Monday, July 25, 2011


By one metric (lifetime record versus my cousin Mary, who is six), I am good at chess (10-2-0). By another metric (performance against the computer at on a level called "Silly", which is below "Easy") I am bad at chess (0-4-0). It seems obvious that one of these metrics is a better indicator of quality than the other, so I suppose it's incumbent upon me to just sort of now live life as a person who is bad at chess, at least until I improve (and not just by beating Mary until those two losses become statistically insignificant).

I'm not bad at chess merely insofar as I can't think enough steps ahead, either, which is what I thought about when I used to think, abstractly, about how and why I was so bad at chess. The problem in this scenario (which, again, I largely just imagined in the half-decade or so when I just didn't play chess at all), would be that I would go to move and -- oh no! -- realize all of the sudden that either my bishop or my rook was doomed, doomed, and I could only save one of them. In fact, I am a much less tragic, and much more stupid, chess player than this. I lose my important pieces not so much by grinding ineluctabilities as much as by wild, arms-flailing acts of stupidity. "I will just move my queen here, to bide her royal time," I think, and then the computer snipes her off with its bishop that I should, of course, have seen, what with its position five clear, unimpeded diagonal squares from the queen's landing. At no point here at the library where I'm playing my chess did I take off my cap in a gesture of resignation, as I realized that the computer had masterfully played me; rather, I made a kind of stuttering motion with my head and then grouchily flung my mouse cursor over to the corner to close out the game rather than sticking around to actually get mated. (This was against a computer, so don't worry, my resignation strategy wasn't like screwing up anyone else's stats).

Unlike say, backgammon or Scrabble, chess is a narrative game (the bishop attacked the queen!) and unlike say, Key to the Kingdom it's not a game with what anyone who's read a book would call an interestingly narrative game (the castles moved (?) to successfully box the king in again). But the hyperdiegetic story, of each person's relationship to chess, is an interesting one, as we negotiate, in chess, intimately but harmlessly (unless you're Luzhin), between ends that are tragic and ones that are stupid.

In news news, I am reading in addition to losing at chess, and I will soon lose my access to the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, so I plan on writing here about that. Expect more. Happy reading.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Joss and Sally

"And then, so true is it that one thing leads to another and that you can try a good man just so high, he suddenly found that she was in his arms. After that, he hardly knew what he was doing. Chibnall, however, could have told him. Chibnall, with his intimate knowledge of the Nosegay Novelette series, would have recognized the procedure immediately. He was clasping Sally to his bosom and showering burning kisses on her upturned face." -- P.G. Wodehouse, in Quick Service

Chibnall, in this scene, is a butler, and he loves novelettes; his fiancee, Miss Pym, is a barmaid who loves detective stories. The beginning of the passage that I have quoted is distinctively Wodehouse (the twinned bits of cant in the first sentence; the subtle ordering of the scene in calling what's happening "the procedure"). The very end is an example of something that pops up in Wodehouse a lot, distinctively his by distinctively not belonging to him: just as later, with a lot of gangster talk, he will weave in bits of Miss Pym's detective stories, we are getting a little undigested prose from one of the Nosegay Novelettes. We have already figured out, probably by the second sentence, what the he is doing to the her; and it is a fun and funny little reward when the romance novel's language arrives so exactly. Joss (the he) is kissing Sally (the her): that's the plot, and all of the fun in the sentence is the running from the Wodehouse to the Nosegay register.

"You need kissing badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how" -- Rhett Butler
"For 'kissed', substitute the word you're thinking of." -- Roger Ebert

Wodehouse can move with ease between these two registers because politeness and lust had teamed up, over a few hundred years, to make sure that writing about kissing was often carried out in a fairly regimented way. The kisses are often hot, or accompanied by hot tears, and are often showered or otherwise discretely dispensed. My favorite part of the passage from Wodehouse is that they are all falling on Sally Fairmile's upturned face. Upturned face is the best, the most clearly romance-literary chunk of the passage. It perfectly and asexually reminds us about these two bodies, angled toward each other, Joss showering burning kisses on Sally, in the most rewarding position that they can be, in chaste Wodehouse or in chaste Nosegay novelettes.

