Category Archives: from language & thinking faculty

Eleni Stecopoulos and Thom Donovan: “Somatics” Questionnaire

from an interview with Eleni Stecopoulos
by Thom Donovan

It’s all psychosomatic. And somatopsychic. I don’t think you really escape your formation; you can only become aware of it and move towards some other understanding/practice that is remedial. I remember this New York Times article which opens with an anecdote about a medical conference on the ways those in “developing” countries somatize their depression in stomachaches, dizziness, and other mysterious physical symptoms: “Toward the end of the meeting, a doctor from India stood to speak. ‘Distinguished colleagues,’ he said, ‘have you ever considered the possibility that it is not that we in the third world somaticize depression, but rather that you in the developed world psychologize it?’” (“Mending of Hearts and Minds,” NYT 5/21/02). In the West the body is othered, but also in the sense of being displaced onto “the other,” whose labor disburdens or delivers the colonizer of his body. (And at the same time this other gets mystified as a healer who can resurrect the absent body. Think of Artaud among the Tarahumaras.)

That there are very different understandings of “somatization” and “somatic[s]” afloat, the instability here, itself embodies the divide. I remember the poet (and medical sociologist) Demosthenes Agrafiotis used the Greek word somatopoiesis to translate “embodiment” in a poem of mine, but added that it also carries the connotation of somatization. Even in translation, you can’t escape the pathology. But soma as a Greek word has been in my ear my whole life, and it carries a potency and warmth that “body” does not for me. And this is despite the fact that English is my first language. (So why this should be the case—the paradoxical way that the mother’s/ancestral tongue feels more natural or intimate than the native language—is itself an example of somatic knowing, which can’t be extricated from an imagination of cultural identity.)

Read the full post at poetryfoundation.org>>

(Photo by Thom Donovan, from a recent symposium on Movement, Somatics, and Writing at the University of Michigan, which included faculty members Donovan, Stecopoulos and Rob Halpern.)

Jane Sprague: Imaginary Syllabi

MATERIAL

  • Sample syllabi that have been implemented or might/could be implemented AND the opposite of this condition: wholly fantastical stuff more suited to investigations in outer space and other sociocultural vacuums.
  • Syllabi composed entirely of images or text or some combination of both. Syllabi may be scattered or comprehensive lists of pertinent, esoteric, weird or terribly useful URLs.
  • Documents from classroom practices that were successful, compelling,
    disturbing etc. and which their authors wish to share, distribute, make known.
  • Essays/Syllabi that mention other teachers and communities of teachers &/or documents, critiques, etc. &/or explore and extend the work of other teachers and communities of teachers, theorists, scholars, activists, evolutionaries, radicals, & intellectual insurgents….There is no intended fixed, predetermined or official meaning attached in this CFW to the word “teacher”;
    “A thing which shows or points something out…”; teachers are sometimes not necessarily human organisms.
  • Writings that disclose, assay, weigh the idea of the “syllabus” itself.
  • Unimagined documents for unimagined learners among whom we
    could also group teachers / professors / instructors / mentors /advisors / and so on.

QUESTIONS?
The intent of this project is to spur and develop a sense of critical inquiry, partnership, collaboration, critique and rebellion that the final book object also aims to cultivate among and within its readers.


The Red Exercise
by Dorothea Lasky

When I was first asked to contribute to this volume of imaginary syllabi for teaching writing, I initially thought of my favorite exercise to do with students, The Red Exercise, as a driver for an entire course on themes. The exercise was inspired by a poem in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914), which I read one fall after having spent a summer thinking almost exclusively about the color red paired with the color aquamarine. The poem goes like this:

A RED HAT.
A dark grey, a very dark grey, a quite dark grey is monstrous ordinarily,
it is so monstrous because there is no red in it. If red is in everything it is
not necessary. Is that not an argument for any use of it and even so is
there any place that is better, is there any place that has so much
stretched out.

