she simply has an inadequate imagination.

Is Anne a colonist? She is, of course, a "spunky girl," but is she a "bad boy" too?

And what does it mean, in Swallows and Amazons and Anne of Green Gables, that in the absence of indigenous peoples, the children must invent some?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I just got back my student evaluations, with the usual hodgepodge of randomnesses that they bring. One student praised me for having handed out "a full syllabus," which context revealed to mean a complete one, at the beginning of the semester. Who are this student's other instructors, and did they not hand out a complete syllabus at the beginning of the semester??

Favorite comment: "The essays were very difficult, but in a good way."

When you care enough to give the very best poetry.

I ran into this book in the basement of Moe's this evening, while looking for something else:

It's the Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems, edited by Donald Hall. (I was underwhelmed by the table of contents, honestly.)

This is the hilarious thing that caught my eye:

There's literally a gold star on it indicating that the book is poet-laureate-approved.

I guess it's like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, or the Oprah's Book Club seal, only less well known. This particular kind of call on expertise belongs to a consumer logic. Eight out of ten dentists recommend.

The volume is edited by a nationally famous poet, and just in case a nationally famous poet isn't famous enough, here are his credentials. You wouldn't want to get screwed on a bad volume of poetry. It would be like buying a bad toaster, the kind that always either under-toasts or burns the bread. You can't be expected to have researched poetry, just like you can't be expected to be an expert on toasters; that's why Consumer Reports, and gold poet laureate stickers, exist. To save you, the consumer, the labor of finding out more than you really need to know about poetry. I mean, who has time to compare all the stats, right? You just want a book that does the job.

To close, some wholly unrelated words of wisdom, courtesy of Google Ads:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Just so we're clear: the protesters were spending a quiet week in Wheeler Hall. People were free to come and go; no one was disturbed. The only noise I heard when conducting my review session on Wednesday was a loud banging -- a repair person fixing one of the doors that police had damaged during the previous occupation.

The protesters were keeping Wheeler Hall open.

UCPD has locked it down.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

All ye need to know

A commenter writes of this post on an inappropriate literary reference:
"Aw, come on, no need to cll it inappropriate. They probably think they have made a profound, beautiful slogan! XD"

My response is apparently too long to fit in the comment box, so here it is as a blog post. It occurs to me that when I spot literature in advertising I would do well to explain what's going on, so that this blog could be educational rather than just a place for me and my friends to laugh at the inappropriateness of quoting that particular line from Keats on the wall of a drug store.

* * * * *

Right, Dare, the glibness of the quotation -- the idea that you could just take that line and attribute it to John Keats like he was giving you life advice, or beauty tips -- is exactly what's so hilarious, because in the context of the poem that line is incredibly problematic. That particular line was a bone of contention for the New Critics and the subject of a famous essay by Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn (1947), precisely because of its fortune-cookie quality, its apparent quotability. Brooks quotes T.S. Eliot as writing of it, "this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue."

Whatever you feel about the New Critics, I think it has to be agreed that you can't take the line straight. Keats is not offering you life advice. Brooks writes that "[t]he very ambiguity of the statement, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' ought to warn us against insisting very much on the statement in isolation, and to drive us back to a consideration of the context in which the statement is set." Brooks, for his part, points out that the line quoted on the pharmacy wall is "spoken" not by a lyric "I" but by the urn, a work of art whose beauty lies in its silent withholdings.

As my friend Charlie Légère has pointed out, Brooks, with disconcerting pro-rape cheerfulness, describes the scene painted on the urn as one "of violent love-making." This is the painted scene -- of a rape -- that Keats praises in the "Ode," and indeed, the urn itself partakes of the nature of the scene that it depicts.

"Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness" -- what a beautiful line, and what a troubling one. The figures depicted in the scene are suspended in time, just on the point of rape, "the maiden," as Brooks says (with offputting enthusiasm), "always to be kissed, never actually kissed." But the "still unravish'd bride" is not the woman on the urn; it is the urn itself, still unravished, always on the point of being ravished -- by quietness, not by loud speech (nor by an ad slogan) but by "quietness," the soft speech that could undo the urn (the soft speech, one might speculate, of criticism).

For Brooks, the source of tension is this deathly stillness, the contrast between the violence of the rape scene ("What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?") and the fixity of the art work. That the rape is never actually completed seems to Brooks to be -- not a defect, for it's the condition of the urn's status as art, but a loss. The art work, by being art, must exit life and movement. It's a reading enabled by the theory that rape is something to be followed through with, a consummation of life itself! -- Which, no doubt, it is, for certain values of "life."

A somewhat less pro-rape reading might see the suspension of both maiden and urn in their about-to-be-raped state as a suspension in dread, a fixing of a moment of terrible intensity. It's like that feeling you get reading L'Assomoir and having to put the book down for a while because you know Lantier is about to show up, and you know it will be seriously bad news. You dwell in a state of dread.

The urn, Keats writes, will persist in its fixity long after we're gone; "Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours." Being in midst of woe seems to be the point, the enabling condition for that final, rather too-smug sentence, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'" The maiden frozen in the terror of facing a rapist, the urn "still unravish'd" only because it can be ravished, we amidst our woe and some future viewers of the urn amidst theirs are all canceled out, and yet fed upon, by that final line. Does beauty trump woe when it (because it) encodes a permanent state of violence? The urn may tell us that, but is it right?

