Archive for December, 2007

Café con leche

December 27, 2007

David – a grad student I’d taken under my wing years ago – and I had just eaten brunch. He suggested we find some coffee and desert. Intelligentsia was conveniently located. The barista was a cute blond guy. I nodded admiringly at his tip-jar, which had a note on it expressly stating that he was not flirting with the customer. This one knew the drill, and his anti-flirt was sexier than any normal consumer flirt. David ordered a black coffee whereas I picked out a café con leche. The Mexican drink stumped the kid. “I am ashamed to admit this to you, but I can’t promise that this will taste right. I’ve forgotten how to make a café con leche.” “That’s alright,” I magnanimously answered. “I forgot what one tastes like.” David, who studies economic anthropology, correctly pointed out to us that the barista and I had achieved market equilibrium.

Such a state is both refreshing and satisfying to achieve. The barista and I discussed Antonioni’s films for a few minutes after I explained what the drink is made of, and I thought how nice it was that he had been honest and had a brain. Sure, the folks at Intelligentsia do have the annoying habit of asking “paper or ceramic,” instead of asking “for here or to go?” But the coffee tastes pretty good, and is worth the pretentiousness. The meta tip-jar was icing on the cake. Their website states that for their new Silver Lake branch many of the baristas “moved to Los Angeles from around the country specifically to work with Intelligentsia,” which is a kind of hilarious thing to write. Do they have recruitment drives? Do they send people to college job fairs to snap up hungry film students? I’ve got David on the case. These questions are exactly what I’ve trained him to answer. When he learns their secret, my faithful readers will share it as well.


‘She Was the Greatest Female Ping Pong Player That Had Ever Lived’

December 24, 2007
Another Lynne Chan video, Spread ’em sugar… it’s Ladycop. This was the Asian attack on Cindy Sherman. Whenever I watch this I miss that couch that Jake is sitting on. We called it “Lips,” and when one of us was on the phone with one of our draconian mothers, we’d take a seat on Lips and wait for the other one to pour a large glass of red wine as a tonic.

At the end of the video, Jake (or Dietmar) lists six things he’d say to her now, basically taking the words right out of my mouth.

JJ Chinois

December 24, 2007

A college roommate of mine, Lynne Chan, making great art. I wish I could find her videos, Untitled/My Mama or her Tom of Finland homage, Faggot Cholo. JJ Chinois is a further evolution of Lynn’s interest in the essence of “boy” (and that’s a great Fischerspooner song, though her video is better than their official one). I recall her once going to the Buddha Lounge with Dat and being mistaken for a guy from behind by a balding West Hollywood queen: “Sorry, I thought you were a soft boy.” Obviously, she takes advantage of that at the start of this video. Her series of “Boy” photographs that she hung on the walls of the apartment were amazing. Obviously, sex didn’t matter. She knew that the essence of boy isn’t in a cum shot. The images she’d take would be able to extract the essence of boy out of a person and purify it. What impressed me to the point of jealousy was how she could identify all the various elements that go into producing boyness. Our friend Neha, another fucking brilliant artist as well as a Classics scholar who was less interested in gender than in the arboreal and the transnational, was never really able to get Lynne’s sense of humor, but few people have ever been able to make me laugh — in person and through art — as easily as she did.* Just her laugh could make me laugh. Come to think of it, it might have bugged if her she ever realized her how girly her laugh sounds.

* I love seeing Sayo’s weeping face superimposed over the keyboard toward the end of the video. In much the same way as Lynne’s laughter, Sayo’s tears move me to tears.

New Books!

December 21, 2007

What did darkessatnoon get for his birthday other than a heaping pile of grief due to the proximity of his personal September 11th?*

lurches sent me an amazon gift certificate with which I ordered Essays in Existentialism by Sartre (for my forthcoming post “Styles of Bad Faith”), as well as two books by Tao Lin whose obnoxious blogging irritates me to no end. These are the novel Eeeee Eee Eeee and his short stories, Bed. They came along with a curious book of short stories by Miranda July, No one belongs here more than you.

Finally, and utterly coincidentally, a review copy of Mick Taussig’s My Cocaine Museum landed on my desk last week. I attended the early lectures upon which this book is based, and I can already assure you that there is some extreme bullshit going on inside this book. Review forthcoming.

