Sunday, November 27, 2011

"La Transhumance du Verbe, Incanted René Char": John Matthias' Shorter Poems

Rejoice!  John Matthias' Collected Shorter Poems, vol.2, is now available from Shearsman Books.  Covering Matthias' work in shorter forms from 1995 to 2011, it showcases both the breadth and the consistency of Matthias' achievement.  No small part of that achievement is the wedding of the lyric self to the historical world beyond that self.  Matthias has a term for this, and uses it as the title of one of the poems, “Kedging. ” “Kedging’s all you’re good for,” he writes here, in an address to himself that invokes his image for the kind of poetry that reaches out beyond the self into historical and literary allusion.  The image is nautical in origin: to kedge is to move a ship forward by sending out a launch to drop an anchor at a distance, then winding in the anchor line to pull the ship forward.  For Matthias, this most strenuous form of locomotion mirrors the process by which a certain kind of poet writes.   “Poets, too, may cast an anchor well before them, “ he writes in a modified dictionary definition of kedging, “pulling forward when attached to something solid, only then to cast their anchor once again.”  It’s the “something solid” that’s important here: for Matthias, the poet needs to latch on to something beyond himself to make any progress, catching his anchor in a solid mass of history or literature before he can make any headway.

This casting out for an anchorage figures in even the most personal and anecdotal poems of this collection.  Consider “Francophiles, 1958,” a memoir of a high school senior year in Ohio.  “La transhumance du Verbe, incanted René Char,” it begins.  Right away we know there’s going to be precious little Norman Rockwell Ohioiana to this Buckeye childhood.  Instead, the anchor’s been flung out far, catching in the solid mass of midcentury French history and culture:

                        Hell was other people
we’d proclaim, pointing out each other’s mauvaise foi.
What was not absurd was certainly surreal, essence rushing
headlong at existence all the way from Paris to Vauclause.

Or again:

We went to bed with both Bardot
and de Beauvoir.  Fantastic volunteers of Le Maquis, we
knew about Algeria, about
Dien Bien Phu...

What comes across most strongly here is the power of our connection to world beyond self: to wars, poems, philosophical ideas, to the spectacle of mass-media, to history as it (often tragically) unfolds.  So strong are the connections one begins to wonder if there really is a separation between the self and the world beyond.  Would those Ohio boys have become who they became without French intellectual chic?  Would their daydreams have been the same without Brigitte Bardot?  Certainly Dien Bien Phu would come to mean a great deal for the class of ’58 in the turbulent decade ahead.  The culture that seemed so attractively remote and exotic turns out to be the very stuff of who we are, or who we become.

One of the points of a poetry like this is to show our interpellation or situatedness in history and culture.  This certainly seems to be what Matthias is getting at in some lines from the poetic sequence that closes the book, “Kedging in Time,” where he writes:

kedging’s all you’re good for
with a foot of water  under you, the tide gone out, the fog so thick
you can’t see the lights at Norderney but enter history in spite
of that by sounding in its shallows with an oar

To enter history — or, at any rate, to see that one has always already been a part of history, and that the self and the historical other are in some sense one — that’s the gist of any ars poetica Matthiasiensis.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How Did We Get Here? Politics in the Age of the Koch Brothers and #OWS

Here’s a video shot at the University of California-Davis. It shows Lt. John Pike of the UC-Davis police sauntering up to students associated with the Occupy movement and pepper spraying them, before backing slowly away in a heavily armed phalanx while demonstrators and onlookers chant “shame on you”:

I take this moment as emblematic of our current political situation. It is a situation in which about 2/3 of Americans sympathize with the Occupy movement's call for greater economic equality, but only half that number approve of the protests themselves, and no political party does anything to address the growing inequality. It's a situation, too, in which administrative leaders at all levels seem happy to tolerate police violence, which the right-wing media, led as ever by Fox News, presents as necessary and even heroic.  The people are angry, but they're wary of those who demonstrate on behalf of their interests, and the political elites prefer to address the situation with violence rather than reforms. How did we get to this sad state of affairs?

The answer, I think, has to do with changes in the attitudes of our various elites over the past few decades.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when elites from various fields — politics, business, finance, labor, journalism, religion, academe — would gather together and attempt to ameliorate whatever social and economic problems seemed of pressing importance. And they would gather in something like a spirit of enlightened self-interest, if not exactly of disinterest, trying to take a look at problems from a point of view other than that of immediate self-advancement. This, anyway, is what George Packer claims in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. Knowing a little bit about the history of social elites and their relation to the notion of disinterest or impartiality, I’m inclined to agree with him. Here’s what Packer says about the various American elites in the postwar era:

