David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2011 (page 1 of 3)

RIP Joanna Russ

One of the lesser-known greats of the New Wave of science fiction has passed on. Matthew Cheney has an excellent obit and overview. I reviewed my favorite work of hers, We Who Are About To…, some years back. As a supplementary epitaph, I’d like to quote part of Thomas M. Disch’s encomium to her, from The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of:

Little wonder that Heinlein, in Friday‘s alphabetized dedication and tribute to twenty-nine members of the fair sex, pays his devoirs to a Jeanne, a Joan, and a Judy-Lynn, but omits the name of Joanna. Now that, truly, is a compliment.

…C.J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold have taken their cue from Russ, writing gung-ho Realpolitik space operas that make the author of Gor look like the wimp he was.

And also quote Ray Davis quoting a great bit from the end of Russ’s classic The Female Man, spoken by the character “Joanna”:

“I am the gateway to another world,” (said I, looking in the mirror) “I am the earth-mother; I am the eternal siren; I am purity,” (Jeez, new pimples)

9 Tired and Wrong Received Ideas

Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, by Guy Davenport

Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, by Guy Davenport

These nine ideas are all wrong. (I believed many of these, whether explicitly or as an unstated assumption, at some point or another, so this post is directed at my past self as much as anyone.)

  1. The Greeks (Athens specifically) had a free direct democracy with open discussion, free of tyranny.
  2. Descartes formulated the fundamental concepts of rational subjectivity and selfhood under which we all still operate today, thus originating modernity.
  3. Enlightenment thinkers shared a rationalist, Panglossian optimism about controlling humanity and the state.
  4. The French Revolution was a seminal, epochal event that drastically and uniquely changed attitudes toward humanity, history, and politics.
  5. American religious fanaticism originates with the Puritans and associated peoples in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  6. Hegel’s dialectic is of the form “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”
  7. Prior to the 20th century (or prior to Schleiermacher, Saussure, Wittgenstein, Derrida, etc.), language was taken to have determinate, definite meaning that directly referred to reality.
  8. Universal laws of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, hard-wired into the brain, have been discovered, which apply to all known languages.
  9. A two part slippage of political terms (note how one term appears in both lists):
    1. Capitalism = libetarianism = free markets = laissez-faire = trickle-down = globalization = free trade = neoliberalism = liberalism = supply-side = mercantilism = etc.
    2. Communism = Marxism = Leninism = socialism = regulated market = welfare state = liberalism = Keynesianism = Great Society = etc.

These are some of the ones that I think about most often, ones that are taken seriously by some people I respect. (I’m not going to list “Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States” or “Edward Said was a Muslim fundamentalist,” because I’m lucky enough not to deal with people who believe these things, and I’m trying to list these in order to change people’s minds, which would be impossible with anyone who believes those two.)

These ideas are frequently debunked or contested, but still I frequently hear them stated with blithe certainty. Even when the case is debatable, as with the French Revolution, there is such exaggeration of its singular importance that no event short of the Second Coming could fulfill the importance assigned to it.

Oversimplification is the main sin here. Two forms of it present here are origination and conflation. Origination states that a certain idea, concept, or practice began with a certain person or people at a certain time and place, and simply did not exist before that. Conflation simply packages together terms like “subjectivity” and “selfhood” and “rationalism,” so that an attack on one serves as an attack on all of them. And with both of these these goes Inflation, where the key idea/event/person is elevated to such singular importance that it becomes an excuse not to search for any lesser-known ideas/events/people that might serve to complicate matters.

While discussing Derrida’s critique of Husserl, I criticized Derrida for invoking a simplistic, received view of language, and then tarring huge swaths of the linguistic and philosophical tradition with it. I’m far from the first to make that critique, and he’s far from the first to make that move. It’s a variation on the straw man argument. Via conflation, the straw man is used against many opponents, not just one. (It’s far more efficient.) By finding the same straw man in thinker after thinker, entire traditions can be invalidated and subverted, so much the better to make the critique appear more sweeping, profound, and revolutionary. Derrida was taking after Heidegger here, who was the absolute master of this technique. (Presence is always present.)

