Monday, April 28, 2008

Causes of History

The historian and the storyteller (novelist, screenwriter) finally are interested in the same question: why do things happen? Why does a man decide to murder his wife? Why does a king invade another country, or start a new religion? Why does someone decide (and do they, really, “decide”) to become a doctor, or a lawyer? The historian Peter Gay proposes, in answer, a “tripartite division of causes into immediate ‘releasers,’ short-ranger dterminants, and long-range causes, and a comprable division of 'worlds' (‘Man lives in several worlds at once, each of them capable of supplying causes’) into culture, craft, and the private sphere.”

I quote from John Updike’s review of Gay’s Art and Act (in Hugging the Shore), an attempt on Gay’s part “to analyze the structure of historical causation by means of those who paint pictures and design houses rather than those who lie for money or kill for glory….” Among the many felicities to be found in Updike’s review is this passage on the utlitity of trying to propose historical causes—come up with reasons--in of itself:
Though….any history is to some extent stylized, the attempt must be made. Otherwise, the nightmare of medieval nominalism is upon us again, and by a kind of Zeno’s paradox of infinte factual subdivision the Achilles of understanding can never overtake the gargantuan tortoise of reality.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Best Poem James Wright Ever Wrote

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

To My Aid, My Prince! How the hell are my tomatoes going to get any light?

Reading Wikipedia today I learn that the Channel Island of Sark has just become the last country in the world to abandon feudalism as a government system.   Intrigued, I read up on Sark, an island of approximately 2 square miles with a population of about 600 people. The whole entry is highly recommended, but by far my favorite paragraph comes at the end:
Among the old laws of the Channel Islands is the old Norman custom of the Clameur de Haro, a legal device which also still exists in the other Channel Islands.[clarify] A person can obtain immediate cessation of any action he considers to be an infringement of his rights. At the scene, he must, in front of witnesses, recite the Lord's Prayer in French and cry out "Haro, Haro, Haro! À mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort!"[2] ("Haro, Haro, Haro! To my aid, my Prince! One does me wrong!") It should then be registered with the Greffe Office within 24 hours. All actions against the person must then cease until the matter is heard by the Court. It is not frequently used; the last recorded Clameur was raised in June 1970 to prevent the construction of a garden wall.[3] The Clameur has been used on occasions since then in the other islands.
A garden wall. Somehow I can’t help thinking that was NOT the function for which “Clamuer” was originally intended. 

The world is very odd.  Excitingly so.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Thoughts On Writing

I’ve been reading Updike’s collected criticism, Hugging The Shore. It’s exactly what you’d expect from Updike—elegance, suavity, compassion. Here’s a selection from a review of Hemingway’s letters which I found surprisingly insightful.   (The Hemingway, I mean: Updike never surprises you with insight.)

…upon receiving the volume of his collected short stoires in 1938, he wrote Maxewll Perkins, “When I got the book and saw all those stoires I knew I was all right as a sort of lasting business if I kicked off tomorrow.”

For this rough, rude, appetitive, and even murderous man had bent his thoughts more intently toward literary immortality and perfection of prose than any American fiction writer since Henry James. His writing competed with his life—at first, with the need to make a dollar and the wish to have a good time; later, with celebrity, ill health, and the wish to have a good time.
In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and ahammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shiny and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.
Thus he introduced the book of stories that certified him, he flet, as “a sort of lasting business.” In all the conditions of convalescence and hangover, in hotel rooms and at his homes in Paris and Key West, Cuba and Sun Valley, he wrote, rising early and lovingly noting the number of words acheivered each morning—a habit left over from his days of counting words for foreign dispatch....   


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Crying Of Lot 49, Pt. I

One of the advantages of having smart, literary friends (besides always having people to drink with, and rail against life's indignities in ways that involve quoting Patrick O'Brian) is being able to discuss books with them. Recently, two such friends (Seb and Jack) engaged with me via email in a discussion of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. I found the exchange illuminating and inspiring. With the permission of both writers, I publish it (slightly edited) here below.

* * *

Seb writes:

.... I hated The Crying of Lot 49. Hated it. Throughout my reading I recalled a conversation about the respective merits of Horace and Ovid with Justin's friend Michael. Michael furnished an articulate and very cogent argument in favor of Horace, a man whose work is as amenable to casual conversation as it is to lasting friendship. Ovid, Michael insisted, is very clever but in the last analysis little more.

