Serviceable sentences, 60/10,000

When there is a question of meaning, instead of looking to the dictionaries, one should look at etymologies.
—Dr. Joseph Suglia, “A Few Words of Introduction to PRINCIPLES OF ENGLISH USAGE: STANDARD WRITTEN AMERICAN ENGLISH” (15 April 2018)

(Solid advice. Get thee, fair reader, to the Online Etymology Dictionary—that is, if you don’t have a copy of Skeat, Partridge, or Barnhart.)


“Man has won a battle against chaos”


“The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”
“So it is,” said Mr. Syme.
“Nonsense!” said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox. “Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”
“It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!”
“Must you go?” inquired Gregory sarcastically.
“I tell you,” went on Syme with passion, “that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word ‘Victoria,’ it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed ‘Victoria’; it is the victory of Adam.”
—G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)

On hyper-racism & speciation, pt. 2

On hyper-racism & speciation, pt. 2

Do not, gentle reader, think that I’ve forgotten about my earlier unsavory post on this subject, or my equally unsavory commitment to a post on “hyper-racism” in The Book of Mormon.

I haven’t forgotten. I’m actively avoiding it, so I don’t have to write sentences like these:

“[ineffectual prepositional clause of moral handwringing], there is a wealth of textual evidence, especially for Mormons, suggesting that otherness, racial paranoia, discrimination up to the point of genocide, and neo-speciation—that is, exit pursued at the genetic level, either through isolation & time, gene-editing, or divine intervention—these are capital-D Divine tools used to achieve the ends of providential Xtianity. God smirks (yes, He smirks) when he reads (yes, He reads) a passage like the following, from Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1849),

For the most part, a civilized white man can discover but very few points of sympathy between his own nature and that of an Indian. With every disposition to do justice to their good qualities, he must be conscious that an impassible gulf lies between him and his red brethren of the prairie. Nay, so alien to himself do they appear, that having breathed for a few months or a few weeks the air of this region, he begins to look upon them as a troublesome and dangerous species of wild beast, and if expedient, he could shoot them with as little compunction as they themselves would experience after performing the same office upon him.

“because his plan of cursing Native Americans with a sore cursing, so that ‘they shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in the ways of remembrance,’ is working out just fine.” I don’t want to write stuff like that.

But I should at least, in light of recent news that the first human embryos have been edited in the U.S., draw your attention to poet Ronald Johnson, and his farsightedness when he said that “the old God may have had his home in church, but the new one lives at M.I.T.

He’s right. Except that he’s wrong—the location has changed, but it’s the same God up to his old tricks. Any guesses on who’s going to get scourged?

Pynchon on “the three American truths”

They began as fur traders, cordwainers, salters and smokers of bacon, went on into glassmaking, became selectmen, builders of tanneries, quarriers of marble. Country for miles around gone to necropolis, gray with marble dust, dust that was the breaths, the ghosts, of all those fake-Athenian monuments going up elsewhere across the Republic. Always elsewhere. The money seeping its way out through stock portfolios more intricate than any genealogy: what stayed at home in Berkshire went into timberland whose diminishing green reaches were converted acres at a clip into paper—toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word. They were not aristocrats, no Slothrop ever made it into the Social Register or the Somerset Club—they carried on their enterprise in silence, assimilated in life to the dynamic that surrounded them thoroughly as in death they would be to churchyard earth. Shit, money, and the Word, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country’s fate.
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). My emphasis.

Lish & Bloom (& McCarthy & personality & a cameo by Trump)

GORDON LISH, novelist and editor at Alfred A. Knopf.
Where: “I never take a vacation.”
What: “This summer, I will read for the fifth time Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. It’s a psychoanalytic reading of the soul. I will read for the third time Harold Bloom’s Poetry and Repression, and for the fourth time Harold Bloom’s Ruin the Sacred Truths. And of course I’ll be rereading my own stuff, for something like the eighty-fourth time. Why? I quote Harold Bloom: He advocates that ‘strong poets’ only read themselves.”

