Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Meaning of Grades

Informal question: If one does not receive A+s consistently, is one therefore not an A+ person with A+ ideas?

Modified question: Do A+s mean someone is doing something great or do they mean that a person has exploited the right pathways, or both?

Connected to question of: Why we cannot take (bad) taste as an indicator of intelligence when that intelligence is measured by grades.

Expressed as: T (?) ≠ I

Related to: The idea that Taste (vs. Appreciation of things, which can be picked up via discipline and passed off as one’s Tastes) is above and beyond discipline.

Perhaps greatness is above and beyond discipline, and this is where taste and intelligence connect. --I am not a Nazi, or a eugenicist.

In any case, take a look at the cool coded grading system they use at Cambridge, explained over at Mary Beard’s A Don’s Life.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Woolf Rant on Woolf and the Past

Right now I’m reading a book of literary criticism I mentioned awhile ago, Virginia Woolf and the Victorians by Steve Ellis (Cambridge UP, 2009), alongside a very recent publication of memoirs, letters, obituaries, etc. written by Woolf on various people she knew, including herself. The latter is called The Platform of Time: Memoirs of Family and Friends (the university library has an autographed copy—not VW’s autograph, of course! No, ‘just’ the editor, S. P. Rosenbaum), published in 2007. It includes some things that have never been published before. Of these unpublished tidbits so far I’ve only read the uncensored “Memoir of Julian Bell,” written upon the untimely death of VW’s nephew, Julian Bell; “JB,” a really lovely—almost sweet—satire on Julian’s views on and writing of poetry (family satires were a thing with the Stephens/Woolfs (‘Woolves’ as they sometimes appear in family letters)/Bell boys—a strange family thing); and some “Memoir Notes” JB’s mother, Vanessa, wrote upon his death, scrawled as she lay in bed. As more unpublished bits come I’ll update here.

The satire “JB” I found especially striking: it’s full of very interesting nonsense. It reminds me of how I tried to write at one point because I couldn’t find a sentence or a sense-making group of words that expressed what I thought, only I was writing that way sincerely whereas VW parodies the practice as confusion and excess. The character VW tells the character JB to find a single “image” to express what he means instead of clumping together various descriptors, and then JB tries to figure out what an “image” (simile, metaphor) means! (What is its use; where he can find an example of one; how it’s no good because it’s not GE Moore-ish enough (“how can a thing be like anything else except the thing it is?”).) This in contrast to JB looking at a “male siskin under a microscope” in an effort to compose a poem “in the manner of Gerard Hopkins” (“The siskin’s been dead a week”):

Seepy, creaking, sweeping, with a creaking kind of beating of the penultimate dorsal jutting out femoral crepitational tail. The siskin whisking round the peeled off mouldy bottle green pear tree rivers. Well, I flatter myself that’s a pretty good poem—all true to an inch.

Then there’s a big fuss about finding an image for the siskin, which in the end is arrived at by what JB has for lunch: “The siskin lies like—like cold salt roast beef the siskin lies. My word—that does it.” It’s moments like this I feel like saying “Oh Virginia Woolf, you’re the best!” I think the interesting thing about that line “like cold salt roast beef the siskin lies” is that it sounds beautiful but is being a framed in a way that makes it silly, reaching, and untrue. This is always the interesting thing about Woolf’s satirical moments, I think, and why I would say “Oh VW you’re the best”—many of them are a mixture of a form of sympathy and ridicule. Like Samuel Johnson’s satire manqué. (One of the most embarrassing things I ever passed into a prof was a response on how I sympathised with a character called “Dick Minim” in Johnson’s nos. 60 and 61 of The Idler, and those weren’t satire manqué–so some of this sympathising could just be feeble-mindedness—could be what makes me appreciate the poem in my last post in a sincere way. I think the professor thought I was a bit of a fool, which I suppose I would have to be to attribute poetic impulses to Dick Minim!)

