Thursday, January 31, 2008

Listening Notes

Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam. In retrospect, it seems churlish to complain about a band’s "direction" when they are capable of a record as delightful as Strawberry Jam. Suddenly, I've become obsessed with it. Its surfaces do seem a bit shinier, smoother, than other Animal Collective music, and the vocals are definitely cleaner, clearer, and higher in the mix. But still, this music is addictive, and, as ever, the sense of controlled chaos is thrilling. "Peacebone", "For Reverend Green", and "Fireworks" are the standouts. Also, there's rarely much cause to quote lyrics from an Animal Collective song, but somehow this line from "Peacebone" makes me happy: "The other side of takeout is mildew on rice. "

Robert Wyatt – Comicopera. I parenthetically highlighted "Be Serious" in this post, but in fact it's my least favorite song on this excellent album. One might think this is because the opening lyrics are trite: "I really envy Christians, I envy Muslims too/It must be great to be so sure/Like a top Hindu or Jew." But really, it's Wyatt's singing of these opening words that irritates the hell out of me. Wyatt's voice was an acquired taste for me, and I've come to really appreciate it and his phrasing. But it's annoying here. The rest of the album is great; I'm not sure I think it's as good as Cuckooland, but I'm not complaining. It's pretty much alternating with Strawberry Jam in the competition for my obsessive attentions of late.

Neko Case. In my short wrap-up of my year in music, I'd expected to expend more words than I did on Neko Case's wonderful, enigmatic Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. I didn't even say anything about her beautiful voice. But then, what is there to say? (A question that is a sure sign that, once again, I've drawn a blank.) On Scraps' advice, I'm moving backwards through her catalog, one album at a time. To that end, I've picked up Blacklisted. Early verdict (after about a half-dozen listens): quite good. As expected it has more of a country feel.

Deerhoof – Friend Opportunity. I'd meant to say this in the earlier post, but I completely forgot: after having trouble with this album all year, I spent some quality time with it in November and December (which is to say that I listened to it over and over again for several weeks, alongside my continuous play of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, much to Aimée's dismay), and now I don't know what my problem was. This is perfectly good Deerhoof music. Which is to say that it's mostly great. It's very short, which I think was part of my problem with it (but then my complaint about Runners Four was that it was too long, so what the fuck?). The first nine songs speed by, the songs seeming to run together, before we get to the comparatively aimless and quiet (but plenty interesting) 12-minute closer, "Look Away". I'm sure I wasn't even paying attention with those several early spins (excuses: iPod, work), and the next thing I'd know the album was over, leaving me with nothing to hang a verdict on. In fact, those first nine songs, beginning with the great "The Perfect Me", and including "+81", "Choco Fight", and "Whither the Invisible Birds", are exhilarating. It helps their cause to have Satomi Matsuzaki on lead vocals. (Greg Saunier's lead on "Cast Off Crown" comes dangerously close to generic indie Death Cab vocal, thus amounting to the weakest aspect of the nine songs, but even that song brings the serious guitar and drums glory).

Other recent acquisitions: new cds from Jackie-O Motherfucker (Valley of Fire) and Six Organs of Admittance (Shelter from the Ash) (net cd reduction: 54). Neither of these albums break new ground for these artists, but I'm enjoying them. The Jackie-O cd, I think, is more interesting than the last couple of have been. The Six Organs is not quite as good as either School of the Flower or The Sun Awakens, but those are both great albums, so that's ok (incidentally, the Pitchfork review of the new one is just terrible).

Music writing elsewhere:
Some great year-end thoughts from janedark. On M.I.A.; on Britney Spears (with a nice paragraph on Neil Young's archival Massey Hall concert album); on Miranda Lambert & Taylor Swift and pop critics and what they notice; on Lil Wayne and the possible "near-future" for the album as a form.

Also on M.I.A. and The Wire and the idea of "Neoliberal Grotesque", see I Hear a New World.

And a while ago, John at uTopianTurtletop had a thoughtful response to Carl Wilson's new book about Celine Dion and the question of taste (Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste). One quote that appealed to me from John's post:
Persuasive history of how elitist sensibility shifted from defending cultural hierarchies (classics high, pop genres low) to seeking the unattainable ideal of cultural omnivore-ism. This nails me to my wall. I have a humanist defense of at least partial omnivore-ism, which I don’t think Carl would disagree with: People love their cultures for reasons; the more we can understand why and how others do, the more we can love as well; more love is good. Let’s love!
I know I've read some good stuff that I'm leaving out, but my back hurts and I'm tired, so I'm out...

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Debtor Nation

Michael Hudson is a name I've been seeing a lot of lately, particularly through the recommendations of Stan Goff. Hudson is a Wall Street financial analyst, and author of the book Super-Imperialism (which I really need to read). Today, I read this interview (pdf) with Hudson, conducted by Acres USA (link again found via Stan Goff, in a comment he posted to this post--"Bubble Bubble"--at Feral Scholar). The interview is titled "Debtor Nation: The Hijacking of America's Economy" and is well worth reading. It begins with a discussion of the sub-prime crisis, covers the Chicago Boys in Chile, the looting of Russia, the "anti-country" of Panama (including its purposes for the trade in oil), and hits on Thorstein Veblen, Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan, and the Democratic candidates for president. Here is a fascinating passage in which Hudson talks about the Unites States' balance of payments deficit:
HUDSON. [...] The United States became a true deficit country after August 1971, when President Nixon took the country off gold. Once European and Asian countries and their central banks could no longer turn in their surplus dollars for gold, they had only one choice, and that was to invest their international monetary reserves in the form of U.S. Treasury bonds. Central banks don't invest in the stock market, they don't buy real estate, and they don't buy companies — at least not until recently. They buy government securities because those are the most secure. So the United States found that the larger the balance of payments deficit became, the more dollars it would pump into foreign economies. The recipients of these dollars, either exporters or sellers of companies, would turn the surplus dollars over to their central banks in exchange for domestic currency, and then the central banks had a problem — what do they do with these dollars? The only thing they could do was to buy U.S. Treasury bonds.

