Sunday, February 27, 2011


56---In the late 20th Century, three French intellectuals---Derrida, Foucault and Barthes destroyed--- via their eager gullible American acolytes--- most English and literature departments of American universities and when they were contemporaneously joined by the feminists, queer study folk and Marxists of various persuasions smart sensitive students departed to science and math if they wanted to preserve any real interest In the reading of literature.

33---Derrida was a huckster of the first order who in reality was your typical Gnostic adept possessed of a specialist vocabulary who initiated disciples into his supposed esoteric wisdom who in turn in a traditional Ponzi scheme recruited unsuspecting students who in turn…

89--Foucault worked the psychology side of the street and poorly read and disciplined set out to undermine supposedly received ideas about madness, incarceration and sex. His life ended in squalor after aggressively infecting young men in San Francisco and other cities with the AIDS virus while on tour in the United States.

67---Barthes launched a thousand students of signs and with the same abstruse language making common a line I heard in Dublin pubs: Who’s reading the telephone directory… the reading of telephone directories becoming equal to reading Shakespeare in many American universities since Barthes had argued that there was no real difference, there is only reading…

99---However, Barthes did create two books that will endure: Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes and A LOVER’S DISCOURSE. Finally the rubbish of what had made him in demand was cleared away and Barthes was able to write about as someone might have said. His real subject: himself.

I have been reading with great pleasure and actual anguish THE PREPARATION OF THE NOVEL by Barthes published by Columbia University Press. Made up of the notes for the lectures Barthes gave in the College de France in the years just before his death in 1980 they take up the question of what it means to want to write a novel.
At first I didn’t get far as I got bogged down in the prefaces but as I read the first lecture which comes with very good annotations as do all the lectures, I discovered that miraculous moment again… the reading slowed, so that I could read only a paragraph at a sitting… I was moved to the center of my being.

So the question of how to share this and Benjamin at hand: just quote what I have underlined from that lecture of December 2, 1978:

a---Each year, when beginning a new course, I think it apt to recall the pedagogical principle stated programmatically in the “Inaugural Lecture”: “I sincerely believe that at the origin of teaching such as this we must always locate a fantasy, which can vary from year to year…

b---The subject is not to be suppressed

c---Better the illusions of subjectivity than the impostures of objectivity. Better the Imaginary of the Subject…

d---Dante:”Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.” Dante was thirty-five. I’m much older

e---Age is a constituent part of the subject who writes

f---I’ve gone far beyond the arithmetical middle of my life, it’s today that I’m experiencing the sensation- certainty of living out the middle-of-the- journey

g--- Having reached a certain age, “our days are numbered”

h---This reference to age is often taken the wrong way, misunderstood—it’s seen as coquetry: “but you’re not old

i---There comes a time what you’ve done , written (past labors and practices) looks like repeated material, doomed to repetition, to the lassitude of repetition

j--- The self-evident truth: “I am mortal” comes with age

k---Foreclosure of anything New (= the definition of “Doing Time”)

l---I have no time left life to try out several different lives: I have to choose my last life, my new life, Vita Nova (Dante)

m---I have to get out of this gloomy state of mind that the wearing effects of repetitive work and mourning have disposed me to, This running aground, this slow entrenching in the quicksand (which isn’t quick!) this drawn out death of staying in the same place

n---So to change, that is to give a content to the “jolt” of the middle of life

o---But to change idea is banal; it’s as natural as breathing

p---From Blanchot: There is a moment in the life of a man--- consequently, in the life of men--- when everything is completed, the books written, the universe silent ...there is left only the task of announcing it

q---Either retreat into silence, rest, retreat

r---Or to start walking in another direction, that is to battle, to invest, to plant with the well known paradox: Building a house makes sense but to start planting

s---Part of a life’s activity should always be set aside for the Ephemeral: what happens only once and vanishes, the necessary share of the Rejected Monument, and therein lies the vocation of the Course

t---The same uninterrupted sadness, a kind of listlessness… a difficult afternoon: the afternoon … I reflect with enough intensity. The beginning of an idea, something like a literary conversion--- it’s those very old words that occur to me to enter into literature, into writing, to write, as if I’d never written before to do only that

u---To want to write

v---To say that you want to write--- there, in fact, you have the very material of writing; thus only literary works attest to Wanting-to-Write--- not scientific discourses. This could even serve as am apposite definition of writing (of literature) as opposed to Science

w---The proof that In Search of Lost Time is the narrative of Wanting-to-Write resides in this paradox: the book is supposed to begin at the point when it’s already written

