The linings of the brain. (The linings of my brain, they give me such pain.) The linings of my brain are three in number and are called collectively the meninges. They surround it on the outside. The innermost is called the pia mater. It is a delicate, fibrous, and highly vascular membrane (gorged with veins and capillaries, I suppose). I feel pressure against it from inside. Things bubble and shove against it as though they might explode. It reminds me at times of a cheese fondue. The pia mater, reinforced by the two supporting layers, the arachnoid and the dura mater, holds fast against the outward expanding pressure of my brain, pushes back. At times, there is pain. The name pia mater derives from an imperfect translation into Latin of Arabic words that meant (ha, ha) tender mother.
– Joseph Heller, Something Happened (Knopf, 1974, p. 541-42)
How true- this quote, a favorite of mine:
“I see an injustice: a Parisian does not have to bring his city out of nothingness every time he wants to describe it. A wealth of allusions lies at his disposal, for his city exists in works of word, brush, and chisel; even if it were to vanish from the face of the earth, one would still be able to recreate it in the imagination. But I, returning in thought to the streets where the most important part of my life unfolded, am obliged to invent the most utilitarian sort of symbols and am forced to condense my material, as is usual when everything, from geography and architecture to the color of the air, has to be squeezed into a few sentences. A certain number of engravings, photographs, and memoirs do exist, of course, but these are generally little known beyond the narrow confines of the region itself. Moreover, the natives lacked perspective and most of the time paid no attention to what now seems to me worth thinking about.”
– Czeslaw Milosz, beginning paragraph from “City of My Youth” (Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, trans. C.S. Leach, Doubleday, 1968)
There’s a nice article at The Millions by Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin (“You’ve Got Mail: On the New Age of Biography”):
Holroyd’s suggestion that the computer represents a turning point in biographical writing carries some weight. After centuries of shuffling papers, biographers must now deal with the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed. Contemporary literary biographies — of Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, Nora Ephron, John Updike, all of whom adopted email quite late in their lives — are petri dishes for a new age of biography.
What’s going to happen to all your digital information when we die, anyways? Do you have a plan for that? There’s a whole host of legal and practical unknowns. Digital data’s great, but precarious. Read all about it at the Digital Beyond.
Following on the theme of my last post on W.G. Sebald, I thought I’d drag out this old find to see if any of this blog’s readers can help my understanding of an unusual change that occurred to a photograph in Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten: Vier lange Erzählungen (1992) when it was translated by Michael Hulse and published in English by Harvill as The Emigrants (1996).
Part three of The Emigrants is a kind of family history, or intimate biography, of the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth that ostensibly draws on and incorporates postcards, photographs, and a diary/travelogue directly into the text. In 1913, on the eve of WW I, Adelwarth and another man travel from France to Istanbul and to the Holy Land. “On the 27th of November Ambros notes that he has been to Raad’s Photographic Studio in the Jaffa Road and has had his picture taken, at Cosmo’s wish, in his new striped robe” (p. 140-41).
Oddly enough, the German-language text of the book (at least the one I consulted – Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997) reveals a different image, one which encloses the portrait-sitter within a photostudio border.
Why the change? Supposing that there is a reason and that it wasn’t just due to some pressing difficulty in the layout process, – ? – I can only surmise that the publishers at New Directions acted deliberately in cropping out the frame. If so, they effectively scratched out the adjacent words Jerusalem and Palestine. Maybe it wasn’t deliberate, or Sebald ordered the crop. But if the move came from the publisher, I wonder if it wasn’t motivated by the judgment that it would be preferable to omit two words sure to remind readers of a conflict and an annexation that continue today and never fail to inspire strong sentiment. The irony is that the manipulation of historical, photographic evidence to political ends, which Sebald’s books often underline and portray, might have occurred in the process of reaching his English-speaking audience.
I might very well be reading too much into this, or not. In any case if you’ve anything to add, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this unusual find.
The first paragraph has been slightly revised since this article’s first posting.
Maddy’s desk faced the west window, which was even wider than the south or north. In his swivel chair past and present found shape: steel and white enamel plasticompo and the button that ran the swivel won only a tense counterpoise from the truth that this chair was in idea the same swivel Thomas Jefferson invented.
– Joseph McElroy, Hind’s Kidnap, Harper & Row, 1969. P. 53.
