…still exist, and are frankly still kinda awesome and eerie. Stagy, too, but that’s to be expected. This is the sort of thing I celebrate summer’s arrival with.
You can watch “The Quatermass Experiment” here.
…still exist, and are frankly still kinda awesome and eerie. Stagy, too, but that’s to be expected. This is the sort of thing I celebrate summer’s arrival with.
You can watch “The Quatermass Experiment” here.
I lost my temper this morning on Twitter, and a couple people seemed to like what I was saying OK. I decided to post those remarks here, with, like, paragraphs and things, so that they would be readable. I’m accommodating like that.
This piece, which my buddies at @scMFA Tweeted early this morning, supports a long-held intuition of mine: that undergrad creative-writing courses are popular in part because they do what English 101 used to.
My university was behind on pedagogical trends. When I took Eng 101, we read nonacademic essayists such as Annie Dillard and Frederick Buechner. (I still have a smudged Xerox of “On Faith and Fiction,” even though I bought the book it came from years ago: the sentimental value runs that deep.) And mostly we wrote in that vein, too. There was also a research paper, in which we chose a discipline and learned about both its methodologies and discourse conventions.
In grad school I learned that this approach, which helped me grow as a writer, was considered outmoded, if not outright anti-intellectual. What English 101 should do, I learned, is introduce first-years to “how theory gets used in the academy” (love that passive voice), which in practice meant using Ways of Reading to march the poor kids through the eight or ten continental theorists and scholar-activists who basically are the canon now. (You know the drill: Foucault, Said, Lacan, bell hooks.) If you assigned fiction, poetry, or plays, it was to teach the students to pick through them for signs of “the discourse” of this era, or of the era in which the pieces were written. I.e., you were doing a less sophisticated version of what lit scholars mostly do now: a weird activity somewhere between sociology, psychology, Marxist studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and intellectual history, but that doesn’t really bother with those disciplines’ methodologies. Or, worse, you were doing philosophy, but without the rigor of actual philosophers. (If you want to laugh your ass off sometime, read Not Saussure, in which Raymond Tallis subjects some of the classic English-class nostrums to basic logical spot-checks. Of course a closed system can refer outside itself, you dolts, is one of the points he makes again and again. What do you think vision is?) Philosophy departments are often mean, competitive, macho, and lily-white in composition, but one mistake they mostly don’t make is to treat Foucault as the last word in serious thought.
The problem is that English 101, in these approaches, ceases to be ABOUT anything. It’s not women’s studies, it’s not literature, it’s not a social science. It’s not rigorous enough to be philosophy. It doesn’t provide enough background to be ethnic studies.
And it isn’t really a rhetoric course, either, insofar as it teaches you a couple of variations on what is basically one genre of writing: the academic (generally, you can be even more specific and say “the humanities”) conference paper.
Rhetoric, of course, is about learning the kind of sensitivity that enables you to write and read many genres. And guess where you can still get that training, if you want it? You can get it in undergrad creative writing. At least, you can until we finish professionalizing ourselves.
I’m not a reactionary. I don’t want English 101 to be the class where you learn that white dudes are the only people who can write, and that, more than anything, was the problem with the way a lot of those old-fashioned mode-based or Harvard-daily-theme-based courses were taught. But if it’s a choice between giving students Homer, or giving them a French psychoanalyst who was such a fraud that even the psychoanalysts kicked him out their union? Or the wordy, boring, authoritarian French Marxist who stabbed his wife? Or a bald nihilist who teaches that everything is a prison? Or an often-admirable black activist who doesn’t happen to be a very compelling prose stylist? (bell hooks once complained that she couldn’t get her non-scholarly writing published because the white publishing industry just wasn’t ready for a style as bold and nonlinear as hers. She’s right about the publishing industry, but, having read some of the work she was talking about, I’d have to say that the publishing industry was right about her, too. Gah.)
Really, I think a little Homer would be more intellectually freeing. (Especially if you happen to mention, as classical pedagogy didn’t, that Homer was brown, and preliterate, and oral-formulaic like Jay-Z.)