Thursday, February 24, 2011

FROM THE WASTES OF TIME: THE CIVIL WAR The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It

7- Today, given that too many college students in the various colleges of the City University of New York have much difficulty figuring which came first, World War One or World War Two (and I am not putting you on) it is with some trepidation that I mention that in April begins the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with the remembering of the firing upon Fort Sumter.

2--I doubt many college students could make a list of three Civil War battles or even associate Lincoln in some way with the war. These students can go on at some length about the racist nature of American society since they will be reciting in a rather rote fashion the obsessions of their professors and like students in the former Soviet Empire they know what they have to do to get ahead: never argue, never question just repeat after me.

3--I am of an age that I do remember the 100th anniversary of the Civil War as I was working at Francis Bannerman Sons out in Blue Point and that company, you might know had long before bought up 90 % of the war surplus from the Spanish American War and still had in Blue Point and up in the castle on an island in the Hudson River a vast assortment of the necessary parts and other gear to outfit those who were now collecting the various weapons and accouterments. It was a great first job for a 16 year old. (for another day)

4—My own connection to the Civil War was via a picture on a great aunt’s wall in her apartment in Brooklyn where I was told of this man: a great-great uncle who had lost his army at Gettysburg fighting on the Union side. This aunt was from my mother’s side of the family and was a Whitney which lead to the family legend that Eli Whitney was a relative and as I learned incorporated the whole of the Civil War within his biography. Having invented the cotton gin he made cotton profitable and slavery necessary in the South but being cheated out of any profit from his invention went North where he perfected the process of interchangeable parts in the manufacturing of muskets thus giving the North the reason why they would win the Civil War: industrial might of an inexhaustible magnitude. Aunt Marie had met this man and remembered only the pinned-up empty sleeve of his suit jacket.

11--On my father’s side of the family, the Irish side--- was made complex because of the Draft Riots that occurred almost around the corner from where I am typing these lines: recent Irish immigrants unable to buy their way out of Mr. Lincoln’s draft rebelled against being forced to serve in an army that represented a country that saw them as agents of the Vatican. A country where there were plenty of places: dogs and Irish not allowed--- and why should they go off to die to free the coloured people? But the history knowing came only came later since my grandfather had been sent out of Ireland as a 12 year old boy to work as best he could and this was well after the Civil War. Ireland meant, really only a place you left. If you are 12 the history of a new place does not matter.

12--When I think back to reading the 100th anniversary celebration it seems that the war was described by Bruce Catton but which now when read is the sort of official version of Union triumphalism and was blessed by Life Magazine and who was to argue with that authority, then?

15--Times change. THE CIVIL WAR , A NARRATIVE by Shelby Foote was read. Twenty years of writing 3000 pages, one man---not an academic committee, not a gang of indentured student assistants--- the masterful opening as Foote delights in the genius of Lincoln’s calculating the necessity of getting the South to fire first…
Shelby Foote is America’s Edward Gibbon and he provides the grand narrative of the Civil War. There is no need for any other, probably.

15--AND there is great news RIGHT NOW from the Library of America: they have begun to publish a series of books made up of near contemporary writings based upon a chronological account of the war. With a great breadth of sources one hears the actual voices, remembering that this was the first war in which most of the soldiers on both sides were literate and many of them wrote letters home and these letters were preserved. The Library of America book: THE CIVIL WAR The First Year Told by Those Who Lived it. It is edited by three academics but excusing this I do wonder why one couldn’t have done the job but that would lead to the usual discussion of the decline of education…

34--Since I am writing this toward the end of February: one hundred and fifty years ago Jefferson Davis (February 18, 1861) is giving his Inaugural Address: We have entered upon the career of independence, and it must be inflexibly pursued…As a necessity, not a choice, we have resorted to the remedy of separation, and henceforth our energies …It is joyous in the midst of perilous times to look around upon a people united in heart…