"Moreover, the kiss, one particular contact of this kind, between the mucous membrane of the lips of the two people concerned, is held in high sexual esteem among many nations (including the most highly civilized ones) in spite of the fact that the parts of the body involved do not form part of the sexual apparatus but constitute the entrance to the digestive tract." -- Sigmund Freud, from "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality"

Shortly after the procedure described above, Joss and Sally are interrupted by Sally's fiance, Lord Holbeton, who says, "I say!" (Wodehouse describes this as not quite the thing that Othello would've said). Shortly after that, Joss begins applying mascara to his face, as a mustache, and writing on the mirror of the room (his employer's) with lipstick. I don't know why he does this; it's not quite gone into. However, it coming right on the heels of the kissing put me in mind of the marvelous above sentence, from Freud, his fascinating bewilderment at the act of kissing, which seems just as ungovernable, as unliterary and unchaste and just plain unusual, as the mascara mustache or the lipstick writing. Freud gets a bad knock, I think, for being obsessed with sex, or with attributing too much to various sex drives or such. Instead, I think that what Freud insists upon is the deep weirdness of every single in the world. Everything is filtered through sex drives for Freud because sex drives are weird, and so is everything else: form, digestive tracts, kisses.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Yes. Isn't It Nice to Think So?

I'm reading a (ahem) rather scholarly book about Nabokov's fake scholium on a fake poem Pale Fire, which is called Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery. It is by the apparently very well regarded (and why shouldn't he be?) Brian Boyd, and apparently it caused something of a scandal when it was unleashed upon the world, as in it, Boyd renounces his position as a leader of the Shadeans (people who think that John Shade, the fake person who in the novel Pale Fire is credited with writing the poem, actually invented Charles Kinbote, the fake person who writes a misguided commentary about the poem) and returns to the position that KInbote and Shade each wrote the sections that the text says they wrote. Everything is what it is and not another thing. However, Boyd goes onto say that both Kinbote and Shade are influenced by the ghost of Hazel Shade, and that, post-his-own-mortem, Shade joins his daughter in suggesting things to Kinbote that make the most compelling parts of his commentary compelling. Boyd does a lot of work to tease out hidden connections: Kinbote's grandfather's mistress, Iris Acht, is one of Hazel's avatars because her name is an eye-part, and because Hazel's name is a color that refers almost exclusively to that eye-part.

Frankly, I don't have any idea what to make of any of this. It is difficult enough to talk about Pale Fire to anyone who hasn't read it (really: try explaining it to your mother and see if you make it past "999 line poem in heroic couplets), and it's difficult enough to talk to anyone who has read it without just enjoying yourself in the comic and tragic luxuriances of its prose. I honestly can't figure out how the idea that dead Hazel has, like Sibyl Vane, started communicating through Nabokov's words unbeknownst to anybody would affect the way I feel about the novel. It's a weird lack of involvement after reading nearly three hundred pages about a novel I love. I've written on here before about the quondam king of Zembla, namely to write about how, while watching Mad Men one night, I realized that I don't know what he looks like. Knowing me, I probably came to the conclusion that it was best to just keep him vague. Is it good to keep oneself in the dark (shaded) about whether or not a prominent character in a book is, as a ghost, dictating the thematic of the book?

Earlier, when I said that everything is what it is and not another thing, I thought I was quoting Bishop Berkeley, the idealist British philosopher. Wrong! It turns out that I was quoting a different bishop, Bishop Joseph Butler. I now know exactly two things about Bishop Butler, which is one, that he said that, and two, that he shares his name with a musician from the Lovin' Spoonful. And while I'm onto them: I was positive that one) there was some kind of major connection (like, shared members) between the Lovin' Spoonful and Herman's Hermits, and two) that at least one, and possibly both, of these bands featured one of the four guys who would go on to be Crosby Stills Nash and Young. I don't have any fucking idea why, as of fifteen minutes ago, I thought all of that. It will be very difficult to get around to not thinking it. But now I know it's wrong.