I love the poem. When I first read it, I was struck most by the line “If red is in everything it is not necessary.” As I mentioned, I had spent the entire summer before thinking about red paired with its unlikely opposite—a pale aquamarine. I was making a lot of jewelry then (this is about ten years ago) and I kept imagining making a necklace of aquamarines with one single bright red bead. The fantasy transcended into other mental images where red might be a singular thing in a sea of paler attributes. I imagined a room where everything was a pale blue, except one red bowl. To connect myself physically to this idea, I would wear outfits where I only had one red thing on (one red sock, sparkly red glass earrings, a red hair tie, red fingernails) in the midst of an entire pale yellow ensemble. I became obsessed with red’s power to drive everything else it came in contact with. So, imagine my surprise,
after the thoughts of such a summer, when I came upon Stein’s poem and its line seemingly directed at me, “If red is in everything it is not necessary.” The line came to mean a lot to me and to steer a whole, very large element of my teaching philosophy, which, loosely articulated, deals with the idea of words as objects and of writing as a wild process that is always governed by the material and natural (corporeal) worlds.

I usually do The Red Exercise very early on in a course, sometimes during the first class and always during the first third of the semester or year. If I am doing a one-day workshop with writing students, I bring in my tried and true exercise on red. I introduce it with some sort of discussion that involves blood. I begin the class by asking questions steeped in Stein’s line: What does red make you think of? What would happen if red is in everything? What if this room were suddenly all red? I wear one red piece of clothing or jewelry that day and use it as a visual backdrop to the discussion. The conversation eventually turns to blood, even if it takes a while. I always make sure it does. Blood could not be more important to Stein’s line and to the exercise. The students and I discuss what spaces look like covered in red. I think entirely red rooms look like they are drenched in blood, even if they are just painted. There is an alarm in the color red that seems to indicate that blood has been spilled. A place where red is literally in everything is one where I see there is danger. If the students have not seen Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), I bring it in and show them the scene where Jack Nicholson’s murderous and alcoholic character, Jack Torrance, is drunk in the all red bathroom with the ghost of Delbert Grady (the hotel’s past undertaker, who killed his family, including his twin daughters). In this scene, Delbert Grady convinces Jack Nicholson to reenact his own horrible
crime and the bathroom is all red (there are some white tiles in it to lighten the mood). The students and I watch the scene and then discuss Stein’s line again. We concentrate on the word necessary in the line and what the students think it means. I try my best to make sure that the students come away from the discussion with an understanding that the red has a necessity to express something intense and when it is everywhere it is not necessary, because then everything is intense 1. We discuss the importance of blood being red, as in, when you see your own blood outside of your body, you know something is wrong (unless it is expected). If red (blood) were everywhere, there would be no need for red and blood, and so on. It is always the same discussion, partly manipulated by the make-up of the class and its personalities. And it is always a good discussion. Then we move into the following exercise below.


1. Which is impossible, because intensity is relational, but more on that another time.


Read more excerpts from Imaginary Syllabi on PalmPress.org>>

Joanna Bourke: La Fontaine’s Cat, Kafka’s Ape, and the Humanities

From faculty member Eirik Steinhoff:

This talk last fall by historian Joanna Bourke may be of interest for the trenchant ways in which she defines and defends the humanities (the larger context is a conference convened in response to severe managerial cutbacks in education in the U.K., which among other things triggered massive demonstrations).

In addition to posing a familiar question (“what does it mean to be human”) in a useful historical and disciplinary framework, she thickens her plot by juxtaposing Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” (a useful text from our anthology) with one of La Fontaine’s fables (which might be worth looking into).

Listen to Joanna Bourke at Birbeck Institute for the Humanities here>>

Read about the massive student demonstrations in the Guardian here>>

Kevin Kelly talks about his recent book, What Technology Wants

from Faculty member Miranda Mellis:

From OpenCulture.com:

Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine and former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog (now free online), published a new book this past October: What Technology Wants. Reviewing his own book on BoingBoing, Kelly summarizes a few key points. “Technology is the most powerful force on the planet.” In fact, humanity is a tool itself, and, like all living things, technology evolves, demonstrating certain unconscious “urges” and “wants” in the process. Technology cannot be held back. But we can try to optimize its benefits for human culture, even while potentially trying to limit the amount of technology in our own lives. It’s a heady book, and, perhaps fittingly, Kevin Kelly pulled through Google in November and distilled his new theory of technology in a 40 minute talk. Watch it above…

Bonus: You might also want to check out this conversation recorded at the New York Public Library. It features Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson (author of Where Good Ideas Come From) in conversation with Robert Krulwich, co-host of Radio Lab.

