Wednesday, June 04, 2008

These infinite old men

Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves.
-- Harold Bloom, The Western Canon

For my sins, I should give an account of these literary shenanigans, at least describe what they feel like. I’ll start with a couple of emblems. The Joint Chiefs are briefing the President in The West Wing on their investigation into the alleged terrorist activity of the Qumari Defence Minister, Omar Sharif. They have so much circumstantial evidence in the hat that you think they’re about to pull out Sharif himself. But the President is having none of it. “This isn't a cave-dweller, this is Capone,” he says, rising from his seat. “You haven't got it.”

The second emblem: C. S. Lewis on the piety that ultimately reigns in medieval literature, as he assumes the role of greatest critic of the first half of the twentieth century the same way Federer whips a magisterial forehand across court:
The authors are all going to repent when the book is over. The Chaplain's Palinode does not stand alone. In the last stanzas of the book of Troilus, in the harsher recantation that closes the life and work of Chaucer as a whole, in the noble close of Malory, it is the same. We hear the bell clang; and the children, suddenly hushed and grave, and a little frightened, troop back to their master.

It's not like anything need be said after that. Unfortunately, something was, as we can see in a third example from Ernst Curtius into which I suckered you by promising only two.
European literature is coextensive in time with European culture, therefore embraces a period of some twenty-six centuries (reckoning from Homer to Goethe). Anyone who knows only six or seven of these from his own observation and has to rely on manuals and reference books for the others is like a traveler who knows Italy only from the Alps to the Arno and gets the rest from Baedecker. Anyone who knows only the Middle Ages and the Modern Period does not even understand these two. For in his small field of observation he encounters phenomena such as “epic,” “Classicism,” “Baroque” (i.e., Mannerism), and many others, whose history and significance are to be understood only from the earlier periods of European literature. To see European literature as a whole is possible only after one has acquired citizenship in every period from Homer to Goethe. This cannot be got from a textbook, even if such a textbook existed. One acquires the rights of citizenship in the country of European literature only when one has spent many years in each of its provinces and has frequently moved about from one to another. One is a European when one has become a civis Romanus.

How is one to contend with these infinite old men? Sure, it looks easy, all this literature lark, because you can read and so can I, and so can Enzo at the delicatessen up the road. And what could be more impolitic than to have recourse, against the unimpugnable calls of relativism, to expertise? Well, let me tell you, and you can pass this on to Enzo: literature is Capone. The bar is set by these shrewd, chuckling old men who never show you every side at once, who write books with words like “literature” and “Europe” and “bibliography” in the titles, who talk about “new efflorescences” and “sudden emergences”, and sitting here with your Baedecker having only read from London to Sussex, struggling to pin down the latest eel of a thought, literature is Capone and you haven’t got it.

A primer to the lessons learned after the end of my first year at Berkeley. Critics of literature gather, particularly in the highly-professionalised American academy, into one of three clubs: the aesthetic, the historical, and the political. The politicians are by far the worst; they reigned from the sixties to the early nineties, but are still around because they unionised. The only enquiry they seem to pose and understand is the ethical one: Should we be reading this text? Consider: studying and/or reading a work is a tacit stamp of approval. Are social injustices are represented in or by this work? Should we bequeath it to our children? Does it represent the world as it is, and, if it does, does it represent the world as we think it should be? It goes without saying that “quality,” “standards,” and the “canon” refer here to a long-standing posthumous conspiracy by white male Europeans to oppress everyone else. Harold Bloom, who has shouted himself almost hoarse at this “School of Resentment”, lands a solid blow: “the idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted by or in our schools.” And finally: when in doubt, obfuscate. History shows that you will be given the benefit of the doubt as long as you do it in French.

The historicists saved us from the politicians, but with a Napoleonic gleam in their eyes they used their enthusiastic reception as liberators to found an arid empire from the late eighties to the noughties. This rather more respectable practice reads literary works as historical documents for the purpose of illuminating past cultures. Fair enough, one thinks; at least it’s not a conversation-stopper, and, unlike the orthodoxy of the political crowd, the more you know the better. Behind the guise of respectability, however, tends to lurk the spectre of social determinism, which (looking tellingly like Foucault) tends to subsume individualism and creativity, among the lock and stock of literature in any age, under prevailing historical conditions. The Law of French Obfuscation also applies here.

So faced with, let us say, the hints of homosexuality in Falstaff and Hal’s relationship in the Henry IV plays, the politicians variously throw the play out or lionise it, making an enormous and always somewhat inchoate fuss about the presence of such a theme; the historicists claim that “homosexuality” is a modern invention, and in the 1590s there were actually considered to be seven genders, five of which had three arms and two of which fetishised the class-relations of hair ornaments, so what can we even say or how dare we even begin to think; and the aesthetes, a scattered few for all that they are the breadbasket of literary study, suggest tremulously that surely the first recourse is to consider the function that the relationship fulfils in the play, socially irresponsible and historically premature though that consideration might be. They tend to think that the work’s literariness is its most important context, so that Petrarch is more relevant to a sonnet sequence than, say, the quantities of mead purchased with cash by the average Eastcheap household in 1592, or whether a sonnet can be a woman or not (of course it can: a woman can be any kind of poem he or she wants to be). But of course, they’re shouted down by the politicians (who, as we all know, are the most voluble, and have those dark wells of energy reserved only for the sanctimonious), and dismissed as ignorant by the historicists (with whom, nonetheless, they have rather more in common).

Of the aesthetic school is Harold Bloom, whose The Western Canon, which made a lot of angry people very pompous and vice versa, I’m reading now by way of tonic. He has an immense mind, but it’s an instructive experience for a different reason. Despite standing with Bloom in every judgement he passes on the current state of the academy, despite unhappily sharing his apocalyptic vision of its future, and despite, broadly speaking, keeping faith both with the terms of his investigation into and his belief in the canonical progression of Western literature, I find reading so extended a study of agonistic influence to be unsatisfying. To ask only “the grim triple-question of the agonist: more than, less than, equal to?” becomes at last a sporting fanaticism, obsessed with the literary equivalents of box scores and batting averages, a pleasure that for some reason or another has always eluded me. I suppose it’s for a wide audience, and I prefer a little more meat with my vittles – meat which, I hasten to add, Bloom is more than capable of serving; the chapter on Freud is quite brilliant. It becomes tiresome in the way that propaganda for even one’s own party becomes tiresome. At more than five-hundred pages, it is too much of a good thing.

Necessary like a drink of water in the desert, nonetheless, for which, thank Bloom. The politicans are hectoring and wrong-headed; the historians are answering questions in which I'm not particularly interested. My challenge is to work on my own terms – the dyed-in-the-wool, aesthetic inquiry of the school of infinite old men – in a place where I have been told, in all seriousness, that “some people would consider it offensive to be disagreed with at all.” Ah, the stupefying intolerance of the self-anointed Tolerant for anyone that doesn’t share their views. It is surely no accident that a critical fashion based on the doctrinal incapacity of taking a joke flourished in America, where irony is either too high-risk to use, or – I haven’t yet decided – so naturalised an attitude as to be practically ineffectual. The apogee of absurdity came in a class to which the professor told me to limit my contributions because some of its participants felt intimidated by my performance; rather than simply speaking up themselves, they thought it more appropriate to run crying to the professor instead. The shock, of course, was that the professor saw their request as a reasonable one. For all that I promised to give an account, regarding this travesty words fail me. “If you have to ask what jazz is,” said Louis, “you’ll never know.”

So with one year down, I’ve enjoyed one and a half classes that I would have taken by choice, regardless of being strongarmed by a system of course requirements with a misplaced sense of breadth. “Erudition,” they cry, as if one will become studied in the nineteenth century from having taken a single class on, say, Anthony Trollope, or in modernism from having taken a class on Virginia Woolf. As if one would be respected as a botanist based not merely on one's study of tulips, but on one's study of the single tulip in one's window-box. This is not the wide lens of professional scholarship: it is scholarly amateurism shriven even of its redeeming enthusiasm. The upshot of the breadth requirements is that classes obey an unstreamed secondary-school logic, in which two-thirds of the class has no particular interest in or knowledge of the period and issue at hand. Class members thus feel a mixture of resentment and frustration in a ratio correspondent to their having to be there and their wanting to be there. And as for the well-meaning (by which we always mean “ill-fated”) argument of “erudition”: honestly, if there isn’t enough in one’s chosen century, along with all the works up to the present that form an educated view of it, to constitute “erudition,” why would one bother writing a Ph.D. on it at all? This has all landed me with the need to devote my energies over the summer – otherwise spent learning Latin – to writing a paper that relates to my own period, the Renaissance, which I’ve had scant opportunity to work on during the year. Being passionate on one’s own time is perversely difficult.

