Category Archives: Others’

No words… only an exclamatory effusion

In point of fact, the reductionist approach to literary criticism not only effectively eliminated the oppressively turgid, treatise-length critiques of the Restoration period and of Dr. Johnson’s immediate predecessors, but took matters to their logical conclusion by condensing even the most picayune paean or snippet-sized squib, the most miniscule encomium or pismire-proportioned drubbing, into an exuberant spritz of approving saliva or a disdainful expulsion of damning phlegm.

Diehard Phlegmatics considered Woolf’s expropriation a crass rebuke, and rejected her reforms out of hand. In response, they formed splinter groups. Vomiting had always been frowned upon—a member was banished for a year from a phlegmatic forum, another expelled from a reading club for this offense. But, with the fading of phlegmatism, the “Regurgitators” phased in, and still more radical offshoots of the Vomit School—the “Barfers” and the “Pukistes” stole their day in the sun. The only bodily secretion besides saliva that the Phlegmatics permitted was perspiration, which was tolerated because it connotes excitement, industry, and assiduous application to the task at hand (critical analysis). Tears, later to be so important in association with the Sentimental School, made a tentative appearance in a trial role among the Post-Phlegmatics, but had little lasting impact.

Gilbert Alter-Gilbert on 50 watts.


Saussure would be proud

Scientific writing tends toward a purely formal and mathematical language based on an abstract logic indifferent to its content. Literary writing tends to construct a system of values in which every word, every sign, is a value for the sole reason that it has been chosen and fixed on the page. There could never be any meeting between the two languages, but (on account of their extreme disparity) there can be a challenge, a kind of wager between them. In certain situations it is literature that can work indirectly as a spring to propel the scientist along, providing an example of imaginative courage in taking a hypothesis to its ultimate consequences, and so on. Similarly, in other situations it can work the other way around. At the moment the language of mathematics, of formal logic, can save the writer from the disrepair that words and images have fallen into as a result of being misused. Even so, the writer should not think that he has found anything valid absolutely. Here, too, the example of science can be of use to him, and teach him the patient modesty of considering each and every result as being part of a possibly infinite series of approximations.

– Italo Calvino in The Uses of Literature


The Widener is one good reason to live in Cambridge, Mass. I have a motto: when you get really depressed, go to the stacks. You are surrounded by things that people have produced, not by people themselves. Almost always an improvement. Furthermore, I feel safe there.

I took the elevator to the fifth floor. Looking for the call number –– WID-LC B243.I2613.1986. I stopped. Turned down an aisle, tripped a motion-sensor, and a light clicked on. An old man – possibly in his 70s – was walking towards me from the other end of the aisle. The gap closed between us. I bent down to reach for a book – Iamblichus’s “Life of Pythagoras, or, Pythagoric Life (De vita pythagorica).” As he passed me, he said, “Be careful. Iamblichus is not to be trusted.”

Re-kindled joy in my fellows, in five parts.

Reversion = Fearless living?

And then along comes Mallarmé, the least innocent of all the great poets, who says that we must travel, we must set off traveling again. At this point, even the most naïve reader has to wonder: What’s got into Mallarmé? Why is he so enthusiastic? Is he trying to sell us a trip or sending us to our deaths with our hands and feet tied? Is this an elaborate joke or simply a pattern of sounds? It would be utterly absurd to suppose that Mallarmé had not read Baudelaire. So what is he trying to do? The answer, I think, is perfectly simple. Mallarmé wants to start all over again, even though he knows that the voyage and the voyagers are doomed. In other words, for the author of Igitur, the illness afflicts not only our actions, but also language itself. But while we are looking for the antidote or the medicine to cure us, that is, the new, which can only be found by plunging deep into the Unknown, we have to go on exploring sex, books, and travel, although we know that they lead us to the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place where the antidote can be found.

– Roberto Bolaño, “Literature + Illness = Illness”

Any time I re-read him, even if it is a passage I have just finished, uncannily, strikingly new phrases catch my eye. Where were they the first intent, deliberate (to avoid completely missing his associations) time around, the second, the third?

Also, the terrifying:

But writing and literature are worthless if they aren’t accompanied by something more imposing than mere survival.

Does he really believe that? Does anyone, who writes something worth reading?

Hello again

“Oedipus confronts obscurity and finds Oedipus.”

