As Ecclesiastes said…
There really isn’t anything new under the sun. Rogue Semiotics takes note of “the most Oulipan project imaginable: a novel consisting entirely of punctuation”. Hu Wenliang is offering a prize of 140,000 yuan ($16,900) to anyone who can guess 80% of the story (Ng Ting Ting, “A novel without a word telling a love story?” China Daily 14 July 2005). It’s a love story, by the way. A touching love story, says Hu. Here it is:
Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and I all knew or know that this particular trick is at least 205 years old (↓). In 1799–1800 Charles Nodier wrote Moi-même, a quasi-autobiographical novel one chapter of which is a touching love story. (Here’s how the chapter ends: “…il n’y a moyen plus sûr pour parvenir dans ce monde, que de coucher avec la femme d’un homme puissant”. Ça ne vous fait pas monter les larmes aux yeux? Vous avez un cœur d’agate.)
Chapter 9 of Moi-même (whose title, you’ll have noticed, anticipates that of Katherine Hepburn’s long-awaited autobiography) is entitled “Le meilleur du livre”:
Charles Nodier, Moi-même (Paris: José Corti, 1985) 77
One sees immediately that Nodier’s chapter, in keeping with the more leisurely reading habits of his time, not only indulges itself in lengthy description, but also incorporates a number of allusions to classical literature. The spare, unadorned prose of Hu’s chapter exhibits clearly the influence of Hemingway and Jack London. Curiously enough, both works end with a pair of emdashes. In Nodier, the device is an all-too-obvious attempt to compensate for his inability to bring the narrative to a fitting conclusion. In Hu, on the other hand, it is an understated acknowledgement of the infinite openness of human relations.
(↑) The manuscript of Nodier’s work, now at the Bibliothèque Municipale in Besançon, was first noticed by Georges Grazier (Mémoires de la Sociéte d’Émulation du Doubs, ser. 7, v. 8(1903–1904): 271–279. It was first published in 1921 by Champion. Daniel Sangsue, from whose presentation of the 1985 edition I take this information, notes (following a contemporary of Nodier) that Tristram Shandy was, as you might expect, among the models for Moi-même, including c. 9, “un hommage à ces pages blanche, noire ou jaspée” in Sterne’s work: “De telles fantaisies typographiques sont monnaie courante dans les sterniana qui ont fleuri à la fin du dix-huitième siècle” (31).
Sunday cat pix
Musa and Josie on their way to the sunflower bed.
Wednesday garden pix
Foliage of the canna lily “Florence Vaughan” (1893).
Lash the Librarian
I’m trying to avoid “looky dat!” entries. But The Image of Librarians in Pornography is irresistible. Forty-nine titles, from Bang the L. Hard to What a L.!, compiled by Dan Lester. And to think I worked all those years in the stacks and never did more than read about it. (Via Language Log.)
Sunday cat pix
HS at the top of the stairs.
Poetry, which used to be stodgy, decided to get hip a few years ago. The way to do this, it seems, is to publish really nasty reviews. O for the days of English Bards and Scottish Reviewers or the Dunciad, when people knew how to do this in style! Instead we have August Kleinzahler ripping into Garrison Keillor. Here’s how it starts:
Readers may remember how the U.S. military blared Van Halen and others at the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, when he took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City during our invasion of Panama years ago. This method of rousting the wicked proved so successful that it was repeated during the recent Afghan experience, when heavy metal chart-busters were unleashed on caves thought to be sheltering Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. The English Guardian newspaper reported last year that we were breaking the wills of captured terrorists, or suspected terrorists, by assaulting them first with heavy metal followed by “happy-smiley children’s songs.” The real spirit cruncher turns out to be the “Barney, I Love You” song played for hours on end. Even the most hardened, sadistic killers buckle under “that kind of hell,” or so asserted a reliable source. But if that fails to work, I suggest a round-the-clock tape of Garrison Keillor reading poems on his daily Writer’s Almanac show.
I think the trade calls this “provocative” (which is now an antonym of ‘thought-provoking’). If AK expends this sort of invective on Keillor, who is at worst mildly irritating, what has he got left to say about things that really are bad?
It set me to wondering what possible consequences of his essay AK could have had in mind. Suppose that someone took it seriously. Garrison Keillor, for instance… The edges of the screen began to get wavy and blur, the reverb unit kicked in, and before long I was at
Cultural Destruction Headquarters. Garrison KEILLOR, in Pendleton shirt and L.L.Bean boots, is pacing back and forth in front of the desk of his assistant, Wilma PETTIFORD. Monitors in the background show various staging areas strategically located near Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Starbucks stores around the country. Boxes labelled Good Poetry are being loaded onto trucks as copies of Basil Bunting and Antonin Artaud are fed into shredders.
On the left are life-sized portraits of Bill Keane, Richard Bach, and Rod McKuen. A bust of Edgar Guest sits on a shelf on the right, along with the collected works of Colley Cibber and Nahum Tate.