Do you remember that move Socrates was always doing? Socrates had this move where he'd ask forty questions, and eventually someone would say that a bold man is better than a just man, but that justice was better than boldness, and then Socrates would say, "Oh, no, Hippomarchus or whomever, we've gotten ourselves into a scrape!" and then Hippomarchus or whomever would make hesitant noises, and probably go home. That's Socrates for you: the bulldog of the law of the excluded middle. I always feel bad for all of those Hippomarchus and whomsever. Excluding the middle is alright for gadflies and saints but seems like a terrible place to eat. Tomorrow I am going to consider the evidence about Hazel Shade and not change how I feel about Pale Fire. Also, if I think about the Lovin' Spoonful, I will also think about Herman's Hermits and about at least Graham Nash. I'll believe in anything. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.

Monday, August 2, 2010

With Me, It's All or Nothing

I'm reading a book by Brian Rotman called Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero, and one of the things he talks about is the Greco-Christian opposition to the idea of nothing: it was a scandalous idea, a terrifying idea, an idea that attacked everything that made sense, it was intolerable. And that's just what it was to the Greeks. To the Christians, it was even worse, because it seemed situated, in every important scale, across the table completely from the Godhead, which was a plenum: a site of fullness. Zero and nothingness, especially to, say, Saint Augustine, are the ultimate privation, the most complete sense of difference from God, whose majesty lies entirely in His completedness: hence Augustine's conception of the God before time, outside of time, et cetera.

Naturally, those of us who have to wake up in the morning don't exist in any plenums, or even near any. Do you all remember the episode of Futurama called The Why of Fry? No? Well, in that episode, a bunch of sentient cerebrums (cerebra?) called the Brainspawn decide that they are damned close to an epistemological plenum -- that they, as a race of sentient brains, have come to know everything -- and that they ought to destroy the universe in order to close the set of potentially knowable things, so that they will not have to come to know anything else. The knowable but unknown foreclosed, fullness achieved. Luckily -- luckily! -- the plan of the Brainspawn is foiled by Futurama's protagonist, delivery boy Philip J. Fry, in a series of events that you should all familiarize yourselves with by watching this and every other episode of Futurama. But the plan of the Brainspawn is an interesting, if high-concept, rejoinder to the horror vacuii that Augustine responded to with his exaltation of the plenum. It's one thing to think of the fullness of God as something a spiritual analogue to pre-Oedipal life in Freud, or to any other condition of pristineness (each pray'r accepted and each wish resign'd), but the thing about the fullness is that the fullness is DONE.

The quotidian ballast to this high thought balloon came about in my life today when, bored at work, I made a list of books that I will soon be able to X off of my list of Books Bought and Unread, among them Brian Rotman's Signifying Nothing. There's a way in which the entities that make up that list could be fulfilled, obviously, which is that I could actually finish reading all of those damn books and eventually my library would be a wall of accomplishments (such as they are) rather than aspirations (ditto). It is more likely that the constitution of my Books Bought and Unread will never really achieve a plenum, that they will be less like the Labors of Heracles (check, check, check) and more like the people of the Earth, interred and replenished as need and desire strike. The list -- refillable until the Big Crunch or not -- is itself a weird space where it's unclear to me what sides fullness and nothingness take. Finishing each book, moving it off of my current truncated bookshelf and onto the now three (progress!) piles of Books Read, next to the fan and behind my box of sweaters -- should that represent an increase in fullness (Now my Read Books are fuller) or in the nothing (the list, after all, is getting smaller)?