…the country’s elites were playing a role that today is almost unrecognizable. They actually saw themselves as custodians of national institutions and interests. The heads of banks, corporations, universities, law firms, foundations, and media companies were neither more nor less venal, meretricious, and greedy than their counterparts today. But they rose to the top in a culture that put a brake on these traits and certainly did not glorify them. Organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee for Economic Development, and the Ford Foundation did not act on behalf of a single, highly privileged point of view — that of the rich. Rather, they rose above the country’s conflicting interests and tried to unite them into an overarching idea of the national interest. Business leaders who had fought the New Deal as vehemently as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is now fighting health-care and financial reform later came to accept Social Security and labor unions, did not stand in the way of Medicare, and supported other pieces of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. They saw this legislation as contributing to the social peace that ensured a productive economy. In 1964, Johnson created the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress to study the effects of these coming changes on the work force. The commission included two labor leaders, two corporate leaders, the civil rights activist Whitney Young, and the sociologist Daniel Bell. Two years later, they came out with their recommendations: a guaranteed annual income and a massive job-training program. This is how elites once behaved: as if they had actual responsibilities.
This establishment really does represent an accommodation of different elites to one another: business and finance came together with leaders of what Chris Hedges has called “the liberal class”: a group consisting of “the media, the church, the university, the Democratic party, the arts, and labor unions” (his book on the fate of these elites, The Death of the Liberal Class, makes chilling reading). Together, the moneyed elite and the liberal class worked out ways of sharing wealth and solving social problems that, however imperfect, kept the fabric of society together. The liberal class could feel it had delivered some justice to the disempowered, and the moneyed interest could rest assured that, with enough soup in every bowl, radicalism had been headed off.  Indeed, as Hedges notes, one function of the liberal class has been to “discredi[t] radicals within American society who have defied corporate capitalism and continued to speak the language of class warfare.” With the great mass of people placated, radicals discredited, and the position of business and finance secured (at a moderate cost) a social compact was maintained. This is not to be sneered at: the years prior to the war had shown the world (especially Europe) what the failure of social compacts, and the legitimization of certain kinds of radicals, looked like. No one wanted to go back to those days.

The postwar arrangement, Packer notes in passing, didn’t deliver for everyone: if you were African-American, or a woman, you’d probably find those postwar years something less than Edenic. I’d add other groups to Packer’s list, especially gay people, who are only now beginning to gain something like equality and something like a public voice. But for many people, the establishment seemed to deliver a decent life, with relatively secure employment and relative egalitarianism, with inexpensive public universities, and wealth far less polarized than it is today (we’ve gone from a postwar 40:1 CEO-to-worker pay ratio to a ratio of more than 400:1).

(If you are interested in the first modern instance of an amalgamation of different elites and their cultivation of an ethos of relative disinterestedness, you might want to read the bits about Addison, The Spectator, and the class dynamics of eighteenth century England in this post).

In Packer's view, the old establishment, with its alliance between moneyed and liberal elites, came to an end for two reasons: the "youth rebellion and revolution of the 1960s" and the economic troubles of the 1970s, brought about by "stagflation and the oil shock." Here, I think, he's only partially right, and very light on detail. It's certainly true that the student and New Left movements of the 60s (and, I would add, the 70s) challenged the old establishment. But Packer neglects to say why: it was the draft and the war, certainly, but it was also the coming into the public sphere of all the social groups the old establishment had left out: African-Americans, women, gay people, and others. They rightly questioned the representativeness of the old elites, and they rightly saw that, whatever degree of disinterest informed elite decisions, it masked a preference for whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality. The demands of repressed groups for representation, though, led to a backlash, as the established elites, and many of the non-elites benefitting from the old social compact, felt threatened. The moneyed elites that already felt they'd been asked to share a great deal resented being asked to share with even more people ("What! First the G.I. bill and now urban renewal on top of that?!"), and the hard-working white male non-elites sensed that their small privileges were under threat. This, I think, is the nature of the undermining of the old establishment during the 60s and 70s. When the oil shock came along, further undermining confidence in the old compact, it simply presented an opportunity for already existing cracks to widen.

As the fissures in the old compact widened, elites lost faith in the process of working together in relative disinterest for the good of all, and America began to resemble something more like the Hobbesian state of nature, with the war of all against all. Here's how Packer describes the oil-shock era and the subsequent end of a relatively disinterested establishment:
[The oil shock] eroded Americans’ paychecks and what was left of their confidence in the federal government after Vietnam, Watergate, and the disorder of the 1960s. It also alarmed the country’s business leaders, and they turned their alarm into action. They became convinced that capitalism itself was under attack by the likes of Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader, and they organized themselves into lobbying groups and think tanks that quickly became familiar and powerful players in U.S. politics: the Business Roundtable, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Their budgets and influence soon rivaled those of the older, consensus-minded groups, such as the Brookings Institution. By the mid-1970s, chief executives had stopped believing that they had an obligation to act as disinterested stewards of the national economy. They became a special interest; the interest they represented was their own. The neoconservative writer Irving Kristol played a key role in focusing executives’ minds on this narrower and more urgent agenda. He told them, “Corporate philanthropy should not be, and cannot be, disinterested.”
Among the non-disinterested spending that corporations began to engage in, none was more interested than lobbying. Lobbying has existed since the beginning of the republic, but it was a sleepy, bourbon-and-cigars practice until the mid- to late 1970s. In 1971, there were only 145 businesses represented by registered lobbyists in Washington; by 1982, there were 2,445. In 1974, there were just over 600 registered political action committees, which raised $12.5 million that year; in 1982, there were 3,371, which raised $83 million. In 1974, a total of $77 million was spent on the midterm elections; in 1982, it was $343 million. Not all this lobbying and campaign spending was done by corporations, but they did more and did it better than anyone else. And they got results.
If you remember the Carter administration, you remember what the end of the establishment looked like: bipartisanship came to an standstill in Washington, and it remains stuck in that mode today. And the moneyed elites ceased to see their well-being tied to that of the nation as a whole: their interest was self-interest plain and simple, without the amelioration of any enlightenment. There's a sad irony to all of this, in that the break-up of the old elites, and the airing out of their smoke-filled rooms, didn't lead to greater egalitarianism. "Getting rid of elites..." says Packer, "did not necessarily empower ordinary people." Indeed, when "Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and Walter Wriston of Citicorp stopped sitting together on Commissions to Make the World a Better Place" and began "paying lobbyists to fight for their separate interests in Congress," says Packer, "the balance of power tilted heavily toward business." And there it has stayed, as indexes of wealth distribution and worker productivity and tax policy make plainer and plainer every day.

