Blog about the correct ranking of all Electric Light Orchestra songs with the word “blue” in the title

There are, to date, seven songs by the British rock group Electric Light Orchestra that contain the word “blue” in the title. A few of these are among ELO’s finest songs. I have put a lot of thought into this matter (by which I mean maybe five minutes), and decided that these are the correct rankings of ELO’s “blue” songs, from the not-best to the very-best:

#7. “Midnight Blue,” from Discovery (1979)

“Midnight Blue” isn’t a bad song, but it feels like a rehash of ELO’s better down-tempo ballad, “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” (from Eldorado, a much better album than Discovery). Lynne’s synthesized background vocals near the beginning point to a weirder, more-interesting tune than the standard pop song that emerges.

#6. “Birmingham Blues,” from Out of the Blue (1977)

“Birmingham Blues” is the first of two tracks from the album Out of the Blue on this list of songs with the word “blue” in the title. Out of the Blue is the only ELO album to date with the word “blue” in the title. Again, “Birmingham Blues” isn’t a bad song, but it feels like filler on an album that features songs like “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.”

#5. “Blue,” from Alone in the Universe (2015)

Technically, “Blue” is by Jeff Lynne’s ELO, but c’mon. It’s basically Jeff Lynne’s show after 1974 anyway. Alone in the Universe is a surprisingly good album—most of the songs clock in around three minutes, showing a restraint and focus not always present in the seventies stuff. “Blue” is actually a bonus track. It’s a sweet little ditty, beholden to the Beatles in the best possible way. (Lynne’s best Beatlesesque numbers synthesize the signature traits of McCartney, Lennon, Harrison—and hell, even Ringo—into something new and different).

#4. “Bluebird Is Dead,” from On the Third Day (1973)

On the Third Day is kind of the album where ELO starts to become, like ELO. “Bluebird Is Dead” is probably the loosest and rawest song on this list, and I think it’s Lynne’s vocal that puts it so high up here for me.

#3. “Mr. Blue Sky,” from Out of the Blue (1977)

“Mr. Blue Sky” is basically a perfect song. It closes out the “Concerto for a Rainy Day” side of Out of the Blue perfectly, bouncing along in a Beatles-beholden bop that unloads in not one but two—and arguably three endings.

#2. “Bluebird,” from Secret Messages (1983)

Secret Messages is a bit underrated—Jeff Lynne has some great ideas on the record (a lot of them showcased in “Bluebird”), but the ideas often fail to cohere. (For example, “Loser Gone Wild” offers a pastiche of the best and worst aspects of this era of ELO—a big contrast to the pastiche of “Mr. Blue Sky,” where everything works). “Bluebird” is a gorgeous song that has to grow on any listener. It’s corny as hell—hell, most of ELO is extremely corny, which is something I love about the band. They are Not Cool, a topic for another post. Anyway, “Bluebird” is a sweet, sad, wonderfully-overproduced song about loss. At about a minute into the jam, Lynne includes an infectious sample of himself simply repeating “work work work” —  and one senses that “Bluebird” isn’t just about a human relationship, but Lynne’s own relationship to his songwriting and production.

#1. “Boy Blue,” from Eldorado (1974)

Eldorado is my favorite ELO album and “Boy Blue” is my favorite song on Eldorado. The song is another pastiche, Beatlesesque pop mixed up with orchestral flourishes, but edged around with an almost-menacing motortik drive. (In another life, ELO could have been the Great English Krautrock band). Lyrically, the song is one ELO’s most focused. Boy Blue is our hometown hero, lately at war with some heathen or another, returns: “Hey, Boy Blue is back,” the town/chorus exclaims. They make a lot of noise for their boy, and ask where he’s been for so many years in the first verse. The second verse is Boy Blue’s reply, wherein he describes the hell of war, where he saw “bold knights, dropping down like flies, “kings, rolling in the mire,” and even God pointing “the finger of doom to our foes.” Lynne’s greatest couplet is surely in this song: “I have fought in the holiest wars/ I have smashed, some of the holiest jaws.” The violence Boy Blue has experienced (he’s been jailed and impaled, among other ordeals) has made him reflect that “no man should be stricken with fear.” He ends his verse by declaring, “no man, shall cause me to take up arms again.” Lynne’s delivery of these lyrics is what really makes the song soar though—his Boy Blue persona becomes more intense even as he builds to his promise of peace.

And here is a Spotify playlist of the songs; the sequencing has nothing to do with the rankings above:

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Blog about John Berryman’s Dream Song 265 (“I don’t know one damned butterfly from another”)

Hey.

Hey look. Look, hey.

This is a bait and switch. The bait was a promise in the title of the post for a Blog about John Berryman’s Dream Song 265, “I don’t know one damned butterfly from another.” Hey, I’m sorry, but the switch is that I have nothing to add here—I mean what could I add here?—-like what hey I want to say, is, just read Berryman’s poem—-

I don’t know one damned butterfly from another
my ignorance of the stars is formidable,
also of dogs & ferns
except that around my house one destroys the other
When I reckon up my real ignorance, pal,
I mumble “many returns”—

next time it will be nature & Thoreau
this time is Baudelaire if one had the skill
and even those problems O
At the mysterious urging of the body or Poe
reeled I with chance, insubordinate & a killer
O formal & elaborate I choose you

but I love too the spare, the hit-or-miss,
the mad, I sometimes can’t    always tell them apart
As we fall apart, will you let me hear?
That would be good, that would be halfway to bliss
You said will you answer back? I cross my heart
& hope to die but not this year.

Hey, okay. I encourage you to quit now, or better yet, reread our boy Berryman. But I’ll add a little, even though I said I wouldn’t.

I don’t know one damned butterfly from another

—but I think you know about beautiful fragile transmuting things

my ignorance of the stars is formidable,

—same

also of dogs & ferns

–I know a bit about dogs; less about ferns

except that around my house one destroys the other

–I hope it’s the dogs destroying the ferns if I have to pick a side, although I’m not unsympathetic to ferns.

When I reckon up my real ignorance, pal,
I mumble “many returns”—

–This is a great rhyme. I feel like I’m the speaker’s pal here too—maybe it’s all the wine I’ve put down my fat throat, but I feel like I get what he’s doing here. I have some fat real ignorance my ownself.

next time it will be nature & Thoreau

–Oh give us a Transcendentalist vamp Johnny! (Or is it Henry?)

this time is Baudelaire if one had the skill

–Oh if one had the skill oh (I think you have the skill Johnny Henry)

and even those problems O

–Oh Oh O Ho oH O hO

At the mysterious urging of the body or Poe

–I’m reminded here of Dream Song 384 where Henry digs up his dead suicide father’s corpse from the grave: “I’d like to scrabble till I got right down / away down under the grass / and ax the casket open ha to see / just how he’s taking it, which he sought so hard / we’ll tear apart the mouldering grave clothes ha.” The manic ha is more indebted to Poe though than any grave openings or casket axings.

reeled I with chance, insubordinate & a killer
O formal & elaborate I choose you

–Hey but this is about Berryman’s art, his poetry, always his fucking poetry. Formal and elaborate? Out here choosing?

but I love too the spare, the hit-or-miss,

–Oh hey me too. I mean that’s my jam too Henry John.

the mad, I sometimes can’t always tell them apart

–I can’t either.

As we fall apart, will you let me hear?
That would be good, that would be halfway to bliss

–I think we’d all like to be let to hear.

You said will you answer back? I cross my heart
& hope to die but not this year.

-Not this year

 

Blog about the American Arcadia (or Arcadian America?) scene in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance

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I am glad I reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel for many reasons. One of those reasons is because I had completely forgotten to remember a marvelous scene near the end of the novel, in Ch. XXV — “The Masqueraders.” This episode happens near the end of the chapter. Hawthorne’s stand-in Miles Coverdale has decided to return to Blithedale after spending some time out in, like, the world.

