March 23, 2007

Comedy of Errors

Filed under: comics, ephemera, humor, literature — ted @ 12:00 pm

From the most recent New Yorker:

By the way, the New Yorker’s new website is a colossal improvement on the last one — you can even see all the cartoons from each issue.


February 27, 2007

The Special Risks of Poetry

Filed under: censorship, literature, politics — ted @ 12:09 pm

A report in yesterday’s Guardian describes a book of poetry written Guantánamo Bay detainees that is to be published later this year, and the legal trouble it has encounter on its way to publication:

Many of the poems deal with the pain and humiliation inflicted on the detainees by the US military. Others express disbelief and a sense of betrayal that Americans – described in one poem as “protectors of peace” – could deny detainees any kind of justice. Some engage with wider themes of nostalgia, hope and faith in God.

But most of the poems, including the lament by Al Hela which first sparked Falkoff’s interest, are unlikely to ever see the light of day. Not content with imprisoning the authors, the Pentagon has refused to declassify many of their words, arguing that poetry “presents a special risk” to national security because of its “content and format”. In a memo sent on September 18 2006, the team assigned to deal with communications between lawyers and their clients explains that they do not “maintain the requisite subject matter expertise” and says that poems “should continue to be considered presumptively classified”.

The defence department spokesman Jeffrey Gordon is unsurprised that access to detainees poetry is tightly controlled. “It depends on what’s being written,” he says. “There’s a whole range of things that are inappropriate.” Of course poetry that deals with subjects such as guard routines, interrogation techniques or terrorist operations could pose a security threat, but Gordon is unable to explain why Al Hela’s poem is still classified, saying “I haven’t read any of these [poems]”.

February 15, 2007


Filed under: censorship, literature, politics — ted @ 10:40 am

A handful of praise-worthy writers and publishers have joined forces to create Glorifying Terrorism, a collection of science-fiction stories intended to purposefully break a confusing and controversial “ban on the ‘glorification of terrorism'” which is part of the UK’s Terrorism Act of 2006.


February 8, 2007

On Articulating

Filed under: criticism, literature, politics — ted @ 5:45 pm

On her excellent blog, Gwynn Dujardin considers what it means when white people call blacks “articulate” (referring to Lynette Clemetson’s Times piece, in light of Joe Biden’s description of Barack Obama). She makes a number of excellent points, and then launches into a fascinating study of language in Shakespeare. Noting that “Shakespeare himself was famously damned with faint praise when fellow playwright Ben Jonson praised him in spite of his ‘small Latine and Lesse Greeke.'”, she explains:

Shakespeare’s debts to the “white rhetorical tradition” he studied at his Stratford Grammar School are nonetheless evident in other forms of verbal dexterity. Students in humanist grammar schools would learn to write, and then orate, by imitating the style of their classical exemplars. In particular, students were taught to cultivate their own rhetorical style by putting the ancients’ ideas in their own words; the more copious – which is to say, the more faithful and prolific — the imitation, the more distinctive the student. When we laud Shakespeare for his ability to “see all sides” of an issue, we are marking his skill in “varying the phrase,” his ability to articulate any given idea in other (indeed many other) words.

In fact, I (personally) believe Shakespeare has endured as an icon because we cannot pin him down, with exact certainty, to any one position. Where Ben Jonson is relentlessly didactic, to the point of closing off discussion, “ambiguity” in Shakespeare enables us to keep talking about him, and to continue to discover contrasting points of view. Harold Bloom has thus described, and lauded, Shakespeare as “bottomless.” For a U.S. Presidential candidate, however, it’s known as “wishy-washy,” or “flip-flopping” (Slick Willie indeed).

December 28, 2006

A Whole Imbroglio of Capabilities

Filed under: books, literature — ted @ 4:56 pm

I’m presently working my way through Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, and it makes for tough-going. The text is difficult not only on account of Carlyle’s notoriously elaborate and eccentric prose, but because of the text’s near Kierkegaardian level of indirection. The narrator (not Carlyle) is an Englishman who is in possession of a disorderly collection of papers left by a German professor, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, who developed a “philosophy of Clothes” which encompasses all of life. The meaning works on a wide range of levels: the professor is clearly a pastiche of Hegel, and Transcendentalist philosophy in general, but he’s also — just as evidently — very dear to Carlyle, and certain parts of the professor’s story are autobiographical. Add to this the fact that it aims to communicate deep truths about human existence while simultaneously mocking the very effort.

Presently, I’m one hundred pages in, which puts me at the beginning of the middle. The good stuff is still to come. Carlyle’s detachment and ability to pile on detail and mockery effectively lull the reader into a false sense of boredom — and then he’ll hit you with a passage like the one below. The Professor is writing about his post-university days, and the feelings of possibility and despair he is experiencing. It hits close to home:

“Not what I Have,” continues he, “but what I Do is my Kingdom. To each is given a certain inward Talent, a certain outward Environment of Fortune; to each, by wisest combination of these two, a certain maximum of Capability. But the hardest problem were ever this first: To find by study of yourself, and of the ground you stand on, what your combined inward and outward Capability specially is. For, alas, our young soul is all budding with Capabilities, and we see not yet which is the main and true one. Always too the new man is in a new time, under new conditions; his course can be the fac-simile of no prior one, but is by its nature original. And then how seldom will the outward Capability fit the inward: though talented wonderfully enough, we are poor, unfriended, dyspeptical, bashful; nay what is worse than all, we are foolish. Thus, in a whole imbroglio of Capabilities, we go stupidly groping about, to grope which is ours, and often clutch the wrong one: in this mad work must several years of our small term be spent, till the purblind Youth, by practice, acquire notions of distance, and become a seeing Man. Nay, many so spend their whole term, and in ever-new expectation, ever-new disappointment, shift from enterprise to enterprise, and from side to side: till at length, as exasperated striplings of threescore-and-ten, they shift into their last enterprise, that of getting buried.