The massive, well-organized deployment of enormous sums of money by the business and (especially) the financial elites have in large measure made American politicians, regardless of party, into the tools of the wealthy elites: Bush cut taxes on the very rich to near-historic lows, and the right-wing Roberts court more or less legalized political bribery in the Citizens United decision, but it was Bill Clinton who began the deregulation of Wall Street that led first to massive profits for the few, then to an terrible crisis for the many, and it was Democrat Chuck Schumer who kept capital gains taxes so low that most hedge fund managers pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries. The Koch brothers and those of their ilk don't consider themselves stewards of national well-being, not really: they consider themselves people who have a right to buy the means to rig the system ever-further in their favor. For them, this is simply their prerogative. Acting on this presumed prerogative has made them very wealthy, but it has also made their whole class less and less legitimate in the eyes of the public, despite the constant drumbeat of political advertisements and the far-from-disinterested vision of events presented on Fox News and other corporate media platforms. 

The liberal elites — mainline churches, universities, elements of the media, labor leaders — have been complicit in these sad developments. Unable to ameliorate the naked self-interest of financial and corporate elites, they have clung to their own small privileges while no longer serving a useful role.  They simply do not deliver for the broad population as they used to do, and in failing to do so they have become despised by many in the working and middle classes. As Chris Hedges puts it,
The liberal class has become a useless and despised appendage of corporate power. And as corporate power pollutes and poisons the ecosystem and propels us into a world where there will be only masters and serfs, the liberal class, which serves no purpose in the new configuration, is being abandoned and discarded. The death of the liberal class means there is no check to a corporate apparatus designed to enrich a tiny elite and plunder a nation.... It ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and middle classes will find expression outside the confines of democratic institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy.
That's a difficult pill for many of us to swallow, but it does explain some of the most notable political developments of our time. It explains the urges behind the Tea Party (which saw itself as an outsider movement, at odds with all elites, but was co-opted almost from the start by the moneyed elites). And it explains what's been happening these past two months in New York, in Oakland, in Chicago, and in towns and cities across the country. The Occupy Wall Street movement can be seen as several things. It can be seen as a desperate move for political expression by those who see the failure of all elites to even try to stop the erosion of the social and economic position of the vast majority of Americans. It can also be seen as an attempt to wrest the old liberal classes away from their complicity with the now-completely-dominant moneyed elites — to revitalize a liberal class on its deathbed. It can also be seen in a less charitable light: I recently saw a nephew of mine and his friends disparage the Occupy movement as "a hipster convention" of people who looked like they were "in line for the latest iPhone." I think this is wrong, but I see where it comes from: it comes from the correct perception that the old liberal elites ("a hipster convention" signifies this class) have been more concerned with their petty privileges ("the latest iPhone") than with delivering for the millions of Americans whose relative position has been steadily degrading for decades. I like to hope that the Occupy movement can both give expression to the political needs of the many, and can give the old liberal class the backbone it needs to stand up to the ever-expanding domination of American life by a tiny financial elite.
If we don't have this hope, what's left?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Letters of Blood

Letters of Blood and Other English Works, by the late, great Swedish poet and critic Göran Printz-Påhlson is just about to hit the presses, and you can now pre-order the book at the publisher's website.  

Printz-Påhlson is not as well known in the English-speaking world as one might expect, given the scope of his achievement and his distinguished career at Harvard and Cambridge.  But he will, according to the English newspaper the Independent, "...go down in history as the author of some classic poems… and one of Sweden's most learned, innovative and sharp-witted literary critics. He was a prodigy, introducing a generation of Swedish writers to European modernism in his early study The Sun in the Mirror, and was one of the founders of the Lund school of poetry, a movement based in the ancient university town of Lund in the very southern tip of Sweden.  He was a scholar of enormous range, and the current volume includes a series of important lectures, "The Words of the Tribe," on the nature of poetic language (he treats linguistic primitivism, linguistic reductionism, the materiality of language, and the political elements of diction in detail).  He was also a prolific translator, and managed to put the works of John Ashbery into Swedish, a task for which he had exactly the right sensibility: erudite, attuned to pop-culture, musical, and wry.  You can learn more about him here, in the Guardian.

