Tag Archives: writing

Meanwhile…

IMG_0566.jpgIt’s been a while. It may be more still while I re-orient, re-work, re-read, and re-assess the fast-moving parts of my life. Meanwhile I read. And bake, of course.

Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience was an amusing look into a man’s account of his own life ironically lacking in much ‘conscience’ but instead, full of complaints, finger-pointing, and laments all culminating in the throwing-off of his psychoanalysis which he declares a dismal failure even “after having practiced it faithfully for six whole months!” (exclamation mark, mine). He is, “worse off than before” (402). The examined life, it would appear, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Translated by William Weaver, Zeno’s Conscience was originally written in 1923. As I read it I thought of Giuseppe Berto’s, incubus written in 1964 which I read last summer while in Rome. It’s nearly inconceivable to me that Berto did not know of Svevo’s book given the similarities. But, then again, we humans are so much alike in our obsessive monitoring of our psyches—which sounds bad until you consider the alternative group of humans who lack any sense of, or responsibility towards, self-reflection and contemplation. At least the former group is trying.

At any rate, thinking of Berto brought me back to Rome (I have always had the habit of connecting my memories to the book or books I was reading at the time). Coincidentally, my reflections on my travels to Rome this past summer were recently published in Smith College’s magazine, Global Impressions. I include the link below.

Although I haven’t written much lately here, I haven’t completely gone away. But the thing I always loved about keeping a blog is that there is no pressure. One can write, one can read—or not. It’s just a pleasurable thing to be obligation-free in relation to my most pleasurable habit: reading.

https://sophia.smith.edu/blog/impressions/2017/03/08/word-on-the-street/

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).

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Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.

Polysyllabic Sesquipedalianisms (and other annoyances)

These subtle but prized typographic conventions find themselves under threat from the wretched “hyphen-minus,” an interloper introduced to the dash’s delicate habitat in the late nineteenth century. Too crowded to accommodate the typewriter keyboard required a compromise; the jack-of-all-trades hyphen-minus was the result, and its privileged position at the fingertips of typists everywhere has led to it impersonating dashes and hyphens alike with alarming frequency. In print and online, the well-set dash is an endangered species (146).
~ Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks

IMG_2591Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters is a sheer guilty pleasure of a read. I know people get very precious about their punctuation, but I am not one of them. I am far too flawed to get caught up judging others by their adherence or lack-thereof in regard to an elusive ideal of punctuation. Particularly as such a thing, of course, does not exists. Yes, we have meandering conventions (that differ by country). And, largely thanks to the printing press and the limitations of the keyboard, there is some agreement now-a-days, but as Houston’s romp through the history of punctuation attests, it has not always been thus.

We can lament the hyphen-minus, but for most, just getting to the em dash (shift/option/hyphen on a mac) is asking a lot. One would have to have been berated by a passionate letterpress professor to make the effort. And I have. So I (mostly. often enough) do. But do I care if others properly use an en, or em dash without mixing it up with a hyphen or, heaven forfend, a hyphen-minus? When all is said and done, it is an aesthetic visual experience to read…after a while one feels sorry for the pedant and annoying grammaphiles that sniffily insist there is only one “right” way to do things. After all, before the age of the printing press, and long after, people just winged it. Sure, there were attempts to codify, but really, when it comes to reading one always has to adjust to a writer’s style and, flexible creatures that we are—WE DO! Clarity is the only important thing and once one gets into a writer’s way of writing, there is no crisis. Well, for the most part:

In the eighth century the first chinks of light appeared in the claustrophobic  scripto continua that had dominated writing for a millenium. English and Irish priests, in an attempt to help reader decipher texts written in unfamiliar Latin, began to add spaces between words (13).

Okay, I will admit—that helped things enormously. Still, overwhelmingly, for me, the history of the how and why of our modern punctuation is fascinating and diverting fun. While the struggles with the hyphen and dash are directly related to the problems of the printer trying to justify his text, it is simply good fun to be aware of the different symbols and uses, and there is an elegance to the “well-set dash.”

The history of the pilcrow is a beautiful example of the metamorphose and efficiency of the nature of language. What started as a K to signify kaput, meaning head (of a section), in Latin is capitulum. The pilcrow, which some will recognize as that backwards P denoting paragraph, is really an elaborate C for capitulum, while the word itself, pilcrow, has its etymological roots in paragraph. As Houston describes it, the symbol become such a popular device in manuscripts that it effectually “committed typographical suicide” (16). In the production of manuscripts there were several distinct stages and persons whom performed the stages. A scribe would write all of the words but would leave spaces for the rubricator (in red ink) to add the versals and other notations, such as the pilcrow. As the pilcrow increased in popularity the rubricators couldn’t keep up. They simply ran out of time and began to leave some of them blank. When printing took over there was an earnest attempt to mimic manuscripts, when confronted with an un-rubricated space, they simply left it blank too. And there you have the blank indentation which denotes, for all of us, a paragraph.