Jefferson’s revolving Windsor chair which he purchased in 1775-76. The writing arm was added later at Monticello. (Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society)
William H. Gass’s writing is so good, it’s overwhelming, almost too much. Metaphor is like junk food to this man, so he says. If you’re slightly more of a Gass fan than I am, you would find the following of great interest: three previously published essay collections are being re-issued this year: On Being Blue, Tests of Time and The World within the Word all coming back into print, that’s pretty amazing (NYRB, Dalkey). And last year the online exhibit “William H. Gass: The Soul inside the Sentence” went online (and in gallery).
Over at the online gallery you can
explore drafts of published and unpublished writings, recordings of his interviews and readings, photographs and scans of important documents and objects that have shaped his life.
Update: Also of note is this 2013 interview.
I can’t be the first one to see an uncanny resemblance between Christian Bök’s Xenotext project and the bio-art of Orfeo‘s protagonist, can I?
Novelist Richard Powers is on the latest episode of Bookworm, talking with Michael Silverblatt about his latest book Orfeo. (Word to the wise — start listening to Silverblatt’s show, if you don’t already know it.) The book’s protagonist is apparently an avant-garde composer of music at work on a project to embed his musical masterpiece in the genetic code of a germ. As Silverblatt puts it, he’s “on the threshold of creating virtual, terroristic music.” Or, as Powers says, he’s trying to “encode a private musical message, embed it into the nucleus of a living cell, and have that cell propagate in the world carrying his little MP3 cassette with it, filling up a world that’s absolutely incapable of hearing it.”
Bök’s Xenotext is described as a nine year project to engineer “a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem.” (Read about it in Bök’s own words here.)
In both cases, the appeal of the idea of genetically encoding the work of art is to to make something that will be “legible” to life for a period longer than any material artifact.
I threw the question out on Twitter, “is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) the greatest single work of literary criticism ever written?” I think it probably is, but I was hoping some other readers might contradict me or suggest some other worthy candidates for the distinction. Then I thought about it some more. So here’s some whoppers of literary criticism; I’ve read only a handful of these, and I’m sure as hell missing a lot in the few years between 335 B.C. and 1930 A.D. So, as always, comments are welcome and encouraged, below or on Twitter (@jsief).
* * *
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) – Erich Auerbach
History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) – George Saintsbury
Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong
Anatomy of Criticism (1957) – Northrop Frye (suggested by @bswbarootes)
The Novel: An Alternative History, 2 vols. (2010) – Steven Moore
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1989) – Roberto Calasso (trans. Tim Parks)
Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) – William Empson (suggested by @JustinPfefferle)
The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) – Cleanth Brooks (suggested by @bswbarootes)
The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and Critical Tradition (1953) – M.H. Abrams
Biographia Literaria (1817) – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) – Wayne C. Booth
The Sense of an Ending (1967) – Frank Kermode
The Counterfeiters, The Stoic Comedians, The Mechanic Muse (1968-1987) – Hugh Kenner
The Banquet Years (1955) – Roger Shattuck
Classical English Rhetoric (2010) – Ward Farnsworth
“My father had, let us call it, a tendency toward schizophrenia. […] By the age of four, although I could not read, I knew what a headline was, what a lead story was, which columnists were respectable and which were not (I learned to loathe Westbrook Pegler before I was in kindergarten), and so on. I learned what the Times represented, and what the Daily News represented, and the difference between the News and the Mirror, and who Old Man Hearst was, and what was wrong with Roy Howard (Head of the Scripps-Howard chain), and on and on.”
– George W.S. Trow, My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998 (p. 11)
To live in the world of creation — to get into it and stay in it — to frequent it and haunt it — to think intently and fruitfully — to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation — this is the only thing — and I neglect it, far and away too much; from indolence, from vagueness, from inattention, and from a strange nervous fear of letting myself go. If I vanquish that nervousness, the world is mine. X X X X X
– The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1947. P. 112.
The discoveries made by various literary scholars, such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Gérard Genette, Mieke Bal, Algirdas Julien Greimas, and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, have had a profound influence on the way I write, and I truly believe that they provide wonderfully efficient shortcuts for writers to discover expressive possibilities that might otherwise take decades of trial and error to figure out.
(This is an update to the post Dayton in books: a collage.)
Joe Brainard’s I remember (1975) is an incredible book, touching, intimate, and beautiful. It consists of more than 1,000 brief entries that begin with the words “I remember.”