In short, I’ve come up against a system with which I am entirely at odds and a culture responsible for creating the system. On the other hand, my living arrangements are very commodious. I may feel no less like an alien than when I first arrived, but I’ve become a much more comfortable alien. I have a handful of fine and upstanding friends who are dear to me. I have good relations with a few of the faculty (most of them, to my perturbation, are medievalists). I’ve bought a car, a red 1998 Volvo S70 which is bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before, which has already transformed my existence. Sine car non is the aphorism around here. The real pleasure of California is in the grandiose beauty of this fecund land. Been to Monterey – took pictures with the bust of Ed Ricketts (Steinbeck’s “Doc”) and the sign for Cannery Row. Napped on the beach in Carmel-by-the-sea.

See, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. The spring semester was busy enough – I took three classes and Italian, as well as a research assistantship – to have kept me focused on the academic, university side of life, whence my disappointment stems. And it’s not that, as I had feared, one doesn’t grow in university. One grows all over the place. It’s that one’s growth is not the subject of one’s attentions in university, because in academic life the value of the historical overpowers the relevance of the contemporary. But sitting here it occurs to me that: coffee smells delicious. And there’s a satisfaction in keeping an appointments book, studding the weeks with friends and music and theatre. I finally saw Robert LePage’s The Andersen Project last night, having played tag with it across a number of countries, and tonight I will hear a viol ensemble perform works by Byrd and Gibbon. Life is easy and pleasant, which makes the obstinate trials of solitary reading all the more difficult. “The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality,” says Bloom, right as usual. The summer is alluring: weekend road trips and Latin at last. The longer I spend in this queer sanctimonious unremembering land, the less convinced I become that I have ever existed. But as long as I can keep this perspective, as long as Berkeley remains the subject of anthropology, as long as I can continue to defer to a time-frame outside these years and a country to explore outside the city limits of Berkeley, then it’s still worth gunning for Capone.

I had been toying with a feeling that the revolutions in the sixties and the seventies that saw the rise of these critical schools were in some way analogous to the Reformation. In both, the reins were taken up by a sanctimonious Puritanism with a terribly unsophisticated conception of fiction (I've mentioned in an earlier post C. L. Barber's account of the post-Reformation erasure of the distinction between worlds apart, the fictive and the real). But another, more concrete, analogue just became clear to me on reading Bloom's point: "Freudian allegorization of Shakespeare is as unsatisfactory as current Foucaultian (New Historicist), Marxist and Feminist allegorizations or past Christian and moral views of the plays through ideological lenses." It's easily, though all too infrequently, objected that ideological criticism exiles the aesthetic individuality of the work, that it fails entirely to account for the experience of reading. Its full absurdity, however, is seen most clearly when set alongside the infamous, sclerotic perversity of medieval Christian exegesis. This, too, is an ideological dogmatism that jettisons all of the hints and directions that are given us in the process of reading a work in favour of recasting the work through a series of metaphors that correspond to its own ethical imperatives. Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonialist, New Historicist readings are precisely as absurd to me as the medieval Christian tradition that Orpheus represents the rational soul, which was wrong to go after Eurydice (the appetites) and whose ultimate loss of her was thus exemplary. This eel may consider itself pinned.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Smudge of Zion

No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations, and of kings, sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them.
--Samuel Johnson, Life of Milton

When I say that I’m ill again, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I might have been well between this and the last time. Oh no. That was at the beginning of February, and this is mid-March. Hillary won the big states on “Super Tuesday”; Obama won everything else. Then Hillary lost for the next month; Obama won everything. Then Hillary made a greatest hits, eye of the tiger, Hulk Hogan shirt-ripping comeback on “Like, Superer Wednesday”; Obama won everything else. It’s like the Marx Brothers with fewer moustaches and less radical socialism, although I feel that should Obama grow a decent ‘tache he’d be more popular among voters born in the ‘70s. And then on Friday night I fell truly ill with a temperature of 102, and because when I get hotter than about 101 I become delirious this led to my constructing a profound link between my temperature and Hillary’s primary success. Still not sure what it was, but once you condense from a state of near-evaporation a lot of things seem less vivid.

Should Obama win, I still feel that Democrats would have shot themselves in the foot. That’s the problem here: no gun control. Not because Obama would be a bad President – the joy, in some ways, of this election is that any of the candidates, McCain included (you can see the chip on his shoulder, aha, aha), wouldn’t be bad at all; although after the current one, football players look good for being able to tie their own shoelaces with a greater than average rate of success. Not even because they’re a hopeful crowd, a bit silly. They get impressed with silly little things, like balloons that say “Hope” or “Future” and float away into an azure firmament like the dreams of unborn children. They want so fuzzily to be friends with everyone that they forget how much they despise the other guys, and that’s what politics is for. So when Obama gives them a ringer, about “change coming to Washington,” and “bringing people together – what we can do – America – us – together – voting – for me,” and effectively promises a future without disagreement, without partisanship, without politics, they forget that the very idea insults every iota of experience they have of the real world which is, I think we can all recognise, heavy with politics. You don’t need someone who will sit down with gun-totin’ tobacca-chewin’ rednecks to hammer out some sort of workable compromise (those of you born on odd-numbered years can shoot each other on Mondays and Thursdays, but Wednesdays are for the elderly and disabled to do West Side Story with live rounds). You need someone who will shut them up, take their guns away and melt them down and build railways, hospitals, schools! Guns For Schools! What a platform.

No, not even because, as Hillary’s ad implied, Obama might have trouble operating a telephone at 3am. Nor because they’re so desperate to gather up every last drop of plurality and multivocality that they can’t have a sensible system of apportioning delegates like the Republicans in which, when you win, you win. Because I just think it really short-circuits democracy if you second guess the vote. I’ve seen a lot of Democrats gradually convince themselves that even though Hillary might make a better-qualified president, she’s less likely to get elected in November. This seems to me only a shade less idiotic than the Obama supporter who was interviewed a while ago, after some vote or another. “I don’t think it’ll last,” he said (I’ve excerpted a number of filler words for the sake of intelligibility), “but right now I’m just excited to be a part of it.” No, you blithering reprobate! This is democracy! How you vote becomes the future! So pick the best-qualified candidate, because if one starts “voting for people based on their likelihood to be voted for”, reality at last becomes even worse than Pop Idol and we all atrophy in a permeating syllogism of low quality fractal geometry!

I warned you about the delirium. But it doesn’t make this place any less made-up. That’s where the patriotism comes from, you know. The way they sing the national anthem every five minutes at any public event and don’t seem in the least embarrassed (when I was growing up I thought everybody would know all the songs – and steps – to anything with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. No. Just the Stars and Stripes. Doesn’t have any steps). And the flags. It’s because the place is a vast hallucination, and if by cosmic coincidence everyone should stop believing in it for the same instant, it would cease to exist, like a fairy in Peter Pan, and they’d have to rebuild from scratch (no slaves this time, but maybe they could get the good folk of Neverland to help!).

