Stochastic Staccato #1

For years now I’ve been making poems based on other texts using different techniques utilizing chance. I hope to one day collect them under the title Stochastic Staccato The ancestor of this is obviously Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist newspaper collage, yet the emphasis is somewhat different (for instance, I have no counter-cultural axe to grind). Some conscious editing is applied, but there is always an element beyond my control. In this example, I took aphorisms out of The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger based on last words that rhymed. In most cases I truncated them so that they made better poetic lines. Then I arranged them into verses. So each of these verses is made up of pieces two or three different aphorisms which strangely complete each other. I have to say, I’ve never had such remarkable results as this before.

Condition

We know what people are.
A lovely butterfly turns
into a repulsive caterpillar
and writes error with four r’s.

Prune his extravagance, sober him
and you undo him.
He only sees the earth
sinking deeper below him.

He is never so truly himself
as when he is acting a part.
The mind cannot long act
the role of the heart.

Subject to be hurt by everything
it taketh for a remedy,
the heart is either a grand seigneur
or a nobody.

But the soul must have
a complete alphabet,
the index finger
through a lorgnette.

Life is not a spectacle or a feast;
it is a predicament,
a new and surprising combination
of unedifying elements.

Life is too short to be small.
It never realizes itself at all.

 

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New Poem

It’s been about two years since I’ve written any poetry. I fell into the popular delusion that one is a poet and therefore it’s okay to write poetry. Few can keep up the daffy notion that they are a poet for very long. The prose of life just seeps through the cracks day and night and drowns that image. Inevitably you think, no I’m not a poet, so I can’t write poetry.

Really all you ought to do is slap down some clay, start hacking at it and see what it turns into. Or you see some rootlike thing sticking up out of the mud of your psyche, which may be a feeling you don’t have words for yet, or some phrase or word cluster you have no sense to attach to, like “The flail of Zarathustra” or “careering blue orbs,” and then you start tugging at the root until the whole weird rhizome reveals itself. Or you take a paper and start moving ink across it.

Anyway, I was reading out of an anthology, English and American Surrealist Poetry and thought, “I could do something like this. I think I’d like to do that right now.” I won’t make great claims for this poem, or say that I am or am not a poet, but I do have a rather poetic itch in my brain.

Personae

My Lady is a crystalline mystery.
My Babe she don’t stand no foolin’.
My Gal’s a fool & she embraces her surrounding air.
My Woman’s a tyrant a tenor a tongue & a tangle.
My Lady is not my Lady.

My Babe’s a book I found in childhood or a dream.
My Gal “is” the internet.
My Woman’s a word we lack in our language.
My Lady requires an introduction to my Woman.
My Babe admires but fears my Lady.

My Gal was my Lady this day last year.
My Woman’s always my Woman tomorrow, never my Woman today.
My Lady is all heart & eyes, stars & the shadows of stars.
My Babe absconded before I could memorize her face.
My Gal grows hungry and sweet like a vine in my bones.

My Woman is drawn as from a pack of cards.
My Lady is yet, as in “not” and in “and.”
My Babe is so, like everything else.
My Gal is nothing or so she says.
My Woman is everything, she is, she just is.

 

The Minotaur Reads #1: The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem

. . . I assure you, in a couple of years everyone will consider the possession of a soft, hairy, sweating body to be shameful and indecent. A body needs washing, deodorizing, caring for, and even then it breaks down, while in a prostheticized society you can slap on the loveliest creations of modern engineering, What woman doesn’t want to have silver iodide instead of eyes, telescopic breasts, angel’s wings, iridescent legs, and feet that sing with every step?

The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem has been on my list for a long time, as he’s often mentioned alongside leading lights of New Wave Sci-Fi like Phillip K Dick, J.G. Ballard, and Ursula Le Guin. He also wrote the novel Solaris, which was made into the beautiful film by Andrei Tarkovsky. But I was warded off that novel by reports that there’s no good English translation available. That’s thankfully not the case with The Futurological Congress. I’m in no position to tell for sure, but it seems like something of a miracle on the part of translator Michael Kandel that it reads so well, since it’s stuffed with puns and neologisms.

