It’s a Mad Mad World

I haven’t been posting much lately.  I’m thinking.  The world is spinning inside my head.  I’m thinking Chris Hedges is right:

A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies. And we are dying now. We will either wake from our state of induced childishness, one where trivia and gossip pass for news and information, one where our goal is not justice but an elusive and unattainable happiness, to confront the stark limitations before us, or we will continue our headlong retreat into fantasy.   [more]

I haven’t retreated into fantasy but I’m less and less sure of how to talk about illusions of reality.  I’m thinking.

And then there’s this.


From a review of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde by Pam Rosenthal:

marilyn1How did a perpetually frightened and insecure young woman summon up such powers of illusion? Out of what fathomless need did an illegitimate child who spent years in foster homes command so much attention and so much love, even 40 years after her death? How, out of a series of doomed affairs and marriages and some not-very-good scripts, did she manage to tell us so much about sex? And what kept her from ever satisfying her own needs for love and respect?

Oates presents her story as a tale of the grotesque, a horror story akin to Stephen King’s “Carrie,” another book about an unhappy child with a mad mother. Like most horror stories, “Blonde” is a tale of freakish overcompensation, impossible wishes granted, awesome power ill-used, demons finally undefeated — the story of an injured child who can’t be healed, even by the love of the millions. There’s nothing supernatural in it, of course, unless you consider the immense sway that movie images and technology hold over all our imaginations.

Unlike genre horror fiction, though, “Blonde” is a huge, incantatory, expressionistic work that doubles back on itself to retell stories again and again, building its themes and variations through a seeming infinity of retakes. Description approaches hallucination. The action is told by numerous voices, some singular and famous, some anonymous and plural. Sometimes the narrative voice is breathless, almost gasping — the ghostly Marilyn Monroe voice, oddly formal and well mannered, too high and thin for the body that produced it.

Read the whole thing here

Galumph Don’t Glide

From Donald Fanger’s review of Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll:

There is a lot here about how poetry comes into being. Speaking of Robert Lowell’s “epoch-making poems like ‘For the Union Dead’ and ‘Near the Ocean,’ Heaney explains: “They came from where he was cornered, in himself and his times, and were the equivalent of escapes, surges of inner life vaulting up and away. Every true poem arrives like that, with self-consciousness giving way to self-forgetfulness in the glee of finding the words.” An aside on Lorca finds him making the same point in other terms, finding in the Spanish poet’s essay on duende an implication “that poetry requires an inner flamenco, that it must be excited into life by something peremptory, some initial strum or throb that gets you started and drives you farther than you realized you could go.” “The image I have,” he writes later, “is from the old cartoons: Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse coming hell for leather to the edge of a cliff, skidding to a stop but unable to halt, and shooting out over the edge. A good poem is the same, it goes that bit further and leaves you walking on air.”

One striking example comes in his discussion of the famous lines from his early poem “Digging.” Heaney explains: “In the case of the pen ‘between my finger and my thumb’, ‘snug as a gun’, and all the rest of it, I was responding to an entirely phonetic prompt, a kind of sonic chain dictated by the inner ear. It’s the connection between the ‘uh’ sounds in ‘thumb’ and ‘snug’ and ‘gun’ that are the heart of the poetic matter rather than any sociological or literary formation.” That aural susceptibility is everywhere on display in this book, as when he comments: “I always hear the tinkle of a whitesmith’s hammer in the word ‘tinker’, the rim of a tin can being beaten trim”—or when he speaks of “poems full of linguistic burr and clinker.” (“If I couldn’t altogether escape an Irishy/Britishy formality,” he comments, “I had an inclination from the start to dishevel it. I’ve always been subject to a perverse urge to galumph rather than glide.”)

Read the whole thing here

Poetry for Breakfast

Anything that can be thoroughly said in prose might as well be said in prose. The everyday intellect remains satisfied with abstraction and explanation in prose; the poetic mentality wants more. In narrative poems, the poetry adds the secret (unsayable) room of feeling and tone to the sayable story. Philosophy in its more logical incarnations strives to eliminate powers of association because they are subjective and uncontrollable. Poetry, on the other hand, wants to address the whole matter of the human — including fact and logic, but also the body with its senses, and above all the harsh and soft complexities of emotion. Our senses, excited by sound and picture, assimilate records of feeling that are also passages to feeling. Poems tell stories; poems recount ideas; but poems embody feeling. Because emotion is il-logical—in logic opposites cannot both be true; in the life of feeling, we love and hate together—the poem exists to say the unsayable.