Robin Tremblay-McGaw: About Reading

About Reading

by Robin Tremblay-McGaw

Dear Reader:

“…Reader, where are you inside the future outside the past this letter is addressed to you…”—The Letters of Mina Harker

I recently re-read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, this time in the new dexterous and luminous translation by Lydia Davis, a book very much about reading, and I’ve been thinking about what it means to read and all of the many different kinds of reading we do. We are swimming in words—on the internet, on billboards and placards; there’s email and snail mail, e-books, paperbacks, and hardcover books, magazines, journals and graphic novels. There’s scholarly and playful reading, book clubs, poetry reading, study groups, bedtime reading, airplane reading, reading for pleasure, reading for work, reading for instruction. Most of our reading these days is silent reading, a kind of technology in and of itself. At one time—though there is evidence that reading aloud and silently probably co-existed in the time of the Ancient Greeks—silent reading was a new technology, a source of astonishment to those used to reading aloud or being read to, and a means for establishing privacy as Augustine (354-430) reminds us in his Confessions. Here he writes of, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan:

When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart seized the meaning, while he formed no words with his lips. Often, when we were present—since he did not restrict access to himself, and the names of visitors were not announced—we watched him read, silently as he always did, and after we had been sitting there in a prolonged silence (with none so cheeky as to break his spell) we withdrew. We supposed that he had so little time he could call his own, for restocking his mental store, beset as he was by the problems of others, that he resisted involvement in more such affairs. He might have avoided reading a passage out loud before an alert listener since he could be asked to explicate it, leading to discussion of nice points (113).

Silent reading was not unlike a kind of spell. Reading’s spell, so to speak, might be shared, communicated to others. Later in the Confessions (Book IV: Pontician’s Friends), Augustine writes of a visit Pontician made to the home of Augustine and his friend Alypius where Pontician discovers, much to his delight, a copy of the letters of Saint Paul. Pontician proceeds to tell a story about what happened to several men who had read a book about the life of Anthony: “As one of them began to read it he was stunned and took fire, and even as he read began to consider taking up such a [Christian] life himself” (172). “Book Five: The Garden,” details Augustine’s exile from himself, his struggle with “the higher delights of heaven” and “the joys of temporal existence” (179) and his eventual epiphanic conversion to Christianity, a conversion that occurs, as it did for the men in Pontician’s story, through the act of reading. Augustine explains: “No longer crying, I leaped up, not doubting that it was by divine prompting that I should open the book and read what first I hit on….`Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries…’The very instant I finished that sentence, light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced. I closed the book, marking the place with my finger or something, and spoke to Alypius with an altered countenance…” (182).

This potential spell-like quality of reading is part of its magic and risks. As New Narrative writer Robert Glück writes, “Any fiction wants you to become it–wants to take the place of your reflection in the mirror and calls for your recognition. It makes you become it like a magic spell–with words, with images, representations” (“My Community” 122).

**

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), a novel put on trial for obscenity, is about many things not the least of which is reading and the powers and risks of fiction. In Madame Bovary, Emma Rouault is a young provincial French woman of the 19th century who marries a country doctor, Charles Bovary. Emma’s marriage and life do not live up to her imagination, to the novels she has read. She takes lovers and comes to a famous and catastrophic end while one of her lovers marries and the other remains an eligible and amorous bachelor about town. Emma’s husband, Charles, is ultimately destroyed by Emma’s death and debt, and the realization of her infidelities. Their daughter ends up orphaned and in a work house.