But such straw man arguments aren’t necessarily used for critiques. The ideas above are used both positively and negatively. They are pieces of conceptual history that seem so widely accepted that in a hundred years, people may have trouble figuring out that these assumptions underlay so much contemporary writing. People often no longer bother to explain them or even to state them. As an analogy, Frederick Beiser has spent the last 20 years attempting to explain the impact of Jacobi and Lessing’s “Pantheism controversy” on the philosophy of Kant and most everyone else in that period. It was a huge imbroglio at the time, but people like me read Kant with no knowledge of it.

I’ll close with some wise words about conceptual generalization and simplification  from Albert O. Hirschman, who inspired this post. Here he is remarking on Marx’s famous “history repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce” remark:

This is the second time I find a well-known generalization or aphorism about the history of events to be more nearly correct when applied to the history of ideas. The first time was with regard to Santayana’s famous dictum that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Generalizing on the firm basis of this sample of two, I am tempted to formulate a “metalaw”: historical “laws” that are supposed to provide insights into the history of events come truly into their own in the history of ideas.

Does anyone else have particular favorite received ideas they’d like to give?

Hugh Kenner on Louis Zukofsky, Canadian Proofreading, the MLA, the OED, and Everything Else

Hugh Kenner was a very sharp, eccentric critic best known for his work on James Joyce and Ezra Pound (two writers whose critical apparati seem to welcome eccentrics more than most), but he also was responsible for a textbook on geodesic domes that demonstrated his reverence for R. Buckminster Fuller, and a tutorial book on the Heathkit computer. (Thanks to Dan Visel for educating me on those last points.) The Heathkit was a bit before my time, but let’s hear it for computer-polymath types: Kenner, J.M. Coetzee, Elvis Costello, Scott Miller, Ray Davis.

Kenner was also almost completely deaf, which had to have had a huge impact on how he perceived language, and a peculiar counterpart to Joyce’s near-blindness in the last decades of his life. It probably helped to account for his enthusiasm for Buster Keaton and Chuck Jones. (He wrote books on both.)

I was reading through his essay collection Mazes, which collects febrile bits and pieces from mostly popular magazines like Harper’s and Life and National Review (ugh), and while his opinions range from enlightening to crackpot, he does frequently pull out amazing anecdotes. A few that jumped out at me:

Critical Texts

[Edmund Wilson complains about his American classics project being suppressed by some MLA conspiracy.]

Edmund Wilson was especially funny about eighteen Twain editors reading Tom Sawyer, word for word, backward, “in order to ascertain, without being diverted from this drudgery by attention to the story or the style, how many times ‘Aunt Polly’ is printed as ‘aunt Polly,’ and how many times ‘ssst!’ is printed as ‘sssst!'” Since the MLA had ordained that “plain texts”–books you just read–were to await the establishment of “critical texts”–books that with full display of evidence sift out printer’s errors and restore lost auctorial revisions–we’d be waiting, he estimated, “a century or longer.”



Set promised trouble as early as 1881, when James Murray, the chief editor, came to doubt if the language contained a more perplexing word. An assistant had already spent forty hours on it, and Murray anticipated forty hours more. Set (the verb) was completed more than three decades later, and the time its final arrangement took Murray’s chief associate, Henry Bradley, was something like forty days, in the course of which he improvised twelve main classes with no fewer than 154 subdivisions, the last of which (set up) required forty-four further subsections.

The result, a treatise two-thirds as long as Paradise Lost, is from most points of view a triumph of ingenious uselessness, reminiscent of Yeats’s A Vision in being nearly impenetrable through sheer complexity of classification. Someone who had heard of hunters “setting” to fowl would toil long and hard through those columns en route to his quarry, low down in the final clause of #110: “set: to get within shooting distance by water.