Coverdale’s return to the utopian project he half-heartedly abandoned is thoroughly coded in Hawthorne’s signature ambivalence: He notes “a sickness of the spirits kept alternating with my flights of causeless buoyancy” as he walks through the wood. Approaching the Blithedale farm, and feels an “invincible reluctance” in his return, which causes him to linger in the forest. By and by, as the lovely transitional phrase goes, Coverdale winds his way back to his “hermitage, in the heart of the white-pine tree.” (The white-pine reference strikes me as an oblique reference here to Hawthorne himself—or rather, a nod to a distinction between white pine and black hawthorn trees, alter egos).

Here in his hermitage he rests among grapes dangling in “abundant clusters of the deepest purple, deliciously sweet to the taste.” Coverdale’s hermitage is an idealized, natural—transcendental—version of Blithedale, the grapevines (a prefiguration of communication in the American parlance) a kind of perfectly polygamous knot of communal existence.

Taken up in solo-bacchanalia, Coverdale begins devouring the grapes. Always the loner, always the voyeur, he checks out the house from his arboreal perch and notes its emptiness. He decides, drunken on sweet grapes, to skulk through the woods, where he hears “Voices, male and feminine; laughter, not only of fresh young throats, but the bass of grown people.” He continues—

The wood, in this portion of it, seemed as full of jollity as if Comus and his crew were holding their revels in one of its usually lonesome glades. Stealing onward as far as I durst, without hazard of discovery, I saw a concourse of strange figures beneath the overshadowing branches. They appeared, and vanished, and came again, confusedly with the streaks of sunlight glimmering down upon them.

“Comus and his crew” — what a lovely evocation! Comus, cup-bearer and heir of Bacchus, is a figuration of erotic chaos. Hawthorne ushers his hero into a scene of pastoral American anarchy, a strange Arcadia that Walt Whitman would try to replicate in Leaves of Grass a few years later. Note the admixture of cultures here in Hawthorne’s transcendentalist Halloween:

Among them was an Indian chief, with blanket, feathers, and war-paint, and uplifted tomahawk; and near him, looking fit to be his woodland bride, the goddess Diana, with the crescent on her head, and attended by our big lazy dog, in lack of any fleeter hound. Drawing an arrow from her quiver, she let it fly at a venture, and hit the very tree behind which I happened to be lurking. Another group consisted of a Bavarian broom-girl, a negro of the Jim Crow order, one or two foresters of the Middle Ages, a Kentucky woodsman in his trimmed hunting-shirt and deerskin leggings, and a Shaker elder, quaint, demure, broad-brimmed, and square-skirted. Shepherds of Arcadia, and allegoric figures from the “Faerie Queen,” were oddly mixed up with these. Arm in arm, or otherwise huddled together in strange discrepancy, stood grim Puritans, gay Cavaliers, and Revolutionary officers with three-cornered cocked hats, and queues longer than their swords. A bright-complexioned, dark-haired, vivacious little gypsy, with a red shawl over her head, went from one group to another, telling fortunes by palmistry; and Moll Pitcher, the renowned old witch of Lynn, broomstick in hand, showed herself prominently in the midst, as if announcing all these apparitions to be the offspring of her necromantic art.

Again though, in classic Hawthorne fashion, our author hedges all bets, tempering his mythical romantic flight in skepticism, here embodied by Silas Foster, the only real farmer (real earthworker) of Blithedale:

But Silas Foster, who leaned against a tree near by, in his customary blue frock and smoking a short pipe, did more to disenchant the scene, with his look of shrewd, acrid, Yankee observation, than twenty witches and necromancers could have done in the way of rendering it weird and fantastic.

Our narrator Coverdale also spies some men “with portentously red noses…spreading a banquet on the leaf-strewn earth; while a horned and long-tailed gentleman” tuning up a fiddle. The end result:

So they joined hands in a circle, whirling round so swiftly, so madly, and so merrily, in time and tune with the Satanic music, that their separate incongruities were blended all together, and they became a kind of entanglement that went nigh to turn one’s brain with merely looking at it.

The entanglement here—which eventually explodes in riotous communal laughter—recalls the polygamous knot of grapevines that shrouded Coverdale’s hermitage.

The great laughter prompts Coverdale to explode in his own laughter, whereupon the Bacchic party sets out after him with comic-murderous intent:

“Some profane intruder!” said the goddess Diana. “I shall send an arrow through his heart, or change him into a stag, as I did Actaeon, if he peeps from behind the trees!”

Coverdale flees.

He eventually happens upon an old rotting woodpile covered in moss, where he daydreams about “the long-dead woodman, and his long-dead wife and children, coming out of their chill graves, and essaying to make a fire with this heap of mossy fuel!” — this before finally giving himself up to the Blithedale crew.

The episode strikes me very much as a sequel or reboot of Hawthorne’s 1835 story “Young Goodman Brown,” in which a Puritan naif wonders into the woods dark and deep and witnesses all the horrors of his young country made real—he sees the dark heart of his community beating naked and bloody and raw and Satanic—and it changes him forever, essentially dulling his soul unto a living death. The American Arcadia episode of Blithedale though is a bit richer in its mythos, its paganism more complex and inclusive, its perspective character more attuned to the vibrant possibilities of a transcendental community, even as he stands on its outside—and what is an outsider but the most vital secret ingredient of any community?

Blog about my aunt’s recipe for oven rice

Ten or twelve years ago my aunt, who is the best home cook I can think of and who has made some of the best meals I have ever eaten, shared her recipe for oven rice for me. This is not a complex recipe, but rather a simple take on cooking rice that (at least for me) always turns out perfect. My aunt gave me this recipe after I tried her rice and remarked on how perfect it was—not too wet or too dry, certainly not mushy or crispy or any other texture that wasn’t perfectly pleasantly perfect. I complained that my rice often turned out too soft or too hard or too sticky or too dry. She asked how I cooked it (standard boiling and then simmering on the stove top), and then told me to start cooking it in the oven. I’ve never gone back.

This is my standard rice dish—like, if I’m going to make rice as a side, or make rice to go with beans or chicken gravy, etc., this is the go to. I generally use long grain white rice, but I’ve used the exact same recipe with various brown rices, as well as japonica, jasmine, basmati, and even middlins. I’ve had the best results when I never vary the steps that I follow; when I’ve tried to follow (or in most cases adapt) a particular rice’s cooking directions instead of following my aunt’s process, the results have never been quite as good.

Here’s the basic recipe.

You will need—

An oven

A stove top

A heavy bottomed pan, preferably enameled cast iron (I’ve found a 3.5 quart round dutch oven is ideal)

One cup of rice

Two cups of liquid—I like chicken stock or chicken broth, but do what you feel

Salt

Olive oil

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This isn’t that complicated to make:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (or your oven’s equivalent of that idealized temperature—I think you get what I mean. I mean, Know thy oven).
  2. Coat a heavy-bottomed pan (one that can go in the oven) with good olive oil, then stir in a cup of rice. Salt the pan, but, hey, don’t put too much salt in there.
  3. Heat up the pan on your favorite stove eye (or at least your second favorite—if you have another dish under way—maybe some greens, maybe chicken innards and onions, maybe red beans—don’t be afraid to set it aside for a moment. The rice only needs to set on the eye for less than the length of one song by the American punk rock band The Ramones. You can get your black eyed peas back to their spot in no time).
  4. Keep stirring until the rice is translucent but not the least bit browned. img_9532(Hey, don’t stop stirring like I did to take this pic earlier tonight. You can see on my spoon that the rice is almost there—some grains are not translucent yet though).
  5. Add your two cups of liquid (preferably chicken broth or stock). I like to take the rice off the heat when I do this, and give it maybe 30 seconds so that it’s not too hot when I add the liquid. Avoid adding cold liquid to the dish. (You can also add alcohol before the two cups of liquid—sherry or white wine are both good, or even red if you’re feeling adventurous—but keep it to just a few ounces and cook it out before you add the broth).
  6. Bring the rice and broth to a not-quite boil. Like, I hope you preheated that oven like you were supposed to, because it should be good to go. Put a lid on your dish and stick that sucker in the oven for 30 minutes. Set a timer, because you’re going to forget!
  7. Take the dish out after 30 minutes and don’t open it until you plan to serve it (it should be fine for a while if you’ve used a heavy dish). You don’t need to fluff it if you’ve done it right.