Brainard was from Tulsa, Oklahoma, went to New York City where he remained friends with Ron Padgett, and met Kensward Elmslie, John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, and others of the New York poets of the 60s and 70s. He’s remembered as both an artist (painter, sketch artist?) and as a writer of about ten other books.
Just a few excerpts on Brainard’s brief stint in Dayton, Ohio, where he had a scholarship through the Dayton Art Institute:
I remember when I won a scholarship to the Dayton, Ohio, Art Institute and I didn’t like it but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings by just quitting so I told them that my father was dying of cancer. (53)
I remember in Dayton, Ohio, the art fair in the park where they made me take down all my naked self-portraits. (53)
I remember a girl in Dayton, Ohio, who “taught” me what to do with your tongue, which it turns out, is definitely what not to do with your tongue. You could really hurt somebody that way. (Strangulation.) (153)
UPDATE: The amazing PennSound archive has a 1/2 hr. recording of Joe Brainard reading from this work.
In the posthumous work Penser/Classer (which title one might translate as To Think/To Classify), Georges Perec outlined what he saw as the only possible criteria for arranging one’s books:
- by continent or country
- by colour
- by date of acquisition
- by date of publication
- by format
- by genre
- by major periods of literary history
- by language
- by priority for future reading
- by binding
- by series
‘Then it came, like a crackling of wood twigs over the ridge, came with the sharp and furious bark of a million drops of oil crackling suddenly into combustion, a cacophony of barks louder and louder as Apollo-Saturn fifteen seconds ahead of its own sound cleared the lift tower to a cheer which could have been a cry of anguish from that near-audience watching; then came the earsplitting bark of a thousand machine guns firing at once, and Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of this combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivably louder than the loudest thunders he had ever heard and the earth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet standing on the wood of the bleachers, an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death in the roar of a drowning hour, a nightmare of sound, and he heard himself saying, “Oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God!” but not his voice, almost like the Italian girl saying “fenomenal,” and the sound of the rocket beat with the true blood of fear in his ears, hot in all the intimacy of a forming of heat, as if one’s ear were in the caldron of a vast burning of air, heavens of oxygen being born and consumed in this ascension of the rocket, and a poor moment of vertigo at the thought that man now had something with which to speak to God — the fire was white as a torch and long as the rocket itself, a tail of fire, a face, yes now the rocket looked like a thin and pointed witch’s hat, and the flames from its base were the blazing eyes of the witch. Forked like saw teeth was the base of the flame which quivered through the lens of the binoculars. Upwards. As the rocket keened over and went up and out to sea, one could no longer watch its stage, only the flame from its base. Now it seemed to rise like a ball of fire, like a new sun mounting the sky, a flame elevating itself.’
– from Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), p. 93. Signet Classics paperback.
In mid-January of this year, I paid a visit to Stéfan Sinclair, who is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities in McGill’s Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. Since he received his Ph.D. in French literature, Professor Sinclair has worked on numerous projects designing digital humanities text visualization tools, often in collaboration with other scholars. He was most generous and open in responding to my questions as we sat in his windowed office overlooking the intersection of rue Sherbrooke and rue University.
‘Responses to the Threat of Technological Distraction,’ the paper I wrote for the philosophy of technology seminar in which I was enrolled this semester, is now complete. I’ve assigned a Creative Commons license to the work and am self-publishing it here. If you read it, I would appreciate any impressions or feedback.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, in 2007 I was writing flarf poetry. Flarf exemplifies the random, heterogeneous, often absurd character of spam e-mails and of other information available on the web, appropriated and blended into a discontinuous (non-sequiturs rule) mesh of colorful language. It’s striking for its aforementioned absurdity, sudden shifts of subject, its non-hanging-togetherness. If there is meaning in flarf, generally speaking, that meaning consists in the flarf poet’s attempt to mirror (or simply record, curate, edit) special instances of digitally-mediated language, almost always removed from — what? everything? — context, human relationships, an immediate setting which would give the totally of the poem its traditional meaning.
An unpublished work of mine; not however, flarf.
Seeing months ago via Rod Smith’s Facebook feed that two Mel Nichols videos were featured on the Huffington Post set off a train of thought that led me here, to bibliomanic, to speak of flarf. In the mid-aughts, I used to see these two poets, Rod Smith and Mel Nichols, when I attended the regime of regular Thursday night pub-crawls that they and Dan Gutstein (my then poetry teacher, at George Washington U) followed.