Berkeley in particular. Through the assiduous risking of life and limb, namely my own, I’ve gathered enough evidence to be able to say that there are two major crazy homeless gangs in Berkeley, like the Jets and the Sharks. One lives on the Bay Area buses. This group includes Suitcase Woman, a foul-mouthed, straggle-haired woman – with a suitcase – who will infectiously incite mutiny against the bus-driver: infectiously, in that she’ll incite mutiny against you too if you disagree with her (last seen on the 79); Pharaoh, an imposing black man with a bushy grey beard who sits on the bus dressed in the Nile Delta’s summer linens BC collection, complete with blue-and-gold striped headdress, sandals, staff entwined with painted snake and large “bling” ankh around his neck (last seen on the 1R); Mr. Wimpy, who might not in fact be crazy but is always on the bus, always dressed in his Wimpy burger-flipping apron, and always looking at you like it’s your problem that you’re not wearing his Wimpy burger-flipping apron (seen every time on the 18). The other gang walks the streets – corners are a favourite haunt. There’s The Squeak, a short, barefooted guy who looks just disheveled enough to make asking you for money seem a plausible sally, but then asks whether you have a quarter in a voice whose closest equivalent is Mickey Mouse on helium, and chitters (yes, chitters) at you whether you do or you don’t; there’s Israeli Face Paint Lady, who stands on the corner of Telegraph and Durant yelling about Israel with, wait for it, the Israeli flag painted on her face (on this basis I think she’s in favour, but I’m a little out of my semiotic depth here); there’s Glaring McGlowerson, a very angry white dude who walks up and down Bancroft just yelling almost indiscriminately, except that he’ll only shout at you if you have your headphones in, until you take them out to be polite, at which point he’ll move on to the next person wearing headphones.

The Road Gang outnumbers the Bus Gang quite populously, but I think each individual Bus Gang member is more powerful, like the Law of Inverse Ninjas; perhaps they have better training facilities in the depot. The Bus Gang gets to prey on the Road Gang whenever a Roadie needs to get anywhere further than walking distance; the Road Gang gets to prey on the Bus Gang whenever a Busser has a local destination. I had thought they talked into their hands because they were crazy, but now I see it’s a sophisticated method of digital communication. My misconstrual; it must be because everyone goes to university in this country.

But it’s not as if the crazy homeless gangs are even really the reason this whole place is like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Well, maybe they’re behind Hieronymus Bosch, but not Magritte or Kandinsky (though with less colour). And it’s not even that I don’t think people can think the things they think here, or act like they do, or that these things can happen or exist somewhere. My theory of reality, not to mention my sense of the absurd, is capacious enough for that. It’s that, like the Chinese Whispers incident, I can’t believe that the consensus can be that the West Coast is normal! There’s a whole megillah here about a class I’m taking at the university, which I’ll tell you all about in May when the semester’s over. Suffice it to say that every time I attempt to make a point based on, say, standards, or pedagogical practice that would be axiomatic anywhere but here, I am reminded (with suspicious univocality) that I’m British, so I think so. I should also point you to this article by Terry Eagleton on Spivak, sent to me by Obi: too hilarious and too true. If I’m such a threat, “British” pedagogy must have worked out pretty well for me; perhaps they should try some. The advantage they do have over here, of course, is that it should be really easy to implement imaginary change.

I did have a moment of lucid reality the other day, though, one of the really concrete chunky ones that I remember from when I lived somewhere that wasn’t illusory. I’d set off down Solano Avenue, somewhat indomitably, if I say so myself, in search of a Middle-Eastern deli and store that had been brought to my attention. Zands, it’s called, and it felt like a home-away-from-home. Presided over by an ill-tempered, probably-Lebanese matron, I could even overlook the mixed-Asian front-desk helper who didn’t know what coffee was, or that it could be combined with roasted cardamom, and it’s a good thing I spotted that they had some despite her protestations to the contrary because any more questions and she’d have made babaghanoush look onomatopoeic. Oh, I bought all manner of spices and flirted with buying a laffa or two, but to my expert squeeze they felt a little tough. I was trained in the shouks of Jerusalem; you don’t get an easy laffa outta me. But I was hungry from the three hour walk down four hundred and seventy blocks on Solano Avenue, and I went for one of their “famous original falafel sandwiches,” trying to hide my shudder at “sandwiches” from the mixed-Asian front-desk helper who was being reminded by probably-Lebanese matron what a falafel was (no, that is dolma. A little to the right. Yes, falafel. Falafel? Yes, falafel. Dolma? Dolma over there, but he wants falafel. Falafel?). But she got it together – the falafel sandwich, that is – and, raising an inward eyebrow at its being wrapped in tin-foil (not very echt – how’s it going to fall all over the place?) I paid and picked a spot on a bench overlooking the road, next to a bin, with the sun and the Safeway sign warming my kidneys.

I didn’t have high hopes, what with the tin-foil, and, my expectation that, at best, the falafel would be made of polystyrene, and, at worst, it would be made-up, but when I realised that you’d have to tear the foil in an irreparable and asymmetrical manner to get to the pita, my spirits rose. I thought I could already see cracks in the pita where the sheer density and moisture of the salad ingredients had begun their inexorable attenuation of the pita’s structural integrity at the molecular level. This wasn’t so bad, for government work. The first bite was disappointingly firm, but by the second and third things had really started to become challenging. Little cubes of cucumber (how I miss thee, little cubes of cucumber) were sidling towards my left hand – but were I to turn the axis of the pita clockwise at all, the remaining half of the second falafel looked likely to go. There’s a reason the Turks conquered half the world, I thought, pondering my strategic options. I didn’t have to ponder for long, though – a familiar wet sensation on my leg jerked me out of my abstract reverie. Hummus-and-tehina-and-tomato-juice had started dripping through the bottom of what I could now see was a cunning decoy of a tin-foil wrapping, carefully constructed to lull me into just the contemplative neglect in to which I’d almost been green enough to give.

I was starting to wonder whether the mixed-Asian front-desk helper was really mixed-Asian at all, or just another cleverly disguised dati Israeli from that falafel place just up from the central bus station in Jerusalem sent to keep me sharp. Ha! I thought, rapidly folding my single-ply napkin into a makeshift dam – they won’t get me so easy. But then a curious thing happened: as I kept going, all my desire to show them went out of me. Oh, sure, I went through the motions, but my head was somewhere else. For in that moment, as the hummus coverage spread past the immediate moustache line and towards the cheekbones (plus an early, opportunistic stripe down the left of my neck), my falafel experience became suddenly pellucid, like a crystal bowl struck with a Bay Area hypno-masseur’s scented African sandalwood treatment beads, and in that limpid sunlight I saw all the times past that I’ve been covered with hummus layered upon each other like a palimpsest sandwich; I saw falafel rolling away from me down the slopes of Mount Carmel; I saw falafel tumble to the dusty earth in the cafe at Damascus Gate and on the walk down the Mount of Olives; I saw my whole life, in a masque of fried aubergines and chickpea products, flash before my eyes, and I thought, this, this is real; I have seen the New World; I have left the smudge of Zion on the benches of an unknown land, for other Israelis to marvel at when they pass by, and think, he came and he left, let us continue to journey like diasporic falafel rolling peripatetically into the dusty sunset of an unimagined dawn; and, just for a moment, after I’d finished and cleaned myself up as best I could, which is never quite enough, after I’d remembered that California is really phantasmal, though its falafel imported, after I’d got up and was taking those first few steps back up the road towards the deadening imbecility of classes and political correctness and inner selves directly copied from self-help manuals (they mate by chapter-heading) and a pedagogy that let me tell you could only exist somewhere made-up, I thought I saw caught in the last few rays of that balmy evening a glint, as if of hope or understanding or encouragement, from inside Zands, where the mixed-Asian front-desk helper was gone for the day and the probably-Lebanese matron, cleaning up and sealing the tupperware containers for the night, might have for just a second looked up through the window towards the sillhouetted Safeway sign and seen there someone who also didn’t think the Safeway sign really existed, or it might have been the picture of Obama on the “Obama 2008” poster on the sidewalk; it was really a close thing either way.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

One about the Golden Age

Stevie, 4th grader, PS31 Manattan asks "What is the temperature on mars?" Well Stevie, if our expert panelists were here they would tell you the average temperature ranges from 15 degrees to minus 140.
C. J.:
That happens to be wrong! It ranges from 60 to minus 225.
I converted it to Celsius in my head.
-- "Galileo 5"

Circumstances of only the most onerous malady, as we know, can spur me to write this blog, and this is no exception. The moment I landed, all the organs of the bacterial world were abuzz with news of my return. The broadsheets gravely rolled out the annual winter debates about the best entrance strategy, exit strategies being far from a priority. Unlike the less popular wars of recent years, the objective of victory for the bacteria is staying put. Whole regimes do pestiferous battle on the red fields of my suffering tonsils. And the tabloids? They’ve built up a resistance to tabloids.

