Whenever I dip into Ulysses I always wonder why I'm not reading it all the time. Shakespeare is the only other writer who can make me feel that way. M...moreWhenever I dip into Ulysses I always wonder why I'm not reading it all the time. Shakespeare is the only other writer who can make me feel that way. My first reading was probably the headiest literary experience of my life. The crotchety professor of a freshman year Russian Lit survey followed his comparison of the narrator of Babel's Red Cavalry to Leopold Bloom with a taunt that went something like: "but who of you know who Leopold Bloom is?" So challenged, I started out on a reading that would take about 3 months, with Nabokov's lecture and Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (and later, Gifford's Annotations to Ulysses) along for help. I will always associate the first three episodes with the hum of dorm basement driers (come to think of it, I associate The Master and Margarita and The Defense with that laundry room, too). Senior year I devoted two months of luxurious attention to Ulysses in class whose syllabus also included Lolita and Herzog, thus the most enjoyable fiction class conceivable. I go back it occasionally, to re-read my favorite episodes ("Hades," "The Wandering Rocks" and "Nausicaa"), but I need to do it all again.
Some things I cherish:
--Mrs. Daedalus's "tasselled dancecards, powdered with musk."
--"A young man clinging to a spur of rock near him moved slowly frogwise his green legs in the deep jelly of the water."
--Stephen's and Dilly's exchange at the bookcarts.
--Bloom's thoughts during Digman's funeral.
--The Man in The Macintosh.
--The part in Nighttown when the Nymph whose image Bloom had torn from a picture magazine comes alive thanks him for rescuing her from the vile company of advertisements and cheap stories. (less)
The consuming readability of this autobiography, coming as it does after a trilogy of some of the most revealing autobiographical fiction in American...moreThe consuming readability of this autobiography, coming as it does after a trilogy of some of the most revealing autobiographical fiction in American literature, is a testament to White's skill as a storyteller. We've heard most of these stories before, but they're still fascinating, and White tells them in a new way: the slower, more dramatized pace of the novels is replaced here with a fast, breezy, talky narrative, gossipy sketches and summaries, swiftly branching yarns. I just re-read the chapter "My Mother" and the stories of her Texas roots struck me as if I hadn't already known them for years. A tour de force. (less)
Out west, the complex responses to industrialization and its transformation of time and space include things never dealt with by the impressionist pai...moreOut west, the complex responses to industrialization and its transformation of time and space include things never dealt with by the impressionist painters and avant-garde poets usually talked of as modernist, include Indian wars and identity shifts, a landscape being claimed and renamed, photography as art, and a comic literature.
Rebecca Solnit doesn’t explicitly oppose the history of San Francisco to Walter Benjamin’s characterization of Paris as “capitol of the nineteenth century” (Baudelaire and Manet, those painters of modern life, are a bit hard to dismiss), but there’s no mistaking her view that the photographic genius and railroad fortunes gathered to California in the late nineteenth century helped seed the most intense and influential of all the mass cultural upheavals precipitated by the Promethean shit Europe and Euro-America were tinkering with. I’m usually wary of big theses like this. George Steiner argues that the nervous style of Austria-Hungary’s urban Jewish intelligentsia provide the mopey whining and self-derisory shtick of Smart People Today, which is true. Some other book argues that Enlightenment Edinburgh in the persons of Adam Smith and David Hume made the modern consciousness of godless mercantilism, which might also be true. And at some point, I hear, the Irish Saved Civilization. It’s impossible to be so mocking about Solnit because she has a vision of things rather than an easy thesis, and because the guy who took the pictures, Eadweard Muybridge, and the guy who owned the horses, railroad oligarch/senator/governor/university founder Leland Stanford, invented photographic techniques and founded research institutions whose “unimaginable consequences” were to be movies and computers, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Not to mention an entirely new worldview. The innovation wasn’t just technical—-it was radically spiritual. Motion pictures and the shifts in perception and landscape brought about by rail travel touched the deepest questions of time, reality, identity, of life’s pace and rhythm.
