Please Unplease Me: A Review of Laura Frost’s The Problem With Pleasure

First, I want to get a bad joke out of the way: it seems cruelly apt to review a scholarly text titled The Problem With Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents (Columbia UP 2013), especially one, while passionate and provocative, that may preclude pleasure for the casual reader. To be expected from a scholarly text, hence the bad joke, but Frost’s study of the vicissitudes of modernist unpleasure performs its argument quite well — The arrays of Unpleasure found in this book do delight and prod the reader in its investigations of everything from stalwart modernist topoi to perfume and farts. Frost’s mission, in her own words, is to “present the interwar debate about pleasure and the rise of unpleasure … as a new way of defining literary modernism more capaciously” (14). Frost wants to collapse the schism between the two divergent interwar poles of “high” and “low” culture and their shared mission to re-stabilize the shocked and distended interwar subject. Frost’s contribution to her field isn’t quite revolutionary, but the methods in which she ties the affect of text and media on the body is pressing and important, and carries weight outside the academy. For it is not simply that the “high” modernists wanted its world to repudiate fast & easy entertainment to engage with the post-World War One space. Rather, they wanted their readers to engage with pleasure in a different key — unpleasure. Seeing the beginnings of literary modernism with the more inclusive Unpleasure rather than Eliotian disdain or Poundian militancy allows us to see how literary modernists not only critiqued vernacular entertainment, but how  Jean Rhys, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley were themselves subject to mass cultural motifs in their own texts.  “High” and “low” culture were not as mutually exclusive as previously thought, Frost asserts, and the interwar period set the stage for our current moment of pleasure, cultural division, and technological innovation considerably more than we think.

Continue reading “Please Unplease Me: A Review of Laura Frost’s The Problem With Pleasure”

Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in America (Book Acquired, Sometime in December of 2012)


I got a little lax with these “books acquired” posts at the end of last year—chalk it up to end of semester deadlines and meetings, family-oriented holiday stuff, and an awful illness. Anyway–

Mike Chasar’s Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, new from Columbia University Press is pretty cool: it’s kind of a dialogic study of how poetry evinces (or infiltrates or collides or emerges from or is bound by) a variety of popular media. Some of the most fascinating chapters dwell on scrapbooking. Here’s Columbia U of P’s blurb:

Exploring poetry scrapbooks, old-time radio show recordings, advertising verse, corporate archives, and Hallmark greeting cards, among other unconventional sources, Mike Chasar casts American poetry as an everyday phenomenon consumed and created by a vast range of readers. He shows how American poetry in the first half of the twentieth century and its reception helped set the stage for the dynamics of popular culture and mass media today.

Poetry was then part and parcel of American popular culture, spreading rapidly as the consumer economy expanded and companies exploited its profit-making potential. Poetry also offered ordinary Americans creative, emotional, political, and intellectual modes of expression, whether through scrapbooking, participation in radio programs, or poetry contests. Reenvisioning the uses of twentieth-century poetry, Chasar provides a richer understanding of the innovations of modernist and avant-garde poets and the American reading public’s sophisticated powers of feeling and perception.

A couple of snaps from the book—pics of pages from one of those scrapbooks—





Modernism at the Barricades (Book Acquired, Some Weeks Ago)



I’ve been digging Stephen Eric Bronner’s tight synthesis of modernism, Modernism at the Barricades, which traces the historical rise of expressionism, futurism, surrealism and more against the political, social, and historical backdrop of the emerging 20th century. Bronner’s book is a sharp but concise primer of sorts, using examples like the correspondence between Schoenberg and Kandinsky and the paintings of Emil Nolde to illuminate the big concepts and cultural aims of different modernist movements. Photographs, prints, and posters (like the proclamation below) help to illustrate Bronner’s chapters as well.

The Revolution of the World Proclamation — Eugene Jolas (1929)

Bronner’s book would make a handy starting point to any student beginning a study of modernism. It doesn’t try to exhaustively account for each and every modernist, but neither does it forsake specificity in favor of a broad overview. Best of all, Bronner is clear and concise, an attribute which unfortunately is all too rare in academic writing. There’s a lucid sensibility that seems to govern the book, which we can see from its earliest chapter. Here Bronner delineates modernism’s cultural project and at the same time points out some of modernism’s own shortsightedness:

Modernism would call into question every aspect of modern life, from the architecture through which our apartments are designed, to the furniture in which we sit, to the comic books our children read, to the films we watch and the museums we visit, to the experience of time and individual possibility that mark our lives. Modernists may have believed that they were contesting modernity, but their efforts and their hopes were shaped by it. Their activities legitimated what they intended to oppose. Their critique, in short, presupposed its object. Modernists believed that they were contesting tradition in the name of the new and the constraints of everyday life in the name of multiplied experience and individual freedom. These artists were essentially anarchists imbued with what Georg Lukács termed “romantic anti-capitalism.”

