January 05, 2005

Beach reading

Posted by shonk at 02:25 AM | permalink | 2 comments

I’ve just returned from the beach (okay, I actually got back yesterday), which, at least partially, explains why there have been no updates in the last week.

Anyway, as anyone who knows me at all well would expect, I spent far more time at the beach reading than doing anything else (though I did do a few other things). And let’s just say my choice of reading material didn’t exactly fit the stereotype of what one is supposed to read at the beach. Instead, I finally decided that it was time for me to read Proust’s Swann’s Way and Goethe’s Faust. For those that haven’t read them, I highly recommend both (though I have to admit that Proust is a little hard to get into).

To encourage those that, like myself up to last week, have been putting these books off, I’ve compiled a couple of lists of my favorite quotations. In deference to those who actually speak French and/or German, I’ve also managed to track down the original, untranslated version of each (and yes, this took a really long-ass time, but it was sort of fun). Thus:

Selections from Swann’s Way

Selections from Faust


(Coming soon, selections from my third beach-read, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations)

November 28, 2004

More Babylon, less Waste Land

Posted by Curt at 08:58 AM | permalink | 4 comments

This is a time for resuscitating some strange literary ghosts. Take this little paeon to e.e. cummings. Cummings doesn’t really hold any particular interest for me in his own right; his little word-games are amusing enough, maybe, but they give me about the same feeling as playing vintage original-Nintendo games. It’s barely entertainment, through a pretty heavily nostalgic filter. And yet the reviewer, maybe the author as well, I don’t know, seems to be trying to set him up as some kind of martyr for uncompromising, imperishable art. To me, the value of being uncompromising in art is not a lot higher than it is in, say, marriage. And in any case, cummings’ little doodles just don’t really even evoke the pathos even of the selfish isolated aesthetic mind like, say, the works of Ambrose Bierce. Whether comic or tragic, they were in any case written for the amusement and digestion of just a few, which these critics seem to consider all for the best, but, somewhat inconsistently, the fact that they have only been, throughout much of the last century, appreciated and admired by the select strikes them as profoundly unjust.

Where did the invocatory strain, and more importantly its appreciaton, go in poetry? The greatest period in English poetry, after the Elizabethan, is the early Romantic period. There’s nothing particularly impenetrable about most of Keats, or Shelley, or Wordsworth. There’s nothing like the ideal that Wallace Stevens expressed negatively in condemning Eliot’s poems because “they do not make the visible / a little hard to see” (if not Eliot then for God’s sake who—that’s practically the only thing with which he concerns himself). Let me put it another way—when scientists talk about the beauty of some law in physics, Newtonian gravitation, for example, or general relativity, are they praising Einstein’s ability to make the simple obscure? Of course not, quite the contrary, because while the phenomena and the concepts his work evokes are indeed confoundingly obscure, and respecting their complexity is a pre-condition for the veracity of the solution, his grand achievement, and the reason people find aesthetic as well as scientific value in it, is because it brings relative simplicity and clarity to a realm that would otherwise be a miasma. To be able to explain so much, so comprehensively, upon such a simple and solid foundation, that amazes humanity.

There seems something purer and more instinctive in that aesthetic response than in probably the majority of the poetry-reading community because scientists don’t belabor and over-refine their aesthetic criteria, in fact they probably weren’t even looking for beauty until it manifested itself. The connection is that, in its greatest periods, poetry had that effect as well. Great poetry, like all great art and again, like scientific theories, is as complex as it needs to be and no more so. The simplicity of those great poems by the Romantics is the source of their power, because rather than conducting us into an isolated hermetic realm like Eliot or cummings, they have a resonance throughout our existence. They speak one great message at many different levels, rather than many messages confusedly and contradictorily. To take another example: the cathedral of Chartres does not impress with the convoluted or complicated nature of its effect: it is rather the pure and deep simplicity of the work which is breath-taking, and even the complexity of the structure inspires admiration primarily for how it concentrates and elevates that one great goal. Among the great poets, the work is so deeply instinctual that it seems almost unconscious or auto-didactic, virtually spontaneous.

That strain didn’t last very long in English poetry. In America we had a prolongation of a similar level of enthusiasm and of high quality in Whitman, Hart Crane and maybe a few others (maybe even Stevens himself). But that vein, like its equivalent in Latin America, quickly got bogged down and tattered by politics. The only place in the West, I think, that preserved that spirit until at least quite recently is Russia. Russia’s literature for the past 200 years has been the greatest in the world, without even any close competitors. There are no doubt many reasons for that, not the most insignificant being that the great Russian Romantic, Pushkin, made a deeper impression than his counterparts in the West, and has indeed never been discarded or even forgotten or disregarded for a moment. He, and the great ones following him, from Lermontov to Blok to Arseny Tarkovsky, speak simply but never plainly, like prophets. Their invocations express more and demand more than anyone else’s. The same spirit is apparent even in prose: who else could have written at the beginning of a novella, like Tolstoy: “his life was most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” No writer anywhere in the world can match the integrity, apolitical and yet with profound political consequences, and the brilliance of Solzhenitsyn. Pasternak complained that all the Russian writers except Chekhov preached to their readers. But the issue is not whether there’s any value in Dostoyevsky’s mysticism or Tolstoy’s Christian pacifism, but rather that only they had such an exalted view of the depth of the issues and the task confronting the writer, and no one else ever had such an ability to carry it out.

I used to think I loved Russia because nowhere else did it seem like poetry and the intellect were so honored. But France, for example, is just as obsessed with literature, but with a profoundly different effect. There’s something more ordered, more self-satisfied and ultimately more limited about the spirit here. The great poet and musician Vladimir Vissotski complained that, as much as he admired France, he and his audience in France could never understand each other. For the French, a song is simply a song: after-dinner entertainment, or a poem, whereas he could never understand how it could only be that.

My point is not that we should all be less materialistic and focus on poetry more. That’s what American poets spend their careers doing as a self-justication, and you don’t have to even observe the current state of Russia to guess at the negative consequences of that. Rather, it seems to me that poetry can only really be important, and beautiful, when it’s a part of life, when it’s breathed and spoken, not when it becomes a matter of little word-puzzles for professors or an impenetrable edifice with which to chastise the unlettered masses and provide careers for innumerable academics in deciphering it and hunting down allusions and influences. Poetry seems to be one of the few genres that has escaped the politicization of literary criticism in America, but, since political interpretation seems to be the highest form of honor that American academia bestows, that doesn’t say much for the vitality of poetry there.

p.s. I’m inclined to be open to the view of hip-hop as a form of popular native poetry, but that raises far too many issues to be addressed at the moment. Suffice it to say that, whatever one’s view of its aesthetic value, I think in that realm most of the same patterns are evident as in literary poetry, which I have just delineated.

November 24, 2004


Posted by shonk at 06:11 PM | permalink | 6 comments

As most of you have no doubt noticed, I tend to buy a lot of books. Aside from the fact that I’m something of a compulsive reader, I’m really enamored of the whole ritual of owning a book, from the initial purchase to the freedom to dog-ear and underline to the imposing solidity of a well-stocked bookcase.

That’s all completely irrelevant to my point, other than to establish that I buy a lot of books. And, increasingly, the books that I buy, especially books published in the last decade or so and aspiring to literary merit, are adopting a sort of rough matte finish as a necessary part of good cover design. Apparently there’s something about matte finish that graphic designers think screams this book has literary merit.

Now, admittedly, there’s something more compelling about the matte-finish-and-chiaroscuro-graphics school of cover design than the glossy-cover-and-embossed-letters school that reigned supreme in the ‘80’s and still dominates in the thriller/romance sector of the market. The understated look certainly suggests greater intellectual depth.

But I wonder if it’s necessary to make the matte so rough that it actually gives the book a distinctive, gritty texture. The other day I bought five books at the local Barnes & Noble, and four of the five had a distinctly gritty texture to them. As I held them in my hand and the covers lightly scraped against eachother, it almost felt as if sand had gotten lodged in between the books in the stack. Call me old-fashioned or obsessive-compulsive, but there’s something vaguely unsettling about that.

Personally, I blame book critics. You see, I have this fear that the graphic designers at all the big publishing houses have read too many reviews of over-pretentious pseudo-literature; you know, the sort of reviews that overuse terms like “metafiction” and “narrative” and always manage to call something or someone “dysfunctional”. Well, these graphic designers, as I envision them, notice that words like “gritty”, “textured” and “chiaroscuro” are overused in positive contexts in these sorts of reviews as well, and say to themselves: “Hell, we’ll give ‘em gritty, textured and chiaroscuro. Just use that rough matte and take some soft-focus pictures of something indistinguishable and we’ll be all set to go.” And sure enough, there you go, a book with a distinctively gritty texture with an indecipherable cover photo.

Of course, I’m probably overreacting. But then again, maybe not:

When you pick up the front page of any news publication, you are looking at someone’s attempt to win a design contest; everything that comprises that page—the words, the images, and even the white spaces between those words and images—are nothing more than props. In the eyes of the modern newspaper designer, all of those elements have equal value. This is not an exaggeration; stroll past any newspaper design desk and you will hear people talking about the “creative use of white space.” This means people are discussing ways to better utilize the parts of the paper that are blank (this includes the gaps between columns and the borders at the top and bottom of a page). Just think about that for a moment: People are literally discussing the creative significance of nothingness.
—Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, pg. 216

(Speaking of books, this past summer I was bored one day and decided to compile a complete list of books I own. That list is now available for your perusal and is permanently linked from the Books sections. I’m willing to lend virtually any of the books on that list to people I trust will return them.)

October 29, 2004

Yes, I'm lazy

Posted by Curt at 10:51 AM | permalink | 2 comments

Now that I finally have my own Internet connection, here's that sonnet I promised to post something like a month ago (it's #24, not 15):

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant
"Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle."

Lors vous n'aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de Ronsard ne s'aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

Je serai sous la terre, et fantôme sans os
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos;
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m'en croyez, n'attendez à demain:
Cueillez dès aujourd'hui les roses de la vie.

Pierre de Ronsard, "Sonnets pour Hélène" (II, 24)

My translation:

When you are old, in the evening, in the candle-light,
Seated by the fire, knitting and sowing,
You will say, while singing my verses, marvelling:
"Ronsard celebrated my beauty when I was young."

For you will have no servant who, hearing such words,
Tired and dozing from hard labor,
Who at the sound of Ronsard will not awake,
And bless your name with immortal praises.

I will be long buried, a phantom without bones
Who by the sombre myrtle-trees will myself repose;
You will be by the hearth, a stooped old woman,

Regretting my love and your pround disdain.
Live, if you believe me, and wait not for tomorrow:
Pluck today the roses of life.

September 15, 2004

Does one really have to go to France for relief?

Posted by Curt at 08:20 AM | permalink | 3 comments

So I was in my literature course at the institute in Tours, and we were discussing Ronsard’s sonnet 16, when a girl pipes up: “This may be an overly feminist interpretation, but…I think the way that Ronsard frames his poem, purporting to impart a lesson to a much younger woman with whom he is in love implicitly demonstrates his belief in her inferior intelligence and status in the relationship.” To which the French professor replied…”You’re right. That is an overly feminist interpretation of this text.” Of course she mitigated the rejection by explaining it as a cultural difference, with the French putting more weight on traditional modes of interpretation, but she didn’t exactly throw open the gates to more idle speculation of this kind. While it was undoubtedly a small victory, and I certainly have my differences with French literary methodolgy, after so many years of ideological drudgery in American schools, it was somewhat of a priceless moment for me.

Ok, as obvious of a target as sociological lit. crit. may be, perhaps that statement requires a bit of justification. I certainly don’t question the general validity of the sorts of conclusions that sociological lit. critics derive, but sometimes I wonder why they even turn to the study of literature, instead of remaining esconced within the pseudosciences where they belong. It would be vain to deny that subconscious cultural and societal assumptions underlie literary texts, but exposing them frequently does not yield insights that are any more brilliant or out of the ordinary from those which one could gain by consulting a land register or a marriage contract. This sort of interpretation tends to reduce all literature from a given epoch to an undifferentiated lump of cultural assumptions, without anything to distinguish works from each other or from more mundane records of economic transactions. Not to be overly cruel about it, but the current dominance of this sort of theory within American universities lends some credence to the semi-prevalent view that in general Americans don’t care about literature or learning except insofar as it correlates with their manic pursuit of, and obsession with, money and social climbing.

