Friday, February 24, 2012

The executive sublime

Francis Spufford, in I may be some time: Ice and the English imagination (best title + subtitle ever), quotes Burke on sublimity (I have never read Burke and absolutely must):
Chuse a day on which to represent the most sublime and affecting tragedy we have; appoint the most favourite actors; spare no cost upon the scenes and decorations; unite the greatest efforts of poetry, painting and music; and when you have collected your audience, just at the moment when their minds are erect with expectation, let it be reported that a state criminal of high rank is on the point of being executed in the adjoining square; in a moment the emptiness of the theatre would demonstrate the comparative weakness of the imitative arts, and proclaim the triumph of the real sympathy.
He goes on to quote Richard Payne Knight on Burke's views of sublimity (which seem, at least in broad outline, to be conventional enough nowadays that the point of the joke is self-evident):
If . . . [Burke] had walked up St. James’s street without his breeches, it would have occasioned great and universal astonishment; and if he had, at the same time, carried a loaded blunderbuss in his hands, the astonishment would have been mixed with no small portion of terror: but I do not believe that the united effects of these two powerful passions would have produced any sentiment or sensation approaching the sublime, even in the breasts of those who had the strongest sense of self-preservation, and the quickest sensibility of danger.
I found this quote in an essay by Eve Tushnet, who goes on to ask, "From the Burkean point of view, of course the gun-toting underpants man couldn’t be sublime. But what if the author of this scene weren’t Edmund Burke, but Flannery O’Connor? What if the unclad man was not a deranged Burke wielding a blunderbuss, but an ecstatic Francis enraptured by Christ?" (Here again -- and reading Spufford one is consistently struck by this -- we are in Auden country; see esp. chapter(s) on Don Quixote in the Dyer's Hand.) See also: the case of the six-year-old girl with the character of Churchill.

Tushnet has an interesting blog; see, in particular, the Dostoevsky drinking game.

Finally, I enjoyed Theo Tait's review of the new Lanchester novel. In particular, his praise of Mr Phillips -- "an inspired daydream about sex, statistics and the strangeness of ordinary London life" -- is spot-on; Mr. P was the novel that got me interested in Lanchester in the first place; if the chapter that made it to the New Yorker is representative, the new book is almost certainly as drab as he says it is. Tait's comments on the Large Contemporary Novel are sensible:
There is a constant clamour for novelists to "take on big contemporary questions", as a recent Guardian opinion piece put it – to leave the Hampstead dinner parties and the safe historical settings behind, and write the Novel For Our Times. Actually, these books get written all the time, from Margaret Drabble's schematic portraits of the 1970s to Jonathan Coe's of the 1980s and Blake Morrison or Richard T Kelly's uneven sagas of the New Labour years, right up to the recent flood of credit crunch literature. The problem is that they're not usually very good, for quite straightforward reasons: creating and managing a large, varied and realistic cast of characters is very hard for an individual novelist to do, particularly now that society is so diverse. When working outside their own experience, novelists tend to fall back on recycled journalism, contrivance and cartoon.
I agree with these assessments, but the general question is more puzzling than Tait makes it out to be. My sense has always been that the people who try to write Large Contemporary Novels are bad at characterization anyway; it would fit most of the data to say these novels are bad because the wrong people are writing them. The question is not why novels like Middlemarch are so rare nowadays, but why novels like Pickwick are: characters needn't be lifelike to be alive, or rounded to be memorable. Where are the Micawbers and Miss Havishams of the 21st century?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Like bacon in the chimney"

More snoutage, this time from dolphin chapter in Pseudodoxia Epidemica:

Regarding storms, recall the cardinal in Webster who "lifts up's nose, like a foul porpoise before a storm"

(Quote courtesy of Calista)

Herring-hog and helegug

Regular readers might remember previous posts about snouts, esp. this one. (Quick summary is that a porpoise is a pork-fish.) Today, while trying to establish the age of the term "puffer fish" on OED, I learned some more hoggish synonyms for "the common porpoise":
1. Puffer (3c.) Quot. from 1911: Porpoise (Phocæna communis).—A cetacean found on the north Atlantic and north Pacific coasts, ascending rivers. It is known as ‘harbor porpoise’, ‘herring-hog’, ‘puffer’, [etc.].

2. Puffing pig. chiefly US. Quot. from 2004: Harbour porpoises are sometimes called the puffing pig as the creatures can be heard making puffing noises from the shoreline as they take a breath on the surface.

3. Puff-pig. Newfoundland, obs. the common porpoise. Quot. from 1861: At the mention of the puff-pig, the local name for the common porpoise, we indulged ourselves in a childish laugh.

There is also a puff-shark:
puff-shark. now rare, the swell shark, Cephaloscyllium ventriosum. Quot. from SciAm, 1902: The curious puff shark uttered a deep grunt when it was taken from the water.