Canadian Proofreading

A newspaper editor once told me why proofreading standards in Canada declined in the 1940s. Reading proof–a dull underpaid job–had once kept retired clergymen from starving. It was when the aged clergy commenced to draw pensions that papers had no recourse save to hire less literate drifters.


William Empson and George Orwell

[Is this really true?]

Orwell’s wartime BBC acquaintance, William Empson, warned him in 1945 that Animal Farm was liable to misinterpretation, and years later provided an object lesson himself when he denied that 1984 was “about,” some future communism. It was “about,” Empson insisted, as though the fact should have been obvious, that pit of infamy, the Roman Catholic Church.


Mortimer Adler

In thirty years Adler’s Institute for Philosophical Research have only made a start on repackaging “the whole realm of the great ideas”–so far “two volumes on the idea of freedom; one volume each on the ideas of justice, happiness, love, progress, and religion; and a monograph on the idea of beauty”? That such books will help save mankind is a notion so high-minded it verges on self-parody.

[I remember reading something or other by Adler for a class in high school and writing a sneering dismissal of it, referring to him as “Morty” all the way through. I don’t remember anything about the content, but I suspect the sort of tone Kenner describes is what set me off.]


Louis Zukofsky

No one that I’ve known knew English half as minutely as the late Louis Zukofsky, who began its acquisition at twelve and kept the habit of looking up everything including “a” and “the.”

[Is it common knowledge that Zukofsky’s first language was Yiddish? I feel like I should have known this a long time ago.]



Barthes has little to say about real literature. He flutters brightly around its edges: “Proust and Names,” “Flaubert and the Sentence.” Its coercive powers exceed what the codes account for. And decade by decade we keep remaking it in replenishing its power to remake us.


Portrait of Denis Diderot

I have a great affection for Diderot and see him embodying most of the Enlightenment’s virtues (tolerance, curiosity, skepticism, logical thought, creative intuition) and few of its vices (overreaching, overgeneralization, arrogance, optimism, cynicism). This little portrait of him by the French Radical-Socialist Prime Minister Edouard Herriot (a flawed but still sympathetic figure in his own right), written in 1953, captures a great deal of his charm, though I think it’s on display in nearly everything he wrote.

I remember how in 1913 the French Senate wished to celebrate the second centenary of Diderot’s birth. I was then a member, the youngest, of that assembly. I said a few words which met with very little response. The Chamber did not support the suggestion that his remains should be moved to the Panthéon, and Maurice Barrès expressed his satisfaction at this in a careful essay which appeared in his book Les Maîtres. He did not consider Diderot to be a national figure; he saw him merely as a remarkable revolutionary genius, able as no one else to place charges of dynamite under all the principles and pillars on which society rests; a professor, as it were, of anarchy and an enemy of tradition.

Diderot considered a humanist education to be essential. ‘For several years running,’ he writes in his Project for a University, ‘I would read a passage of Homer every night before going to bed as regularly as a good priest says his office. I began early to suck the milk of Homer, Virgil, Horace, Terence, Anacreon, Plato, and Euripides, mixed with that of Moses and the Prophets.’

As a matter of fact he wanted to study everything and to know everything. As soon as he left college his true nature became apparent. Unable to settle down in an attorney’s office, refusing to choose a definite profession, flitting from literature to science and from Italian to English, mixing with company of every description both good and bad, but more often the latter, composing sermons, if necessary, for a Portuguese missionary, tutoring the children of Randon d’Haunecourt, the financier, but throwing up his job in order to be free again, sometimes reduced even to hunger, he managed to gain through his very independence a wide experience and culture which made him a singularly intelligent and well-informed Bohemian. At one moment we see him dressed in a grey plush coat taking a summer stroll along the Allée des Soupirs in the Luxembourg Gardens, and, at the next, wandering through the streets of Paris with torn cuffs and black woollen stockings sewn together at the back with white thread.