August 20, 2004

The crusade against the idols

Posted by Curt at 07:26 PM | permalink | 2 comments

“Gibbon reproached Voltaire for being ‘a bigot, an intolerant bigot,’ implying that, in his relentless crusade against Christianity, Voltaire had jeapordized (rather than, as later commentators imagined, established) his character as a philosophic historian…Individuals and institutions, which [the philosophic historian] could only condemn as in themselves criminal and perverse, at moments contributed positively to human society, while…those he admired or loved may, despite their best endeavors, have exerted a harmful influence.” —David Womersley, author of “The Transformation of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

August 19, 2004

A bygone ethic

Posted by Curt at 01:59 PM | permalink | comment

The Sultan of the Empty Quarter

When the first drops of rain began to fall
My regrets went marching off, two by two,
For a philsopher in a drizzle
Becomes a madman in a downpour,
And when his hands have become slicked
With soot and mud and high plains grass,
Who could contradict his softly stated longing,
And who would close the door on his imploring?
--Arseny Solokhovsky

August 15, 2004

The quiet Arabian

Posted by Curt at 10:30 PM | permalink | comment

The name of Abdul al-Aziz Muq’tanil al-Zizunabayu may be unfamiliar to many, but the body of his writings deserves greater scrutiny, because to some degree they offer a solution to some of the central dilemmas of Islam in a time of greatly increased affluence, when few of the imams and ulama of the Islamic world have provided solace of a sort which can survive in the midst of material effluvia and temptation without rejecting them in the name of austerity.

al-Zizunabayu has not made more of an international name for himself in part because, perhaps, he chose an inauspicious time and set of circumstances in which to be exiled. He originally served as an imam and schoolteacher in Islamic studies in provincial Syria, but was exiled in the mid 1980s. He might have attracted a great deal of attention had his crimes included speaking out against Syrian participation in the Lebanese conflict or at least agitation over democratic reforms, but instead he left under a cloud of codemnation for impurity and immoral pedagogical practices, with dark insinuations on the part of the religious authorities made about his moral and spiritual corruption and possible homosexuality, insinuations, however, which for the most part escaped translation into Western languages.

What really has shaken the miniscule community of emigré Muslim scholars and religious authorities in London, Boston and New York who have responded to his subsequent writings, however, is his attitude to his disgrace and exile, a disgrace unleavened by any redemptory intimations of political martyrdom. But instead of rejecting the charges against him, or repenting of his conduct either privately or publicly, or even abandoning Islam or challenging the religious authorities, al-Zizunabayu has appeared to glory in his own conduct, while continuing to uphold evangelistic Islam, even Islam by the sword. In fact, he goes so far as to say in his Qu’ranic commentary Under the Qu’ranic Tree, a commentary, by the way, almost unprecedented in the extent to which it indulges in personal confession to the point of virtually abandoning accepted forms of scriptural interpretation: “My impurity has in fact been the greatest sacrifice I could have made to future warriors of the faith (mujahideen). I have not undertaken to hoard virtue for myself in the slightest. Just as al-Muwahardi tells us the gift of a loaf of bread to a poor man is that much greater if I deny bread to myself, so have I made my mission to spread the faith and the hope of grace without, however, extending it to myself.”

It almost goes without stating that one encounters but rarely a parallel to the bodhisattva tradition in Islam, the idea of religious virtue as a divideable substance rather than a unitary whole, which can be fostered in another without accruing to oneself, indeed at one’s own expense. But al-Zizunabayu goes further. In his work The Inner Caliphate, he writes: “My own decadence has brought me material pleasures for a day, but my conduct and the rot that it brings forth inspires my students with abhorrence and pushes them down the path of righteousness that my words and teaching has already suggested to them.”

Perhaps this is another reason that al-Zizunabayu has attracted little attention in the West and little response among Islamic scholars other than bafflement at his apparent insanity. For his behavior, intended as it apparently is to violate specifically Islamic standards of conduct, generally provokes little censure in the West, and his notion of virtue is so repellant to most Muslims that it might as well be known as jahiliyya. But his words bespeak but very little of derangement. In A Call to the Faithful, he writes: “An invocation, a call to virtue can only be freed from the illegitimate influence of considerations of authority by the incineration of the reputation of the bearer of the message, so that from the ashes of himself he can call forth the words which can by their purity alone inspire the believer to good deeds and good faith.”

The influence of tradition is at least disputable, but this principle seems to contain the possibility of the nearly infinite transmissability of righteousness. In a life seemingly undistinguished by holiness, and rather plentiful in hypocrisy, al-Zizunabayu would seem to have wrought a veritable revolution in embryonic form, which stands a fair chance of winning back through forgiveness that which was lost by vice.

p.s. One other relation in which the concept of virtue as divideable and finite often appears is the love affair. It is not always mere fatuousness when girls say earnestly, as they sometimes do, “you’re too good to me.”

August 09, 2004


Posted by Curt at 02:15 AM | permalink | comment


"In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms."
--Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
--William Butler Yeats, 1939

July 26, 2004

Stalin, how we missed ya

Posted by Curt at 07:41 PM | permalink | comment

If you thought that my attack on the reputation of Pablo Neruda yesterday was mean-spirited, I refer you to this piece on how another poet’s paens to Stalinism have become worked into the rhetoric of one Sen. John Kerry.

A disinterrment from the Poet's Corner

Posted by Curt at 12:59 AM | permalink | 6 comments

As I have said before, The Weekly Standard seems to expend all the unused spine that it saves through writing slavish propoganda for the Bush Administration in publishing bold and might I even say significant cultural criticisms, with a specialty in the demolition of beatified intellectual frauds. Well, maybe it’s not very daring from the point of view of The Weekly Standard’s political agenda to perform a literary beheading of Pablo Neruda, but thank God that someone has finally done so, which seems almost taboo these days in international literary circles. Perhaps it is not surprising that Stephen Schwartz is waving the axe, since he has made something of a reputation for himself recently by speaking some very brave and unpleasant words of truth about fundamentalist Islam and particularly Wahabbism and its many-tentacled reach into politics, beside which the opinion and relative approval of the international literary community must seem a very small yipping chihuaha.

But Schwartz’s very point is that when it came time for the intellectuals of the West to speak some brave and unpleasant truths about communism and particularly the many-tentacled reach of Stalinism 60 years ago, Neruda was not simply hiding under the bed with his ears covered, he was actually actively advancing violent Stalinist agendas to the point of being essentially complicit in the conspiracy surrounding the murder of Trotsky. Neruda’s political culpability seems to shoot a long ways past that of Jean-Paul Sartre or Knut Hamsun; he is fully in the company of Ezra Pound and Yukio Mishima, politically speaking, among the great writers, but his reputation has not paid a thousandth the price.

Of course, to an extent I certainly do not feel that the political views of an artist should wholly condition our response to their art, although generally speaking I find most compelling the writers who, like Yeats or Faulkner, managed to stay essentially aloof in difficult times of political polarization, which, while it may seem somewhat lacking in courage on human terms seems after all the issues have died away to recommend itself most highly by the standards of intellectual integrity. However, Stalinism demonstrated as effectively as any political movement ever has that bad politics can make for bad art, at least when the politics specifically condition intellectual slavery and artistic dogmatism. Schwartz has a couple of examples that should prove as embarassing to Neruda’s reputation artistically as politically:

“To be men! That is the Stalinist law! . . . / We must learn from Stalin / his sincere intensity / his concrete clarity. . . . / Stalin is the noon, / the maturity of man and the peoples. / Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride. . . . / Stalinist workers, clerks, women take care of this day! / The light has not vanished. / The fire has not disappeared, / There is only the growth of / Light, bread, fire and hope / In Stalin’s invincible time! . . . / In recent years the dove, / Peace, the wandering persecuted rose, / Found herself on his shoulders / And Stalin, the giant, / Carried her at the heights of his forehead. . . . / A wave beats against the stones of the shore. / But Malenkov will continue his work.”

I think Schwartz’s postscript comment to the poem almost goes without saying: “This poem remains in print in Neruda’s Spanish-language collected writings. It does not often appear in anthologies of his work in English.”

Now, Schwartz claims that Neruda’s reputation in Latin America is, ironically, much lower than it is in the United States and Europe. That is certainly possible; this phenomenon of being appreciated more abroad than at home is certainly common enough, from Thomas Mann to Jacques Derrida. But, if true, it would be a touch more ironic in Neruda’s case because, whether it be a factor of his Stalinist ideology or simply an inflated sense of self-importance, Neruda himself seemed to specifically claim fame on the basis of speaking for the common man, for the earth and the soil and those that lived off of it. It would not be terribly surprising to me if those who love him best are those who rely on someone like Neruda for reports of what the soil even is.

I myself am not ready to consign everything from Residencia en la Tierra or Canto General to the memory-hole, but I must admit that, even setting aside the politics, for a long time I have found a goodly proportion of Neruda’s images and metaphors abusive and sophistic in the same way that a sermon by Derrida is. There is a closedness, a smugness and a self-regard in Neruda’s poetry which is very much consistent with intransigent and unquestioningly held political beliefs, even monstrous ones. That attitude, of course, was very much in the air in the ‘30’s, but what separates Neruda from his contemporaries among the Lost Generation, the surrealists, the existentialists, etc. is that, while sanctimonious infantile dogmatism may have pervaded the political and even the artistic views of many of les grandes of this epoch, often they were at least able to detach it from their authentic literary productions. Not so Neruda.

June 16, 2004

Happy Bloomsday!

Posted by shonk at 01:52 AM | permalink | comment

Today is the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses supposedly took place. Celebrations are no doubt already underway in Dublin; as my own small tribute, I reproduce here a few Joyce quotations that seem tangentially relevant to the usual stuff I write about. These are not necessarily my favorite examples of Joyce’s writing, since most of those are pretty much meaningless without context (for example, this brought a huge smile of appreciation to my face when I first read it, but is almost meaningless in its own right: “Tap. Tap. A stripling, blind, with a tapping cane came taptaptapping by Daly’s window where a mermaid hair all streaming (but he couldn’t see) blew whiffs of a mermaid (blind couldn’t), mermaid, coolest whiff of all.”), but rather, I think, display something of his political and social criticism as well as his characteristic ambiguity:

The workmen’s discussions, he said, were too timorous; the interest they took in the question of wages was inordinate. He felt that they were hard-featured realists and that they resented an exactitude which was the product of a leisure not within their reach. No social revolution, he told her, would be likely to strike Dublin for some centuries.

She asked him why did he not write out his thoughts. For what, he asked her, with careful scorn. To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds? To submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios?

— “A Painful Case”, Dubliners, pg. 111 in the Viking Critical Edition.

For a swift season of merrymaking the money of his prizes ran through Stephen’s fingers. Great parcels of groceries and delicacies and dried fruits arrived from the city. Every day he drew up a bill of fare for the family and every night led a party of three or four to the theatre to see Ingomar or The Lady of Lyons. In his coat pockets he carried squares of Vienna chocolate for his guests while his trousers’ pockets bulged with masses of silver and copper coins. He bought presents for everyone, overhauled his room, wrote out resolutions, marshalled his books up and down their shelves, pored upon all kinds of price lists, drew up a form of commonwealth for the household by which every member of it held some office, opened a loan bank for his family and pressed loans on willing borrowers so that he might have the pleasure of making out receipts and reckoning the interests on the sums lent. When he could do no more he drove up and down the city in trams. Then the season of pleasure came to an end. The pot of pink enamel paint gave out and the wainscot of his bedroom remained with its unfinished and illplastered coat.

HIs household returned to its usual way of life. HIs mother had no further occasion to upbraid him for squandering his money. He too returned to his old life at school and all his novel enterprises fell to pieces. The commonwealth fell, the loan bank closed its coffers and its books on a sensible loss, the rules of life which he had drawn about himself fell into desuetude.