They opposed the “system” without understanding how it worked or what radical political transformation required and implied. Oddly, they never understood how deeply they were enmeshed in what they opposed. Modernists envisioned an apocalypse that had no place for institutions or agents generated within modernity. Theirs was less a concern with class consciousness than an opposition to the alienating and reifying constraints of modernity. Unfettered freedom of expression and a transformation in the experience of everyday life were the modernists’ goals. Even when seduced by totalitarian movements, whether of the left or the right, most of them despised what Czeslaw Milosz called the“captive mind.” Not all the problems that they uncovered—sexual repression and generational conflicts, among others—required utopian solutions. But their utopian inclinations were transparent from the beginning. Modernists believed that the new would not come from within modernity, but would appear as an external event or force for which, culturally, the vanguard would act as a catalyst.

Good stuff. Modernism at the Barricades is new in hardback from Columbia University Press.


The Dao of the Military (Book Acquired, 8.27.2012)



The Dao of the Military: Liu An’s Art of War is new in translation by Andrew Seth Meyer from Columbia University Press. Their blurbs:

The Dao of the Military makes a welcome addition to the growing literature on early Chinese strategy. The translation is exacting and felicitous. It should serve well for those interested in the history of Chinese thought and Chinese military thought.” — Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania

The Dao of the Military summarizes and reflects on many aspects of the theory and practice of warfare developed in the Warring States period. It incorporates much of the theorizing of several traditions of military thought not well represented in the Seven Military Classics, and it is an important and valuable treatise that enriches our understanding of the history of Chinese military theory, the military tradition, Chinese intellectual history, and early China studies.” — Robin D. S. Yates, McGill University

The Dao of the Military is a valuable addition to the body of early China’s military texts available in English. Meyer’s learned introduction and admirably readable translation provide new and fascinating insights into the intellectual world and the military thinking of ancient Chinese philosophers. It is an essential read for everyone interested in how the Chinese tradition has understood warfare.” — Nicola Di Cosmo, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University


Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale (Book Acquired, 8.06.2012)


I haven’t read any of Nagai Kafu’s 1917 novel Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale (new in paperback from Columbia University Press in translation from Stephen Snyder) because my wife immediately took it and started reading it. I think she’s almost finished with it. I can only assume it involves some kind of rivalry, probably between geisha. I’ll ask her (the following is a more or less an accurate transcription of wife’s comments to me from the kitchen as she prepared some kind of corn salad):

Um, it’s about this geisha, who, when she was like 17, 18 became a geisha, then got married and moved out to the country, this is like in her early 20s, and after a couple of years her husband died, so she went back to Tokyo back to her old geisha house and ran into one of her former, um, clients, and he fell in love with her like immediately so they started a relationship but she fell in love with an actor, but then, I’m not finished with it, but the client found out about the affair, so he’s going to patronize this rival geisha. Which I guess is why, Rivalry.

Do you like it?

I mean, it’s what you’d expect from a geisha book, I mean it’s about a geisha. It’s a good geisha story.

My wife reports she’s about half way through it and wants to find out how it will end.

Books Acquired, This Week and Last


Reading for Our Time by J. Hillis Miller from Columbia University Press. Their copy:

A masterclass in attentive reading that opens up brilliant insights into two of George Eliot’s novels. J. Hillis Miller shows how reading Eliot’s great novels Adam Bede and Middlemarch can provide the pleasure and insight unique to reading fiction. The readings focus on famous passages in which the narrator reflects about the story and its characters. What do these passages really say? What role does Eliot’s figurative language play in her storytelling? These stories deal with uncovering their characters’ ideological illusions. By understanding how to expose these illusions, readers will be able to recognize how easy it is to be taken in by such mistakes, both in the personal and in the political worlds.


Mary S. Lovell’s The Churchills is new in trade paperback from Norton. From the LA Times review:

Intelligent and well-written, like all of Mary S. Lovell’s biographies, “The Churchills” provides a vivid introduction to the family of English aristocrats whose nation-preserving achievements stretch from the Battle of Blenheim to the Battle of Britain and beyond. The Churchills are a much-chronicled clan, and although footnotes indicate that Lovell has read all the relevant books and delved into vast archives of personal papers, there’s nothing startlingly new here. Instead, as she did in “The Mitford Girls,” the author synthesizes a variety of familiar material to create a lively collective portrait.


Diane Keaton’s memoir is out in trade paperback. It’s a handsome book with stylish color inserts. New from Random House.


 Great cover on A Simple Murder, new from Eleanor Kuhns. Publisher Minotaur/Macmillan’s write-up:

Five years ago, while William Rees was still recovering from his stint as a Revolutionary War soldier, his beloved wife died. Devastated, Rees left his son, David, in his sister’s care, fled his Maine farm, and struck out for a tough but emotionally empty life as a traveling weaver. Now, upon returning unexpectedly to his farm, Rees discovers that David has been treated like a serf for years and finally ran away to join a secluded religious sect—the Shakers.

Overwhelmed by guilt and hoping to reconcile with his son, Rees immediately follows David to the Shaker community. But when a young Shaker woman is brutally murdered shortly after Rees’s arrival, Rees finds himself launched into a complicated investigation where the bodies keep multiplying, a tangled web of family connections casts suspicion on everyone, and the beautiful woman on the edge of the Shaker community might be hiding troubling ties to the victims. It quickly becomes clear that in solving Sister Chastity’s murder, Rees may well expose some of the Shaker community’s darkest secrets, not to mention endanger his own life.