Significantly, Charles Bovary is a man who is not a reader. As a young man at school, Charles “work[ed] conscientiously, looking up all the words in the dictionary and [took] great pains” in his lessons, though “he had almost no elegance in his constructions” (5). While Emma read novels at home and religious texts at the convent where she also listened to sermons, Charles’ grew up in a household with a father who “little concerned with literature, said it was not worth the trouble!” (7). Emma, on the other hand, “had read Paul and Virginia,” and Balzac and George Sand, and at the convent, “the metaphors of betrothed, spouse, heavenly lover, and marriage everlasting that recur in sermons stirred unexpectedly sweet sensations in the depths of her soul” (31). Emma is a reader; Charles is not. Instead of considering Emma’s reading of novels as a weakness, a liability, the source of her trouble, as many readers have, perhaps it is worth wondering what Charles might have understood or imagined had he read more. And what might have happened if Emma had practiced a critical and playful reading of the novels she encountered?

**

Maybe Emma and Charles needed a community of fellow readers to help them interpret their own narrative immersion? Bruce Boone’s short story, “The Truth About Ted” written in 1984, provides a model of a community of readers. “The Truth About Ted” is a story about storytelling, desire, interpretation, reading and misreading. The narrator, “Bruce” tells a retrospective series of stories about a community of gay men who encounter Ted, a young man who is “straight, but [whose] brand of sociability really suggested something more like camp” (1 [unpaginated]). After cataloging a series of readings of Ted’s life-–“He hung out with gays almost exclusively. He looked gay and acted gay. He talked gay even” –-the narrator asks “So why wasn’t he gay?” (1). Ted becomes an object of gossip for the community as they try to interpret his conflicting messages and their conflicted readings of his sexuality. Speculation about Ted’s sexuality traverses a varied terrain from Gilbert and Sullivan’s nineteenth-century comic or opéra féerie, a French ballet-opera based on fairy tales, Iolanthe, and the Marriage of Figaro, to Rimbaud, Rashomon, Taxi Driver, Lenox china, Sir Walter Scott, the Pope, Offenbach, and the local writing community. The story goes on to generate an orgy of illustrative misreadings and misinterpretations about Bruce’s friend and fellow interlocutor, Bob and his relationship with his former lover Ed, the function of gossip, and Ted’s sexuality. Ted’s situation also becomes an opportunity for literary exercise. The retelling, analysis and fabrication of Ted’s story produces a kind of truth in a fictional direction. Boone writes,

Finally our Ted discussions became technical exercises, occasions for testing our skills as writers. We wanted to be able to verbalize our perceptions of life’s ordinary events accurately, elegantly and truthfully so that other people would applaud us for our socially useful talents. Whatever else it was, Ted’s ‘problem’ was grist for our writer’s mill.

Not that this wasn’t fun. The more complex and detailed (and superficial!) our discussions became, the more it seemed to draw out our deepest feelings. These feelings had to do with ourselves, with the community of gay men and in some odd way with the possibilities of human life, happiness generally. Talking about Ted became a way of talking about the things we cared about most–things we couldn’t have talked about honestly and satisfyingly except as gossip (2).

The reader is strung along in this text as are the community members. Is Ted gay? Straight? The relationship of epistemophilia to erotics, seduction, reading and interpretation is literalized in the text. “The Truth about Ted” ultimately reveals the complexities of narrative, reading, and interpretation. About his relationship with Ed, in Boone’s story, Bob says, “‘It took years to understand that story,’ says Bob” (11), illustrating how meaning may be delayed and retroactive and understood through desire. Boone’s story also illustrates how point of view or narrative focalization may be multiple and contradictory. To Bob, Bruce says about Ted’s sexuality, “the way things stand now, unfortunately, we may never know the truth. Remember Rashomon, that 50s Japanese movie where there were all these possible versions of a the story and you couldn’t say any one of them was the right one?” (8).

“The Truth About Ted” ends up being about the truth about Bruce, or the truth about stories and their relationship to life, or the truth of the self’s continual misrecognition of its own specular image, or the ways in which the subject is caught up in the cogs of narrative, language and desire. Here, the mirror of the story suddenly turns back on its author and readers. It reveals a reflection that isn’t so much Ted’s story, but is the community’s, Bruce’s, and the readers’. If at the close of the story’s first paragraph we read: “It’s his life, after all, not yours” (1), by the end of the piece, we discover that perhaps it is not Ted’s life, but Bruce’s and maybe not Bruce’s but ours.