That inquiry into the meeting of science and art is what I love about Solnit. It’s all too easy to write technological history with a sense of the inhuman inevitability of certain discoveries; the global possession of influential technologies tends to obscure the context of the original devisers. Solnit insists that though cinematic technology from which flows the “river of shadows”—-the visual mediation and abstraction of experience we take for normal today—-was formed from numerous global contributions, the pioneering motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge were marked by their creation in the hands of a peculiar individual in a particular place. Muybridge was a good-natured wandering Englishman who arrived in 1850s San Francisco and soon made out quite well as a fine bookseller. The city may have been a boomtown at the end of the world, but it was an insanely rich one, and among the first things new princes wish to buy is Culture. Passing through Texas on his way back East, he was thrown from a stagecoach when the team of half-tamed Mustangs suddenly bolted off the road. Muybridge suffered a frontal lobe injury that made him irritable and erratic, but that also seems to have released some previously hidden creativity, unlidded some magic eye, because after wandering around Europe and the eastern states during the Civil War years, he returned to San Francisco and began to take some amazing landscapes, social documentaries, and proto-cinematic motion studies.
Muybridge’s images of Yosemite are the stark, brooding compositions of a sensibility attracted, "by temperament or by brain injury," to a fierce disorientation of perspective and to debris, wrack, rubble, and scars of violent geological movement. Muybridge led a mule train bearing his tripods, portable darkrooms and huge glass plate negatives through dangerous passes and up rocky trails to get shots that often look menacing next to the photographs and paintings being made by his friends and contemporaries - like Alfred Eisenstadt - working in the same landscape, and in whose work the vertiginous cliffs and scantly-treed ledges of Yosemite often appear horizontally stabilized by lush foreground meadows and bathed in divinely serene light appropriate to the God-given Eden that most Americans wanted the west to be. Not Muybridge, the connoisseur of vertigo; he also had a back-file of ominous cloud formations that he’d print onto other pictures to make the landscapes even more harsh and threatening.
The eeriness of Muybridge’s early still photography supplies one of the most curious parts of Solnit’s biography, the scrap book of Muybridge’s young wife Flora. Flora was half her husband’s age, in her early 20s. By accounts she was a fast, flirty, excitable young woman enamored of theater, nightlife and expensive clothes.
While Muybridge perched on the some contemplative precipice in Yosemite or followed U.S. Army campaigns against the restive Modoc, Flora cuckolded him, got herself knocked up by a sponging, rascally swell. Muybridge shot this man through the heart at a poker table. Muybridge was acquitted of murder. He had a good lawyer who anchored an insanity defense around the fact that Muybridge was on a few occasions diffident about payment for his photographic services. To a jury in San Francisco, a city built on the Gold Rush, such diffidence seemed proof of insanity. And their Not Guilty verdict was to them confirmed when at the reading Muybridge suffered a spectacular seizure in the courtroom; he was prostrate for a while, but eventually rose and walked outside, to be greeted by a cheering crowd.
After the trial Muybridge left Flora. He went to photograph ruined, vine-choked Baroque churches in the jungles of Guatemala. She dramatically wasted away, died, and was committed to a mass grave of paupers. Her son was sent to an orphanage; he grew up to be a ranch hand with a strong resemblance to Muybridge. In the 1950s, her scrapbook turned up in a junk store. In its assembly she had used prints of her husband’s uncanny landscapes to border and background pouting portraits of her favorite matinee idols and music hall performers.
Think Joseph Cornell without French Symbolism or Surrealism, more juvenile and inclusive (the dream life of the masses is always stranger than the experiments of “high modernism”). Flora’s scrapbook is at Stanford University library, and probably well worth examining; and it seems just the sort of bizarre codex Taschen should reprint. Solnit writes:
One imagines Flora at home while Muybridge was away on an expedition, pasting his work into her album, proud perhaps of her husband’s achievements, but altering and arranging them to fit her own vision of the world, making them scenic background to her urban demimonde.