Most of my flarf was a long poem without any line breaks I wrote on a typewriter in drafts and in numerous revisions on a computer: ‘Starving revelation tooth factory’. The title (a riddle, the answer of which is something like the human body in frenzy, pleases me, but the poem is unsatisfactory to me today, with the rest of my so-called “juvenilia” (in fact, this was the name of a collection I put together when I was about fifteen), it’s a little embarrassing. “Starving revelation tooth factory” is a narcissistically jagged long poem. Contains some flarf elements, much autobiographical incident, a heaping bucketful of discontinuous imagery, flibbertigibbet and other what-have-you, “kerflaffle-fla-flam,” and even the following (which I can still admire the beauty of):
thrombic lycocoptyopenic purpura
gnitirw erutuf sdrawkcab
meop ni esrever
That’s not flarf. And neither is Charles Bernstein. My attitude towards flarf poetry is ambivalent, but I don’t like it. On Wikipedia on the ‘Flarf’ page I read:
‘I love a movement that’s willing to describe its texts as ‘a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness.’ – Joyelle McSweeney
Ugh. Flarf surrenders to the sometimes-vacuity of the digital infoscape. And for me, it seems rooted in the first eight years of the new millenium, standing opposite George W. Bush’s empty rhetoric, littered with mistakes and itself hollow, void of meaning, like the image flarf attempts to project of language as existing in a weird vacuum of truth and human intimacy or even intelligence.
I don’t think that art or literature or poetry needs to be engagé to be meaningful, but poetic language should not be complicit with the prevailing inane discourses that they have the power to counteract.
I’ve held on to this post so long, held on for so long to these ideas, I am letting this post go, rough as it is. It will never be finished. It is the story of a kind of failure, itself evidence of failure, a quest for understanding that remains forever incomplete. As more fragments will follow, I finally let go of these. Sebald’s work is, I have found, very difficult to talk about.
We have a habit of writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or how you had the wrong idea at first, and so on. So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to do the work. – Richard Feynman
Reluctant to enclose Gide in a system I knew would never content me, I was vainly trying to find some connection among these notes. Finally I decided it would be better to offer them as such–notes–and not try to disguise their lack of continuity. Incoherence seems to me preferable to a distorting order. – Roland Barthes, ‘On Gide and His Journal’
I knew the research paper would be about W.G. Sebald’s novels, but that was all I knew. I had fallen under Sebald’s spell, not on first reading The Emigrants in a ‘Continental Modernism’ course taught by the ribald WW II vet Robert Ganz, but in 2009 on reading The Rings of Saturn after seeing a poster for a lecture by Ross Posnock on Austerlitz, a poster prominently displaying Sebald’s provocative juxtaposition of Wittgenstein’s gaze with that of perhaps a rhesus monkey.
It was only a short time before I had read After Nature, the long poem Sebald published in the late eighties before his arrival as a published novelist; Vertigo, his first novel; and, of course, Austerlitz, his last. I was hypnotized and hooked on Sebald’s writing, fallen under the intense spell cast by Sebald’s long sentences and his visual materials.
Through work in a graduate seminar in contemporary French literature–La Fabrication de l’irréelle dans la littérature française contemporaine–I became familiar with a strange new term which would prove to be for me a challenge and a source of anxiety, later, to explain. Le post-exotisme en dix lecons by Antoine Volodine is not a difficult book, but it is, like Volodine’s other works, strange, however much it is consistent with Volodine’s conception of a mythological future-past of ruins, internment camps, political resistance. He expresses his vision through hybrid literary forms.
Post-exoticism resonated with what I found compelling in Sebald. Volodine’s vision, realized in his novels and elucidated in theoretical terms, amounts to:
- Une littérature de l’ailleurs, venue d’aileurs, allant vers l’ailleurs
- Une littérature internationaliste, cosmopolite, dont la mémoire plonge les racines dans les tragédies du XXe siecle, les guerres, les révolutions, les génocides et les défaites du XXe siecle
- Une littérature étrangere écrite en francais
- Une littérature qui mêle indissolublement l’onirique et le politique
- Une littérature des poubelles, en rupture avec la littérature officielle
- Une littérature carcérale de la rumination, de la déviance mental et de l’échec
- Un édifice romanesque qui a surtout a voir avec le chamanisme, avec une variante bolchevique de chamanisme (387)
From Volodine, Antoine. ‘A la frange du réel.’ In Défense et illustration du post-exotisme en vingt lecons (vlb, 2008).