To tell the truth, I’m sick, as it were, of looking like some lascivious flaneur, bathing his respiratory tract in the pestilential attentions of admiring undergraduates. One gets this sick from a well-spent week of snogging in the back seats. “We’ve had a lot of students report with these symptoms,” says the gung-ho doctor, beard glinting red in the evening sun. Am I sick? Yes. Did I snog? No. One or the other, I say, wracked with coughing and counting the days.

The only perceptible upside is that I get to devote my energies to watching The West Wing. Watching Season 2 for the third time (the third time through, that is) and it only gets better with age. Like Yeats. Such is its glamour that I applied after Oxford to do a Master’s in Political Science at Harvard, although I retracted the application when I realised that I wanted to be in The West Wing rather than the West Wing. Obi raised an interesting cavil the other day (I will say, as Toby says of Sam, that his word is unimpeachable): it’s too utopian. Jed Bartlet is too much (chapter and verse, and an intimate knowledge of the federated states of Micronesia); the agency imagined for the individually virtuous is too simply drawn; it’s just not politics. We hashed it out for a while. I’d said I’d fallen in love with the show not for the politics but for the characters, and above all for the writing – Aaron Sorkin being the most dazzling, blindingly intelligent writer I’ve ever seen on a screen. I want to have conversations with the characters, or people like them (like Obi, who I will say, as Sam says of Will, is “one of us”). I want to work in an environment of the same dynamism and humour that they do.

And that’s all true, but then I watched Shibboleth (2.8) again, the Thanksgiving one where the President pardons a turkey and negotiates the asylum of a shipload of Chinese refugees, and I thought, as Josh says of Toby, that I should make it a point never to disagree with Obi when he’s right. But it’s not politics exactly. As far as the political realities of The West Wing extend, I suppose I broadly agree with the position of the Bartlet White House on most things, abortion (no one’s noticed that “life” is not semantically opposed to “choice”?), gun control (no, Ainsley, I don’t like the people who want guns either), education (the silver bullet, as Sam says; schools should be palaces, and teachers – starting with Dad – should be making six-figure salaries), government (Toby: government can be a place where people come together, an instrument of good) and so on, the worn red buttons of American politics, and, I suppose, all sorts of other politics too.

No, it’s the civic. It’s the stately New Englandness of Bartlet’s White House, the evident jubilation with which Bartlet fulfils his symbolic, civic duties, such as the invested mandate to once a year announce a national holiday of Thanksgiving. Tradition, in other words; a group of people who don’t see roles as an imposition and a stricture but as the experiential vocabulary of a rich life. I discovered this myself last year in Israel, and finding it also in The West Wing is like finding another piece of the jigsaw of personality down the back of the couch of proclivity.

I’m reminded of the well-documented eradication of the regular pattern of civic life, the “stripping of the altars” and dissolution of the monasteries that took place over the 16th century in England (and elsewhere in Europe, sure, but some of us don’t have the kind of time you have). Various scholars have essayed what might have been lost – the festive; the religious; the spirit of play – but I like C. L. Barber’s description of the loss of discontinuity in time and space, the inability (not to mention disinclination) of the early Protestant world to demarcate worlds apart, be they theatres, markets, or the festive calendar. Occasionally, around a religious feast, there would be set aside in medieval England a day of Misrule, a saturnalia, in which village-folk would tour the place in outlandish costumes hurling abuse at each other; the next day, everything would be back to normal and they’d get on with the year. And even in the last generation, teaching at home and at school was full of little mnemonics and nursery rhymes, Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain and so many more, small irrationalities that did the trick because they were fun and a little wild, that have been choked out by the enlightenment of “modern” teaching. Perhaps that’s what appealed to me about Oxford, the absence of which I find so bland about a lot of modern life: the sense of occasion.

So you see why I like the idea of bacteria having winter debates.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Chinese Whispers

"A freed man is not a free man... liberation is just the means of attaining freedom and is not synonymous with it.
A free man, when he fails, blames nobody."
Joseph Brodsky

Last leg of a “festive season” that saw me home for three weeks, up in Warwick for Limmud, then peripatetic in New York City over the last six days. I’m sitting at the airport, on standby for the next flight. It turns out that there are three places in the world I could live: London, Tel Aviv, and New York. In each I look down the street and think, life. Evidence of life. The striving and quick beauty. Touchstones and proving grounds. Places where people gather to agree that mere existence is not enough, that ontology is nothing without teleology, that by nature we must be always looking over the next hill.

Not Berkeley. And since, sooner or later, this is going to come down to Chinese Whispers, that to me has become the emblem of so much of the alienation and so many of the problems of California, I’ll just start there.

Late last semester we were sitting around a table in Beckett’s Irish Pub, winding down after our last class. Someone said something at one end of the table which made its way up to the other end, having become garbled on the way. “Like Chinese Whispers,” I said.
“You still say that there?” someone said, scenting a racist.
Bewildered, but having all too premonitory a time of it, I replied: “It’s the name of the game.”
“He means Telephone,” supplied a friend who had spent some time in England. I felt at the time that to call it telephone was to deeply miss the point of the game, in which the message surely does not get through clearly. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, perhaps; although then it was probably still called Chinese Whispers. But I said nothing of that, because I knew what they meant.
“What in Chinese Whispers,” I protested, “could possibly be insulting to a Chinese person?”
Someone to the left suggested, weakly, that it implied the Chinese were all whisperers. I waited for someone to do better. Having on occasion been in the presence of actual contumely, I’m not convinced that being called a whisperer is even an insult, whether or not one feels it was implied in the first place. I didn’t have to wait for long.
“It’s homogenising,” said one, invoking all the finality of the self-evident.
“Oh, you’re done,” said another. “Done like his burger.”

He didn’t mean I had a rare wit. But he was quite right. I was done. Done with Berkeley. Done with the counsel of the friend that told me it would do me good to get out of the “Europe and East Coast bubble.” Done with the search for intelligent life in the rock pools of civilisation. Done with the attempt to understand, engage, discuss, explore. I was briefly nonplussed into silence – what use words when one laughs alone? – and gradually came round with the unpleasant sensation of having eaten a snail, but also with the relief of having swallowed and got it over with.

Never mind the real theoretical questions that might be put to this analysis (I, at least, must have missed the bulletin in which we sorted out the relationship of the nouns we use to our inner psychological mechanisms, just for starters), or even the pragmatic ones (just what was I homogenising in “Chinese Whispers”? It can’t have been the Chinese, because one can’t really argue that they’re not known as the Chinese. So it must have been the whispers; I had neglected Whispers' Rights): I was most horrified on a professional level. For the people sitting around the table were my immediate colleagues: the doctoral cohort in the study of the English language and its literatures at one of the top universities in the world for just that. Some of these people will inherit the baton of scholarship and with it teach the minds of the future generations of students how to conduct themselves. And I can imagine no greater debasement, perversion, impoverishment of the critical faculty and spirit than that episode.

McCarthy lives on in marshmallow California, where they can blacklist you for making people feel uncomfortable and the most heinous crimes are those of terminology, but now he’s hunting the other guys. It’s the same method, the same militant confusion of form for content that marks American politics and education, and precludes any possibility of having an intelligent conversation with the kind of turgid sea-cucumbers of the mind that apply it. Never mind whether I in fact intended insult to the Chinese billions. Never mind, indeed, whether the “Chinese” of “Chinese Whispers” refers to the people or to the language or even, hold onto your seats, just to a little game that points up, how apt, the imprecision of verbal communication. It is enough that a true insult to the Chinese would use the racial or national qualifier. For that reason, all the specific content of the statement is emptied out in favour of a catch-all censoriousness; the statement is racist because a racist might use it to be racist. “That’s what capitalism is all about,” writes Joseph Brodsky, “winning through excess, through overkill. Not through central planning, but through grapeshot.”