– Robert Cohen, Oedipus and the Absurd Life

Intrepid severity so winsome

Pushkin, as a close friend, was bold enough to tell Viazemsky in 1826: ‘Your verse is too clever. Poetry, God forgive me, has to be a bit stupid.’ To this criticism might be added Viazemsky’s refusal to make concessions to melodiousness: he is perhaps the only poet of the Golden Age whose texts no composer was able or willing to set to music.

– Donald Rayfield, “The Golden Age of Russian Poetry” in Routledge Companion to Russ Lit

Humor never translates

Translation (quick and dirty) of earlier post. Many thanks to original poster of the anecdote – I believe, here

The subject is a time when there were not yet Russian-speaking interviewers in Israeli military enlistment offices, but there were already Russian conscripts. Because, for the most part, they did not speak Hebrew, conscripts were often sent for examination to the so-called “officers of mental health” (by specialty – psychologists or social workers), so that the officers could check, just in case, whether everything was in order with the mute conscript. By the way, in Hebrew an officer of mental health – “ktsin briut nefesh” – is shortened to “kaban.” This does not, however, have a bearing on their level of professionalism. [In Russian, “Kaban” means “wild boar.”]

An officer of mental health at an enlistment office usually administers standard tests – “draw a person, draw a tree, draw a house.” These tests easily allow for investigation of the internal world of the future serviceman. The good thing about them is they’re universal and not dependent upon knowledge of the language. Anyone, after all, is capable of drawing a house. And so an officer was sent yet another Russian boy who spoke poor Hebrew. The officer of mental health greeted him, produced a sheet of paper and asked the boy to draw a tree.

The Russian boy was no good at drawing, but he was well read. He decided to compensate for his dearth of artistic abilities by the amount of detail. Therefore he depicted an oak, on that oak – a chain, and on that chain – a cat. Quite clear, no?

The officer of mental health moved the sheet of paper toward himself. On the paper he found a grub, not very adeptly hung on a branch. In lieu of a rope the grub employed a chain.

“What is it?” Gently asked the Kaban.

The Russian boy strained himself and started translating. Cat in Hebrew – “Khatul.” “Learned” – “Mad’an,” with a Russian accent – “Madan.” The boy didn’t know that in this case the word “learned” would sound odd – the cat is not an employee at the academy of sciences, he just knows a lot. That is, a different word is needed. But a different one didn’t turn out. The boy scratched the back of his head and answered the officer’s question:

“Khatul Madan.”

The officer was Israeli. Therefore the present combination of words meant for him something along the lines of “a cat, taking part in studious activity.” Khatul Madan. Why a grub, hanged on a tree, is engaged in studious activity, and what exactly comprised this studious activity, the officer could not comprehend.

“And what is he doing?” the officer asked, tensely. (The depiction of a suicide in the projective test was in fact a very bad sign).

Pleased at the chance to display intellect, the boy said: “Well that depends on when. See if he goes over here (adding an arrow to the right), then he sings songs. But if over here (an arrow to the left), then he tells tales.”

“To whom?” the Kaban asked tearfully. [прослезился – brilliant, beyond my capabilities]

After a bit of concentration the boy remembered:

“To himself.”

By the point of the hanged grub’s stories – the ones he tells to himself – the officer of mental health felt unwell. He scheduled another interview with the boy and sent him home. The picture with the oak was left on the table.

When the boy left, the Kaban called in his secretary – he wanted a fresh perspective on the situation. The secretary to the officer of mental health was a smart and competent young woman. But she had also recently arrived from Russia.

The boss showed her the drawing. The girl saw a depiction of a tree with carved leaves and an animal similar to a cat walking along a chain.

“What do you think it is?” asked the officer.

“Khatul Madan” the secretary replied.

Quickly showing the girl out and having a drink of cold water, the Kaban called the next floor, where his young colleague worked. He asked her to come down and consult with him on a difficult case.

“Here,” sighed the tired professional. “I have known you for a long time, you’re a normal person. Please explain to me what you see.”

The trouble was, the colleague was also Russian…

But here the Kaban decided to draw the line.

“Why?” quietly, but passionately, he asked his colleague. “WHY is this Khatul madan?”

“But it’s obvious!” The colleague stuck her finger into the drawing. “See these arrows? They mean that when the Khatul walks to the right, he sings, and when he walks to the left…”

I cannot say whether or not the army psychologist lost his mind or what diagnosis he gave the boy. But today almost all of the officers of mental health know: if the conscript draws oaks with animals on chains in the test, then he is from Russia. There, they say, everyone is learned. Even cats.