As I was saying earlier, I’ve also been reading Virginia Woolf and the Victorians. The effect of reading The Platform of Time and VWV together is that more than ever I’m aware of the role of heredity in Woolf’s thinking. I know I’ve thought about it before: looking inside my copy of Between the Acts where I see I was desperately at 5 a.m. or so starting to simply write words I thought were important—words I had thought of or that were in the book—and circling them, I find the word “indigenous” (Woolf). Of course, BA is quite clearly about heredity (among other things), so it’s not fair to say ‘Well I’ve thought of this before—it struck me when I was reading BA!’ In any case, heredity is pretty hard to escape with Woolf. She always talks about things in terms of ‘Stephens’ and ‘Bells’--she’s always tracing things back to Clive Bell, her sister’s husband and father of two of three of Vanessa’s children—Clive is always hunting, partying, being “caustic,” refreshingly jolly, a bit of an aristocrat. Stephens are always cerebral, graceful, serious. Then, of course, VW’s literary inheritance is inescapable: her step-aunt Anne Thackeray Ritchie (?) (sister to her father’s first wife) daughter to and memorialiser of William Thackeray; the Camerons on her mother’s side and Little Holland house, where they held parties with the Pre-Raphaelites, Tennyson or whoever was who’s who; strolling with Henry James when she was a kid; father reading Walter Scott to them every night of their childhood; and so on. Working from the regard and interest Woolf shows in her predecessors—familial and literary—Ellis looks at how VW compared the Victorians and the modernists; the nostalgia and admiration she had for her father’s age; and the centrality of continuity and the interaction of past and present as values in her work.

There are a couple of interesting coinages Ellis has arrived at so far: “the value of obscurity” and “the pathology of the new.” The first term is situated in VW’s description of lighting and darkness in her novels; modern writing likes to expose everything in a glaring, too-present and almost hard reality, whereas shadows in the writing of the past and in writing that is conscious of the past create interesting nuances and depth. I’ve just finished reading Ellis linking this to VW’s famous essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” in which I recall (and which Ellis cites) Woolf lamenting (almost complaining, but not quite) that “the old decorums” between writer and reader have been cast aside by her generation of writers. Her generation are so eager to break things, expose them to a hard glare (ahem obscenity in Joyce’s Ulysses VW says), they don’t value what I think Woolf seems to be getting at as an idea of pleasure in the reading experience: she misses days of reading a book “in the shade” (another passage Ellis is eager and right to cite). The second term, “the pathology of the new,” is really a converse articulation of the above: something to attribute to a writer who is blind to “the value of obscurity.” That’s not what we would say in my class on earlier 20th c poetry! --Well, that’s not quite true. A lot of the class was about confronting—as opposed to dismissing—the problems of literary value and difficulty that arose in modernist poetry, problems that can be traced back to the disregard of what VW calls writerly “decorums.”

Getting back to heredity. All I really meant to post today was this: There’s a lovely (what VW would call, did call) ‘scene’ in VW’s memoir of Julian Bell that made me return to Between the Acts. It’s just after VW has angered JB by sending away his Chinese girlfriend (at the request of his mother, unbeknownst to him)—“Damned Cambridge insolence” VW calls it. JB stops being huffy and starts to look at “his map of the Channel” with VW and Vanessa (“Nessa”):

Let me see, I [VW] said. And then he was interested, & showed me the currents, & I saw the wrecks of ships; & he told me that the very deep channel in the middle was the bed of an old river which had divided the land when England & France were joined. Then we smoothed our grievance.

Compare this to a passage from Between the Acts, a novel set just before WWII breaks out (England-France-Germany). Here, a small girl (who keeps forgetting her lines) kicks off the village pageant and its panorama of British history:

So it was the play then. Or was it the prologue?

Come hither for our festival (she continued)
This is a pageant, all may see
Drawn from our island history.
England am I . . .

[series of funny, slightly poignant audience interruptions and repetitions; girl needs prompting]
‘A child new born,’ Phyllis Jones continued,
Sprung from the sea
Whose billows blown by mighty storm
Cut off from France and Germany
This Isle.
. . .
Now weak and small
A child, as all may see.

VW writes the JB memoir in 1937 and conceives of the basis of BA in 1938. I think the relation between the two has something to do with VW’s implicit connection between looking at the map, the point of division between England and the Continent, and her assertion that she and JB “smoothed [their] grievance.” Not 100% sure yet what this means for BA aside from something general having to do with a very personal regard for history, the historical (geographical split and what follows, what the split engenders) as an allegory for the personal, or, in the case of the pageant, history and ontogenesis as parallel in some way—the small, weak child, orphaned of her parents, France and Germany?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I Just Love This Poem

This poem was distributed in my Canonicity class some time ago, as an example of what is (as it turns out, a reasonably well-known) bad poem. We had to say if it was 'bad' or not and why.

In the right mood, I might cry to this. And then I might cry some more for being wretched enough at having been emotionally provoked by something so ludicrous. Is it wrong for me to take pleasure in this, both sincerely and for its comic value? “No”—I say. Plop, my mind goes.