Donald Hall

Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected at Shortcovers

How to Hang On to Your Man

Shorter Gary Neuman:

cheating1Men have emotions.  They want to be “winners” – as proof, watch them turn the tv off if their team is losing badly.  It’s not that they’re sore losers, it’s just that losing makes them feel bad.  Emotionally.  If men don’t feel like they’re winners, they get insecure and then they cheat – they go out and find women who make them feel like winners.  Men kinda know this – they know when they’re starting to feel kinda – like losers.  But they can’t talk about it.  They need you to fix it.  You women.  Of course, no one’s saying you have to.  It’s just, if you don’t, your man’s gonna cheat.  But it won’t be anyone’s fault.  Just, you know, take your pick.  Do all the work of the relationship or lose your man.

 In his latest book, sure to be a blockbuster, M. Gary Neuman gets to the bottom of the male infidelity conundrum and finds that, though he doesn’t believe women are to blame (thanks Gary), still, all his advice about fixing the problem is directed at women who are supposed to build up the ego of their men or lose them.  This is new?  This is worthy of Oprah‘s attention?  It’s downright worrying that this woman has so much influence.  I’d say e-mail Oprah but her mind is made up and she’s made it clear that a lot of whining complaints will have no effect.  What goes around comes around, eh?

I wonder why 40% of married women in the US … cheat?

Seen One, Seen ’em All

From Terry Eagleton at the London Review of Books:

Romantic literature, with its cult of the poetic personality, might seem just the opposite of this. Yet the Romantic poet’s richly particularised voice is largely a way of giving tongue to the transcendent. From Wordsworth to D.H. Lawrence, one speaks most persuasively when one articulates what is not oneself, whether one calls this Nature or the creative imagination, the primary processes or the dark gods. The self runs down to unfathomably anonymous roots. Men and women emerge as unique beings through a medium (call it Geist, History, Language, Culture or the Unconscious) that is implacably impersonal. What makes us what we are has no regard for us at all. At the very core of the personality, so the modern age holds, vast, anonymous processes are at work. Only through a salutary repression or oblivion of these forces can we achieve the illusion of autonomy. Anonymity is the condition of identity.

It is this bleak doctrine that Modernism will inherit, as a cult of impersonality takes over from the clapped-out Romantic ego. For Romanticism, the self and the infinite merge in the act of imaginative creation. To surrender oneself to dark, unknowable powers is to become all the more uniquely oneself. One must lose one’s life in order to find it. For one strain of Modernism, by contrast, the self is displaced by the very forces which constitute it – unhoused, scooped out, decentred and dispossessed. We are no more than the anonymous bearers of myth, tradition, language or literary history. The only way the self can leave its distinctive thumb-print, from Flaubert to Joyce, is in the fastidiously distancing style by which it masks itself. Language itself may be authorless; but style, as Roland Barthes claims in Writing Degree Zero, plunges straight to the visceral depths of the self.

Another strain of Modernism turns back to subjectivity itself, as if by way of refuge. The self may be fitful and fragmentary, but there is something we can rely on in the immediacy of its sensations. And though the essence of selfhood is now elusive, there are certain rare moments in which it can be fleetingly recaptured. Postmodernism, by contrast, rehearses the Modernist tale of the unhoused, decentred self, but without the consolations of an essential self. There never was such a thing, for Barthes any more than for David Hume, and we are doubtless all the better for it. What looks like a loss is actually a liberation. Unity is an illusion, and consistency is more a vice than a virtue. Postmodernism is full of personality cults, but they know themselves to be groundless. Like commodities, individual selves are basically interchangeable. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Read the whole thing here

Ignatieff On Evil

Yann Martel’s review of Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser of Evils in his monthly letter to Stephen Harper:

The Lesser Evil is a study on liberal democracies and terrorism. How do a people who value freedom and dignity handle those who commit senseless violence against them? What is the right balance between the competing demands of rights and security? What can a democratic society allow itself to do and still call itself democratic? These are some of the questions that Mr. Ignatieff tries to answer. He looks at nations as diverse as Russia, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Germany, Italy, Spain, Sri Lanka, Chile, Argentina, Israel and Palestine, in their current state but also historically, to see how they have dealt with assaults by terrorists. He also makes literary references, to Dostoyevsky and Conrad, to Euripides and Homer. Throughout, the approach is open, fair and critical, the analysis is rigorous and insightful, the conclusions are wise. Last but not least, the style is engaging. Mr. Ignatieff has a fine pen. My favourite line in the book is this one, on page 121: “Liberal states cannot be protected by herbivores.”