Translation: post-exoticism is:
- a literature of elsewhere, arriving from, departing from elsewhere;
- an internationalist, cosmopolitan literature whose memory is rooted in 20th-century tragedies, wars, revolutions, genocides, defeats;
- a foreign literature written in French;
- a literature where the dream-like and the political are seamlessly joined
- trashcan literature, opposed to ‘official’ literature(s)
- an imprisoned, ruminatory literature, of pyschopathology and failure
- a novelistic structure closely tied to shamanism, especially a Bolshevik variant of shamanism.
Elsewhere: a cabal of prisoners secretly circulating texts, working to overcome the isolation imposed on them.
The proposal I wrote in anticipation of my research paper was lucid, engaged, clear, direct, promising. But as I researched and wrote my paper, and continued to over-research it, my focus was exploded and irreversibly lost. In the end I tried to stay close to Sebald’s text. But at times, for whole months, I felt I needed to write lengthy theoretical contextualizations and justifications for why I was talking about post-exoticism, a term that I was never comfortable with, because its sense was split.
On the one hand, Volodine and his elucidation of post-exoticism; on the other hand, a non-literary but totally contemporary post-exoticism, related to the breaking up of empires, the acceleration of travel, and the end of an era during which romantics like Pierre Loti, Paul Gauguin, Victor Segalen, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and a whole host of other European artists, were able to see in other cultures a difference which they found attractive, sometimes repelling, and that they patronized and acted condescendingly towards. (Edward Said’s historical work on Orientalism is what I’m talking about here; in a post-exotic era, Orientalism and exoticism are not done away with, but their historical contours are entirely changed.) I’d also read exoticists like Loti and was aware of Victor Segalen (his law regarding the attractions of human diversity, expounded in his posthumously published Essai sur l’exotisme (1978)) from having reading Baudrillard’s books, where he refers repeatedly to Segalen and exoticism.
The first problem, which I could not circumvent must have been establishing a stable relation between exoticism and post-exoticism.
An antique photo-studio portrait included in the German edition of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992), depicting the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth.
I couldn’t even define the type of exoticism that I was seeing in Sebald, it was too variegated and broad and heterogeneous.
Even now I can read in my notebook the organisational sketches I was making in 2009, but I can’t create true order out of them:
KINDS OF SEBALDIAN EXOTICISM
a) the collection (museum)
b) monumental architecture (inadvertent; neglect, disuse, decay…) (cf. The Eyes of the Skin; The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler)
c) tourist narrators
d) Jews, gypsies, circus performers
e) resort culture
f) ‘overheated, deterritorialized animals’ (cf. On Creaturely Life, Eric Santner)
g) formal syntax (syntactical)
h) Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)
The problem was, I couldn’t describe the exoticist tropology at work in Sebald’s prose, because I wanted to read all five of his books–his entire ‘creative’ output– as if it were a single thing. This would have left no time for ‘close reading’ and it would have been abstracted from the individual context of any single book. But I felt a coherent exoticist strategy, complete with post-exoticist gesturing, was there; a coherent preoccupation with and nostalgic yearning for the historical ‘exotic,’ itself complicated by the knowledge that this was at best an impossible fantasy. Perhaps I ought to have chosen just one (or two) types of exoticism and pursued it as far as I could. But I could not relinquish my commitment to some larger, more elusive totality that always remained just beyond my conceptual, organisational grasp.
It was almost ironic that I discovered such excellent books on exoticism just as the time I had left to trim up my drafts was drawing to a close:
‘The phenomenon of the human zoo illuminates an interdependence, similar to that discussed and popularized by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), between science, spectacle and colonial power’ (Forsdick 378).
‘Populations put on display were depicted in a variety of forms, ranging from posters t illustrated programmes, from postcards (reproduced and translated into several languages to early films, from amateur photographs to the front pages of newspapers. Visitors, readers and spectators would be fascinated by these human subjects, while at the same time being convinced by them of the ‘racial hierarchies’ central to the contemporary context of colonial expansion.’ (‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West,’ illustration pages).
Barthes, Roland. 1982. A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. Hill and Wang.
Baudrillard, Jean. ‘Radical Exoticism.’ Transparency of Evil. Verso.
