Archive: Literature

Proust, one page at a time

Literature ·· More from September 2008
Véronique Aubouy proposes that 3000 people each read one page of À la recherche du temps perdu in front of their webcam, starting on 27 September. As of this morning (23 September), 977 have signed up. So there is still plenty of opportunity to take part.
The poster at the right, which is by Jean Marcchapoulie (or so I’m guessing from the URL), advertises a Proust conference in the alternative world Second Life on 4 September this year.
The entire text of the Recherche, in French, divided into 1588 lectiones, is available at proust.tv. The Scott Moncrieff translation accompanies the French, as do tag clouds and various other items of interest.
Cette année-là, quand, un peu plus tôt que d’habitude, mes parents eurent fixé le jour de rentrer à Paris, le matin du départ, comme on m’avait fait friser pour être photographié, coiffer avec précaution un chapeau que je n’avais encore jamais mis et revêtir une douillette de velours, après m’avoir cherché partout, ma mère me trouva en larmes dans le petit raidillon, contigu à Tansonville, en train de dire adieu aux aubépines, entourant de mes bras les branches piquantes, et, comme une princesse de tragédie à qui pèseraient ces vains ornements, ingrat envers l’importune main qui en formant tous ces nœuds avait pris soin sur mon front d’assembler mes cheveux, foulant aux pieds mes papillotes arrachées et mon chapeau neuf.

LinkSeptember 23, 2008

Ad usum delphinorum

Language · Literature ·· More from January 2007
On the historical dimension of language: The following was originally a comment on a post by John Holbo at Crooked Timber (or rather two posts, because the one I commented on referred to an earlier post at the Valve). In that post Holbo cites a passage from Nietzsche:
I mean that philology presupposes a noble faith – that for the sake of a very few human beings, who always “will come” but are never there, a very large amount of fastiduous and even dirty work needs to be done first: all of it is work in usum Delphinorum” (Gay Science, §102).
Here’s my comment, lightly edited:
The Dauphin was the eldest son of the king of France, so-called after the province of the Dauphiné, formerly an independent country, sold to the King of France in 1349. From that time on it was given to the heir to the throne as part of his inheritance. The Dauphin’s arms include a pair of dolphins, taken over from the arms of Guigues IV, comte d’Albon. Why Albon’s arms included a dolphin I don’t know.
Delphinus (from Greek δελφις, root δελφιν-, ‘dolphin’) is just the Latin translation of Dauphin. Delphinorum is the genitive plural: “of the dolphins”, i.e. the princes—the Dauphin himself and his brothers, who were always taught privately and for whom textbooks were written by their preceptors (e.g. Bossuet; Condillac wrote one for the Prince of Parma). Ad usum delphinorum subsequently became a catch phrase meaning “for beginners”.
In the passage from Nietzsche, who is alluding to the Princes who were the original delphini, the sense of the phrase is that textual criticism, collation of manuscripts, etc.—the “dirty work” of philology—is done for the sake of future geniuses who will benefit from trustworthy, well-annotated versions of old texts. If you have a good library nearby, take a look at Heyne’s edition of Virgil’s Æneid. On the first page of the poem, you will see, if I remember rightly, one line of verse. The rest is commentary. Now that’s philology. But if you want to understand Virgil, you had better have some such commentary on hand. The same goes for Nietzsche. Common sense or “intuition” is likely to mislead.
Nietzsche’s claim may be no more than a jibe at his old profession. If he meant more by it than that, I don’t think it can stand. The hope, faint or bright, of scholars that their works will be useful to the princes of the future is no doubt one motive for writing them. But in a less crass age, such work would be regarded as intrinsically valuable. The writing of it is satisfying in the same way that making well-crafted verse or music is satisfying. Utility is an afterthought, a byproduct.