The story is fairly simple: Cosmonaut Ijon Tichy attends the Eighth Futurological Congress, a meeting of scientific luminaries, at a resort hotel in Costa Rica to discuss (highly unorthodox, to say the least) approaches to world problems, where he soon finds himself in the middle of a battle between revolutionaries and repressive government forces. Since weaponized hallucinogens are a key tactic in this war, this is where the book starts to get weird, before it gets really weird. Tichy is fatally injured, or nearly so, and put in cryonic sleep (which is actually narrated) until a future society arrives with the technology to restore him to health. The rest of the novel is the stranger’s description of the strange land in which he now finds himself.

This is a zany kaleidoscope of a novel. There are so many clever little inventions, on nearly every page: books are digested rather than read, people vote on the weather, linguists attempt to predict the future through an analysis of “the transformational possibilities of the language” (it is explained that the word “robot” would have been a nonsense word in the 15th-century, but if somebody had discovered it, they would have easily predicted automata (Rene Descartes did in fact do this, though in the next century and without the word), so you get scientists imagining possible words (ex: “macrotrashm,” a universe made of garbage) as possible worlds; I believe there’s supposed to be a comment on the art of science fiction here, but if there’s anything to the idea, I’d suggest contemporary futurolinguists get to work investigating Finnegans Wake), and above all a galaxy of specialized hallucinogens which offer fantasies of all possible variety, every kind of heaven and hell, are administered both with and without the consent of the governed.

I looked, petrified at the transformation taking place, realizing in a sudden shudder of a premonition that now reality was sloughing off yet another layer—clearly, its falsification had begun so long ago that even the most powerful antidote could do no more than tear away successive veils, reaching the veils beneath but not the truth.

I don’t want to describe too many of the innovations, because the real fun in reading this book is seeing Lem throw out so many ideas, all of them strange but most of them not entirely implausible, and any one of which would have served as the sole driver of a story by a less clever writer. When you step back, however, and consider the novel more globally in terms of its themes and the overall arc of the story, you won’t find anything that hasn’t been previously explored by Aldous Huxley or Phillip K Dick (of course the basic idea is as old as Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes). That doesn’t mean that the book is in any way predictable. I don’t think I’ve read anything that so relentlessly tries to shift the ground from under the reader’s feet. Any new revelation is bound to morph again within a few pages or so. This sounds as though it could be tiresome, but somehow it isn’t. The exception may be the revelation of the final page, which I did guess at ahead of time, yet it still seemed the most appropriate ending.

The question we are left with is the same as Huxley raised in Brave New World, which he described in a later introduction as the problem of “the modern Procrustes” (which Lem slyly references by having a company called Procrustics, Inc.). Procrustes was a villain defeated by ancient Greek hero Theseus (who stalks me in my dreams and is fated to liberate my head from my body), a torturer that attempted to fit victims to an iron bed. Those too short he stretched, those too tall he amputated. This is discovered in the modern era as an image of science, which ought to be our tool but is instead our torturer. How is science going to stretch or amputate us in the future? How much alteration can we take and remain human? Does our survival and happiness depend on us bidding a final farewell to the ideas of nature and reality?

Another theme in this highly imaginative book is the impact that imagination has on the future. Can it help us solve our problems or does it just help us invent new ways to avoid those problems, along with creating new ones? Like the best science fiction, The Futurological Congress awes us not just in the strangeness of its future but the strangeness of the fact that we are living in a future, one that had been at the same time imagined, not imagined, and perhaps unimaginable:

Averroës, Kant, Socrates, Newton, Voltaire, could any of them have believed it possible that in the twentieth century the scourge of cities, the poisoner of lungs, the mass murderer and idol of millions would be a metal receptacle on wheels, and that people would actually prefer being crushed to death inside it during frantic weekend exoduses instead of staying, safe and sound, at home?

