St. Patrick and the Druid, an episode from Finnegans Wake (with explication from Joseph Campbell)

On pages 611-613 of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, St. Patrick meets the archdruid Balkelly:

Tunc. Bymeby, bullocky vampas tappany bobs topside joss pidgin fella Balkelly, archdruid of islish chinchinjoss in the his heptachromatic sevenhued septicoloured roranyellgreenlindigan mantle finish he show along the his mister guest Patholic with alb belongahim the whose throat hum with of sametime all the his cassock groaner fellas of greysfriaryfamily he fast all time what time all him monkafellas with Same Patholic, quoniam, speeching, yeh not speeching noh man liberty is, he drink up words, scilicet, tomorrow till recover will not, all too many much illusiones through photoprismic velamina of hueful panepiphanal world spectacurum of Lord Joss, the of which zoantholitic furniture, from mineral through vegetal to animal, not appear to full up to-gether fallen man than under but one photoreflection of the several iridals gradationes of solar light, that one which that part of it (furnit of heupanepi world) had shown itself (part of fur of huepanwor) unable to absorbere, whereas for numpa one pura —— duxed seer in seventh degree of wisdom of Entis–Onton he savvy inside true inwardness of reality, the Ding hvad in idself id est, all objects (of panepiwor) allside showed themselves in trues coloribus resplendent with sextuple gloria of light actually re-tained, untisintus, inside them (obs of epiwo). Rumnant Patholic, stareotypopticus, no catch all that preachybook, utpiam, tomorrow recover thing even is not, bymeby vampsybobsy tap — panasbullocks topside joss pidginfella Bilkilly–Belkelly say pat — fella, ontesantes, twotime hemhaltshealing, with other words verbigratiagrading from murmurulentous till stridulocelerious in a hunghoranghoangoly tsinglontseng while his comprehen-durient, with diminishing claractinism, augumentationed himself in caloripeia to vision so throughsighty, you anxioust melan-cholic, High Thats Hight Uberking Leary his fiery grassbelong- head all show colour of sorrelwood herbgreen, again, nigger- blonker, of the his essixcoloured holmgrewnworsteds costume the his fellow saffron pettikilt look same hue of boiled spinasses,other thing, voluntary mutismuser, he not compyhandy the his golden twobreasttorc look justsamelike curlicabbis, moreafter, to pace negativisticists, verdant readyrainroof belongahim Exuber High Ober King Leary very dead, what he wish to say, spit of superexuberabundancy plenty laurel leaves, after that com-mander bulopent eyes of Most Highest Ardreetsar King same thing like thyme choppy upon parsley, alongsidethat, if please-sir, nos displace tauttung, sowlofabishospastored, enamel Indian gem in maledictive fingerfondler of High High Siresultan Em-peror all same like one fellow olive lentil, onthelongsidethat, by undesendas, kirikirikiring, violaceous warwon contusiones of facebuts of Highup Big Cockywocky Sublissimime Autocrat, for that with pure hueglut intensely saturated one, tinged uniformly, allaroundside upinandoutdown, very like you seecut chowchow of plentymuch sennacassia Hump cumps Ebblybally! Sukkot?

Punc. Bigseer, refrects the petty padre, whackling it out, a tumble to take, tripeness to call thing and to call if say is good while, you pore shiroskuro blackinwhitepaddynger, by thiswis aposterioprismically apatstrophied and paralogically periparo-lysed, celestial from principalest of Iro’s Irismans ruinboon pot before, (for beingtime monkblinkers timeblinged completamen-tarily murkblankered in their neutrolysis between the possible viriditude of the sager and the probable eruberuption of the saint), as My tappropinquish to Me wipenmeselps gnosegates a handcaughtscheaf of synthetic shammyrag to hims hers, seeming-such four three two agreement cause heart to be might, saving to Balenoarch (he kneeleths), to Great Balenoarch (he kneeleths down) to Greatest Great Balenoarch (he kneeleths down quite-somely), the sound salse sympol in a weedwayedwold of the firethere the sun in his halo cast. Onmen.

That was thing, bygotter, the thing, bogcotton, the very thing, begad! Even to uptoputty Bilkilly–Belkelly-Balkally. Who was for shouting down the shatton on the lamp of Jeeshees. Sweating on to stonker and throw his seven. As he shuck his thumping fore features apt the hoyhop of His Ards.

Thud.

Good safe firelamp! hailed the heliots. Goldselforelump! Halled they. Awed. Where thereon the skyfold high, trampa-trampatramp. Adie. Per ye comdoom doominoom noonstroom. Yeasome priestomes. Fullyhum toowhoom.

 

Continue reading “St. Patrick and the Druid, an episode from Finnegans Wake (with explication from Joseph Campbell)”

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“Certain Cheeses are converted into Stones, and many Wicked Men are drowned” (St. Patrick assassination attempt)

“Certain Cheeses are converted into Stones, and many Wicked Men are drowned”

(From The Life and Acts of St. Patrick by Jocelin).