Here's the publisher's statement about the book:
This collection brings together for the first time works in English by the major Swedish modernist poet and critic Göran Printz-Påhlson. It was Printz-Påhlson who introduced poetic modernism to Scandinavia, and his essays and poems delve deeply into English, American, and continental modernist traditions. 
As well as Letters of Blood, the collection includes the full text of "The Words of the Tribe", a major statement on modern poetics, in which Printz-Påhlson explores the significance of primitivism in Romanticism and Modernism, and the nature of metaphor and literary materialism. The collection also includes essays on style, irony, realism, and the relationship between historical drama and historical fiction, as well as studies of American poetry. Printz-Påhlson’s poetry in English continues to explore these themes by different, often surprisingly innovative, means.
It was an honor to meet the man a few years before his death, and a privilege edit this book of his works in English.  I hope it will bring Printz-Påhlson's poetry and critical writing to an Anglo-American audience, for whom his concerns are startlingly relevant.

Sous les Pavés, les Poèts

Oh hey.  The new issue of Sous les Pavés is out, featuring work by Susan Howe, Mairéad Byrne, Amiri Baraka, Kent Johnson, and a host of others, including some guy called Archambeau.  You can read an online version by stopping in at the SLP blog and clicking on the link to SLP #5/6.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why You Are Not a Gentleman

I'm giving a talk to a gathering of some of the faculty of Lake Forest College this Wednesday.  It's called "Why You are Not a Gentleman," and it goes like this.


Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for coming here today for the last faculty luncheon discussion of the semester.  Could we begin with a little of what our friends in administration call "self-assessment"?  Could we have a show of hands from those who consider themselves ladies or gentlemen?  Perhaps we can come back to the reasons (legitimate or otherwise) why you consider, or don't consider, yourselves as falling within those categories.  But for now I'd like to confess that I am no gentleman.  I know because I've read Faulkner, and his greatest novel, The Sound and the Fury, contains this exchange:

"You're not a gentleman," Spoade said…
 "No, I'm Canadian," Shreve said.

Having confessed to my own low and provincial status, I should begin with the low and academic moves of providing definitions and hedging one's bets.

Up until the 14th century, gentil homme meant "nobleman," and nobleman meant "a man of aristocratic birth."  Certain behaviors and attitudes, including the martial virtues, were associated with gentlemanly status, of course, as we know from many records, including Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale," where we read:

Loke who that is most vertuous alway
Prive and apert, and most entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he can
And take him for the gretest gentilman

But this didn't generally pertain for those of low status: the fine deeds of the swineherd did not, in most cases, result in social elevation.  So, while the borders of the term "gentleman" have always been a bit contested, and seem to blur whenever there is social mobility, it is birth — legitimate, high-status birth — is near the center of things gentlemanly for a very long time.  Even when Shakespeare wrote, it is clear that Edmund, in King Lear, who dressed, spoke, and behaved as well as his legitimate brother Edgar, was no gentleman, or at best a gentleman with an asterisk after his name, in the manner of baseball's Roger Maris.

Gradually, cultivation increasingly supplemented birth, and in some measure nudged it aside, cozying up next to it at the center of what gentlemanliness was about.  We can see this begin to happen when, in the 16th century, the clergyman William Harrison claimed that "gentlemen be those whom their race and blood, or at least their virtues, do make noble."  The phrase "or at least" is interesting, isn't it?  Without high birth one can be a gentleman, of sorts, at least of a junior varsity kind.  This relative liberalism was picked up in the 17th century by the English public schools (what we in America would call private schools), which emphasized the idea that cultivation makes the gentleman—but then again, they would.  I mean, those of us who work for expensive private educational institutions are not without an awareness of how such institutions make the strongest possible claims for the value of the services they peddle.

I should also mention that definitions vary not only over time, but by locale.  Americans make much of the idea of the southern gentleman, but I won't speak of Americans.  Even after 20 years in this country, I do not understand their mysteries.

Anyway. When and where the notion of the gentleman as a creature of cultivation, with certain behaviors and attitudes, came to displace the notion of the gentleman as a creature of high birth (who might well also be cultivated, but wasn't necessarily so) is a debatable matter, and of course there is no single defining watershed.  But let me follow a true gentleman in locating the largest shift in the 18th century.  Here is how Thomas Babington Macaulay (that's Lord Macaulay to you), looked back on the English gentry of the 17th century from the vantage of the 1848.  The English gentleman before the 18th century, says Macaulay,
…was compounded of two elements which we seldom or never find united. His ignorance and uncouthness, his low tastes and gross phrases, would, in our time, be considered as indicating a nature, and a breeding, thoroughly plebeian. Yet he was essentially a patrician, and had, in large measure both the virtues and the vices which flourish among men set from their birth in high place, and used to respect themselves and to be respected by others. It is not easy for a generation accustomed to find chivalrous sentiments only in company with liberal studies and polished manners to imagine to itself a man with the deportment, the vocabulary, and the accent of a carter, yet punctilious on matters of genealogy and precedence, and ready to risk his life rather than see a stain cast on the honor of his house. It is however only by thus joining together things seldom or never found together in our own experience, that we can form a just idea of that rustic aristocracy...
Perhaps we could visualize such a character thusly:

This is not, of course, an actual photograph of a boorish 17th century gentleman.  This is Johnny Rotten, formerly of the Sex Pistols, in fancy clothes, but I hope it makes the point.