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Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System”

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The title of this blog post is Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System, but I admit that I wanted to put the word story under a bit of suspicion—rein it in with quotation marks, call it a “story.”

See, “Stream System” isn’t really a “story” — except that it is — “Stream System” is, like, a kind of biographical excerpt, less fictionalized (Yeah but how do you know that?) than the other pieces I’ve thus far read in the 2018 collection of Gerald Murnane’s fiction (“fiction”?) Stream System.

In Stream System the story “Stream System” gets a little asterisk next to its title. The initial asterisk’s twin in the footnote informs the reader:

“‘Stream System’ was written to be be read aloud at a gathering in the Department of English at La Trobe University in 1988.”

(The original campus of La Trobe University is in Melbourne, Australia, a city I visited three times as a boy between 1987 and 1991; during this time my family lived in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand (but never Australia). The city of Melbourne, Florida is 177 miles south of where I currently live, and although I have driven past it, I have never visited it).

So “Stream System” is not a fiction but a speech, a written speech, but really a “story,” I guess—a story (sort of) about Murnane’s boyhood in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria.

In any case, in titling this blog post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” I found myself wanting to put quotation marks around “story,” but realizing that those quotation marks would butt up against the quotation marks of “Stream System” (quotation marks indicating, This is the title of a short work—perfectly logical quotation marks in a shared punctuation system). And well yeah so I realized that the two sets of quotation marks did not belong to the same logical system. One set of quotation marks are so-called “scare quotes”; the other set of quotation marks are simply the basic English punctuation for indicating the title of a short work—whether the work is an essay, speech, poem, or short story. Even more importantly, putting the two sets of quotation marks together looked ugly as hell.

I started with the title for the post and seem to not have gotten past it. This has been a bad start, but I’ll keep blogging.

I’m not going to summarize “Stream System” — unpacking it would be too much, like drawing a diagram of an intricate memory map. I mean, really it’s better to just read it. I’ll just say that it condenses memory into the concrete reality of place, and makes those memories bristle with sharp, strange meaning.

I just said I’ll just say, but I’ll also just say — “Stream System” is deeply unsettling: Its repetitive tics are addictive; its compulsions compel the reader along into the speaker’s reflective labyrinth. And yet for all its coercive power, Murnane’s anamnesis is also extraordinarily discomforting. Murnane’s prose never editorializes, yet its concrete prowess, its evocation of surfaces, contours, true and real details—all of this leads the reader towards an emotional epiphany that the narrator refuses to name, directly invoke, or otherwise dramatize.

And yet so but well really “Stream System” does dramatize its epiphany, or one of its epiphanies, but in this really oblique and elliptical way that walks and talks through the story’s central trauma, walks through it in such a way that it seems like the narrator has kept going, leaving the reader a bit winded and left behind, holding a stitch in his side, saying, Hey, wait, what about this, what about this really really devastating thing you just evoked?

I realize that I titled this post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” but I admit that I’m not really going to write about that devastating passage—not really. Maybe I should have titled it Blog leading up to a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System” — I mean, that’s what I should have titled this post, and I could easily go back and rewrite the title and revise this whole thing. But I won’t. Here are those four paragraphs that so very much got to me:

My brother spoke to nobody but he often looked into the face of a person and made strange sounds. My mother said that the strange sounds were my brother’s way of learning to speak and that she understood the meaning of the sounds. But no one else understood that my brother’s strange sounds had a meaning. Two years after my parents and my brother and I had left the house of red bricks my brother began to speak, but his speech sounded strange.

When my brother first went to school I used to hide from him in the schoolground. I did not want my brother to speak to me in his strange speech. I did not want my friends to hear my brother and then to ask me why he spoke strangely. During the rest of my childhood and until I left my parents’ house, I tried never to be seen with my brother. If I could not avoid travelling on the same train with my brother I would order him to sit in a different compartment from mine. If I could not avoid walking in the street with my brother I would order him not to look in my direction and not to speak to me.

When my brother first went to school my mother said that he was no different from any other boy, but in later years my mother would admit that my brother was a little backward.

My brother died when he was forty-three years old and I was forty-six. My brother never married. Many people came to my brother’s funeral, but none of those people had ever been a friend to my brother. I was certainly never a friend to my brother. On the day before my brother died I understood for the first time that no one had ever been a friend to my brother.

 

Blog about Blog about 2

Two weeks ago, on Easter Sunday/April Fools’ Day, I wrote a blog post I titled “Blog about Blog about” declaring a goal to blog — like, to write words about something  — every day in the month of April 2018. The basic idea was to free myself from some of the anxiety that has built up into a genuine fear of writing over the past few years, which has led to me simply not to write as much as I used to.

It is now half way through the month of April and I have written fourteen (including this one) of my intended thirty posts. I failed to write on Friday the 13th.

Here are the things I’ve written about so far and my reflections on forcing myself to write about them in a fast and loose spirit:

April 2, on Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell: I finished The Bell the day after I started the Blog about project. Had I not been doing the project, I probably would have sketched a few notes toward a review that I’d never end up actually finishing. It would hang out in the blog’s drafts folder forever. I’m strangely and probably unduly happy with what I ended up writing.

April 3, on starting a reread of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance: Still reading Blithedale; the reread was inspired by The Bell (they share a kinda-similar setting). Writing about starting a book that you’ve already read is not hard.

April 4, on a particular Gordon Lish sentence: Reflecting on this one makes me realize that this is the kind of post I should be doing more of—looking closely at something small.

April 5, on Goya’s painting The Straw Man: I was very tired and did not want to write. I pulled down Robert Hughes’ biography Goya and thumbed through it, landing on a page I’d dogeared. Then I wrote the post. This method—grabbing a book somewhat at random—-also seems like a good way to write a post.

April 6, on the etymology of the word “blog”: I don’t even remember writing this one. I guess that’s why we write, to remember. I think that’s one of Socrates’ observations (or at least I think Plato wrote it down that Socrates observed this).

April 7, on Don DeLillo’s novel The Names: I often feel a bizarre and unnecessary guilt when I do not write about a novel I’ve read. I read The Names earlier this year and had intended to write about it and then didn’t. Or rather, I did write a bit about it, but I got bogged down in a kind of silly accounting of the novel’s approach to linguistics, which isn’t really what interested me about it that much anyway. The Blog about approach freed me to the extent that I didn’t even bother to quote from the novel, which is like, a bad approach to writing reviews—but a blog isn’t a review.

April 8, on Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat”: I think we read in my class that day or maybe the day before. I turned my notes into the post, sort of. Maybe that’s cheating.

April 9, on an image from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance: Don’t recall writing it at all, although I recall the image, which, I don’t know. Maybe these reflections aren’t as valuable to me as I thought they would be.

April 10, on the“ The Silvery Veil” tale that’s embedded in The Blithedale Romance : I also made some connections here to Madame Psychosis, a character in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. I’m sure someone’s already made those connections and written about them somewhere, but most of my Google searches led me back to, like, my own blog, which says more about my search strategies than anything else I guess.

April 11, on William Carlos Williams’ ekphrastic poem “The Wedding Dance in the Open Air” (a poem about a Brueghel painting): My favorite thing in writing this was realizing how frequently Williams’ poem “The Dance” (about a Brueghel painting) is mistakenly cited as having been published in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962). There is a poem called “The Dance” in Brueghel but it is not about a Brueghel painting. That “Dance” was published in The Wedge in 1944.

April 12, on Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment”: Again, I think the takeaway here is: Go smaller.

April 13: Didn’t write. Couldn’t get it out. Make up post? How about this picture I took of a stack of books I’m reading that I thought I might write about it and then thought, Nah…

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April 14, on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal of April 14, 1841—which happens to correlate with Hawthorne’s time on Brook Farm, the basis of his novel The Blithedale Romance which I’m still reading: I actually really enjoyed writing this one, although I don’t think anyone really read it. I researched mid-19th century farm equipment for almost an hour.