How foolish his aim had been! He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interests and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him. Useless. From without as from within the water had flowed over his barriers: their tides began once more to jostle fiercely above the crumbles mole.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, pgs. 97-8 in the Viking Critical Edition.

It is hard to lay down any hard and fast rules as to right and wrong but room for improvement all round there certainly is though every country, they say, our own distressful included, has the government it deserves. But with a little goodwill all round. It’s all very fine to boast of mutual superiority but what about mutual equality. I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due instalments plan.

Ulysses, lines 16.1095-1101 in the Gabler Edition

Finally, on the jump, I’ll close with something I wrote last year when I was taking a class on Joyce. As you may know, each chapter of Ulysses is written in a different style, and the final project for the class was to retell a familiar story in two of those styles. I really enjoyed writing my version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in the style of Chapter 17, “Ithaca” (the penultimate chapter in which Joyce brings tensions to a head in a pompously stylized cross-examination style which simultaneously frustrates the reader’s sensibilities and underscores the ambiguous nature of those tensions) and I think it even turned out half-decent, so I reproduce it here, in the hopes it will inspire some to try reading this difficult but ultimately rewarding book. If you do choose to do so, I highly recommend Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated for all your annotation needs.

Particularly, this pastiche is a re-telling the very end of “Pyramus and Thisbe”, of which I quote Edith Hamilton’s version:

Thisbe, although terrified of the lioness, was still more afraid to fail her lover. She ventured to go back to the tree of the tryst, the mulberry with the shining white fruit. She could not find it. A tree was there, but not one gleam of white was on the branches. As she stared at it, something moved on the ground beneath. She started back shuddering. But in a moment, peering through the shadows, she saw what was there. It was Pyramus, bathed in blood and dying. She flew to him and threw her arms around him. She kissed his cold lips and begged him to look at her. “It is I, your Thisbe, your dearest,” she cried to him. At the sound of her name he opened his heavy eyes for one look. Then death closed them.

She saw his sword fallen form his hand and beside it her cloak stained and torn. She understood all. “Your own hand killed you,” she said, “and your love for me. I too can be brave. I too can love. Only death would have had the power to separate us. It shall not have that power now.” She plunged into her heart the sword that was still wet with his life’s blood.

* What course did Thisbe take returning to the mulberry tree?

Proceeding cautiously from the shrubs, she proceeded past elderberry, elm and birch in turn: then, relaxing a bit, circled towards the clearing by way of an old deer-track: then, at a slower pace, occasionally halting, bearing left over a tree stump, under low-lying fir branches, as far as the edge of the woods.

What did she ponder during this excursion?

Love, music, man, foolish romanticism, small springs, phase changes, the tensile strength of both skin and plaster, the more pertinent aspects of feline anatomy, adrenaline, chlorophyll factories, metabolism, torn tissue, prophylactics, the menstrual cycle, Pyramus’ tardiness.

Had she ever before engaged in similar ambulatory nocturnal thought?

Once, two years prior.

What further reflection did this connection inspire in her mind just before reaching the clearing?

She reflected that experience was an aid to learning only so long as emotional attachment did not interfere with rational discourse.

What act did Thisbe perform upon arriving at her destination?

Standing beneath three elms arranged in an equilateral triangle, head turned to look for pallid whitefruit of mulberry.

To what effect?

Little. Though smooth, rough, triangular, rectangular, circular, pyramidal, parabolic, elongated, shrunken and imaginary forms were visible, none below the tops of the trees were white.

Did the lack of white within the visual spectrum distress her?

It did.

Where was the mulberry tree?

Where it had been since proto-trunk exited seed and penetrated soil in search of light and warmth 8 years, 6 months and 13 days since: in the middle of the clearing.

Describe it.

Its roots (invisible) spread like tentacles throughout the surrounding ground, supporting a slender trunk, which, though light-brown in color, appeared black due to lack of sufficient candlepower, itself explained by the nocturnal hour and the shady circumference of branches, twigs, leaves and berries supported against the 32 f/s/s exerted upon all bodies native to the superficiality of the globe. Branches forked smaller recursively, the inductive result being rounded, pointed, serrated leaves and clustered, cylindrical, crimson fruit.

What drew Thisbe’s attention to the mulberry tree?

Slight movement near its base, accompanied by faint but distinctly human sounds, easily amenable to onomatopoeiatic treatment.

Produced by what?

Pyramus, expiring in stop-action.

What action did Thisbe’s apprehension of this fact provoke?

The placement of left foot forward, followed by right. This sequence of actions then re-iterated more times in rapid succession, resulting in arrival below the crimson mulberry fringe.

Producing what physiological manifestations?

Shortness of breath, increased pulse and blood pressure, heightened adrenaline and testosterone production, effusion of water saturated by sodium chloride over the expanse of the epidermal layer, displacement of various keratin strands.

Did this displacement evoke any involuntary action?

It did: the passage of right hand through hair, with the aim of removing visual obstruction.

What proclamations, following a kiss to cold lips, caused the recumbent figure to briefly part closed eyelids before expiring?

Of identity, of name, of affection, of possession.

What contrapositive fears succeeded in the feminine mind?

Of false accusations of manipulation, moral inferiority, covetousness, fornication and murder made by recumbent’s paternity; of parental disapproval and misunderstanding; of social ostracism; of economic independence and insufficiency; of miscalculation in assignation of amour.

What did Thisbe perceive next to the limp, bloodsoaked hand of Pyramus?

A sword, finely balanced, lacking the notched imperfections of regular use, with rounded pommel superceded by recently re-wrapped hilt, quillion reminiscent of demonic horns, artificial crimson rivulet progressing slowly down the fuller.

Perceived as a tool for what new aim by the imaginative mind?

Literary immortality spawned by perception of unswerving loyalty and love, transcending pervious paradigms of separation and death.

How achieved?

By passage of carbonized not-stainless steel between 4th and 5th ribs, slightly left of centerline defined by vaginal, umbilical and oral cavities, resulting in perforation of left ventricle.

In what position did dead and dying lie?

Dead: on back, legs extended, neck cocked, right arm bent at the elbow away from hips, left arm tracing straight line from armpit to thigh, stiff oratory posture. Dying: on sinister side, legs and arms curled toward torso, head resting on right knee of dead.


Of pot rot ought and not, of read head on the linen of fir and beech, nightcrawler.


May 02, 2004

Rebels without antagonists

Posted by Curt at 03:20 PM | permalink | 1 comment

My grandfather was once sent to prison for ten days because of a poem he wrote. I haven’t been honored in that way yet. Maybe it’s my fault, or maybe the world has gone so far to the dogs that it doesn’t even feel insulted anymore if it’s criticized severely.
—Friedrich Dürrenmatt

April 21, 2004


Posted by shonk at 11:48 AM | permalink | comment

My good friend George Potter hasn’t updated The Frontierist in a while, but that doesn’t mean he’s not writing. In fact, he’s been busy writing “Roadkilling”, which he calls his “swan song”, his last piece of net writing; he’s retiring from writing for the net to focus on writing a novel. He was gracious enough to give me permission to post the first part of “Roadkilling” here, so it follows below. Also, be sure to check out his parable “The Liberators” and the collection Micropiece (and other tales), available from Lulu.


by George Potter

(for Sean)

“We’re never going to figure out exactly what The Crash was, or all the whys and hows. The Feds and the Phantoms went to war on the Old Net and the Old Net died. Since The Feds were Old Net dependant, they ‘lost’. Since the Phantoms had created and were Overnet dependant, they ‘won’. How it happened really isn’t important. What we’re going through now and where we’re going to end up is one hell of a lot more important.” - Carlton Rose, AGAINST BACKWARDS PROPHECY

    I knew some crazy shit was gonna come down as soon as IKDR started acting weirder than usual. It’s not like he ever acts normal or anything, but he was on a total fucking roll, the lies and nonsense coming thicker and faster than I’d ever known it to — and I’ve known the little freak since he was two and me and my friend Cheffy found him in that garbage dump.
    Line after line of that zipped by. Ugh. I finally just blocked it out, ignored it, and nodded every once in a while at his almost dancing form beside me or said “Cool, bro.”

    IKDR stands for I Know Damn Right, and you can’t blame me for that, either. Cheffy and me decided it wasn’t our place to go slappin’ names on a kid we didn’t even shoot no juice to make. Unfair, you know? So, when he was four, we told him he had exactly one week to make up his own name. That confused the shit out of him, since he thought his name was ‘Kid’ or ‘Dumbass’. So for awhile he told us to call him Kid Dumbass. We did, but we couldn’t stop cracking up when we said it, and he got all pissed. For a while he was ‘Superman’. That didn’t last long either. Then he was ‘Fucknut’ for a bit, ‘cause that’s what I called Cheffy half the time and he sorta idolized Cheffy.
    But, for some reason, about five minutes before the week was up — and hell yeah we were timing it; wouldn’t have been as good of a joke if not — he walked up and told us he wanted to be called IKDR.
    We asked him what that meant. He told us it meant ‘I Know Damn Right’.
    We asked him why in the hell he’d want that for a goddam name.
    He said that it was the coolest name ever. And that we were just jealous and shit.
    So that was his name. Hey, it was a joke, but you gotta stick to the rules you make. If you don’t, life in the Old Strip is pretty short.
    The really funny thing is that IKDR never stopped thinking it was the coolest name ever.

    We were making a pay run, sweetest bit of the job. We had a small but decent haul to trade-off — fiber-o in thick sealed rolls, some blank ID chips, and two boxes of some ammo we didn’t recognize and didn’t fit any of the guns we owned.
    But the best loot was a black disk that looked like a datacard, just bigger. IDKR suspected it was just a vintage data card, but I wasn’t sure. The jobber had sent us to the place for it special, even printed out a fucked up map that wasn’t much help.
    And promised a clean 200 creditchit to place it in his hand. That was a lot of cash for an antique datacard that nobody could probably even read anymore. Hell, new tech was hard to get in Old Vegas Proper, almost impossible to get in the wreck of the Strip. Tech tended to smooth out, everybody using frankenstein creations. Cardreaders were a sort of prize — it was the reading laserpoint that died the quickest, and with a decent toolkit, it was an amateur hack to frank the ‘point from an old model to a newer one.
    I kicked it out of my head. Why should I care what the jobber wanted the damn thing for so long as he was good for the promised loot? That was the only important thing. And I trusted this guy, more or less. As much as I trust anyone who ain’t IKDR or Cheffy.
    O.W. Knoes worked out of a ‘stead on the third floor of what used to be an office building. Or at least he said that’s what it used to be. The rest of it was warehouse space for his goods and living space for the gang he had raised up over the years. Kids mostly, bout IKDR’s age — which was 10, If I had estimated right when we found him.
    Word in the Strip was that Knoes had faced only one attempted invasion in the six or so years he’d been buying and selling from his ‘stead. That had been a year ago, and by the Blackrock mob. Thirty medium to heavy modders had hit the ‘stead in midafternoon. They were all dead and hanging on plasticord from the rooftop by two PM. Knoes let ‘em rot there for months, as a warning.
    Nobody had fucked with him since. Mainly because nobody knew what kind of crazy shit Knoes’s gang was packing. He was one of the few jobbers in Old Vegas who seemed to have a reliable connection to the Texas weaponsmith clan-corps. It only made sense he’d sell the minor stuff on the street and keep the heavy shit for his own gang. What I’d do, anyway.
    Me and IKDR hooked up with Knoes about three months before, doing minor jobs and scavwork. He always paid on time and at decent prices, sometimes even tossing in a bonus if we worked fast or brought in something he had been looking for.
    He also treated us right. Brought us into his office and gave us — believe it the hell or not — coffee! IKDR was addicted to the shit, and got surly when we took offers from other jobbers. But hell, we had to eat.
    The text swirled fast across the interior of the right lens of my comshades. I’d had ‘em for a couple of years and took killer care of ‘em. Easily they were the best and most advanced piece of tech I owned - no more than five years old, top of the line SmartWraps. I knew because the date was proudly stamped by the tiny serial number in the bottom corner of the left lens. Right next to the words ‘NoTreason Silent, Lmtd.’ Fucking-A. The most famous com- corp in the damn world!
    I don’t like thinking about how I got ‘em.
    “You mean you gonna get me to ask him, bro? Knoes don’t wear SmartWraps.” I didn’t say I doubted we could afford any coffee, even with 200 creds, and wouldn’t have anything to brew it in even if we could. That would have just launched one of IKDR’s long manic fantasies about how he’d solve those probs.
    I looked at him. He looked kinda smug, so I figured he was telling the truth. Even though the comp mod in his skull was close to an antique, he was a wizard with it.
    He didn’t look like a wizard. He looked more like a cross between an elf and an orc, right out of the overnet feeds. Skinny as hell, short, bald ‘cept for a bit of fuzz, kind of bucktoothed.
    The eyes were the freakiest thing to strangers, but I was used to them. Dead black orbs of ceramic photoweave. They gave him vision. I wondered about that sometimes. Was it the same kind of vision I had? When I asked him, he shrugged and said he didn’t remember what his vision had been like before.
    The prosthetic arm was less noticeable, ‘cause IKDR refused to wear anything but long sleeved shirts (hell, sometimes a jacket) even in the middle of July. When we found him, his arm had been chopped right the hell off, just below the elbow. He wasn’t bleeding or anything, didn’t even seem to be in pain. The wound was cauterized. Burned tight.
    The vocal chords had been the last thing to go. It started simple — he just got quieter and quieter until he made no sound at all when he tried to talk.
    Cheffy and me had discussed this shit on occasion, about what the hell was wrong with the kid. He didn’t seem sick in the regular sense — he had tons of energy, always on the go, never complained much.
    But one by one his organs seemed to be packing up. It was a mystery we didn’t spend much time on, mainly ‘cause we didn’t have the time to spend. Keeping food in the pot and affording the mods to keep IKDR alive was work enough.
    He was right. Odd shit. Usually at this time the Strip would be bustling with bums and gangers, slinging mods and dope, bumming and begging. I’d only seen a few people and they’d been far between.
    “Just fucking hot.” I said.
    I just grunted back. I didn’t feel like arguing with him. The mod implanted in his jaw that let him sub vocalize to the skullcom and transmit to my wraps was either defective or IKDR just couldn’t sub vocalize worth a shit. The text he transed was always garbled as hell. Sometimes it was completely unreadable, if he were excited and started babbling.
    Which was often.