Theophilus Marzials, “The Tragedy”*
From The Gallery of Pigeons (1874)

The barges down in the river flop.
Flop, plop.
Above, beneath.
From the slimy branches the grey drips drop,
As they scraggle black on the thin grey sky,
Where the black cloud rack-hackles drizzle and fly
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop
On the black scrag piles, where the loose cords plop,
As the raw wind whines in the thin tree-top.
Plop, plop.
And scudding by
The boatmen call out hoy! and hey!
All is running water and sky,
And my head shrieks -- "Stop,"
And my heart shrieks -- "Die."

My thought is running out of my head;
My love is running out of my heart,
My soul runs after, and leaves me as dead,
For my life runs after to catch them -- and fled
They all are every one! -- and I stand, and start,
At the water that oozes up, plop and plop,
On the barges that flop
And dizzy me dead.
I might reel and drop.
And the shrill wind whines in the thin tree-top
Flop, plop.

A curse on him.
Ugh! yet I knew -- I knew --
If a woman is false can a friend be true?
It was only a lie from beginning to end --
My Devil -- My "Friend"
I had trusted the whole of my living to!
Ugh; and I knew!
So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air --
I can do,
I can dare,
(Plop, plop
The barges flop
Drip drop.)
I can dare! I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
And stop.
Plop, flop.

*Note: I couldn't quite preserve the spacing of the poem.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Medea Redux. I eat my children. Or not.

I realized I didn’t even give the bare premise of Winnie and Wolf last post. So I’ll do it here and get back to WW afterwards: WW is written in the form of a memoir of the adoptive father of the lovechild of Winnifred Wagner, Wagner’s daughter-in-law and runner of the Bayreuth festival, and Hitler. The narrator works for the festival for most of his recorded life, admiring Winnie from afar and watching the rise of Hitler from something like a small boy at a party to a kind of glorified ascetic. That’s all you really need to know to understand what I’m going to say.

[I wrote the following last Sunday, along with the title of this post:]

Because I’m so happy I’ve decided to write a silly title to my post that really has nothing to with its content, except for maybe some sense of re-doing; part two or sequel to the last post; or something to do with (and I don’t know why I find myself relying on this word as a concept so much lately) emesis (undoing; undoing then redoing?). But who can think of re-doing when everything is sun and happiness outside!!!! What a lovely day. Chocolate, book-browsing, coffee, gardens, Kate Bush revisits, oooooh! Not to mention looking forward to watching adaptation of Passage to India. Also found addictive read—now halfway through the second book of The Raj Quartet (The Day of the Scorpion). After a period of semi-drab reading: Mansfield Park (which I nonetheless admire greatly), Winnie and Wolf (of course), plotless but intriguing Flaubert’s Parrot (which I suppose I should blog), critical book on T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf (I’m sorry, I think Eliot is too clever for my taste). And meeting with old friends! Too much happiness and pleasure going around to be re-doing things. Also found a critical book just published this year by Cambridge UP called Virginia Woolf and the Victorians which should be interesting: I want to know more about what VW inherited, as opposed to (popular drum roll) rejected, in her parents’ generation.

But I really want to get Winnie and Wolf over-with, and I refuse to leave my commentary on it at what I said last post. It did occur to me, though, that I may be treating this blog too much as a place to blog books. I don’t want to be reviewing all the time, or acting as though I’m reviewing (because it’s so tempting to say one does or does not like something—vanity or a broadly defined concern for quality?), or writing responses. For instance, Andrew and I talk interesting things that I’d like to record on this blog. Today we talked about this silly comparison between two women made by a pro-life proponent; why so-called toilet-boil mentality (I don’t see it therefore it is not or my actions do not have consequences if I don’t see them) is not really something you can condemn on any logical grounds, if you are trying to find a logical way to prove morality or reasons for ethical behaviour, at least insofar as this applies to aborting a baby; will expand on this later. Andrew made an interesting point about literary value that would have been really useful to me in my Canonicity class that I’m sure arose at some point during the term but wasn’t articulated as well as he put it—about literature being a way of invoking scenarios, or (if not directly presenting a scenario) stimulating thought of a scenario, and the reader having to then imagine and understand the interplay of thought and feeling specific to the scenario—the particular problems and facets of it. Andrew said he thought one possible of way saying one piece of writing were more valuable than another would be by measuring each against its capacity to stimulate this kind of thought-discovery. I thought of my Canonicity instructor’s question: can one imagine a culture in which Shakespeare is not considered great? And I then thought of Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare saying Shakespeare was so ‘various,’ so explorative of different situations, as an alternate articulation of what Andrew was saying. I’m sure this was said in my Canonicity class. It was probably shot down by the instructor on some grounds (in the spirit of challenge, though, not correction—mucho importante).

