David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: america (page 4 of 19)

John Cheever

So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one’s purest memories and ambitions; and I can barely recall the old house where I was raised, where in midwinter Parma violets bloomed in a cold frame near the kitchen door, and down the long corridor, past the seven views of Rome–up two steps and down three–one entered the library where all the were in order the lamps were bright, where there was a fire and a dozen bottles of good bourbon locked in a cabinet with a veneer like a tortoise shell whose silver key my father wore on his watch chain. Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing. We admire decency and we admire death but even the mountains seem to shift in the space of night and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely woman with a bar of sunlight in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale’s cage. Just let me give you one example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and see if you can’t find a comparable experience….

“The Death of Justina”

After this howl, how could the rest of the story be anything but a disappointment? It’s atypical, at any rate, and The New Yorker rejected it.

On Thomas M. Disch

An article of mine on The Prescient Science Fiction of Thomas M. Disch has been published by The Millions.

covercovercoverThomas M. Disch (1940-2008) was a brilliant, ornery, and greatly American writer. He was best known for science-fiction, and three of his novels—Camp Concentration (1968), 334 (1972), and On Wings of Song (1979)won places in David Pringle’s estimable Science Fiction: The Best 100 Novels. But Disch also wrote poetry, horror, mysteries, at least one pseudonymous gothic novel, and perhaps best-known, The Brave Little Toaster. He was a gay man who disdained being called a gay writer. He was as fine a prose stylist as his genres had seen, but he also possessed a nightmarish imagination that combined J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic despair and Philip K. Dick’s nightmares. Disch’s particular gift was to root these qualities in the very heart of America. Dick predicted virtual reality; Disch predicted Sarah Palin. Dick killed himself with drugs, Disch with a shotgun.

Look at the big social novels of the 1960s. You find conspiracy theories in Pynchon and Mailer, suburban hells in Cheever and Yates and (in its apotheosis) Heller, solipsistic nihilism and self-indulgence in Barth and Wurlitzer, beatnik dropout fantasies in countless other authors. Even Gore Vidal was writing historical novels rather than anything set in the present day.

Disch, though, was ahead of his time. The American heartland of his novels, contemporary or future, now seems eerily prescient. It’s not that these trends weren’t visible in the 60s and 70s, but Disch foresaw their eventual impact in the post-Cold War age that his peers mostly did not. Frequently evoking the American grotesques of Poe and Lovecraft, he brought out the ghastly ignorance that increasingly defines American political life. He exaggerates, but the uncanny familiarity of the caricature is scary.


Charles Hinton and His Cubes

Thanks (and happy birthday) to Michelle at Potato Benevolence for (re?)introducing me to Charles Hinton, mysterious theorist of fourth-dimensionality in the late 19th century. Aside from his forays into gunpowder-charged pitching machines (a proto-Survival Research Laboratories experiment retired after a few accidents) and bigamy, his obsession with extra spatial dimensions influenced Edwin Abbott’s better known Flatland and was celebrated by Borges, who also mentioned him in “The Secret Miracle.” It’s easy to see a connection back to Llull and Bruno in his gnostic quest for knowledge of hidden spaces. He also constructed a series of cubes designed to help train one to envision a four-dimensional hypercube (or tesseract) by envisioning the various three-dimensional views of the hypercube in a mental superimposition. Sort of like this:

But the oddest part is the letter that was sent to Martin Gardner after he wrote about Hinton in Scientific American. (Mark Blacklock has also covered the odd history of the cubes in his comprehensive site on Hinton and others.)

Dear Mr. Gardner:

A shudder ran down my spine when I read your reference to Hinton’s cubes. I nearly got hooked on them myself in the nineteen-twenties. Please believe me when I say that they are completely mind-destroying. The only person I ever met who had worked with them seriously was Francis Sedlak, a Czech neo-Hegelian Philosopher (he wrote a book called The Creation of Heaven and Earth) who lived in an Oneida-like community near Stroud, in Gloucestershire.

As you must know, the technique consists essentially in the sequential visualizing of the adjoint internal faces of the poly-colored unit cubes making up the larger cube. It is not difficult to acquire considerable facility in this, but the process is one of autohypnosis and, after a while, the sequences begin to parade themselves through one’s mind of their own accord. This is pleasurable, in a way, and it was not until I went to see Sedlak in 1929 that I realized the dangers of setting up an autonomous process in one’s own brain. For the record, the way out is to establish consciously a countersystem differing from the first in that the core cube shows different colored faces, but withdrawal is slow and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to play around with the cubes at all.

Hiram Barton

On the other hand, Theosophist Sedlak seemed to be fairly happy with the result, as chronicled by his wife:

Towards the end of his long and trying illness, when terrible coughing prevented him from sleeping at night, the long silent hours seemed interminable. On my enquiring one morning as to what sort of a night he had had, he said almost joyfully, “Oh, being awake does not trouble me now. I do the cubes, and the time flies.” So I thanked God and blessed the cubes, for which had been found a utilitarian use at a most desperate psychological juncture. Power won cannot be lost, and will some day be utilised.

The Structure of University Education

We’ve gotta do it right

Within this system

Gonna take over

But within this system

Chicago, “It Better End Soon,” as quoted by Lester Bangs

It seems I’m late to the party over The Life of the Mind, discussing the problems of maintaining an intellectual life while pursuing an academic career in the humanities. The usual reactions seem to be either vehement, righteous agreement or scoffing at the author’s naivete that anyone could think that academia is anything other than a risky grind.

The Life of the Mind

Aside from the tremendous sympathy I have for those who are in unfortunate spots, this part of the discussion is largely redundant, as well as irrelevant. My two cents is that regardless of efforts of reform from within the universities, there are a couple of key factors that will cancel out their best efforts.