“The Feds were afraid of the Overnet because they were powerless against it — it was impossible to control. Overnet servers did not rest in easily reachable buildings. They rode in the phones and laptops and pockets and packs and — later — implants of ten million individuals. No wires connected them but the dancing frequencies ushered in by the superbroadband wireless revolution. Once again the market had outpaced the State, left it staring slackjawed.

This time though, their laziness was fatal. The other factor was that the Overnet was built from the ground up on an encryption base. The Phantoms had started the revolution after all, for their own reasons.”


    “Eighty creds or fuck off.” Devlin said, slouching back in the swivel desk chair that seemed to be about ninety percent electricians tape.
    Devlin was a fat and nasty motherfucker. He stank. His office stank. His mod-room was filthy — but he was the cheapest and the least likely to ask questions.
    “This shit is old as hell, Dev.” Cheffy said, getting pissed. “For eighty we could afford implants.”
    Devlin laughed his ass off. Fuck. Even the man’s laugh was nasty.
    “You could afford the implants at a better shop. You couldn’t afford the fucking labor. I’m offering a package here, snotboy.”
    Cheffy looked willing to argue. IKDR just sat quiet in the corner, scared as hell, wondering if he’d ever see again. I thumped Cheffy on the shoulder. Devlin was right, and we all knew it.
    Nasty or not, the asshole knew when he’d won. I felt like putting a slug into that smug, sweaty face.But that wouldn’t help the kid.
    “Yeah, the photoweave mods are old — but they’re unused. Good, solid, reliable old tech. The only reason to favor implants over these babies is that the original eyes could be saved.” He started printing out a contract. “What the fuck would the point be? You plannin’ on striking it rich and heading out of Old Vegas anytime soon?”
    Son of a bitch. The idea that we didn’t want the kids eyes scooped out and tossed aside, replaced with those fucking freaky ass black orbs never occurred to his greedy ass. Some goddam people.
    “This is a good deal.” Devlin said as the shoved the contract and a pen at us. “Thumb on the top for a print record. One of you gotta sign. Gang chop is OK. Print is what matters.”
    “We ain’t in no gang.” I snarled, couldn’t help it, as I grabbed the pen. “And I can fucking write. And read. I’ve read this contract dozens of times. It fucks us in the ass but what don’t?”
    Devlin just raised an eyebrow.
    I signed.
    The fat fucker heaved his bulk from the chair. “Take the kid into the mod-room and strap him to the table. Make sure he’s comfortable, ‘cause once I hit him with the gas he ain’t moving for a lot of hours.”
    We led IKDR into the room and did as we were told. Devlin headed for the sink.
    At least the asshole washed his hands.

    We were only three blocks from payday when the shit hit the fan.
    IKDR stopped dead in his tracks, tensed up.
    The font was triple sized and red. I stopped.
    “Where and what?” I whispered. I pulled the Comanche from my backsling and thumbed off the safety. As usual I bitched silently that I only had forty rounds left for it. The non-auto mode held a clip of twenty slugs.
    “Go recon.”
    And he was. Little bastard dumped his full backpack to the ground and dissapeared, clambering up the rusting remains of a scaffold and finding god knows what sort of nook to hide in. He could climb like a monkey — he was lean and skinny, but pure ropy muscle, and the prosth-arm was a hell of a lot stronger than a natch.
    I myself hurried over to the graffiti-strewn building on my right,grabbing the kids pack and dumping my own to the sidewalk beside me, and pressed up against the wall commando style. Then I waited for intel.

    The left lens flickered and caught a transmission. The image sprang to life as soon as I accepted it with a subvoked code. The wraps received both full overnet and had dozens of private channels. IKDR could manipulate them like an artist. That’s how he’d got wind of the ambush — he kept a constant overnet scan running in the background, and the ‘bushers must have let slip some stray frequency. Probably some fucknut checking his mail or today’s odds. Didn’t matter. IKDR had caught it, and slipped in like a thief, counting boxes since the ‘bushers were obviously networked.
    The image stabilized. It was black and white and a little grainy, but clear. The kid could transmit much better, but he was in stealth mode, keeping the frequency and amp to a minimum.
    Three. Medium modders, all Blackrockers. Fuck.
    They were in the alley just half a block ahead. They looked bored, which was a friggin’ relief — they didn’t know we were this close. The angle was high and way to clear to be from anywhere IKDR could have gotten. He must have found an operating survcam and patched it in. Despite the frantic beating of my heart and the sweat that was slicking my body, I had to grin. Little fucker was deadly.
    Knoes had warned us. Since the Blackrockers were afraid of hitting him directly, they were sure to go after his freelancers. Fucking bastards. They were the biggest and clumsiest of all the Stirp gangs, and also one of the meanest. They must have terrorized the bums off the street this morning and cut deals with the other gangers. Just to hit two freelancers who were just trying to put food in the pot.
    Fucking waste of resources, you ask me.
    I subvoked to the kid. WHAT KIND OF POWER THEY PACKING?
    WEAPONS, BRO. WEAPONS. I tried to stay calm.
    I relaxed — a little. If they were typical Blackrockers they were probably stoned to the gills. Without slaving to a decent targeting com, I doubt they could hit the broadside of a building.
    Still..it was three guns to one.
    But I had a little surprise.
    While I watched the gangers lounge in the alley, I dug a small silver cylinder out of one of the many side pockets of my backpack.
    I felt a stupid pang of regret. Microgrenades were hard to come by, and Knoes would have probably paid tastily for it.
    But I had to be alive to get paid.
    I subvoked the plan to IKDR. Told him to take as much cover as he could.
    I took a breath and held it. I was going to have to throw based on the image in my left lens. The fuckers were wearing light armor, so I doubted that the blast itself would do the job. Didn’t have to. I just wanted to knock the fuckers down and off guard.
    I thumbed the det button. Click.
    I released the breath, threw.
    In the left lens, I saw the tiny shape bounce off the side of the alley wall, and roll almost out. Goddamit!
    I saw the Blackrockers start, then jerk to attention, guns coming up.
    The mg detonated, a shuddering whoomp, that knocked me off the building. No fire. No smoke. Just a savage concussive wave.
    The image in my lens died. Fuck. I’d killed the goddam cam!
    I had to go in blind.
    I was up like a shot, sprinting toward the alley.

“Sometimes we forget, those of us lucky enough to have survived the Crash in areas where the Phantoms had roots and power. Those of us in Houston and Austin and San Francisco and Birmingham and Charleston. We forget that in a huge chunk of the rest of the former United States the transition was not a matter of months or a couple of years. That the transition was a hell on Earth and remains a hell on Earth. The populations of Old Las Vegas and Old New York. The smoldering remains of Los Angeles. The hateful city-state of the Chicago Imperium. As we make diplomatic treaties with the tech starved Chinese lords of the rest of the world, as Europe settles into comfortable vassalage to their Chinese masters, we forget. That not one functioning road exists from Nevada to California. That bandits rule there. That the tech we take for granted filters into those areas like miracles in bible stories. We forget.” —Carlton Rose AGAINST BACKWARD PROPHECY

    I fought against going back to Devlin like a wildcat. I hated that piece of shit. After IKDR’s vocals died, we had him use a crude slaved lap top for a while. The problem was that he could barely write. He read like a king, but wrote like a fuckin’ chicken scratching at the ground.
    It was Cheffy who convinced me to go back.
    I really considered just busting in and forcing the bitch at gunpoint to mod the kid. It was a black thought in my head the whole way there, IKDR just acting scared, Cheffy not willing to mess with me in that kinda mood.
    Then the old man answered the door, smiled at us.
    I gotta admit I was a bit freaked.
    “You work for Devlin?” I asked.
    The old man grinned. And goddam was he old. He was so modded he made the Kid look like a teen fashion advert from the overnet.
    “Mr. Devlin is dead — and probably in hell, my boy. Are you here on business?”
    I didn’t know what to say, other than. “Yeah.”
    He ushered us in, and I was stunned to see how much the place had changed. Not only was it clean it was goddam immaculate. Sterile looking. I glanced into the mod-room as we passed and it looked to be completely refurbished. This was some crazy shit.
    The old man was a polite sort. He took us into his office and gave us tea. We all sat there feeling pretty much out of sorts. The old man didn’t seem to mind. Just sipped his tea and seemed content.
    “Don’t wanna be rude, but who are you, man?”
    He looked at me, obviously implanted eyes focusing hard.
    “My name is Stow. And to whom do I have the pleasure?” he asked in return, a smile on his lips.
    “I got the name I gave myself when I was old enough to do so.” I told him. “I’m Foadi. That stands for ‘Fuck Off And Die” plus I.”
    Stow looked delighted. “And why did you add the ‘I’?” he asked, voiced drenched in nothing but curiosity.
    “Because I ain’t a you, I guess.” I told him with a shrug.
    “Quite so.” Stow said, sipping his tea. He seemed satisfied.
    All of a sudden, I liked the old fucker. I hate when that happens.
    He put down his tea cup. “Now, Mr. Foadi. What can I do for you?”

    I explained things, best I could. He nodded and said he had just the thing. He then told Cheffy to take IKDR into the mod-room and get him ready. When I started to leave with him, he put a hand on my shoulder.
    “Indulge an old man for a moment, son.”
    I did. I sat back down grudgingly.
    Stow sighed. “Mr. Devlin — whatever his other faults — kept extensive records. Not long ago you had the boy’s eyes replaced.” A long pause. “Do you have any idea what is wrong with the child?”
    I was wary. I just shook my head no.
    “It seems to be some form of degenerative disease. But the data from his last mod show no signs of anything.”
    I just looked at him.
    Stow nodded. “I was hoping you knew more than me.” he said. “I’ll do my best to find a cause.”
    I thought of something. “Let’s talk cred. How much?”
    He looked at me. Not hostile, no pity. Just an open look. He reached into his desk and extracted a slim plastic card. He passed it over to me.
    I read it. “O.W. KNOES” in a large font. Below, smaller: “Mutual Defense. Trade. Security. Pawn Services. Freelancers welcome!”
    Stow finished his tea, seemed to savor it. “Go see that man, son. He hasn’t been in the Old Strip long, but he’s here to stay. He’s…an associate of mine. Go see that man at your earliest convenience and this mod work is on the house.”
    When shit sounds too good to be true, it usually is. But I couldn’t find even the hint of a game.
    “Besides,” Stow continued with a wink “I’m new here myself. May as well start building a rep.”
    He then stood up and moved toward the mod-room.
    For whatever reason, I decided to trust him.
    But the shit that followed kept us away from seeing Knoes for almost three years.