ACRES U.S.A. That would add up to a lot of bonds.

HUDSON. Yes, the balance of payments was so large and pumped so many dollars bonds, or they wouldn't buy these dollars — they would let them be sold on the market, and their currency would appreciate against the dollar. This would have raised the price of their exports to foreign countries, causing unemployment in their export industries. When they complained about the U.S. payments deficit, the U.S. government said "That's your problem, not ours." The United States found that it could run a balance of payments deficit without ever having to pay for it — and today, the U.S. Treasury owes $2.5 trillion to foreign central banks.

ACRES U.S.A. That's an astronomical debt!

HUDSON. There is no way in which the U.S. economy can repay $2.5 trillion. Of this amount, about half is owed to China, and all the while dollars continue to be pumped into the global economy. In effect, the United States is exporting paper dollars, or paper bonds, and other countries are exporting goods and services and selling their corporate stocks and natural resources in exchange. The dollar is getting a free ride from this. As far as it is concerned, the debts owed to foreign central banks are never going to be repaid.

ACRES U.S.A. Don't these nations know this?

HUDSON. Yes, but as yet they have no political response. That would require changing how the overall international payments system works and also break the U.S. economy out of the global orbit, isolating it until it can give a quid pro quo for what it buys. A change would also require restructuring European and Asian domestic economies to replace dollar-export markets with their own domestic market. So foreign countries could indeed refuse to accept more excess dollars, refusing to sell out to Americans, and try to develop their internal market. But the German government is so anti-labor that it refuses to build the internal market, and the Chinese — like the Germans — continue to produce chiefly for export.

ACRES U.S.A. Why did they do this? Why does Germany with its high unemployment rely on this world trade, and the same with China, when they have their own internal economies they might service?

HUDSON. Because they don't seem to care about their internal economies, except to go on waging the old class war. That is how mainstream economics is taught these days — and why I stopped teaching academic economics for many years. Many people have tried to explain why European central bankers are so idiotic when it comes to this system. One suggestion is the "Stockholm Syndrome": When somebody is kidnapped, the victim tends to identify with the kidnapper, the victimizer — and there is an idea in Germany, in England, and other countries that no matter what, they have to do whatever the U.S. government recommends. It's a passive mentality. But for Europe and Asia to behave in this way violates every theory of how international relations are supposed to work. In theory, every nation is supposed to act in its own self-interest. But in today's world it seems that only the U.S. government is acting in this way. It is understandable why the United States would love to pay paper dollars and get foreign resources for nothing. It's not understandable why foreign countries go along.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Shared Moral Universe

Chris Knight, Marxist anthropologist and author of the brilliant and inspiring book Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (which I wrote about here), has a website which includes links to several pdfs of his articles and papers. Today in the Evolution of Language section, I came across this fascinating paper called "The Human Revolution". I think it's well worth reading. In it he explains why the emergence of language must be explained in Darwinian terms, and how that emergence might have occurred (here using a necessarily shorter version of his theory outlined in Blood Relations). Here is a passage from near the end:
The 'human revolution' became consummated as coalitionary resistance to philandering drove up the costs of 'selfish' male strategies to the point where they were no longer affordable. With this source of internal conflict removed, enhanced community-wide trust transformed the context in which communication occurred. We have seen that signals may become conventionalized wherever trusting listeners can be assumed. The establishment of stable, 'blood'-symbolized kin-coalitions allowed 'brothers' and 'sisters' to trust one another as never before. Signallers no longer needed to ground each communicative performance in hard-to-fake displays whose intrinsic features inspired trust. Trust, in other words, no longer had to be generated signal by signal – it could be assumed. With this problem removed, even patent fictions could now be valued as evidence from which to reconstruct others' thoughts. Language consists entirely of fictions of this kind.

Humans who had undergone the revolution, then, no longer had to stage a 'song and dance' each time they needed to appear persuasive. Costly ritual performance remained necessary, but only because each individual’s initiation into and subsequent commitment to the speech community could be signalled in no other way. Once such commitment had already been displayed, coalition members could cut their costs, replacing indexical display with a repertoire of conventionally agreed shorthands (see Knight 1998, 1999, 2000). Since these low-cost abbreviations – 'words' or 'proto-words' – were tokens in the first instance of group-level contractual phenomena, they could be honest without having to be grounded in anything real. Reality-defying performances upholding community-wide moral contracts are familiar to anthropologists as 'religion' (Rappaport 1999). Once humans had established such traditions, they found themselves communicating within a shared moral universe – a socially constructed virtual reality – of their own making.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Endless Variations on a Drearily Glossy Theme

k-punk, excellent as ever on the homogeneity of capitalist culture, and the need to recognize what was worth keeping about the past, without engaging in fatuous nostalgia (a theme nicely dovetailing with some of my concerns here):
'Diversity' and 'choice' are of course the very names by which today’s homogeneity goes. Yet it is by now clear that it is not 'paternalistic' but consumer-driven broadcasting that leads to infantilisation, and that a proliferation of barely-rejigged formats does not constitute choice.

[...]