Donald Trump, author, The Art of the Deal (Random House).
Where: Never takes a vacation.
What: The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy. The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, by Bob Woodward. Disclosure, by Michael Crichton.
—Matthew Flamm, “Page Turners: What Lish and Brodkey, Koch and Kunstler, Ivana and Donald, and Beavis and Butt-head are taking to the beach,” New York Magazine (27 June-4 July 1994)

[Rob Trucks:Your influence as an editor and a teacher has been well documented, but what writers have had an influence on your own work?
[Gordon Lish:] I think if I were to speak to the question of writers that have influenced me, it would be convenient to deflect the force of the question by citing philosophers I read who have, in fact, influenced me enormously, and I cite on of them, in fact, in the novel that brought you to my doorstep, Epigraph, which is to say Julia Kristeva with specific respect to her book Powers of Horror. But it’s fiction writers that you’re looking for.
Not necessarily. Kristeva’s obviously important and I’m certainly curious as to her influence. You mention her as far back as Zimzum, and she has the epigraph to Epigraph.
I want to make it very clear that her fiction certainly has not amused me in any kind of way, but I’m able to read it. But, of course, I wouldn’t even attempt to read it given that I would have to then be reading into English and I’m willing to take the view that any writing of any prospect of making its way with me would have to have been done in English. The kinds of things I’m looking for in a piece of writing can only have been put there by somebody writing in English, or writing in American English.
I read and reread Gilles Deleuze’s Thousand Plateaus. I read everything I can by Deleuze and Guattari. Giorgio Agamven [sic] I’ve read all of and reread and am rereading now. That would be true of at least two Kristeva titles, Powers of Horror and Strangers to Ourselves. I think I’ve read that one three times. I’ve read all of Bloom several times. That is to say, I’m not interested in Bloom, the critic, but Bloom, the theoretician, yes. I’ve read all of Donoghue. I don’t think there’s anybody writing English sentences that produces better ones that [sic] Donoghue.
The authors you mentioned, except for Bloom and Donoghue, all write in other languages, yet you said that you were only interested in American fiction writers. That rule obviously doesn’t apply to philosophy.
Yes, all are in translation with the sole exception of Bloom and Donoghue.
Among fiction writers, living fiction writers, none would be more immediately retrieved by me across that paddle of responses that would count more than DeLillo, surely. And then secondarily, Ozick. I would be a liar if I were to fail to remark the affection that I have had for certain of Harold Brodkey’s short pieces, so called. … I read Brodkey’s novel, A Party of Animals, in manuscript, over the course of one night … started reading it about seven and … stayed with it, I suppose, pretty incessantly until ten that morning, having completed the reading of well over a thousand pages and coming to the view that this was the surpassing novel by an American of the century.
I would now amend that view, holding Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for that post, for that distinction, if my reading of these things has any value at all.
You’re speaking to me on a day when I feel myself rather more vacant from myself than I have ordinarily felt, but each day I’m getting the sense of losing my purchase on that personality that I had sought so hard to disguise myself within and to present myself under the auspices of, and I don’t do that anymore, or I’m losing my grasp on that presentation of myself, and I’m willing to therefore offer, with my comments, the ironic interpretation that they may be completely without value. I mean, everybody else may come to that view, but I know I have come more and more, certainly, to that view.
But anyhow, “influence” is a considerable word and requires every kind of examination, and one does not want to give it, but in an “in my face” or “in your face” kind of way, Brodkey’s fictions and DeLillo’s fictions and Ozick’s fictions and McCarthy, with particular respect to that book Blood Meridian and alternatively Outer Dark, I find them unbudgeable acmes of expression in the language and cannot claim that, as distant as my work may seem from any of the aforementioned, that they are not, to a greater extent than anything else I might posit, on my mind as I write. Is this work, in its appetite, rather to say its absence of appetite, does it make a legitimate claim to a place in the national literature alongside a Blood Meridian? That’s a most disturbing question.
What I’m trying to get at is that what I want from my own activities as a writer is, to put it plainest, everything. What I want is some kind of sufficiency in reply to the incommensurable insult of death. I want everything from the page and reckon that, even though my everything may be an entirely different coloration than McCarthy’s everything, there is an absolutism, or an ultimacy, in which these artifacts can be measured, one to the other. To find oneself insufficient in the face of that, insufficient in the face of DeLillo’s 1,414-page manuscript for the novel Underworld or DeLillo’s Mao II, which I’ve just read for the fourth time, is distracting at the very least.
Is it disabling? Not quite disabling. So it appears because I continue to scribble away, and not without, I beg you to believe, the intention that the mark made by these works will be competitive. I don’t wish to make the claim that my aims exist apart from what is also in that category. I’m not willing to say that I write for myself. I’m not willing to say I write for God. I’m not willing to say I write without a great concern to see the work translated into time and space and therefore occupying, maybe not making, a place for itself with other works that have made themselves.
I don’t think I will ever, given on the one hand the terms of my ambitions and on the other hand the terms of my limitations, however much I may believe absolutely in the Swinburnian notion that one stands on his limitation, one stands on his limitude, and in standing on his limitude one shall be as lavish as one requires. It’s only from standing on one’s limitude that one can achieve that absolute lavishness. Despite all that, I’m not disabled but am much dismayed to reckon with my failing limitations, my failing powers to face my limitations, as measured against these acmes that I’ve remarked: DeLillo, Brodkey, McCarthy, and Ozick.
—Rob Trucks, “A Conversation with Gordon Lish [1997],” The Pleasure of Influence: Conversations with American Male Fiction Writers (2002). My emphasis.