Oh, also during last night’s insomnia, I found my Bedford “Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism” edition of Gulliver’s Travels. This was a Nortonish series of books that would publish a piece of the canon and then follow it with essays that “illuminate” the text with readings from various perspectives such as ‘the’ Deconstructionist, New Historicist, Feminist, and Reader Response takes on Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a laughably stiff approach to literary criticism, as if after reading a series of these books undergraduates would find not only their knowledge of Swift increased but also critical theory. It’s as push-button as you can possibly get. What’s fantastic is that my theory-hating national treasure, Dreamboat TC, wrote the essay on deconstruction. “A Deconstructionist Perspective.” Seriously. Because Swift is ripe for a touch of Derrida. Let the hilarity ensue. And the sad thing is, hers isn’t the worst essay of the mess!

So it’s going to be a Merry Christmas here if I can sneak some time from my days off to finish reading and review a couple of these. Otherwise, look for more from me in the New Year.

Oh, and to reward loyal readers, I now grace you with a photo of George (right; upraised eyebrows; skeptical look) and Harry (left; kinked tail). One day, I will permit you to see a picture of their sister, 7(e).

*Yes, I know some of you are displeased by my use of the real September 11th as a metaphor, however, I’m equally bothered by other people’s boring mention of the real September 11th, therefore we’re even.

Chopsticks Have Other Functions

December 21, 2007

As an update, let me think out loud. This has been bugging me for quite a while now, really ever since I read TranscenDentata: A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason. Bat-shit crazy (yet wise) author, Gayatri Spivak slams Roland Barthes’ book, Empire of Signs, claiming that Barthes is just so totally Eurocentric in his semiological claims about Japan. According to her, Barthes is invisible, disembodied, transcendental to the culture he describes. Now I’ve been a fan of Barthes ever since I saw Ben Chaplin read passages of Camera Lucida over the phone to Janeane Garafalo in The Truth About Cats and Dogs, therefore I have this to say to Ms. Spivak: ‘Nuh-uh, dragon lady!’ To wit, I submit the following passage from his book wherein Barthes describes his passion for being fucked by chopsticks in the Japanese style. I understand that they lube you up with soy sauce, cucumber slices and pickled wasabi, and that it’s a delectable experience — as precious as a serving of kobi beef; he even includes a haiku about the juice running down his legs across his spidery vericose veins. It doesn’t get much more embodied than this, folks.

At the Floating Market in Bangkok, each vendor sits in a tiny motionless canoe, selling minuscule quantities of food: seeds, a few eggs, bananas, coconuts, mangoes, pimentos (not to speak of the Unnamable). From himself to his merchandise, including his vessel, everything is small. Occidental food, heaped up, dignified, swollen to the majestic, linked to a certain operation of prestige, always tends toward the heavy, the grand, the abundant, the copious; the Oriental follows the converse moement, and tends toward the infinitesimal: the cucumber’s future is not its accumulation or its thickening, but its division, its tenuous dispersal, as this haiku puts it:

Cucumber slices
The juice runs
Drawing spider legs

There is a convergence of the tiny and the esculent: things are not only small in order to be eaten, but are also comestible in order to fulfill their essence, which is smallness. The harmony between Oriental food and chopsticks cannot be merely functional, instrumental; the foodstuffs are cut up so they can be grasped by the sticks, but also the chopsticks exist because the foodstuffs are cut into small pieces; one and the same movement, one and the same form transcends the substance and its utensil: division.