What is important, now, is not simply a nostalgia for an earlier time, but a rescuing of what was valuable in that era from its slandering in the false memory that neo-liberalism has installed and naturalised - a task characterised by Dan on The End Times as 'reinterpreting the past in order to find a way out of the present'. From the commanding heights of the post 89 End of History, the pre-Style, pre-consumer 70s represents in time what the Soviet Union represents in space: stagnancy and shortage. Yet public funding yielded more than the dreary State propaganda or dour Reithian austerity that neo-liberalism painted as its sole products. In the December issue of Sight and Sound, Ian Christie reinforced the point I made about Tarkovsky in Marxist Supernanny:
Tarkovsky is now generally acknowledged to be a great artist… But it is worth recalling just how much his genius owed to the limitations and freedoms of being a Soviet film maker. Back in 1981, well before the Soviet edifice began to crumble and before his own defiant departure into exile, Tarkovsky walked a tightrope between being the USSR’s highest profile director and a standing reproach to its values … Russian culture of the Soviet era was Tarkovksy’s culture, despite his contempt for its pettiness and mendacity.
[...]

Once again, the point is not to indulge in Old Left nostalgia for the Soviet state apparatus. The point is to correct the misapprehension that neo-liberalism has successfully propagated that only capitalism can produce a vibrant culture. Not only is it by now clear that the ‘dynamic’ culture of ultra-precarious capitalism would never produce something like Tarkovsky’s films, it is beginning to appear that - as Jameson suspected over a decade ago - unchallenged and unsheathed capitalism cannot produce any sort of vibrant culture at all, only endless variations on a drearily glossy theme.

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Notes on Early Beckett and Waiting for Godot

[The following is condensed from two posts begun last year, closer to when I actually read Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Watt, and Mercier and Camier. I think I had larger purposes in mind when I began the posts, but was unable to find the time to do anything further with them. I'm posting it here in part because they seem related to my recent entries. The words have been modified and updated for clarity, though it necessarily remains more scattershot and unfinished than I would like.]

Imagining Samuel Beckett to be a particularly difficult writer, I'd long delayed my reading of him. Then a couple of years ago, I eagerly snapped up a used copy of A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett by Hugh Kenner. I expected I would begin reading Beckett soon and wanted some company. I began at the beginning, with Murphy. I always like to begin at the beginning, when I can. Beckett at this time may have still been in thrall to Joyce's influence, as I've seen said a few places, but I enjoyed the novel. I love its famous opening line: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." Like I said, I love the line, though I can see what might be overly precious about it, overly poetic. In any event, I found Murphy by turns hilarious and bewildering. Part of my bewilderment, I'm sure, stemmed from my unconscious insistence that the world of the book conform to the world outside the book. Beckett will have none of this. Here is Kenner on this point:
A novel, in short, is a novel, not a map of the familiar world, and Beckett's novels differ from most in the consistency of their insistence upon this principle. If God wrote the script of the familiar world, he laid down also the principles that govern in it the possible and the impossible. Beckett's covert suggestion appears to be that these principles are as arbitrary as the rules of chess, which likewise state what is possible and impossible.
"Arbitrary": this word jumps out at me these days, very likely because of the influence of Gabriel Josipovici (other words jumping out at me lately: "certainty"; "trust"; "tradition"; "faith").

Again Kenner: "Clearly the author of Murphy had insufficient faith in 'the novel' to return to that form with any ambition of improving his management of it."

I think it was my bewilderment with parts of Murphy that held me back, along with what I still perceived as Beckett's "difficulty". But, more than a year after reading Murphy, in the wake of reading Josipovici's On Trust, I decided it was time to get on with reading Beckett. So, I decided to read Kenner's book from the beginning. I'd noticed that the first chapter is about Waiting for Godot. Finally reading the introduction in full, I learned why:
. . . Beckett was a long time finding his way, and beginning at the beginning is a mistake. To make anything at all of his earlier work one needs to sense the quality of his mature imaginings. Fortunately, there is a sanctioned place to begin. Nearly everyone encounters Beckett through Waiting for Godot, so my commentary does the same.
Ok, so beginning at the beginning is a mistake. I can see that. If a writer took a while to get going, his or her early work could put a reader off from tackling the good stuff. Fortunately, Murphy is entertaining enough, though it's evident that it wasn't quite what Beckett was about. So, on Kenner's advice, I read Waiting for Godot. As ever, it's strange reading a play. We forget to remember that the words are meant to be performed on a stage. The temptation to read the words too quickly is strong. And reading the actor instructions is not the same as seeing an actor following them (assuming the actor manages to follow them correctly). And the play is so famous that the temptation to look for significance is strong. Yet Kenner compares the play's Vladimir and Estragon to Laurel & Hardy, which seems to undercut that temptation. Though he also notes the similarity of the play's setting to occupied France under the Germans, the waiting in the play to that waiting that must have been endured by Resistance operatives:
Here is perhaps the playwright's most remarkable feat. There existed, throughout a whole country for five years, a literal situation that corresponded point by point with the situation in this play, and was so far from special that millions of lives were saturated in its desperate reagents, and no spectator ever thinks of it. Instead the play is ascribed to one man’s gloomy view of life, which is like crediting him with having invented a good deal of modern history.
He is not, of course, suggesting the play is about the Resistance. In fact, he specifically argues against the tendency to make it be about anything larger than what it is: a play, that is, about waiting.

Readers of this blog may have noticed that for months now I've quoted a line from Waiting for Godot at the top of the blog: "Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?" It's the kind of line that, taken out of context, seems to say something about our complicity in the world, especially the complicity of those of us living relatively well, while others suffer. I say this, knowing that it's perhaps not right to quote such a line from this play in this way, and yet the line appeals to me, speaks to me, so I take it and use it for my own purposes.