This analysis captures my first impression of Pynchon. He is certainly a precocious and very talented writer, but he seems to me predictable and (worst of all literary sins) tedious. I have no cause to doubt Tim's verdict that Pynchon writes circles around DeLillo, but from what little DeLillo I have read, that, as our friend Mr. Dreyer likes to say, "ain't setting the bar too high." I found myself wondering, despite Pynchon's capable description of the drug, how many of his admirers have ever used LSD-25.

Tim warned me I would not like the book if I did not find it funny; though names such as Genghis Cohen, KCUF, and K. da Chingado ought to have amused me, for whatever reason I found them puerile coming from a writer of such skill. If you will permit me the liberty of a rather strange metaphor, reading The Book of the New Sun was a volatile affair with an intransigent, mendacious woman whose intellect beggared my own and whose surpassing beauty was only visible when she held her head against the light at a very specific angle. By comparison, my trudge through The Crying of Lot 49 seemed a date with a elegant and whorish débutante whose complacent East-Coast banter trilled an exquisitely phrased discourse about nothing at all, and I was constantly looking at my watch, willing the night to end. Though she revealed an alluring phantasm of personality as I bowed my farewell, I crumpled her number and banished it to the back of my wallet among the many slips of paper I will ultimately discard.


* * *
Jack replies....


Perhaps our difference of opinion is more than literary--the trilling debutante whom you'd casually discard would, for me, become a passion and then a madness and eventually a treasured and hated failure. As for her counterpart, the brilliant and volatile beauty, I would likely overlook her, as I don't spend enough time in places with natural light. Query: Do men who like certain kinds of books prefer certain kinds of women? Do women know that readers of certain authors are more likely to favor particular characteristics or natures? I shall read only Erica Jong, Ernest Hemingway, and Sigmund Freud henceforth, and I shall read them in public places, hopefully.

I am not sure, however, that The Crying of Lot 49 is best characterized as a polished but insubstantial society girl, or even a manque Dorothy Parker. To the contrary, I think that its "exquisitely phrased discourse" (nicely said) is saturated with humor, caustic observation, and feeling. Rather than saying it's about nothing at all, I'd say it's about Oedipa's confrontation with nothing at all, as her odyssey reveals, or perhaps creates, an unexpected world (and an unexpected Oedipa) in counterpoise to the empty lunatic calm of her daily life. For purposes of giving the novel a female avatar, then, I'd have to go with someone like a grad student in English who tends bar on weekends and wonders why she's always bored.

Tim hits the nail on the head in saying that the novel doesn't work if you don't find it funny. Unlike many of Pynchon's fans, I do not think that the peculiar names are all that good. I do think that the songs are. Best of all, though, are the set-piece scenes and the characterizations. Metzger's seduction of Oedipa while they watch the submarine drama is one; the continuation of their affair to the tuneful strummings of "The Paranoids" is another. Inverarity's encounter with an upset PANista on a Mexican beach is a third. Shot throughout the novel are the oddnicks, loners, obsessives, cripples, weirdos, and outcasts who rely on WASTE for their secretive communications, a set treated lovingly and hilariously. The ludicrousness behind the minatory facade of Yoyodyne and the post office and the suburban paradise with a bone-bottomed lake is essential.

An under-appreciated aspect of the book is its emotive power. Pynchon's descriptions of banality and heartbreak are unerringly authentic. My favorite instance, and one of my favorite instances in Pynchon's repertoire, is the explanation of Mucho's dread of used car dealerships. As you'll recall, he worked in one and hated the reputation that came with it, to say nothing of the disconsolate task of cleaning up other people's throw-aways. The description of the hopelessness of those cars, and by extension their owners, is as fine and true a piece of writing as I know. Mucho's abhorrence of the used-car salesman look (wide lapels, big grin, greased hair) and his insistence on using only water on his own scalp is masterful depiction. His inability to commit himself to KCUF and his subsequent personal destruction by way of LSD, resulting in Oedipa's final alienation, also come to mind as examples of Pynchon's concern for the human affairs. I also love the entire Inamorati Anonymous sequence, which resonates true and sad.

