On Hope & the photograph. I just discovered Peter Schjeldahl talking about John Berger talking about Franz Hals in this week’s New Yorker as part of his review of the Met’s current Hals show. Schjeldahl and I wrote about different Berger essays on Hals, and I spared you Berger’s political theory in the essay I read (“The Hals Mystery”). Schjeldahl thinks Berger’s political reading of Hals in the essay he read amounts to a projection that “belittles Hals as an individual.” I could tell Schjeldahl enjoyed Berger’s ideas about Hals, and I enjoyed Berger’s way of addressing both Hals’s class-consciousness and his existentialism. Maybe it’s all a projection, or maybe Hals wasn’t prophetic of only photography.
Speaking of which, Schjeldahl sounds like he would agree with Berger at least about Hals and photography: “Hals showed them how candid technique could serve the direct registration of people and things as they really appear: art as an adept performance, in a streaming present tense.”
On Space. We teach the genres (high school) and the modes of rhetoric (freshman comp). So our writers’ forms don’t follow function but rather the states’ standards of learning. A writer learns forms best by discovering her writing’s parti, and then by finding forms, or parts of forms, that best express it.
A parti is the central idea or concept of a building. A parti [par-TEE] can be expressed several ways but is most often expressed by a diagram depicting the general floor plan organization of a building and, by implication, its experiential and aesthetic sensibility. . . . [I]t is unlikely, if not impossible, to successfully carry a parti from an old project to a new project. The design process is the struggle to create a uniquely appropriate parti for a project. [Emphasis original]
– Matthew Frederick, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, Thing #15
On Death & the photograph. This 81-year-old, Polaroid-carting, ‘walking, talking photo booth” — and the Next Door hostess — get Barthes. From today’s Washington Post:
“The camera’s old as [bleep]; it looks like it’d steal your soul,” observes Allory Anderson, a hostess at Next Door, as Bob squeezes his way through the bar just after midnight. “But I’ve got two pictures of me on my fridge from him. I don’t have iPhone photos on my fridge.”
A physical photo, Bob says, is the presence of you in your absence. A photo is not for now or for Facebook. A photo is for later, when you’re gone. It is for finding in a shoe box.
Barthes would see this guy as the Grim Reaper, someone whose presence is explained by religion’s absence: “Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose form the final print.”
On How to Mark a Book. Half of slow reads’s traffic comes from this post, so it is with a dollop of trepidation that I’m revising it. Annotation is a traditional skill taught in Advanced Placement Language and Literature, and the traffic comes from teachers and students of those college-level courses. I reread my essay with a teacher’s eye last month since I’ll be using it in a couple of Lang sections this fall.
I got more specific about ways to annotate. Readers could find each of my eight means in the outline the original post linked to, but each means was described in the outline with little detail and with little reference to which purpose the means served.
Speaking of purposes of annotating, I went from three to four. Instead of to establish territory, to create trails, and to learn to write, I’m doing to create trails, to interact with the author, to learn what the book teaches, and to learn to write (or at least learn how a book was written). I included interaction with the author thanks to my reading of Ong, Calvino, and Rosenblatt. who redirected my thinking toward the author-reader relationship that was starving under my essentially New-Critical approach.
Of course, the best advice is ultimately that of Virginia Woolf, who, in her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” wrote:
The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.
On How to Mark a Book: “I’m not suggesting that you mark every book you own, any more than I would suggest that my dog mark every tree he sniffs. But you should be free to mark up most books in the most worthwhile core of your collection. My dog has his favorites, and so should you.”
A friend this week pointed me to an interview of George Steiner, the literary critic, on YouTube. In the middle of it, Steiner explicates a Chardin painting, “Le Philosophe Lisant.” He draws some significance from its reader’s pen:
He has his pen next to his reading. Serious reading means you read with a pen. What do you do with a pen? You underline, you take notes on the page, you write around the margin. What are you really doing? You are in dialog with the book, you are answering it, you are speaking to it, and if you are very arrogant and very ambitious, you are saying secretly, you can write a better one. And that is the beginning of a certain relationship of passionate joy and love with the text.
When I was in my twenties, an itinerant preacher visited our little church. Mid-message, he asked, “Who has a Bible that he can’t write in?”
I raised my hand.
“Well, would you get one that you can write in?” he thundered. A canned rejoinder.
“Oh, I have one of those, too!”
Both our faces went red.
I never saw him again, but I still love him, despite the conventions that we labored under.