**

For a number of contemporary writers (Tisa Bryant, Maggie Zurowski, Harryette Mullen, Dodie Bellamy, Yedda Morrison, Kathy Lou Schultz, Rob Halpern, etc.,) at the forefront of their work are the strategic and highly articulate and conscious acts of intertextuality and reading–in all of its forms and targets or objects: the daily news, novels, songs, visual art, etc. Jocelyn Saidenberg’s epigraphs for her book, Negativity, serve as markers in a labyrinth of other texts for readers to turn to while we dwell in negativity, however capably or incapably. Negativity, a text that is founded on the intertextual, advocates that entering the texts it has included in its textual body and out of which it is partially constituted, is productive and generative, a form of nourishing if also sometimes violent social participation, as even a meal may be. This intertextual world is predicated on relation and proposes in its composition, the selection of its companions at table and sources, each of which carry with them highly specific and yet socially located histories, cultural milieus, and temporalities. At the same time, this intertextual world is conscious of its relation to a writing machine, an alimentary canal, the person at the keyboard or with a notebook, someone who has a body and relationships to disparate categories of delimited identities with respect to specific cultures, languages, diets. These coordinates are always already in relation to and with a cacophony of other cultures, ideological systems, empires of signs and worlds of discourse.

For her book, Negativity, Jocelyn Saidenberg takes one of its three epigraphs from Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers:

I wanted to swallow myself by opening my mouth very wide and turning it over my head so that it would take in my whole body, then the universe, until all that would remain of me would be a ball of eaten thing which little by little would be annihilated: that is how I see the end of the world.

Rereading Jean Paul Sartre’s introduction to Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers provides useful and delicious rubrics for approaching Saidenberg’s book. Doing so, the reader discovers that Saidenberg, of course, has read Sartre’s introduction to Our Lady. Like Genet’s thief, she steals and reworks lines from it, and we readers are the voyeurs who watch her do it while we participate in its elaborate staging. A portion of the text from Sartre’s “the reader will open Our Lady of the Flowers, as one might open the cabinet of a fetishist, and find there, laid out on the shelves, like shoes that have been sniffed at and kissed and bitten hundreds of times, the damp and evil words that glean with excitement” (3) turns up in “Not enough Poison” in the final lines from “Bird of Prey”: “No wonder the horror. No wonder the panting excitement. No wonder. No wonder. So I as shoes that have been sniffed and bitten and kissed hundreds of times” (44). Isolated, undigested bits of charged diction from Sartre turn up, including pestiferous, “pestiferous doesn’t expiate the ghastly or contrite” (44). Sartre’s, “it is the abstract instant that congeals it into an exploding but static beauty” seems to mutate into Saidenberg’s stunning and contradictory image “the sparrow congeals into disintegration in release” (44). We read Saidenberg reading Sartre reading Genet. And elsewhere in the text we might find Henry James, Barbara Guest, or even Stendhal. The writer thus becomes Genet’s or James’ texts and writing. If we are what we eat, we are also what we read, write, copy, ingest and digest.

In the Language & Thinking Program, one of the practices we regularly engage in is reading—silently and alone or in a group, aloud in small and large groups, in unison or individually, in rounds or in playful interruptions and overlappings that “explode” the text allowing us to enter and revise it. I find these communal forms of reading to be nourishing, a means for critical engagement, and great fun. All these different ways to “voice,” “embody,” even “ingest” and “digest” a text return reading and literature to the social where words, sentences, meaning, and form might be shared, puzzled over, taken apart, questioned, dissected, celebrated, revealing that there is more to reading, and more at stake, than learning to recognize words.

Further reading: See www.xpoetics.blogspot.com for readings by Robin of Madame Bovary and “The Truth about Ted.” A full review of Saidenberg’s Negativity can be found in ON: Contemporary Practice 2 available at: http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/98221/on-contemporary-practice-no-2.aspx

References

Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. Confessions. Trans. Gary Wills. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Bellamy, Dodie. The Letters of Mina Harker. West Stockbridge, MA: Hard Press Inc. 1998.

Boone, Bruce. The Truth About Ted. Berkeley: exempli gratia, 1984.
You can read this text online at: http://xpoetics.blogspot.com/2010/03/truth-about-ted-reprint-in-honor-of.html

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Trans. Lydia Davis. New York: Viking Press, 2010.