Harold Bloom: I read it [Blood Meridian] on the recommendation of a friend, Gordon Lish, a New York book editor and a specialist in fiction. He said that it was a very splendid work, but that he was always appalled by the violence of it, and I wondered what he meant. … The first time I read Blood Meridian, I was so appalled that while I was held, I gave up after about 60 pages. I don’t think I was feeling very well then anyway; my health was going through a bad time, and it was more than I could take. But it intrigued me, because there was no question about the quality of the writing, which is stunning. So I went back a second time, and I got, I don’t remember … 140, 150 pages, and then, I think it was the Judge who got me. He was beginning to give me nightmares just as he gives the kid nightmares. And then the third time, it went off like a shot. I went straight through it and was exhilarated. I said, “My God! This reminds me of Thomas Pynchon at his best, or Nathanael West.” … I finally wrote something about it, and I was contacted by his people at Random House; they were going to put out a nice cloth-bound library version of it, and they requested to put what I had to say about it in a book called How To Read And Why in as an introduction, and I of course consented.
—Leonard Pierce, “Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian,” A.V. Club (15 June 2009)

Gordon Lish: Bloom and I had been great, good pals for a number of years; and that friendship came to a very abrupt end, not without relation to a list of writers he proposed special attention be accorded, and given that that list included on it rather robustly non-Bardic poets of the order of Rita Dove, and failed to cite Jack Gilbert for example, I found a breach of judgment of an unforgivable kind. Such a breach was one of not a few of same, and I didn’t feel I could maintain relations with Bloom with honor. […] I could not let myself keep myself in a friendly relation to him subsequent to the list that he, for whatever reasons that he was persuaded to publish it, did publish.
—Douglas Glover, “Causing Damage—Captain Fiction Redivivus: DG Interview With Gordon Lish,” Numéro Cinq (11 December 2012); qtd. in (& transcribed by) Jacob Siefring, “‘A Breach of Judgment of an Unforgiveable Kind,'” bibliomanic (28 February 2014)

C[hristian ]L[orentzen:] How can you tell what’s good? How can you tell shit from Shinola?
G[ordon ]L[ish:] Because I’ve got the fucking gift for it. Instinct, call it. Whatever the property, in truth or in delusion, I depend on it. Without a hitch. I would regard myself as infallibly able to make distinctions between this and that, distinctions others would either not make or would withdraw from acknowledging. I would think, How can they not see? I would sit with Harold Bloom with some regularity, hand over a book I thought highly of, say, by Jack Gilbert or McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and wait for him to refuse even to look. Or if he did look, he’d not seem to see in it what I’d see. Later, when he was assembling his western canon, he stuck in, I believe, Blood Meridian and the great Suttree. All of McCarthy is great, save perhaps the novels that were so widely read – All the Pretty Horses and The Orchard Keeper. These determinations I make, rightly or wrongly, don’t come about by close study but rather by sense, in the instant, no room for a second thought. My tampering, if that’s the word, with this or that is an act I undertake by reason of the same sensation. Is it intuition? Or is it an act of recognising? I feel I know something – in the Gnostic manner, say. I cannot be talked out of it, nor, for wage’s sake or to hide in the general opinion, talked into it. I don’t go along – but am furious when others don’t go along with me. How can they not revere what I revere? How is it that my gods are invisible to them? It’s inexcusable but, of course, wretchedly expectable. Am I a zealot, a terrorist, out on my own limb? Yes, with a vengeance!
—Christian Lorentzen, “Gordon Lish: ‘Had I not revised Carver, would he be paid the attention given him? Baloney!” The Guardian (5 December 2015)