My point, I guess, is that English 101 is supposed to be a rhetoric course. And the works that we dignify with the name “literature” tend to be nothing other than very successfully exercised rhetorical knowhow. Period. When you go on speaking to an audience, even creating an audience, long after your death, it’s just because you were a great rhetor.
And I’d rather teach rhetoric by working through those sorts of works than by mooning over TV commercials or pop-song mashups or presidential press conferences or the way some fucking corporation rebranded itself.
My field of work, I worry, has the same problem evangelical churches were beginning to develop back when I was growing up in that world (now, of course, it’s so obvious that it’s become a cultural commonplace): to stay “contemporary” or, God help us, “relatable,” they dumb down. Instead of teaching students to memorize poems, so they can taste for themselves just how artfully arranged those syllables are (that artful arranging, remember, is rhetoric), we make sure they all know how to use Twitter and PowerPoint. That’s just like those preachers who abandon theology b/c “Joe Sixpack doesn’t care about theology.” Do your fucking job or go home, people. And if your job involves helping people to be more intellectually alive, it’s both a betrayal of civilization, and an insult to the God-given capacities of the people you claim to serve, if you abdicate that.
Unlike most bibliophiles, I can be an absolutely ruthless culler. My father blanches at the thought of throwing out books he’s hardly touched during my lifetime; I have been known to discard unwanteds at a rate approaching that of a downtown library. It’s probably biochemical. They say the morbidly anxious need to avoid clutter, and if anything piles up faster in my house than books, I have no idea what it might be. (It sure ain’t stacks of money.)
My wife and I are soon moving, and I find myself going through the book collection again, and I find myself thinking about why it is that I keep some things, and toss so many others. My official rule with myself is similar to the old “3-song rule” that obsessive music purchasers used back during the CD era: if you don’t like more than three songs, sell it back. (Some disciplined souls actually applied this at the point of initial purchase: Don’t buy unless you know you like three songs. I’d've missed out on my own teenage years if I’d applied that!) In the case of books, it’s “if you can’t imagine yourself reading or consulting this book more than three times in your life, pass it on.” Like the old three-song rule, this doesn’t work in practice. I don’t know what I’ll think of an album after one listen, and I don’t know what I’ll find myself obsessively turning to many years from now. If you’d told me after my first exposure to him that I’d be a Gore Vidal fan, you might’ve gotten headbutted in the stomach.
For the next little while I’ll be listing the books that survive the latest assault, and why. These are the first ten. They’re not the most important, by any means; they just happened to be on the top shelf.
1. Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
Would I love this book so much if I hadn’t been 20 when I first read it? That’s a mystery as impenetrable to me as the source of Lester’s love for Ann Murray. In any case, I re-read this one every five years, and I haven’t outgrown it yet. Maria Bustillos has said everything I’d have liked to say on this subject already, so I’ll just direct you thence. Her major point (or the one that most matters to me): He was a moralist who happened to write record reviews.
2. Gore Vidal, Selected Essays
It’s a little stingy, selection-wise, but it has “The Top Bestsellers” piece, which is one of the funniest works of cultural criticism ever written, and the inspiration for an almost equally hilarious Anthony Lane piece from 1994 (re: Bridges of Madison County: “It’s a crock of leavings”), and for three amazing series by Open Letters Monthly. (Bring that back, y’all! The fish in those barrels need shootin’!)
3. David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions
I hate the title of this book. It suggests a polemical quickie dashed off in three weeks to answer the success of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. What the book actually contains is a series of long, thoughtful essays on Western history, which show off D.B. Hart’s terrifying erudition and uproarious prose style. Once in a while they also show off a philosophical or political conservatism (not always the same thing) that I can’t get behind, but if I can forgive Bangs his homophobia and Vidal his flirtation with eugenics…
4. The Genius of John Ruskin, edited by John D. Rosenberg
Modern Painters (deeply, deeply abridged edition), John Ruskin
There’s a blurb on the back of this collection that says “For all the density of Ruskin’s sweeping paragraphs, he responds most rewardingly to anthologies.” This is horseshit, but try buying a nice hardback of Modern Painters or Stones of Venice without joining the Folio Society or mortgaging your carriage. You’re effed. So these will have to do. I don’t trust paperbacks the way old white men don’t trust US currency since we went off the gold standard.