For me this is the prime sin of critical thought (by which I mean, thought. But here they observe a distinction). I mentioned it in an earlier post: the essays I marked last semester too often betrayed the belief that analysis only counted if it unmasked some party subject to discrimination that was previously thought not to be. Daniel Boyarin, who teaches at Berkeley and came to Limmud this year, slipped an aside into one of his sessions: that he “didn’t see any sessions on sexuality in the programme.” It was a casual, conversational digression, and nobody thought anything of it. But I, unfortunately, knew where he was coming from, and the assumptions abutting his comment. Race, gender, and class. These are the terms of critical enquiry where I’m inexorably flying, without which, nothing. They act in this environment like a sort of mental syntax, the ordering principle that validates and gives sense to the activity of the intellect. Here’s Joseph Brodsky again, in “The Condition We Call Exile”, and not a word doesn’t obtain.

“Since there is not much on which to rest our hopes for a better world, and since everything else seems to fail one way or another, we must somehow maintain that literature is the only form of moral insurance that a society has; that it is the permanent antidote to the dog-eat-dog principle; that it provides the best argument against any sort of bulldozer-type mass solution – if only because human diversity is literature’s lock and stock, as well as its raison d’être. We must talk because we must insist that literature is the greatest – surely greater than any creed – teacher of human subtlety, and that by interfering with literature’s natural existence and with people’s ability to learn literature’s lessons, a society reduces its own potential, slows down the pace of its evolution, ultimately, perhaps, puts its own fabric in peril.”

“We must talk,” but it is talking that is ultimately exiled, content that is ultimately subsumed by form rather than vivified by it. As is always the case, the real racists are the ones that reduce all questions to race. Of course, I would be guilty of homogeny were I to suggest that Berkeley is monolithically thus. I’ve found a couple of wonderful teachers, one in particular who still believes, against the tide, that scholarship is about curiosity, about knowing everything and not simplifying it. But scholarship is increasingly a mere expense of research, and any real “talking” I do here, it seems, will have to take place behind closed doors. Act vapid and you’ll be fine.

Not so London. I had a marvellous time at home at Limmud, a four-day adult Jewish learning conference that takes place annually over the Christmas period. What else is there to do? My increasing capacity to learn for nine hours a day without tiring, and my increasing interest in Jewish issues of all descriptions, collided fortuitously in Limmud, where I also had the chance to reacquaint with some of my best friends and have conversations with them about all manner of things tahat hashemesh. And home was, of course, warm and filling; Mom warm and cuddly; Dad warm and busy; Kiki warm and satirical; and Miri warm and still fifteen. I already want to be back.

And not so New York. Sharp sweaty gusts of life swept around every corner. Cold, too; a couple of evenings it even snowed. Naturally, I attempted to see everything; naturally, I didn’t make it to MoMA or the Whitney, but one must ask oneself in all seriousness: how much abstract expressionism can a man really need? Excellent exhibition at the Jewish Museum on Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jewish Lower East Side of the 1970s, and an entertaining one on the cartoons of William Steig; fascinating musical instruments and various great paintings at the Met; a ceramics fair in which I ponderously befriended a pair of Japanese antiques dealers, who have promised to send me a free pass to the San Francisco Oriental Pottery Fair in San Francisco in February; and two glorious exhibitions at the Design Museum, on Piranesi as architect (confirming, as though confirmation were needed, the spacious infinite of Daniel Libeskind’s mind), and the puckish lighting of Ingo Maurer.

That’s how I like to spend my time and most people think I’m odd because of it. But of course the highlight was the city itself, in particular the fact that it’s full of single Israeli women who look like Princess Jasmine. My first brunch, two hours after getting up on my first morning, and the two waitresses are speaking in hebrew. And after I register my loyalties with Sivan, who looks almost as delighted to hear about them as I am to tell her, she writes “todah” on the bill and draws me a little heart. Give me six months in New York, I’ll be married for the rest of my life. And the food? I was like, totally, I don’t even know. I’ve never tasted so much intelligence in food. They sautéed brussels sprouts in dijon!

Evidence of intelligence glimmers on the pavement in New York. I must say that, while the uglier face of capitalism is in general both more apparent and more dominant, the spirit of the thing – competition through creativity – has the capacity to spur people on to extraordinary heights. If only more of America reverberated with this hum of activity, rather than being an enormous club discount card and a pool guy. But the buildings and Central Park and the lights and the sheer dynamism! I can’t quite believe I’m not there. I can’t even believe I got on a plane – voluntarily, my boarding pass confirms with a smirk – to fly back to Homogeniland. Vapland. Grand Vapids. Chinese Whispers. Is this some kind of sick joke? Did I mention the Israelis? Princess Jasmine, for god’s sake! Six months!

Monday, November 05, 2007

And this is November?

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?

Year in, year out, my birthday falls on the 28th of October. It’s a good day, on the brink of autumn when the leaves are turning crunchy and the air is holding its breath. But I confess a deep sympathy, having grown up in England, for the 5th of November, and have always artfully delayed my celebrations until fireworks night. A handful of cultural moments have ingrained the calendar of my youth. In April, we eat cardboard and grated apple with nuts and cinnamon, wonder why we don’t eat boiled egg with salt water during the rest of the year, and sing interminably about goats. Once a year (usually in December, I think) the Chinese State Circus comes to the Camden Roundhouse. And on the fifth of November, we walk out torchlit into the acrid smoke and set off brief, fiery spirits which expire with all the fatal passion of birthday resolutions, sounding distant charges into the enveloping dark.

Ha! I see you! Couching down into your seat for the long haul, as though this were going to be one of the introspective, earnest entries where you’d have to ponder fate and the evanescence of life and nod sagely with the maudlin truth of it all! Instead, here is a limerick rhyming on “maudlin”:

A complacent old Don of Divinity
Made boast of his daughter’s virginity.
They must have been dawdlin’
Down at old Magdalen –
It wouldn’t have happened at Trinity.

We’ve just put the clocks back for Daylight Saving Time, a phrase every one of whose constituents is subject to indiscriminate pluralisation in the popular media. We get dozens of hours of sunlight every day in California, sometimes hundreds. And we’ve put the clocks back for Daylight Saving Time, as if getting up after only three hours of bright daylight is significantly different from getting up after four, presumably as part of the government’s new War on Daylight. This, this is November?

Two things I’ll say for America, though: Basketball. Jazz. On the basketball front, my daily twenty-five minutes of NBA TV update informs me that Kobe just dropped 45 points on the Houston Rockets as though nonchalantly flicking a luckless mosquito from his godlike arm; LeBron (not a nickname) is dismantling whole teams like a kid with a meccano set; and just down the road in Oakland Baron Davis is adding nature to his name as he makes subject all the hapless serfs so unfortunate as to wander into his iron fiefdom.

But, enthused as I am finally to be in a land where they televise basketball earlier than the 03:30 slot on Channel 5, finally to be understood when I say things like “Kobe is so sick he has the flu” and then make reference to his “flu shot for three”, the jazz makes the real difference. London is among the world’s great cities. Big names come on through. But there’s a measure of surprise when they do, a sense that their arrival is hallowed and unexpected, in a way analogous to the performance of classical music in America, which seems to be conservative with a capital Rach Two and pretending that Sibelius never happened. Jazz, on the other hand, paves the streets. The dude playing saxophone on the corner of Shattuck and Center St. probably jammed with Diz and Monk. So my real birthday celebration, having enjoyed a drink the previous evening with Matt, Rebecca, Tacuma and others, was to ride into San Francisco to see Ornette Coleman.

Ornette Coleman is 77 or thereabouts, and has been at the vanguard of free jazz for the last forty years. I can’t pretend to like free jazz, believing that music is the miracle of unity, not disunity, but I heard he’d got more conservative in his old age so the chances were he’d improved. And so he had! Musicians have spoken to me more, but he was marvellous, and one of the (legion) fweedle dey... ba-doo da almost had me off my seat.

As if that weren’t enough, a few days later I saw Amiri Baraka at Berkeley. Amiri founded the Black Arts Movement (which I’d thought had something to do with Salem) in the 60s, and retains all the force and amazing charisma of a man who has found exactly his thing to shout about. Apart from the entirely disgusting anti-Semitism (peddling that dessicated old bullshit about 4000 Israelis being warned not to go into work on 9/11) he was a force to be reckoned with, and, on balance, I’d rather people shouted about such things than believed them quietly. Hence Wagner.