So what happened in England in the 18th century to make the idea of cultivation essential, rather than accidental, to gentlemanly status?  The shortest possible answer is this: the rise of the financially-oriented bourgeoisie and their assimilation into the existing, landowning elite.  Well, perhaps that's not the shortest possible answer.  Perhaps the shortest answer is: lowborn people getting rich.

I know what you're thinking: "poor Archambeau, he's gone native in America after all, confusing money with class."  Not so!  Bear with me, while I, a humble poet, seek to take you into the murky waters of the late 17th century English financial revolution, and its consequences for gentlemen.

At the end of the 17th century England was developing a mercantile society as vibrant as any in Europe, with fortunes being made in the trade of textiles, paper, and metals, but it was the Financial Revolution of the 1690s that really allowed a new elite group, based on trade and finance rather than land, to emerge.  The 1690s saw the founding of the stock market, the Bank of England, and the national debt, the last of which gave unprecedented power and influence to investors in public credit.  Unlike some other countries in which a moneyed faction arose, though, England did not see a direct clash between moneyed and landed interests.  This relatively peaceful accommodation of the rising bourgeois wasn’t due to innate English virtue so much as it was made possible by the England’s lack, of formal legal privileges for the gentry (there were privileges, certainly, but in typical English fashion these were more matters of tradition than of law).

Looking back on England’s early and relatively peaceful amalgamation of moneyed and landed classes from the far side of the French Revolution’s gore, Alexis de Tocqueville declared that England had been unique in “the ease with which it had opened its ranks,” and in how this merging of landed and moneyed classes created a more powerful, amalgamated elite: "With great riches, anybody could hope to enter into the rank..." of gentleman, or above.   As the historian David Castronovo puts it when comparing England to another country with a more bloody history of class conflict, “The Russian merchant was a merchant in law, forbidden to buy land; the English merchant was the man who could become an eminently respectable man ... a gentleman.”

But how could it be done?  England began the century as a country of rough squires proud of their pedigrees, on the one hand, and grasping, penny-counting London moneybags, on the other.  What would bring them together as a single elite of cultivated ladies and gentlemen?  Those of us in the English department can take great pride in saying that a good part of what did it was reading.

Consider the great flowering of magazines in the English 18th century.

At first glance, conditions in England at the dawn of the eighteenth century might not seem propitious for the founding of journals, particularly journals devoted in large measure to literary discussion.  Rates of literacy had actually fallen since the period of the Civil War and the Commonwealth in the prior century.  But if the country did not yet clamor with avid readers, it soon would: censorship and the taxing of periodicals was relaxed, periodicals blossomed.  Daniel Defoe started his Weekly Review in 1704, and in 1709 Richard Steele founded the more literary Tatler.  Two years later Steele joined with Addison in launching another literary/cultural journal, the Spectator.  The last two publications were widely imitated, and both the number of journals published and the reach of their total circulation rose dramatically throughout the century.  As the former editor of a cultural journal, I must emphasize that this phenomenon, the actual popularity of a cultural journal, you bears investigating.  Why, we may wonder, would such notoriously difficult-to-market commodities as cultural journals become viable in the marketplace at this particular place and time?

The answer lies in the way these journals provided a way to redefine gentlemanly status, decoupling it from birth and linking it more strongly to cultivation.  People wanted to form a new elite, bringing old prestige and new money together, and these journals, the Spectator in particular, presented them with a model for a new kind of gentleman, and also provided an arena in which to perfect one's new, gentlemanly cultivation.

Let's look, first, at how the Spectator offered a model for the new kind of gentleman.  The most famous issue of the journal presents us with an imagined "Mr. Spectator," the fictitious "author" of the various articles in the magazine, and his friends in the imagined "Spectator Club."  Here they are in the frontespiece to a collected edition of the journal:

Mr. Spectator, the model of the new kind of gentleman, embodies a combination of the social types that went into forming the new elite.  His origin, as he tells us in the first issue of the Spectator, lay among the landed gentry:
I was born to a small hereditary estate, which, according to the tradition of the village where it lies, was bounded by the same hedges and ditches in William the Conqueror's time that it is at present, and has been delivered down from father to son whole and entire, without the loss or acquisition of a single field or meadow, during the space of six hundred years.