And certain wicked and envious men, who lived in the country of Ferros, contriving to destroy the life of the saint, offered unto him poisoned cheeses, as if for his benediction; the which he blessed, and immediately converted into stones, to the admiration of many, the honor of God, the veneration of himself, and the confusion of the poisoners. And unto this day remain these stones in the place where the miracle was done, and show the virtue of Patrick, though mute, because they underwent mutation. Then did these poisoners, seeing that their machinations redounded to the glory of the saint and to the shame of themselves, gather together fifty armed men to spill the blood of this just one. And they, being assembled against him, entered the ford of a certain river, journeying along the bank whereof the man of God met them; and when he beheld their countenances, he understood their thoughts, and raising against them his left hand, with a clear voice he cried out, “Ye shall not come unto us, nor shall ye return unto your own people, but in this river shall your bodies remain, even to the day of judgment.” Then, according to the word of the man of God, immediately they sank as lead in the mighty waters; nor even to this day were their bodies found, though long and often sought. Thus, at the divine mandate, did the water punish them who conspired the death of Saint Patrick, as erewhile the fire from heaven punished them which were sent by King Achab to the prophet. And the place wherein they sank in the waters is called even to this day the Ford of the Drowned Men.

The Big Love (Book acquired, 13 March 2018)

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Uh….

This one looks like a fascinating case of memoir-as-fiction. Florence Aadland’s The Big Love is new from Spurl. Here’s the back cover:

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And here’s Spurl’s blurb:

The Big Love is a Hollywood nightmare. It tells the story of Errol Flynn – a fading, alcoholic movie star – and the underage dancer-actress Beverly Aadland. The narrator? Beverly Aadland’s fame-worshiping mother Mrs. Florence Aadland, who spurs the relationship on. There is nothing subtle or sympathetic about this memoir: It is outrageous, grotesque, surreal, notorious – an intimate look at Hollywood exploitation and decay.

On the one hand, The Big Love depicts the deterioration of Errol Flynn, an actor who is quickly losing relevance after years of playing irresistible swashbucklers in films such as Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). He is riddled with medical problems, drinking himself to death. On the other hand, there is Mrs. Florence Aadland, also an alcoholic, an uncultured stage mother psychotically pushing her daughter Beverly forward even at the cost of her own marriage.

A bizarre, seedy time capsule of the 1950s, The Big Love is the long-lost literary sister of Barbara Payton’s I Am Not Ashamed. After languishing out of print for years, it is ready to shock brand new audiences with its absurd humor, villainous characters, and sickly dissipation.

Mrs. Florence Aadland was born on September 21, 1909, in Van Zandt County, Texas. She moved to Southern California and subsequently lost her right foot in a car accident. She married bartender Herbert Aadland and gave birth to her daughter Beverly on September 16, 1942, in Los Angeles. The affair between her adolescent daughter and actor Errol Flynn became tabloid news with his death from a heart attack on October 14, 1959. Her account of the relationship between her daughter and Errol Flynn, The Big Love, was “told to” writer Tedd Thomey and originally published in 1961. Mrs. Aadland died from alcohol-related causes in a Los Angeles hospital on May 10, 1965, at the age of fifty-five.

They recalled the sad day the sun was darkened; but they did not remember the occasion as being the death of Julius Caesar (William Gaddis)

His father seemed less than ever interested in what passed around him, once assured Wyatt’s illness was done. Except for the Sunday sermon, public activities in the town concerned him less than ever. Like Pliny, retiring to his Laurentine villa when Saturnalia approached, the Reverend Gwyon avoided the bleak festivities of his congregation whenever they occurred, by retiring to his study. But his disinterest was no longer a dark mantle of preoccupation. A sort of hazardous assurance had taken its place. He approached his Sunday sermons with complaisant audacity, introducing, for instance, druidical reverence for the oak tree as divinely favored because so often singled out to be struck by lightning. Through all of this, even to the sermon on the Aurora Borealis, the Dark Day of May in 1790 whose night moon turned to blood, and the great falling of stars in November 1833, as signs of the Second Advent, Aunt May might well have noted the persistent non-appearance of what she, from that same pulpit, had been shown as the body of Christ. Certainly the present members of the Use-Me Society found many of his references “unnecessary.” It did not seem quite necessary, for instance, to note that Moses had been accused of witchcraft in the Koran; that the hundred thousand converts to Christianity in the first two or three centuries in Rome were “slaves and disreputable people,” that in a town on the Nile there were ten thousand “shaggy monks” and twice that number of “god- dedicated virgins”; that Charlemagne mass-baptized Saxons by driving them through a river being blessed upstream by his bishops, while Saint Olaf made his subjects choose between baptism and death. No soberly tolerated feast day came round, but that Reverend Gwyon managed to herald its grim observation by allusion to some pagan ceremony which sounded uncomfortably like having a good time. Still the gray faces kept peace, precarious though it might be. They had never been treated this way from the pulpit. True, many stirred with indignant discomfort after listening to the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection, to find they had been attending, not Christ, but Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Adonis, Marduk, Balder, Attis, Amphion, or Quetzalcoatl. They recalled the sad day the sun was darkened; but they did not remember the occasion as being the death of Julius Caesar. And many hurried home to closet themselves with their Bibles after the sermon on the Trinity, which proved to be Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva; as they did after the recital of the Immaculate Conception, where the seed entered in spiritual form, bringing forth, in virginal modesty, Romulus and Remus.