April 15 is today. I saw Wes Anderson’s film Isle of Dogs with my wife and kids and thought I would write about it, but then I didn’t. I wrote this post instead.

Blog about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for April 14th, 1841 (including a recipe for buckwheat cakes)

For years now, I’ve been reading, rereading, and sharing on this website excerpts from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journals. I like to post selections that share dates. For example, yesterday, April 13th, I posted Hawthorne’s notebook entry from April 13th, 1841. This particular post, which records Hawthorne’s arrival at Brook Farm, was especially felicitous, as I’m currently reading Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance, which is loosely based on the author’s time at Brook Farm.

In the novel’s second chapter, the Hawthorne-figure (Coverdale) arrives at Blithedale on “an April day, as already hinted, and well towards the middle of the month.” He complains that though the morning could be described as “balmy,” by noon it was snowing. Hawthorne’s corresponding journal entry (composed over a decade before he published Blithedale) perhaps-mockingly refers to Brook Farm as a “polar Paradise”; some of this language finds its way into the protagonist’s description of Blithdale: “Paradise, indeed! Nobody else in the world, I am bold to affirm—nobody, at least, in our bleak little world of New England,—had dreamed of Paradise that day except as the pole suggests the tropic.”

There are twenty-four chapters to Blithedale, and Hawthorne devotes the first five to that first day (presumably April 13th, 1841). The novel’s sixth chapter, “Coverdale’s Sick Chamber,” begins the next morning with our narrator too sick to attend to his first day of farm work. However, Hawthorne’s journal makes clear that the real-life Hawthorne did not fall ill until a few weeks later, around April 28th, and that he recovered around May 4th (“My cold no longer troubles me, and all the morning I have been at work under the clear, blue sky, on a hill-side”).

(I know my audience—you come to this site to read about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s head colds, right?).

Unlike his stand-in Coverdale, Hawthorne went to work at Brook Farm almost immediately. He recounts his first morning’s work in his journal entry for April 14, which I have annotated via footnotes:

April 14th, 10 A.M.–. . . I did not milk the cows last night, 1 because Mr. Ripley 2 was afraid to trust them to my hands, or me to their horns 3, I know not which. But this morning I have done wonders. 4 Before breakfast, I went out to the barn and began to chop hay for the cattle, and with such “righteous vehemence,” as Mr. Ripley says, did I labor, that in the space of ten minutes I broke the machine. 5 Then I brought wood and replenished the fires; and finally went down to breakfast, and ate up a huge mound of buckwheat cakes. 6 After breakfast, Mr. Ripley put a four-pronged instrument into my hands, which he gave me to understand was called a pitchfork 7; and he and Mr. Farley being armed with similar weapons, we all three commenced a gallant attack upon a heap of manure. This office being concluded 8, and I having purified myself, I sit down to finish this letter. . . .

Miss Fuller’s cow hooks the other cows, and has made herself ruler of the herd, and behaves in a very tyrannical manner. . . . I shall make an excellent husbandman,–I feel the original Adam 10 reviving within me.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for April 14th, 1841. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

1 Coverdale’s first night at Blithedale ends with Slias Foster (the only real farmer there) telling everyone to go to sleep early as they have “nine cows to milk, and a dozen other things to do, before breakfast.”

2 George Ripley, a Unitarian minister and charter member of the Transcendentalist Club, founded Brook Farm in 1840. Following Charles Fourier’s brand of communal socialism,  Brook Farm was intended to put transcendentalist idealism into concrete action. Ripley has no clear corollary in Blithedale as far as I can tell.

Never fear—Hawthorne reports in his journal a few days later (April 16th): “I have milked a cow!!!” What charming enthusiasm! Not two !! but three exclamation marks!!! Hawthorne only deploys a triple exclamation one other time in the journals collected as The American-Notebooks: On May 31st, 1844, he joyously notes, “P.S. 3 o’clock.–The beef is done!!!” Dude got excited for bovines.

I genuinely love Hawthorne’s ironic humor, which I think is often overlooked by some readers.

Good job breaking the farm equipment there, city boy! The reference to “machine” here is vague; you can read more about 19th-century feed-cutters (and see some images of them) here.

A contemporaryish recipe for buckwheat cakes from S. S. Schoff and ‎B. S. Caswell’s 1867 cookbook The People’s Own Book of Recipes and Information for the Million: Containing Directions for the Preservation of Health, for the Treatment of the Sick and the Conduct of the Sick-room : with a Full Discussion of the More Prominent Diseases that Afflict the Human Family, with Full Directions for Their Rational Treatment : Also, 1000 Practical and Useful Recipes, Embracing Every Department of Domestic Economy and Human Industry : with Copious Notes and Emendations, Explanatory and Suggestive:

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7 If you haven’t caught on, Hawthorne (and the rest of these fops too) is going to be a terrible farmer.

Hawthorne’s phrase “a gallant attack upon a heap of manure” is a wonderfully poetic turn, but his referring to finishing his shit-shoveling as “this office being concluded” straight up kills me.

Margaret Fuller was the author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, one of American feminism’s earliest works. She was also the first editor of The Dial, (first a transcendentalist journal, and later a vehicle for modernist literature). Fuller spent time at Brook Farm, although she was never a full member. Many critics and historians suggest that Fuller is in part the inspiration for Zenobia, the soul of Hawthorne’s Blithedale.

10 The biblical Adam was of course the first gardener. Hawthorne’s romantic turn of phrase points to the idealism of Brook Farm’s utopian experiment—but also underscores the eventual fall.

Blog about “The Silvery Veil” allegory in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (and David Foster Wallace’s Madame Psychosis)

This afternoon I got to Ch. XIII of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance. Titled “Zenobia’s Legend,” most of the chapter is given over to the titular heroine’s tale “The Silvery Veil,” a wonderfully pre-postmodern moment in Hawthorne’s novel.

Let’s look lookingly at the layers: The Blithdale Romance is Hawthorne’s ironic-but-sincere dark-romantic semi-autobiographical account of his time at Brook Farm, a failed utopian community of Transcendentalists who maybe didn’t quite, uh, transcend. Zenobia is based partially on the great American feminist Margaret Fuller (who also did time on Brook Farm).  Taking center stage here in (the aptly-numbered) thirteenth chapter of Blithedale, Zenobia extemporizes a story about The Veiled Lady. This Veiled Lady is a local celebrity, a clairvoyant of some renown who (we learn in the opening chapter of the novel) has recently disappeared. Zenobia’s yarn is a leisure-time amusement, one she contends that she’ll spin to get out of an apparent rut:

“I am getting weary of this,” said she, after a moment’s thought. “Our own features, and our own figures and airs, show a little too intrusively through all the characters we assume. We have so much familiarity with one another’s realities, that we cannot remove ourselves, at pleasure, into an imaginary sphere. Let us have no more pictures to-night; but, to make you what poor amends I can, how would you like to have me trump up a wild, spectral legend, on the spur of the moment?”

Ironically however, Zenobia clearly relies on her “own features” as well as the features of Blithedale’s spectral ingenue Priscilla to inform her performance. Despite her declaration to “remove” herself and her auditors “into an imaginary sphere,” Zenobia essentially recasts poor Priscilla’s waifery into a supernatural ultraromantic mode. The story’s basic conceit is thus: There is a famous veiled lady who may be extraordinarily beautiful or who may be extraordinarily ugly. No one knows what she looks like because like the the veil obviously hides her face, preventing any viewer’s agency to interpret for himself.

Zenobia’s legend is a tale within a tale within a tale—a performance that each member of the small Blithedale community will recode into their own readings. However, Zenobia guides her audience toward a certain conclusion, all but declaring that meek Priscilla is in fact the Veiled Lady—hell, Zenobia even throws a bit of gauze she’d been vamping with over the poor dear’s head at the climax of her tale.