Lish says he has already written another book but he won’t talk about it. Yet he says he’s not a writer and told the Paris Review in 2015 that he has “no stake in… being thought of as a writer.” So why, as an editor with famously exacting standards, does he write? “I’m accused, and I have no alibi for doing so,” Lish says. “It keeps me busy. There’s a Yiddish word, potzer: somebody who horses around, plays, moves a thing here, moves a thing there—who devises what would seem a personality via language. But do I have, can I do, any of the things those people I admire do? No, not by a long chalk.”

“I used to hang around with [Denis] Donoghue and [Harold] Bloom,” he [Gordon Lish] says. “We’d have lunch a couple of times a week, and also with Harold Brodkey and Don DeLillo. Bloom would toss a new book back at you and then two decades later write an introduction and say what a great book it was. I find that behavior shameless.” Rhapsodizing about the long dead is easy, he says, but critics should have “no alibi in not being able to apprehend excellence right off the bat.” He adds: “If not, then fuck them! What are they doing as critics?”
—Liz Thomson, “Gordon Lish is Still Vibrant After All These Years,” Publishers Weekly (30 June 2017). My emphasis.

Elder Dr. Faustus

On the trail of Mormon qabbalism (this, not this), or perhaps on the edge of it’s abyss. Either way, it is an occulted thing (MORMON QABBALISM = 299 = ABYSMAL DARKNESS) that rarely emerges from the brume. But sometimes it does:

I am profoundly grateful for the law of tithing. … It is so simple and straightforward. It consists of 35 words set forth in section 119 of the Doctrine and Covenants. What a contrast with the cumbersome, complex, and difficult tax codes with which we live as citizens.
—Gordon B. Hinckley, “Of Missions, Temples, and Stewardship,” General Conference, October 1995, Priesthood Session. (my emphasis)

In case you, gentle reader, think I’m making more of this than there is, consider two injunctions from Doctor Faustus, to whom Mormon qabbalism is joined (MORMON QABBALISM = 299 = DOCTOR FAUSTUS): “These are but shadows, not substantial” & “Be silent then, for danger is in words.”

Christensen on Hollander’s qabbalistic poetics

Many of [John] Hollander’s unique lyric structures are based on prime numbers and their factorials. Among others, Hollander’s partiality for prime numbers is evident in spy-master Cupcake’s “eleven-phase transposition grid,” in Reflections on Espionage, and in the thirteen-syllable line throughout Powers of Thirteen. Moreover, two of the major sequences, Spectral Emanations and Powers of Thirteen are built on factorials of prime numbers (7 and 13 respectively). … At three moments in this half-century of publication, Hollander has marked out the scope of his achievement with Selected Poems (1972, 1978, and 1993), with only thirteen poems common to all three editions.*
*Thirteen is a number significant to Hollander, who discovered, in the course of writing Powers of Thirteen, that the initial letters of his name, first and last, add up to thirteen. The thirteen poems are “For Both of You”; “The Great Bear”; “Movie-Going”; “Digging It Out”; “Off Marblehead”; “The Ninth of July”; “Sunday Evenings”: “From the Ramble”; “The Night Mirror”; “Under Cancer”; “Granny Smith”; “Adam’s Task”; and “The Head of the Bed.”
—Philip H. Christensen, “John Hollander’s Selected Poems (1972, 1978, and 1993) and the Necessity of ‘Preparing a Perpetual Calendar,’” in Hélène Aji & Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec (eds.), Selected Poems: From Modernism to Now (2012; my emphasis).