The democratization and class-flattening of university access over the last 50 or 60 years has produced two structural phenomena for academically-focused humanities departments that are not economically sustainable:

  1. The need to attract and retain a far larger number of low-paid graduate students and/or adjunct faculty than will ever attain a job in which they will have time to pursue “the life of the mind,” the ostensible goal.
  2. The need to attract a sufficient number of undergraduates who will overpay for large lecture courses so as to subsidize the rest of the faculty, seminars, and resources of the department, especially its graduate program.

The first is what I hear about constantly, but the second seems like the one that will be the ultimate forcing function. The low-paid adjunct/TA model can only go so far in reducing expenses in departments that aren’t economically self-sustaining, because the whole model is dependent on the second factor: as high a mean student-teacher ratio as possible across classes. (The median across classes is quite low, of course, which is why universities advertise that figure.) Even if graduate enrollment remained identical, reductions in lecture courses would be problematic, as David Leonhardt explains:

Because large lecture classes are cheaper for a college than seminars, freshmen are cheaper than upperclassmen. So a college that allows many of its underclassmen to drop out may be helping its bottom line.

So lecture enrollment and grad student enrollment need to be high, while the number of seminars and professors needs to be low. This is a squeeze. Kevin Carey’s excellent article about online education has this key point buried in it:

But the biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall. Subtract the cost of paying a beleaguered adjunct lecturer or graduate student to teach the course. There’s a lot left over. That money is used to subsidize everything else.

And with the rise of tuition and the flattening of wages over the last 30 years, this money source is inevitably drying up. The budding rise of online education will only speed the drought. Now, Carey is talking about college as practical job training. Those departments will have a problem but there will still be room for high-end theoretical and practical training in the sciences and social sciences, funded by grant money from DARPA and others. The humanities, by which I mean those fields which do not provide specific practical training other than for academia, will suffer far worse, only having the cushion of composition classes and the like to soften the drop in enrollment. In effect, it will be the final transition of college education from liberal education for the elites to job training for the middle classes.

Ultimately, I think it’s this factors more than anything that have led indirectly to the perversely self-defeating character of a lot of academic work in the humanities. The undermining of the classical liberal education paradigm has caused havoc to those who are attempting to work within it, even as some of them indicted its history. The recent archetypal example is Michael Berube, future head of the MLA, attacking his own discipline, which resulted in foolish rebuttals that only reinforced Berube’s claims (something Berube surely expected; I like him, he’s a smart guy, and he knows the score). For all his despair over the ineffectuality of cultural studies, but it’s telling that he cites its chief achievement as its analysis of its own socio-economic condition:

I’m not saying that it has had no impact. Cultural critics like Marc Bousquet, Cary Nelson, Andrew Ross, and Jeffrey Williams have written indispensable accounts of academic labor in America, and each has been inspired, in part, by some of the best work in the cultural-studies tradition, the branch that analyzes the social foundations of intellectual labor.

If the best defense Berube can give is its rear-guard action against its very own home–i.e., “We’re being exploited!”–then it is going to be difficult to make a case for its continued presence anywhere in a university. You can see this squeeze in much of the handwringing going on elsewhere. Steven Shaviro may have struck a blow for open access by refusing to let Continuum publish a piece of his under their draconian rights contracts, but it’s hardly the storming of the Winter Palace.

None of this is to pick on these people, only to point out that the “culture wars” are only a side effect of a longer-term economic process that is indeed mostly out of academics’ control. Like anyone who cares about these things, I have a bit of false nostalgia for the good old days that I never knew, but if cultural studies has taught me anything, it’s not to mourn the decline of an institution born in elitism and sustained by it.

Maryla Jonas Plays Chopin

One of the loveliest (but also melancholic) renditions of anything I’ve ever heard, from the underrecorded and neglected Maryla Jonas. It’s only 2 minutes; give it a listen.

Mazurka Op. 68 #3

From a Time article in 1946:

She was in bombed-out Warsaw when it fell. The Gestapo agent who found her in the city’s ruins tried to persuade her to go to Berlin to play for the Nazis. She refused and was sent to jail.

Seven months later, a Nazi officer who had heard her play let her out, told her that if she could get to the Brazilian Embassy in Berlin, she could get out of Europe. She walked most of 325 miles from Warsaw to Berlin, slept on the roadside, scarcely ever ate, and does not know how many weeks it took her. But she got to Rio. There she was put in a sanatorium, exhausted and sick. She got word that her husband, her parents and a brother had been killed in Poland. She did not go near a piano for months.

Polish Pianist Artur Rubinstein, visiting Rio, decided to trick her into playing again. He invited her to Rio’s empty Municipal Opera House, asked her to play some chords so he might test the acoustics. She sat down at the piano at 2:30, played until 8. Said she: “It was a put-up job.” She played three years in Latin America, earning enough to pay her way to the U.S., and the $1,400 that a Carnegie debut cost her.

Last week, five weeks after her New York debut, she played again in Carnegie Hall. This time the house was packed and the critics were in their pews. A buxom, platinum-haired woman of 35, her face was heavily rouged to cover the pallor of the past six years. Her U.S. sponsors wanted her to wear a corset; she refused (“I have to feel what I play from the legs up”) Says Maryla: “My first concert is European. Come one artist in old dress, no photogenic, no smiling. Then come complications. The criticisms are too good. Come snobs, I play too pianissimo, too fortissimo, my hair, I am too fat, my dress. My second concert is American concert. Everyone come to see am I really so good. It is not art, it is sport. It is football! If I have goal, bravo! If no goal, goodbye!”

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