That image of the (unnamed) automobile as a lethal “metal receptacle on wheels” is an example of what critics, following Russian theorist Viktor Shlovsky, call “defamiliarization,” or “estrangement,” in which everyday objects and acts are rendered alien through surprising description. Poetry makes the most extensive use of the technique. Wallace Stevens, in “The Auroras of Autumn” describing the appearance of stars at night: “Eyes open and fix on us in every sky.” But it is also everywhere in science fiction (more so, I think, than other fiction, where there is a greater emphasis on mimesis). Phillip K Dick, the most original genius in sci-fi, was especially great in this respect. Usually we experience defamiliarization through the use figurative language to describe ordinary things, as in the Stevens example. But in a very short and funny story, “The Eyes Have It,” Dick uses literal interpretation to defamiliarize typical (that is, cliche) figurative language. The narrator reads a story that he interprets as describing an invading alien species, with detachable eyes that “roved about the room,” and “moved from person to person.” He reads such ordinary phrases as “we split up,” as descriptions of the aliens’ capacity for “binary fission,” and literally understands that characters had “no guts,” or “no brains.”

Habit makes our everyday lives dull, but it takes the imagination, which is nowhere employed more radically than in literature, to remind us how weird our world really is.

I’m getting a little afield of my subject, except to say that imagination, in this novel and in “real” life, is at once our salvation and damnation. We never, in fact leave the imagination. “What is now prov’d,” says Blake, “was once only imagined.” And once it is proved, it recedes into the background, becoming nothing to us. Until the imagination rekindles (or unfreezes) it. Take a look, it’s in a book. This book ends on a completely apt image, of a scientist’s manuscript (a symbol not of the imagination, since it is scientific and not poetic, but rather of humanity’s attempt to attain understanding and thus control of the bewildering cosmos) slipping out of his hands and drifting away into chaotic waters.

Not Ideas about the Thing

I sometimes think that I’m less of a person than a collection of compulsions, delusions, and evasions of reality.

For instance, reading is a compulsion. I’m literally (and, in light of the word’s etymology, I mean literally) always reading when nothing else is compelling my attention. I’ve read 40 books so far this year, and at that rate I’m on track to hit 60 by the end of the year (which is where I top out, historically). But that’s just books. It doesn’t count the Wikipedia articles, randoms poems, short stories, essays, etc.

People admire readers, mostly because we’re encouraged by our culture from a young age to read read read, but few people actually read that much. But it’s wrong to think that reading is good for you per se. Even on the cultural level. I don’t want to get deeply into Marshall McLuhan’s analysis of text-based society except to say that bureaucracy, militarism, and statism are a few of the follies he attributes to it. On a personal level, I can tell you that reading  can be as effective tool of avoiding problems as pot, porn, or video games. But if any of those were my addiction, somebody probably would have attempted a mild intervention by now.

I’m almost certainly a smarter and more complex person because of how much and especially what I have read. But so much of the wisdom I have acquired has never been put into practice. I have read to become other people, which is a dream that dissipates as soon as I look up from the book. Reading has taught me to be overly abstract and ignore the language of the body and of nature. As the information I command has grown and the rational faculty I use to order it has strengthened, my intuition and imagination have dulled and withered.

So,

I’m spending a week where I read nothing. Not literally nothing. Reading text that you happen to see is actually an involuntary reflex. But no books, essays, articles. I’m also not listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos where people are talking. Just music. My hope is that I can spend some time exercising, meditating, being in nature, being more present, spontaneous, and mindful.

Today is day 2. I’ve already noticed that when you tamp down one compulsion, others leap up like hydra heads to take its place. You can do a lot online without actually reading all that much. Write blog posts, for instance. I’m also a compulsive list-maker: to-do lists, favorite music lists, list lists. What is the point of this? Is it a form of Apotropaic magic, a kind of spell to ward off bad luck? Or perhaps a kind of Homeopathic magic: writing a to-do list is a simulacrum of action, and is meant to make the thing actually happen. But it often just becomes a substitute for action. I have a tendency to think the answer to every problem is in a book. Which is true. But reading about the problem tends to substitute for actions to remedy it. In literary terms I guess this is synecdoche, a substitution of part of a thing (I would think that thinking about a problem would be a necessary part of solving it) for the whole.