    As soon as I hit the mouth of the alley, the SmartWraps engaged.
    All three Blackrockers were down, but were struggling up.
    The wraps targeted and centered. Lines intercepted. I raised the Comanche and put three slugs into the biggest fucker — just above the armor’s collar. He thudded to the ground, dead weight.
    Life went slow mo.
    The middle sized dude was recovering faster than the smaller, who was down on his back and bleeding from the nose and the ears. I concentrated on Mr. Quick.
    Still walking forward I leveled the Comanche. The Wraps processed. Lines intersected. Tiny servo motors in the guns mid-section began to adjust to a million different factors. My movement, air movement, the erratic movement of the target, the imperceptible shake in my hand.
    Three quick pulls on the trigger and I nailed the ganger in the left eye, just below the nose, and blew his trachea into gory splinters.
    Two down, one to go.
    The smallest ganger was up, still a bit dazed, but ready to fight.
    I shifted, aimed, let the slaved gun target…
    The Comanche jammed. Flat jammed.
    I actually screamed: “FUCK!”
    The ganger grinned maliciously, the shotgun rising, as I tried desperately to back track, seeing death walk up…
    Then the small form dropped from nowhere, right onto the ganger. The prosthetic arm grabbed the gun and ripped it away, flinging it down the alley. Strong skinny legs wrapped expertly around the midsection of the surprised ganger, as the other hand flashed and sent a blade across the exposed throat in another expert motion.
    The spray of blood barely missed me. I stared at the gaping hole in the gangers neck, as IKDR rode the body down to a soft landing.
    Lethal little monkey.

    U OKEE BROOO? he transed in a huge, scared font. He wiped the blade of the permasharp fullerene combat knife clean on the still jerking body of the ganger.
    “I’m fine.” I said, a bit shakily. That shit was too close.
    “Grab their guns and any electronics you can find on them, bro. Then let’s haul ass to Knoes before back up arrives.”
    He nodded and set to work.

    I cleared the jam, cursing. My own fault. I hadn’t serviced the gun in weeks. Clumsy shit like that gets you killed in the Old Strip.
    When I was ready to go, I turned to call the kid, only to find him staring down at the body of the ganger he’d killed. He had improvised a sack from some plastic sheeting and had the guns and other loot under his arm.
    “What’s the matter bro? Let’s get gone.” I said, impatient.
    He didn’t take his eyes off the ganger.
    Aww, fuck.
    “So what? Come ON!”
    For the fifty millionth fucking time I cursed Cheffy and my own stupid self for showing him those goddam King Arthur stories.
    “Well it ain’t very fucking chivalrous for fucking bitch girls to try and kill your bro, either is it?” I yelled at him. Goddam..we needed to go!
    He sat there a second, considering.
    GUEZZ NOT. He finally said.
    I sighed, relieved. I had been afraid for a sec he’d insist on burying the stupid skank.
    “Ok! Then come ON..we gotta get to Knoes NOW. They could have back up here in just a few minutes. I’m gettin’ our loot.” I moved quick out of the alley, afraid to resling the Comanche, to grab the packs.
    When I had them, I stopped in the mouth of the Alley. IKDR was actually fuckin’ bent over the bitch, all sad and shit.
    “Goddamit come the fuck on, dumbass! Don’t you realize we’ve started a fucking war?”
    He only paused a second more.
    Then he was up, black blank eyes emotionless, and right by my side.

    We ran, burdened by loot, towards safety.

PART II (FINALE) coming soon.

April 16, 2004

A blast from the past

Posted by shonk at 08:38 PM | permalink | comment

Today, I stumbled across this Wired article on gopher, the internet protocol developed at the University of Minnesota way back in 1992. The article brought back memories, because I remember gopher from my middle school days when we spent all our time using Lynx to access gopher and read blonde jokes instead of improving our typing, learning HyperCard, or whatever other useless pursuits the teachers had in mind. Given that the paradigm of the day was the BBS, gopher was quite a revelation. Now, of course, everyone is used to everything on the internet being a mere mouse-click away, but that was all-new 12 years ago.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that not only is gopher still kicking, but a few people are actually trying to bring it into the 21st century. For example, John Goerzen, in addition to maintaining supposedly the largest active gopher server in the world at Quux.org, thinks gopher could be used as dynamic data exchange protocol like XML-RPC and SOAP. He also sees it as a good alternative to current PDA and phone browsers:

“Consider this example: Port-a-Goph, a gopher client in development for Palm OS. Cameron Kaiser wrote this in his spare time and got it working quickly on his own Palm,” he said. “Contrast that with the state of Web browsing on handheld devices: Despite many years to improve them, I still regularly run across websites that simply do not render at all, or render so poorly that they are unusable.”

He’s probably right, but, for whatever reason, people seem to like to re-invent the wheel instead of just re-using proven wheels, so gopher probably will never be more than a tiny geek niche. That all having been said, there’s a lot of good stuff available on gopher servers like gopher://quux.org/, which you can access directly through nice browsers like Firefox. If you’re on IE, your best bet is probably Floodgap’s public gopher proxy, which translates gopher pages to HTML. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably go immediately to the jokes pages, which are filled with a vast assortment of predominately nerdy material.

On the subject of internet protocols and the like, I should mention that last night I finished Neal Stephenson’s latest, The Confusion, which just came out in bookstores this week (for those that don’t get the connection between internet protocols and a historical novel set in the 17th century, I’d suggest a thorough perusal of Stephenson’s other work, including Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon or, if you’re too cheap to spend money on books, the essay “In the Beginning Was the Command Line”). The Confusion is quite good, interleaving or “con-fusing” the two main stories much more seamlessly than did its predecessor, Quicksilver, which I’ve already reviewed. Though I’m not particularly in the book review mood right now, I will say that this trilogy is really growing on me and I’m definitely looking forward to September, when The System of the World comes out. One thing that really stands out about The Confusion is that among the diverse topics with which it deals, one of the primary issues is that of money and markets, especially how they arise and how they work. For more on that, check out the Wired interview with Stephenson (via Catallarchy).

April 04, 2004


Posted by shonk at 01:41 AM | permalink | 8 comments

Some weird coincidences today: I finished reading The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and kept stumbling across various web pages related to the book in some way during the course of my daily web browsing. Which itself ties into one of the book’s main themes, that of synchronicity.

Anyway, over at Wikipedia, the featured article of the day is that on Emperor Norton I, a thoroughly interesting, though most likely quite insane, San Franciscan from the 19th century who declared himself Emperor of the United States and even issued his own currency. Norton gets a bit of play in Illuminatus! as a sort of Discordian hero and he seems to keep popping up in my reading. Of course, his most famous connection to literature is that he was supposedly the model for the King in Twain’s Huck Finn.

Speaking of Twain, while fooling around with MathWorld, I came across an interesting entry on the beast number, 666, which couldn’t help but remind me of The Number of the Beast, an excellent book by Heinlein, an inveterate admirer of Twain’s. In The Number of the Beast, Heinlein posits a “multiverse” with 66^6 different universes contained within it, many of them (perhaps all of them) created by novelists and storytellers. Which is a conceit mentioned briefly in Illuminatus! and central to another Wilson trilogy, the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy.

In fact, I’m a bit surprised, given the numerological bent of much of Illuminatus!, that Shea and Wilson don’t devote any attention to some of the interesting properties of the beast number. For example, 666 is equal to the sum of the squares of the first seven primes, the sum of the numbers from 1 to 6 * 6 (i.e. the sum of the numbers from 1 to 36) and

phi function

where phi denotes the Euler phi, or totient, function

Of course, I think my favorite beast number property is that, writing the parameters of Coxeter’s notation side-by-side, the bimonster can be denoted by 666. Which is interesting because the bimonster is the wreathed product of the monster group by Z2. For those that have no idea what I’m talking about, just take it on faith that the monster group, as one might guess from its name, has a sort of mythical cachet among (certain types of) mathematicians.

Anyway, back to something resembling the English language. Another big theme in Illuminatus! is that of immanentizing the Eschaton, a concept somewhat badly explained in the book as “to cause the end of days”. Now, those hip to the blogosphere scene may recognize “Eschaton” as the name of the name of the blog run by Democratic cheerleader and fellow Philadelphia-dweller atrios. However, I was somewhat surprised to note that the name of the blog is a David Foster Wallace reference; though I can’t stand the blog, I have to give atrios serious props for naming it after the tennis-academy bombardment game from Wallace’s brilliant Infinite Jest (to tie this in further with the math-speak above, I should also mention that Wallace has a pretty good math book called Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, which would be, I think, challenging but comprehensible for an interested layman).

And now, in a desperate attempt to salvage some semblance of thematic integrity from this post, here are some interesting quotes from Illuminatus!

“We’re anarchists and outlaws, goddam it. Didn’t you understand that much? We’ve got nothing to do with right-wing, left-wing or any other half-assed political category. If you work within the system, you come to one of the either/or choices that were implicit in the system fro the beginning. You’re talking like a medieval serf, asking the first agnostic whether he worships God or the Devil. We’re outside the system’s categories. You’ll never get the hang of our game if you keep thinking in flat-earth imagery of right and left, good and evil, up and down. If you need a group label for us, we’re political non-Euclideans. But even that’s not true. Sink me, nobody of this tub agrees with anybody else about anything, except maybe what the fellow with the horns told the old man in the clouds: Non serviam.”

— Hagbard Celine, pg. 86

“Just remember: it’s not true unless it makes you laugh. This is the one and sole and infallible test of all ideas that will ever be presented to you.”

— Hagbard Celine, pg. 250

(And Semper Cuni Linctus, the very night that he reamed his subaltern for taking native superstitions seriously, passed an olive garden and saw the Seventeen…and with them was the Eighteenth, the one they had crucified the Friday before. Magna Mater, he swore, creeping closer, am I losing my mind? The Eighteenth, whatshisname, the preacher, had set up a wheel and was distributing cards to them. Now, he turned the wheel and called out the number at which it stopped. The centurion watched, in growing amazement, as the process was repeated several times, and the cards were marked each time the wheel stopped. Finally, the big one, Simon, shouted “Bingo!” The scion of the noble Linctus family turned and fled…Behind him, the luminous figure said, “Do this in commemoration of me.”

“I thought we were supposed to do the bread and wine bit in commemoration of you?” Simon objected.

“Do both,” the ghostly one said. “The bread and wine is too symbolic and arcane for some folks. This one is what will bring in the mob. You see, fellows, if you want to bring the Movement to the people, you have to start from where the people are at. You, Luke, don’t write that down. This is part of the secret teachings.”)

— pg. 324

The most thoroughly and relentlessly Damned, banned, excluded, condemned, forbidden, ostracized, ignored, suppressed, repressed, robbed, brutalized and defamed of all Damned Things is the individual human being. The social engineers, statisticians, psychologists, sociologists, market researchers, landlords, bureaucrats, captains of industry, bankers, governors, commissars, kings and presidents are perpetually forcing this Damned Thing into carefully prepared blueprints and perpetually irritated that the Damned Thing will not fit into the slot assigned to it. The theologians call it a sinner and try to reform it. The governor calls it a criminal and tries to punish it. The psychotherapist calls it neurotic and tries to cure it. Still, the Damned thing will not fit into their slots.

— Hagbard Celine, from Never Whistle While You’re Pissing, pg. 385

It was the chains of communication, not the means of production, that determined a social process; Marx had been wrong, lacking cybernetics to enlighten him.