If the mild assuasive tones of the Reverend offended anywhere, it was the proprietary sense of his congregation; and with true Puritan fortitude they resisted any suggestion that their bloody sacraments might have known other voices and other rooms. They could hardly know that the Reverend’s powers of resistance were being taxed more heavily than their own, where he withstood the temptation to tell them details of the Last Supper at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the snake in the Garden of Eden, what early translators of the Bible chose to let the word ‘thigh’ stand for (where ancient Hebrews placed their hands when under oath), the symbolism of the Triune triangle and, in generative counterpart so distressing to early fathers of the Church, the origin of the Cross.

From William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions.

 

A review of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics

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“The main difficulty with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz,” writes Soren Gauger in his translator’s note for Narcotics, “is that no matter what he was writing, it seems he wished he were writing something else.” Witkiewicz’s playful (and occasionally frustrating) discursive style is on vivid display in the six essays that comprise most of Narcotics (new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press)Witkiewicz’s stylistic twists are one of the joys of Narcotics. A moralizing diatribe might veer into medical discourse; private anecdotes might shift into a rant on class theory or a patchy precis of a book about physiognomy. (All delivered in a semi-ironic-yet-wholly-sincere tone). In the case of Witkiewicz’s essay “Peyote,” we go from “Elves on a seesaw. (Comedic number)” to “A battle of centaurs turned into a battle between fantastical genitalia.” This last note is preceded by the observation that “Goya must have known about peyote.”

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“Peyote” is the most vivid and surreal of the essays in Narcotics. Unlike the other sections, this chapter most closely resembles a conventional drug diary. “Peyote” begins with Witkiewicz taking his first of seven (!) peyote doses at six in the evening and culminating around eight the following morning with “Straggling visions of iridescent wires.” In increments of about 15 minutes, Witkiewicz notes each of his surreal visions. The wild hallucinations are rendered in equally surreal language: “Mundane disumbilicalment on a cone to the barking of flying canine dragons” here, “The birth of a diamond goldfinch” there. Gauger’s translation conveys not just the wild imagery, but also the wild linguistic spirit of Witkiewicz’s prose.

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The prose in “Peyote” most closely approximates the spirit of Witkiewicz’s wonderful paintings. Narcotics includes 34 full-color reproductions of Witkiewicz’s art, which is reason enough to pick up this volume. According to Narcotics’ blurb, Witkiewicz (or Witkacy as he is commonly known) “established rules and types for his portrait work, marking the paintings and pastels with corresponding symbols and abbreviations of the substances he had either taken or, in the case of alcohol and nicotine, not taken at the time.”

For example, we see that Witkiewicz has noted that he had ingested cocaine and eucodal (a semi-synthetic opioid) in order to paint the Portrait of Michal Jagodowski (below). Narcotics includes a helpful “List of Symbols” as a glossary for the shorthand Witkiewicz used both in the text of his writings and in his paintings. (Although “her (herbata): tea” is included in the gloss, this vice regretfully does not merit its own essay).

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In addition to peyote, we get essays on nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, morphine, and ether (a list that may remind you of a certain Queens of the Stone Age jam). In “Nicotine,” Witkiewicz despairs that “A person deadened by tobacco and alcohol…seeks even more mind-numbing entertainment to relax,” whether that be the “utterly depraved cinema with its vacuous attempts at artistry,” or the “sensory narcotization through music” achieved by “station surfing” on the radio. (Even worse is “chronic and brainless dancing, that most monstrous of modern society’s unacknowledged plagues”).

In “Alcohol,” Witkiewicz concedes that “alcohol lets you perform actions at a particular moment that otherwise would not have been possible right then,” before launching into a sustained attack on alcohol as a creative crutch. His most convincing (and depressing) line here is “alcohol is boring. Anyone who has abused it even mildly knows this to be true.” (If this were a different sort of review, I might riff here a bit on the fact that I drank no fewer than three glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon while writing about Narcotics).

Witkiewicz, despite his exorbitant indulgences, is a bit of a snob—a modernist snob though. From frenzied, enthusiastic experience he warns us that “cocaine is one of the worst kinds of filth,” before plugging his cocaine novel Farewell to Autumn and offering a synopsis of one of the novel’s chapters, a so-called “cocaine orgy.” (The editors of Narcotics graciously include a brief selection from Farewell to Autumn, as well as additional essays by Witkiewicz on hygiene and other matters).