16--Given my own predisposition I did skip ahead and read a letter from a surgeon ( Lunsford P. Yandell Jr) writing about what he saw at the Battle of Belmont in November of 1861: “The gun had exploded into a thousand atoms. One of the men had his right arm torn to pieces, and the ribs on that side pulpified, though the skin was not broken. He breathed half an hour. The other poor fellow received a piece of iron under the chin which passed up into the brain—the blood gushing from his nose and ears. He never breathed afterward…”

"As to the variety of expression depicted upon the faces of the corpses, of which I heard so much I saw nothing of it They all looked pretty much alike---as much alike as dead men from any other cause. Some had their eyes open, some closed, some had their mouths open, and others had them closed. There is a terrible sameness in the appearance of the dead men I have ever seen.

"My friend Captain Billy Jackson was shot in the hip while led a portion of the Russell’s brigade. I think he will recover. I am afraid Jimmy Walker (James’ son) will not recover. I think he is shot through the rectum.

19-- So to Shelby Foote where you can read his eloquent description of this minor battle of the Civil War, a battle that in no way changed the war, no way either shortened it lengthen it: just a brief moment of slaughter… but seen as one of the first steppings of Grant from the obscurity which had been his fate until…

17—The selections in THE CIVIL WAR THE FIRST YEAR TOLD BY THOSE WHO LIVED IT and only my poor typing skill prevents me from making a simple list of all the contributors to this wonderful book so you probably should go to the Library of American website and see for yourself. They do quote from a poem by Hermann Melville written after the Civil War as to his premonition of what as to be come. One line holds me:
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time.

18--Of course as I type I am nearly buried by the waste of time and in that waste I remember walking , six, seven years ago was it, with my wife and son and daughter across the field which Pickett send his men in 1863 at Gettysburg and here we were walking in the hot sun of a similar July and I was asking Lorcan could he imagine what it must have been like for young men not much older than his 12 years of age or his sisters 15 years… but he had not great defining sentence.. and the daughter and wife were there only because after you promised we were then going to the wholesale outlet mall built it seems on the side of a Confederate hospital but Lorcan did mention he would have taken shelter behind the one tree that we could see and I was asking but what about the other hundreds of men would they all lie up behind him, and his silence seems to have born some fruit as he has a remarkable narrative gift when writing on historical events but that is all off the subject which in some way is the problem of the Civil War: how to talk about it, about this something that happened and still resonates in our daily life even if unacknowledged, and that silence evident in all our modern major poets and save for Faulkner all out major prose writers…

20—THE CIVIL WAR THE FIRST YEAR TOLD BY THOSE WHO LIVED IT. What a wonderful title. Maybe someone will find a way to use it in imagination, but it has the practical value of putting the reader really there back then in the waste of time.

AFTER--And I should mention that Madison Smartt Bell has written a provocative novel based on the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest which Pantheon published two years ago, DEVIL’S DREAM. So it can be said that the Civil War still is news. The provocation comes from the fact that Forrest was an early supporter of the Ku Klux Klan but on the other hand Bell is probably the single most interesting writer at the moment in the US based on his more than 2000 page trilogy based on the life of Toussant L’Ouverture and other books now too many to mention… another day, then.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

GRADITUDE: Miguel de Unamuno and Elizabeth Bishop


At one time, even within my lifetime, all thoughtful persons would have read before they had turned twenty-one, Miguel de Unamuno’s THE TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE.

And once read it could be said , THE TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE set me on a course.

Homo sum nihil humani a me alienum puto, said the Latin playwright. For my part I would rather say: Nullum hominem a me alienum puto: I am a man; no other man I deem a stranger. For in my eyes the adjective humanus is no less suspect than its abstract substantive humanitas, humanity. I would choose neither “the human” nor “humanity,” neither the simple adjective nor the substantive adjective, but the concrete substantive: man, the man of flesh and blood, the man who is born, suffers and dies---above all, who does; the man who eats and drinks ad plays and sleeps and thinks and loves; the man who is seen and heard; one’s brother, the real brother.