— pg. 388

“Everybody was lying to the FBI and CIA, sir. They were all afraid of punishment for various activities forbidden by our laws. No variation or permutation on their stories will hang together reasonably. Each witness lied about something, and usually about several things. The truth is other than it appeared. In short, the government, being an agency of punishment, acted as a distorting factor from the beginning, and I had to use information-theory equations to determine the degree of distortion present. I would say that what I finally discovered may have universal application: no governing body can ever obtain an accurate account of reality from those over whom it holds power. From the perspective of communication analysis, government is not an instrument of law and order, but of law and disorder. I’m sorry to have to say this so bluntly, but it needs to be kept in mind when similar situations arise in the future.”

— Fred Filiarisus, pgs. 423-4


FREE MARKET: That condition of society in which all economic transactions result from voluntary choice without coercion.

THE STATE: That institution which interferes with the Free Market through the direct exercise of coercion or the granting of privileges (backed by coercion).

TAX: That form of coercion or interference with the Free Market in which the State collects tribute (the tax), allowing it to hire armed forces to practice coercion in defense of privilege, and also to engage in such wars, adventures, experiments, “reforms,” etc., as it pleases, not at its own cost, but at the cost of “its” subjects.

PRIVILEGE: From the latin privi, private, and lege, law. An advantage granted by the State and protected by its powers of coercion. A law for private benefit.

USURY: That form of privilege or interference with the Free Market in which one State-supported group monopolizes the coinage and thereby takes tribute (interest), direct or indirect, on all or most economic transactions.

LANDLORDISM: That form of privilege or interference in the Free Market in which one State-supported group “owns” the land and thereby takes tribute (rent) from those who live, work, or produce on the land.

TARIFF: That form of privilege or interference in the Free Market in which commodities produced outside the State are not allowed to compete equally with those produced inside the State.

CAPITALISM: That organization of society, incorporating elements of tax, usury, landlordism, and tariff, which thus denies the Free Market while pretending to exemplify it.

CONSERVATISM: That school of capitalist philosophy which claims allegiance to the Free Market while actually supporting usury, landlordism, tariff, and sometimes taxation.

LIBERALISM: That school of capitalist philosophy which attempts to correct the injustices of capitalism by adding new laws to the existing laws. EAch time conservatives pass a law creating privilege, liberals pass another law modifying privilege, leading conservatives to pass a more subtle law recreating privilege, etc., until “everything not forbidden is compulsory” and “everything not compulsory is forbidden.”

SOCIALISM: The attempted abolition of all privilege by restoring power entirely to the coercive agent behind privilege, the State, thereby converting capitalist oligarchy into Statist monopoly. Whitewashing a wall by painting it black.

ANARCHISM: That organization of society in which the Free Market operates freely, without taxes, usury, landlordism, tariffs, or other forms of coercion or privilege. RIGHT ANARCHISTS predict that in the Free Market people would voluntarily choose to compete more often than to cooperate. LEFT ANARCHISTS predict that in the Free Market people would voluntarily choose to cooperate more often than to compete.

— Hagbard Celine, from Never Whistle While You’re Pissing, pgs. 622-4

March 18, 2004

The "reasonable men" get their day again

Posted by Curt at 02:35 PM | permalink | comment

A few weeks ago I posted about Theodore Dalrymple’s creation of the term “pre-ideological” to describe Stefan Zweig and, I suppose, a common breed of writer and artist in the days before the higher and lower spheres of culture become inextricably tangled up with each other. I thought at the time that this was just a whim of an unrependent conservative of the old guard, but if Christopher Hitchens, ex-radical and current neo-conservative of whom I am generally no supporter either in style or beliefs, is out to offer a tribute to Edmund Burke, well then, we may be at the beginning of a movement of some sort.

As much as Burke is generally considered a political philosopher, his views in my opinion virtually embody the idea of pre-ideological. This is fairly evident in his commitment to tradition and particularly to his idea of a continuity uniting past, present and future generations, which does not seem to have a deliberate, logical foundation in his arguments, but should not necessarily be considered unreasonable on that account. Burke seems to consider tradition to be a value in and of itself, and far be it from me to disagree with that, particularly as in my observation nostalgia seems to be almost a true universal, certainly more universal than idealism. Perhaps it is because we always perceive the present through the eyes of the past, so that even our idealism is often tinged with nostalgia. As Leopardi says, “Our happiness always lies in the past.”

In any event, Burke’s views seem to be a much more reasonable defense of tradition than most others I have encountered. I have always, for example, found something pleasant about the air of grandeur and culture surrounding certain elements of the church, despite by no means being of any creed myself. I find Burke’s tacit explanation of this bizarre attachment, that these traditions acquire a value simply by virtue of their perpetuation, much more satisfying and true than the orthodox religious explanation that their value is based upon the absolute truth of scripture, which I dismiss (pending further evidence and experience). It may be distressing to some (even to myself) that people find meaning and value in things simply by virtue of their existence and perpetuation, but it seems to be true, and those wishing to register complaints had better take them up with whatever shaped our natures. This is not to say that nostalgia or tradition are most valuable; there are often higher imperatives, as I would be the first to concede; then again, Burke felt that way too. He was one of the strongest opponents of slavery and of colonialism, for example, despite the undeniable body of tradition surrounding both practices, because there were higher imperatives mitigating against them. On the other hand, he was not going to be beaten along into approving of the French Revolution, no matter how much slave-liberty rhetoric was bandied about.

The central point seems to be that it is often necessary to break with tradition when there is something greater or better at stake, but nothing except destruction can come of challenging traditions simply because they are latent. Perhaps it would be best to follow Descartes’ description of his own working method for challenging his own beliefs so as to arrive at true, valid principles: “as I had from that time begun to hold my own opinions for nought because I wished to subject them all to examination, I was convinced that I could not do better than follow in the meantime the opinions of the most judicious…expediency seemed to dictate that I should regulate my practice comformably to the opinions of those with whom I should have to live.”

In short, many of us may not find church and crown so valuable or sacrosanct as Burke, nor so worthy of preservation. But Burke seems to me in the end to have been a reasonable man, one of the few generous and humble enough that I could imagine saying, as George Eliot did, “our neighbors are often better than we believe them.” Therefore, if we cannot at least acknowledge a spark of wisdom in his belief that no society should be built from the ground up, than we are a long way from a world which is tolerant enough to be liveable for all of humanity.

March 13, 2004

An artistic credo

Posted by Curt at 07:13 PM | permalink | comment

On being asked for a War Poem

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

—W.B. Yeats

March 10, 2004

Nostalgia as political agenda

Posted by Curt at 03:28 PM | permalink | comment

I suppose this article goes together with this one in message and tone, but I am still at a loss as to how the student protesters of ‘68 were any less infantile or fantastical than the fantasy-geeks of today. In fact the comparison seems to indicate the opposite, and I would go even further to claim that, personally, day-dreaming about Middle-Earth gives me much pleasure and refreshment of the soul than obsessing about the hypertrophed social bromides of the ‘68 generation.

February 16, 2004

Finding Humor in Unlikely Places

Posted by shonk at 01:51 AM | permalink | comment

Apparently the mid-winter doldrums have gotten to be too much for the College Republicans at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Connecticut, so they’ve decided to liven things up by protesting affirmative action with a whites-only scholarship :

The application for the $250 award requires an essay on “why you are proud of your white heritage” and a recent picture to “confirm whiteness.”

“Evidence of bleaching will disqualify applicants,” says the application.

Now, some may take offense to this, but in my opinion, it’s pretty damn funny. I mean, come on, “[e]vidence of bleaching”? And I, personally, would love to read the essays they get. You know a few will be wacko white-supremacist screeds, which, admittedly would be a little scary, but I’d be willing to bet that most would be hilarious, because the essay writer would either be treating the whole thing as a joke or trying like hell to be serious and as a result writing the most stilted, artificial crap imaginable. Hopefully, someone will rise to the challenge, write a good satirical piece and win the whole thing.

Now, some of you may not find a lot of humor in this. You may be wondering what, exactly, I find so funny about these right-wing reactionaries and their racist programs. Well, here’s what’s funny: a few decades ago, people started noticing that black people were underrepresented among college graduates; instead of doing something productive, like raising the standards in high schools, or tying teacher salaries to performance instead of tenure, or, heaven forbid, saying “maybe this whole ‘public school’ paradigm needs to be re-thought”, those people decided to start accepting and giving extra money to under-qualified black students. Which isn’t funny, in and of itself; it’s actually quite tragic, because two of the primary consequences of this approach were to engender racial jealousy on the part of whites and to ensure that the qualifications of every black college graduate were viewed with suspicion by those paying attention to what was going on. No, what’s funny about this mess is that otherwise intelligent people take it so damn seriously, to the point where they get spitting mad when somebody says “Hey, this doesn’t make any sense”. Now, this scholarship thing isn’t, to me, as good as affirmative action bake sales, which take the thing to its logical conclusion, a sort of reductio ad absurdum, but it’s still good for a chuckle.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced the College Republicans at Roger Williams or anywhere else have enough of a sense of humor to laugh about this whole thing. In my experience, College Republicans are a pretty dour lot, unable to take a joke and usually the first ones to run to the dean when someone plays a joke on them. At least, that was my experience in undergraduate, where the president of the College Republicans was a seriously uninteresting person with no trace of a sense of humor.

Oddly enough, this president of the College Republicans at my otherwise fine undergraduate institution was from Olathe, Kansas, which is the municipality represented by Kansas State Senator Kay O’Connor, who made headlines in 2001 for her opposition to women’s suffrage. That’s right, she’s not only a voter herself, but a state senator, and she’s opposed to women’s suffrage. Her reasoning:

I’m an old-fashioned woman. Men should take care of women, and if men were taking care of women (today) we wouldn’t have to vote. I’m sorry women have not been taken more care of. We have gotten the short end of the stick.

Sadly, this isn’t the sort of irony that’s funny; rather, it’s the sort that makes me want to punch a wall. Women have indeed gotten the short end of the stick throughout much of history, but I wouldn’t say that the 19th Amendment was one such instance.

Speaking of fools, the estate of James Joyce is certainly giving O’Connor a run for her money. They’ve threatened legal action for any public readings of Joyce’s work at the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Bloomsday. For those that don’t know what Bloomsday is, it’s the name given to June 16, 1904, the date on which the action in Joyce’s Ulysses (whose primary character is Leopold Bloom) takes place. As pointed out in the above-linked post:

Public readings do not displace commercialised use of Joyce’s work, so the estate does not lose income from their occurrence. Of course, the estate is technically within its ‘rights’ (though this does indicate reasons for reforming European copyright law) but such vigorous enforcement is unnecessary and distasteful.

I would go a step further than that, and assert that public readings of Ulysses would probably encourage additional purchases of the work, which is a famously difficult read but is quite lyrical and funny when read aloud. In fact, the Joyce estate may well be hurting sales by raising such a fuss about what is intended to be a celebration of the book generally considered the best of the 20th century. Since amazon.co.uk has only sold 2,374 copies of the beast in its history, one might have thought the estate would have taken this into account.

Of course, what’s really ridiculous about the whole thing is that Ulysses actually went into the public domain in 1941, 50 years after Joyce’s death, only to go back into copyright when the EU retroactively extended copyrights to death + 70 years in July of 1995, which surely made for some interesting times in the publishing industry. One might wonder how, exactly, a work can simply be removed from the public domain, but it does provide for an interesting possibility: “readings from certain editions of Ulysses, published or
prepared in the period between 1991 and 1995, could fall outside the
Joyce Estate’s control.”

In a further twist, if current copyright laws had been in effect for the entirety of the last millennium, Ulysses might never have been published in the first place, as it is rife with emulations of other writers’ styles, popular songs and advertising slogans and jingles; literally hundreds of lawsuits might have been filed, rather than the measly one that DJ Danger Mouse currently faces.

Now if only Ms. O’Connor would speak out about how books like Ulysses are eroding our moral sensibilities, I might be able to tie together all the loose strings in this post into some sort of coherent conclusion.