I’ll write a full review of Sartor Resartus after I finish it, but I may have to post more fragments along the way.

November 21, 2006

Why ask Why?

Filed under: criticism, literature, poetry — ted @ 12:43 pm

English poets have long felt the need to defend or explain the importance of poetry. The first major example of this is The Defence of Poesy by Sir Philip Sidney in 1583, and the best known is Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, in which Shelley makes the famous assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Modern poets feel this strain particularly, for our age is one in which poetry is not frequently read and poets are cast to the sidelines of culture. (Whether or not this is the usual state of affairs for a poet — in any age — is up for debate).

A great example of the genre is an essay by Adrienne Rich from this past weekend’s Guardian. She begins by breaking free of a few of the traditional vagaries used to defend poetry, insisting that poetry “is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong.”

After summarizing and dismissing the argument that the power of poetry has been diminished in a post-Holocaust era, Rich attempts to stake out some ground for poetry, after recognizing the particularly contemporary difficulties it faces:

Poetry has been written-off on other counts: it’s not a mass-market “product”, it doesn’t get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles; it’s too “difficult” for the average mind; it’s too elite, but the wealthy don’t bid for it at Sotheby’s; it is, in short, redundant. This might be called the free-market critique of poetry.

There’s actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it’s unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together – and more.

Critical discourse about poetry has said little about the daily conditions of our material existence, past and present: how they imprint the life of the feelings, of involuntary human responses – how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger. That pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognise it or not. A great many well-wrought, banal poems, like a great many essays on poetry and poetics, are written as if such pressures didn’t exist. But this only reveals their existence.

But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, “There is no alternative”.

Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What’s pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images – is it the constriction of literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism – a stunted language? Or is it the great muscle of metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom – that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the “free” market. This on-going future, written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented.

You’d do well to read the whole essay. After that, if you’re interested in reading some of Rich’s own poetry, I would recommend Diving into the Wreck.

(The painting pictured above is “The Cremation of Shelley”, by Louis-Edward Fournier.)

November 2, 2006

Burglarize a Nobel laureate

Filed under: bookish, literature — ted @ 10:57 am

And make of yourself an example for a larger point about the cultural and political situation in your country.

Last week, Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer was robbed in her house in Johannesburg. She was unharmed, although it seems she was roughed up a bit after refusing to give the robbers her wedding ring.

A week later, Gordimer was keen to view the incident from the other side. The robbers, she said, are products of a society grappling with the legacy of South Africa’s past. “I know that South Africa has a terrible problem with crime, with violent crime. But I don’t think the answer is more police. I think we must look at the reasons behind the crime. There are young people in poverty without opportunities. They need education, training and employment. That is the way to reduce crime,” she said.

A similar, though more violent, South African burglary is described in the novel Disgrace — written by countryman (and fellow Nobel Laureate and Booker Prize winner) J. M. Coetzee — which was just named the “best novel of the past 25 years” by the Guardian.

November 1, 2006

Sylvia Plath’s “Ennui”

Filed under: literature, poetry — ted @ 5:41 pm

A newly discovered poem by Sylvia Plath, “Ennui,” is now available on the literary journal Blackbird.

The poem was discovered Anna Journey, a graduate creative writing student at Virginia Commonwealth University, and was written while Plath was in college, contemplating themes from The Great Gatsby.

I wish I could tell you that the poem is totally awesome, a precious gem which the world would be lost without. But it’s just another Sylvia Plath poem, and not one of her better ones…

October 23, 2006

Sentimental Drivel

Filed under: criticism, literature — ted @ 5:03 pm

I’ve always found Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be pretty awful, at least as a work of literature. As a cultural icon, and a harbinger of change, it was quite successful — but reading it today is rather painful. James Baldwin, in a 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” berated Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality,” a critique I agree with wholeheartedly.

So it was interesting to read, in this weekend’s New York Times, two related considerations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. First, there’s an essay by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who thinks Baldwin’s “canonical critique [is] ripe for reassessment.” He makes a decent case, but doesn’t effectively address the novel’s crippling sentimentality, and doesn’t mention the poor quality of Stowe’s writing — I suppose he either takes it for granted, as something to be overcome, or doesn’t think it’s poor.

In a review of the The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which is edited by Professor Gates), critic Edward Rothstein summarizes past and present critical responses to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Again, his conclusion is less than satisfactory — he even makes a sentimental plea of his own.

It’s very interesting to me is that fact that one of the most popular influential novels in the history of the English language is so poorly written. We know that popularity and quality are not necessarily, or even often, bedfellows, and it’s worth remembering that influence and quality have a similar relationship.

October 20, 2006

Pamuk: a “detached father”

Filed under: culture, literature — ted @ 1:56 pm

Fascinating editorial by Elif Shafak in today’s Guardian, in which she analyzes the relationship between writer and public in modern Turkey, focusing on Orhan Pamuk. Essential reading.

Here’s a sample:

Ever since the end of the 19th century Turkish society has been in a hurry. Abdullah Cevdet, one of the most radical thinkers of the late Ottoman Empire, asked despairingly “how long has it taken the western world to reach the level of civilisation that they now enjoy? Four hundred years perhaps? Can we wait that long?” His conclusion was that in order to catch up with western civilisation the flow of time had to be speeded up. This was the task that fell upon the Turkish intelligentsia – to quicken the flow of history, to expedite the process of westernisation – placing writers at the forefront of efforts to mould Turkish society.

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