An atmospheric portrait of a compelling time in American history, A Simple Murder is an outstanding debut from Eleanor Kuhns, Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America’s 2011 First Crime Novel Competition Winner.

Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will — David Foster Wallace

Sometime last year, during a rare visit to a big chain bookstore, I was disgusted to see what had happened to David Foster Wallace’s amazing Kenyon College commencement speech, “This Is Water.” Wallace’s speech, about 3,815 words, give or take (maybe twelve standard typed pages), was being sold as a 144 page hardback volume with only a sentence or two printed per page. The book was (and is) a nakedly commercial attempt to turn a text that is widely available on the web into the sort of thing that well-meaning uncles give to their nephews or nieces as graduation gifts. Of course, hardcore Wallace fans might want such a book — and I’d never begrudge them that — but it’s hard to imagine that Wallace would have been comfortable with how his book was marketed.

Which brings us to Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, new from Columbia University Press this week. The book publishes the 1985 honors thesis that Wallace submitted to the Amherst College’s Department of Philosophy, “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality.” The essay’s title alone signals a prohibitive level of academic specialization. In his introductory essay to the volume, “A Head That Throbbed Heartlike,” New York Times Magazine editor James Ryerson points out, “Its obscurity is easy to appreciate. A highly specialized, seventy-six page work of logic, semantics, and metaphysics, it is not for the philosophically faint of heart.” Ryerson then warns his reader to “Brace yourself for a sample sentence,” before offering a sample from Wallace’s essay that I do not have the patience or fortitude to type out (it would take me too long to locate all the diacritical marks and special logic symbols). Ryerson concludes the paragraph with this wry remark: “There are reasons that he’s better known for an essay about a cruise ship.”

Fortunately, the editors of Fate, Time, and Language make every effort to contextualize Wallace’s essay in a way that explains its aims, strengths, and even shortcomings. There’s Ryerson’s lengthy introduction, which provides an overview to Wallace’s life in philosophy. Then there’s Taylor’s “Fatalism” of course, a short, provocative argument combining six presuppositions that led Taylor to declare that humans have no control — none, whatsoever — over any future event. The volume collects four other essays by Taylor on fatalism, as well as eight other essays responding to his arguments, before delivering Wallace’s essay (the longest in the collection). Here’s Wallace—

So Taylor’s central claim, the Taylor problem, is that just a few basic logical and semantic presuppositions, regarded as uncontroversially true by most philosophers, lead directly to the metaphysical conclusion that human beings, agents, have no control over what is going to happen.

I ain’t even gonna front–pretty much everything that Wallace says after this was lost on me; if you want to read and comprehend the details of his argument you will need to have a grasp on the basics of Montague grammar and tensed modal logic. If you lack these skills, there will be skimming. Lots and lots of skimming. So, in short, I have no ideawhether Wallace’s logic is sound, although I find his conclusion (minus all the modal evidence) quite compelling—

This essay’s semantic analysis has shown that Taylor’s proof doesn’t “force” fatalism on us at all. We should now recall that Taylor was offering a very curious sort of argument: a semantic argument for ametaphysical conclusion. In light of what we’ve seen about the semantics of physical modality, I hold that Taylor’s semantic argument does not in fact yield his metaphysical conclusion.

After Wallace’s honors thesis, there’s a wonderful little memoir essay by his adviser on the project, Jay L. Garfield, who offers up this nugget—

I knew at the time, as I mention above, that David was also writing a novel as a thesis in English. But I never took that seriously. I though of David as a very talented young philosopher with a writing hobby, and did not realize that he was instead one of the most talented fiction writers of his generation who had a philosophy hobby.

These little pockets of insight appeal to me most in Fate, Time, and Language, and as such, Ryerson’s essay “A Head That Throbbed Heartlike” is the highpoint of the book. It weaves together Wallace’s personal life, writing career, and academic pursuits into a moving elegy of sorts, although one more rooted in ideas than feelings. He also spells out the book’s mission quite clearly—

For all its seeming inscrutability, though, the thesis is lucidly argued and–with some patience and industry on the part of the lay reader–ultimately accessible, which is welcome news for those looking to deepen their understanding of Wallace. The paper offers a point of entry into an overlooked aspect of his intellectual life: a serious early engagement with philosophy that would play a lasting role in his work and thought, including his ideas about the purpose and possibilities of fiction.

Many of us might shudder at the idea of our college essays being published posthumously. Of course, most of us aren’t Wallace, but there are undoubtedly critics out there who will cry foul at this publication. Fortunately, the team behind Fate, Time, and Language has produced a book of remarkable integrity, one that understands why it exists, readily acknowledges its obscurity without trying to gloss over that obscurity, and makes every effort to communicate with and engage its readers without sacrificing erudition. To return to my opening anecdote, this is not the naked commercialism that motivated a gimmicky edition This Is Water; rather, this is a book delivered by people who genuinely care about Wallace and his ideas. Make no mistake–it’s very dry and very specialized, but fanatics will no doubt want it.