Also discovered, as part of this excursion, some obsolete synonyms for puffin:
(1678) The Bird called Coulterneb at the Farn Islands, Puffin in North-Wales, in South-Wales Gulden-head, Bottle-nose, and Helegug, at Scarburgh Mullet, in Cornwal Pope.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tales and Tayles; ideas of ordure

I have been bad about closing tabs -- have also been meaning to do some posts that involve writing rather than linking, but this term has been overwhelming. NB I'll be in Boston next week for the APS meeting. Anyway here are some links:

1. 30 photos of a Chinese sex toy factory (via clusterflock)

2. Harold Bloom reminisces about Auden (birthday today, as was DFW's apparently):
The poet arrived in a frayed, buttonless overcoat, which my wife insisted on mending. His luggage was an attaché case containing a large bottle of gin, a small one of vermouth, a plastic drinking cup, and a sheaf of poems. After being supplied with ice, he requested that I remind him of the amount of his reading fee. A thousand dollars had been the agreed sum, a respectable honorarium more than forty years ago. He shook his head and said that as a prima donna he could not perform, despite the prior arrangement. Charmed by this, I phoned the college master--a good friend--who cursed heartily but doubled the sum when I assured him that the poet was as obdurate as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Informed of this yielding, Auden smiled sweetly and was benign and brilliant at dinner, then at the reading, and as he went to bed after we got home.

(A few addenda: i. I should really have a separate tag for this sort of Auden post as opposed to the posts that quote him. ii. A good source for more stories of this kind, seen from a glancing angle, is the Lowell-Bishop correspondence. iii. Bloom is not fond of Auden's work, but has always seemed to me a pretty good judge of the relative merits of different Auden poems; in particular, he correctly rates Letter to Lord Byron and the limestone poem as among A's best. (Re which, see also Anthony Hecht.))

3. From the lardr, animal-specific terms for tails and excrement (unearthed by Calista):
THe tayle of Harte, Bucke, Rowe, or any other Deare, is to be called the Syngle. The Tayle of a Goate, is plain∣ly called his Tayle. The tayle of a Bore, is to be termed his wreath. The tayle of an Hare and Conney, is called their Skut. The tayle of a Foxe is called his Bush, or (as some vse to say) his hollywater sprinkle. The tayle of a Wolfe is to be called his Stearne. Of the rest I haue not read.

The termes proper for the ordure and naturall excrements of chaces.

IT is a thing highly obserued and not here to be omitted, that the ordure of euery beaste of chace & Uenerie hath his proper terme. The reason is, by cause theyr ordure and excrements are one principall marke whereby we know the place of their feede, and their estate. So that a Huntesman in talke or makyng of his reportes shall be often constreyned to rehearse the same. Of an Harte therfore, and of all Deare the ordure is called Fewmets or Fewmishing: Of a Gote, and of an Hare the Crotising or Crot∣tels: Of a Bore the Lesses: Of a Foxe, and all other vermine, The Fyaunts: Of an Otter the Spraynts. And I haue neyther readde nor heard what it is termed of a Wolfe or a Beare: neyther is it greatly materiall.
See also: animal-specific verbs for slicing-up

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"Cankles and haunch"

I have been somewhat sloppy of late about reading Poetry Daily but fortunately did not miss this gem:

Sex Rubenesque
           Unleash the excess!
     Bring me cleavage and rumpage,
one heftable breast, then another,
     a buttock untrussed
and rhapsodic for humpage.
     Begin the maneuvers,

  purge girdles and covers; undress
    each strumpet of frumpage
  that revolts a fat lover. Release the noblesse,
the cankles and haunch, trot out the lumpage—
            Deliver the flesh!

Naturally delighted to find a contemporary poet so precisely to my taste. Among other good poems of Leithauser's that I have dug up are: "The Old Woman Gets Drunk with the Moon", "O, She Says", "Frostbite", "UFOs", "Was you ever bit by a dead bee?", and "Guidelines: Writing the Sonnet." (Some of these are perhaps a little too much like Kay Ryan -- "Tiger Shark" absolutely is -- but there are worse things.) There isn't, as far as I can tell, a book of any kind out yet, but I hope there will soon be one.

While I'm at it, I should link to the (very slightly related) youtube clip of MacNeice reading "Bagpipe Music."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Frightening inaction

An assortment of quotes with links attached:

1. Michel Houellebecq on blogging (I should like to declare him entirely mistaken, but he is not):
You can always microblog, Houellebecq had told him [...]; but to launch yourself into the writing of a blog post you have to wait for all of that to become compact and irrefutable. You have to wait for the appearance of an authentic core of necessity. You never decide to write a blog post, he had added; a blog post, according to him, was like a block of concrete that had decided to set, and the blogger’s freedom to act was limited to the fact of being there, and of waiting in frightening inaction, for the process to start by itself.

2. Auden on songs/"words-for-music" (linked site is not without interest -- HT Conor Leahy!):
The song ... is, of all kinds of poetry, the one in which the formal verbal elements play the greatest role.... In the world of the song, one might say, the important relationship between the inhabitants is not any community of concern or action so much as family kinship. The satisfaction I get from reading a poem by Campion, for example, is similar to the satisfaction I get from studying a well worked out genealogical tree. (A wet afternoon could be pleasantly spent developing this analogy. Starting with the notion that masculine rhymes represent brothers, feminine rhymes sisters, refrains identical twins, one could ask what verbal relationship would be equivalent to a second cousin once removed. From there one could go on to consider what discords correspond to marriage within the prohibited degrees, e.g., to marrying one's deceased wife's sister.)