5. Mythologies, Roland Barthes
6. The Innocent Eye, Roger Shattuck
7. Visions Before Midnight and The Crystal Bucket, Clive James
Speaking of old white men. Geez. I’m getting embarrassed now. Clive James’s old TV columns, though, are art, and like Bangs’s reviews of often inconsequential records, they brush large issues with their fingertips. (Both writers find themselves talking about Nazis surprisingly often.) As for Shattuck, I have no hope of understanding French symbolism and modernism without him. As for Barthes, he once described plastic like this:
Despite having names of Greek shepherds (Polystyrene, Polyvinyl, Polyethelene), plastic … is in essence the stuff of alchemy. … more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformations; as its everday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible.
Yeah. I can’t do that either.
8. How to Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen
This is the Franzen book to which I actually find myself returning the most. Maybe David Shields is right after all?
9. The Whimsical Christian, Dorothy Sayers
Oh, my Gosh, this book. It contains the quickest and least boring rundown of the major Christological heresies you’ll ever read, one that somewhat intelligibly raises the possibility that the Eutychian heresy might have actual human consequences. It has more than one stirring defense of women’s rights. Also, lots of stuff about Sherlock Holmes and a beautiful account of what Christianity and art have to do with each other. Professional Christian philosophers of aesthetics like to shit on Dorothy Sayers, because she didn’t belong to the guild, and because she wrote in suggestions and hints rather than in exhaustive accounts. And because they’re killjoys.
10. About Writing, Samuel Delany
In the burgeoning (and lucrative) genre of books that aspire to be used in classes for aspiring writers, this is the best I’ve ever read.
Adams divides his discussion of US intellectual life by region, and he’s unimpressed with everybody. The East Coast theological elite had gone stagnant: “Yet the congregational clergy, though still greatly respected, had ceased to be leaders of thought. Theological literature no longer held the prominence it had enjoyed in the days of Edwards and Hopkins. The popular reaction against Calvinism, felt rather than avowed, stopped the development of doctrinal theology; and the clergy, always poor as a class, with no weapons but their intelligence and purity of character, commonly sought rather to avoid than to challenge hostility. Such literary activity as existed was not clerical but secular.” That secular activity is political and surprisingly anti-democratic: the French Revolution scared the hell out of New England’s elites, apparently. He’s not more impressed with the “middle states,” the Midwestern flyover country of his time period, which one is brought up short to realize consisted of New York and Pennsylvania, and as for the South, all the smartest people are arguing for greater isolation between the states. This includes Thomas Jefferson, who had just finished secretly assisting in writing the pro-nullification Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which basically said that states could just ignore any federal laws they disliked. And yet Jefferson emerges as the hero of Adams’s narrative, precisely because, at various big moments, he fails to act on these beliefs.
Meanwhile, the future land of Edison and Tesla is so closed-minded and backward-looking that when a guy came up with a solution to one of its major economic problems—the difficulty of interstate trade—he not only didn’t get rich, he failed so badly that he went all George Bailey on himself.