February 14, 2004

Finally, a unified theory!

Posted by Curt at 02:11 PM | permalink | 1 comment

While, today I have found yet another long-overdue takedown of a linguistic travesty. And no, it is not the snide carping about “Ulysses” among Irish writers preceding the centenary of the “longest day.” I hope that my perspective on complaining will be easily anticipated by now. It is all pure jealousy, even if some of the literary points of the matter are well-taken. Why attempt to beat a corpse now? Would they prefer that Irish writers have the stature that they did before Joyce? No, rather I mean this dismissal of thesaurae in general and the still-in-print production of Mr. Roget in particular. The best line, apart from all the sectarian quibbling about what really constitutes a synonym, is this:

“The safest storehouse for writers to fetch words from is their own head. In it are the words and phrases, read and heard, that have struck or pleased them. Among these will be the colloquialisms, the neologisms, the new metaphors hatched out of current events, that are unlikely to be in any existing list. Only the treasury of the mind can supply just those turns of phrase with which writers express their own thoughts and not somebody else’s.”

As much as this may seem a pure and unexonerated platitude, it is so very true in one important respect. In the continuing argument of attrition over the relevance or non-relevance of a literary canon, I notice that the one thread which holds together almost uniformally the writers who are with little controversy acknowledged to be the most important in their particular language, Shakespeare, Dante, Pushkin, Joyce, Kierkegaard, Chaucer, is that these were the most prolific inventors in their literary languages (even when that invention consists primarily of borrowing from other languages). Consider Chaucer and Shakespeare. Chaucer lived in the very midst of the great shift from Old English to Middle English, and he had an inestimable role in expanding its grandeur and intellectual capability by importing hundreds of French- and Latin-derived words to serve his work in the French- and Latin-derived literary genres in which he wrote. In the decades before he was born, English was a very Germanic, still basically oral, and regional language. Within a century of his death, the English language was undeniably within the orbit of the greater post-Roman intellectual imperium of Europe. Similarly, roughly the lifetime of Shakespeare constitutes the period of transition between the Chaucerian form of Middle English and English as it is spoken today. In Italy, similarly, if one reads any literature from before Dante’s birth, it will likely read like a fairly indecipherable dialectical form of Latin, whereas “The Divine Comedy” is written in language almost identical to modern Italian. I could go on: when I asked my best friend about how Pushkin had affected the Russian language, particularly in terms of borrowing words from French, he started reaching out and snatching at the air in all directions to demonstrate. Anyway, needless to say this point is less well-appreciated than it should be, because few people can read all of the major literary languages, and so the linguistic style and influence of the great writers must be largely accepted on faith.

The exceptions in this case definitely prove the rule. French, for example, certainly has canonical writers but no truly dominant figures. And probably the relentless codification and self-ossification of the language on the part of the people, seemingly designed to stamp out all irregularities and innovations, is largely the reason for this. Furthermore, the writers whose reputations stand at the apex in French literature, Corneille, Racine, Molière, Montaigne, Mme. de Sévigné, were writing at the time of, and indeed helped in the creation of, the establishment of the codes and regulations of the language and its literary forms. Flaubert’s method of composition has been widely admired, but it also makes him emblematic in my opinion of the whole course of French literature and of secondary literary lights generally: he searched for the exact right word within the confines of his language rather than inventing (or stealing) it. Thus, it seems almost indisputible and proverbial to me that, whatever the psychological and philosophical implications of a writer’s work, their most important influence will be on the shape of their language. Perhaps modern literature is generally a matter of secondary importance today because the creation of new words, new means of expression and, ultimately, new modes of consciousness, derives today largely from other areas of culture. Whose mode of expression in speech (and perhaps in thought) is not sensibly shaped by the use of language in movies, in music, and in business? But whose voice, except in a certain sort of academic context, is shaped by contemporary poetry, for example?

I would be the last person to bleat about the lost kingdom of the poets or some such nonsense, but it is very obvious to me that the importance of a writer is almost entirely correlated with the extent to which he is the author of his language. Think of Samuel Johnson, the first dictionary-writer, who is regarded as the greatest literary figure of the 18th century in Britain, despite not writing a single book which is read (as opposed to used for reference) by anyone in his own time or ours. Or the two writers in English who have probably had the greatest influence on literature and culture in this century, Joyce (inarguably) and Tolkien (debatably). They were probably the two, in my opinion, who took on the project of the invention of language most seriously and on the most grandiose scale, and it seems to have been for both of them the most important consideration in their work. And consequently their notoreity is inassailable, despite some fumbling with rather basic elements of narrative writing in both cases.

February 09, 2004

The eagle has been landed!

Posted by Curt at 03:27 PM | permalink | 2 comments

Well, at least the Weekly Standard wasn’t all bad this week. Joseph Epstein finally took down George Steiner

Best Epstein description of Steiner: “an incomparable impression of the world’s most learned man.”

Most inadvertently hilarious Steiner line: “”the interactive, correctable, interruptible, media of word processors, of electronic textualities on the Internet and the web, may amount to a return, to which Vico would call a ricorso, to orality.” Well, yes, Vico might call it that. Then again, so probably would anyone else who spoke Italian.

Second-most inadvertently hilarious Steiner sentence: “Relations with Taoism and Confucianism will be those of rivalry and reciprocal insemination.” Reciprocal insemination—where the hell was he born? No wonder he thinks homoeroticism is so essential to teaching.

February 07, 2004

The Attack of the Baroque

Posted by shonk at 09:34 PM | permalink | comment

In the spirit of what Curt’s done recently with Heine and Rudel, I wanted to share three of my favorite Spanish Baroque poems.

I’m not much of a poet, so my translations aren’t terribly good, but they’re better than nothing, I suppose, if you don’t speak Spanish. The short lines in the first poem made a poetic translation difficult, but I’ve done the best I can. I took a bit more license with the second, trying to maintain the rhyme scheme at the cost of word-for-word literalism. The third is virtually untranslatable, so I’ve gone with a strictly literal translation. Enjoy.

Letrilla XLVIII

  Andeme yo caliente
    y ríase la gente

  Traten otros del gobierno
del mundo y sus monarquías,
mientras gobiernan mis días
mantequillas y pan tierno,
y las mañanas de invierno
naranjada y aguardiente,
    y ríase la gente.

  Coma en dorada vajilla
el Príncipe mil cuidados,
como píldoras dorados;
que yo en mi pobre mesilla
quiero más una morcilla
que en el asador reviente,
    y ríase la gente.

  Cuando cubra las montañas
de blanca nieve el enero,
tenga yo lleno el brasero
de bellotas y castañas,
y quien las dulces patrañas
del Rey que rabió me cuente,
    y ríase la gente.

  Busque muy en hora buena
el mercader nuevos soles;
yo concha y caracoles
entre la menuda arena,
escuchando a Filomena
sobre el chopo de la fuente,
    y ríase la gente.

  Pase a media noche el mar,
y arda en amarosa llama,
Leandro por ver su dama;
que yo más quiero pasar
del golfo de mi lagar
la blanca o roja corriente,
    y ríase la gente.

  Pues Amor es tan cruel
que de Píramo y su amada
hace tálamo una espada,
do se junten ella en él,
sea mi Tisbe un pastel
y la espada sea mi diente,
    y ríase la gente.

—Luis de Góngora, 1581


  Let me walk with feeling
    and let the people laugh

  Let others play at governing
the world and its monarchies,
while my days are governed by
a bit of butter and soft bread,
and on early winter morn
a bit of orange and brandy,
    and let the people laugh.

  Dining on a golden plate
let the Prince have his thousand cares,
like tiny golden capsules;
for I at my poor table
prefer to have black sausage
bursting with juice on the spit,
    and let the people laugh.

  When January has covered
the mountains in deep white snow,
let my brasier be loaded
full of acorns and chestnuts,
and let there be a friend to tell
stories of the king who went mad,
    and let the people laugh.

  Let the merchant - good luck to him -
search the globe for brand-new suns;
I’ll be finding shells and snails
while walking on the fine-grained sand,
listening to the nightingale
singing from the poplar’s branch,
    and let the people laugh.

  Passing over the midnight sea,
burning with amorous flame,
let Leander seek his lady;
for I prefer to let pass
from the gulf of my winepress
the white or the red current,
    and let the people laugh.

  Since Love is so cruel as to
make for Pyramus and his beloved
a wedding bed from sharpened steel
upon which he and she unite,
let a cake be my Thisbe
and the sword shall be my tooth,
    and let the people laugh.

Epitafio 212
  A Roma sepultada en sus ruinas

  Buscas en Roma a Roma, ¡oh, peregrino!,
y en Roma misma a Roma no la hallas:
cadáver son las que ostentó murallas,
y tumba de sí proprio el Palatino.
  Yace donde reinaba el Palatino;
y limadas del tiempo, las medallas
más se muestran destrozo a las batallas
de las edades que blasón latino.
  Sólo el Tibre quedó, cuya corriente,
si ciudad la regó, ya sepoltura
la llora con funesto son doliente.
  ¡Oh, Roma!, en tu grandeza, en tu hermosura,
huyó lo que era firme, y solamente
lo fugitivo permanece y dura.

—Francisco de Quevedo

Epitaph 212
  To Rome buried in her ruins

  You search in Rome for Rome, oh lost pilgrim!
but find Rome in Rome itself you never shall:
a corpse is all that’s left of her great wall,
and the Aventine is for itself a tomb.
  The Palatine can but lie where once it reigned;
and sanded down by force of time, the mounted seals
as victims of great battle themselves reveal,
Latium’s herald silenced as ages gained.
  Only the Tiber yet remains, whose current,
if once it watered the city, now weeps
at the casket with funereal lament.
  Oh, Rome!, in your grandeur, once so sweet,
that which was firm has since fled, without consent
now only the fleeting endures the heat.

Poema Satírico 522
  A un hombre de gran nariz

  Erase un hombre a una nariz pegado,
érase una nariz superlativa,
érase una alquitara medio viva,
érase un peje espada mal barbado;
  era un reloj de sol mal encarado,
érase un elefante boca arriba,
érase una nariz sayón y escriba,
un Ovidio Nasón mal narigado.
  Erase el espolón de una galera,
érase una pirámide de Egito,
los doce tribus de narices era;
  érase un naracísimo infinito,
frisón archinariz, caratulera,
sabañon garrafal, morado y frito.

— Francisco de Quevedo (Góngora was supposedly the inspiration for this satire)

Satiric Poem 522
  To a man with a great nose

  There once was a man to a nose attached,
there once was a superlative nose,
there once was a half-alive alembic,
there once was a badly bearded swordfish;
  there was a sundial badly faced,
there once was an elephant face up,
there once was a nose for scribes and executioners,
an Ovidius Naso badly nosed.
  There was once the bowsprit of a galley,
there once was a pyramid of Egypt,
the twelve tribes of noses it was;
  there once was an infinite nasality,
Frisian archnose, mask-mold,
painful swelling, purple and fried.

Zweig, no longer just auxiliary Nietzsche reading

Posted by Curt at 01:58 PM | permalink | 2 comments

Perhaps only in central Europe, stricken, pulverized and torn out apart by rival totalitarianisms, have what Theodore Dalrymple calls “pre-ideological” intellectuals really become popular heroes in the 20th century, those such as Franz Kafka, Vaclav Havel, and also, perhaps, Stefan Zweig, who seems to be remembered now in America, by myself included, as a somehow important intellectual but only actually read through tangential association with more influential writers, such as his biography of Nietzsche, for example. Dalrymple is evidently out to revive Zweig as a signal beacon for the beleagured minds equally repelled by every ideology, and he further advances, or at least does not refute, Zweig’s own claim that the Viennese milieu before the world wars was the place of greatest freedom in Europe precisely because no formal codification of a particular ideology of freedom existed. Perhaps pre-ideological, after all. While Dalrymple clearly sympathizes with and admires such a view and such a world, the connection between Zweig and Nietzsche is a curious one, because Nietzsche, regardless of the facts of his own life, would almost doubtless have despised utterly both the type of existence that Zweig emulated and the one that he actually conducted, a sort of rootless cosmopolitanism, passive, indecisive, prone to fits of self-martyrization, and above all not so much consciously doubting as merely unsure. Zweig himself mounted a defense of this way of living:

“In wars of ideas, the best combatants are not those who thrust themselves lightly but passionately into battle, but those who hesitate a long time before committing themselves, and whose decision matures slowly. It is only once all possibilities of understanding have been exhausted, and the struggle is unavoidable, that they enter the fight with a heavy heart.”