Despite Mr. Spectator’s mother’s early hope that he take up the profession of law and become a respected judge, he has instead taken to habituating London’s coffee houses, where, if he has not exactly joined the bureaucratic and financial classes, he has become indistinguishable from them in their various haunts:
There is no place of general resort, wherein I do not often make my appearance; sometimes I am seen thrusting my head into a round of politicians at Will’s, and listening with great attention to the narratives that are made in those little circular audiences. Sometimes I smoke a pipe at Child’s, and whilst I seem attentive to nothing but the Postman [a newspaper], overhear the conversation of every table in the room.  I appear on Sunday nights at St. James’s Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little committee of politics in the inner room, as one who comes there to hear and improve.  My face is likewise very well known at the Grecian, the Cocoa-Tree, and in the theaters both of Drury Lane and the haymarket.  I have been taken for a merchant upon the Exchange for above these ten years, and sometimes pass for a Jew in the assembly of stock-jobbers at Jonathan’s...

So this new kind of gentleman was ubiquitous, and could be a creature of the country gentry or of the newer worlds of city finance and politics, at home with gentry, clergy, and merchants alike, watching the world but—and this is crucial—not pushing for his own interests, not out for his own gain, at least not in any overt way.  The gentleman, suddenly, isn't someone passionate about pedigree and the vengeful cleansing of blots from the family escutcheon. He has become a man of what we have come to think of as typically English reserve, of dispassionateness, of impartiality and disinterest.  This ideal runs throughout the cast of characters we see in the Spectator.  Indeed, the attitude of disinterested reserve is the common thread uniting the characters, and is, really the essence of this new kind of gentleman.  What this has to do with cultivation and the liberal arts lies ahead of us—first, lets put some flesh on the bones of Addison's fictional gentlemen.

The cast of characters in Addison and Steele’s fictitious Spectator Club — in many ways an idealized version of the audience for their journal, and for the amalgamating English elite — is something of a showcase of polite disinterest.  Here is the first of them, a country gentleman of the old school named Sir Roger DeCoverly.  He's important, because we're told he has changed, after a disappointing love affair.  Take note of the differences between his youthful behavior and his present behavior, and you'll get at a great deal of how the idea of the gentleman is being redefined:

The first of our society is a gentleman of Worcestershire, of an ancient descent, a baronet, his name Sir Roger de Coverley. His great-grandfather was inventor of that famous country-dance which is called after him. All who know that shire are very well acquainted with the parts and merits of Sir Roger…. It is said he keeps himself a bachelor by reason he was crossed in love by a perverse beautiful widow of the next county to him. Before this disappointment, Sir Roger was what you call a fine gentleman, had often supped with my Lord Rochester and Sir George Etherege, fought a duel upon his first coming to town, and kicked bully Dawson in a public coffee-house for calling him youngster. But being ill-used by the above-mentioned widow, he was very serious for a year and a half; and though, his temper being naturally jovial, he at last got over it, he grew careless of himself and never dressed afterwards. He continues to wear a coat and doublet of the same cut that were in fashion at the time of his repulse, which, in his merry humors, he tells us, has been in and out twelve times since he first wore it. It is said Sir Roger grew humble in his desires after he had forgot his cruel beauty... He is now in his fifty-sixth year, cheerful, gay, and hearty; keeps a good house both in town and country; a great lover of mankind; but there is such a mirthful cast in his behavior, that he is rather beloved than esteemed. His tenants grow rich, his servants look satisfied, all the young women profess love to him, and the young men are glad of his company. When he comes into a house, he calls the servants by their names... I must not omit that Sir Roger is a justice of the quorum; that he fills the chair at a quarter-session with great abilities, and three months ago gained universal applause, by explaining a passage in the Game Act.

What was this man in the past?  Passionate, a dueler, proud of his ancient family, and reader to avenge any insult with violence.  But what is he now, reformed?  Indifferent to impressing others by his appearance, sociable with all, more-or-less without selfish desire, and (unlike so many judges in his time and ours) without much by way of a judicial axe to grind.  He has stepped back from passionate family honor as an ideal, and become much more reserved, disinterested, and detached: qualities important to the new gentleman — and qualities, it should be noted, less of bloodline than of attitude.

After Sir Roger, we meet another gentleman of the Spectator Club, an unnamed lawyer.  Reading his description, I wonder: would you want him as your attorney?  In what context would it be good to know him?

The gentleman next in esteem and authority among us is another bachelor, who is a member of the Inner Temple, a man of great probity, wit, and understanding; but he has chosen his place of residence rather to obey the direction of an old humorsome father than in pursuit of his own inclinations. He was placed there to study the laws of the land, and is the most learned of any of the house in those of the stage. Aristotle and Longinus are much better understood by him than Littleton or Coke. The father sends up every post questions relating to marriage-articles, leases, and tenures, in the neighborhood; all which questions he agrees with an attorney to answer and take care of in the lump. He is studying the passions themselves, when he should be inquiring into the debates among men which arise from them. He knows the argument of each of the orations of Demosthenes and Tully, but not one case in the reports of our own courts. No one ever took him for a fool; but none, except his intimate friends, know he has a great deal of wit. This turn makes him at once both disinterested and agreeable. As few of his thoughts are drawn from business, they are most of them fit for conversation. …. He is an excellent critic, and the time of the play is his hour of business; exactly at five he passes through New-inn, crosses through Russell-court, and … has his shoes rubbed and his periwig powdered at the barber’s as you go into the Rose. It is for the good of the audience when he is at the play, for the actors have an ambition to please him.