Genet, Jean. Our Lady of the Flowers. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press, 1963.

Glück, Robert. “My Community.” Discontents: New Queer Writers. Ed. Dennis Cooper. New York: Amethyst Press, 1992: 119-124.

Saidenberg, Jocelyn. Negativity. Berkeley: Atelos Press, 2006.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Introduction. Our Lady of the Flowers. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press, 1963: 1-49.

Erica Kaufman: On Felt Sense: Sondra Perl’s Composing Guidelines

On Felt Sense: Sondra Perl’s Composing Guidelines

by Erica Kaufman

One of the things I enjoy most about the Language & Thinking program is the way students are almost organically led towards the “final essay in the humanist tradition,” a writing experience that enables them to make use of the various and varied kinds of writing, reading, and thinking they do over the span of the class. However, because the question “what does it mean to be human…” is such a rich and daunting inquiry to pursue, one of my difficulties as a teacher has been to create a space where students are able to come up with questions specific enough to serve as the foundation for a paper that goes on a journey—that explores and represents “thought in action.”

In her foundational work, “Understanding Composing,” Sondra Perl writes,

…writing is a recursive process, that throughout the process of writing, writers return to substrands of the overall process, or subroutines (short suc-cessions of steps that yield results on which the writer draws in taking the next set of steps); writers use these to keep the process moving forward. In other words, recursiveness in writing implies that there is a forward-moving action that exists by virtue of a backward-moving action.

When approaching a longer work, a final paper, students often revert to the formulaic modes of writing experienced in high school—make an argument, summarize, use quotes, etc. Even when students spend weeks writing in various modes and forms, this reaction to more high stakes scenarios seems to still surface, undermining the growth they might have experienced throughout the pages of an entire notebook. But, in thinking about the writing or composing process as a process that inherently needs to move both backwards and forwards, the notion of composing takes a human form, represents the kinds of movements our bodies naturally make—aligning the writing process with the question of “what does it mean to be human.”

Perl attributes one aspect of this recursiveness to “felt sense,” a term coined by philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin that Perl employs as “a kind of bodily awareness that…can be used as a tool…It is body and mind before they are split apart.” Felt sense is a technique of acknowledging the importance of the body and the self of the writer. As Perl states, “what is elicited, then, is not solely the product of a mind but of a mind alive in a living, sensing body.” We respond to certain topics in certain ways, and learning to accept and embrace this unique felt sense is crucial to the composing process. Our bodies are often the tools that can help to determine when a piece of writing is working and when it needs work, even if this notion cannot be articulated in words.

In encouraging and enabling students to enter into “thought experiments” and “language games” that tend to both mind and body, I think students are then able to find that they know a lot more about the project at hand than the previously empty page might indicate. “The physical is an essential aspect of the human experience,” Perl importantly reminds us. And, I wonder if this reminder isn’t exactly what students truly need to hear.

Just as “the loop writing process” enables students to “voyage in” and then “voyage out,” as Elbow calls it, by approaching a writing assignment from a number of different generative modes and angles and then returning to the topic at hand, Perl’s “Guidelines for Composing” taps into the many different directions our minds take when we write. Without prescribing any set topic, yet following almost a mind map of associative questions, these “guidelines” really empower students to actually focus (something Hayles aptly points out that today’s “Generation M” and its propensity for “hyper attention” might not do). Perl writes, “What Gendlin’s felt sense offers is an experiential way of understanding and exploring how we, as humans, operate with and in language.” It strikes me that this organic process of tending to “the knowing” we all experience creates a new (and extremely productive space) where composing in this 2.0 world can take place through real thinking through of ideas (sans Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, etc.) and taking the time/space to allow the writing to happen.