In the last two essays, Wietkiewicz hands the reins over to friends (designated drivers?). In “Morphine,” Bohdan Filipowski warns that, “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable, you must first travel through all manner of hell and suffering in life, only then to find yourself in addled stupefaction, which ultimately is all there is.” The essay “Ether” — a drug that packs a “powerful metaphysical wallop” is attributed to “Dr. Dezydery Prokopowicz,” a pseudonym for Wietkiewicz’s friend, poet Stefan Glass.

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The admonition that “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable” is pretty much the thesis for Narcotics, a book that simultaneously celebrates and reviles drug use. Misery is the byword here, a word we find repeated in in Henri Michaux’s 1956 collection Miserable Miracle. Published a quarter century after Narcotics, the two volumes share much in common. Too, Narcotics picks up some of the threads that we find in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater(1821)–that foregrounding of suffering, even if it also anticipates the (exhaustive) drug literature of the 1960s, which wasn’t nearly so reticent about banging the narcotic gong. And yet Witkiewicz seems to wink at us through all the moralizing and apologia, suggesting that, yes, narcotics, are, like, bad—they are a crutch, a shortcut, a substitute for true artistic inspiration—but he also shows how utterly modern the process of consuming mind-and-body-altering substances is. Witkiewicz comprehends the dangers of narcotics. He’s out there on the ledge, dancing around a bit, his foot wagging over the precipice, while he grins and says, “Hey, don’t try this at home.”

Try this at home. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics, translated from the Polish by Soren Guager is new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press. Just Say Yes.

(Revisiting) Revisiting A Wrinkle in Time

[Ed. note: I originally wrote and posted this review in January of 2012. My kids were four and one at the time. This morning, my daughter finished the edition of A Wrinkle in Time I reviewed here, reading the last hundred pages or so in a marathon sitting so we would take her (and her brother) to see Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation today. I’ll try to post some thoughts on the film later today.]


Madeleine L’Engle’s seminal fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time turns 50 this year, and publisher Macmillan is celebrating by releasing a new anniversary edition with oodles of extras, including photos, manuscript pages, and new editorial content. They’ve also initiated a “50 Years, 50 Days,  50 Blogs Celebration Campaign” to promote the new book, and they asked Biblioklept to participate in the first week.

Here is the new cover:

And here is the cover to my beloved, ragged edition:

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A Wrinkle in Time explores the strange intersections of space and time against a backdrop of adolescent angst. Our intrepid heroine Meg, her child genius brother Charles Wallace, and her would-be beau Calvin O’Keefe, go on a trans-dimensional quest to find her missing physicist father. They are aided (and initiated into) this quest by a trio of immortal women (shades of the Norns); their intergalactic mission finds them encountering angelic centaurs, motherly tentacled beasts, a red-eyed automaton, a disembodied brain, and more more more. Dr. Dad has disappeared while working on a mysterious project involving a tesseract.

Here’s a nifty visualization of the tesseract:

Like a lot of young people, as a child I was deeply fascinated by the concept of “tessering” away to a strange, marvelous, dangerous place, and it was surely this idea that most enthralled me as an early reader of the novel. I was probably ten when I first read the book, which I’m pretty sure was a gift from my aunt who brought it to me while our family was living in New Zealand. I actually wrote my name and our six-digit phone number into the book, which suggests that I loaned it out quite a bit.

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A Wrinkle in Time gelled with all of the stuff I was reading then: lots of Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and Douglas Adams, but also plenty of crappy Dr. Who novels and lots of execrable fantasy novels. L’Engle’s novels (of course I read all of them after reading Wrinkle; to this day, Many Waters is probably the one that stands out the most, weird and sexy as it was) were of a piece with Tolkien and Lewis (especially Lewis’s oft-overlooked space trilogy)—but there was something distinctly American about L’Engle’s characters—her writing even—that intrigued me. I had spent my entire childhood expatriated and was constantly looking for avenues of American expression, ways “to be American” (yes, I realize how silly that sounds now).

In retrospect, it’s not the tesseract and its fantastical properties that I so recall from A Wrinkle in Time so much as it is L’Engle’s characters, especially mercurial Meg and her future-husband Calvin. While much of literature emphasizes the clash between individual desires and societal conventions, L’Engle’s particular tone and characterization is keenly sensitive to the difficulties adolescents face navigating this conflict. In a sense, L’Engle is working out the early blueprint for what would become the conventions of Young Adult literature. L’Engle wrote a specific brand of sci-fi/fantasy that, on the surface, sets her apart from S.E. Hinton and Robert Cormier—but what these writers share in common, what makes their work so enduring even as society changes, is the essential emotional reality their characters share with readers.