An irritable Victorian eccentric with a tangled patriarchal beard, Muybridge doesn’t fit the part of Father of Cinema, but his wife surely represents the people who would become the first adoring audience for movies. Solnit found that the pauper’s grave Flora is buried in lies behind a movie theater, and uses her as just one example of the human hunger for images that would only increase in the years after her husband perfected multiple high-speed exposures capable of capturing all the minute motions of a galloping horse and settling for a good a bet Leland Stanford had made with another wealthy racehorse collector, that at some point in the stride all four hooves are off the ground.
I’m very eager to see more of Muybridge’s 1869 series on the Central Pacific’s eastward race to join the Union Pacific in the first transcontinental railroad. The images from this series that Solnit includes are so spooky, primal scenes of the westward expansion. Muybridge was one of those rare artists who could discern and dramatize essential forces, currents in the air, history-in-the-making, the noise of time. One shot shows a line of track running level and smooth between two halves of a dynamited rock formation. The massive rock halves dominate the image, are characteristically looming and formidable. The image is such a precise register of the scale of what’s being done. An era’s ambition compressed to an image. What an audacious feat this is, Muybridge reminds us, to impose our industrial will, our straight-and-smooth, on such daunting, ancient natural forces. The image communicates awe for the land and for the organized, unstoppable strength of its exploiter. Captain Ahab, Shakespearian symbol of all the subduers of American nature, soliloquizes from the stern of his whale ship:
The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly, I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way.
Another striking shot is of a Shoshone family Muybridge photographed along the Central Pacific spearhead in Utah. Surrounded by what appears to be his three children in intricate finery and his mysteriously beautiful, half-shrouded wife, an adult warrior pugnaciously aims his bow and arrow at Muybridge’s lens--but the defiant dignity and demure covering of the adults’ poses, so suggestive of charms against the potentially soul-possessive camera, are neutralized, undercut, by signs of the subtle dissolution of their context: some kind of building in the distance to the group’s right, a telegraph pole, and a rail car closer on their left. Defiant, independent gestures against an background being reamde by and for whites. Considered up close, they are proud and fine; in the context of the background, which is basically a rail yard, they look out of place, homeless, utterly dispossessed and slightly ridiculous. Theft of land and theft of meaning in a single image.
And this was how America’s leaders knew it would go. General William T. Sherman is always said to have transferred his depredations from the rebellious South directly to the Indian west because the campaigns he oversaw as General-in-Chief of the Army (Grant’s old post, before he was promoted to the White House) incorporated the big strategic lesson of the Civil War: that you can subdue vast amounts of territory and population when your military force is equipped by an invulnerable industrial base and projected by railroads and steam-powered river fleets (the U.S. Army would drive across Western Europe into Nazi Germany after the same fashion, though with massive numbers of trucks, jeeps and tanks named after Sherman augmenting rail networks and providing troops with personal mobility). The land area of the Confederacy had been massive—-as big as Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Poland combined—-and by the end of the war the Union army’s higher commanders like Grant and Sherman were experienced handlers of whole-continent geopolitical strategy.
Sherman, who had been a banker in 1850s San Francisco, knew that rail companies like the one owned by Stanford, subsidized and protected by the government, would win the west without the massive levee of troops that would signal war to the war-weary American voter. (Hitler, always an avid reader of Wild West dime novels, so associated the militant use of railroads with the US that he named his personal armored train “Amerika.”) In the West the railroads would shuttle troops, and, importantly for permanent conquest, carry civilian development along with it; as Solnit writes, this rail system wasn’t built to serve existing needs, but to create them.
Much fuss has been made over the idea of the frontier, as though it were a line advancing east to west, but the West was settled piece meal, and Indians fled in many directions to escape the tightening noose of the railroad lines and towns.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the American West, its legacy of butchery and theft, its mythic violence, and Solnit’s writing and Muybridge’s photography combine in what is the most unsettling summation of the period I’ve yet to encounter.