And lest you think I might be insufficient to pile Pelion upon Ossa, I supplemented a trip last night with the lovely Evelyn (so now you know), to see the oddly uncharismatic Irvin Mayfield and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, with a concert this afternoon by Dmitri Hvorostovsky, one part man, three parts siberian lion, an extraordinary baritone with a voice like dark brandy chocolate, and the only one better looking than the chorus girls. Though the concert deteriorated hilariously over the second half as he was given a mic and took on the Russian popular schlock repertoire, he was not a bit diminished: when he gestured to acknowledge the choir, three altos died and one became a soprano. When the last and tiniest of the increasingly diminutive flower girls gave him another bouquet, it was like Lucy meeting Aslan. It was enough to remind one that being a Russian peasant would be excellent times, all those ruddy-cheeked fur-lined folk melodies stamping their feet around Zellerbach Hall, or really any kind of peasant as long as Dmitri Hvorostovsky were available to sing about it.

There was a young man of Dumfries
Who said to his girl, “If you please,
It would give me great bliss
If, while playing with this,
You would pay some attention to these.”

So: to take stock. I am twenty four years old. I woke up on the twenty-eighth of October with a sore back, shaking my fist and vituperating against what these kids are listening to these days. But since all that had been true on the twenty-seventh, we may tentatively conclude that I may not yet in fact be as old as I am. I woke up in California: that was somewhat unexpected and not a little absurd. I went through the day without major incident, respecting that central axiom of American life: keep your mouth shut and you’ll be fine. One lives in fear of being labelled racist, sexist, or elitist, and to claim that the real offenders are those who understand life only in the terms of race, gender, and class is tantamount, of course, to declaring yourself all three, like when I responded to my primary school tormentors, from whose dead-end jobs and miserable married lives I look forward to taking infinite succour, that “you know, there’s actually nothing wrong with being gay”. Needless to say, this is crippling to the pursuit of an academic career which demands the articulation of thoughts. I am wracked with crises of faith. The only answer to the question of the value of literature, here, is cultural elitism, Falstaff as imperialism. What need Shakespeare, the salivating managers and businessmen of the future? He is not for all markets. And it’s very difficult to read properly when the principles that underpin reading preclude the capacity to make any claims about its relevance. Heaven forfend we should think something intrinsically valuable.

So it’s salutary on occasion to look back over the poetry I used to love and remember what the sublime used to feel like, and perhaps even again to be liberated from what Orwell calls “the smelly orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.” To remember Yeats’s stately, lilting vision, bigger than continents. To remember that almost no poem is better than W. S. Graham’s Imagine A Forest. To remember that all of life is in E. Powys Mathers’ translation of Black Marigolds. To remember that though Joyce was an important figure in the progress of the twentieth century, he also said “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” And that Fitzgerald wrote about how Gatsby “must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.” To remember that Shakespeare knew more secrets than he ever let on. See, I miss the crisp November air. Here the fireworks are in the summer and I don’t think I could ever get used to that. But sitting in the dense liquid sunshine of the Californian afternoon with the second part of Henry IV blithely sunning himself on the cafe table is, “just for a small and forgotten time”, a worthwhile succedaneum.

By way of pretext
I said “I will go
And look at
The condition of the bamboo fence”;
But it was really to see you!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pendant la deluge

My dear Wendon, you can try to cover your arse, but when you bend over in an essay the buttocks will stick out.
John Kelly

It finally started raining today. The air turned grey and you could smell the earth under the paving stones. And about bloody time. I was wondering how anyone got any work done around here without falling sufficiently ill that self-imposed quarantine seemed the only reasonable response, in which state, dear reader, you find me malingering even now. For the last three weeks I’ve been brought low like Icarus flown too close to the Californian sun. The history of my ailments is longer than the Domesday book and twice as eschatological.

So, self-medication having for once failed me, I resigned myself to the student medical centre. The nurse called me Michael. I pointed out the proper orthography. She squinted at the card.
“I couldn’t make out that last letter,” she said. “I was like: what is that last letter?”
Faith in the medical system rapidly dissipating under the sheer weight of tautology, I took their antibiotics and stepped out into the rain. I was like, where is my faith in the medical system? Then I was like, give me those antibiotics. And then it was like, it’s raining.

Not a board-short, not a flip-flop swaggered lazily up Bancroft in the bronzing sun. Nary a hot pant in sight. Umbrellas scuttled through the squares like fugitive mushrooms, plotting courses with grave alacrity under awnings, trees, bus stops. It’s rather too easy to feel comfortable in the sun, I thought, because home is where you’re warm, so home is everywhere under the sun. We’re easily fooled, I thought, coughing endearingly; we’ll sit anywhere when it’s sunny. But pendant la deluge, we see the truth of things. Is that “mediterranean” decor cosily minimalist, or just sparse and cold? Is that chic hardboard flooring clean and airy or just chilly? The latter, ever the latter, we mutter wryly, as we scuttle towards warmth and dim lighting, that is, bed.

In which state, dear reader, you find me malingering even now, marking undergraduate essays on the medieval mystery plays. Confidentiality, chivalry, and a misplaced sense of propriety preclude my sharing with you any worthwhile detail. But one broad observation that strikes me is that the cast of these kids’ minds, possessive apostrophe after the s, is vastly over-politicised. If nobody’s being oppressed, possessive apostrophe before the s, it doesn’t count as an observation, contractive apostrophe in place of the o. So, for example, if there is a scene with a female shepherd, that female is being demeaned because she’s only being allowed a voice as a shepherd and not as a woman. What a woman is – and hence what utterance could possibly pass muster – remains nebulous. Heaven forfend that she should lose a sheep. That would be patriarchal.

I’ve limited myself thus far to what the great John Kelly called “petulance in the marginalia,” but the antibiotics are going to my head and one of my charges has just committed the Arian heresy. What is Berkeley's position on heresy, I wonder. Do I mark him down? Do I alert the Pope?

As soon as I shake off this endless malady I’ll start looking for a place to move into: San Francisco is so appealing, although the commute could be a pain in the proverbial. I miss Israel. I miss the roughness of life, and I miss the nargileh, the arabic coffee, the little luxuries in which you shelter from the roughness of life. Life here has fallen a little flat for the moment, certain perks aside. At least it’s still raining. Look out! An eschaton!


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Foucault about Ulysses

Picture and book remain
An acre of green grass
For air and exercise

For the first time, I was neither at home nor in Israel for Yom Kippur. Already mendacious: in 2004, on returning home and facing my progenitors’ cautious probing as to “where were you last Sunday?” I realised, in retrospect, that I had spent Yom Kippur attending my first Catholic Mass at the Basilica in Lyon. So in addition to that incumbent repentance, the whole responsibility of the continuation of the Jewish race fell on my not inconsiderable shoulders. I resolved, not without trepidation and the sense of indomitable progress through the vast arch of experience, to attend the Kol Nidrei service; a Conservative service, no less, because it would be more echt and less like a Baptist Glastonbury love-in.

But first, I had to buy a ticket, at which point it occurred to me that were it not for student discounts (only $20 for me) I could afford to be neither Jewish nor sorry. I had thought Woody Allen was kidding when, having quit his job in Annie Hall, he agonised that his dad would have to get a worse seat at the synagogue – further from the action. Muttering simony, I shelled out and sustained my trepidation and sense of striving, seeking, finding, and not yielding. I am become a name!

Doron had warned me, you see, of the Reform services. He said they were like off-Broadway. He said that when he went to one in the Bay Area last year, one of prayers was “may you achieve and maintain your ideal target weight,” all the less yiddishkeit because zaftig is sadly, mistakenly, not a virtue around here. The slender and elongated here reach such a pitch that one feels like one’s in a Botticelli. So Conservative, I thought, would be more my thing: more hebrew, more traditional, more echt. You go through the motions. You do the thing.

And then the rabbi sang a song by Natasha Beddingfield in the service. The one about feeling the rain on your skin. And some of the words were changed, so here we stand, machzor in hand. And when she related a passage from the Talmud about death, she cushioned the blow with a demotic “ouch!” And “if it’s your tradition to stand at this point,” you stand. The sermon was actually quite good, but my jaw had hit the floor so hard I barely noticed. Surely this deeply, deeply missed the point. I pondered leaving, but in the end the necessity of tradition overrode the democracy of tradition: you stay and do it because you stay, and do it, and that’s the point.