There's an allure to the middle state of incompleteness, the participation in a going concern. It's like people who don't want to have watched every episode of a television show they like, because then there's nothing left to watch. I did a similar thing, or at least committed to a similar thing, when I was sixteen and fell in love with Slaughterhouse-Five, and vowed that I would never read the entire Vonnegut oeuvre, lest there be no oeuvre left. But I fucked up, and had read all of the available Vonnegut before I was twenty. So it goes. Of course, the books I might read is crucially different from the books that Kurt Vonnegut wrote, in that one is practically inexhaustible and the other one I exhausted. But the feeling, the sliding from incompleteness to fullness to nothing, is there when I watch the list contract and expand. Make a list, feel the presence of the plenum, and then, even faintly, nothing.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Kicks Against Solipsism

"If for nine years I have possessed a goodly apple that is rotten at the core and discover its rottenness only in nine years less six months and four days, isn't it true to say that for nine years I possessed a goodly apple?" -- Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

"Then producing smartly a hammer from an inner pocket he dealt himself, right in the middle of his ancient wounds, so violent a blow that he fell down backwards, or should I say forwards. But the part he struck most readily, with his hammer, was the head, and that is understandable, for it too is a bony part, and sensitive, and difficult to miss, and the seat of all the shit and misery, so you rain blows upon it, with more pleasure than on the leg for example, which never did you any harm, it's only human." -- Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

The first sentence contains two instances of the same adjective, which is dressed up for some reason as an adverb. The second sentence contains a bunch of adjectives, but of more worthy of notice is the way in which it slides up and down the pronoun persons, like the Olympic podium -- third, then first, then second. Both are from novels in which the narrator is rather difficult to follow, and both are things that I have underlined recently, less because I thought they were totally crucial to the work as a whole, but more because I thought they were good candidates to go into my collection of sentences.

I conceptualize my collection of sentences as being something like a mason jar that one would toss sentences into, and then I guess shake the biggest sentences out for use on laundry day. I've gone on at great length previously about my love of the sentence as a unit, mostly I think because I tend to get overwhelmed by larger units (paragraphs, stories, novels, ouevres) and there's only so much one can say in praise of individual words. These two additions to the sentence jar are especially indicative of the evocative power of sentences on their own, because the narrators are themselves constantly confused, or confusing, or in some manner not the final arbiters of what's really going on. People who are not the final arbiters of what's going on are of course well known to us; they are most of the people whom we meet, and their sentences, like the sentences of Dowell and Malone are free to break out and do whatever they please. It's entirely possible that in years to come, I will be swimming through my piles of money like Scrooge McDuck and I will, unbidden, think of John Dowell and that all that I will be able to remember is that he has something to do with goodly apples, or that the only thing I will remember about Malone (because even his titular dying isn't as knee-weakening as that sweet sliding sentence) is that little tidbit about the horrifying guard Lemuel. They aren't Pip Pirrip; they aren't in charge; I can remember of them whatever I please. Them and anybody I might see on the subway or talk to at work or at dinner parties. Ha, ha, everybody.

The claim of the power of sentences, naturally, isn't going to shake the world, any more than the claim of the power of words or the claim of the power of much else verbalized these days. But those two sentences I love, the former of which I knew about years before I encountered it in its natural habitat, and the latter of which snuck up on me unawares. The staunch defiance -- with or without context -- of the goodly apple sentence, with its aching bookkeeping; the bitter spit of those sentences against the bony and sensitive and difficult to miss head; look at 'em go! Do these sentences have anything in common, apart from their fierce motion to be free of their speakers? They each reach out to their readers, their hearers: Dowell's (Ford's) by virtue of its being a question and Malone's (Beckett's) by virtue of its slick move into the second person. Words kick against solitude; every word has its hearer, even those shouted into a hole by Midas's barber. The indelibility of these sentences stays on, I think; they remind us, in their weirdly similar ways, of our unaloneness, even when uttered by their deeply idiosyncratic speakers.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Goldfish Pile