–Erica Kaufman

Sondra Perl’s Composing Guidelines
Felt Sense, publisher’s link

Ben Stevens: The pigeons, no matter

The pigeons, no matter

The pigeons, no matter they flew any higher, caught
fire, drifting through the air askance, soot-

colored and aglow as twists of paper lit –
gently, lest they burn unevenly –, let

go, and spiral themselves into smoke, living
rings of whispering yellow, or sparks given

off of sputtering logs: the sound wind
makes in a furnace, in a city unforged, when

printers’ stuttering presses and type slag
words away in a shimmering draft, sag

low to the ground like glass with age, ash
thick on its silvery breath and skin smashed

open and ragged and feathery light, wings
rustle and curl, with toneless peal sings the

paradise almost lost in the flames, rush of
flames almost invisible for the fire, blush of

darkness visible, the stubble — like grass burnt
down — of the city, the towering unswept

chimney of air unmortared: the church, hot,
tottering, sputtering perch of ardent pigeons.

–Benjamin Eldon Stevens

(Edited 4 October 2009, begun 27 September 2009. Milton, whom I am in time to appreciate as the language’s greatest versifier, was blind long before 1666, when he returned to London in time not to appreciate but to experience — hearing, feeling, probably smelling — the Great Fire, which seems to flicker behind his descriptions of Hell in the first book of Paradise Lost. The detail inspiring this poem comes from Samuel Pepys, who of 2 September 1666 writes: “the poor pigeons … were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”)

Peter Trachtenberg: Losing Time

In the morning I feed the cats, make a pot of coffee, and sit down on the sofa and open a volume of Remembrance of Things Past. This is considered a faulty rendering of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, literally “In Search of Lost Time,” but I’m reading the English translation by C. K. Scott Montcrieff, updated by Terence Kilmartin, and Montcrieff calls it the Remembrance of Things Past. At the moment, I’m on The Guermantes Way, just after Marcel unexpectedly succeeds in kissing Albertine; he reflects on how inadequate the lips are for kissing. This is the farthest I’ve ever gotten in Proust’s world-book. For years I told people that I’d read the whole thing, when in reality I’d gotten no farther than Swann’s Way. I’d feel really terrible about this if so many other people hadn’t told me they’d done exactly the same.

I read for an hour, almost as slowly as if I were reading in French. Sometimes I feel like I am reading in French. To navigate the topiary maze of Proust’s sentences, which can twine and undulate for an entire page, often requires reading out loud. The challenge is not just to follow those sentences’ syntax but also their turns of mood:

On certain days, thin, with a gray complexion, a sullen air, a violet transparency slanting across her eyes such as we notice sometimes on the sea, she seemed to be feeling the sorrows of exile. On other days her face, smoother and glossier, drew one’s desires on to its varnished surface and prevented them from going further; unless I caught a sudden glimpse of her from the side, for her matt cheeks, like white wax on the surface, were visibly pink beneath, which was what made one so long to kiss them, to reach that different tint which was so elusive. At other times, happiness bathed her cheeks with a clarity so mobile that the skin, grown fluid and vague, gave passage to a sort of subcutaneous gaze, which made it appear to be of another colour but not of another substance than her eyes; sometimes, without thinking, when one looked at her face punctuated with tiny brown marks among which floated what were simply two larger, bluer stains, it was as though one were looking at a goldfinch’s egg, or perhaps at an opalescent agate cut and polished in two places only, where, at the heart of the brown stone, there shone like the transparent wings of a skyblue butterfly, her eyes, those features in which the flesh becomes a mirror and gives us the illusion that it allows us, more than through other parts of the body, to approach the soul. (1009)

As much pleasure as my morning reading gives me, it’s also a struggle. This isn’t because of the difficulties of Proust’s style, which, to be honest, is part of the pleasure of reading him—how often do you get to experience a sense of accomplishment while sitting on your ass in your bathrobe? It’s because I came into the kitchen with my Blackberry. If describing a Blackberry for a visitor from the last century—say for Proust, had he somehow been plucked off the Boulevard Hausmann in 1916 and deposited, gasping and palpitating, in my living room in the eastern U.S. in 2010—I’d say it was about the size of a small cigarette box. That might connote the device’s addictive properties. But, truthfully, a Blackberry is more like a black hole, a phenomenon that no one even imagined until decades after Proust’s death in 1922, a black hole that sucks up not matter but attention. Who knows what happens to the matter that vanishes into a black hole? Who knows what happens to the attention that vanishes into a Blackberry? I can’t go ten minutes without looking at it. If no new e-mail shows up in my message box—announced by a tiny red and white explosion that might be made by a tiny bomb—I use the Web browser to read the Times. Often I become so engrossed in an article—or, more often, in the clever or boneheaded but usually vituperative reader comments about an article—that fifteen minutes race by before I think of horny, hyperaesthetic Marcel and his circle, and when I return, the spell they cast on me is broken. I open the book and it’s just words, lots of them. Too many.