Incidentally, the short novel Mercier and Camier, which I also read last year, and which was written in French in 1946, soon after Watt, but not published until 1970, very much seems to me to be a rough draft of sorts for Waiting for Godot. You have the same sort of Laurel & Hardy-ish banter, this time in service not of waiting, but of planning a sort of journey, that never quite comes off.

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Bullying the Reader

My last post reminded me of the final paragraph from Hugh Kenner's chapter on Watt, in his A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett. But before I present that, let me give some background. In the chapter, Kenner is discussing the uncertainty of the narrative of Watt, its "provisional" nature. If you've read Watt, you will recall that we encounter several instances of extremely detailed uncertainty. Watt cannot be sure about anything, and Sam, the narrator, who gets most, but not all, of his information from Watt, can only be as sure as Watt is about those things that Watt tells him. For example, Watt approaches Mr. Knott's house, where he is to be employed. The house is dark, and Watt goes from the front to the back door, and back again, finding both locked, until finally the back door is unlocked:
Watt was surprised to find the back door, so lately locked, now open. Two explanations of this occurred to him. The first was this, that his science of the locked door, so seldom at fault, had been so on this occasion, and that the back door, when he had found it locked, had not been locked, but open. And the second was this, that the back door, when he had found it locked, had in effect been locked, but had subsequently been opened, from within, or without, by some person, while he Watt had been employed in going, to and fro, from the back door to the front door, and from the front door to the back door.

Of these two explanations Watt thought he preferred the latter, as being the more beautiful. For if someone had opened the back door, from within, or without, would not he Watt have seen a light, or heard a sound? Or had the door been unlocked, from within, in the dark, by some person perfectly familiar with the premises, and wearing carpet slippers, or in his stockinged feet? Or, from without, by some person so skilful on his legs, that his footfalls made no sound? Or had a sound been made, a light shown, and Watt not heard the one nor seen the other?

The result of this was that Watt never knew how he got into Mr. Knott's house. He knew that he got in by the back door, but he was never to know, never, never to know, how the back door came to be opened. And if the back door had never opened, but remained shut, then who knows Watt had never got into Mr. Knott's house at all, but turned away, and returned to the station, and caught the first train back to town. Unless he had got in through a window.
I copied out this passage without remembering and before noticing again that Kenner had used most of the same passage as "characteristic of the narrative movement" in the novel. Indeed, elsewhere, for another example, we learn about the food that is prepared for Mr. Knott, the leftovers of which, when there are any, are given to "the dog", and there follows an elaboration on various possible permutations and historical conditions that occurred to Watt surrounding the preparation of the food, and availability of the dog, and the history of the dog's (or dogs') handlers, who may or may not be the Lynch family, about whom we learn all kinds of extenuating details as well. And this goes on for some 20 pages. Not that by the end of these pages Watt has necessarily exhausted the possibilities, but he has perhaps settled the question to his necessary satisfaction:
But it did not last long, this concern of Watt's, not very long, as such concerns go. And yet it was a major concern, of that period, while it lasted. But once Watt had grasped, in its complexity, the mechanism of this arrangement, how the food came to be left, and the dog to be available, and the two to be united, then it interested him no more, and he enjoyed a comparative peace of mind, in this connexion. Not that for a moment Watt supposed that he had penetrated the forces at play, in this particular instance, or even perceived the forms that they upheaved, or obtained the least useful information concerning himself, or Mr. Knott, for he did not. But he had turned, little by little, a disturbance into words, he had made a pillow of old words, for a head. Little by little, and not without labour.
In just this sense, perhaps the narrative can be permitted to move on, sufficient attention having perhaps been given to these matters. These passages, this scrupulous attention detail, are amusing, at times quite funny, and rhythmic, often fun to read, though at times tiring. I found it helpful to read portions of the novel aloud, though the symmetry of the paragraphs, the rhythmic flow of the details, at times allowed the sense of the words to evade my understanding.

Anyway, Josipovici in On Trust had alerted me to the narrative issues that faced the Modernists, that the certainty, the narrative control, of the 19th century novel was a problem for writers like Kafka, Proust, Beckett. And as I read Kenner's Reader's Guide, I found myself in familiar territory. Beckett would not, could not, simply write a traditional novel. With reference to Watt and these precise, detailed lists of things that didn't happen, he says, "[so] many trivia are entoiled in such uncertainty that the author cannot make with any confidence the simplest narrative gesture. And being scrupulous, he itemizes the possibilities: so much can language do, and the mind do." And so, Kenner closes his chapter on Watt thus:
The book chokes, therefore, slowly, on its own internal elaborations, redeemed however--this is nicely calculated--by the ceremony, the rhythm, in short the great formal beauty of all those gentle scrupulous sentences. Provisionality, from being a point of epistemology, becomes almost a point of etiquette, as though to affirm anything at all--to affirm that Watt passed through a door--would be a discourtesy to the reader, a bullying. Sam, the narrator of Watt, though we know him only by the manners of his prose, is excellent company, agreeable, unintimidating. Watt is like a rope of sand, dissolving before our eyes as it is narrated, but Sam is never ruffled, never ruffled.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Proust and the Problems of Writing

A little over a year ago, I wrote about the impulse to write, and those thought processes that have prevented me from writing. I wrote about the impossibility of saying anything new. If I wasn't going to say anything new, the thinking went, why would I bother to write at all? For—to repeat myself—a great many things have already been written about a great many topics. Later, I wrote about my sense of enveloping chaos when I look on the various forms available to the fiction writer. How does one choose the correct form? What makes a form "correct"? How does a writer make these kinds of decisions? These questions paralyze me, and yet I note that we have no shortage of writing, no shortage of people taking the time to put pen to paper, or keystroke to screen, no shortage of novels. My sense is that the questions bothering me are of little concern to most of these writers. I don't necessarily mean that as condemnation of those who don't share these concerns. But what motivates them? Is it sufficient to note that we live in a time that is awash in self-expression? Writing is viewed by many as a means of this self-expression. Fine. But what does it mean to express the self? What is this self in need of expressing? (I think of a line from Robert Wyatt's "Be Serious", a song from his latest album, Comicopera: ". . . self-expression's such a fraud./I mean how can I express myself/when there's no self to express?")