I went to Buffalo, and from there to Lockport, the ancestral manse, to look at my bookshelves. And after about thirty-six hours, I put a bunch of the books from my bookshelf into a bag and got on a bus and just before seven this morning, put the books in a pile on my bed. I don't know when I will read any of these books; none of them are books that I, say, had urgent needs to get my hands on. Now I am sitting on my bed, and the books that I got off my giant wall-sized bookshelf have been moved to the floor. Although the bag in which I moved them across New York state (and probably part of New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; I fell asleep after Syracuse) also had some clothes and some other books (ones I had read/read from on the way to Lockport), the new recruits to my little room in Brooklyn are now sitting by themselves, in a pile next to the cardboard box that I use for a desk. I felt like it was necessary to do, like how when you buy a goldfish you put it in the fishtank still in its plastic bag for a while.

When I got home, finally, from my overnight trip, and before I had even got the books out of my baggage and into their new goldfish pile I thought about whether or not to go to sleep, and listened to a podcast of Baseball Today from last Thursday, and eventually decided to sleep, from maybe nine to noon. While I was asleep, I had a dream that, while I was on a lunch break from my current job at a Barnes and Noble, only it was the dream version of the Barnes and Noble where I work (it has appeared on previous dreams; it is somehow still at Lincoln Center, but also in a wooded environment). I was running late, in the dream, to get back to work, so I recruited some of my friends, all of whom were about fourteen, to pick up my Honda CR-V and carry it over the turnstile into the subway. "Too late to drive!" dream-me must have thought. "C'mon, my young friends, let us get our Honda onto the uptown 2!" This resulted in trouble of a nondescript variety; when I woke up, the thing that I thought of was that what I was remembering -- the manifest dream content, as I quickly realized -- was in fact the plot of an episode of the Wire. I cannot for the life of me account for why that is what I thought of first, but it is. I thought about that for a few minutes, and thought that 1) although I have seen every episode of the Wire, I was not familiar with the events of the dream; 2) none of the episodes of the Wire take place in New York and most saliently, 3) I was prominently involved in the dream content, and I was not featured even a little in any of the episodes of the Wire.

I can remember literally nothing about what I thought or did for the three hours in between when I deduced that the episode of "Putting Jeff Schratz's Honda CR-V on the 2 Train to Get to a Sylvan Version of Barnes and Noble Store 2628" was not an episode of the Wire and when I actual got to the non-bucolic BNS2628 at around three. I must have showered and ironed my clothes and taken the subway, and I must have put the books that are new to my room in their current new goldfish pile next to my cardboard desk. That makes the books of my room into three segregated groups: on the maimed Target bookshelf, decapitated in the U-Haul when we moved here, are the books I haven't read but that have been here since I moved to New York. In two piles by the wall next to my fan are are all of the books that I have read at some point during my New York life. I keep imagining that they will get lent to people, but no one comes by to see them. And then there is the goldfish pile.

Not only is the bucolic version of the uberurban place where I work bucolic, it also appears to be in a cross between the Hundred Acre Wood and Lockport, New York, where my ancestral manse and my wonderful wall-sized bookshelf are. And not only was the Honda CR-V that my young wards and I were muscling onto the 2 a Honda, but it appears to have been the very same maroon 2005 CR-V that my father drives in the winter and my brother the Duck in the summer, and of which, one year on the night before Christmas Eve, I flattened the tire driving home at two in the morning. All but one of the lug nuts came off easily enough, but one of them needed a special Honda lug nut device which was, though I did not know it, in the glove compartment. When I prevailed upon my poor father to come to my aid, he did not know it either, so he came and we kicked at the tire in the snow in the parking lot of a donut store for ten minutes before we went home, wet and tired and befuddled.