Chopsticks have other functions besides carrying the food from the plate to the mouth (indeed, that is the least pertinent one, since it is also the function of fingers and forks), and these functions are specifically theirs. First of all, a chopstick – as its shape sufficiently indicates – has a deictic function: it points to the food, designates the fragment, brings into existence by the very gesture of choice, which is the index; but, thereby, instead of ingestion following a kind of mechanical sequence, in which one would be limited to swallowing little by little the parts of one and the same dish, the chopstick, designating what it selects (and thus selecting there and then this and not that), introduces into the use of food not an order but a caprice, a certain indolence: in any case, an intelligent and no longer mechanical operation. Another function of the two chopsticks together, that of pinching the fragment of food (and no longer of piercing it, as our forks do); to pinch, moreover, is too strong a word, too aggressive (the word of sly little girls, of surgeons, of seamstresses, of sensitive natures); for the foodstuff never undergoes a pressure greater than is precisely necessary to raise and carry it; in the gesture of chopsticks, further softened by their substance – wood or lacquer – there is something maternal, the same precisely measured care taken in moving a child: a force (in the operative sense of the word), no longer a pulsion; here we have a whole demeanor with regard to food; this is seen clearly in the cook’s long chopsticks, which serve not for eating but for preparing foodstuffs: the instrument never pierces, cuts, or slits, never wounds but only selects, turns, shifts. For the chopsticks (third function), in order to divide, must separate, part, peck, instead of cutting and piercing, in the manner of our implements; they never violate the foodstuff: either they gradually unravel it (in the case of vegetables) or else prod it into separate pieces (in the case of fish, eels), thereby rediscovering the natural fissures of the substance (in this, much closer to the primitive finger than to the knife). Finally, and this is perhaps their loveliest function, the chopsticks transfer the food, either crossed like two hands, a support and no longer a pincers, they slide under the clump of rice and raise it to the diner’s mouth, or (by an age-old gesture of the whole Orient) they push the alimentary snow from bowl to lips in the manner of a scoop. In all these functions, in all the gestures they imply, chopsticks are the converse of our knife (and of its predatory substitute, the fork): they are the alimentary instrument which refuses to cut, to pierce, to mutilate, to trip (very limited gestures, relegated to the preparation of the food for cooking: the fish seller who skins the still-living eel for us exorcises once and for all, in a preliminary sacrifice, the murder of food); by chopsticks, food becomes no longer a prey to which one does violence (meat, flesh over which one does battle), but a substance harmoniously transferred; they transform the previously divided substance into bird food and rice into a flow of milk; maternal, they tirelessly perform the gesture which creates the mouthful, leaving to our alimentary manners, armed with pikes and knives, that of predation.

December 17th

December 17, 2007

No new content here today. Sadly, this is the anniversary of my own personal September 11th.

6:05 — blogs
6:10 — in mourning; pets cat
6:29 — takes out the trash; tears freeze on face
6:32 — misses bus; curses god
7:53 — arrives at work early; goes online; curses Harvard University’s website
9:14 — replies to j.m.’s email; cries
9:15 — tells co-worker about insane show on History Channel called “How William Shatner Changed the World”; cackles
9:38 — complains to l about tao lin’s latest fame-whore stunt
10:43 — still in mourning; can’t find staple-remover
10:44 — finds staple remover behind coffee mug; plays with rubber band; sniffs
11:34 — receives early birthday present; smiles
11:54 — wonders what to pick up for lunch (forgot to make lunch); hopes ex-boyfriend is not eating shrimps for lunch (because ex-boyfriend is allergic to shrimps); realizes that, because of time difference, if ex-boyfriend accidentally ate shrimps for lunch then he’s possibly already dead (feels sadder); weeps
12:17 — has “wedding” soup for lunch; it’s pretty good
14:39 — wistfully mails some letters
16:04 — feels masochistic; googlesmaurice blanchot blog”; sees a depressing number of entries; wonders what’s wrong with people
16:40 — sends suggestions on a syllabus to a friend; has reason to mention the inclusion of a piece by guattari sans deleuze; is pleasantly surprised at the chance to do that
16:50 — looks forward to shaving at home; hopes not to miss that same spot under the chin to the right that’s always so difficult to get
18:43 — comes home; pets cat
18:56 — looks up a piece where a bunch of academics take 911 personally; loves that Dreamboat TC‘s entry discusses how 911 personally affects her dog and compares the disaster to the spots versus stripes conundrum

A Stalker Clings to Love With Both Hands

December 16, 2007

I’m a huge fan of self-conscious acting choices such as the scene in Curb Your Enthusiasm when Larry David casually cleans his glasses using a yamaka. Alternately, one of the lovely touches Sarah Silverman has added to her roles over the years takes place in her first appearance on the USA television comedy, Monk, as Marci Maven (yes, ass, I know Monk is not a very good show but I like it anyway). Newly obsessed with Adrian Monk as the world’s greatest detective, Marci abandons her previous fixation on actor who plays a tee vee detective in order to obsess over Mr. Monk. At midnight, she knocks on his door to let him know that she has created a website dedicated to celebrating his genius. The brilliant touch is that Marci uses both sets of knuckles while knocking. Her knocks come rapid fire as she hunches her shoulders and leans into the door; she is childish and animalistic. Even though it probably wasn’t, I like to imagine that this acting choice was an homage to the greatest stalker film of all time, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.

