[narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity, vanity]



"I would walk the floe-edge, then, in those days, hoping to hear the narwhals, for the wonder of their company; and hoping, too, that they would not come. The narwhal is a great fighter for its life, and it is painful to watch its struggle. When they were killed, I ate its flesh out of respect for distant ancestors, and something older than myself. [..]

"I watched closely the ivory gull, a small bird with a high, whistly voice. It has a remarkable ability to appear suddenly in the landscape, seemingly from nowhere [...] It is hard to say even from what direction it has come. It is just suddenly there. [...] Like any animal seen undisturbed in its own environment, the ivory gull seems wondrously adapted. [...] To avoid water in winter, which might freeze to its legs, it has become deft at picking things up without landing. In winter it follows the polar bear. When no carrion turns up in the polar bear's wake, it eats the polar bear's droppings. It winters on the pack ice. Of the genus Pagophila. Ice lover.

"And I would think as I walked of what I had read of a creature of legend in China, an animal similar in its habits to the unicorn, but abstemious, like the ivory gull. It is called the ki-lin. Theki-lin has the compassion of the unicorn but also the air of a spiritual warrior or monk. Odell Shepard has written that 'unlike the western unicorn, the ki-lin has never had commercial value; no drug is made of any part of its body; he exists for his own sake and not for the medication, enrichment, entertainment or even edification of mankind.'

"With our own Aristotelian and Cartesian sense of animals as objects, our religious sense of them as mere receptacles for human symbology, our single-mindedness in unraveling their workings, we are not the kind of culture to take the ki-lin seriously. We are another culture, and these are other times. [...] The history of the intermingling of human cultures is a history of trade -- in objects like the narwhal's tusk, in ideas, and in great narratives. We appropriate when possible the best we can find in all this. The ki-lin, I think, embodies a fine and pertinent idea -- an unpossessible being who serves humans when they have need of its wisdom, a creature who abets dignity and respect in human dealings, who underlines the fundamental mystery with which all life meets analysis.

"I do not mean to suggest that the narwhal should be made into some sort of symbolic ki-lin. Or that buried in the more primitive appreciation of life that some Eskimos retain is an 'answer' to our endless misgivings about the propriety of our invasions of landscapes where we have no history, of our impositions on other cultures. But in that simple appreciation of a world not our own to define, that poised Arctic landscape, we might find some solace by discovering the ki-lin hidden within ourselves, like a shaft of light."

-- Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams



He crossed the Danube on his cloak ...

"Legend has it that he was the son of a king, from Dacia or Denmark, who married a French princess in Paris. During the wedding night, the story goes, he was afflicted with a sense of profound unworthiness. Today, he is supposed to have said to his bride, our bodies are adorned, but tomorrow they will be food for worms. Before the break of day, he fled, making a pilgrimage to Italy, where he lived in solitude until he felt the power to work miracles arising within him [...] and went over the Alps to Germany. At Regensburg he crossed the Danube on his cloak, and there made a broken glass whole again; and, in the house of a wheelwright too mean to spare the kindling, lit a fire with icicles. This story of the burning of the frozen substance of life has, of late, meant much to me, and I wonder now whether inner coldness and desolation may not be the precondition for making the world believe, by a kind of fraudulent showmanship, that one's own wretched heart is still aglow." -- W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

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Use, Refuse

"Method of this project: literary montage. I need not say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulation. But the rags, the refuse -- these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them." -- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

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Ears to Hear

"What we ask of writers is that they guarantee survival of what we call human in a world in which everything appears inhuman [...] Literature is like an ear that can hear beyond the understanding of the language of politics." -- Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature.

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What She Said

"Perhaps all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but in any home where one person usurps or is given more than a fair share of the oxygen, the others must find ways to go on breathing: denial, secrets, control, use, anger... As a writer, no question my anxiety, my concern for my children, my sometimes longing to escape and leave no forwarding address, were the initial energies that caused me to try to make this world on the page, but right from the beginning, the story came to me
as a novel ..." -- Ginnah Howard, author of Night Navigation

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Journey without Maps

"You want to be a map fetishist, help yourself. I'm gone." -- Iain Sinclair, Landor's Tower




"It is entirely conceivable that life's splendour forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons. " (Kafka, Diaries, 18 October 1921)




"You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. 'Floods' is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding: it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory --- what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our flooding." -- Toni Morrison

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The Littlest Derridean Strikes Again

Today, Jane's teacher emailed to report Jane's first extended metaphor: "I'd like to marry a book. That way I could read my husband."

I don't know where to begin, really.