When I think of writing (always thinking of writing, not often enough actually writing), when I think of writing, when my mind alights on a certain topic, unfolding a sentence, a pleasing phrase, even whole paragraphs, instead of writing these words down, all too often I think then of conditions, I think of counter-arguments, problems that must be attended to, historical contingencies that must be accounted for before I may begin writing. Other things, that is, that, perhaps, must be written first. Other things that perhaps rely on extensive knowledge I don't have. Or perhaps I do have some of the needed knowledge, but I envision the effort necessary to compose this all important preamble, the background data needed to show that I've considered other viewpoints, that I've done my reading, that would demonstrate that I have the right to take up a reader's (any reader's) time with my impertinent babble, and I blanch, I back away, I fail to begin. Hedging my bets, always like this coming up with reasons not to write, I then don't write. Then, the mind not always (or, indeed, often) having my best interests at heart, I think to myself that surely a "real" writer would have written nonetheless, a "real" writer would have a notebook at bedside, ready to take down words that come, a "real" writer would, instead of being afraid of losing sleep (valuable, treasured, precious sleep) by turning on the light and jotting down some notes, running through these words in his mind, would in fact lose a little less sleep by getting up, turning on the light, writing.

Reading In Search of Lost Time, I sense in Proust a writer struggling with similar sorts of questions. I imagine a writer with a story, such as it is, and a set of related themes and topics, and an urge to write, but who does not see how he could possibly tell this story or explore these themes in the traditional fashion, who does not see how he can justify such an account without sufficient preamble, without sufficient considerations of all that might have been left out if he simply wrote a traditional novel.

Let me give an example. In part 2 of Within a Budding Grove, volume 2 of In Search of Lost Time, the Narrator is on holiday with his grandmother in Balbec. After a time, the M. and Mlle de Stermaria enter the picture, and our Narrator is immediately taken with the daughter, "her pretty face, her pallid, almost bluish complexion, the distinctiveness in the carriage of her tall figure. . ." Unfortunately, her father's haughtiness and constant presence by her side often prevents the Narrator from easily getting a good look at her. Then there is a chance, as her father leaves their table to go speak to another hotel resident. But, inevitably, he returns:
But I was obliged to take my eyes from Mlle de Stermaria, for already, considering no doubt that making the acquaintance of an important person was an odd, brief act which was sufficient in itself and, to bring out all the interest that was latent in it, required only a handshake and a penetrating stare, without either immediate conversation or any subsequent relations, her father had taken leave of the president and returned to sit down facing her, rubbing his hands like a man who has just made a valuable acquisition.
This is a trivial passage in the course of In Search of Lost Time, and I've chosen it for exactly that reason. It contains little of the beautiful ruminations, little of the "keen sight" (to invoke Nabokov) that marks so much of these books. It seems to me that there is little likelihood that it is a passage that would catch the eye of a reader underlining phrases worth remembering. And if you've heard that Proust can be excessively verbose, well, I doubt that this short passage will disabuse you of that notion. I've noted the passage, because I was more than usual (perhaps due to the relative brevity of the sentence) struck by the fact that we are not simply told, "I was forced to stop staring at the Mlle, because her father had already returned to her side.” In fact, very rarely are we told something in so straightforward a fashion. Intervening phrases are always offered, reasons, conditions, further observations in support of what seems to be the sentence's main point. My sense is that Proust did not think he could justify simply moving the father back to the table. I see this as a tiny example of his larger problem, which was that he felt that he could not simply write a "normal" novel, that he did not feel he was justified in autocratically imposing his story on the reader. If Valéry claimed that he could never write a novel, because writing a novel would mean, at some point, writing something so pedestrian, so arbitrary, as "the marquis went out at five", then perhaps Proust sensed this problem keenly, but as a novelist he had to find some way to deal with it. He sensed that he did not have the right to simply assert that M. de Stermaria had returned. So: he needs him to return, he observes, well, after all, it doesn't take so long, does it?, to make the acquaintance of a certain personage, doesn't take so long to shake this personage's hand, and, really, what else is needed in such an encounter?, surely the encounter and the handshake, the acknowledgement, is enough; surely, then, the M. having accomplished this much, surely then I can say that he has returned to his daughter's side? Will you, dear reader, not feel that I have over-stepped my bounds if I do this much?

Again, I chose this example for its relative insignificance, as well as its brevity. There are other, longer, more detailed, more integral examples of this. Indeed, it seems to me that the whole of In Search of Lost Time represents, in part, a coming to terms with this sort of narrative problem (to the extent that I may be permitted to speculate on the nature of the whole, having only read volume 1 and nearly finished reading volume 2). I imagine Proust thinking: How can I fully explore memories of childhood if I don't animate the distinctions between voluntary and involuntary memory? How can I describe the many shades and gradations of society life and snobbery and elitism, if I don't give detailed sketches of each of the various grades? How can I mention Swann's "appalling marriage" if I don't discuss his affair with Odette? How can I talk about Odette if I don't explain the Verdurins? How can I explain the Verdurins if I don't elaborate further on society? If I haven't discussed the Verdurins in sufficient depth, or elaborated enough on snobbery, how can I possibly justify embarking on an account of Madame Swann's salon?