In the scene in question, Sandra Bernhard, playing Masha, marks her first intrusion into Jerry Langford’s (Jerry Lewis) life by assaulting him in his limo after he’s finished taping his show. Competing fans drag Jerry to safety and lock Bernhard in the limo as she screams “I’m not going to take… Jerry! No! No!” Both Bernhard’s hands pound at the window. Scorsese freeze frames as a flash photograph illuminates both Masha’s hands clutching the window, trapping the wild animal; fellow stalker, Rupert Pupkin played by Robert De Niro, peers inside the limo, past Masha towards the audience. Frank Sinatra’s obsessive “Rain or Shine” plays as the credits do a slow roll between Masha’s illuminated and outstretched hands.

While watching him demonstrate the beta-version of his online video chat/dating service, my friend (Sa)Adam and I were talking about the movie (or, rather, I was telling him about the movie). Over his web-cam, he condescended that women don’t stalk; stalkers are always men. I strongly objected. It was difficult for us to talk. We were using the video dating website he’s programming to chit chat. If I didn’t keep rating him above a “6” on a scale from 1-10 once a minute, he would be bumped from the screen. As succinctly as I could, I directed him to Bernhard’s performance in the movie. I explained that it could teach a person a lot about how differently people fantasize.

Take, for example, Rupert’s fantasies. They revolve entirely about performing his success in front of an audience. Every night he stages his triumph in front of a set of the Jerry Langford show, sometimes performing a monologue; other times acting out an interview and on-stage banter next to cardboard cut-outs of Jerry Lewis and Liza Minelli (cardboard Liza doesn’t fall off stage as easily as real life Liza). Since he believes in the American Dream where anyone can achieve success if they try hard enough, Rupert thinks that simply by wanting something badly enough he can actualize it. Given that his comedy is about his and his family’s inadequacies, his performance is a self-castration in front of a live studio audience.

Masha, on the other hand, comes off as one of Bernhard’s ‘performance art’ routines, totally unhinged and off-book. She’s the perfect actress to make this role her own, down to even the way she can seductively remove masking tape from Jerry Lewis’ lips, purse her own and blow him a kiss. I can believe that scriptwriter, Paul Zimmerman, did include the scene where Bernhard sings Billy Holiday’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” but it’s very it’s very difficult for me to believe that Bernhard’s monologue — delivered across a candlelit dinner with Lewis at the other end, confined by masking tape — came from anyone’s mind other than her own:

I feel completely impulsive tonight. Anything could happen. I have so much to tell you. I don’t know where to start. I want to tell you everything about myself. Everything you don’t know. Do you like these glasses? Crystal. Beautiful. I bought them just for you. I don’t know. There’s something about them that remind me of you. Just the simplicity. But if you don’t like them. If there’s even an inkling that you have a doubt in your mind [she hurls her glass behind her. It shatters]. You know, sometimes during the day I’ll be doing the simplest things. I’ll be taking a bath and I’d say to myself, I wonder if Jerry’s taking a bath right now? Then I’d just hope, you know, that you’re not drowning or something. I just get really worried about you, you know, like something terrible’s going to happen. Then I just have these daydreams like I’m out with you at the golf course driving your cart. Just driving around. ‘Need a putter, Jer?’ you know. ‘Need an iron?’ I don’t even know how to play golf. I played with my parents once. My dad. But, I love you. I’ve never told my parents that I love them. Of course, they never told me that they loved me either, which was fine with me. But I love you. Want some wine? No? Okay. I’m not in the mood to drink either, though. But I’m sure in the mood to be alone with you. Why don’t we just clear off the table. I was thinking, why don’t we go upstairs, but that’s so predictable. Let’s just take everything off the table and do it right here. Of course that would blow your mind, wouldn’t it? It would blow my mind. I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve never even had anyone over for dinner, let alone made love on the table. But somehow, I just want to do that. I just want to dance. Like, you know, put on some Shirelles. I wanna be black. [Laughs]. Wouldn’t that be insane? God, you know, I wish I was… You know what I wish I was tonight? I wish I was Tina Turner. Dancing to the room. Oooohhh Oooohhh [Laughs at herself].