Wrinkle endures also because of its handling of complex themes of conformity, idealism, faith, and science. It’s a book that challenges a youngish audience to read in new ways. It’s also a frequently challenged book—always the sign of something good—suggesting that it’s not going anywhere soon. In this sense, Wrinkle’s literary legacy externally recapitulates its internal themes of nonconformity.

Of course, characterization and strong themes probably wouldn’t get too far with young readers if Wrinkle didn’t deliver the goods that YA readers demand: a good yarn. Wrinkle is spry and engaging at fifty, and while it’s not as bloody as new kid on the block The Hunger Games (the protagonist of which owes some small debt to Meg Murray) it nevertheless negotiates the dangers of existence (both physical and metaphysical) with greater emotional intensity.

But I’ve veered off course here, invoking a newer, more violent YA star at the end of my riff, when what I really want to do is encourage young people who haven’t read Wrinkle yet to pick it up (okay, especially young people who think that Collins’s trilogy is the bee’s knees). It’s a wise, endearing, and enduring classic, one that deserves attention on its golden anniversary.

Max Frisch’s Bluebeard (Book acquired, 3 March 2018)

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When I saw a hardback copy of Max Frisch’s 1982 novel Bluebeard (in English translation by Geoffrey Skeleton) the other week at my favorite used bookstore, I picked it up and started reading. I loved the cover and was attracted by its slimness—under 150 pages and written almost entirely in Beckettian dialog—but more than anything it was the title. Is it creepy to admit that I have a slight obsession with the Bluebeard narrative? Yes? Chalk it up to a formative memory: When I was around five, a cousin, ten years older than I am, read an illustrated book of Charles Perrault fairy tales to me to tuck me in one night. He read read a few before getting to “Bluebeard,” a story both he and I were unfamiliar with. I know he didn’t know the story because I can vividly recall the shock it produced in him as it progressed, the sense of horror. I remember that he kept going through the story even after the awful violent secret at its core was revealed, simply in the hope that some kind of justice might happen. I remember him telling me, “That wasn’t a children’s story.” He’s right, of course—sample a few paragraphs from Andrew Lang’s translation of Perrault’s version:

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Blue Beard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

After having somewhat recovered her surprise, she picked up the key, locked the door, and went upstairs into her chamber to recover; but she could not, so much was she frightened. Having observed that the key to the closet was stained with blood, she tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come out; in vain did she wash it, and even rub it with soap and sand. The blood still remained, for the key was magical and she could never make it quite clean; when the blood was gone off from one side, it came again on the other.

It wasn’t so much the story but an older person’s reaction to the story that impacted me so much. I’m not sure if the book included an illustration that pertains to the images above, but I know that I remember an image of the scene, perhaps one I conjured all by myself—of a closet full of corpses.

The Bluebeard story seems to have largely fallen out of the canon of children’s “fairy tales”; it’s one of those stories that I remember trying to bring up to others as a reference point when I was young. The reference never seemed to land. My students have no knowledge of it. And yet it’s still soaked into the culture—the recent film Ex Machina was a take on Bluebeard, and elements of HBO’s Westworld also allude to the tale. Over the years I’ve read plenty of versions of the story: Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, Donald Barthelme’s “Bluebeard,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Bluebeard,” Anne Sexton’s “The Golden Key,” Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” — but I’d never heard of Max Frisch’s until I saw it in the store the other day. I didn’t pick it up then—I was committed to getting and reading Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, and I didn’t want to pile up too many books—but the blue cover wormed around in the back of my brain and I gave in the other day. Plus, dig this author photo:

Instead of the blurb, here are a few paragraphs from Richard Gilman’s contemporary review in The New York Times:

“Bluebeard” is an extremely short “tale,” as Mr. Frisch calls it, even shorter than “Man in the Holocene.” Like Samuel Beckett, Mr. Frisch seems to be paring away his stock of expressiveness, moving toward a purer means as he nears his mid-70’s. The book is made up in large part of remembered excerpts from the transcript of a fictional murder trial, interspersed with remarks, comments and reflections by the accused man.

He is a 54-year old Zurich physician named Felix Schaad, who was charged with strangling one of his former wives with a necktie. She had been the sixth of his seven wives, and after their divorce, she had become a high-priced call girl whom he would sometimes visit, although apparently not for sexual purposes. At the time of her murder, Schaad had been married for a year to his seventh wife, and it was she who gave him the nickname Bluebeard, as a term of endearment. “He once said that he already had six wives in the cellar,” she said on the witness stand.

The press had siezed on this bit of testimony. The doctor remembers the headlines – “NO ALIBI FOR SCHAAD/BLUEBEARD IN COURT/DOCTOR’S SEVEN MARRIAGES” – and recalls how “I looked it up in the library: the tale of the knight who had killed his seven wives and concealed their corpses in the cellar was written by a Frenchman, Charles Perrault, in the seventeenth century.”