3. Jay Rayner, on adventurous cooking (HT Sarah Duff):
Modern techniques are great. They’re brilliant. If you want to cook my steak by banging it round the Large Hadron Collider, be my guest. Dehydrate my pig cheeks. Spherify my nuts. But only do so if the result tastes nicer.

4. Graffiti from Pompeii:
Herculaneum (on the exterior wall of a house); 10619: Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here 
5. On relocating detective stories from Portsmouth to Le Havre:
There is no translation for "mush" (a Pompey term of affection), "scrote" (the opposite) or "scummer" (anyone from Southampton). Can the city be exported? "I was intrigued by the move to Le Havre," said Hurley. "But they have done a good job. What holds true for Portsmouth also holds true for Le Havre. There are similarities: neither city is fashionable, they are both at the end of the railway line, relatively uncursed by money. Sharp-elbowed places, robust." Could you move other English detectives – Morse to Rouen, say, or Rebus to Marseille? "Rebus, maybe yes. But I'm not sure about Morse. You can't get away from those dreaming spires."

6. Much to like in this review of Dickens's letters (via Light Reading). I particularly liked
the pile of clean spittoons in the corner of a country inn “looking like a collection of petrified three-cornered hats”
(In Ulysses, Joyce has "a hogo you could hang your hat on" and also "what a man looks like with his two bags full and his other thing hanging down out of him or sticking up at you like a hatrack.")

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Niceties of expression

Very late getting around to this, but I read the new Hollinghurst book some time ago and have been meaning to post about it. I would recommend it, although it is one of his weaker books, I think, partly because the plot is so unworkable. (In the second half of the novel, the protagonist -- or rather the character that provides the point-of-view -- is a nondescript bank clerk who is obsessed for no clear reason with a half-forgotten WW1-era poet, "Cecil Valance"; clerk quits his job to write scandalous biography of Valance, after bank manager turns out to be married to Valance's niece/daughter who plays duets with a gay schoolteacher -- teaching at a school located in what was formerly the Valance mansion, now modernized -- who of course then sleeps with bank clerk. There is a coda in which we are told that all characters ended up tenured or modestly famous.)

Besides, the bank-clerk protag. is an incongruous mouth for Hollinghurst to put words into, e.g., "he was touched for a moment by a sense of the inseparable poverty and consistency of English life" (yeah right). Previous novels might have had unpleasant protags but at least they were all meant to be clever.

Nevertheless the writing is brilliant; I particularly liked "Paul woke to the sound of a tolling bell, with a hangover that felt much worse for the comfortless strangeness of Greg Hudson's room" and the phrase "sleek unanswerable jets." James Wood objected to the echoes of Henry James, which I didn't mind, although I was amused by this passage, which could have come straight out of The American Scene:
here the bracket clock whirred and then hectically struck eleven [...] Other clocks (and now she could hear the grandfather in the hall chime in belatedly) showed a more respectful attitude to telling the hour. They struck, all through the house, like attentive servants. Not so that old brass bully the drawing-room clock, which banged it out as fast as it could. "Life is short!" it shouted. "Get on with it before I strike again!"
(There is also a passage about the expected apparatus of a bathroom "intruding" through all the junk stored in it that I cannot find online and will type in anon.)

Other notes:
  • Others have said this but it is almost impossible to write a country-house scene -- even if it's not really a country-house -- revolving around the confusions of a precocious girl without evoking Atonement.
  • The second section, "Revel," was very good in a way that perhaps invites terms like "magisterial" and "virtuosity" too insistently. I thought it was the best thing in the book, and it gains extra points for apposite use of Skeltonics. The delightfully unpleasant Dudley Valance is a memorable character.
  • H.'s female characters are all composed of the same few attributes -- spirited, perceptive, vaguely unstable, given to drink -- and differ primarily in how unstable and how old they are. The very old ones drink especially heavily. But it is a versatile formula: the old woman's part is done brilliantly in the later sections of this book.
  • H. is overly fond of embedded texts. They're always defensible/necessary but I've never liked them. In the Swimming-Pool Library he needed the diary for historical perspective; here he needs it because multiple characters are writers. I esp. cringed at "Love comes not always in by the front door" (in a poem recited by "Valance").
  • I simply do not think H. is versatile enough as a writer to succeed with a protagonist who is partly an object of satire (the bank clerk). Whenever there is a convincing descent into his consciousness the man is very drunk.
  • Daniel Mendelsohn appears to have objected to H's use of Jewish characters (claiming H. is given to use of anti-Semitic tropes) both here and in Line of Beauty. I have not read the article, which is gated; however I was reminded of a truly anti-Semitic poem by Larkin that touches on many of the same themes as the Hollinghurst book -- search for "Balokowsky."
Finally, see also: James Wood, Christopher Tayler, Jenny Davidson, Emma Brockes.