The ampersand is another wonderful tale and its long lost brother, the Tironian et, equally so. We are inundated with text around the clock, a book such as Houston’s illuminates the long arm of our written history with all of its successes and failures (sarcasm punctuation anyone? Anyone at all? sigh. Apparently not). When one sees how capricious a history it is the hubris of the grammar snob is deflated just a bit. No good comes of static standardization after all, it’s unnatural.

*title from p. 130: the undesirability of long words undermining the typesetter’s ability to justify text easily, hence the promiscuous use, in incunabula (early printed books) works, of hyphens.

 

 

 

Heartache’s Élan

There is nothing more tiresome, is there, than to answer in cold blood a letter that has been written in emotion, but you know you needn’t (10, 24th Nov. 1918).

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If one thing can be said about Dorothy Bussy, it is that she is a woman of emotion. Selected Letters of  André Gide and Dorothy Bussy recounts the thirty year span of their correspondence, begun over her work as his chief translator into English and which began late in their lives, in their fifties! Their undeniably passionate, mutual yet skewed love, and devotion to their friendship is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, but inspiring too.

Dear Gide,
I always feel in such a fearful panic after I have sent you a letter. I want to go and drown myself. Such intolerable stuff I write you. I can’t imagine how you bear it. Shameless it seems to me after it has gone, and worse than shameless–stupid–often not true. Can you tell what is true and what is false? I suppose you can. I suppose that is why you put up with me and why I always find the courage to begin again. Because in reality I’m not ashamed of the essential part–the part that is true. No. I’m proud of it (52, 16th Aug ’20).

She was in love with him, but alas, one can not feel what they don’t feel, and Gide did not return that sort of feeling. They were both married, and Gide had homesexual lovers and other heterosexual lovers as well (of more particular heartbreak for Bussy) and yet, he writes to her a day after her letter above:

Very Dear Friend,
Your letters send my heart and mind into corkscrews spirals–but delightfully (55, 17th Aug. ’20).

The relationship is rich in its intellectual depth, and wonderously complex regarding what it means to love someone. Where she loves body and soul, Gide can only offer his soul and wonders if that is not superior:

I cannot convince myself that what I feel for you in my heart is not really better than what you are looking for –and stronger, more constant, more serious (121, 9 April ’28).

And yet it is something of a constant torment to them both. The letters are historically, culturally, and intellectually fascinating. But it is Bussy that is truly remarkable. Her love, which she is aware is considered a humiliation, (and she battles those feelings in herself) she also understands to be the most authentic force of her life. She writes again and again about her inability to suppress her feelings. Her inability to be anything but completely nakedly honest with Gide. Why shouldn’t she? Most people don’t allow themselves to love so intensely. On his part, he writes again and again to her, beseeching her to write, to continuing writing her way. Sometimes with nothing to say, he writes only that he must write her. His words are achingly beautiful:

I read your letter of the 8th; that little swallow of pure friendship refreshes the soul (173,  12 Jan ’37)

I devoured this book. I have correspondences of my own, heartbreaks, and vigorous exchanges with people I love, and I am aware that letter writing is not so fashionable in this day and age, but there is something freeing and deeply enrichening to me in the practice, (even in email form, mine more often than not adhere to the long format letter length exchanges of former days..) which is perhaps why I was compelled to read this book.

My only disappointment was the inclusion in the epilogue  of a third party’s take on the letters. Gide’s friend Martin du Gard had certain papers in reference to “Madame Simon Bussy” and he added his own thoughts. He wrote of Bussy’s “delusion” and recalled Gide “avoid[ing] her, flee[ing] from her” noting that Gide’s love was only compassionate – to me, a condescending word in this context. Oh, how my heart burned in indignation at his take on the matter!

This morning you were very near to me, your check on mine, your lips so near to mine. But no, I did not dare. That must be reserved for dreams. They have sometimes come.
Good night my very dear.
Tear this into a thousand pieces & drop it into the sea.
Yr. D (210, 29 April ’42)

Five months later Gide, responding to her accusation that he didn’t read her letters, writes, “It goes without saying that I miscalculated, but you immediately accuse me of not reading your letters carefully…Shame! How mean! I read and reread your letters; there is even one (simply dated ‘Wednesday evening’) that I always carry with me.