Maybe all of this just means that Proust was simply incapable of editing, incapable of selection, incapable of brevity, incapable of coming to the point. Maybe all this talk about the viability of forms, of justification, of arbitrariness, of trust, the problems of narrative, of writing, maybe it's just a bunch of critical hogwash. Plenty of people don't seem troubled by them. Maybe, but I don't think so. I admit that, as a reader, it's only recently that I have given much thought to these sorts of questions, in part due to the influence of Josipovici. However, as a potential writer? As a writer these problems have always vexed me, whether I articulated them as such or not. In fact, they bothered me so much, at some primal level, that I simply refused to write. I refused to believe that there was some justification in simply writing, that one could write without being concerned about what had gone before, without being concerned that one was not being thorough, that one was taking everything into account that needed to be taken into account (where, as a reader, I had granted the other writer total authority to do whatever he or she chose). As a potential writer of fiction (for the problem is not only for the writer of fiction, I think), the problem was more pronounced: I would consider a novel that I enjoyed, and I would be simply unable to imagine how the writer had come to write it as he or she had. How had the necessary decisions been made? How had the writer known to make the decisions appropriate to this novel? "Talent!" you may cry. The writer has talent, a gift, an inspiration (and of course the writer works). Yes, perhaps. Though something tells me there's more to it than that, that assuming talent (admittedly, a big assumption), the writer must still decide. And the writer consumed by these kinds of questions must find a way to write that he or she can live with. Proust, if the problems he encountered while writing fiction in any way resemble the problems I am talking about here, far from being incapable of selection, or of making a decision, was instead incapable of writing in a way that he felt was false. Without comparing myself to Proust, I think that my task is similar, in the following sense: I must discover a way to write, to write anything, that is true to myself.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Listening Year 2007

How do I explain my utter indifference to Radiohead's In Rainbows, which everyone seems to think is awesome? It's true that I generally don't care for their previous album, Hail to the Thief. But still, Amnesiac is the album prior to that, and I'm always saying that it's their best (which it clearly is). So why the lack of interest? A few reasons, I think. First, I was unimpressed by the whole pay-what-you-like download gambit. I mean good for them and everything, but I had a hard time getting worked up over it as this great revolutionary act. Besides, I still don't like downloading albums. Second, as reported earlier, my relationship towards music has changed, I think irrevocably. I no longer care much about keeping up with new music. I still occasionally feel that tug of curiosity when I read about this or that record, but rarely enough of one to pursue much further. This doesn't mean no more new records, but it does mean I'm being a lot more parsimonious with my music funds. (And for the time being, it still means that what I can't get with trade-in funds, I can't get.) Third, and this time more specific to Radiohead, though still not much of an explanation: I don't know, somehow I just don't care. There was something about the nature of the transition from Amnesiac to Hail to the Thief that has made this listener lose almost total interest in new Radiohead music.

So, at least for now, no In Rainbows.

However, even without new Radiohead, I did have a pretty good listening year in 2007. In line with the second point above, and as expected, there was no end-of-year best-of music post here at The Existence Machine, but here is some of the music I spent a lot of time with:

Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. It took a couple of listens for me to warm to it, but over the course of dozens of listens since, this has become one of my favorite albums, period. I love every moment of it. Even after excessive exposure, it still seems to me to be somewhat mysterious. I'd love to say a lot more about it, but words are failing me. It's great, that's all. I'd never paid any attention to Neko Case before now, but I expect to be looking into her back catalog.

Bill Callahan - Woke on a Whaleheart. This is not the essential album that certain Smog releases are (Red Apple Falls, A River Ain't Too Much to Love, Wild Love, The Doctor Came At Dawn, Dongs of Sevotion), and on the first few listens, I didn't find much to like at all. But I kept coming back to it. If I was listening to it, I was listening to it obsessively, every day, possibly a few times a day, for several days on end. There's something about it that is both awkward and compulsively listenable. Overall, it doesn't seem to me that Callahan's lyrics are as memorable or as interesting as usual, but his rich baritone is always a pleasure, and the music has an easygoing yet still prickly atmosphere. It could be likened to classic rock, and yet I'm not sure what specific classic rock I could fruitfully compare it to. The opening track, "From the Rivers to the Ocean", probably the best song on the album, does have some lines I like: "Have faith in wordless knowledge"; "I could tell you about the river/or/we could just get in"; "And it's hard to explain what I was doin' or thinkin' before you". I'd say that "The Wheel" has a real hootenanny flavor, except that I've never experienced a hootenanny. But it feels communal and joyous, and I like how he speaks each line before he sings it. Other songs are loose and casual, inviting but not at the level of great Smog songs of the past. This is the kind of minor catalog album that reminds me of an artist's greatness. (Though if Callahan settled into a groove releasing only this kind of thing, I think I'd lose interest.)

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raising Sand. I was surprised as hell when I heard about this collaboration. Then I read about it in detail in The New York Times, and I was convinced I would buy it. I love Led Zeppelin, of course, and Plant's solo career has been pretty damn good, all things considered. But as he's gotten older, Plant's voice has become much better suited to mellower fare than to trying to belt out something like "Black Dog" like he's 25. I'm thinking of something like "29 Palms", my favorite song on the uneven Fate of Nations album. Here, he sounds great singing rockabilly and country rock, and he and and the excellent Krauss mesh very well together. My only complaint about it is that T-Bone Burnett's production sort of smoothes out some of the edges, which can create something of a somnolent effect on this listener. But this is a real treat.

