The extinction of the dodo | A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

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Dodo, 1638 by Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681)

He left the dodoes to rot, he couldn’t endure to eat their flesh. Usually, he hunted alone. But often, after months of it, the isolation would begin to change him, change his very perceptions—the jagged mountains in full daylight flaring as he watched into freak saffrons, streaming indigos, the sky his glass house, all the island his tulipomania. The voices—he insomniac, southern stars too thick for constellations teeming in faces and creatures of fable less likely than the dodo—spoke the words of sleepers, singly, coupled, in chorus. The rhythms and timbres were Dutch, but made no waking sense. Except that he thought they were warning him… scolding, angry that he couldn’t understand. Once he sat all day staring at a single white dodo’s egg in a grass hummock. The place was too remote for any foraging pig to’ve found. He waited for scratching, a first crack reaching to net the chalk surface: an emergence. Hemp gripped in the teeth of the steel snake, ready to be lit, ready to descend, sun to black-powder sea, and destroy the infant, egg of light into egg of darkness, within its first minute of amazed vision, of wet downstirred cool by these south-east trades… . Each hour he sighted down the barrel. It was then, if ever, he might have seen how the weapon made an axis potent as Earth’s own between himself and this victim, still one, inside the egg, with the ancestral chain, not to be broken out for more than its blink of world’s light. There they were, the silent egg and the crazy Dutchman, and the hookgun that linked them forever, framed, brilliantly motionless as any Vermeer. Only the sun moved: from zenith down at last behind the snaggleteeth of mountains to Indian ocean, to tarry night. The egg, without a quiver, still unhatched. He should have blasted it then where it lay: he understood that the bird would hatch before dawn. But a cycle was finished. He got to his feet, knee and hip joints in agony, head gonging with instructions from his sleeptalkers droning by, overlapping, urgent, and only limped away, piece at right shoulder arms.

Continue reading “The extinction of the dodo | A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow”

Seven new(ish) books from indie presses

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It’s summer so maybe you need some books to read. Indie presses are the bestest.

Extinction by Ashley Dawson from OR Books. This is a devastating little big book about, a sustained attack on “capitalism’s global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants, and creatures that has been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole.” We won’t be able to shop our way out of the apocalypse. (I wrote about it in more depth here).

American Candide by Mahendra Singh from Rosarium. I reviewed American Candide earlier this year on Biblioklept, writing:

Singh’s update-reboot-translation of Candide fittingly answers Voltaire’s pessimistic prescience with not just bitter affirmations of contemporary predation and evil, but also with an eye toward entertainment—to the affirmations of laughter.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (English translation by Adam Morris) from Two Lines PressIn my recent review, I wrote that

Quiet Creature on the Corner is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation. I read it and then I read it again. It’s a puzzle. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Vertigo by Joanna Walsh from DorothyThe stories here hum and hang together, evoking consciousness—consciousness’s anxieties, desires, its imaginative consolations. Vertigo is simultaneously disorienting and familiar, often quite funny, and sometimes a bit sad.

Postal Child by Joey Truman from Whisk(e)y TitNot a “bit sad” but “sad sad.” Abject and cruel and terrifying. But also…funny? Maybe?

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer with photographs by Stanislav Krupar; (English translation by Sarah Prybus). From And Other StoriesBrutal and moving reportage.

Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell (English translation by Charlotte Mandell). From VersoThree weeks reporting from hell—terse, precise, and raw. Littell functions as eyes and ears and a body, a concrete sensing thing, an immediate thing, a thing that doesn’t try to synthesize or process or otherwise mediate what is happening to him.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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I just spent the past hour reading from Tom Clark’s 1980 short story collection The Last Gas Station and Other Stories. Is this the only collection of short stories by Clark? I don’t know. Maybe I prefer not knowing. I was excited to find this at the bookstore yesterday so maybe I’ll be excited to find some other phantom collection in some eventual phantom future. Stories that are like poems, or infused by poems—or dialogues, or spirit rants, ersatz music reviews for bands that may or may not exist. Heidegger complains to Hitler; Ty Cobb gets turned on to Little Orphan Annie. Tales of sex and love and other things. Find it if you can get it.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick is a riff-novel, or a thought-novel, or an I-don’t-know-what, I mean. Is it about memory? Or is it memory?  “If only one knew what to remember or what to pretend to remember”—If I remember correctly, this is the first sentence of the novel’s second paragraph.