Is the competition between Proust and the Blackberry a competition between literature and news? I don’t think so. If it were an actual newspaper on the sofa beside me, a paper paper, I wouldn’t bother looking at it until I’d read at least ten pages of the Recherche. The competition is one between reading and something that resembles reading but is really a hybrid mode in which the familiar work of decoding clusters of tiny strokes and squiggles and extracting a world from them is a front for the hypnotic activity of pushing buttons and staring at a light-filled screen. The Blackberry allows its users to think of themselves as human while doing what lab rats do, except lab rats get rewarded with pellets of food. The reward of the Blackberry is the buttons and the screen.

Peter Trachtenberg
Copyright 2010

note: A shorter version of this essay appears on The Laughing Yeti blog curated by Shome Dasgupta and can be viewed here

Thalia Field book cover

Miranda Mellis: Are You Sure Species Exist?

Thalia Field
Bird Lovers, Backyard
(New Directions, 2010)

by Miranda Mellis

Bird Lovers, Backyard, Thalia Field’s most recent post-genre, polyphonic book is comprised of conceptually and formally interrelated texts concerning relations between animals and storytelling humanimals, lost in space. At the end of one piece we are asked, “Are you sure species exist?” The borders, genetic and otherwise, get blurrier by the day. Less than 10% of our genes are technically human. So what does it mean to be human?

Animal trainer and philosopher Vicki Hearne, a vivid presence in the book, has proposed that we are taught our most valuable lessons by animals. One story is narrated, or taught, by an endangered dusky sparrow in a captive breeding program. His first-person (or last-bird) perspective allows Field to consider conditions under which endangered animals come to live in laboratories with ironic authority; as the bird explains, “Fictional characters know things which are too challenging for the writer to understand.” The book both studies and uses anthropomorphism and analogy. The dangers of analogy are embodied in the person of biologist-cum-Nazi-ideologue Konrad Lorenz, who extrapolated from animal breeding experiments that so-called “hybridity” among humans was a form of degeneration. (Because he was considered “hybrid,” the aforementioned dusky sparrow was unprotected by the Endangered Species Act. Doing extinction math is like being in an ever-diminishing room in which everyone is talking at once. The voices get louder as the room gets smaller.) Field’s mapping of Lorenz’s contradictions exposes how sentimental love for some (his adored geese), and aversion to specific others—the legislations of which are one way of describing nationalism—both motivate and distort scientific findings.

More than half a century ago, Hannah Arendt was already arguing that scientists “move in a world where speech has lost its power.” Field’s book is, among other things, science translated into the discourses of poetry and theater. There is an ethical, interdisciplinary vision underlying the recursive image of a gang of students milling around Bird Lovers, Backyard, replete with notebooks and saddlebags, doing amateur science. They ask questions, connect dots—they’re a chorus. And Field’s books are staged as much as written. In one piece a food court becomes the set for a public “thinking contest” geared towards solving the “pigeon problem.” Contestants observe, hypothesize, and write. “There is the potential to fall into thought and out of time” in this activity, where contemplating birds leads to speculations on history and public architecture. The object here is not so much to solve the pigeon problem as to problematize its implications.

The question of whether there is really such a thing as species remains open. Certainly specialization, for all its uses, has long been the pitfall and a danger of science; Ortega y Gasset argued as much in the early years of German fascism. Field reminds us that now, more than ever, we need interdisciplinary approaches to our technological and ecological problems, as the worst catastrophes of our time, the very advent of the so-called anthropocene (Google it), can be attributed to the widespread, pathological absence of cross-disciplinary understanding and holistic action.

Read the original post in The Brooklyn Rail here>>