Have you ever seen the movie Synecdoche, New York? It’s about a successful playwright who, instead of dealing with any of his personal problems, writes an elaborate new play that perfectly mirrors them, but then the line between his life and the play blurs, and this simulacrum he has created becomes his life. I shouldn’t have to say that this does not solve any of his problems. I dunno though, it’s been 10 years since I saw that movie.

And I’m trying not to read about it.

 

Epitaph

There is an inherent connection between writing and death. A trilobite outline etched in Paleozoic mud is the first letter. The sign for something emerges when its signifier dies. The sign says “here lies X.” Nietzsche wrote, “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts.” According to McLuhan, it is the letter, literacy, itself that is dying. A dead letter. This is a letter from a dead man, or minotaur, slain in his labyrinth. Let the dead bury the dead.

This post was written by H.G. Wells: “The markings and fossils in the rocks, and the rocks themselves, are the first historical documents.” (Outline of History)

This post was written by John David Ebert: “. . . [scholars] make the mistake, and it’s a big one, assuming that a written medium represents the beginning of the appearance of something when in most cases it actually represents the end of a tradition, as with the pyramid texts for instance. The pyramid texts were inscribed on these walls of pyramids starting with the fifth dynasty, because before that they hadn’t been inscribed at all, because they were orally recited, so it became clear that the reason they were inscribed in the fifth dynasty of Unas was because they were being forgotten, they were in danger of disappearing. . . Something appears in writing because it’s about to disappear.”

This post was written by Herman Melville: “The pale Usher- threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.” (Moby Dick)

Existential Roulette Update #1: Things you should listen to other than me

So how’s that Game of Life goin? Not too well. Not too well. I rolled “take a weekend road trip,” but it’s still Winter, so no go. I rolled the one about following news events, but I couldn’t make myself do it. Fiction, history and philosophy crowd out the present, always. Why should a random set of events occupy my precious mental bandwidth just because they’re happening now? So, on to the next one.

(Of course, now the investigation into Trump’s Russia connections is starting to grow some hair on its balls. Is the President of the goddamn United States a goddamn Manchurian candidate? Is he the victim of a Deep State smear campaign? Could both be true? Any possibility is fascinating! And yet, I can’t be bothered. I’m reading 4 or 5 books right now. Let me know in ten years if it was a scandal that destroyed Our Fair Republic. Then I’ll read the book, if it’s out in paperback. What’s that? No more books in Glorious People’s Empire of Google? Only Prolefeed beamed into our retinas every morning and Pornosec narrowcasting our dreams each night? We’ll fuck that dystopian bullhockey, I’m an Individual! I prefer not to! From my cold dead hands you damn dirty! I’m going full Fahrenheit Four Five One on y’all motherfuckers!  I’ve already memorized “Harrison Bergeron!” It’s short! *Jumps out window shouting “I got the fear!”*)

Sorry I . . . don’t know what happened there. Just, just roll the dice.

Write reviews of at least 3 of your favorite podcasts. Then give them money. 

Fine, that’s fine. I don’t remember my iTunes login, so I’ll just do it here. Here are 3 podcasts you absolutely have to listen to:

1. Literature and History

One of the things that the podcast medium has enabled is laser-specific topics and epic-length projects. Wait, that’s two things. The podcast medium has enabled two things: laser-specific topics, epic-length projects, and an outlet for people who are creative in more than one medium. Oh, fuck. Let’s stop there. For specificity and interminability, I give you Frank Delaney’s Re Joyce, a sentence-by-sentence explication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. (He covers a little bit more than a chapter a year.) For epic length, epic themes, and that other thing I said, plug Literature and History into your ears. Sure, it’s got a boring, institutional sounding name, but this is not even close to the kind of thing you would get from the BBC or NPR. Trust me, as someone always on the lookout for podcasts that are as entertaining as they are informative, this is the fucking mother lode (which is good, as opposed to a motherfucking load, which would be bad).

Literature and History is a podcast by Doug Metzger about the history of “Anglophone literature,” i.e. literature written in English. So, of course it begins just where you’d expect it to, with Beowulf  Cuneiform and the Tower of Babel. At this rate, it’s quite possible I’ll have grandchildren before he covers Shakespeare. But that’s the right way to go: in order to understand anything, you have to understand everything. That’s the vicious hermeneutic circle for you.