Mahendra Singh’s American Candide is forthcoming from Rosarium. It is funny and sad and even cruel, but also sweet (and bitter and very very funny). I’ll have a full review forthcoming closer to its pub date, but the short review is: Buy it.

I wrote about Ashley Dawson’s Extinction  a week or two ago…finished it since then and it’s a good, sad, angrifying read. I read Extinction with/against a viewing of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, and then I got sick, like, the next week, which led to a big re-read of  Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I’m better now, thanks to fantasy and manga.

“For a Coming Extinction” — W.S. Merwin

“For a Coming Extinction”
by
W.S. Merwin

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

 

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day

 

The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
Dead
And ours

 

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Our sacrifices

 

Join your word to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important

Extinction: A Radical History (Book acquired, 3.28.2016)

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I’ve been looking forward to this one. Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History is forthcoming from OR Books. Their blurb:

Some thousands of years ago, the world was home to an immense variety of large mammals. From wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers to giant ground sloths and armadillos the size of automobiles, these spectacular creatures roamed freely. Then human beings arrived. Devouring their way down the food chain as they spread across the planet, they began a process of voracious extinction that has continued to the present.

Headlines today are made by the existential threat confronting remaining large animals such as rhinos and pandas. But the devastation summoned by humans extends to humbler realms of creatures including beetles, bats and butterflies. Researchers generally agree that the current extinction rate is nothing short of catastrophic. Currently the earth is losing about a hundred species every day.

This relentless extinction, Ashley Dawson contends in a primer that combines vast scope with elegant precision, is the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole.

This attack has its genesis in the need for capital to expand relentlessly into all spheres of life. Extinction, Dawson argues, cannot be understood in isolation from a critique of our economic system. To achieve this we need to transgress the boundaries between science, environmentalism and radical politics. Extinction: A Radical History performs this task with both brio and brilliance.

The extinction of the dodo (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow)

He left the dodoes to rot, he couldn’t endure to eat their flesh. Usually, he hunted alone. But often, after months of it, the isolation would begin to change him, change his very perceptions—the jagged mountains in full daylight flaring as he watched into freak saffrons, streaming indigos, the sky his glass house, all the island his tulipomania. The voices—he insomniac, southern stars too thick for constellations teeming in faces and creatures of fable less likely than the dodo—spoke the words of sleepers, singly, coupled, in chorus. The rhythms and timbres were Dutch, but made no waking sense. Except that he thought they were warning him… scolding, angry that he couldn’t understand. Once he sat all day staring at a single white dodo’s egg in a grass hummock. The place was too remote for any foraging pig to’ve found. He waited for scratching, a first crack reaching to net the chalk surface: an emergence. Hemp gripped in the teeth of the steel snake, ready to be lit, ready to descend, sun to black-powder sea, and destroy the infant, egg of light into egg of darkness, within its first minute of amazed vision, of wet downstirred cool by these south-east trades… . Each hour he sighted down the barrel. It was then, if ever, he might have seen how the weapon made an axis potent as Earth’s own between himself and this victim, still one, inside the egg, with the ancestral chain, not to be broken out for more than its blink of world’s light. There they were, the silent egg and the crazy Dutchman, and the hookgun that linked them forever, framed, brilliantly motionless as any Vermeer. Only the sun moved: from zenith down at last behind the snaggleteeth of mountains to Indian ocean, to tarry night. The egg, without a quiver, still unhatched. He should have blasted it then where it lay: he understood that the bird would hatch before dawn. But a cycle was finished. He got to his feet, knee and hip joints in agony, head gonging with instructions from his sleeptalkers droning by, overlapping, urgent, and only limped away, piece at right shoulder arms.