“The Silvery Veil,” in another pre-postmodern layer, is a thin but clear echo of Hawthorne’s famous allegory “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which was published 15 years before The Blithedale Romance, and would clearly have been known to Hawthorne’s intended audience of Transcendentalites. (There’s perhaps a more clear connection between “The Silvery Veil” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” : Hawthorne likely based the titular minister on the real-life preacher Joseph Moody, who wore a handkerchief over his faceBlithedale features a character named “Old Moodie” who we eventually learn is Pricilla’s secret father).

So Hawthorne overloads the allegory with meaning and misdirection—is Zenobia’s legend “The Silvery Veil” the secret key to Priscilla’s identity? A clue to Blithedale’s destiny? A watery paraphrase of Hawthorne’s own stronger story, “The Minister’s Black Veil”? Simply a Saturday night’s entertainment?

The trick of the tale I think rests in the undecidability of what’s under the veil, in the not knowing, which is neatly summed up in a paragraph:

Some upheld that the veil covered the most beautiful countenance in the world; others,—and certainly with more reason, considering the sex of the Veiled Lady,—that the face was the most hideous and horrible, and that this was her sole motive for hiding it. It was the face of a corpse; it was the head of a skeleton; it was a monstrous visage, with snaky locks, like Medusa’s, and one great red eye in the centre of the forehead. Again, it was affirmed that there was no single and unchangeable set of features beneath the veil; but that whosoever should be bold enough to lift it would behold the features of that person, in all the world, who was destined to be his fate; perhaps he would be greeted by the tender smile of the woman whom he loved, or, quite as probably, the deadly scowl of his bitterest enemy would throw a blight over his life.

Hawthorne’s description here immediately reminded me of Joelle van Dyne aka Madame Psychosis aka the P.G.O.A.T., a character in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest who wears a veil either because she’s too beautiful to behold and/or because she bears a physical deformity to abject to bear. I can’t actually remember if it’s the “and” or the “or” in that previous sentence that’s correct, even though I’ve read IJ a few times (and even not that long ago). Which is like, maybe the point of this literary veiling—what I mean is that we read faces, we read expressions, and the veil covers over what we would read directly, giving us a blank space to interpret through the lens of our wild (or not so wild) imaginations. Hawthorne’s veils (and maybe Wallace’s veils) require an inward reading, asking us to interpret a signifier that does not bear a clear signified—a most puzzling sign.

Blog about “a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy” (in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance)

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I hit Chapter XII of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance this afternoon and was delighted by some lines from its first paragraph, wherein Our Narrator Coverdale retreats to a little fort he’s made in the woods:

Long since, in this part of our circumjacent wood, I had found out for myself a little hermitage. It was a kind of leafy cave, high upward into the air, among the midmost branches of a white-pine tree. A wild grapevine, of unusual size and luxuriance, had twined and twisted itself up into the tree, and, after wreathing the entanglement of its tendrils around almost every bough, had caught hold of three or four neighboring trees, and married the whole clump with a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy.

I was deeply disappointed that the version of myself who had read this same physical copy of The Blithedale Romance almost 15 years earlier had failed to muster a single annotation on the passage (despite having left like 10,000 other scratches and loops on the yellow pages).

Hawthorne’s naturalism is fantastically naturalistically fantastical. The wild grapevine he conjures here that “married the whole clump with a perfectly inextricable knot of polygamy” is simultaneously a physical entity “wreathing” itself around the surrounding trees and at the same time a metonymy for the Bacchic spirit that pulls the souls of Blithedale into a weird marriage, an “inextricable knot of polygamy.” Hawthorne’s image points to exuberant and wild joy on one hand, but also to the thick bonds that tightly tie desire down in any moral system. The grapevine image serves as shorthand for the entire novel, underlining the push-pull tension of the narrator’s (and author’s!) conflict between Puritanism and Transcendentalism. The “inextricable knot of polygamy” is wonderfully pure in its impurity, in its radical transcendence.

Blog about Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat”

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Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1982 short story “Schrödinger’s Cat” is a tale about living in radical uncertainty. The story is perhaps one of the finest examples of postmodern literature I’ve ever read. Playful, funny, surreal, philosophical, and a bit terrifying, the story is initially frustrating and ultimately rewarding.

While I think “Schrödinger’s Cat” has a thesis that will present itself to anyone who reads it more than just once or twice, the genius of the story is in Le Guin’s rhetorical construction of her central idea. She gives us a story about radical uncertainty by creating radical uncertainty in her reader, who will likely find the story’s trajectory baffling on first reading. Le Guin doesn’t so much eschew as utterly disrupt the traditional form of a short story in “Schrödinger’s Cat”: setting, characters, and plot are all presented in a terribly uncertain way.

The opening line points to some sort of setting and problem. Our first-person narrator tells us: “As things appear to be coming to some sort of climax, I have withdrawn to this place.” The vagueness of “things,” “some sort,” and “this place” continues throughout the tale, but are mixed with surreal, impossible, and precise images.

The first characters the narrator introduces us to are a “married couple who were coming apart. She had pretty well gone to pieces, but he seemed, at first glance, quite hearty.” The break up here is literal, not just figurative—this couple is actually falling apart, fragmenting into pieces. (Although the story will ultimately place under great suspicion that adverb actually). Le Guin’s linguistic play points to language’s inherent uncertainty, to the undecidability of its power to fully refer. As the wife’s person falls into a heap of limbs, the husband wryly observes, “My wife had great legs.” Horror mixes with comedy here. The pile of fragmented parts seems to challenge the reader to put the pieces together in some new way. “Well, the couple I was telling you about finally broke up,” our narrator says, and then gives us a horrific image of the pair literally broken up:

The pieces of him trotted around bouncing and cheeping, like little chicks; but she was finally reduced to nothing but a mass of nerves: rather like fine chicken wire, in fact, but hopelessly tangled.

Nothing but a mass of nerves hopelessly tangled: one description of the postmodern condition.

The bundle of tangled nerves serves as something that our narrator must resist, and resistance takes the form of storytelling: “Yet the impulse to narrate remains,” we’re told. Narration creates order—a certain kind of certainty—in a radically uncertain world. The first-time reader, meanwhile, searches for a thread to untangle.

Like the first-time reader, our poor narrator is still terribly awfully apocalyptically uncertain. The narrator briefly describes the great minor uncertain grief she feels, a grief without object: “…I don’t know what I grieve for: my wife? my husband? my children, or myself? I can’t remember. My dreams are forgotten…”  Is grief without object the problem of the postmodern, post-atomic world? “Schrödinger’s Cat” posits one version of uncertainty as a specific grief , a kind of sorrow for a loss that cannot be named. The story’s conclusion offers hope as an answer to this grief—another kind of uncertainty, but an uncertainty tempered in optimism.

This optimism has to thrive against a surreal apocalyptic backdrop of speed and heat—a world that moves too fast to comprehend, a world in which stove burners can’t be switched Off—we have only heat, fire, entropy. How did folks react? —

In the face of hot stove burners they acted with exemplary coolness. They studied, they observed. They were like the fellow in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, who has clapped his hands over his face in horror as the devils drag him down to Hell—but only over one eye. The other eye is looking. It’s all he can do, but he does it. He observes. Indeed, one wonders if Hell would exist, if he did not look at it.

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—Hey, like that’s Le Guin’s mythological take on Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment!—or at least, part of it.

(Hell exists because we keep one eye on it, folks. Look away, maybe).

I have failed to mention the titular cat thus far. Schrödinger’s cat is the Cheshire cat, the ultimate escape artist and trickster par excellence who triggers this tale (tail?!). He shows up to hang out with the narrator.

Le Guin peppers her story with little cat jokes that highlight the instability of language: “They reflect all day, and at night their eyes reflect.” As the thermodynamic heat of the universe cools around our narrator and the feline, the narrator remarks that the story’s setting is cooler— “Here as I said it is cooler; and as a matter of fact, this animal is cool. A real cool cat.” In “Schrödinger’s Cat,” Le Guin doubles her meanings and language bears its own uncertainty.