So, back to Winnie and Wolf. Plod. Plod.

By question (posed at the end of my last post):

‘How much of the book’s faultiness is due to its potential as a sympathetic portrait of Hitler?'

[Zoom in to the present:]

11%. No, just joking. But I joke because, in retrospect, I think I’ve put out a bit of a loaded, unanswerable question. In fact, there is really no question of ‘how much’—and no question otherwise. The book simply seemed to me to appear more badly handled than it might otherwise appear because it was attempting something with so much fictional potential: the humanization of Hitler. It also seems a sort of delicate thing to attempt, especially through an unreliable narrator, and Wilson just goes clip-clop all over this terrain and its potentialities—there’s something so coarse-cut about the way these two things are handled, both individually and in relation to each other.

I also have to say, as a side note, that I hate it when books sigh all the time. You could summarize the novel as a lamentatious ode on the destructive and sublime nature of absolutist beliefs and people. But I sort of get frustrated whenever admiration is the mode of reflection. It’s something a bit different when it’s under question, which is what makes WW more interesting, from my pov. Take, for instance: “She wasn’t mad, Winnie—unless you think it is mad to live exclusively in a world of your own and to insist on life being understood exclusively on your terms” (360).

A passage related to the one above gives a sense of what annoys me about the tone Wilson uses with narrator (a tone which I’m not altogether sure we’re not meant to dissociate from Wilson himself):

I am unimaginative when meeting absolutism in other minds. I think, ‘You can’t really think that; you are telling yourself you think that because it is a system at present useful for your purposes’ . . . Apart from being patronizing, this attitude of mine is quite simply wrong. Absolutists do believe what they say they believe. How else can we account for their preparedness to die, and to kill, for their beliefs? (342)

This is one of those sticky passages where Wilson seems to be trying to say something deep but instead makes me feel whacked over the head with a ham, a perfumed ham . . . Let’s say that here the narrator is Wilson’s mouthpiece: how is the narrator/Wilson defining belief, and what of the circumstances in which so-called belief is generated? Okay, okay, we have examples of so-called absolutists throughout the novel, the circumstances in which they come to their beliefs, what these beliefs are. But somehow these examples seem quite disconnected from the narrator’s statements. Or is it my annoyance at the tone of these statements that prompts that disconnection, for me? The tone really does make me think of something some annoying, hot-headed, back-of-the-book reader student would say in class (which is not to say I have not at one time or another been that student).

Again, going back to the narrator, I’m a bit confused about what we’re supposed to think about ‘German pride’ in the book. (Third question: ‘What is “German pride” and why does Wilson seem so gung-ho about it?’) Wilson is talking about some kind of old German pride—having to do with Protestant villages, cleanliness, etc. Not Hitler’s German pride. The narrator talks about it quite a bit. But how is the reader meant to relate to it? Ironically, sympathetically? Perhaps the whole key of WW is this unsureness of how to regard things like German pride and hero-worship—both being kinds of beliefs. At the same time, German pride is never really tested and questioned in the same way hero-worship is. The narrator gets really earnest when talking about German pride, and there’s nothing to point to his feelings or observations being in any way misguided, misplaced, or wrong. Add to that the fact that he is our way of seeing into the past (before the Nazis and during) and into a particular culture, and I begin to wonder if we’re meant to take this pride stuff at face value, as purely descriptive of people in a time and place.

Second question: ‘Can art avoid being political?’

Throughout the novel we are reminded that Wagner is being interpreted by the Nazis for political and patriotic messages and that he never intended such messages. On the one hand, WW seems to be saying political interpretations of art are inevitable. On the other, it sort of mocks this tendency to interpret. And, strangely, if we are to sympathize with Hitler, we have to sympathize with the possibility of a world in which such interpretations do not exist. So, Hitler dreams of

a setting for the greatest music ever composed, which would transport the collective unconsciousness of one audience after the next in that packed opera house into the world of their true selves—not their world of petty debt or tedious work or party politics, but the true world of the spirit and the imagination. (254)

Knowledge of Schopenhauer would have been useful here; not knowing Schopenhauer I'm afraid of misunderstanding this passage. Still, the “true world of the spirit and the imagination” is, I think, simply a rephrasing of “a world of your own [in which] life [is] understood exclusively on your terms” (360). It poses the same problem: sympathize or criticize (with the understanding that accepting political interpretations of a piece of art does not mean one endorses, for instance, what one interprets as a Nazi message)?