Continue reading “The extinction of the dodo (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow)”

Open to All: Monumentalizing Cultural Spaces

Witold Rybczynski’s “Borrowed Time,” an interesting photo-essay published at Slate today, considers the architecture, purpose, and meaning of libraries in the “”digital world” of Google, Wikipedia, and Kindle.” Rybczynski’s essay is typical Slate writing–it picks at its topic a little bit, rifles through a few examples, and ends with an empty platitude.

The article cites Jacksonville’s own new downtown branch among several examples of a new direction in library building, arguing that the “library building boom of the last two decades is closely tied to efforts to rejuvenate downtowns. Cities can’t re-create the department stores, movie palaces, and manufacturing lofts that once made downtowns the vital centers of American metropolitan life, so they build convention centers, ballparks, museums, and concert halls instead.” Rybczynski concedes that “Retro ballparks have enjoyed success with the public,” but insists that the days of “library-as-monument” are over. Instead, he sees the library of the future as more of a social meeting place, a community center with internet access, coffee shops, and magazines–with less and less room for books.

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Jacksonville’s new Main Library (Downtown)

Although the trend that Rybczynski points out does evince a change in both the architecture and organization of the library–a trend that does reflect (relatively) recent changes in technology–I just don’t see the library losing its monumental status. Rather, I think that 21st-century notions, concepts, and constructions of what exactly a society should monumentalize, and how that culture should monumentalize whatever it decides it should monumentalize (whether it’s a sports arena, a church, a library, or a shopping mall) are changing. The purpose of a library–extending all the way back to the Library at Alexandria–is akin to (and yet, of course, different from) the purposes of churches and art and science museums: libraries serve as a nexus of a culture’s collected knowledge, and as a point of access to that knowledge. This is why the concept of a public library is extremely important, indeed vital, to a free and democratic society. Just because greater access to technology holds the possibility of displacing books does not mean that books will disappear forever and that museums will have to suddenly become glorified Starbucks. Change is normal, and a library that fails to reflect the zeitgeist of its age would cease to become a library (it would be a history museum). And yet the core mission of public libraries will (and should) remain as long as people endeavor to enter the epochs-old conversation that is human culture.

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Improbably, Rybczynski cites the “Extinction Timeline” created last year by What’s Next and Future Exploration Network as evidence that the library will certainly disappear (in 2019). While this type of thinking is fun–and I certainly get a kick out of the “Extinction Timeline”–it belongs to the realm of science fiction, not cultural criticism. Although much of what the Extinction Timeline predicts will almost certainly come about (how much longer can printed telephone directories last?) I suspect that more than half of it is tongue-in-cheek. Will “Childhood” really disappear in 2030? Will “Sit down breakfasts” become insignificant? Can “Natural Childbirth” really go away by 2038? If these guys are serious, this is teleological thinking at its worst. But perhaps I’m ludicrously old fashioned. After all, I still think that “Mending Things” (“Existence insignificant” as of 2009) is both important and worthwhile, and, in a more abstract sense, both healthy and good for people. And I’ll be mending things in 2009.

If our libraries need to be mended, or amended, rather, let’s change them in ways that suitably monumentalize and grant access to our culture. I think that the Jacksonville library alluded to in Rybczynski’s article monumentalizes the best aspects of human culture and technology, and is more than just, as Rybczynski suggests, an “urban hangout” or mere “arbiter of information.” And even if, like the Seattle Public Library, the Jacksonville Public Library is full of “street people” (Rybczynski’s contemptuous term), significantly, it is, as its stairwell mural proudly declares, “OPEN TO ALL”–a monument to democratic and egalitarian access to information.

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