Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Quoth nnyhaven Jill Lepore

This week's New Yorker includes a bicentennial consideration of Edgar A. Poe which pulls together many strands but leaves a few loose ends. As it happens, the opening conceit, along with the confluence over at The Book Bench of decoding Poe and Shakespeare authorship pegs what I was up to last year in "To Assume a Pleasing Shape" (also here in different format):
"[The Philosophy of Composition] is as much a contrivance as the poem itself. Here is a beautiful poem; it does everything a poem should do, is everything a poem should be. And here is a clever essay about the writing of a beautiful poem. Top that."
I tried (but constrained by remaining factual at least in detail).

But Ms. Lepore misses a trick or two:
"If Dupin sounds uncannily familiar, that’s because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like every other author of detective fiction, not to mention the creators of a thousand TV crime shows, is incalculably in Poe’s debt. [...] All detective stories and police procedurals begin with the intellectually imperious C. Auguste Dupin: methodical, eccentric, calculating—and insulting. We, mere readers, are so many Watsons, Hastingses, and Goodwins. Poe is the only Holmes." Or, earlier on, You love Poe or you don’t, but, either way, Poe doesn’t love you. A writer more condescending to more adoring readers would be hard to find."
Not so, as I've indicated in my reading of "The Purloined Letter": Poe drops clues for the careful reader. Also, buried in comments hereabouts, I've noted many other strands of influence: Nabokov (perhaps even forthcoming?), Borges, Pynchon; OuLiPo, nouveau roman, and surrealism via Roussel via Verne; WBYeats (whose poems similarly exceeded technical requirements, though one of these days I'll have to dig up a parody starting "Hear the whisp'ring of the belles/Southern belles!"); even Eastern Europe & Russia (most markedly Kafka & Dusty, but Bulgakov has a similar tone -- how much Poe how much Gogol how much ETAHoffman I dunno).

Another lost opportunity, in a word, is 'detective'. MobyLives notes that "Poe himself seemed to realize he’d created a genre, too, and would write two more stories featuring Dupin — The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter. One thing he can’t take credit for, though, is invention of the word 'detective.' There was no such word at the time he wrote the story. Its first appearance seems to have been around 1850 — two years after Poe’s death."
Back to Ms. Lepore:
"In February [1842], Poe wrote an unfavorable review of Dickens’s 'Barnaby Rudge,' a novel about a village idiot and his talking raven that had been published, serially, in The New-Yorker. The next month, Poe met Dickens, who was on his American tour (during which Dickens coined the phrase 'the almighty dollar')."
It happens that the OED's first cite of the noun 'detective' is in Dickens' Household Words (1850), and the first literary usage is in Bleak House (1852). And, the opening words of "The Philosophy of Composition"? 'CHARLES DICKENS, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of 'Barnaby Rudge,' says- "By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his 'Caleb Williams' backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.'"
(addendum 22.4 prompted by MS raising the perennial question, and working backwards: Dickens' writing desk and reupholstered pet raven Grip share the Rare Books room of the Philly Free Library with the only copy of the poem in Poe's hand and a cheesy augmented bust of Pallas. Draw your own conclusions.)

For all that, the New Yorker piece is well worth the time, and occasioned the connecting of several bits I've put together on this here blog.

PS recent reading: Attila Bartis' Tranquility and Walter Abish's In the Future Perfect, the opening story of which ("The English Garden") presages How German Is It ...