On East Coker on the rebind.
Tell me, ye learned, shall we for ever be adding so much to the bulk — so little to the stock?
Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?
Are we for ever to be twisting, and untwisting the same rope? for ever in the same track — for ever at the same pace?
Sheall we be destined to the days of eternity, on holy-days, as well as working-days, to be shewing the relicks of learning, as monks do the relicks of their saints — without working one — one single miracle with them?
— Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, and adapted, according to Sterne’s editor James A. Work, from Burton. (I’m sure Work gives Burton’s first name in an earlier footnote, but as a two-minute Google search proved inconclusive about Burton’s first name, and as Work goes on to say that Burton himself adapted his own version from some unnamed source, and really, in the spirit of the passage, I’ll leave it at that.)
On The Language.
“Mowett and Rowan might be given to verse in the gunroom, but they were all hard, tough, driving prose in an emergency.” – Treason’s Harbour
Patrick O’Brian doesn’t usually get all second order on me, all metacognitive. He doesn’t often step back, like Fielding or Sterne, and chew the fat about the author’s craft. Sure, some starving novelist was on Jack Aubrey’s ship awhile back that occasioned a few observations about the publishing industry. But that was a number of novels ago now, wasn’t it?
I can’t remember what happens in O’Brian’s twenty-and-a-fraction volume Aubrey-Maturin series, so I can reread it every six or seven years. I’m still usually surprised by a given book’s events. The timing of the conversations and even the Napoleonic-era sea battles seem as given to chance as the capricious weather and wind that in large part govern the character’s fates. I usually remember the events when they happen, but I’m also usually surprised by them, surprised that they happen when they do.
To be sure, each novel has a loose plot, and now that I’ve read the series two and a half times, I catch a lot of the foreshadowing I missed (at least on a conscious level) before. But much of what happens is as arbitrary as the weather, put in ostensibly for realism’s sake: how can a writer always be advancing the plot while still getting across the experience of a tar-melting month in the doldrums, for instance?
It occurs to me that perhaps O’Brian’s series, taken as a whole, is what Mark McGurl and Thomas Wolfe would call a “putter-inner” novel. Stuff happens for the pure enjoyment of it. And such relish for words! Someone has written a 528-page dictionary of the often-obsolete nautical, medical, and scientific terms the book uses (A Sea of Words), a lexicon worthy of Tolkien, whose immense vocabulary, more original than obsolete, came in part from two years as an assistant with the Oxford English Dictionary (A Ring of Words). And, like Tolkien’s hobbits and elves, O’Brian’s thoroughgoing seamen have the inclination and space between battles to recite rafts of poetry.
On A Personal Mythology. I woke up this morning and realized I hadn’t done Nic Sebastian’s excellent poems full justice in my post last night. I just reworked and expanded my review to demonstrate the ties I find between Forever Will End on Thursday, her new poetry collection, and Walter J. Ong’s theory of orality, which has largely driven my thinking about criticism and aesthetics over the past couple of years. The discovery excites me. I anticipate a long relationship between me and this excellent book of fresh, primal poetry.
On The Language. I had forgotten the connections blogging makes perhaps even better than reading. I had been considering Thomas Wolfe’s distinction between “taker-outers” like Fitzgerald and “putter-inners” like himself since I read McGurl’s The Program Era two years ago. I wonder if the difference comes down to a philosophy of writing – even to what drives different people to write – or to style alone.
After posting about “taker-outers” and “putter-inners” yesterday, I read Shai Gluskin’s post “Embracing Limitation” in which he describes limitation as one meaning of Gevurah – limitation that starts (and ends) with mortality but also encompasses boundaries set by law and custom. (Peter, how do you encompass a boundary?) In a comment that followed the post, Shai admitted that blogging was of the opposite genus (if genera have opposites) – “an expansive, thoroughly creative act.”
Steiner’s expansive language and the expanse Shai speaks of; Hemingway’s artful subtraction (“show, don’t tell”) and the limitation of Gevurah and of mortality – real connections? I wonder at it. Surely all of life and literature is a pair of lungs, expanding and contracting, but it solves nothing and circumscribes the wonder to say so.
On Faster Writing. When you publish a blog post, you just hit “Publish,” right? Not me.
All for a blog that organizes my pages the way I want! When I looked around at WordPress themes recently, though, I found themes that did most of what I was doing by hand each post. So, after five years, I’ve rediscovered push-button publishing. Eliminate seven steps by clicking “Publish.” What a concept!