And in fact his application of this to his relationship to the Nazis, for example, while drawing widespread scorn both at the time and since, is in fact of a very deep kind, though the principal element is undoubtedly weariness:

“it is true that he joined no anti-Nazi groups and hardly raised his voice against the Nazi horror. As a free man, he did not want the Nazis to be able to dictate his mode of expression—even if it were in opposition to them. The insufficiency of this fastidiousness at such a conjuncture needs little emphasis. But Zweig felt—in his own case, since he did not speak for others—that strident denunciation would grant the Nazis a victory of sorts. And—like many intellectuals who overestimate the importance that the intellect plays in history and in life—Zweig viewed the Nazis as beneath contempt. Their doctrine and world outlook being so obviously ridiculous and morally odious, why waste time refuting them?”

Well, so perhaps Zweig was overly content with the impotent intellectual existence that drove Nietzsche to insanity. But it is interesting that while Nietzsche, in succumbing to insanity, essentially surrendered the fight against his intellectual demons, Zweig in fact, by killing himself, was the one who actually took the rote course of existentialist heroes, willing himself out of an existence whose constraints could no longer be suffficiently recompensed for him. Ultimately perhaps Zweig can be judged similarly to the manner in which he judges the main character of his novella Buchmendel:

“Zweig makes it clear that though Buchmendel was eccentric and his life one-dimensional, even stunted, he could offer his unique contribution to Viennese civilization because no one cared about his nationality. His work and knowledge were vastly more important to his cosmopolitan customers than his membership in a collectivity.”

I have no illusions that Vienna before the war was such a paradise as Zweig made it out to be, but at the same time that imagined paradise seems to have found expression and life at least in his own personal existence and in his imagination, which is as far as any of us should seek to inflict our ideals.

February 04, 2004

Unexpected sonority

Posted by Curt at 09:02 PM | permalink | comment

For those who consider German to be a crooked branch from which nothing straight can grow:

Die Lorelei

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
dass ich so traurig bin;
ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

Die Luft is kühl und es dunkelt,
und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
im Abendsonnenschein.

Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
dort oben wunderbar;
ihr goldnes Geschmeide blitzet,
sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.

Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme
und singt ein Leid dabei;
das hat eine wundersame,
gewaltige Melodei.

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh’.

Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
und das hat mit ihrem Singen
die Lore-Ley getan.
—Heinrich Heine

I know not what it means
that I am so sad;
a tale from the olden times,
that I cannot forget.

The sky is cool and darkening
and quiet flows the Rhine;
the peaks of the mountains sparkle
in the evening sunshine.

The most beautiful girl sits
up there, miraculous;
her golden jewelry flashes,
as she combs her golden hair.

She combs it with a golden comb
and sings a song up there;
which has a wondrous,
powerful melody.

The boatsman in a little boat
is siezed with wild pain;
he does not see the cliffs,
he looks only up in the heights.

I believe that the waves devour
both the boatsman and the boat;
and this with her song
the Lore-Ley has done.

February 03, 2004

Les provençaux

Posted by Curt at 11:06 PM | permalink | comment

De dezir mos cors no fina
Vas selha ren qu’ieu pu am,
E cre que volers m’enguana
Si cobezeza la-m tol;
Que pus es ponhens qu’espina
La dolors que ab joi sana,
Don ja non vuelh qu’on m’en planha.
—Jaufré Rudel

My heart will not cease to desire
Which I could not love more,
And fear that my desire will be lost
If too much I covet it;
Because it cuts sharper than a thorn,
The sadness that I feel at joy,
Of which I do not want anyone to complain.

February 01, 2004

And as for the psychiatric industry...?

Posted by Curt at 06:22 PM | permalink | comment

In its obituary to the morosely introverted writer Janet Frame, the NYT decides to focus on the question of the alleged mental illness in her life that finds significance in her frequent literary treatment of madness. Key graph:

“She next traveled abroad on a grant from the New Zealand government, and in London a panel of psychiatrists determined she was not mentally ill, just different from other people.”

If only we could all be judged so generously, but I have my doubts.

October 30, 2003

The Liberators

Posted by shonk at 10:46 PM | permalink | comment

Do yourself a favor and check out The Liberators, my friend George Potter's latest story.

October 06, 2003

Leaves in the autumn wind

Posted by Curt at 03:20 PM | permalink | comment

Ever since I learned to read, and at least up until the last couple of years, my favorite book of all, without even any close competition, was unquestionably "The Lord of the Rings." Now it has been a few years since I have read it last, although I think I have read it at least nine times all the way through, and countless times I have dipped into it whenever I need a moment of comfort, like Faulkner with his "Don Quijote." However, the world has changed for me, and I no longer feel as close to the absolutely idyllic (in an imaginative rather than moral sense) world I felt connected to in Middle-Earth, and indeed I have my doubts now as to whether I will ever encounter a place like it in my future life. Indeed, my usual formulation in describing the matter is that as a child Middle-Earth was my private ideal into which I could retreat at any point, but since I have become burdened, with the onset of maturity, by a sense of the loss of private fantasy, I have become very much taken with the work of the proto-existentialists like Kafka and Kierkegaard who I think express this spiritual longing most acutely of any modern intellectuals ("The Hunger-Artist" might be the supreme symbolic evocation of the condition). Yet in reading this archived Salon article I was struck by an observation which had never really struck me consciously before, that in fact Tolkien expresses everywhere in his writings an angst or sadness about the passing of the beautiful and the good out of the world just as poignant and acute as those authors. As much as "The Lord of the Rings" captures for me the world of my longing, it is more than anything a lament for its end. As Andrew O'Hehir says in the article: "Few if any heroic quests have had such a sense of human frailty and weakness...Even the victory wrought by the Ring's destruction is a sad affair, in many respects closer to defeat." Just think of the parting of the company after the victory at the end of the last book, when the immortals and Frodo depart from the world on the grey ships. The tone is almost unbearably mournful, very much in the spirit of those great Middle English poems that Tolkien translated, "Pearl" and "Sir Orfeo." And let us not forget that Frodo does in fact fail in his quest and tries to take the Ring for himself in the end. But Gandalf is wise enough to realize that his mercy in saving Gollum, the most depraved and conflicted character of all, was perhaps the true defining moment, which makes "chance, or divine grace" possible. In any event, I must have been shaped by this sensibility from the start, or else I have always been of a similar disposition and simply responded to the expression of a similar spirit I detected there, just as I was later pulled to the temperament of Kafka and Kierkegaard. I find it at the very least revealing that perhaps the most popular novelist and poet (and, I hope by coincidence, my personal favorites) of the modern age are Tolkien and his kindred spirit, that other great advocate of mythology, W.B. Yeats, both of whom responded to modernity by an absolute spiritual rejection of it.

p.s. My only insatiable cultist quibble with the story itself is that the premise behind the existence of the Ring and its destruction do not, as far as I can tell, make any sense. I have been muddling over that little conundrum since I was eight years old, and I have yet to piece together a coherent explanation for how the Ring is supposed to actually work--I have come to the view that there isn't one. However, while it may be metaphysically inexplicable, there is no question that within the story it is the perfect symbol for corrupting power.

October 03, 2003

Quicksilver Review

Posted by shonk at 08:24 PM | permalink | 1 comment

I've spent most of my free time in the last week reading Neal Stephenson's latest book, Quicksilver. Here's a short review:

Stephenson's style is obviously maturing, as he demonstrates more of an ability to capture moods, attitudes and thoughts than in previous work. Also, he experiments a bit throughout Quicksilver with different stylistic techniques and ways of telling a story that make the book more interesting and fun to read (it seems clear that he's trying to take some cues from Joyce at times, though, fortunately, not aggressively so). Another sign of his writing maturity is that, though he's telling stories separated by half a century, as in Cryptonomicon, they tend to be more plausibly connected than in Cryptonomicon (which, though I enjoyed, was frustrating to the extent that there was no explicit connection between the two timelines aside from familial relations and subject matter; Quicksilver doesn't suffer from the same flaw).

Now, as to the story itself, it's an interesting one, though, predictably, as this is the first book of a planned trilogy, much of the book is devoted to background and exposition, setting the stage for future books. The dustjacket blurbs say that this is a book about Newton and Leibniz, but, though they do play a strong role in the book, this is, to some degree, the story of the entire scientific and political atmosphere of that time (specifically between the Interregnum and the Glorious Revolution). It's not so much about Newton, say, as about the people around Newton. Really, I found it fascinating, but I'm having a hard time summarizing the plot, because it's so obvious to me that the plot is still underway and won't fully resolve itself for another two books.

One of the major strengths of the book is it's solid grounding in the "Natural Philosophy" that most of the main characters are so heavily involved in. In a way, this is a story of the human aspect of the birth of modern science, so it's quite gratifying that the science is good. Which isn't to say that you need to know anything about calculus or astronomy or chemistry to appreciate it, but that sort of knowledge doesn't hurt (this is in the same sense that you don't need to know anything about mathematics or cryptography or computers to appreciate Cryptonomicon, but it certainly doesn't hurt). Also, some of the critiques of science voice by various "serious" characters are either wrong, but for interesting reasons, or very good, which just adds to the enjoyment.

One warning, though. Do not get this book on the assumption that it is another Snow Crash or Diamond Age; it's not. The high-tech is three centuries old and terms like cypherpunk, or even democracy, would be anachronisms. This is a historical epic and, as such, is pretty slowly paced. Act accordingly


I won't be giving away anything major, but you may want to wait to read the following until after you've read the book.

Okay, you've been warned.

That all said, I do have a couple of complaints. First, I've never been a fan of the episodic style weaving multiple plotlines, where each chapter or section tells a bit of one story, then the next chapter tells a bit of the next, then the next goes back to the first (or perhaps on to a third, or whatever), though this "cliffhanger" style does have its advantages. Anyway, this is how Stephenson tells the story, which I find slightly annoying, but I guess it's hard to tell multiple stories-within-a-story another way, and he does do a pretty good job of making all the plotlines interesting and not making the jumps too jarring. Second, I wish he'd stuck with the Daniel in 1713 plotline for longer, as I found myself looking forward to the next installment while it was going on, and missed it once it dropped off. Presumably, the main thrust of the trilogy will be in that plotline, with the 17th century stuff primarily serving as intersting background material, so losing track of that timeline seems silly. But maybe I'm misreading where this thing is going. Third, within the scope of the trilogy, when it's completed, it may make sense not to mention Jack Shaftoe after he leaves Europe, but within the context of the book, it's frustrating, especially since it's so obvious that he'll be back at some point (and Stephenson drops a few hints to this effect as well). Fourth, though I applaud Stephenson for his stylistic experiments, some of them simply fall flat. The dramatic interludes serve as good commentary on how everyone is playing a role, even Daniel, but they simply aren't that good from a dramatic perspective. Stephenson seems to be taking a cue or two from the Circe section of Ulysses in these segments, but, if that's the case, he really ought to have cut loose a bit more. Fifth, and this is more a general critque of Stephenson than of this particular book, some of the coincidences are pretty over-the-top. Maybe he's making some commentary on history or psychology or genetics or whatever, but it's a bit hard to swallow that the same two families played important roles Cromwell's accession, the Glorious Revolution, World War II cryptography and modern data havens (those last two come from Cryptonomicon). But maybe that's just me. Finally, as usual, Stephenson doesn't write much of conclusion or climax to the book (his best attempt at ending a book is, in my opinion, in The Diamond Age, but even there there's too much that's unexplained going on), but, since the end of this book isn't really the end, is, in fact, intended not to be a conclusion at all, but rather to point towards the rest of the forthcoming trilogy, this isn't really a drawback.

Despite those complaints, I definitely enjoyed the book and would strongly recommend it to anyone.