Keillor: This Kleinzahler guy, I really think he’s onto us.
Wilma: It’s not so bad, Keelsie. Nobody reads Poetry anyway.
Keillor (stops pacing): But you don’t understand. It’s all over the Internet. Language Hat linked to it, and you know what that means.
Wilma: I suppose I do, Keelsie. Weblogs may be an upstart medium, but their demographics are impressive.
Keillor: The young folks read nothing else. Not that I blame them, given the sorry state of radio these days. (His voice becomes vague and slightly husky.) Did you know that when I first started—
Wilma: Kleinzahler—what about Kleinzahler?
Keillor: Have you tried reading his stuff? “Behold the dead canary of Saturn,/rain matting its feathers and runnelling past its vivid beak.” It’s enough to give you laryngitis. Like that time when Albert Ayler was on the show and I sang with him.
Wilma: Maybe we could mount a counterattack. I’ll call Helen Vendler, see if she can help. And the Chicken Soup people…
Keillor: No, Wilma. It’s no good. I now see how childish my view of art has been. Kleinzahler is right. It’s time we were adults about this. Not everybody understands art.
Wilma: I’ll admit there are a few references in the later cantos that baffle me…
Keillor: Brittany and Dr. Seuss are good enough for most everyone. It’s time I got out of this seamy (though I must say, lucrative) business of trying to nourish people’s minds and improve their lives. (Swell of Albert Ayler music from the pit.) From now on, I’m not going to read a single line of verse. I’ll have my vocal cords removed. Turn on the tape, Wilma: “Dear Mr. Kleinzahler, This is the last time you will hear my voice—”
Wilma: But Keelsie, how will you talk dirty to me? You know how that mellifluous baritone resonates between my thighs.
Keillor: I’m sorry, Wilma. (Crescendo.) But for the sake of the uselessness of art no sacrifice is too great. Only then can I walk to-morrow’s streets meeting all men head erect!
Wilma: Maybe you can learn sign language.
Sunday cat pix
On a rainy afternoon, HS bones up on the history of India.
Your Name Here, or: Was satire possible in 1960?
Your Name Here, from the Prelinger Archives at the Internet Archive, is a spoof of heroic industry shorts (like The Chicken of Tomorrow). I was struck by some of comments, indicative, no doubt, of the age of the people making them. When I was twenty, I might well have said similar things in looking back fifty years.
- I had no idea that filmmakers in 1960 could be so “meta”.
- This movie was way ahead of its time in regards to satire and parody.
- I’m amazed that someone had the foresight back then to realize do a spoof like that, as most spoofs on 50’s corperate propoganda films are made today.
- Way ahead of its time!!
This reminds me of my passion for Mad Magazine during my childhood and the emergence of the counterculture.
- It’s nice to know that some people back then saw how ludicrous the cliches were even when living and working right in the middle of them.
No. 4, who is probably close to my age, has it right. Mad, especially in the early years under Harvey Kurtzman, pulled few punches. It had to avoid four-letter words, of course, and overt sexual references. In my view that was mostly an advantage. Mad’s successors have tended to fall back on one or both in lieu of real humor or bite. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose, that Mad is now part of the company formerly known as AOL Time Warner.
(I discovered the early Mad in two of the first Mad paperbacks, the Mad Reader and Mad Strikes Back. I bought them in 1961 or thereabouts at a (or rather the) souvenir shop in Scenic, SD, near the Badlands. Mad was started by William Gaines, as a response to calls for censorship of “indecent” comic books, among them Gaines’s Tales of the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Weird Science, which were corrupting the young, etc. etc. See Richard Corliss, “The Glory and Horror of EC Comics”, Time 29 Apr 2004. Plus ça change déjà vu.)
We tend to think that “new for us” implies “new” absolutely. Arnold Zwicky has nicely described this effect at Language Log. When you’re young, lots of things are new to you, like sex. After a while it begins to dawn on you that sex, and the feelings that go with it, have been around for a while.
Getting older reduces the occasions for admiration, as Descartes called it—for surprise, astonishment, esteem, or contempt. The advantage is that your impression has a better chance of tracking genuine novelty. One of Aristophanes’ plays opens with a joke. “How can you carry such a big load?” says Alphonse. Gaston replies: “Only with difficulty!” You can almost hear the rimshot. It was an illumination to realize, when I read it thirty-some years ago, that this joke (or rather the type of which it is an instance) was at least 2400 years old. A metalinguistic joke at that. They were probably telling it at Sumer and Çatal Hüyük.
‘Meta’ isn’t new. Seeing that clichés are ludicrous isn’t a recently acquired skill. There’s some comfort in recognizing that novelty is rare, that the injustice of these times, for example, is not unique. And sometimes forgetting what’s new and what isn’t can be liberating. But only if you have something to forget.
Wednesday Garden Pix
Two pix today. It’s tomato season. We’ve got buckets of them.
Sunday Cat Pix
Josie in her chair.