But right now I don’t really care if he ever gets to the ostensible subject. He’s great with the ancients. Episodes are divided roughly equally between a summary of the topical text and the historical context necessary to understand it. Oh, and there’s songs. Doug composes all of the music used in the background of the show, as well as a closing song that’s generally super-cheesy, and quite funny. Like, there’s a rap battle between the Greeks and Trojans, a country ballad about how Zeus likes to fuck everything moving, and a pretty clever chantey about the crew of the Argo and the Pequod running into each other. Like I said,   people who are creative in more than one medium.

I have an undergraduate degree in English. I always felt my education neglected the classics. In particular, it’s difficult to really understand canonical Western literature without knowing the Greeks, the Romans, and the Bible. On these and more, I have found Literature and History indispensable.

It can’t be easy to put out something this good. I found some evidence for this on an article profiling Doug and his podcast:

 He explained that a typical podcast requires 40 to 80 hours of reading, another 40 hours of writing, and about eight to 12 hours crafting the original songs to which he closes most episodes (he plays several instruments, including the mandolin, guitar, banjo, oboe, and piano).

This guy is doing god’s work. He deserves support. I just paid $30 for all of the supplementary material. I recommend at least giving Literature and History a download or two.

2. The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

While the individual episodes are shorter, this may be an even more ambitious project than Literature and History. Doing history of philosophy is seems like it is doing two things, but it is actually doing three: history, philosophy, and philosophical history. Doing this “without gaps” also means paying attention to figures and ideas that rarely get mentioned in survey courses. I would say that there is an error in the title, as the podcast only covers Western philosophy, but Peter Adamson, the creator of HOPWAG, has recently begun filling some of that gap as well with his History of Philosophy in India.

Like Literature and History, Adamson helps keep a heavy subject light by leavening the material with humor, not songs in this case but rather jokes, including many running gags about giraffes, Buster Keaton (in the Chaplin v. Keaton battle, I’m team Keaton all the way), and the Marx Brothers.

Awesome show, great job.

3. The History of English Podcast

I’ll just tell you up front that this one is dryer than the first two. But not too dry. Like a good wine. I don’t know anything about wine. Like a good towel. It’s a great subject. You get a lesson in both history and linguistics. If you’re interested in those subjects, you can’t do better. And just as Doug Metzger finds he can’t tell the story of English literature without telling the story of Mesopotamian, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman literature, Kevin Stroud winds up telling you the story of Indo-European in order to tell you the story of English. And like Doug, Kevin has some excellent bonus material for purchase. One is a history of the Alphabet, which I bought and listened to, and of course recommend. The other is called Beowulf Deconstructed, and I do plan on checking it out. Contra Woody Allen, it’s worthy subject matter.

 

 

 

The Opponents

 

Two men sit in rumpled suits at a table in a desert playing chess. They look bored but are not. They allow some time to elapse before a piece is moved. This is not for any tactical consideration, though they are given over to certain ruminations. They do not really desire an end to the game, though they know that there will be one. Each has already sacrificed his Queen to the other. One moves his King about in aimless exploration, while the other assaults him absurdly by inching his remaining pawns (of which there are a surprising number for this stage of the game) forward blindly. Each has one Knight remaining, which lopes opposed loops around the board one lopsided swing at a time, each in parody of the other. They (the players, not the Knights) try not to think of the two kinds of squares on the board as “black” and “white,”  but instead as “full” and “empty,” or “is” and “is not.” One of the players believes that a game of chess is nothing more than the moves made in that game in that order: an iteration of possible games. Board, pieces, players are inessential. There is a logical sense in which the game they are now playing has already taken place. Had to. For the other, whose name may be Harold, it is otherwise. Who plays, why, under what circumstances, are all part of what it means to play “a game of chess.” But he is troubled about where to draw the line, threatened by a potentially infinite concatenation of detail. Each of them knows that there are as many possible games of chess as there are atoms in the universe. What each opponent knows or does not, thinks or does not, all this had been established early. All that is left is making the moves. “Perhaps it will rain today,” neither of them says. One day it does.