This conservative habit of mind was more harmful in America than in other communities, because Americans needed more than older societies the activity which could alone partly compensate for the relative feebleness of their means compared with the magnitude of their task. Some instances of sluggishness, common to Europe and America, were hardly credible. For more than ten years in England the steamengines of Watt had been working, in common and successful use, causing a revolution in industry that threatened to drain the world for England’s advantage; yet Europe during a generation left England undisturbed to enjoy the monopoly of steam. France and Germany were England’s rivals in commerce and manufactures, and required steam for self-defence; while the United States were commercial allies of England, and needed steam neither for mines nor manufactures, but their need was still extreme. Every American knew that if steam could be successfully applied to navigation, it must produce an immediate increase of wealth, besides an ultimate settlement of the most serious material and political difficulties of the Union. Had both the national and State Governments devoted millions of money to this object, and had the citizens wasted, if necessary, every dollar in their slowly filling pockets to attain it, they would have done no more than the occasion warranted, even had they failed; but failure was not to be feared, for they had with their own eyes seen the experiment tried, and they did not dispute its success. For America this question had been settled as early as 1789, when John Fitch–a mechanic, without education or wealth, but with the energy of genius–invented engine and paddles of his own, with so much success that during a whole summer Philadelphians watched his ferry-boat plying daily against the river current. No one denied that his boat was rapidly, steadily, and regularly moved against wind and tide, with as much certainty and convenience as could be expected in a first experiment; yet Fitch’s company failed. He could raise no more money; the public refused to use his boat or to help him build a better; they did not want it, would not believe in it, and broke his heart by their contempt. Fitch struggled against failure, and invented another boat moved by a screw. The Eastern public still proving indifferent, he wandered to Kentucky, to try his fortune on the Western waters. Disappointed there, as in Philadelphia and New York, he made a deliberate attempt to end his life by drink; but the process proving too slow, he saved twelve opium pills from the physician’s prescription, and was found one morning dead.
Fitch’s death took place in an obscure Kentucky inn, three years before Jefferson, the philosopher president, entered the White House.
Another thing I learned from Henry Adams’s History (we’re still just in the opening chapters here) was that, for all the Federalists’ emphasis on having a “powerful” (we would merely say a “not completely toothless”) federal government, they hadn’t done much to make the US travel-friendly.
While Europe had thus consumed centuries in improving paths of trade, until merchandise could be brought by canal a few score miles from the Rhone to the Loire and Seine, to the Garonne and the Rhine, and while all her wealth and energy had not yet united the Danube with other river systems, America was required to construct, without delay, at least three great roads and canals, each several hundred miles long, across mountain ranges, through a country not yet inhabited, to points where no great markets existed,–and this under constant peril of losing her political union, which could not even by such connections be with certainty secured. After this should be accomplished, the Alleghanies must still remain between the eastern and western States, and at any known rate of travel Nashville could not be reached in less than a fortnight or three weeks from Philadelphia. Meanwhile the simpler problem of bringing New England nearer to Virginia and Georgia had not advanced even with the aid of a direct ocean highway. In becoming politically independent of England, the old thirteen provinces developed little more commercial intercourse with each other in proportion to their wealth and population than they had maintained in colonial days. The material ties that united them grew in strength no more rapidly–than the ties which bound them to Europe. Each group of States lived a life apart.
Even the lightly equipped traveller found a short journey no slight effort. Between Boston and New York was a tolerable highway, along which, thrice a week, light stage-coaches carried passengers and the mail, in three days. From New York a stage started every week-day for Philadelphia, consuming the greater part of two days in the journey; and the road between Paulus Hook, the modern Jersey City, and Hackensack, was declared by the newspapers in 1802 to be as bad as any other part of the route between Maine and Georgia. South of Philadelphia the road was tolerable as far as Baltimore, but between Baltimore and the new city of Washington it meandered through forests; the driver chose the track which seemed least dangerous, and rejoiced if in wet seasons he reached Washington without miring or upsetting his wagon. In the Northern States, four miles an hour was the average speed for any coach between Bangor and Baltimore. Beyond the Potomac the roads became steadily worse, until south of Petersburg even the mails were carried on horseback. Except for a stage-coach which plied between Charleston and Savannah, no public conveyance of any kind was mentioned in the three southernmost States.
And stagecoaches sucked. It turns out John Ford was way too generous to white people about this (surprise, surprise). Your risk wasn’t getting attacked by “savage Indians” but getting robbed by your fellow passengers. Not to mention that accidents were frequent and drunk-driving was somewhat more broadly indulged.