Rilke’s semiautobiographical surrogate Malte Laurids Brigge is a young Dane, a noble scion adrift in early twentieth century Paris, trying to become a...moreRilke’s semiautobiographical surrogate Malte Laurids Brigge is a young Dane, a noble scion adrift in early twentieth century Paris, trying to become a poet. He corresponds rather well to Anthony Burgess’s description, in his charming study ReJoyce (1965), “of the type of student Stephen Daedelus represents, poor, treasuring old books with foxed leaves, independent, unwhining, deaf to political and social shibboleths, fanatically devoted to art and art only.” Malte and Stephen hang out at the Bibliotheque Nationale, worry about how incidents of shabbiness in their wardrobes may effect their dignity, and are nuts about Ibsen (or was that just Joyce himself? Did he lend that admiration of his to Stephen? I’m not near my bookshelves.) Malte doesn’t have anything like Stephen’s confidence in ultimate triumph—like the Camus and Sartre heroes for whom he is said to have provided a model, Malte is pushed pretty hard up against the wall by metaphysical doubts and a general terror before existence. But even so, they both have high-caliber minds that relish the lyrical-gnomic fragment and eschew exposition or transition (in the very best badass tradition of high modernist narration) in the telling of eerie tales from their unhappy childhoods (Malte’s mom is dead, too) and in excursions through their daunting hoards of philosophical and historical arcana (Stephen likes scholastic philosophy; Malte has a thing for famous female anchorites and fanatical mystic nuns, plus, and this is a big one for him, the deathbed agonies of medieval French kings as encountered in Froissart’s Chronicles); and Rilke is -- like Joyce, and like Baudelaire their mutual master in this respect -- profoundly attentive to the crushing squalor and pathos to be glimpsed in the “sinuous creases of old capital cities”:
Or that time in Naples: that young creature sat there opposite me in the street car and died. At first it looked like a fainting spell; we even drove on for a while. But then there was no doubt that we had to stop. And behind us vehicles halted and piled up, as though there would never be any more moving in that direction. The pale, stout girl might have quietly died like that, leaning against the woman beside her. But her mother would not allow this. She contrived all possible difficulties for her. She disordered her clothes and poured something into her mouth which could no longer retain anything. She rubbed her forehead with a liquid someone had brought, and when the eyes, at that, rolled back a little, she began to shake her to make her gaze come forward again. She shouted into those eyes that heard nothing, she pushed and pulled the whole thing to and fro like a doll, and finally she raised her arm and struck the puffy face with all her might, so that it should not die. That time I was afraid.
Rilke’s tableaux parisiens are as uncanny and disturbing as Baudelaire’s. He's as fascinated by the old, the worn-out, the thrown-away, the "girls, still unused in their innermost depths, who had never been loved" as the poet of “Les Sept Vieillards” and “Les Petites Vieilles.” On a blind newspaper peddler’s Sunday cravat and new straw hat: “He himself got no pleasure from them, and who among all these people (I looked about me) could imagine that all this finery was for them?” The wannabe Bohemian girls from good families Malte encounters copying in museums wear dresses that, without servants to button then all the way up, appear half open in the back. Beside him in one of the waiting rooms of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière, a last refuge of prostitutes and beggars, aged women and the insane, Malte becomes conscious of
a huge, immovable mass, having a face that I saw was empty, quite without features and without memories; and it was gruesome that the clothes were like that of a corpse dressed for a coffin. The narrow, black cravat had been buckled in the same loose, impersonal way around the collar, and the coat showed that it had been put on the will-less body by other hands. The hand had been placed on the trousers exactly where it lay, and even the hair looked as if it had been combed by those women who lay out the dead, and was stiffly arranged, like the hair of stuffed animals.
The portions of Malte's family memories and introspection are no less absorbing. Rilke's imagery is often so striking that even the deepest burrowing in Malte's malaise and artistic self-doubt can rival the lurid street scenes. "I put my little strength together like money." "...but inside you it preciptates, hardens, takes on pointed, geometrical forms between your organs." "...it was a literal, unambiguous tale that destroyed the teeming maggots of my conjectures." Certainly the weightiest book I've read this year. (less)
I got my clammy adolescent hands on this just months before my parents mustered the courage to give me The Talk. Oops. "But Mom, I already know about...moreI got my clammy adolescent hands on this just months before my parents mustered the courage to give me The Talk. Oops. "But Mom, I already know about all that stuff...Who told me? Umm, my friend, Gee...Who's he? Umm, he's this, like, syphilitic roué I met at Barnes and Noble." (less)