diversionary tactics

Andrei Codrescu has performed a signal service in providing The Posthuman Dada Guide: Lenin & Tzara Play Chess (for those in NYC, events next week here), which, arbitrarily alphabetized, pulls together strands of artistic, literary and political history into a cogent gallimaufry of dada: The PhD Guide could in itself be core reading for a collage course, prompting me to pull from the shelf the MoMA Dada catalogue (despite his disdain), Tom Stoppard's Travesties (a curious frame for some excellent set pieces) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Lenin in Zurich (last stop before Finland Station, in a sealed car detached from The Red Wheel), before hurrying to complete Thomas Nashe's Lenten Stuff in season (this last, in similar spirit, being in praise of the red herring). In appreciation, I will cavil at the missed opportunities, foremost being in not exploiting the fact that the two sports most revered in dada, chess and boxing, have merged in chessboxing; also, the omission of Sophie Taeuber in discussion of puppets (or, for that matter, of the Communist conception of their usefulness) or other mannequinistic manifestations; and of the grandmasterly virtual mechanization of chess. I'll give him a pass on sliding over the online presence of Julia Butterfly, and on space limitations preventing further explication of the language crystal, but my bemusement at the extra b Codrescu inserts in kibitz, (obscuring separate etymologies with kibbutz; in chess, an annoying onlooker giving unsolicited and often misleading advice, which often turns out to be correct, thus the chess proverb The kibitzer sees all: I've long listed my occupation, here and elsewhere, as itinerant kibitzer), was tempered when off to the OED I went, to find that the word derives from Yiddish (which I knew) from German (as I would have guessed) kiebitzen, 'to flutter over card-players', in turn from kiebitz, 'lapwing', which Graves elucidated in The White Goddess:
The Greeks called the lapwing polyplagtos, 'luring on deceitfully', and had a proverbial phrase 'more beseechful than a lapwing' which they used for artful beggars. In Wales as a boy I learned to respect the lapwing for the wonderful way in which she camouflages and conceals her eggs in an open field from any casual passer-by. At first I was fooled every time by her agonized peewit, peewit, screamed from a contrary direction to the one in which her eggs lay, and sometimes when she realized I was a nest-robber, she would flap about along the ground, pretending to have a broken wing and inviting capture. But as soon as I had found one nest I could find many. The lapwing's poetic meaning is 'Disguise the Secret' and it is her extraordinary discretion which gives her claim to sanctity. According to the Koran she was the repository of King Solomon's secrets and the most intelligent of the flock of prophetic birds that attended him.
There, I'm glad that's out in the open ... (more serendipity, the very next word in OED is kiblah, the site one faces to address the Deity, the first non-Mohammedean cite being in Stonehenge ...)

In response to Scientific American's Laughing Matters, I'll reprise my older (pre-blogging) commentary:
They say laughter is the best medicine. Now science has proved that laughing is good exercise! You know what I have to say to that? HA! That’s right, HA! I’ll bet those scientists think they’re pretty funny. I can just see them, snickering in their white labcoats: “Hey, doc! How about a sports club called ‘The Laughing Fit’?” You can believe them if you want to, but I was born a skeptic, and I’ll die a skeptic. If I die.


memory playing tricks

Thursday evening, as part of the program for Oulipo in NY, Jacques Roubaud gave a reading from the translation of The Loop, branch 2 of 6 of his 20-year memoiric [re]construction with interpolations and bifurcations, under the constraints of pre-dawn composition, truthfulness of the moment, and non-revision. Here he stuck to the main story, with two excerpts (the second the last, §50; the opening, §1, is excerpted at The Brooklyn Rail, with interpolation), before commenting on the depredations of age (command of both memory and English, in the latter case not knowing where the stress falls) and taking questions from the shop-packing audience. I asked how Memory and History play off against one another from the perspective of the Present, to which he responded that he had left behind such Theoretical Concerns in abandoning the Project (first described in the first branch, Destruction) for more particular, personal recounting. He also commented upon how the first branch had been received, readers seeking to console him for it well afterwards, how the choice of Destruction for an ENS examination was subverted by a bomb scare, and the more particular reader response when what he had recalled was at variance with the facts of the matter: To get a better sense, his translator, Jeff Fort, had travelled to the childhood home described in The Loop, only to find that he'd gotten the wrong house (and that the right one had been altered beyond recognition). Roubaud remains modest about his accomplishments, not just in his novels, but also in mathematics, poetry, and scholarship ("I just read things"), but reserves his intention in putting his prose forward. (My short take on the first branch here, the casebook thereon since moved here.)

Idlewild Books, the venue for this reading, offers about 50-50 travel guides and associated literature (current and classic); I took the opportunity to pick up both The Loop (kindly signed at my request) and Best-Translated-Bookwinner Tranquility by Attila Bartis, who will be reading there next week (I don't know that I'll be able to make it; I did not attend Wednesday's New School Oulipo panel discussion, but fortunately Andrew Hultkrans did; oh, and cf AGNI). Serendipitously, my reading for the train ride to the city was Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller. (Other March reading: Robert Graves' The White Goddess and Collected Poems ['61] [cf WLF], Robert Coover's Pricksongs & Descants, and Raymond Queneau's Eyeseas [Les Zioux] [trans Hurezanu & Kessler], selected poetry '21-'43.)