I mention these particular passages and qualities because I think they're often over-looked in discussions of the book, which tend to focus on its relationship to post-modernism as either icon or critique. Bandying about the term "post-modernism" is dangerous to anyone not in the trenches of critical theory, but I'll use it here in a very simple sense, as a reaction against the dominant intellectual, social, governmental, and artistic hierarchies that existed during and immediately after the Second World War. In that sense The Crying of Lot 49 is essentially post-modern. Pynchon's evocation of the weird tracklessness of post-war California, with its octopus-like defense contractors (Yoyodyne) and grotesque real estate developments (San Narciso) and comfortably hopeless alienation (Mucho; Oedpia), is simply inspired. Terrain of that sort makes refugees of everyone, necessitating and justifying the book's fixation on banality, identity, paranoia, conspiracy, and loss. That Pynchon chooses to explain Maxwell's Demon and thereby highlight concepts of entropy is a trade-mark flourish, dense and scientific and wholly pertinent to the novel's theme, mirrored in Gravity's Rainbow with Pavlov and causality. What does anything mean after the war, after the obliteration of all the old orders? At the novel's beginning, Oedipa and Mucho are wholly lost--each having affairs, he with nymphets; each psycho-analyzed but discontented; Oedipa bored at home and Mucho oppressed at work; Oedipa has sacrificed her last possible escape by breaking with Inverarity and is wondering at expiration date of her physical and sexual attractiveness. Hilarious, a hiding Nazi who claims to have driven a patient mad with a face, looms large as California's answer to the Maas's doldrums, a pusher of science and drugs. Oedipa's adventure as executrix of the will is a reaction to all of this stale hopelessness, even if it is taken as wholly delusional. She'll seek meaning, any meaning, over the one that prevailed at the novel's beginning. Mucho, of course, doesn't; he simply gets hooked on acid and becomes a sated non-entity.

The book's cultural awareness is astounding. You get all the good references that you expect from a post-modern novel--winks at the Beatles, at the war, at politics, at the drug culture, at Nabokov, at Bartok, at Lockheed, at Greene, at John Webster and John Ford. Does anyone read Webster anymore? I certainly never had, and in the days before Wikipedia had to look into what a "Jacobean revenge tragedy" might be. The incorporation of the "Courier's Tragedy" into the narrative is technically exquisite, using inherent creepiness, the promise of revelation, and a threatening prescience to sharpen the paranoid edge of the novel into a razor.

Speaking of "The Courier's Tragedy" and paranoia, one of the book's many virtues is its ability to generate a real sense of mystery and dread in the reader. Contrary to you, Sebastian, I did not find the book predictable. Having read it a number of times, I still find myself shivering when the Tristero's assassins fall on the courier in the play, when Oedipa wanders the city at night looking for muted horns and signs, when she finds her new acquaintances disappearing one by one through the gruesome logic of the tragedy, and most of all when she arrives at the auction house for the crying of lot 49. Each reading leads to a reevaluation of what's happened--is there a conspiracy, was Inverarity playing a joke, is Oedipa hallucinating or deluding herself? Pynchon admirably refuses to tilt his hand and closes the novel with one of the best endings I've ever read. I credit the multiplicity of possible readings, the tautness of the mystery, and the many-layered provocativeness of the ideas (e.g., Maxwell's Demon; entropy; certainty/uncertainty; or post-war ennui; military/suburban rigidity/sickness (Hilarious); paranoia as a real of invented explanation/raison d'etre/effect; Tristero and conspiracies) to Pynchon's acumen. Only a labyrinthine and strange and wonderful mind could concoct such a story and place such ideas into it.

I wrote "many-layered provocativeness" in the last paragraph, which doesn't really mean what I want it to mean. What I want it to mean is that all of the aspects of the book that I've discussed or are familiar must be dumped into a common pot and stewed if the book's to be savored properly. It's Pynchon's ability to be hilarious and arcane and perspicacious and sympathetic all at once that is excellent. His language alone is beautiful. When he manages to wed it to a coherent or semi-coherent idea, as he does in The Crying of Lot 49, then it's astounding. A book of conspiracies lends itself to inter-weaving, of course, but anyone who's ready anything about conspiracies knows that most of their chroniclers are ham-fisted small-minded idiots. Most fiction writers who try their hands at conspiracy stories also fail. But Pynchon's book isn't simply a conspiracy story. Rather, he uses conspiracy and paranoia incisively to explore interesting questions about identity, awareness, place, and knowledge. The book is your East Coast debutante or my grad student talking in a funny impassioned way about despair and how she's afraid that it will creep up on her in the night.

Apologize for the disjointed and long remarks. I do love the book, though, and felt some response warranted.