The letter to which he refers is the above account of her dreaming about him….

It was no wonder at all to me that he loved her, and I felt deeply sorry that his feelings (that strange chemical reaction) differed from hers. But all the same. I found her a brilliant force of love and feeling. If that is humiliating, then so be it. Should she have humiliated herself by revealing all? Yes. By God Yes. What else is there?

Not a saint–not a boy–just your hopeless and yet not altogether unhappy

Lover
D.B. (74, July ’21)

*edited by Richard Tedeschi, Oxford University Press.

Sense and Memorabilia

I remember, in the heart of passion once, trying to get a guy’s turtle-neck sweater off. But it turned out not to be a turtle-neck sweater. – Joe Brainard, I Remember (131). 

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I remember not being able to get any dessert but prune crostata when I lived in Parma. But not minding, really.

“In the heart of passion” – that probably says it all. I Remember, written in 1975 by Joe Brainard, is one of the sweetest, funniest books I have ever read. In fact, I caused the  fellow commuter sitting in the seat ahead of me some alarm as I intermittently burst into spasms of laughter reading this on my way home the other night. She rather ostentatiously turned around to see what I was on about, and then I caught her peeping into the reflection of the window several times assessing my mental health.

I remember a little girl who had a white rabbit coat and hat and muff. Actually, I don’t remember the little girl. I remember the coat and the hat and the muff (32).

The book is brilliantly conceived. Ridiculously and poignantly simple. It reads as a sort of poem with each stanza beginning with the refrain: I remember.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie (8).

There is something magical in it. Brainard, a child and adolescent of the 40s and 50s, relates  details that are lovely in their historicism, but it is the disarming simplicity of his raw memory data that connects the reader to this charming fellow.

I remember once my mother parading a bunch of women through the bathroom as I was taking a shit. Never have I been so embarrassed! (93)

I’m really glad I never did that. As a mother of (mostly) sons, my heart just about burst for this young boy and his beautiful, puriel, ernest mind.

I remember when I worked in a snack bar and how much I hated people who ordered malts (22).

As a human who endured adolescence and retains a frightening degree of it, my heart ached for our shared humiliations, tribulations, and confusions. It would seem that Mr. Brainard and I suffer from the same malady – our hearts stuck in the ‘on’ position.

I remember liver (16).

Me too.

I remember Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (so sad) in Meet Me in St. Louis (49).

It was his tender use of parenthetical commentary that convinced me that this man must have been a lovely, kind soul.

I remember a girl in Dayton, Ohio, who “taught” me what to do with your tongue, which, it turns out, is definitely what not to do with your tongue. You could really hurt somebody that way. (Strangulation.) (133)

It is his innocence and crass adolescent mind, (which never seems to really leave us, eh?) his sexual forays, observations, reactions, and random thoughts that fill his memoir. This is the stuff we are made of.

I remember my mother cornering me into the corners to squeeze out blackheads. (Hurt like hell.) (141)

Okay – but in my defense, as a mother, that is really hard to resist.

I remember not finding pumpkin pie very visually appealing (113).

The sensual strength of our memories, whether it be vision, touch, sound, taste or smell is fascinating, revealing, and true. This is how we experience our lives – our world. It’s beautiful. Joe Brainard’s, mine, and yours. Simply beautiful.

I remember trying to figure out what it’s all about. (Life.) (46)

 

* I Remember – published by Granary Books

 

 

 

 

Life in the Margins

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My desk blotter with my random marginalia

Some people, when they begin a new job, buy an new outfit to start off on the right foot. Me? I bought a used book. I have started a job digitizing medieval manuscripts and had the very clever idea to read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to get myself in the proper frame of mind.

“It matters a great deal, because here we are trying to understand what has happened among men who live among books, with books, from books, and so their words on books are also important” (112).

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So far in my job, no one has been murdered. Although I have enjoyed Eco’s non-fiction, I have to admit it is the very genre of the “murder mystery” that put me off reading The Name of the Rose in the first place much less seeing the film. I don’t like the feeling of terror. The Exorcist was my first and last horror movie and Inspector Montalbano is the only detective I will ever love (but, Salvo, rest assure, I do love you). Basically, I’m a chicken. I am therefore happy to report that three murders in, I am forging ahead: labyrinth; dark, smoky intoxicating halls; ghoulish imagery; and creepy monks aside, the joy of reading about parchments and rubicators as I handle the very sorts of books that are at the center of the mystery in The Name of the Rose is tremendous fun.