What do we notice about him?  About what does he care? Although this gentleman plays in the high-stakes world of London law, he also shows a remarkable degree of emotional distance from the world of power-interests.  More inclined to connoisseurship than the fray of the law, he spurns legal matters for his true love, the theater, and devotes himself not just to literary theory, but to most formalistic literary theory: to questions of genre and aesthetics, rather than to the political or social or religious aspects of literature.  One might not trust the man to protect one’s money or land in court, but it is his very removal from such practical matters that makes him so eminently “disinterested and agreeable” to Mr. Spectator and his friends, for “as few of his thoughts are drawn from business, they are most of them fit for conversation.”

The next member of the Spectator Club is Captain Sentry, a representative of the military officer class.  What virtues does he have that we have seen in the other gentlemen?

Next to Sir Andrew in the clubroom sits Captain Sentry, a gentleman of great courage, good understanding, but invincible modesty. He is one of those that deserve very well, but are very awkward at putting their talents within the observation of such as should take notice of them. He was some years a captain, and behaved himself with great gallantry in several engagements and at several sieges; but having a small estate of his own, and being next heir to Sir Roger, he has quitted a way of life in which no man can rise suitably to his merit, who is not something of a courtier as well as a soldier. I have heard him often lament that, in a profession where merit is placed in so conspicuous a view, impudence should get the better of modesty. When he has talked to this purpose, I never heard him make a sour expression, but frankly confess that he left the world because he was not fit for it. A strict honesty and an even regular behavior are in themselves obstacles to him that must press through crowds, who endeavor at the same end with himself, the favor of a commander….The military part of his life has furnished him with many adventures, in the relation of which he is very agreeable to the company; for he is never overbearing, though accustomed to command men in the utmost degree below him; nor ever too obsequious, from an habit of obeying men highly above him.

Again, reticence, a lack of concern with overt self-interest, and a kind of self-possessed reserve are the attitudes of the new gentleman.  We hear much the same about a clergyman, and about an old rake named Will Honeycomb, who is also a disinterested an honest man, "where women are not concerned."

If disinterest is the defining ideal of the new gentleman, then another kind of member of the arising elite presents particular difficulties: the merchant.  Merchants, after all, are by definition creatures of self-interest, their individual greed leading (if Adam Smith is to be believed) to a general improvement for all.  How can they be assimilated to this new gentlemanly ideal?  Here is Addison's example of the merchant gentleman, Sir Andrew Freeport:

 The person of next consideration is Sir Andrew Freeport, a merchant of great eminence in the city of London; a person of indefatigable industry, strong reason, and great experience. His notions of trade are noble and generous, and (as every rich man has usually some sly way of jesting, which would make no great figure were he not a rich man) he calls the sea the British Common. He is acquainted with commerce in all its parts, and will tell you that it is a stupid and barbarous way to extend dominion by arms; for true power is to be got by arts and industry. He will often argue that, if this part of our trade were well cultivated, we should gain from one nation; and if another, from another. I have heard him prove that diligence makes more lasting acquisitions than valor, and that sloth has ruined more nations than the sword. He abounds in several frugal maxims, amongst which the greatest favorite is, “A penny saved is a penny got.” A general trader of good sense is pleasanter company than a general scholar; and Sir Andrew having a natural unaffected eloquence, the perspicuity of his discourse gives the same pleasure that wit would in another man. He has made his fortune himself; and says that England may be richer than other kingdoms by as plain methods as he himself is richer than other men; though at the same time I can say this of him, that there is not a point in the compass but blows home a ship in which he is an owner.

He's different, isn't he?  Do we see in him any disinterest or reserve?  Perhaps his nationalism makes him seem less selfish, and his “natural and unaffected eloquence” makes him strong in his conversation at the club.  But, as any acquaintance with English history shows, the assimilation of those in trade to the ideal of the gentleman remained, and in some quarters remains, imperfect.

If the fictional characters of the Spectator were representative of the emerging elite, so too were its very real readers.  When Spectator #269 announced that prior issues were to be republished in a somewhat expensive octavo edition, buyers, both male and female, came forth in droves from the aristocracy, the professions, and the mercantile world.  So strong was the response that a somewhat less expensive duodecimo edition was announced almost immediately, in Spectator #278, for a readership composed of those aspiring to membership in the elite.  When the name of Addison was heard in the bookseller’s shop, both the actual elites and their striving emulators reached for their wallets.