I haven't decided yet whether to know for very long that the books in the goldfish pile have unique status, or that they are in some way brothers. I can't decide whether it is inane or thoughtful to keep in mind their biobibiliographies, to associate Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth just as much with Kafka's the Castle, which is now on top of it, as with Goodbye Columbus and American Pastoral. More than likely, it will not be up to me to decide to know; I will just know it, and every time I think about either of them or Four Plays by Henrik Ibsen or the Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks or the Checklist Manifesto, I will think too about the assimilatory quality of plastic bags, about shoving one favorite means for getting about your home into another with the help of young faceless dream-strangers, about being two places at once.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Socrates is a philosopher who never wrote down any philosophy. Stanley Cavell once asked if it were possible for this trick to be plied in other fields -- a novelist who didn't write any novels, a poet who didn't write any poems. The idea, I guess, is that someone who fit the bill would just BE those things; agrammic poet X would be a poem, would make his life into a poem in some important way. This is deeply stupid, insofar as what I've guessed the idea to be is the idea; a life is not a poem, or a novel, because in life you keep having to eat dinner and be bored and so on. I have addressed these temporal concerns elsewhere and elsewhen, if I am not mistaken. The idea that a person, by means of not writing, just IS (by the way, all of these conjugations of to be connecting a person to the poem or novel that is her life sound, in my head, to be capitalized, but I'm going to stop doing it from here on because it's typographically annoying) their work is a category mistake. Johnson wrote that you should avoid meeting the authors of works you've liked, because it is like poking a very pretty soap bubble. And persons are not soap bubbles. It can seem here, I think, as if I am being overliteral or picking on a straw man or something, which is a danger of which I am cognizant. But what I'm thinking about is a set of ideas that has come from, among other things, my long and habitual lapses of activity, times in which I am a blogger who doesn't blog. So it's possible that a sturdier-than-straw man, a stick man, maybe, could be built on the figure of a poet who didn't rely on being a poem, but a poet or novelist who had just an endless stack of poem starts or disconnected chapters. What's that work worth? And what's that work worth if the poet or novelist or blogger, as a part of real life, thought constantly about their poem or novel or blog post that seemed, for a critical reason, that it ought to remain unfinished, that there were something beyond laziness keeping the work from getting done?

It certainly seems like a form of entitled laziness to do this sort of thing: it's a bit like, in Johnson's metaphor, to want credit for making a beautiful soap bubble by buying soap, then never mixing it with water, but constantly imagining what you're going to do with your soap once you open it up. The only benefit of no soap bubble over a soap bubble is that you can't poke it and ruin it; and I am a person saying this who played with soap bubbles three days ago. That too, beyond entitled laziness, is the benefit of undone poems and novels and even blog posts that have been sitting unwritten; they can't be fairly poked, or ruined, because they are already ruins. You can't live as a poem or a novel, but everyone who tries to be a poet with no poems or a novelist with no novel is living in a house made out of planned and unborn poems and novels, and that is a thing you can do.

Here's another way of talking about this. I think that the only way to live in anything approaching reasoned comfort is only to live within your nonpublic failures, especially insofar as they are failures of words (poems, novels, blog posts). Something finished, whatever its quality, is in some perfect as itself; but you can't live in a soap bubble house. The ineffable -- because, again, I'm refusing to allow that mere human laziness is preventing these endeavors, and consigning part of their incompleteness to the ineffable -- keeps things from finishes, keeps mere good sense from owning and ordering. Here, we go to Johnson again, this time from the life of Pope:

But good sense alone is a sedate and quiescent quality, which manages its possessions well, but does not increase them; it collects few materials for its own operations, and preserves safety, but never gains supremacy. Pope had likewise genius; a mind active, ambitious, and adventurous, always investigating, always aspiring; in its widest searches still longing to go forward, in its highest flights still wishing to be higher; always imagining something greater than it knows, always endeavouring more than it can do.

Of course, we writers who can't write don't have Pope's genius to give supremacy to our safety; but there's something to be said for endeavouring more than you can do, and especially (this is where Johnson is most perfect, I think) imagining something greater -- not than one can accomplish, but than one knows, even if it's as small in scope as going to work in the morning, rather than writing the Essay on Man. Or even the Essay on Criticism.