Blanchard, Pascal, Bancel, Nicolas, Boëtsch, Gilles, Deroo, Éric, and Lemaire, Sandrine . ‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West.’ By 1-49.
Camus, Audrey. Her winter 2008 graduate seminar on the work of Volodine, Eric Chevillard and Pierre Senges.
Feynman, Richard. 1966. ‘The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics.’ Science 153 (3737): 699-708.
Loti, Pierre. Aziyadé. 1880s?
Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)
Segalen, Victor. ‘Essay on Diversity.’
Note: an improved-quality audio file (optimized for voice) replaced the original recording on Jan 9, 2013. — JS
Last week I traveled to New York City, to lower Manhattan, to hear Joseph McElroy read from his work. The reading took place at the New School. In attendance were the renowned translator and poet Richard Howard, as well as McElroy’s son, Boone, and his wife, artist Barbara Ellmann.
I also visited McElroy at his Tribeca apartment and spoke with him about the (then) impending election, about how his week had been since the flooding of parts of the city, about his forthcoming books, and more. I am presently preparing a summary of this exchange for publication.
For now, enjoy the recording of McElroy’s digressively “self-interrupted” reading of his work, including excerpts from Cannonball, his “water book” which he’s wrapping up, “Canoe Repair,” “The Campaign Trail,” and a brief commentary on Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture.
All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.
Last week the following text appeared at HTML Giant, a collective blog. 20 Lines a Day by Harry Mathews (1988, Dalkey Archive) was the subject of my post. It is excellent. I’ve mentioned Harry Mathews a few times before and this won’t be the last.
The post is discontinuously atomised into 25 discrete paragraphs, consisting of quotations from, comments on, Mathews’s text and related stuff. Bloggers are summarizing books in this way for HTML Giant’s 25 points series. In fact, you can submit a 25 points post to HTML Giant yourself, by emailing brooks AT htmlgiant.com.
Harry Mathews by Arthur Gerbault, 1988.
In the fifth floor of the library, I picked Mathews’s book up, read what the premise was, and thought resentfully, What a bunch of bullshit, this looks boring, look how anything gets published. I didn’t know who Harry Mathews was yet. Years ago.
‘You never have earned the right to sit at the table and let someone else clear away the dishes. No accumulation of knowledge can guarantee that you aren’t a fool. The roast is over-cooked. You slice bread for the seven-hundredth time and cut off the tip of your left forefinger. You touch her as coarsely as any boor, being now the boor. You meet an old friend, you have forgotten his name, you cannot look him in the face: not looking him in the face, you wound him and you start lying to him and to yourself. Go off and sulk and complain and explain why it happened. It won’t help. Instead, be an actor, or an athlete, on stage, on the field, giving–as you once eagerly proposed to yourself–everything to the perishable act.’ (p. 100)
‘I have nothing to write in particular, I’m writing these lines because of my rule that I must write them.’ (p. 75)
Some writers set quotas, others set routines, some set both, and some (the scriptomanic ones for whom procrastination is not a threat) set neither. A page a day (Paul Theroux); 50,000 words in a month (NaNoWriMo); two hours every morning (W.S. Maugham); 20 minute blocks (Cory Doctorow); at least a sentence a day (W.G. Sebald); pre-dawn (Paul Valéry, Jacques Roubaud); etc.
‘Whatever I write tells my story without my knowing it.’ (p. 66)
‘Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.’ (Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street,’ Reflections)
“Sometimes the ultimate message is in fact received. It reads, more or less: ‘Your ligament issues from a spa that is given various narcissisms at various time-tables: lozenge, credulity, goggles. And not only your ligament (and that of others): the prodigy that generates mayday has the same orthography. You and the upkeep are one. Give up sugarbowls.’ At such moments you realize, and you remember, that such messages have neve9r been lacking, and that they are all the same, and that the problem (if that is the word) doesn’t involve receiving but deciphering what is received again and again, day after day, minute after minute.” (p. 88)
There’s an implicit link between 20 Lines a Day and the next novel Mathews would publish, The Journalist (1994). One sees how the method Mathews followed for 20 Lines is adopted as a fictional premise and device for The Journalist.