Taking no responsibility whatsoever, MJ bellowed: "YOU have reproduced."

At least he didn't say: You have been reissued. In a new, updated edition.

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The Music of What Happens

Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.
"Tell us that," said Fionn, turning to Oisin.
"The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge," cried his merry son.
"A good sound," said Fionn. "And you, Oscar," he said, “what is to your mind the finest of music?"
"The top of music is the ring of the spear on the shield," cried the stout lad.
"It is a good sound," said Fionn.
And the other champions told their delight: the belling of a stag across the water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance. The song of the lark, the laugh of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.
"They are good sounds, all," said Fionn.
"Tell us, chief," one ventured, "what do you think?"
"The music of what happens," said great Fionn, "that is the finest music in the world."

-from a book of Irish Fairy Tales




"Revolution is one function of the romance." -- Gillian Beer



Just A Name

"No poet is obsessed with craft per se; craft is just a name for the mechanics of immortality." -- Dan Chiasson




"A writer needs his poisons. The antidote to his poisons is often a book." -- Philip Roth

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Man on Wire

"To me it's so simple-- life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise in rebellion. To refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself. To see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge and then you live your life on a tightrope." -- Philippe Petit, in Man On Wire

Dana Stevens' review of the film conveys both the irresistible beauty of le coup and, it must be said, the high personal cost of its success. After the WTC walk, Petit abandoned Annie Allix, his longtime lover and chief source of moral support, and J-F Blondeau, the childhood friend and secret sharer who came up with the ingenious idea of using a bow and arrow to send the wire across the void. While this idea solved a technical problem, its sheer homeliness may have also gone some way toward lowering the ambient anxiety, making the feat seem -- as I suspect it had to, for all of them, on some level -- like, despite the danger, it might still be just a prank, a lark, child's play.

I'm of two minds about whether the result was worth the sacrifice. Without the wound of 9/11, I might be inclined to say that while Petit's walk was beautiful, it was probably not worth the pain it caused, especially to Blondeau and Allix. One might object that they knew what they were getting into, or should have, and one would not be wrong. A small but necessary correction might be simply to give credit where it's due: everyone who helped Petit deserves gratitude, praise, admiration, not just Petit himself.

But there's more to it than that. It would be intellectually dishonest to fail to acknowledge that, after 9/11, Petit's walk seems like a profound gift.

I'm on a wire myself, writing this -- Petit's walk was certainly full of beauty, yes, but it was also a rebellion, full of rage and defiance. Crossing empty air, he was making his way through scary, primitive territory. If he'd fallen, would it have been "for us"? (For "our own good"?) The religious implications are clear enough; and no man should be a religion; one would hope that 9/11 alone would once and for all put the lie to messianism. Petit's walk seems questionable for just these reasons - it is easy to imagine how it could be put to a terrible use, as a justification for terror. But this would pervert it. There's an important difference between symbolic engagement with wild energies, and their mobilization in the service of terrible aggression in the real. The difference must be understood, and upheld - if only in defense of a world, now lost, where the incredible hubris of building two enormous towers on the south tip of Manhattan could be convincingly addressed (not bested, certainly not redeemed) by a daring man and a handful of no less daring accomplices, with no loss of life and, arguably, an increase of it.

So maybe the question becomes: Was the address convincing? Did Petit's act carry conviction? Or was it just a stunt?

As far as I know, Petit asked for nothing from his audience, not even their attention - he just stepped out into the sky. (It was Allix, from the ground, who cried, "Regardez!") He demanded no money, no press, not even the attachment of his name to the work. In this sense, at least, it was a kind of gift -- even before 9/11. At the same time, the gift still isn't unalloyed. I mean, why choose the towers, if not in acknowledgment of how wonderfully they would serve as a vehicle for his immortality, should he survive the crossing?

My friend, the poet Richard Katrovas, writing on prison art, has thoughfully pressed the same question even further, exploring the difference between art without conviction and the sorts of art that can get you, well, convicted. (Do the latter have more claim to our attention? More purchase on the truth? Is this linguistic register even useful? Claims and purchase -- this is the idiom of property.) Anyway, the essay I've just linked to is nominally about art programs for the incarcerated but more deeply about the problems posed by defiant art, including whether such art is even possible under the conditions of late (very late) capitalism. A witness to the Velvet Revolution, the son of a chronically incarcerated con man, and no stranger himself to real and symbolic imprisonment, Katrovas suggests that, especially in a so-called "free" society, the deepest freedom comes through the artist's embrace of ephemerality, the renunciation of the ambition to use art to build monuments to the self. Instead, there is the production of gifts, in Lewis Hyde's sense, best of all coming without a name attached:

Most art is prison art, if William Blake's famous 'mind-forg'd manacles' are taken seriously as endemic to the human condition. The truly free man or woman doesn't make art the way any 'serious' artist does, because any serious artist, any constant (in both senses of the word) maker of Small Art, does so because she or he is chained to compulsions and egocentric ambitions no less securely than the prison laborer or slave is chained to his Big Art task. Perhaps only when the work of art is conceived not as a commodity or monument or testimony, or prophecy or admonition, but as a gift, a true gift, does the artist, the giver, achieve something we may call freedom, though the product of such freedom certainly will not have purchase on 'greatness,' 'profundity,' 'wisdom'; such art will certainly be ephemeral.

(Which is not to say artists should not be paid for their work - but that is a subject for another day.)

* It now seems perfectly inevitable that I should be reading the late novelist Rocco Carbone's Libera i miei nemici, his last novel before his cruelly untimely death this summer, based on his work in the Rebibbia women's prison.

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Say, Human. Warious.

A fragment from Our Mutual Friend, in which Mr. Venus, Dickens' grim shopkeeper-emanation of the the grim Victorian unconscious, describes the wares he has on offer:

Tools. Bones, warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservations. The mouldy ones a-top. What's in these hampers over them again, I don't quite remember. Say, human, warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummified bird. Dried cuticle, warious.

His beloved refuses him, in her own handwriting: "I do not wish to regard myself, nor yet to be regarded, in that boney light."




In today's post, which is good all the way down, Mark closes with some comforting words on tough times:
It may be that we're in for some rain. It's not our fault, and it's not our doing. Until the sun comes out, we can work indoors: write books, write software. Or we can go outside and get wet; that's fine, too. We're strong and young, the water will do us no harm, we can always find ourselves a dry towel and a hearth and we can be sure of dinner.

Gonna re-read that, first thing tomorrow.



The Short Story's Napoleon Complex

Steven Millhauser has a wonderful essay on "The Ambition of the Short Story" in today's NYT.

The short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there — right there, in the palm of its hand — lies the universe. It seeks to know that grain of sand the way a lover seeks to know the face of the beloved. It looks for the moment when the grain of sand reveals its true nature. In that moment of mystic expansion, when the macrocosmic flower bursts from the microcosmic seed, the short story feels its power. It becomes bigger than itself. It becomes bigger than the novel. It becomes as big as the universe.

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Dao more shei kaan (Give me the ears for it)

I've got this song, "Praan," in heavy rotation on my iPod. Evidently I'm not the only one who's getting a brain worm from it. The song just spent some weeks at number one in Amazon's soundtrack bestseller list. Apparently there's a ringtone out there, too.

You may recognize "Praan" as the soundtrack to Where the Hell Is Matt?.

I'm not usually this passionate about pop songs, so I'm not sure why this one has stuck. To be sure, it is a joyful song, sung hauntingly by Palbasha Siddique. Beyond that, I don't know. At least it's not Hansen. (If you still remember the brain worm you got from their inexplicable 1997 hit, or even if you don't, you won't want to click that link.)

The song is based on the poem "Stream of Life" by Rabindranath Tagore. Here it is:

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

(translated by Tagore)

"Praan" means "life, breath, devotion."

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Mostly Fits

"Life is fits and starts, mostly fits." -- Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome. Which made me laugh today.



The Good Sentence

"A good modern sentence proceeds evenly, loosely joined by commas, and its feel is hypothetical, approximate, unstructured, and always aiming at an impossible exactness which it knows it will not achieve." -- A. S. Byatt, "True Stories and Facts in Fiction"

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In Other Words

"Speaking of Accidents"
Peter Everwine

Given the general murkiness of fate
you might, in my mother's words, "Thank
your lucky stars," a phrase she'd drop
into the lull between calamities
like a rubbed stone, then nod wisely
while it sank home, pure poetry,
meaning she loved the sound of it
more than its truth.
But precisely here one needs discrimination.
Our town drunk, steering by streetlamp home one night,
as was his custom, got fooled
beyond recognition when a fast freight at the crossing
fixed him to its glare. "Some men
are like moths," we said, and that
was the poetry in it,
meaning his sudden somersault into light.
Truth is, the world fell in on him
as it commonly does when you stray
from the garden path and run head on
into the pain that, until then,
was as lost as you.
The trick is to risk collision,
then step back at the last moment:
that ringing in your ears
might be construed as the rush of stars.
We all want stars, those constellations
with the lovely names we've given them blossoming
in the icy windblown fields of the dark.
Desire is always fuming into radiance,
though even a drunk can't hope to ignore
some fixity underfoot, some vivid point
closer to home where all the lines converge --
scars, I mean,
not stars.