A dog enters into the mix. Le Guin’s narrator initially thinks he’s a mailman, but then “decides” he is a small dog. The narrator quickly decides that not only is the non-mailman a dog, she also decides that his name is Rover. In naming this entity, the narrator performs an act of agency in a world of entropy—she makes certain (at least momentarily) an uncertain situation.

Our boy Rover immediately calls out Schrödinger’s cat, and gives the narrator (and the reader) a fuzzy precis of the whole experiment, an experiment that will definitely give you a Yes or No answer: The cat is either alive or the cat is not alive at the end of our little quantum boxing. Poor Rover gives us a wonderful endorsement of the experiment: “So it is beautifully demonstrated that if you desire certainty, any certainty, you must create it yourself!” Rover gives us an unintentionally ironic definition of making meaning in a postmodern world. Agency falls to the role of the reader/agent, who must decide (narrate, choose, and write) in this fragmented world.

For Rover, Schrödinger’s thought experiment offers a certain kind of certitude: the cat is alive or dead, a binary, either/or. Rover wants to play out the experiment himself—force the cat into the box and get, like, a definitive answer. But the curious playful narrator pricks a hole in the experiment: “Why don’t we get included in the system?” the narrator questions the dog. It’s too much for him, a layer too weird on an already complex sitch. “I can’t stand this terrible uncertainty,” Rover replies, and then bursts into tears. (Our wordy-clever narrator remarks sympathy for “the poor son of a bitch”).

The narrator doesn’t want Rover to carry out the experiment, but the cat itself jumps into the box. Rover and narrator wait in a moment of nothingness before the somethingness of revelation might happen when they lift the lid. In the meantime, the narrator thinks of Pandora and her box:

I could not quite recall Pandora’s legend. She had let all the plagues and evils out of the box, of course, but there had been something else too. After all the devils were let loose, something quite different, quite unexpected, had been left. What had it been? Hope? A dead cat? I could not remember.

Le Guin tips her hand a bit here, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great dark romantic she is heir to; she hides her answer in ambiguous plain sight. Hope is the answer. But hope is its own radical uncertainty, an attitudinal answer to the postmodern problem—but ultimately a non-answer. The only certainty is non-certainty.

What of the conclusion? Well, spoiler: “The cat was, of course, not there,” when Rover and narrator open the box. But that’s not the end. The last lines of Le Guin’s story see “the roof of the house…lifted off just like the lid of a box” — so the setting of our tale this whole time, as we should have guessed, was inside the apocalyptic thought experiment of Schrödinger. Apocalyptic in all sense of the word—in the connotation of disaster, but also revelation. The revelation though is a revelation of uncertainty. In the final line, the narrator, musing that she will miss the cat, wonders “if he found what it was we lost.”

What I think Le Guin points to here as the “it” that we lost in these hot and fast times is the radical uncertainty of hope.

Blog about Don DeLillo’s novel The Names, which I read a few weeks ago and now only half remember

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A physical copy of Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel The Names is on a shelf a few steps away from me. Normally I’d pick it up and thumb through it before writing about it—or better yet, reread it before writing about it—or even better, simply not write about it at all. But none of that would be in the spirit of these Blog about posts.

The plot of The Names, such as I remember it, is something like this: the novel’s protagonist and narrator (whose name may or may not be named Nick—I don’t really remember) is an American operative of some kind who basically works for the CIA. This specific job description is never really clear to the American protagonist or anyone else in the novel. He moves to Greece to be closer to his wife, who has left him, and his son, a budding novelist of sorts (despite being like nine or ten), whom DeLillo based on Atticus Lish (son of Gordon Lish and now a superb novelist in his own right)  The protagonist’s estranged wife works an archaeological dig headed by an older dude named Owen (the protagonist’s son’s novel is Owen’s fictional biography). Owen, and later (or is it before—I can’t remember?!) the protagonist, encounter a weird language cult that performs ritualistic linguistic murders.

The Names’ great appeal is DeLillo’s riffs on language and meaning in a postmodern era. The language cult isn’t some socioculturally-realistic entity that draws the reader in, but rather an occasion for monologue. The novel is very much a monologue, no matter who is speaking. This may sound like a criticism as I now type it out (it does to me, anyway), but DeLillo’s monologue has a fun force to it. It’s sort of like a Derridean teledrama in novelistic form, all its pollyglossic intentions subsumed into a low dry clipped clever voice: DeLillo waxes on film; DeLillo waxes on pleasure; DeLillo waxes on Americanism; DeLillo waxes on expatriation; DeLillo waxes on globalism; DeLillo waxes on airports; DeLillo waxes on terrorism. A big takeaway from the novel for me was that DeLillo wrote his 9/11 novel two decades before the fact. No wonder he wrote Falling Man so quickly; he’d already thought through the problems.

I can’t really remember the linguistic system or philosophy or language critique in The Names, but I do remember the repetitions—the word name threads throughout, usually pointing toward a symbol, a referent, a landing strip. DeLillo also repeats the word recognition—which I take to simply be the power of name(s) (why would I use the adverb “simply” there?!). But the keyword isn’t name—I think the keyword of The Names is the world, a term that seems to refer to the absolute set of possibility (linguistic or otherwise) that Exist—a shifting, unstable, but nevertheless complete set that everyone must play within.

While its expatriation visions ring true, DeLillo doesn’t fully conjure the world in The Names, although that’s never his intention, I think. The whole affair is more oblique. Clipped is the word I used before—the novel is dry, witty, but resists being pegged as glib through its strangeness and humor.  I laughed a lot in The Names. What I think I like most though is the ending, which I still remember—I haven’t read everything by DeLillo, but I’ve read a lot, and I can’t think of another of his that sticks the ending so well. And he does it by borrowing. DeLillo cribs from the protagonist’s son’s novel—which is to say from a child’s novel—which is to say from a real child’s work, Atticus Lish’s stuff—and that cribbing is somehow the magic ingredient that makes the rest of his novel rise up. It’s a second voice (or hey, the idea of a second voice) in a monologue, and it makes a huge difference.

Blog about the etymology of the word “blog”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines blog as

A frequently updated website, typically run by a single person and consisting of personal observations arranged in chronological order, excerpts from other sources, hyperlinks to other sites, etc.; an online journal or diary;

—and then notes that the term blog is in more common use than its etymon, or parent word, weblog. 

The earliest quotation the OED gives in association with the etymon weblog is from 1993: 

comp.infosystems.www (Usenet newsgroup) 10 Nov. (title of posting   Announcing getsites 1.5, a Web log analyzer.

This example though does not really point to the source of blog; rather, it’s an example of the OED’s first definition of weblog:

Usually as two words. A file containing a detailed record of each request received by a web server, frequently recording data that allows a variety of different aspects of the web traffic reaching that server to be analysed.

This definition differs from the second definition the OED gives for weblog, which is synonymous with the definition for blog above.

A quotation given by the OED under the entry for blog from 1999 points (somewhat humorously) to the sundering of web and blog into a new word:

[1999   http://www.bradlands.com (blog) 23 May (O.E.D. Archive)    Cam points out lemonyellow.com and PeterMe decides the proper way to say ‘weblog’ is ‘wee’- blog’ (Tee-hee!).]

The OED attributes the PeterMe blog (by Peter Merholz) with a more direct citation for the word blog, dating from 1999:

For those keeping score on blog commentary from outside the blog community.

(A 1999 entry cited from the Edinburgh Scotsman cites the word with an apostrophe: ‘blog).

Blog as a verb, as well as blogger and blogging all get citations going back to 1999.

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following entry for blog:

1998, short for weblog (which is attested from 1994, though not in the sense “online journal”), from (World Wide)Web (n.) + log (n.2). Joe Bloggs (c. 1969) was British slang for “any hypothetical person” (compare U.S. equivalent Joe Blow); earlier blog meant “a servant boy” in one of the college houses (c. 1860, see Partridge, who describes this use as a “perversion of bloke“), and, as a verb, “to defeat” in schoolboy slang. The Blogger online publishing service was launched in 1999.