LinkJanuary 27, 2007

History in a book

Frontispiece to Bradford’s Journal.
Credit: Doris Ulman.
I’ve been reading Gamaliel Bradford’s Journal the last few days. Bradford was born in 1863 and died in 1932: old enough to have met Emerson, young enough to have seen the first talkies. (He didn’t meet Emerson, so far as I know, but he did write a page of his journal in the Old Manse, at the table where Emerson and Hawthorne had written years before.) He’s best known for his “psychography”, portraits in the manner of Sainte-Beuve. Those I’ve read (in Bare Souls, a book on authors seen through their letters) are quite good. They’re old-fashioned, I suppose. Bradford, in the years he was writing his portraits, was quite consciously not of his time. You won’t find him speculating on his subjects’ bed-partners, or showing them up in the manner of Lytton Strachey. He was no prude, but he had too sympathetic a temperament for dirt-digging. His books were popular enough, to judge from the numbers I see at the used book sites; nowadays I doubt that anyone reads him except the odd Americanist or accidental readers like me.
The copy I’m reading has no dust jacket, but someone has pasted pieces of it inside the front cover. That someone might be Mr. von Wackerbarth:
This bookplate I found tucked near the back. Did Henry von Wackerbarth really have almost 9000 books? (At least one other book from his library still exists: a history of Kansas and the Santa Fe trade by Max Greene, published in 1856. ) The address is in an old suburb called Beverly. An archive of photos from the Chicago Daily News includes a photo of 9533 Longwood, a large detached house surrounded by trees, the residence of John E. W. Wayman, state’s attorney. Henry von Wackerbarth probably lived in something similar. In 1928 there was a park across the street (according to a land-value map at the Ridge Historical Society). A comfortable existence, one would guess.
Henry von Wackerbarth not only read books, he wrote them. A search turned up the following:
The history of Adams County,
a history of the county—its cities, towns, etc.
A biographical directory of its citizens, war record of its
volunteers of the late rebellion; general
and local statistics, 
portraits of early settlers and prominent men.
History of the northwest, history of illinois,
map of Adams County, constitution of the United States,
miscellaneous matters, etc., etc.
Henry Von Wackerbarth
315 Royal Insurance Building, Chicago, Ill.

Murray, Williamson & Phelps,
85 Washington St.
The page, at Saints Alive, a group that tries to return Mormons to the Christian Church, includes a section from the History on the “Mormon wars” at Nauvoo, Illinois. I’m not sure that this Henry von Wackerbarth and the Henry of the bookplate are the same person. Bradford’s book was published in 1933, fifty-four years after the History was published. Our author would have been either precocious or long-lived. Or it may be that the bookplate wasn’t originally attached to Bradford’s Journal.
Books are mechanically reproduced. Fresh off the press, they lack the uniqueness which lends to artworks what Walter Benjamin called their “aura”. It would be a defect if one copy differed from another. But a book is a physical object. In its passage through time it accumulates individuality, you might say, and takes on more and more the character of an artwork. This is evident in the case of signed or annotated copies, like the many books in whose margins and endpapers Coleridge deposited his thoughts. But even the most ordinary can become, for you or me, an “association copy”, bearing marks that set it apart from its mass-produced siblings.
Digitization puts an end to that. History is noise; digital reproduction is noiseless. That is an advantage, but it has the effect of erasing history. Time cannot improve a digitized work; time can only degrade it. If the medium is decrepit, the file is unreadable. Time destroys printed works too. I have a few books of which I am very likely to be the last owner, books without covers, books whose spines are several times broken, books on paper that will disintegrate in another generation or so. But a well-made book that has not had too hard a life becomes a document of its own reception in a way that no digital file can be.
That’s not to say that works in a digital medium can’t show their age. Take a look at some of my old pages at the Wayback archive. A bit quaint in their technique…
() Update: The indefatigable PhFn research team has found more Wackerbarth books. The first of these is worth a look for its own sake:
Johann Huebner. Reales Staats-, Zeitungs- und Conversations-Lexicon. Darinnen so wohl Die Religionen und geistlichen Orden, die Reiche und Staaten, Meere, Seen, Insuln, Flüsse, Städte, Festungen, Schlösser, Häfen, Berge, Vorgebürge, Pässe und Wälder, die Linien Deutscher hoher Häuser, die in verschiedenen Ländern übliche so geistliche als weltliche Ritter-Orden, Wapen, Reichs-Täge, gelehrte Societäten, Gerichte, Civil- und Militair-Chargen zu Wasser und Lande, der Unterscheid der Meilen, vornehmsten Müntzen, Maaß und Gewichte, die zur Kriegs-Bau-Kunst, Artillerie, Feld-Lägern, Schlacht-Ordnungen, Belagerungen, Schiffahrten, Unterscheid der Schiffe und der dazu gehörigen Sachen gebräuchlichen Benennungen; Als auch Andere in Zeitungen und täglicher Conversation. Leipzig: Gleditsch, 1744.
I think what impresses me most is the author’s confidence that all these things will come up in täglicher (daily) conversation. Hübner’s work is $1100. If that would leave your pocketbook a bit flat, for $50 you can buy another book owned by Wackerbarth:
Carl Theodor Wettstein, ed. Was Abraham Lincoln an infidel? The religious character of Abraham Lincoln as it appears in the light of his spoken and written word. Boston: Cm. M. Clark, 1910.
The answer, by the way, is no.

LinkSeptember 3, 2006

How shall I spam thee?