An ancient proverb says, three fingers hold the pen, but the whole body works. And aches (128).

True, the script I am photographing is mind bogglingly small. I may go blind just trying to focus my camera never mind contemplate how they wrote in such a miniscule hand – nevertheless, I feel a kinship of sorts to the scribes of these texts. I prepare them to be ‘scribed’ by the computer, but we have the same problems, ye old monk and I: making copies, trying to get the details right, uncomfortable chairs, lighting issues, all in an effort to share the knowledge contained within.

Terce: In which Adso, in the scriptorium, reflects on the history of his order and on the destiny of books (181).

I think the biggest loss in the act of transcribing these books to a digitalized format is that in binary code, there is no room for marginalia. One thousand years from now that will be the most frustrating loss for archivists. They will want to know that I cursed in three different languages when I mistakenly failed to adjust the focus on fifty images. Alas, they will never know. The loss to history is….incalculable.

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*The Name of the Rose translated from the Italian by William  Weaver

Mazarine, Luteus, Vermilion

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The other day at work in the library while prying apart two colossal artbooks- my left hand pushing the row as far over as it would budge, while holding between right thumb and forefinger another sizable tome, the remaining three fingers were left with thrusting the opposing mountain of books to the opposite side when Lo! a small book revealed itself recessed in the deep shadows of the imposing giants surrounding it. With all of my fingers engaged, I let out an exasperated sigh. With reluctance, I released the hard earned space I had created. I  deftly (more likely, spasmodically) slipped my left hand in before the hidden entrance snapped shut in the jungle of books squeezed onto the shelf. If it hadn’t been a high shelf I might have engaged my foot to keep that damn space, but alas, I do try to maintain a professional demeanor.

My wearied fingers just managed to coax the little book out. I had only intended to help it reclaim its allotted space, but when I read the title, The Primary Colors by Alexander Theroux, I had to take a look. That very morning I had finished reading The Manticore by Robertson Davies, so when his back-of-the-book-two-cents blurb promising essays of “prodigal and vagarious adventure” as oppose to the “terse and apophthegmatic” sort, well, I ask you – how could leave it on the shelf?

The word sings. You pout pronouncing it, form a kiss, moue slightly, blowing gracefully from the lips as if before candles on a birthday cake (3).

Blue. It can only be blue, of course. Theroux’s discursive, plaited, and enigmatic exaltation of the primary color is a crazy delight to read. In equal parts: laundry list, rapturous praise, historical, poetical, and literary- azure my love, and blue, blau, bleu…some 50 pages into the thicket of illusive, expensive, pensive, doleful, blithe, yet blissful blue, Theroux insouciantly begins a new paragraph by saying, “Speaking of blue…”

Georgiana Peacher in Mary Stuart’s Ravishment Descending Time may well have given us the greatest passage on yellow eyes ever written, which I include here for, among other things, the edification of those undermedicated hacks, shameless book-a-year novelists, and jug-headed commercialists yahoos whose predictable prose comes cranking out of the trafila of their heads like streams of common pasta (104).

Yellow seems the perfect color to evince such a vitriolic run of the pen. At once sickly and weak it just as easily turns to exuberant luster. The sultry and louche lemonade pucker in no way disturbs the energetic primordial yellow, “I was going into the yellow” as Theroux quotes Marlow looking at a map of the Belgian Congo, “I was going into the yellow” (157).

As to barbaric richness of color, Francis Bacon, who wanted, among other things, to make the human scream into something “which would have the intensity and beauty of a Monet sunset,” like the color of blood, whether Antioch-red or paintbox bright or cherry: “It’s nothing to do with mortality, but it’s to do with the great beauty of the color of meat” (193).

Indeed, it is not accidental, I think, that  “there is no red Necco wafer” (172). Of all the names for red: cochineal, carmine, rubious, crimson, scarlet, a seemingly endless array of nuance and aspects. The copse of all that red denotes, connotes or promotes seems to tangle Theroux a bit in the final essay. As if there is too much to feel in this – the true primary color (no matter the language, “red” is always the first color named after black and white). Love and death, fervor, pain, a blush, the saucy and tart – my heart! my heart! Cranberry that it is, bursting with bitterness, but ever awaiting the sweet start.

 

*luteous (from lutum, mud) one of those perfectly good English words completely ignored nowadays as pretentious and arch, except by literate people like Virgil, who in his day used the word “luteus” as a synonym for yellow (73).

** Print by Dana Jennings Rohn