Weblog is of course a portmanteau of web and log, both of which are abstract and concrete, new and very old. In The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Joseph T. Shipley gives the root of web as uebh:

uebh(s): weave, move back and forth; objects woven or the like, as a honeycomb. Pers, baft: woven cotton cloth. Gk huphe: web. hypha: threadlike part of fungus

Shipley gives over a dozen other examples that generate from uebh including hymnhymenvespawaspweaverwoofwafflewave, and gopher. 

Shipley’s root for log is presumably leg I (he doesn’t list log in his Index of English Words). Shipley gives his definition of leg I:

leg I: gather, set in order, consider, choose; then read, speak. Gk, logos, logion, horologe, horology, lexicon.

Shipley gives leg I as the source of many words, but helpful to our etymology of blog are intellect, illegitimate, select, legend, sacrilege, sortilege, collect, and cull.

The entry for leg II is of course beneath the entry for leg I. Shipley points to this as the root of (among others) lax, laxative, delay, relay, languid, languish, lash, lush, profuse, leach, leak and lack. Any of these will fit into a proper etymology of blog too, I suppose.

Blog about Goya’s Straw Man

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El pelele is a painting composed between 1791 and 1792 by the Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828).  El pelele is often rendered in English as The Straw Manikin, but Robert Hughes translates it as The Straw Man in his 2003 biography Goya.

I like Hughes’s translation, which carries a perhaps-unnecessary connotation of a certain logical fallacy. Hughes pegs the painting as a genre piece, one of the “bucolic amusements” of Goya’s patrons Charles IV and Maria Luisa, King and Queen of Spain. The Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid describes the painting like this:

Four young women laugh and play at blanket-tossing a doll or manikin in the air. The latter´s movement is the result of their caprice. Its carnival origins are visible in the use of masks and joking, but the blanket-tossing of a doll is used here by Goya as a clear allegory of women’s domination of men.

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Hughes also sees The Straw Man as Goya’s take on “what seemed to him [Goya] the waning of traditional Spanish masculinity,” noting that the motif was repeated throughout Goya’s work (notably in Goya’s etching Disparate femenino).

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Hughes perceives a “disenchanted edge” to Goya’s Straw Man. The edge here is what most engages me about the image. To this scene any contemporary viewer—by which I mean any post-postmodern viewer—must bring a certain horrific viewpoint. The free and freeing sky juxtaposes with the wobbly jelly limbs of the empty hero at the core of the painting. His face is a literal mask, a mask itself painted into a mock ebullience of servitude. The manikin is a big nothing painted as a happy something, a doll to be tossed around for amusement. The creeping fun under the whole business is undeniable. What’s key here, at least for me, is Goya’s composition of expression in the manikin’s face. Hughes points out that the figure is a mockery of the French court and all its foppish manners, Goya’s satirical jab at his benefactors’ pretensions — “silly French pigtails and spots of rouge on its cheeks…vacuous to perfection” — but there’s also a strange humanity to the face that I don’t think a contemporary viewer should overlook. The eyes assert themselves to the grayblue Spanish heaven above, even as the body fails to resemble all but the idea of a body—an idea most heavily felt in the body’s own gravity, the force which will return it to be tossed again and again—without hope of transcendence.

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Blog about a particular Gordon Lish sentence

A new literary magazine called Egress debuts in the UK this month and in the US next month. I have read an advance copy and it is Very Good. Egress features, for lack of a better term (although there are better terms; I’m just being lazy) experimental short fiction. It might be better just to list some of the authors featured in the inaugural issue: Diane Williams, Christine Schutt, David Hayden, Sam Lipsyte, Evan Lavender-Smith, and Gordon Lish (there are more).

There are two shorties by Lish in the collection. Both are Very Good and Very Funny. One of them, “Jawbone,” is about a narrator killing two bugs.

Have I spoiled Lish’s “Jawbone” by revealing its intricate plot (i.e., the murder (murders?) of a pair of (possibly copulating) bugs)? No, not really—for the story is really about language itself (which like so a lot of Lish’s fictions are ultimately about, yes?)

There’s a sentence in “Jawbone” that I could not leave alone. I kept reading it and rereading it, and then read it aloud almost rapturously:

Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was there in there on duty on the nightbeat last night in the crapper last night.

The line is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly, elegant and clunky, elevated and base, smooth and harsh. The alliteration is at once sumptuous and unbearable–ells and kays fray into esses and zees; tittering alveolar touches stutter throughout the thirty-six syllables. The repetitions clip along, cleverer in the end than they at first seem: “was there in there on duty on the nightbeat” builds with a force that shuttles into not one but two “last nights,” a bit of redundant fun. Should a sentence of 27 words contain so many prepositions? I guess this one should. I would go on about the hyperbolic brilliance of the line but maybe that’s pinning it down a bit too much, which is not what one should really do with such a clean upstanding decent ugly sentence. (“Crapper”!).

Let’s close by connecting Lish’s ironic hyperbolic sentence to what I take to be the namesake of his short vengeful tale, an episode in the book of Judges. After tying together 300 fox tails and lighting them on fire, the great (and eventually-blinded) hero Samson kills a bunch of Philistines (Philistines!) with the jawbone of an ass. He then gets thirsty and God Provides Some Water from yon jawbone. Here is Judges 15:16, King James Version on this matter: “And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men.

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Samson with the Jawbone, 1636 by Salomon de Bray (1597 – 1664)

And here—I mean, I hope I’m not being too tacky in revealing the last line but, Lish, but—

Well, fuck, bugs – I mean, what can anyone really do?

Blog about starting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance

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I started a reread of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance this afternoon, prompted by Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell and its utopian commune setting. I don’t think I’ve read Blithedale in a dozen or so years; the copy I’m reading is from grad school. The margins brim with every sort of nonsense, every damn adjective circled, etc.

My son, seven, picked up the novel and remarked that he didn’t know that I read romances. I tried to explain Romance here; failed. Then my daughter read the blurb. I asked her what she thought and she said the she liked the betrayal part but wasn’t sure about the rest. I flipped it over and read the blurb, which I’m not sure I’d read before. The blurb is all about sex, which seems about right.

The Blithedale Romance is Hawthorne’s horniest novel. Here is a passage from just three chapters in, where protagonist Miles Coverdale conjures some delight in imagining his lively host Zenobia au naturale (right after damning domestic work altogether)—

“What a pity,” I remarked, “that the kitchen, and the housework generally, cannot be left out of our system altogether! It is odd enough that the kind of labor which falls to the lot of women is just that which chiefly distinguishes artificial life—the life of degenerated mortals—from the life of Paradise. Eve had no dinner-pot, and no clothes to mend, and no washing-day.”

“I am afraid,” said Zenobia, with mirth gleaming out of her eyes, “we shall find some difficulty in adopting the paradisiacal system for at least a month to come. Look at that snowdrift sweeping past the window! Are there any figs ripe, do you think? Have the pineapples been gathered to-day? Would you like a bread-fruit, or a cocoanut? Shall I run out and pluck you some roses? No, no, Mr. Coverdale; the only flower hereabouts is the one in my hair, which I got out of a greenhouse this morning. As for the garb of Eden,” added she, shivering playfully, “I shall not assume it till after May-day!”

Assuredly Zenobia could not have intended it,—the fault must have been entirely in my imagination. But these last words, together with something in her manner, irresistibly brought up a picture of that fine, perfectly developed figure, in Eve’s earliest garment. I almost fancied myself actually beholding it!

Ah Hawthorne! The “fault must have been entirely in my imagination,” Miles muses. That last line — “I almost fancied myself actually beholding it!” — doesn’t appear in the Gutenberg version of The Blithedale Romance I linked to above (and here too, I guess). The editors of my Penguin Classics edition note that the line was probably deleted from the original manuscript “due to Sophia Hawthorne’s prudishness.” But the line—and really, here, I mean that that adverb almost—tells us so much about our unreliable narrator, Miles Coverdale. To almost fancy beholding an imaginative vision is to have absolutely imaginatively beheld the vision, and then applied a second consciousness to the whole affair—a witness to the sinful vision, a witness who reports to one’s own awkward soul.