Hell is the place we don’t know we’re in (Don DeLillo)

“Singh remarked to me once, his conspiratorial aspect, fixing those flat heavy eyes on me, ‘Hell is the place we don’t know we’re in.’ I wasn’t sure how to take the remark. Was he saying that he and I were in hell or that everyone else was? Everyone in rooms, houses, chairs with armrests. Is hell a lack of awareness? Once you know you’re there, is this your escape? Or is hell the one place in the world we don’t see for what it is, the one place we can never know? Is that what he meant? Is hell what we say to each other or what we can’t say, what is beyond our reach? The sentence defeated me. I was afraid of the desert but drawn to it, drawn to the contradiction. Men will come to fill this empty place. This place is empty in order that men may rush in to fill it.”

From Don DeLillo’s novel The Names.

“In other words, I stole from a kid” | Don DeLillo and Atticus Lish

Like ”Ratner’s Star,” a book in which Mr. DeLillo says he tried to ”produce a piece of mathematics,” ”The Names” is complexly structured and layered. It concludes with an excerpt from a novel in progress by Axton’s 9-year-old son, Tap. Inspiration for the ending came from Atticus Lish, the young son of Mr. DeLillo’s friend Gordon Lish, an editor.

”At first,” Mr. DeLillo says, ”I had no intention of using excerpts from Tap’s novel. But as the novel drew to a close I simply could not resist. It seemed to insist on being used. Rather than totally invent a piece of writing that a 9-year-old boy might do, I looked at some of the work that Atticus had done when he was 9. And I used it. I used half a dozen sentences from Atticus’s work. More important, the simple exuberance of his work helped me to do the last pages of the novel. In other words, I stole from a kid.”

Young Atticus is given ample credit in the book’s acknowledgments, but creative borrowing from life is not a new technique for Mr. DeLillo, who has been praised for his ear for dialogue. ”The interesting thing about trying to set down dialogue realistically,” he says, ”is that if you get it right it sounds stylized. Why is it so difficult to see clearly and to hear clearly? I don’t know. But it is, and in ‘Players’ I listened very carefully to people around me. People in buses. People in the street. And in many parts of the book I used sentences that I heard literally, word for word. Yet it didn’t sound as realistic as one might expect. It sounded over-refined even.”

From a 1982 profile of Don DeLillo in The New York Times

Atticus Lish’s 2014 novel Preparation for the Next Life was one of the best novels I read last year, and one of the best contemporary American novels I’ve read in ages.

Air travel reminds us who we are. It’s the means by which we recognize ourselves as modern (Don DeLillo)

In this vast space, which seems like nothing so much as a container for emptiness, we sit with our documents always ready, wondering if someone will appear and demand to know who we are, someone in authority, and to be unprepared is to risk serious things.

The terminal at each end is full of categories of inspection to which we must submit, impelling us toward a sense of inwardness, a sense of smallness, a self-exposure we are never prepared for no matter how often we take this journey, the buried journey through categories and definitions and foreign languages, not the other, the sunlit trip to the east which we thought we’d decided to make. The decision we’d unwittingly arrived at is the one that brings us through passport control, through the security check and customs, the one that presents to us the magnetic metal detector, the baggage x-ray machine, the currency declaration, the customs declaration, the cards for embarkation and disembarkation, the flight number, the seat number, the times of departure and arrival.

It does no good to say, as I’ve done a hundred times, it’s just another plane trip, I’ve made a hundred. It’s just another terminal, another country, the same floating seats, the documents of admission, the proofs and identifications.

Air travel reminds us who we are. It’s the means by which we recognize ourselves as modern. The process removes us from the world and sets us apart from each other. We wander in the ambient noise, checking one more time for the flight coupon, the boarding pass, the visa. The process convinces us that at any moment we may have to submit to the force that is implied in all this, the unknown authority behind it, behind the categories, the languages we don’t understand. This vast terminal has been erected to examine souls.

It is not surprising, therefore, to see men with submachine guns, to see vultures squatting on the baggage vehicles set at the end of the tarmac in the airport in Bombay when one arrives after a night flight from Athens.

All of this we choose to forget. We devise a counter-system of elaborate forgetfulness. We agree on this together. And out in the street we see how easy it is, once we’re immersed in the thick crowded paint of things, the bright clothes and massed brown faces. But the experience is no less deep because we’ve agreed to forget it.

From Don DeLillo’s novel The Names.

America is the world’s living myth (Don DeLillo)

Terror. This is the subject she chose. In Europe they attack their own institutions, their police, journalists, industrialists, judges, academics, legislators. In the Middle East they attack Americans. What does it mean? She wanted to know if the risk analyst had an opinion.“Bank loans, arms credits, goods, technology. Technicians are the infiltrators of ancient societies. They speak a secret language. They bring new kinds of death with them. New uses for death. New ways to think about death. All the banking and technology and oil money create an uneasy flow through the region, a complex set of dependencies and fears. Everyone is there, of course. Not just Americans. They’re all there. But the others lack a certain mythical quality that terrorists find attractive.”