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Mise en Place

"One of the reasons I love the world of the kitchen is because so much of the work of cooking has a metaphorical component. I believe that cooking well, or striving to, is a metaphor for living well. Having good mise en place is a metaphor for being organized in your life and in your mind. Its goals are to ensure preparedness and efficiency of action." Ruhlman.

I love how this observation deepens the idea of "getting things done," makes it seem more wonderful, more meaningful, and less about the metrics inevitably attached to "what gets done".

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In September, 1830, William Beckford writes to George Clarke in London: "Lord Rochford has left Easton and all his property to the D[uke] of Easton. Were there any books?"

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Myrmecology & the Specific Gravity of the Gods

"Old ideas in science never really die. They only sink to mother Earth, like the mythical giant Antaeus, to gain strength and rise again." -- E. O. Wilson & Bert Hoelldobler, Journey to the Ants (1994)

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Another Way of Looking At It

"Wrote nothing today. Doesn't matter."

-- Daniil Kharms

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RIP, Madeleine L'Engle

She passed away in September, I wasn't watching the news...

"I see," she cried, "I got it! For just a moment, I got it. I can't possibly explain it now, but -- but there, for a second, I saw it." (The moment Meg understands the tesseract, in A Wrinkle in Time.)

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Robert Louis Stevenson Struggles to Decorate His House

Writing from Samoa in 1892 to Sidney Colvin, Stephenson tried to describe some wallpaper he wanted: "The room I have particularly in mind is a sort of bed and sitting room, pretty large, lit on three sides, and the colour in favor of its proprietor at present is a topazy yellow. But then with what color to relieve it? For a little work room of my own at the back, I should rather like to see some patterns of unglossy -- well, I'll be hanged if I can describe this red -- it's not Turkish and it's not Roman and it's not Indian, but it seems to partake of two of the last, and yet it can't be either because it ought to be able to go with vermilion..." (Quoted in A Color Notation by A. H. Munsell, 1919)

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Note to Self by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881)

"Place your memorandums in your book more neatly you dirty blackguard -- then you may in coming time refer to them with pleasure & see that you begin overleaf or I shall stand here a witness against you..." -- Samuel Palmer, from his Sketch-book

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Best Opening Lines Ever...

O visions of salmon tremendous,
Of trout of unusual weight...

-- from Andrew Lang, Books & Bookmen, 1886



Not That I Would Know Anything About This

"Writing a thesis is a lonely obsessive activity. You live inside your head, nowhere else. University libraries are like madhouses, full of people pursuing wraiths, hunches, obsessions. The person with whom you spend most of your time is the person you're writing about." -- Hallucinating Foucault, Patricia Drucker

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"The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouses because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse, where I go to escape myself. " -- Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein's Nephew

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Only the Coffee Counted

"'Bring on the lions!' I cried.

"But there were no lions. I spent every day in the company of one dog and one cat whose every gesture emphasized that this was a day throughout whose duration intelligent creatures intended to sleep. I would have to crank myself up.

"To crank myself up, I stood on a jack and ran myself up. I tightened myself like a bolt. I inserted myself in a vise clamp and wound the handle until the pressure built. I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgement of a skilled anesthesiologist. There was a tiny range within which coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.

"I pointed myself, I walked to the water. I played the hateful recorder, washed dishes, drank coffee, stood on a beach log, watched a bird. That was the first part; it could take all morning, or all month. Only the coffee counted, and I knew it. It was boiled Columbian coffee: raw grounds brought just to boiling in cold water and stirred. Now I smoked a cigarette or two and read what I wrote yesterday. What I wrote yesterday needed to be slowed down. I inserted words in one sentence and hazarded a new sentence. At once I noticed that I was writing -- which, as the novelist Friedrich Buechner noted, called for a break, if not a celebration."

-- Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

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What He Said

"A book, then, that crumbles even while it forms."
-- Edmond Jabés, from Desire for a Beginning Dread of One Single End

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What She Said

"A baby, a body, a book, abode."
-- Anne Waldman, from the poem My Life A Book

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"The book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us."

-- Franz Kafka to Oskar Pollak (1904)

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Sontag on Silence

"So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience which is a leading motif of modern art, with its tireless commitment to the 'new' and/or the 'esoteric.'" -- Susan Sontag