Of course, everything I've just said has to do with the internal logic of the poem. A more obvious source of incongruity is that "beauty" in the "Ode" is a timeless, unmoving beauty in art, a beauty rather fearsome for being so very suspended in time, so chilly, so violent. In the photo, it's sitting above a shelf full of "beauty products," where "beauty" is now a debased commercial term for the stuff you're supposed to do to your body to avoid social censure, a "beauty" to be acquired by means of apricot scrub.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Puerility and Pedantry

From Burke and Kant, we're used to seeing the sublime opposed to the beautiful. But Longinus writes (in this 1698 translation of On the Sublime):
A Boyish, or Pedantick Style is contrary to it. For there is nothing so low as this latter, so mean, so oppos'd to true gallantry of Discourse. What is Pedantry then? 'Tis nothing else but the thought of a great Scholar, which is made cold, and non-sense, by endeavouring to be too refin'd and affected. And this is a fault into which those fall, who aim at saying something uncommon, and surprizing; who endeavour to make a Thought extreamly taking and charming: for they, by dressing their language in too many Figures, fall into a ridiculous Affectation.
What undoes the sublime, for Longinus, is too eager an attempt to describe it adequately, or to approximate it by being "uncommon, and surprizing."

It's interesting to me that Longinus collapses pedantry with puerility: teacher and pupil alike may partake of this intellectual fruitlessness. It seems to me that there's a difference between the two, on which more later perhaps.

I've been thinking a lot about puerility lately. For Longinus it's clearly a pejorative, but I think that a certain pedantry has its appeal for many modernists. The cognitive act of slogging through irrelevancies can amount to, I think, an ascetic quest for the real.

Michael North's recent book Machine-Age Comedy takes up what I think of as a puerile streak in modernism--the amusement in rigidity and mechanicity that, North argues, is peculiarly modern. Though North is more interested in Chaplin and, much later, David Foster Wallace, it's impossible not to see the same impulse in 'pataphysical and Oulipian writing. Puerility enables a certain kind of play that is regenerative for the modernists. In a Foreword to Machine-Age Comedy, the series editors, Mark Wollaeger and Kevin Dettmar, astutely wonder whether "whether comedy in the machine age was a boys-only playground" (vi). I rather think that it is -- not that only the XY-chromosomed were interested in it, but that puerility is a masculine formation--a way of performing boyhood, in fact. The simultaneous triviality and momentousness of childhood play is a source of vitality in modern literature, and problematic in the way that primitivism is problematic.

In I Capture the Castle, which I've just been teaching, Dodie Smith imagines Mortmain's modernist breakthrough as a return to origins, as he mimics "a child learning to read and write" (335). His teenaged daughter Cassandra, the narrator, has just undergone a series of experiences that have made her definitively and somewhat painfully leave childhood behind, and she finds his reappropriation of childhood as a figure trivial and confusing at once--as, perhaps, "dressing [his] language in too many Figures." "I feel so resentful!" she says to the novel's exemplary literary critic, Simon. "Why should father make things so difficult?"

The problem with Mortmain's childish, riddling poetics is that its cleverness runs roughshod over actual childhood, and in particular the experiences of his own children, whom he's neglected and failed to provide for for years. Cassandra, the realist, wants to "capture the castle"; in attempting to do so she writes a coming-of-age novel about herself. Mortmain's modernist novel, in contrast, regresses to the scene of learning to read. One can imagine why his daughter might resent his puerilities. She might say to her father, as William Carlos Williams imagines his critics saying to him at the beginning of Spring and All, "I do not like your poems; you have no faith whatever. You seem neither to have suffered nor, in fact, to have felt anything very deeply" (88).

Indeed, Williams positions himself as immature, as one who has not yet suffered. "[T]hey mean that when I have suffered," Williams writes, "I too shall run for cover; that I too shall seek refuge in fantasy. And mind you, I do not say that I will not. To decorate my age. But today it is different." A childish callousness is required for Williams to engage in the literary violence of his poetics. The fantasies of destruction that ensue are straight out of Winnicott. I think that Smith, in imagining the most exciting modernist gesture as one of (male) regression, is onto something, something that Michael North calls machine-age comedy and that Longinus* calls puerility, a delight in and a commitment to the trivial, gimmicky game and ritual repetition, the embrace of travesty so long as the travesty is fun.

This sounds judgmental, but I mean it as descriptive. If puerility is a counter to the sublime, perhaps it is also a needed corrective. It is generative as well as problematic, transgressive as well as regressive. It has much to do with what constitutes modern boyhood. American literature in particular has always loved the "bad boy," but modernist puerility is something more than a rebellion against "petticoat government." What that something is, I intend to find out.

*Longinus very likely didn't write On the Sublime. You know how it goes.

My thoughts on puerility are, of course, related to the meditations of my previous post on gendering Twitter.

Longinus (attrib.). An Essay upon Sublime. Oxford: Leon. Litchfield, 1698. Electronic reproduction. Ann Arbor, Mich. : UMI, 1999- (Early English books, 1641-1700 ; 1705:22).

North, Michael. Machine-Age Comedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle. 1948. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1998. Print.

Williams, William Carlos. Spring and All. 1923. Imaginations. New York: New Directions, 1971. Print.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. 1971. New York: Routledge, 1992.