Coverdale is the Hawthorne-figure, or rather an ironized version of Hawthorne, who recalls his memories of his time on real-life Brook Farm, an experimental utopian community founded by Unitarian preacher George Ripley and his wife Sophia in the mid-1850s. Hawthorne brings his pessimistic bent to the whole business (failed business), but shows us this perspective though Coverdale’s Romantic, even nostalgic optimism—an optimism clouded by experience:

The better life! Possibly, it would hardly look so now; it is enough if it looked so then. The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool; the truest heroism is to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom to know when it ought to be resisted, and when to be obeyed.

Yet, after all, let us acknowledge it wiser, if not more sagacious, to follow out one’s daydream to its natural consummation, although, if the vision have been worth the having, it is certain never to be consummated otherwise than by a failure. And what of that?

So the sex of sexy Blithedale, even in its first chapters, is to be “consummated…by a failure.” But if I recall, there’s a lot of blithely lively fun in getting to that failure, and I’m enjoying Hawthorne’s often-ironic but always deeply-felt sentences, sentences that dwell on the ways in which we imagine and then try to create (and perhaps fail to create) the better life.

Blog about Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

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I have just finished Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell. This is the first novel I have read by Murdoch and I now want to read more novels by Murdoch, which I suppose is the best praise I can offer the novel.

The Bell is set primarily in Imber House, a large old mansion in the English countryside. Imber House adjoins a Benedictine abbey; this nunnery is essentially closed off to the outside world. The residents of Imber House form a “brotherhood,” a laity of would-be acolytes who strive to find spiritual meaning in the commercial and often venal world of the postwar era. Various conflicts between these characters drive the plot of The Bell.

One of these conflicts, especially notable for a novel published in 1958, involves Michael, the leader of the Imber House community. A former schoolmaster who dreamed of joining the clergy, Michael lost his job in a small scandal for “seducing” one of his students, Nick, a teenage boy at the time. Over a decade later, circumstance brings Nick to Imber House, where his twin sister Katherine is staying. Katherine plans to join Imber Abbey; in the meantime, her family hopes that the religious solitude at Imber House will help Nick recover from his alcoholism. The conflict between Michael and Nick becomes further charged when the youngest member of Imber House, a teenager named Toby, befriends both of them.

I could go on about Michael and Nick and Toby and Katherine and etc., but the real star of The Bell is Dora Greenfield, a wonderfully complicatedly simple unassuming unpretentious flighty former art student who has recently left her demanding husband Paul. Through Murdoch’s precise free indirect style, we get to inhabit Dora’s constantly vacillating mind. Like many people, Dora does not know what she is going to do, and even when she thinks through a plan, she often ends up doing the opposite of what she had intended to do. There is a hilarious passage in the novel’s first chapter when Dora goes through a lengthy imaginative exercise about giving up her train seat to an elderly woman. Dora’s thought experiment ends like this:

She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’

The blank space between those sentences highlights a radical gap between contemplation and action.

The train-seat passage is one of many humorous episodes in The Bell, but Murdoch’s humor is underwritten by a deeper menacing anxiety, which can be neatly summed up in the novel’s opening sentences:

Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.

Those opening lines basically summarize the big thematic plot of The Bell—the conflict between controlling and ultimately abusive Paul and his much younger wife. (“She married him a little for his money,” Murdoch writes just a few paragraphs in, wedging the detail between more positive aspects of Paul’s character–the “a little” is just genius there, the slightest omission from Dora’s consciousness slipping into the third-person narrator for the briefest of moments). The opening lines of The Bell also showcase Murdoch’s rhetorical powers. Her comic precision here reverberates with a hazardous undertone.

Will Dora really return to her husband? Or will she become her own person—whatever that means? The Bell satisfies these questions with complex answers. The novel has every opportunity to veer toward pat conclusions. Murdoch fills her novel with images that suggest a conventional tragic conclusions, and then surpasses these conventions, turning them into something else. A death by drowning might be foreshadowed, but someone will learn to swim; an epiphany achieved in an art museum might not meet its achievement outside of aesthetic response; the Blakean contraries of innocence and experience might be synthesized into a new, original viewpoint. There’s something real about The Bell—it offers a realism that points outside of its own literary contours. The English novelist A.S. Byatt puts it far better than I can in her essay “Shakespearean Plot in the Novels of Irish Murdoch”:

 …The Bell seems to me arguably Miss Murdoch‘s most successful attempt at realism, emotional and social—the tones of voice of the members of the religious community are beautifully caught, the sexual, aesthetic and religious passions and confusions of the three main characters, Dora, Michael, and, to a lesser extent, Toby, are delicately analysed with the combination of intellectual grasp and sensuous immediacy of George Eliot.

Byatt’s comparison to Eliot reminds me that I had intended to read Middlemarch some time this year—but to be fair to myself, I put The Bell on the same list. I won’t be reading Middlemarch next though; The Bell, with its story of a would-be utopian community, strongly reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, which I haven’t read in ages. And after I read that, I’d like to read another one by Iris Murdoch. Any recommendations?

Blog about Blog about

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For a few years now I’ve tallied the absence of words I write myself on this website, this blog, with a kind of apprehensive anxiety I don’t know how to name, let alone measure.

I used the word write in the sentence above, but the word I suppose I want, the right verb, or righter verb I want, is the blogging verb post. See, I write things—posts, riffs, bits of riffs, rants—and then I delete these things, or let them languish in a drafts folder for whatever small eternity they might be afforded. I write a bit and then decide that the world doesn’t need my (half-assed) opinion or impression or interpretation or whatever on, say—

—Don DeLillo’s novel The Names (his real 9/11 novel), or the aesthetics of breakfast in Claire-Louise Bennett’s story-novel-thing Pond, or the cinematography in Sofia Coppola’s reinterpretation of The Beguiling, or my inability to get through the first 100 pages of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, or Transcendentalism in the Predator films, or finally reading Eudora Welty’s short story “The Death of a Traveling Salesman” and being utterly stunned by its strangeness, or having to suspend all my cynicism and ironic impulses to find a spark of joy in Ava DuVernay’s film A Wrinkle in Time, or the small connections I note between Iris Murdoch’s The Bell and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, or watching Hayao Miyazaki’s film Ponyo in the theater with my children, or my strange joy in the “steamed hams” microgenre, or etc.—

—so, I guess what I’m saying is—

I’m going to try to blog on this stupid blog more, in a freer way, without the pretense of applying any kind of strong critical acumen to what I’m blogging about. For years I thought of this blog as a sketchpad. Then I started taking the reviews I wrote more seriously, then too seriously. This blog has been an excuse for me to learn about things—a kind of mixtape of quotes and art and etc.—but the more I’ve learned the more I realize that I really know almost nothing about literature and art, and that I usually cannot say what I mean to say (about how I think and feel about what I do know and don’t know about literature art) clearly, so I should do better to pass over in silence (etc.). But this silence mutates into an applied anxiety; it hangs like a big non-attempt in the shallow back of my mind—this silence is its own kind of pretension, or cowardice even, if I’m feeling cruel towards myself.

So like let’s try a Thing on this blog. What if I try to, like, just blog about something every day this month? I could title each post “Blog about X” (let X stand for any old thing—a Gordon Lish sentence that I kept tripping over, or a ditty on light in certain George Frederic Watts, or maybe my recipe for caramelized onions and peppers). How many days are in April? 30 I think? I’ll look it up later. I guess I’ll try to commit to post 30 of these things and see how that feels, although it might feel terrible and I might even let myself fall way short of that goal. This particular Easter Sunday/April Fool’s Day seems like a good day to start a bad project though—an earnest hope for fresh newness as a sort of fool’s errand. So I’ll be the fool.