But there had been a terrible insidious levelling there, a flattening of all registers and authorities until any statements could be contiguous and not incongruous. Natasha Beddingfield and Yom Kippur, “ouch” and the Talmud, your ideal weight and your ideal inner world, belong in the same sentence because it is in the radical individuality – I should say, commodity – of the subject, that value resides here, and to say otherwise is to call on an authority outside the individuated self, which is to call on priority and exclusion and elitism, which is to say, social injustice and oppression.

“Everything is politic because it just is.” One would think that sort of argument (which came in conversation from a very smart friend of mine here) is precisely what the academy, and a training in critical thinking, would shoot down. But in the current critical climate, literary and social, it is the only predicate, the argument that gets by without analysis or question. I happen to disagree, on a number of fronts. Firstly, “because it just is” is an argument that presupposes universal acceptance, and the fact that I am here writing against it is thus attests its falsehood. Secondly, of course there are interpretive ways to look at things that don’t come to that conclusion. Thirdly, and most importantly, what a ghastly, soulless, aimless way to live is this. Not that political analysis is redundant, far from it. But now it is the weltanschauung, the prerequisite without which, nothing.

This question, the fashionable “hermeneutics of suspicion” is also what I’ve been wrestling with in literature. Because, never mind what should be for a moment, literary study (indeed, the definition of “literariness”) always entails the privileging of some cultural artefacts over others. That which we are, we are. Yet the trajectory of literary theory has been towards that emasculating levelling of the singularity of the literary work, first among all linguistic objects through post-structuralism (the “grammatology” of the artefact), and now among all historical objects through historicism. And I feel like nobody’s saying that, as literary scholars, fictions are our stock-in-trade. That shouldn’t we be looking for ways to believe in fictions, not to subsume them within larger, ultimately neutering discourses, displacing and flattening them? That in an age of suspicion, surely the study of artefacts that have catalysed belief and imagination could be a necessary and vital tonic? That we should be thinking less about the atoms of deconstructive “grammar” and more about the constructions, the “narratives” of the world, that literature represents? And that “theory” implies a lack of data, which we patently have in all the extraordinary richness that its close reading will provoke and yield.

It’s as if in every seminar there’s an embarrassing family member in the room whom nobody wants to talk about because they are into reiki. These are objects that require superstition, belief, ritual and idealism, all of which are highly embarrassing things up to which to have to own. And I occupy an uncomfortable place in the debate, because I’m not into reiki, nor religion nor superstition: most of my life I’ve been a card-carrying Enlightenment rationalist. Perhaps that’s why I feel there must be some preserve, an acre of green grass, that recognises no such circumscriptions, bearing signposts to the hierarchical, authoritarian sublime, doling unequal laws unto a savage race.

All rather dense, I apologise, but I don't want to go on about theory any more than I have to. So in other words, I disagree, and it was all Foucault’s fault, who though an extremely smart cat with a capacious and penetrating visionary mind, also chose to interpret all manifestations of control and power as intrinsically repressive. I am all contumely to him, may his suspicion fester unto the seventh generation. He works his work, I mine. And of course, living here only accentuates it, the crazies running away from their own hands and the boy yesterday who poured gasoline all over the fountain in Sather Square and set it alight, then waited quietly for the police to come. Protest? Or a stumbling attempt to repossess the sublime? That which we are, we are.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Perplexity of Headings

I have courted the fire for a very long time, and many sparks have flown in the past
Keith Jarrett


When you throw a pot, the first step is to centre the clay. If the clay isn't centred, the flaws multiply as you throw. The walls become uneven, the structure unstable; it could come off in your hands while it's spinning, or collapse under its own imbalance. First you slam the clay wedge down on the wheel, and of course it's lumpy and misshapen, lots of little centres of torsion forcing it this way and that like young intentions. So you have to squeeze it inwards, bring it up into a tower and push it down into a squat cone, up and down, up and down, until it's evenly distributed as the wheel turns, perfect rotational symmetry, spinning self-sufficiently in the middle of the wheel. Then you manipulate it, hollowing the middle and pulling the walls outwards, raising the collar of clay into walls, shaping its emptiness by coaxing the boundaries of the space inside. But the centering is the hardest, most important part. If you're not centred, you get nowhere.

Home work

No matter how much homework you do on a place, any arrival in new environs brings with it three or four weeks, if you are lucky, of muddle and confusion as you try to derive the tools to interpret your surroundings from the surroundings themselves. Hence Escher's "Hands". I really tried to do my research on Berkeley, but it takes a long time to grasp the ramifications of the data one encounters. Unfortunately, those three or four weeks are the ones in which, in a university system, I make all the choices, many of which will influence and limit choices I will have to make later. In conclusion: if I come out of this semester having done anything at all proximate to my interests I will regard it a stunning success.

So I'm taking the introductory English class, "the 200", where I was given the option to recuse myself and for reasons that remain opaque to me did not. This involves reading all those representative theoretical essays again and acting surprised every time I hear that the text is in the mind of the reader. At least it is conducive to becoming acquainted with half of my cohort, who have thus far distinguished themselves through a shared proclivity for silence. As far as I go, I've spent enough time in tutorials to know that not speaking is even more agonising than speaking, so I merrily take outrageous positions on theory, level sweeping generalisations, and make puns on the authors' names.

Then there's an oddity of a course, taken through the Art History department, on the art market in the Northern (Dutch, British) Renaissance. Also not very literary. And I had the unnerving trial by fire of reading through some genuine economics in my first weeks, punctuated by such names as make their own puns, like Huybert van der Miegrooet.

Finally, there's a class on medieval drama, for which I'm the graduate reader (marking the essays and assisting teaching), taught by an old-time colleague of my medievalist Oxford tutor. I'm taking the class as an independent study course, "the 299", which is as close to the Oxford tutorial system as I can find, and shouldn't be passed by without an anecdote. I went to the graduate director to verify what seemed to me a very odd line in the handbook: only one 299 can count towards the overall course requirement.
Surely, I ventured, that is where the real work happens!
Ah, she nodded, you think that because you're British. One cannot regulate how much actual teaching time will take place in a 299, left as it is up to you and your tutor.
But, I spluttered, given that the proof is the paper produced at the end of the semester, surely the amount of work represented in that paper (and hence the amount of real work done) is in inverse proportion to the amount of teaching time one receives!

Like Pontius Pilate, I did not wait for an answer. Sometimes the institution just does its thing and there's nothing you can do about it.

Road trips

Indeed, my first three or four weeks were particularly hectic because (in addition to paying bills, opening accounts, giving my passport to everyone and buying lamps and rugs) Lucy and Stevie were here, and Kulveer lives here, and on the weekend of the 7th-9th September we hired an SUV and hied us to Napa for a spirited recreation of Sideways. Stevie and I made it quite clear to all concerned that we were not drinking any fucking Merlot. We'd come not to expect much from Merlot, and this was no different.

Imagine our delight and relief when, on trying Merlot, we really didn't like it. I got a sharp nose of burning rubber with overtones of potassium cyanide, and the finish was nothing to write home about. Not, it must be said, like the Chardonnays and Sauvignons Blanc, which were variously redolent of peach, apricot, strawberry, lavender, rose petals, citrus zest, pear, molasses, toasted oak, fresh hay, a rich, creamy finish, and "fruit" (but Kulveer was a little out of it by that point). I don't go for red wines, me, but even I had to admit that the Cab Savs and Francs, and Pinots all, were instinct with black cherry, plum, blackberry, tobacco, anise, clove, the astringent dryness of tannins, and "wine" (but we were all pretty out of it by that point).

Yes, friends, over a single weekend we became utterly insufferable. By our fourth tasting at St. Supery vineyard we were really noticing the change. Like exercise, one has to stay in shape - but once in shape, the exercise becomes easier. It's like a nasal revelation. Over Friday and Saturday we visited Domaine Chandon, Beringer, Robert Mondavi (which had a very attractive English guide), and St. Supery. On Sunday morning, leaving Lucy to pack, Kul, Stevie and I were the consummate professionals. In the span of precisely twenty four minutes we tore up the road, popped into the nearest winery (Trefethen), ordered the finest wines in all the land, and perfunctorily rejected every one. We'd come to expect much from our skills of dismissal, and this was no different.