As long as one held tightly to this paragraph one was preserved from the murderous illusions of Marxism, fascism and all the other isms that seek to replace a man in the centrality of his nervous system with fascinating plans for the future.

The University of Illinois Press has published in translation an unpublished early work of de Unamuno’s TREATISE ON LOVE OF GOD. Never really finished it prefigures what is to come in his great work and as such is of interest as are the wonderful novels and fictions which can be found in Bollingen Series years ago published by Princeton University Press: novels as innovative as the novels of Joyce Rios, or Schmidt.

The TREATISE is provocative In the best sense of that over-used word:
---Every cultured European of our days is Christian, willingly or not, knowingly or not. Among us one is born Christian and breathes Christianity, and this applies no less to those who most abominate it. The paganism of those that want to oppose Christ is a paganism that would scandalize a pre-Christian pagan, of resurrected and able t see it.

---The originality, the deep truth of Christianity has been to make God a human being, the Human Being, that suffers passion and dies. Such is the madness and the scandal of the Cross (I Corinthians I: 23)

I doubt you will be seeing this book reviewed in the New York Times.


Farrar Straus & Giroux have with the publication of two books this season done something that rarely happens in the world of publishing: they have demonstrated loyality, keeping faith, being true.

Both of these books are handsome, beautiful in their plainness: the brightness of the yellow cover of PROSE and the deep blue of POEMS both by Elizabeth Bishop. The poetry is well known and through the years FSG kept faith with Elizabeth Bishop. They kept all her books in print and collected them as needed. She herself avoided the feminist or women’s ghetto by refusing to allow her poetry to appear in anthologies restricted by gender, knowing that such a restriction is always demeaning even if good for the mediocre who huddle together on the basis of gender race or ethnicity in their pursuit of lifetime sinecures in those concentration camps of the intellect: our universities and colleges.

And while I respect Bishop, I personally find myself going with more excitement to the collected poems of Lorine Niedecker whose fate, life and career demonstrate the opposite of Bishop’s. And while finally a Collected Works of Niedecker is available from the University of California Press for most of her life her work appeared from small presses in small editions and they were only sporadically available. Here this woman, washing floors in a hospital in Wisconsin, while writing poetry that can be easily compared to Paul Celan and at the same time conducting correspondences with Louis Zukofsky and Ezra Pound, a woman who had to work for a living in isolation save for a few supporters... with no sinecures at Harvard or those monies that are always known but not talked about… how different our literary world view would be if otherwise.

In the Bishop PROSE the discovery for me is her text BRAZIL that was written to a Time Life series… and in her letters there is a reference to Nelida Pinon… but that is for another day.

To repeat: celebrate FSG for its faithfulness, a virtue rare indeed today in the world of publishing.. and a few lines from Bishop:

From “Dead” The Winter is her lover now,/A brilliant one and bold;/And sbge has gone away from me,/Estranged and white and cold.

From “Sleeping on the Ceiling” It is so peaceful on the celing!/ It is the Place de la Concorde./The little crystal chandelier/ is off, the fountain is in the dark./Not a soul is in the park./ … We must go under the wallpaper/to meet the insect gladiator,/ to battle with a net and trident,/ and leave the fountain and square./ But oh, that we would sleep up there…

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Last night I was in The Strand and noticed on the new books table this fortuitous juxtaposition.

Most likely it will not be there a day later and within the week both books will no longer be "new."

Zukofsky was an early subject of this blog since he was born a few streets south of where I sit.

Zukofsky had a summer bungalow in a town across Long Island from Patchogue.

Zukofsky has gradually found readers.

GOING TO PATCHOGUE has found fewer readers. I did meet once a young man on Fifth Street who stopped me asking if I was who he thought I was and I asked him why he was stopping me: I had been looking for the blood near the police-station on Fifth Street, that you had written about.

Of course I am happy to see GOING TO PATCHOGUE again available but it is a source of an aching sadness as no one has been willing to publish what comes after: FORGET THE FUTURE, NOTHING DOING, JUST LIKE THAT (A Beginning and an End of the so-called 60s) or what I am working on now EXIT IS FINAL