Throughout the scene, Jerry sits silently, occasionally rolling his eyes. He never once laughs. Whereas Masha’s routine is outwardly similar to Rupert’s, he receives plenty of gratifying laughter which isn’t to say that he’s funnier. They both make reference to their abject family lives, however Masha doesn’t use comedy to only sadistically project hostility. The only clear thing about her routine is that she’s ambivalent; she’s of two minds about those she loves. Both Masha and Rupert have trapped their audience, but only Masha is explicit about it. Jerry is flat out told that he reminds her of her father; that even though she loves him, she fantasizes about him drowning or harm coming to him on a daily basis; that she’s willing to destroy prized possessions on the mere suspicion that what he’s thinking is that they’re tasteless. Jerry knows that this crazy bitch is auditioning and that in spite of her reverence for him, she also feels contempt. It makes her unpredictable and dangerous. In a way, she’s the true heir to his late-night spot as he also reveres the craft of comedy but feels contempt for his audience and his colleagues. That feeling, at least, is mutual. What makes her ‘edgy’ — edgier than either Jerry or Rupert — is that she integrates these mixed feelings into her routine. By doing so, she demonstrates that she understands Jerry’s own schtick inside and out.

Darian Leader, author of Why do Women Write More Letters Than They Post, takes up a psychoanalytic line that says women desire differently from men. Women, he argues, don’t have a cultural constant of Womanhood with which to identify, so they’re always trying to figure out how they’re supposed to act whereas it’s a lot clearer to men since you don’t exactly have to be a genius to get the basics of masculinity down (hint: start with a baseball cap). When they watch a couple pass by, women are not checking out either the woman or the man but rather how they interact. Leader defends the generalizing structure of his argument by saying that desire works along different axes of generalization:

‘I know you’ is probably the worst possible thing a man can say to a woman and the best possible thing a woman can say to a man. While most men like to be included in generalizations, many women don’t. This fact is well known to retailers: if you want to sell your coat to a man, you can tell him that everyone in the City or on Wall Street is wearing it, but if you want to sell it to a woman, it is better to say, on the contrary, that no one is wearing it… Even if men want to wear what everyone else in the City is wearing and women what no one else in the city is wearing, most men in fact end up failing to follow fashion while many women follow fashion but without necessarily wanting to.

Leader’s argument is based on Lacan’s logic tables that refer to sex and desire. Not-A this, Not-B that. They’re boring, but Leader has a way of making them accessible. In reference to the film, we can see that one of the extremely irritating things to Jerry about Masha (other than that he’s her prisoner) is that everything she says and does is meant to elicit audience participation. She’s a game-player. Nothing he says or does could possibly please her, so he remains stoic in the face of her hysteria. Her routine is all about toying with his perception of her, as if to say ‘You may think you know me, a spoiled Jewish princess, but I’m black inside’ or ‘I may love you, but see how I express it in torture.’ Every statement she makes is a question. Can he see the intricacies of her desire for him? Can he see how much bigger than his person — even his star power — this desire extends? Can he continually gauge their ever-shifting relation?

Even if he can’t, he’s suitably intimidated as you can see from this scene in the movie where Masha unsubtly follows him to his studio.

Are Memories What You Have Or What You’ve Lost?

December 15, 2007

I knew all week that today would be a lazy day where I slept as much as possible. This week I had deadlines that weren’t for my job, but rather for my career. So, even if it was just a matter of paperwork (a massive amount of it, to be sure), I had to throw myself into it which meant getting very little sleep.

After resting up all night and all morning, I had an apartment to myself, a bottle of red wine and a bag of wasabi peas. I love wasabi peas. You never know whether this next pea is going to spice up your mouth and overheat your head (hmm, that didn’t come out quite right. Do I have a fetish I didn’t know about?). And if you do get the pea that opens up on a sensitive area in your tongue or throat, that’s reason to keep the wine handy.