‘Anxiety about writing feels like: I am poor in words, ideas, and feelings, and when I sit down to write, this poverty will be revealed.’ (p. 45)
‘The table is a beautiful thing. The writing board is supported on a base consisting of two tubular legs shaped like narrow inverted U’s, with a tubular foot running across the mouth of each U, projecting about thirty centimeters beyond it on either side. The legs are connected to the board by an adjustable parallelogram made of bone-shaped pieces of flat metal. The knobs of the bones are pierced with pivotal studs that hold the sides of the parallelogram together. Two strong springs, to hold the angles in place, maintain pressure against two other springs fixed just below the board. A single lever controls this disposition and locks the board in place. Changing the angles of the parallelogram permits one to alter both the height and angle of the board in one movement. Board, parallelogram, legs and feet are white; springs, studs, and lever handle are black.’ (p. 106)
For Mathews his ’20 lines’ can be virtually anything: an Oulipian (N+7) exercise; health concerns, particularly facial neuralgia; descriptions of weather and the immediate environment (tropical St. Bart’s, NYC, Lans in France, Italy); progress reports for the writing of the first draft of Cigarettes (1987); bits of Surrealist ‘automatic writing’; family matters; admissions of mourning for his deceased friend, Oulipian Georges Perec; musings on Werner Erhard’s e s t training; throughout, his relentless self-analysis. The book is very much an edited journal intime, but it has the crystalline quality of Mathews’s other work, that relentlessly exacting attention to syntax, poignancy of inner, private experience that figures in the later novels (The Journalist, Cigarettes). Absent are the Baroque quasi-Gothic elements, the abstruseness, the cerebral impenetrability of Tlooth, The Sinking of the The Odradek Stadium, and The Conversions.
‘Stendhal meant something different from this.’
‘When you go to piss in the bathroom with people within possible earshot (and sometimes with no people around at all), you direct your jet at the edge of the pool of water in the toilet bowl so as to reduce the noise you make.’ (p. 124)
During and after having read Harry Mathews’s 20 Lines a Day (1988; Dalkey Archive Press) I set myself the 20 lines quota, using a long quadrillé pad and a fountain pen to trace my thoughts. My readings of Mathews inevitably influenced my own compositions–I used the daily entries as a means of recapping, and recuperating from, the events of daily life. No one can tell what I would have written without Mathews’s influence on me, prefiguring and directing the subjects, style, and approach of my writing. My discipline flagged, I was inconstant. Mathews too. But I am slowly making advances, inroads. There’s progress. I still write in my notebook.
‘Lines of verse count extra.’ (p. 67)
Technologies of the self include notebooks in which one writes diaristic, journalistic, and textual commonplaces from daily life (Foucault). The keeping of such a journal, commonplace notebook, or diary constitutes a practice of mental hygiene. Coincidentally, Foucault died the day before Mathews’s conclusion of his project.
To write 20 lines a day is not daunting (anyone can do it), especially if one imposes no continuity, consistency of form, or subject matter.
Despite the lack of constraint,–the openness of the subject matter addressed in a diary,–a strong internal consistency of writing arises. This is the continuity of the self day in and day out, the author thinking.
‘… Matthison, Mattei, Matteotti, Mathias, Mateus, Matthieu, Mahieu, Madeu, Mathet, Mathie, Mathiez, Matisse, Matthis, Matteo, Mathelin, Mathiret, Mathiot, Mathon, Matou, Méhu, Mattuaeus …’ (p. 40)
‘Are you going to wait until you are on the point of death to give up this model: your old, old self, tiny, terrified, aware of his power only through the intensity of the anxieties that shrivelled him? A lifetime of refusal ending in a revelation that melts the past in one moment or movement of surrender to the truth makes a fit drama for literature’ (p. 128)
Early in life Stendhal (Henri Beyle) set himself the injunction: vingt lignes par jour, génie ou pas (twenty lines a day, genius or not).
‘You have a fantasy of discovering that you suffer from cancer, or a brain tumor, or some other affliction of a most grave, probably mortal kind. You keep the knowledge of it entirely to yourself. Not only do you not burden those who love you with the news, you become for them a companion of perfect humor, gaiety, and warmth.’ (p. 108)
This slim book compiles a selection of entries from Mathews’ notebook from March 16, 1983 to June 26, 1984. During the interval I and many people I know were born. That’s unrelated.
‘Yesterday evening, having after months of to-do listing bought a new handle for my big pickaxe, I fitted it to the pick head and set it to soak in the bathtub.’
‘Having nothing to write about (nothing particular to write about) suggests a question: what this morning do you particularly not want to think about?’