Davenport on Davidson

I picked up a copy of Avram Davidson‘s Rork! a few days ago, on the strength of Peregrine PrimusThe Phoenix and the Mirror, & that one Wolfe blurb. Pick up any and every copy of Davidson that crosses your path. (EDIT: Found & purchased a copy of Mutiny in Space a week later—I practice what I preach.) They seem to be on the wane these days, and far fewer of them cross my path here in TX than in other places I’ve lived. (How does that accord with your experience of Davidson on the shelves, gentle readers?)

Guy Davenport is another champion of Davidson, and I found the following comments in his letters to James Laughlin. If you’re not a reader of Davidson—and so not interested in Davenport’s glasperlenspiel, playing him alongside Tolstoy, Perelman, Twain, Burton, Pliny the Elder, Montaigne, & Hakluyt—the anecdote in the first letter about nonrecognition & dead mafioso is well worth your time.

Lovely as your letter is today, and the jacket design, I was most pleased to have a letter from Avram Davidson, dictated to a hospital orderly, and brief but pithy. Avram on his 70th birthday a month ago collapsed with a diabetic attack and lay on his floor for two days before he was found. I’d tracked him (I believe I said in my last letter) to a Bremerton WA hospital. He sounds brave and chipper. I’d talked last week with his nurse, and told her Avram was a very distinguished writer, “just a notch or two below Tolstoy,” which I’d thought was a practical hyperbole. The nurse got this all mixed up, and thought Avram lived in Bremerton near the Tolstoys, and asked what kind of neighbors they were.
Nonrecognition of the great always causes high comedy. Do you remember the Mafioso who was executed by fellow business partners on his doorsteps in NY (back in WW II)? He has in his pocket a list of names (presumably to buy art books as Xmas presents for a daughter). Anyway, the FBI sent out an all-points alert to bring in Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Duccio di Buoninsegna. Shoot on sight.
—Guy Davenport, “[Letter to James Laughlin],” (7 May 1993; my emphasis)

One of the things in today’s mail was Avram Davidson’s Adventures in Unhistory (Owlswick), signed. Avram died four days ago, just beyond his 70th birthday. He had a diabetes attack, went into a coma, lay on his floor for 2½ days, but had been dismissed from a hospital and put in a nursing home. I had a scrawled letter from him, which I’m still trying to decipher, and a dictated one. He was reading my Drummer. He must have signed my copy of his new book just before the collapse. I wonder if the Times did an obit? I would place him beside Perelman as a humorist and close to Mark Twain as a compounder of the fantastic and the absurd.
—Guy Davenport, “[Letter to James Laughlin]” (13 May 1993)

I’ve finished Avram’s book—Studies in Unhistory—that came out while he was dying. It’s for people who delight in Burton (Robt, of the Anatomy), Pliny the Elder, Montaigne, and Hakluyt. Each essay comes up with an unlikely origin for the mandrake, dragons, mermaids, werewolves, and such. A book for bright teenagers, and old codgers nodding by the fire.
—Guy Davenport, “[Letter to James Laughlin]” (17[-18] May 1993; my emphasis)

(All letters excerpted from Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters [2007].)

Bromwich & Green on two “personifications of psychic forces”

In Leviathan Hobbes said that what we call the ‘deliberation’ of the will is nothing but ‘the last appetite, or aversion, immediately adhering to’ an action. Whatever the general truth of the analysis, Trump’s process of thought works like that. If Obama often seemed an image of deliberation without appetite, Trump has always been the reverse. For him, there is no time to linger: from the first thought to the first motion is a matter of seconds; the last aversion or appetite triggers the jump to the deed.
—David Bromwich, “Act One, Scene One,” London Review of Books (16 February 2017)

Indeed this was ever Loki’s way, for he took such a delight in mischief that he would often do whatever came into his head, without counting the cost.
—Roger Lancelyn Green, Myths of the Norsemen (1960)

(The headnote quotes Jung’s “Essay on Wotan“; quoted in Corey Pein’s “Donald Trump, Trickster God.”)