Rested, drunk, and having orally climaxed numerous times from the peas, I channel surfed my way to an airing of Another Woman, one of Woody Allen’s “serious” films from his Bergman period. I’d only ever seen Interiors before and had been curious about this on. I’m not really going to discuss the plot or themes of the movie. You can find that here. Gena Rowlandson, after abandoning a lifetime of self-deception, ended the movie by saying “I wondered if a memory is something you have or something you’ve lost.”

If you haven’t noticed, I’m actually kind of shallow, but this question moved me to a couple of seconds of soul searching until I remembered that Batman Forever was still on; laundry to do; is there any wine left?

Nevertheless, I am left asking when it was that they stopped making movies for adults? Not necessarily even the deep ones. I remember seeing one from the seventies about two couples and wife-swapping, even though I was a kid when it first came out. I mean, back then kids movies even depicted children as smaller adults. Take the Bad News Bears, for example. They were all just tiny variants of adult personalities. For a time, adults were considered a viable market. Did the demographic decrease? Is our money simply no enough to make the production of a film meant for our sensibilities profitable? Did the consumer base get split somehow by Spike Lee and Black Cinema along with the New Queer Cinema, Chick Flicks, blockbusters, and a bunch of other movements? I really have no clue about this since it’s not remotely my field. Anyone have any ideas about this?

List of Stupid Questions Asked of Me at Work Today While Trying to Concentrate

December 13, 2007

1) When are taxes due?
2) How do you spell “Santa Claus”?
3) Does WORD have a thesaurus?
4) What is the base-pay for a writer?

Works of English Literature We Can Do Without, or Where Did All the Snark Go?

December 13, 2007

Every day, I end up with a little time to kill while at a computer. I tend to avoid the news sites because I don’t really care what’s going on with the world. There was a short time when current events obsessed me, but in that short time mankind showed no progress towards enlightenment so I lost interest. Instead I go to comic book websites and watch fanboys freak the fuck out over trivialities. After a while other people’s hysterics becomes tiring.

Far more entertaining are the literary blogs. Tone of voice runs the gamut in these, from supremely condescending (“Denis Johnson needs to learn a little something about having a style“) to the self-helpish (“This year I resolve to reread the Modernists and the Greeks”) — integrating reading into their exercise routine. After she won the Nobel Prize, a few feminist bloggers decided to give Doris Lessing a chance even though they must have been spared of her by merciful college professors. Masochists, they didn’t despise her. This is not due to some critical revolution in the way in which Lessing is evaluated. Rather, the power of the Nobel has delivered them a Great Feminist Writer from on high, and there will be no question of her talent (also, she’s cute, old and sassy, like Granny Goodness). There’s a trio of blogs that gush over anything related to the Holocaust Fetishist, Maurice Blanchot. I’m not really sure about these guys’ literary preference. I sense it’s modernist, but if you gave them a blank page I bet they’d ejaculate over the all “absence.” These are the fanboys (and girls) of Literature, and they’re really just as amazing as comic geeks. Right now, on some blog, Joshua Ferris is “re-reading” Don Delilo’s White Noise. I expected some delicious snark there, but apparently because Delilo is alive, still important, and well-entrenched, the re-reading is pure sycophancy. It doesn’t help that the famously despised Michiko Kakutani contributes to the dumbing down of American literary tastes, but the rest of the New York Times review staff as well as the publication selection of The New Yorker, hold back the evolution of American literary discourse by about 25 years.

We no longer even discuss or debate non-fiction books publicly. Yesterday, I saw some cute gay kid on the bus reading some book about “commitment” by Dan Savage. I leaned over and said, “wotta reactionary he’s become…” The kid asked me, “what’s a reactionary?” Good for fucking at least? – asked a friend when I told him about the incident. Nah. The kid would probably try to slip his sphincter on my ring finger. What’s a reactionary…

I’ve run across a couple of people who clearly have their own standard and voice in which they evaluate what they read, regardless of received opinion. Do you think I’m going to go all Alan Bloom and praise the classics while lamenting the death of American literary public culture? Nah. I’m lamenting the death of snark. If this country had a home-grown intelligentsia capable of discussing anything beyond video game designers and celebrity gossip, we would not be suffering a dearth of literary snark. In this void, I have to seek inspiration from Brigid Brophy, under-appreciated British writer of the 60s, who, who with her husband Michael Levey and the critic Charles Osborne, published Fifty Works of English* Literature We Could Do Without.