Retail therapy

Stevie stayed for another week, during which we had a whale of a time, which coincided with Doron and Sarah (uncle and aunt) spending time in SF with their visiting family. So on Friday we hied up north again to Vacaville, more of a vaca than a ville, for a consumer orgy. Vacaville is an outlet store village. I bought a leather jacket, reasoning that that had been the problem with getting laid all these years, and it turned out Calvin Klein did the cheapest jeans around. Funny old world, America. And on Sunday the redwoods were beautiful in Muir Park, stately and meditative and drifting through that sacred hush of the sublime. But even the blandishments of commodity can't cover things up forever.

The sharpness in the air

One of those walks on the cusp of night, up through the campus, past the glimmer of the reading rooms and the patient, hunched faculty buildings. But it's far gone in September now, and the air has a keen familiar sharpness and the fresh moss smell of Oxford. The night is thick, and the conversations and white lamps draw inwards into pools, muffled by the darkness. And for a moment I can't tell where I am, though I know it must be very far away.


It's harder to take up something from which you've become distant than to start anew. By the second time around you know the hurdles from the front; there's no enchantment left in the incremental triumphs over mediocrity. To make matters worse, attached to each improvement is a codicil of loss, the knowledge that time and circumstance have cheated you of your due. I feel it in the fumbling of hands around the wheel, and in this literary penumbra in which I can discern the muscular shapes of knowledge but not the sharpness of their features.

The thing is, the clay you use is almost never new. It's been recycled from old pots, discarded sculptures, and maybe as you wedge it on the table it will pick up the dried grit and shards of older wedgings. Every pot you throw has been a pot before, maybe two or three, but most of the time you can forget all that, because the clay is soft and malleable. It's the old persistent shards that draw blood, and Berkeley is very far from the centre.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What is your name?

I had signed up for the I-House newcomers' retreat with the most pastoral of intentions: spend a weekend in beautiful surroundings, making some friends and meeting the cohort. It transpired over the last two days that while the Californian countryside stoically delivers as expected, I-House's own motives for running the retreat were rather more cynical.

Without doubt, the I-House cohort is a motley bunch, a mismatched ensemble of semester exchange-students, doctoral students (such as myself, which in my weaker moments I fancy has something of a ring to it), visiting research assistants, and so forth. We hail from around 70 countries at any one time, and on my retreat alone there were some 40 languages spoken. Many of those countries and languages are Korean. Nonetheless, there are a couple of broad generalisations one might reasonably apply. Firstly, most of us are well into our twenties. Secondly, our acceptance to Berkeley at least implies that a certain mental plateau has been reached, basic literacy, for example, and the capacity to chew our food without dribbling.

Dividing us into groups once we arrived at the Valley of the Moon camp in Sonoma County and getting us to represent "cultural misunderstandings" through a short skit was a jolly icebreaker. It hardly seemed necessary, however, to follow with three and a half continous hours of softly-softly institutional cultural negotiation, passing on information about the various offices and facilities of International House (readily available in the literature in any case), and talking about appropriate noise levels and toilet usage technique, all through the trusted Socratic medium of patronising querulousness. And then with another two hours the following morning. Punctuated by further icebreakers - arrange yourselves in order of birthdate without talking; let's repeat everybody's name for the seventh time, but this time accompanied with a food that starts with the same letter as your name. This was corporate culture at its most deadly: the distressing compunction to capture and render organic processes through synthetic means, and to do so in the time that would otherwise accommodate the organic process.

The problem wasn't really, however, that the lectures were interminable, though they were. Nor even that every part of it - earthquake information, the aforementioned toilet usage - was acted out in the form of a skit. Even the guide on our brief hike had exhorted us to listen by making us practise putting our hands to our ears and saying "ears on". No, the most alienating part was that I appeared to be the only one troubled by this infantilising experience. Others felt it was long, but nobody appeared to be as deeply insulted, nobody appeared to question the value of the food-names exercise, the giggles at "nicotine" and belly laughs at "whisky", appreciative gasps at "sushi", delighted gurgling at "nutella". Why? I asked myself. What is there in the relationship between "Nora" and "nutella" that could cause their coincidence to be even slightly amusing? How can these supposedly intelligent people sit slack-jawed, dumbly receptacular to this soporific display of banality? Ah, I recalled, television. The retreat fulfilled my every desire but the one not to be trivial. I now know about 54 more birthdates, 54 more food-types, 54 more memorable-moments, 54 more ethnic heritages, and not only can I still not remember 54 more names but I would gladly trade in all 216 meaningless fragments of such trivia for a single normal afternoon with a group of I-House dwellers.

Then, coming home tired and somewhat disillusioned, though somewhat better attuned to American Oratory (if it's not a personal anecdote your crime could range from irrelevance to mendaciousness to, worst, the exclusivity of elitism), I went to a BBQ thrown by Khalil, one of the second or third year English grads, at which I met again some of the English cohort as well as a host of other graduates in various stages of inebriation, and in the space of twenty minutes had had more engaging conversation than had been enjoyed over a whole weekend of group-building exercises and enforced audience. Which proceedings not only restored one's faith, but confirmed that the English grads are quite nice, really.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Like, totally here.


I am here, man. I am so here. Here is where it’s at. I am in the house. Thus, whereso am I at the house? Solve for x, man.

Being here means typing on my laptop in a café, breezily connected to the campus wireless system. Being so here means not even noticing the campus wireless system. Being here means sitting across from the gym. Being so here means sitting across from the Recreational Sports Facility, where the marketing director gave us the half-hour hard sell for a $10 membership and free gift. You might think there were another massive Recreational Sports Facility down the road with four thousand squash courts and only a $5 membership. But then you’d forgo the free gift. Or, my favourite so far, in response to the question “are these good prices?”, a puzzled look and “we’re cheaper than across the road.”

I’m getting ahead of myself: it all started with the flight. Being a security guard must be a very prestigious job in America, I thought to myself, or there wouldn’t be so many fat people on my flight. I couldn’t even get past them to row 44, and I was supposed to be sitting there. Supply and demand. And sitting on the tarmac at LA for an hour and a half because of fog over San Francisco was irritating at (as far as I was concerned) six in the morning, but I have to be honest: the moment the sun came out the fat people and tarmac evaporated like so much dirty water. California is a sun-kissed land of blessed vista, where every shop sells every thing and is cheaper than across the road.

I’ve been here for a couple of days now, and there’s a lot to process. There’s been something irresistibly odd about my American experience so far, a set of symptoms that eludes diagnosis. The captain told us to “just go ahead and sit right down there” until he turned off the seatbelt sign. The immigration officer at LA airport took a look at my passport and let loose a flurry of “chipper” and “cheerio” and “say what?” with a fascist demeanour: fascist defined here as having to laugh at his jokes but being prohibited to crack any of my own. My measured response, following his cue, would presumably have been to ask him for a burrito and shoot a gun into the air. And the SEVIS fee, which I had paid before leaving, pursuant to my visa, whose sole purpose was to fund the administration of the SEVIS fee. The proximity of the cultures in so many ways – language (some language), capitalism, the special relationship, call it occidentalism – only reinforces the bewildered sense that one is on Mars and had better present an I-20 immigration form if you want the taps to run.

First contact with my academic advisors and cohort was very positive. My academic adviser is sweet and twee, if that’s not the same thing backwards. Lively conversation with the grads in the ante room put the ante in banter. The professors made it clear that teaching, talking to, having causeless visits from, graduates is the reason they went into academe in the first place; and this claim was substantiated in my individual advisor meetings, most of which descended into gales of laughter as we cracked jokes and filled the air with slander about theory. I think I’ll have a lot of intellectual freedom here, within the course structure which I am apparently permitted to ignore when it seems exigent.

This has all been a little fragmentary, I’m afraid – as Ford Madox Ford said in the twentieth century, he asserted with studied vagueness, “we saw that life did not narrate but made impressions on our brains.” John Kelly set that as an essay title early in my first term at Oxford. May I remember all this someday with equal clarity, and recount it with equal stylistic verve and finality until the next exciting instalment.