So you’d think everybody would be all like “Oooh, science will fix it,” since that what we say about much less tractable problems today. But intellectual life sucked too.
I am also reading (and that could be the opening to most of the sentences I ever say) Henry Adams’s History of the United States 1801-1817, which is eight volumes long. I told myself I’d continue till I got too bored, which hasn’t happened yet, and we’re already past the Louisiana Purchase. (If there is not yet a porn star named Louisiana Purchase, there bloody well ought to be.)
So far the main thing I’ve learned, besides that Henry Adams was an amazing writer, is that the US in 1800 was basically a third-world country: obvious enough, but I’d not really thought about it. At one point in the book’s opening six chapters, which depicts the country after three terms of Federalist rule (including Adams’s great-grandpa John), Adams quotes a European travel writer on the typical American period diet:
“I will venture to say,” declared Volney, “that if a prize were proposed for the scheme of a regimen most calculated to injure the stomach, the teeth, and the health in general, no better could be invented than that of the Americans. In the morning at breakfast they deluge their stomach with a quart of hot water, impregnated with tea, or so slightly with coffee that it is mere colored water; and they swallow, almost without chewing, hot bread, half baked, toast soaked in butter, cheese of the fattest kind, slices of salt or hung beef, ham, etc., all which are nearly insoluble. At dinner they have boiled pastes under the name of puddings, and the fattest are esteemed the most delicious; all their sauces, even for roast beef, are melted butter; their turnips and potatoes swim in hog’s lard, butter, or fat; under the name of pie or pumpkin, their pastry is nothing but a greasy paste, never sufficiently baked. To digest these viscous substances they take tea almost instantly after dinner, making it so strong that it is absolutely bitter to the taste, in which state it affects the nerves so powerfully that even the English find it brings on a more obstinate restlessness than coffee. Supper again introduces salt meats or oysters. As Chastellux says, the whole day passes in heaping indigestions on one another; and to give tone to the poor, relaxed, and wearied stomach, they drink Madeira, rum, French brandy, gin, or malt spirits, which complete the ruin of the nervous system.”
Effing foreigners putting down my lifestyle, man.
I’m sorting through my reactions to The Tapeworm Foundry, an amazing long poem? conceptual joke? to-do list? inspirational self-help manual? published by the Canadian poet and cultural critic Darren Wershler-Henry in 2000. (The PDF is here.) It is a series of conceptual-art-project proposals linked only by the phrase “andor,” some of them doable, many of them impossible, and any number of them callbacks to the Romantics or the Dadaists or (in one memorable instance) Borges by way of the opening of Foucault’s Order of Things. Here’s a sample, drawn from the beginning:
litter a keyboard with milletseed so that exotic songbirds might tap out their odes to a nightingale andor transcribe the letters pressed onto the platen when stalactites drip on the homerow keys andor reconstruct the ruins of a bombedout capital i andor reinvent the canonic works of western art as a series of roadsign glyphs andor commission an artist to paint the large ass of marcel duchamp andor use a dotmatrix printer to sound out a poem in which each line is a series of pauses whose length is determined by formatting codes and then record the squeal and lurch of the printhead moving across the paper and then replay the noise and then have it transcribed as chamber music for cello or voice andor compose a text acknowledging that words are fourdimensional objects in spacetime andor write an essay on the collected works of jane austen treating the text as a tour de force lipogram that never once makes use of any characters in the sinhalese alphabet
The last one’s my favorite.
56 pages of this is wonderfully exhausting; I laughed through most of it. Is The Tapeworm Foundry an inspirational punk manifesto listing all the ways that an ordinary day can be irrigated with ‘pataphysical weirdness? Or an attempt to devalue originality and imagination through sheer overproduction? Or a game of “mine-is-bigger” between Darren Wershler-Henry’s imagination and everyone else’s? Or all three? In any case, it’s the least boring hour of reading I’ve spent in at least two or three days.