“Good, keep going.”

“America is the world’s living myth. There’s no sense of wrong when you kill an American or blame America for some local disaster. This is our function, to be character types, to embody recurring themes that people can use to comfort themselves, justify themselves and so on. We’re here to accommodate. Whatever people need, we provide. A myth is a useful thing. People expect us to absorb the impact of their grievances. Interesting, when I talk to a Mideastern businessman who expresses affection and respect for the U.S., I automatically assume he’s either a fool or a liar. The sense of grievance affects all of us, one way or another.”

“What percentage of these grievances is justified?”

I pretended to calculate.

From Don DeLillo’s novel The Names.

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Iris Murdoch’s The Bell (Book acquired, 23 Feb. 2018)

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I picked up Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell the other day. I’d put it on my 2018 Good Intentions Reading List, but somehow failed to find it at the big used bookstore I frequent. I found six copies there on Friday, all in different editions—it turns out there was another shelf of Murdoch, but higher up and to the right of where I was looking. Anyway.

How is my progress on that 2018 list, you ask? Not great. I stalled out on William Gass’s The Tunnel after about 60 pages. I usually have fun reading Gass and I wasn’t having fun; in fact, I started approaching the book as a chore, which is not what I want to be doing with my spare time. I got sidetracked with Stanisław Witkiewicz’s Narcotics (not on The List—I hope to have a review up this week), and then picked up Don DeLillo’s The Names (on The List) instead of The Tunnel. I sank into the DeLillo, which feels a bit like a smart beach read after tangling with The Tunnel’s difficult defensive barriers. I plan to dip into The Bell next, and then approach the bigger books on The List—MiddlemarchWar & Peace, uh, The Tunnel—this summer when my teaching load is a lot lighter.

 

“The 27 Depravities” — Don DeLillo

Every day made her more certain of my various failings. I compiled a mental list, which I often recited aloud to her, asking how accurate it was in reflecting her grievances. This was my chief weapon of the period. She hated the feeling that someone knew her mind.

1.      Self-satisfied.

2.      Uncommitted.

3.      Willing to settle.

4.      Willing to sit and stare, conserving yourself for some end-of-life event, like God’s face or the squaring of the circle.

5.      You like to advertise yourself as refreshingly sane and healthy in a world of driven neurotics. You make a major production of being undriven.

6.      You pretend.

7.      You pretend not to understand other people’s motives.

8.      You pretend to be even-tempered. You feel it gives you a moral and intellectual advantage. You are always looking for an advantage.

9.      You don’t see anything beyond your own modest contentment. We all live on the ocean swell of your well-being. Everything else is trivial and distracting, or monumental and distracting, and only an unsporting wife or child would lodge a protest against your teensy weensy happiness.

10.   You think being a husband and father is a form of Hitlerism and you shrink from it. Authority makes you uneasy, doesn’t it? You draw back from anything that resembles an official capacity.

11.   You don’t allow yourself the full pleasure of things.

12.   You keep studying your son for clues to your own nature.

13.   You admire your wife too much and talk about it too much. Admiration is your public stance, a form of self-protection if I read it correctly.

14.   Gratified by your own feelings of jealousy.

15.   Politically neuter.

16.   Eager to believe the worst.

17.   You will defer to others, you will be acutely sensitive to the feelings of strangers, but you will contrive to misunderstand your family. We make you wonder if you are the outsider in this group.

18.   You have trouble sleeping, an attempt to gain my sympathy.

19.   You sneeze in books.

20.   You have an eye for your friends’ wives. Your wife’s friends. Somewhat speculative, somewhat detached.

21.   You go to extremes to keep your small mean feelings hidden. Only in arguments do they appear. Completing your revenge. Hiding it even from yourself at times. Not willing to be seen taking your small mean everyday revenge on me, which, granted, I have sometimes abundantly earned. Pretending your revenge is a misinterpretation on my part, a misunderstanding, some kind of accident.

22.   You contain your love. You feel it but don’t like to show it. When you do show it, it is the result of some long drawn-out decision making process, isn’t it, you bastard.

23.   Nurser of small hurts.

24.   Whiskey sipper.

25.   Underachiever.

26.   Reluctant adulterer.

27.   American.

We came to refer to these as the 27 Depravities, like some reckoning of hollow-cheeked church theologians. Since then I’ve sometimes had to remind myself it was my list, not hers.

From Don DeLillo’s novel The Names.