I love this trio’s irreverence in the face of received opinion. Lately, instead of iconoclasm what we get is insecurity along the lines of “I need to read more classics,” and the even sadder praise of the Modernists as the end all and be all of literary evolution. Which isn’t to say that I agree with Brophy et. al. in their evaluation of classics. I think, for example, they miss out on some really pervy/entertaining goings-on in Anthony Trollope’s The Warden. Their attack on Defoe is really just nasty and unnecessary. Still, I appreciate the off-handed over-familiarity which characterizes a lot of their complaints. They don’t put writers up on a pedestal and don’t critique from a position of sanctioned (snobby) ignorance.

The book concentrates on works in the English language that received opinion gives us to think we ought to like out of duty. “English Literature, as it is presented by pundits to enquiring persons, is choked with the implied obligation to like dull books.” No works in translation are reviewed, otherwise the Bible would have been included. Obviously, they have no beef with historicists who read a text because it’s important for a period of study, but they do shy from the currently fashionable concept of influence, which is fair since the canon is, after all, a nineteenth century invention. To this end they start off with Beowulf, which isn’t exactly in English nor is it quite Literature.

Beowulf: “Beowulf is a fine example of primitive non-art. Admiring comment on its fine poetry is about as relevant as praise for the architecture of Stonehenge… it should be handed over to he historians or left to be picked apart by linguistic scholars. Amid all its failures should be noted its complete inability to make one feel anything except repulsion for Beowulf, its hero, and considerable sympathy for his enemies…”

Tom Jones: “… you might suppose, Tom’s personality is intended for a bare thread stringing together picaresque adventures — were it not that the adventures range so unadventurously in both place and theme. They are not much more than an alternation of beddings and thumpings, without much of the sensuous feel of either; the suspicion that Tom may have committed incest goes unexploited for horror, comedy, irony, or melodrama even before it turns out to be misunderstanding of the facts anyway. … the vigour must lie in the supporting cast, the genre characters? But they turn out to be characters only on the sandwich flag system. Each gets either a single speech characteristic … or an allegorical name… The secret is that the vigour is all in the narrative, or, rather, in the monologue…”

The Bride of Lammermoor: “What can be made of a writer who at the most poignant and harrowing climax of his novel describes events only with the desperate phrase that they ‘surpass description’? It is immediately obvious that we are dealing not with an artist but with Sir Walter Scott.”

The Scarlet Letter: “Are passion and affection not essential to keep men as men? No. In Hawthorne’s world they are too busy cutting up scarlet cloth so as to have plenty of letters ready to stick on the bosoms of the women they meet. And, every likely, that duty is the explanation which in America they give their wives for their habit of staring at other women’s bosoms.”

Moby Dick: “Distended with hot air himself, Melville’s whale can beget no progeny except wind eggs…. Otherwise, the whale is father to nothing but the dozens of novels which, with only the proper name altered, have repeated his burly opening sentence, ‘Call me Ishmael’, and the misconceptions that (a) the Great American Novel can be written by thinking about writing it instead of thinking about whatever it is about, (b) that it must be about brutality to animals, and (c) that brutality to animals, if pursued by men whose tears are the glue which fasten their eyes to their fellow men, is manly and portentous. (Where did all the great white whales go? They went Hemmingway.)”

To the Lighthouse: “What is the artistic achievement of reducing human experience to the gossipy level of the shallowest consciousness? We are all conducting Virginia Woolf novels inside ourselves all day long, thinking how the sunset clouds look like crumbling cheese, wondering why the dinner party guests don’t go, puzzling about children growing up, noticing for the first time the colour of a bus ticket. This famed sensitivity is everybody’s birthright; and probably Virginia Woolf was applauded first by those who were delighted to find literary expression of their own commonplace sensations. To have those put in a book and called a novel … Only dots can do justice to their delight.”

So, it’s been a while since Brophy and her boys compiled their list. What book will we assign to take the 51st spot?

*(and American)