Fourth question: ‘is Wilson just trying to write a pretty history-book?'

No. Yes. No.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Winnie and Wolf. Or, I Am Filled with Regret and Self-Reproach For Regret Upon Having Finished This Book.

PS Proceed only if you wish not to read—Winnie and Wolf, that is.

31 May 2009

First off, let’s be fair and acknowledge some things: 1) I was attracted by the book’s cover and decided to read it on the basis of this and of having read the author’s The Victorians.  2) My reading started off somewhat sceptical though optimistic because I had been reading this review by Terry Eagleton (note to self: big names do not mean trustworthy half-hearted recommendations).  3) Of Wagner I only know a handful of motifs, and I don’t know anything (really) about Nietszche, Schopenhauer, or anything about the ego in 19th c German philosophy—this kind of book might have been more meaningful to me if I’d had some deep knowledge of these things.  4) I’ve been reading this book painfully slowly over a period of months (finishing other books on the side) and willing myself to finish it.  I began to tell myself that I was reading it in order to write on it—to blog it—and so the blogging of it became my holy grail, to the extent that I developed a bit of a fear of blogging it after finishing it and began to procrastinate on blogging the book, as I had on finishing the book.  So now I’m blogging it.  I’m striking into the demon’s heart—if this were an age of paper, or an age of quills, I would say ‘with my pen,’ but no—I’m encoding the demon’s heart (is that a good thing, suppression? —I don’t understand this about movies that rejoice when a demon or villain has been bound and locked away—it’s only temporary—why is everyone celebrating?  Aren’t they worried the demon will come back again? They should be working, straightaway, on how to destroy the villain.  Or would a psychologist say this is unhealthy—that it’s necessary for one’s demons to have their allotted space, allotted boundaries, and that to conquer them is really to accept them?).  But what can one say about Winnie and Wolf?  As much as one can say about one’s parents, or any kind of persistent element in one’s life that isn’t particularly pleasant, but not altogether bad, either.

1 June 2009

Most of the time reading this book I was confused.  Also sometimes frustrated, because confused: I couldn’t figure out the author’s intention.  It was really difficult to say if/where Wilson was using his narrator as a mouthpiece and where he was using him as simply provocative, or unreliable.  An author could, of course, do all three, but I think the problem with Wilson’s narrator is that most of the time he appears reliable (indeed, Eagleton’s review takes the narrator for Wilson), so that when some attention is drawn to the possibility of some distance between himself and Wilson in contexts which don’t appear more thematically significant than others, things just get confusing.  My sense of Wilson’s handling of the narrator is, I think, a converse articulation of what I feel is the novel as a thematic quicksand.  That is, there are some really interesting ideas in WW, but it seems that Wilson lays emphasis too wide across this set of ideas; or, those structural features that might make distinctions as to emphasis are either absent or have a sense of being absent or shallow about them.

Wilson perhaps covertly acknowledges his novel as nothing more than an artistic attempt when Hitler/Wolf tells the narrator “‘When you are older, you will understand that Parsifal is [Wagner’s] masterpiece.’”  And the narrator thinks of Parsifal,

it is an incoherent masterpiece, which touches dark places in an unintended way . . . it is an imperfect work of art.  But I never made the transition Wolf predicted.  I have never considered it a more interesting or more impressive thing than The Ring. (290) 

The narrator never makes “the transition” because to do so would be some breach of ethics in which (I’m guessing) Wolf’s hero-worship values would become validated/would validate the aesthetic worth (“masterpiece”) of a piece of art.  If the narrator (and not Wilson) is himself writing an incoherent but nonetheless in some way admirable manuscript, then I suppose his inability to exalt the incoherent piece of art over The Ring cycle is a sign that he is capable of recognizing what his MS should be, what his life story should be.  Perhaps Wilson is saying the same of his book? (Alright, alright, disclaimer here: this post is incoherent and in no way pretends to the virtues it finds lacking in said book.)



For 2 June 2009, after work.

Questions for tomorrow’s emetic sesssions: How much of the book’s faultiness is due to its potential as a sympathetic portrait of Hitler?  Can art avoid being political?  What is ‘German pride’ and why does Wilson seem so gung-ho about it?  And, is Wilson just trying to write a pretty history-book?