What better way to start the day than with spam poetry? You make it by combining the subject-lines of your morning mail. In this case each line is from a different message. Here’s an example (credit: M; some punctuation added for clarity).
The Ballad of 06/19/06-08:16-09:57CDT

Hidden in the alder-bushes
Leaped as if to meet the arrow;
Found these songs so wild and wayward—

Love the shadow of the forest,
“From the Master of Life descending,
On the banks their clubs they buried,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
See the face of Laughing Water!”

And yes, it is scrambled Longfellow. So much for Parnassus. Read the original.

LinkJune 20, 2006

Writing gone awry

Disons franchementShall I speak freely? Most people (Ancients and Moderns alike) do not remember, in the middle or at the end of a letter, what they said at the beginning. Because they themselves understand what they mean to say, they imagine that this first understanding suffices, and that it is conveyed immediately to another. Not thinking, then, of any clarification in particular, they usually say but half of what they mean. And it is certain that a word left at the end of the pen, an omitted particle, a forgotten connection, breaks up the train of reasoning, puts sense out of order, and leaves the reader to divine what was meant. ce qui en est. La pluspart des gens (& des Anciens, comme des Modernes) ne se souviennent pas au milieu, où à la fin d’une Lettre de ce qu’ils ont dit au commencement. Parce qu’ils s’entendent eux-mesmes, ils s’imaginent que cette premiere intelligence suffit, & que d’abord elle passe d’eux à autruy. Ainsi ne songeant point à un particulier eclaircissement d’ordinaire ils ne disent qu’à demy ce qu’ils veulent dire. Et il est certain qu’un mot laissé au bout de la plume, qu’une particule obmise, qu’une liaison oubliée, detache la suite du raisonnement, met le sens en desordre, & donne à deviner au Lecteur.
Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (lnglabfr.png) was born in 1597, one year after Descartes, and died in 1654. Among philosophers, he is known as the author of Socrate Chrétien (1652), and as the recipient of letters from Descartes. The Entretiens were written in the 1640s and 1650s. The later ones followed upon Balzac’s retirement from courtly politics and literary polemics; in them Balzac reflects upon his career and on the literary life in general. The Entretiens were first published in 1657. As their name implies, they were addressed to particular correspondents and often commemorated particular occasions. By the standards of the period, their style is informal, like that of Montaigne’s Essais; but they exhibit too much erudition and stylistic self-consciousness for us to call them that.

LinkJune 16, 2006

Nourrir grand’ barbe

Ronsard, translating a Greek epigram:
Si nourrir grand’ barbe au menton
Nous fait Philosophes paroistre,
Un bouc barbasse pourroit estre
Par ce moyen quelque Platon.
Free translation:
If long beards
Make philosophers
Then goats must appear
Great Sophisters.
Pierre de Ronsard, Gayetez (orig. publ. 1553), in Œuvres, ed. Gustave Cohen (Paris: Gallimard, 1950) 1:341. Ronsard’s source is the Greek Anthology.

LinkJune 10, 2006

More from Cassandra

I’ve mentioned the Cassandra Pages before. Tonight, catching up, I find two entries that give the lie to all those idiots who hold that blog writing must somehow be inferior to the real writing of journalists and the like. The more recent is on the haves and have-nots of Vermont. The other is on music—on playing music, losing oneself in the adventure of sight-reading a new piece or of tackling once more an old familiar piece.
Blogging isn’t writing: see Karlin Lillington, “Gibson Kicks the Blogging Habit”, Wired News 28 Apr 2003. A quote from Gibson at the Utne Review (7 May 2003): “There’s no risk involved. Unless, if you’re accustomed to playing for higher stakes, it’s the risk of some edge being taken off your game”.
People seem to be confusing a medium with a way of using that medium. Blogging software makes available a structure (entries, typically brief, typically in reverse chronological order) that some people treat as if it were a sketchpad, and others as if it were akin to the feuilleton—written on a short deadline, and thus distinct from the sort of work to which an author devotes years of labor, but written with the same care as its equivalent in print.
I don’t think the journal-keeping of Kafka or Emerson threw them off their game. If I read old entries here or in my journals, I certainly find passages that I think could be improved; but the same is true of work composed more slowly. I tend therefore to agree with Valéry: “Un poèmeA poem is never finished. It is always an accident that puts an end to the writing of it, and makes it public. n’est jamais achevé. C’est toujours un accident qui le termine, c’est-à-dire qui le donne au public”.
Feuilleton: See Signandsight (and the original German version, Perlentaucher).

LinkOctober 28, 2005

Your Name Here, or: Was satire possible in 1960?

Literature ·· More from August 2005
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.

LinkAugust 16, 2005

Idiot’s delight

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.
Source: Detroit Free Press, Jobs Page
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.

LinkAugust 9, 2005

Lash the Librarian

See the Isaac Paul Rader Checklist
at Lynn Munroe Books.
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.)

LinkAugust 5, 2005