His originality lies primarily in his vast culture and in his scientific knowledge, so far in advance of that of his contemporaries. He had already reached an idea of transformism, the doctrine of evolution. A materialist, in favour of morality for sentimental and practical reasons, not from philosophic conviction, laudably hard-working, curious about everything, often confused, even incoherent but generous, cordial, with a shade of coarseness, becoming intoxicated with ideas, as others do with wine, vulgar at times and disordered as he was said to be, outstanding quality was life.

The Stasis of Spaces in Kafka’s Trial

[Introductory note: this is a very old paper. It strikes me now as immensely callow in voice and construction, yet I don’t find it too embarrassing. I think this is because Kafka is very receptive to the sort of motivic analysis that I perform here, so I had a wide margin for error. So even if the conclusion and narrative are reductive, the links are still meaningful. My mistake was in trying to draw too definite a theme from them. It could just as easily have been called “The Fluidity of Spaces,” but “The Stasis of Spaces” just sounds so much better and reminded me of Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces (that would be Espèces d’espaces in the original French). I’ve resisted the temptation to make stylistic edits, so please enjoy some juvenilia. I remember, more than anything, really enjoying writing it, and maybe that redeems its faults for me now.]

The Door that Always Stands Open

In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, K. makes his way through a labyrinthine and chaotic city in dealing with his case. He is continually entering and exiting doors, going through passageways, and passing through antechambers. The ubiquitous presence of doorways is immediate and constant. Yet the doors in The Trial do not function as normal doorways; the spaces that they separate are not entirely separate. In the course of the novel, Kafka dissolves the clear delineation between the two sides of the door, and creates instead a space within the door, which is central to the entire narrative of The Trial, both in relation to the spaces of the city, and in relation to time.

In a nearly physical example of this dissolution, a door virtually disintegrates as young girls mount an attack on it, in the “Painter” section. Titorelli remarks that the girls have “had a key made for my door, and they lend it round” (144), already hurting the door’s function to keep people on one side of it. The row of girls becomes a constant force against the door. They “see into the room through the cracks in the door” (148) as they crowd around the keyhole, and they then breach the door with their words. They breach the door physically, by thrusting “a blade of straw through a crack between the planks and . . . moving it slowly up and down” (150). The painter even remarks that “the air comes in everywhere through the chinks [in the door]” (155). When the girls are once more “crowding to peer through the cracks and view the spectacle” (156), the door seems hardly there, not functioning as a physical boundary. Yet K. cannot cross it himself, as he futilely tugs at the handle of the door, “which the girls, as he could tell from the resistance, were hanging on to from outside” (162). Instead, he must take the exit to the Law Court offices. What is hardly a boundary for the girls is all too solid for him.

In the above passage, the door becomes a very tangible boundary for K., even though the girls seem to be able to penetrate it with ease. K.’s case will be examined in more depth, but even in this situation, the role of the door is difficult to completely understand. In The Trial, K. finds himself in situations where the distinction between one side of the door and the other becomes very hazy. Without this distinction, K. can neither enter nor exit. The door will cease to function as a gateway and instead will trap K, as the painter’s door does. Unable to exit, he instead takes the route through the Law Offices, ending up nonetheless back where he began. Through doors, K. embarks on a forward progression to nowhere, where both sides of the door may indeed be the same.

The opening scene presents K. with seemingly total freedom. After the warder Willem tells K. to stay put in his room, he considers that “If he were to open the door of the next room or even the door leading to the hall, perhaps the two of them would not dare to hinder him” (7). He soon finds out from the inspector that he is free to go about his business and can still lead his regular life. His freedom to exit his room is useless, however, because he will remain in the same “space” as he is in from the beginning of the novel, and he will not escape it, except possibly through death. Leaving through the doorway of his room will make no difference. His situation, however, will become more clear, as Kafka develops it throughout the novel.

[Very clear, or so I thought at the time. Look at all the stuff I’m about to quote below.]

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