Mr. Ignatieff is a passionate yet subtle defender of liberal democracies and he finds that generally the tools they already have at their disposal will do in times of terrorist threat. Indeed, he argues that overreaction to a threat can do more long-term harm to a liberal democracy than the threat itself. The U.S. Patriot Act and Canada’s Bill C-36 are two examples Mr. Ignatieff gives of well-meaning but redundant and misguided attempts to deal with terrorism. When the regular tools won’t do, he acknowledges that the choices faced by liberal democracies are difficult. He makes the case that when a society that values freedom and human dignity is confronted with a threat to its existence, it must move beyond rigid moral perfectionism or outright utilitarian necessity and—carefully, mindfully, vigilantly—follow a path of lesser evil, that is, allow itself to commit some infringements of the part in order to save the whole. It is a position that seeks to reconcile the realism necessary to fight terrorism with the idealism of our democratic values. To work one’s way through such treacherous ground, to get down to details and talk about torture and preemptive military action, to give just two examples, requires a mind that is tough, sharp and brave. I’m glad to say that Mr. Ignatieff has such a mind.  

I haven’t read this book and doubt that I’ll bother.  So, for the moment, I can only comment on what Martel has said about it.  This business of carefully examining how the ideals of democracy can be bent to meet real problems – funny, I thought democracy was made real at least in part by our unwillingness to sacrifice its ideals to “terror”.  Some say that it’s when the ideals are most difficult to defend is the time they’re most important.  And this – “Liberal states cannot be protected by herbivores”????  WTF.  Does that mean no vegetarians in Canada’s armed forces?

I’ve read some of Ignatieff’s earlier works.  Didn’t like them in terms of ‘point of view’.  Doesn’t sound as though I’d like this one either.  No more than I am fond of the man.  I suppose it’s good news that Ignatieff can wield a pen effectively.  But it also matters what he’s saying.

Cranes & Stones


Cranes divide the night into sentry-duties
and they make up the sequence of the watches
by order of rank, holding little stones in their
claws to ward off sleep. When there is danger
they make a loud cry





The Peterborough Bestiary

Quote from The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany by Graeme Gibson

via Nigel Beale


From a review of Flannery: A Life of Flanner O’Connor by Brad Gooch and Collected Works by Flannery O’Connor by Wendy Lesser at bookforum:

Even then, it was obvious she was a genius,” said Miss Katherine Scott, Flannery O’Connor’s freshman-composition teacher, speaking to a reporter many years later about her most famous student—“warped, but a genius all the same.” The teacher no doubt focused on the warped part when the seventeen-year-old Catholic girl with the spectacles and the searing wit took her writing class at Milledgeville’s Georgia State College for Women in the summer of 1942; and it was the warped part she noticed some ten years later, when she read O’Connor’s first book, Wise Blood, and flung it across the room. “I thought to myself that character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead,” she told the same reporter.

This was the sort of understanding and encouragement that surrounded Mary Flannery O’Connor from her earliest years in Savannah to her death at the age of thirty-nine in the Milledgeville area. But we should not be entirely sorry about that. Familial and social disapproval evidently spurred this writer on, enabling her to form a pearl around each painful speck of grit. That O’Connor’s pearls are among the most luminous and valuable we have in all of American literature does not detract in any way from their strangeness and hardness. Indeed, their value lies precisely in that hardness, that strangeness. However many times you read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Artificial Nigger,” and “Good Country People,” you will not be able to figure out the source of their enormous power; in fact, they will become increasingly mysterious to you as the years go by.

Read the rest here

Blue Covenant

Maude Barlow, interviewed at The Tyee by Rob Annandale:

If you are ever going to share water from a water-wealthy area of one part of the world to another or even within an area — and you might find one day that Alberta’s going to need help, for instance — it has to be done by the people deciding through their government on a not-for-profit basis. So it’s a really important argument for public control of water, this notion of “should you share from place to place.” Because if it were allowed to be corporately controlled the way energy is controlled, water from Canada would go to Las Vegas. It would go to the golf courses and the automobile and computer industries in the U.S. It would not go to the kids in Latin America and Africa who are dying right now from lack of water. So it would have to be decided on a humanitarian basis and it would have to be decided on a not-for-profit basis.

That’s number one. Number two, we all collectively have to be sure that we can ecologically afford to move massive amounts of water. I believe that mostly, nature put water where it belongs and when we start to play around with this, we are playing God to some very serious extent.   [more]

Barlow’s latest book is Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Global Battle for the Right to Water