Panda Bear - Person Pitch/Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam. I preferred Person Pitch to the group's Strawberry Jam. The latter has seemed at times overly shiny, and though I've liked each phase of the group's development, with each release Animal Collective gets further and further away from something elusive that drew me to them. For some, Feels was a sign that the group had fashioned an "indie rock" version of their sound. I wasn't concerned; I love Feels (again, I can listen to the gorgeous "Banshee Beat" all day long, and sometimes do). But Strawberry Jam is perhaps evidence that they've settled into that polished version of their previous selves a little too comfortably. Don't misunderstand: Strawberry Jam is quite good, and I'm liking it more the more I listen to it, but if you listen to the fragile Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished or the utterly strange and marvelous Here Comes the Indian maybe what I'm saying will start to make sense. . . I don't know, maybe not. Person Pitch, on the other hand, is glorious and significant evidence by itself that the collective still has a lot of excellent music to offer. (To be fair, Strawberry Jam isn't really evidence that they don't.)

The Necks. My favorite "new" band. Naturally, they've been around for more than a decade and have several recordings, all available (or not) as expensive imports. Awesome. Just what I need in my life these days. Anyway, Chemist was my second favorite album from 2006. It has three tracks, each about 20 minutes long. It comes up on iTunes as "jazz" and you could call it that, but somehow that seems not quite right. It's minimal at times, improvisational. They elaborate on themes, creating wondrously beautiful trance effects out of simple elements: bass, drums, piano, maybe some guitar, some electronics. I love it. When we visited California in April of last year, I looked for their other albums at Aquarius in San Francisco. I found several, all fairly expensive, as CDs go; most of them featuring one hour-long track. I ended up walking out with two: Hanging Gardens and The Boys. The latter, a soundtrack to a film by that name, features shorter tracks, none over eleven minutes. I chose it just for that reason. Now I wish I hadn't--not because I don't like it, but because Hanging Gardens convinces me that the Necks need more room in which to operate. It's a single hour-long track, and it's simply wonderful. Now I am coveting all those albums I left behind, especially Aether, and I also have my eyes on the four-cd (and priced accordingly), four-track Athenaeum, Homebush, Quay & Raab. Plus, apparently there was a new live album released in 2007 that I missed, called Townsville.

Those were the main high points of my year in music. LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver has like three or four great songs, and I listened to those songs a lot. As ever, I spend a lot of time listening to Bob Dylan, the Mountain Goats, Sonic Youth, the Rolling Stones, and loads of other records that now escape me. A lot of time enjoying the virtual radio of my iPod on shuffle. And that's about it.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Notes on Holiday Book Acquisitions

I packed only two books for our holiday traveling in part because I've finally learned that it's foolish to overload luggage with excess books, in part because I wanted to restrict myself to reading Proust, and in part because I knew that I would probably acquire some books while on the visit, either as gifts or through my own used book-store shopping. And so I did.

I found the following books at Moe's in Berkeley:

Gargoyles - Thomas Bernhard
The Vice-Consul - Marguerite Duras
Four Novels - Marguerite Duras (contents: The Square; Moderato Cantabile; 10:30 on a Summer Night; The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas)
The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick - Peter Handke

From Shakespeare & Co., also in Berkeley, I found a nice used copy of the King James Bible. Josipovici, in The Book of God, convinced me that I should really have a copy of this and try to spend some time with it. Happily, I was able to find one that actually looks like a real Bible, with black cover and thin pages, not one of those Penguin paperback deals.

With Gargoyles, I now have three unread Bernhard novels at my disposal (along with Correction and Woodcutters), plus the memoir, Gathering Evidence, so I have some reading to do.

I know that the Handke is not the favorite of certain readers, but it's the most well known (I think), and I'm curious. Plus, it's short, and I like the title. (Apparently it was recently reissued.)

I also received numerous books for Christmas, of course, most of which did not have to be lugged back from California:

Montano's Malady - Enrique Vila-Matas
Either/Or, Part I - Søren Kierkegaard
Critique of Practical Reason - Immanuel Kant
The Making of the English Working Class - E.P. Thompson
The Hamlet - William Faulkner
t zero - Italo Calvino
Dhalgren - Samuel Delaney
Doomsday Book - Connie Willis

Montano's Malady has been receiving praise from all the right places, as far as I'm concerned, so it was high on my list. (With a gift card, I also picked up Vila-Matas' Bartleby & Co., along with the Hollander & Hollander translation of Dante's Inferno, which I am very excited about.)

I've written more than once here about anxiety I've had towards my reading. With philosophy I've long felt a desire to read it but an uncertainty on where or how to begin. There's so much of it, and later philosophers, I gathered, built on earlier ones, so did I have to read it in chronological order in order to make sense of the conversation? I don't know, but Josipovici's brief discussions in On Trust of Either/Or made me really want to read Kierkegaard, and made him seem somehow less imposing. Kant is Aimée's favorite philosopher, so her welcome idea is that we're going to tackle the Critique of Practical Reason together.

The Making of the English Working Class fits right in with my history-reading project; I've been interested in this one for a while. In fact, I was quite surprised and thrilled to receive it.

The Faulkner, Calvino, and Delaney books are each sort of outside my short-term reading plans, but are all books that I have wanted to read, so that's cool. The Connie Willis novel is the true wild-card, a gift from my father (as were the other three). He called it a great time-travel story. Sounds like it might be fun for a break from a lot of the heavy lifting I have planned for this year (with Proust, Beckett, Kierkegaard, Kant, and E.P. Thompson possibly taking up the bulk of the year right there!). . .

And that about wraps it up. . .