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Darwin anecdote (David Markson)

Stanisław I. Witkiewicz’s Narcotics (Book acquired, 5 Feb. 2018)

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Stanisław I. Witkiewicz’s Narcotics is forthcoming in full-color hardback from Twisted Spoon PressSubtitled “Nicotine, Alcohol, Cocaine, Peyote, Morphine, Ether + Appendices,” the volume consists of Witkiewicz’s musings on his intake of these substances, both in his creative and personal life, as well as the various portraits he composed while taking those substances. Narcotics is translated by Soren Gauger, who also authors a helpful afterword that contextualizes Witkiewicz’s volume. Narcotics was written and published in Poland in the 1930s, and was apparently quite a big hit. I read Witkiewicz’s foreword last night (as well as the section on, um, peyote). In its strange moralizing, the foreword—an apologia really–reminded me a bit of Henri Michaux’s similar exercise, Miserable Miracle, which also strikes a defensive tone at the outset.

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The book, like Witkiewicz’s portraits, is gorgeous. Here is Twisted Spoon’s blurb; full review forthcoming—

For his “portrait painting firm,” established rules and types for his portrait work, marking the paintings and pastels with corresponding symbols and abbreviations of the substances he had either taken or, in the case of alcohol and nicotine, not taken at the time. Type C were created under the influence of alcohol and “narcotics of a superior grade” to produce abstract compositions he called “Pure Form.” A variety of drugs and their combinations were taken to produce a variety of distortions and effects, and often this would be the portrait subject’s choice. And in some instances a given portrait might be marked with symbols denoting how many days he had gone without smoking or without drinking (and type D were executed to achieve the same results without any artificial means). Different substances resulted in different color combinations or brought out different aspects of the subject’s features or psyche. One stunning series of self-portraits, for example, was executed while on a combination of moderate amounts of beer and cocaine.

In the vein of the well-known drug writings of De Quincey and Baudelaire from a century earlier and those of his contemporaries Walter Benjamin and Jean Cocteau – and foreshadowing the later writings of Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda on psychoactive drugs – Witkacy composed Narcotics in 1930 to discuss and document not only his own experimentation with different substances but the nature of addiction itself and the prevailing social attitude toward drugs, particularly those that were considered “acceptable.” As life became increasingly mechanized, Witkacy felt that a sense of the metaphysical could only be achieved by artificial means, and like Henri Michaux, he produced an extensive oeuvre of singular visual art while under the influence of a variety of substances.

Meandering, acerbic, and burlesque, rife with neologisms and expressions from German, French, English, and Russian, Witkacy dissects Polish society and the art world as well as himself via the hypocrisy surrounding drug use. Since it was first published in the 1930s, Narcotics has achieved a cult status in Poland where it is considered both a modernist classic and a paragon of Witkiewiczian madness. This edition, the first complete translation in English, includes a second appendix written later, passages from the novel Farewell to Autumn, and 34 color reproductions of a cross section of portraits to show how various substances impacted Witkacy’s art.

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The Significance of the Number 8 in Blood Meridian

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“The Significance of the Number 8 in Blood Meridian is a compelling analysis by William Wickey. Wickey lists numerous examples of the number in McCarthy’s (anti)Western, and touches on the number as a motif connected to gnosticism, tarot, and more.

From the beginning of Wickey’s essay:

The first “major” example of eight occurs in Chapter V when Sproule and the kid stumble across a tree hung with dead babies in a mountain pass after the destruction of Captain White’s war party at the hands of The Comanches.

“The way narrowed through the rocks and by and by they came to a bush that was hung with dead babies. / They stopped side by side reeling in the heat. These small victims, seven, eight of them had holes punched in their under jaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stobs of mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky.” (57)

This grizzly scene sets the tone for subsequent uses of eight in the novel. Every major appearance of eight implies death.

A very similar description follows in the same chapter, describing a group of delirious Mexican soldiers that save Sproule and the kid’s lives by giving them water.

“The refugees stood by the side of the road. The riders looked burnt and haggard coming up out of the sun and they sat their horses as if they had no weight at all. There were seven, eight of them. They wore broadbrimmed hats and leather vests and they carried escopetas across the pommels of the saddles and as they rode past the leader nodded gravely to them from the captain’s horse and touched his hatbrim and they rode on. (63)

Only a few days prior, these eight horses carried the only mounted survivors of the Commanche attack. Their former riders, including the captain, are now dead, presumably at the hands of these Mexican soldiers, having just escaped death at the hands of the Commanches.

Read the whole article.

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Illustrated by Rockwell Kent (Book acquired, 3 Feb. 2018)

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I couldn’t pass up on this illustrated Heritage Press copy of Leaves of Grass. I’m not sure of the exact date of publication, but this nice long post on the book suggests it was likely published in 1950 and designed in the mid-thirties.

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My daughter and I were browsing the poetry section of our favorite used bookshop—quite randomly actually—and she pulled this volume of Leaves of Grass downward like a lever, pretending it might open a secret passage. It didn’t open a secret passage, but when she pushed it back again, I saw Kent’s name on the spine. I love Kent’s work, and I’m a huge Whitman fan, and my copy of Leaves of Grass is literally falling apart. Plus only $10 and I had plenty of store credit…so…

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I’ll share some of the illustrations and verses over the next few months—a nice excuse to go through Leaves of Grass again.

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