Fleeting thoughts on holiday reading

We traveled to California for Christmas, and contrary to normal practice, I took only two books with me for the flights and the four-day visit. I was already a third of the way into Cees Nooteboom's All Souls' Day, so that was book one. But reading proved difficult. People talk, and I have a hard time tuning them out. No doubt the problem is basically mine, and yet it still seems to me that the middle-aged guy rocking out to classic rock, easily audible through his headphones and my earplugs, was a little unnecessary. And then the Denver airport: CNN surely pays airports and waiting rooms to keep the channel on all day long, right? No one watches. There is no avoiding it.

From late in All Souls' Day: "Mindless chatter, slot machines, a blaring TV. What did you have to do to escape the world's vulgarity?"

I often feel an odd nostalgia for a time I never knew. A time when there was quiet, when I might have been able to walk into a coffee shop, order a drink, and sit and read without having to hear music, any kind of music, or see the flickering light of a television. An airport? I must be joking. Invariably, I envision the scheduled hours spent waiting, and invariably I foolishly imagine time spent reading. But I never seem to think of the constant noise, the announcements, the people, the overhead televisions. . .

In All Souls’ Day, Arthur Daane, a documentary filmmaker and a cameraman for hire, spends his free time taking film of those things, those times, that go undocumented, thinking about lost time: his, his friends', history's. He seeks out the times of day that don't provide the kind of light normally needed for decent shots. Twilight; early morning. Or, as he sees in a friend's photo collection, in which "all the pictures . . . seemed to deal with things that had almost vanished but had been caught just in the nick of time." A picture of cloud patterns:
That one irretrievable cloud drifted through the air, moving slowly over the landscape like a zeppelin, watched by people who were long dead. Yet because of the photograph, that cloud had become all clouds, that nameless mass of water particles, which had been there from the beginning of time, long before mankind had arrived on the scene, had turned into those scudding formations, the stuff of poems and proverbs, usually taken for granted, until one day a photographer came along and gave this most transient of phenomena a paradoxical kind of permanence, and made you realize that a world without clouds is unthinkable and that every cloud, no matter when or where, represents all of the clouds that we have never seen and never will. Pointless thoughts, which nevertheless went through his mind because those photographs, and the effect the photographer was hoping to achieve, had something to do with what he himself was trying to achieve--to save things that didn't need to be saved because they were always there.
Even with the noise, I did complete All Souls' Day on the trip out, leaving me with an opportunity to get a good start on book two during the visit and on the return trip: Swann's Way. But I had trouble. Aimée's father and step-mother live in what is in many ways a quiet neighborhood, but which is also pretty close to a highway. Traffic is usually clearly audible. This often proved enough of a distraction to prevent me from getting any traction with the book. It's true, I should be able to tune out what is essentially white noise. Clearly I have some attention problems. But still, I ask, is it too much to hope for, a quiet room?

Even so, I begin Swann's Way. Things are familiar. I am amused, again, that the Narrator takes his sweet time. It takes sixty pages before the famous madeleine makes its appearance, just after he has introduced the idea of "voluntary memory, the memory of the intellect":
It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture [our own past]: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.
Later on, in the middle of the "Combray" section, he recalls his room, his adventures reading, and his grandfather asking him to go outside:
And as I did not wish to interrupt my reading, I would go on with it in the garden, under the chestnut-tree, in a hooded chair of wicker and canvas in the depths of which I used to sit and feel that I was hidden from the eyes of anyone who might be coming to call upon the family.
And my own mind wandered. How I longed for such a garden, away from traffic and television and music and prying eyes! I imagined myself in the scene, that very garden, under that very tree--there, surely, I could find the quiet place I desired; there, surely, I could sit and read Proust, without bother. Then I imagined the Narrator, as a boy in that garden, imagined that the book he was reading was the very book I was trying to read, that is, Swann's Way. But of course, the boy in that garden could not have read Proust: Proust did not exist for him. I pondered the idea, that Proust himself did not, could not, have the experience of reading Proust. The writer reads his own words, of course, re-writes, edits, approves for publication. But this is not the same. Just as we will inevitably miss out on reading much in our lives and necessarily be unable to read books that appear after our death, the writer cannot enjoy the experience that others experience reading his or her own work. Possibly a point not worth making, but my mind remained fixed on it. It seemed sad, somehow, that the great writers--who are also great readers--lacked the experience of reading themselves. My mind wondered what Beckett would think of Beckett! Would Kafka have wanted Kafka's writings destroyed if he himself were not Kafka? A ridiculous question!

Interestingly, these books share some similar concerns: the retrieval or preservation of elusive moments, of lost moments, the problems of memory. Arthur Daane, in some ways, is trying to escape, or ignore, the memory of his wife and child, who had died in a crash years before. But they re-emerge, unwonted, seeming just as real as they ever did. And then they're gone. Perhaps as a way to sidestep this question, he ruminates instead on history itself, in this case the history of Germany. He ponders the scars left by history, by the War, by the Wall, by the now-eliminated division between West and East. And he shoots his film, capturing those interstitial moments that no one notices, no one else records. Proust's Narrator, of course, is recreating an entire lost world, of which the ability to remember he locates not in the intellect, or in sight, or even touch:
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
I like this idea, that taste and smell don't really awaken a memory within us, but rather they lie dormant, "waiting, hoping" to unleash the memory upon us. Having tasted the madeleine, he is aware that a memory was jostled, was trying to come to the fore, but was gone, a "fleeting sensation", before it all comes flooding back to him.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Goodbye Sharp Side

Late yesterday, I noticed that Ellis Sharp has announced, after a few days of hinting, the end of his excellent blog, The Sharp Side. I'll miss him; The Sharp Side has long been one of my favorite stops on the web.

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