But what does cultivation have to do with this new kind of disinterested gentleman?  Long story short, it's this: one gains these attitudes of disinterest and dispassionateness (according to Addison) from the contemplation of art and literature.  Although Kant had yet to batter the German language into the spikes and sharp edges of his unreadable, ponderous, and wonderful aesthetic theory, Addison had learned from such English philosophers as Shaftesbury to think of art and literature as things contemplated for their own sake, and to see such contemplation as a kind of training ground for attitude toward life in which one steps back from the pursuit of one's self-interest.  It's fascinating to read the literary criticism in the Spectator, because it asks you to look on literature as a purely formal matter of beauty, and of the decorum of part to whole.  When the Spectator discusses Milton's Paradise Lost, for example, it's all about whether the language is appropriate to the sentiment, and about what kind of beauties the poem holds.  The fact that the poem was a political and religious statement—and a particularly wrathful and bitter one, to boot—goes unremarked.  We're not concerned, here, with partisanship: we're concerned with developing an attitude that will help potentially clashing factions of an elite get beyond partisanship, and club together.  It worked.  England's old elite, unlike that of France, did not end up on the wrong side of a guillotine blade at the century's end.  And in no small measure their survival had to do with the redefinition of the gentleman as a creature of reserved impartiality.  (I should stress that this was an ideal, not an actuality).

The notion of the cultivated, disinterested gentleman morphs and mutates and changes in any number of ways over the course of the 19th century, but there's one version of the gentlemanly ideal I'd like to mention, because it has some bearing on who we are and what we, as educators, do.  This is the ideal of the educated gentleman as a kind of impartial figure mediating between, and being an honest broker among, the various classes of society as they come into conflict with one another.  Think of the critic, poet, and educational administrator, Matthew Arnold, and what he said in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy.  Writing at a time of serious social conflict, he outlined a special position for cultivated individuals.  These people, whose origin could lie in any class, would by virtue of the disinterest they developed through liberal education become "aliens" to any class: impartial, and open to reason and "the free and fresh play" of ideas.  In a world of people seeking their conflicting self-interests, these people would be above the fray and, in Lionel Trilling's phrase, serve as a kind of "umpire class."  They would make sure the others played fair.

This Arnoldian notion—of the most educated taking on the kind of virtues associated with the 18th century gentleman—is still with us.  It is often present when we hear that liberal study will make one a better citizen, or give one the ability for critical thought.  It is certainly present in some of the theories of what intellectuals and teachers are for.  As Alvin Gouldner, the greatest sociologist of intellectuals ever to have treaded through the stacks of a research library, put it, "As teachers, intellectuals come to be defined, and to define themselves, as responsible for and 'representative' of society as a whole."  Rather than representing their self-interest, such creatures, in this view, try to adjudicate matters with disinterest, approaching the gentlemanly ideal, albeit without the good tailoring, and with an aesthetically dismaying number of PBS tote-bags on display.

Why, then, are you—educators, devoted to the liberal arts—not necessarily all gentlemen (or ladies, although I confess to knowing remarkably little about the historical evolution of the idea of the lady)?

Long story short, it's because of these people:

The damn dirty hippies.  Well, not exactly.  But it is something did happen, beginning in the 1960s, to challenge the idea of the higher education as a redoubt of gentlemanly disinterest.  Perhaps the best way to begin is with a little anecdote that our former poet laureate, Robert Hass, gives in a memoir of his days at SUNY-Buffalo.  Here we see a gathering in which the younger generation confronts an educational establishment that clearly sees itself as representing the Arnoldian ideal of disinterest, impartiality, and the free and fresh play of ideas:

The year must have been 1969; the room was packed with students and faculty dressed, as the style was, to their archetypes: Indians, buffalo hunters, yogis, metaphysical hoboes, rednecks, lumberjacks, Mandingo princes, lions, tigers, hawks, and bears.  Everything the American middle class had repressed lounged in that room listening to speaker after speaker with beatific attention.  Which took some doing.  I remember in particular a graduate student from the Progressive Labor Party who read an exceedingly long essay on the parallels between Bob Dylan's career and the growth of political theory in the New Left….When he finished, Edgar Friedenburg, the sociologist, rose to speak.  He is a dapper man and he wore a light gray suit with a striped broadcloth Brooks Brothers shirt.  His glasses sat low on his nose, his hair was tousled, and he looked amused.  He only managed one sentence: "I have been reflecting this afternoon that we are patient beings, and that, though popular culture deserves our most urgent attention, it requires from us a good deal less credence and more clearwater."  Some of the audience laughed; and a student in the front stood up, jabbed a finger forward, and said, "Friedenburg, it took twenty fucking years of repressive fucking education for you to learn to talk like that."

It's a standoff , isn't it?  And a standoff, specifically, between a representative of Arnoldian, gentlemanly disinterest (more clear water, the free and fresh play of ideas; less credence, the simple acceptance of ideas most appealing to our self-interest), and someone who clearly believes that ideal to be deeply flawed.  But flawed how?  Flawed, I'd venture to say, by being both smug and a sham, by pretending to an impossible objectivity, rather than admitting to one's own self-interested agenda and fighting it out fair and square in the public sphere.  It's a New Left idea—that the pretext of disinterest is only that, a pretext—that has in decades since become a neo-conservative idea.  It's an idea that underlies the notion that public affairs should be discussed by representatives of "both sides" of a debate, even when the debates (such as that over the existence of climate change) don't have what disinterested people would see as two rational sides.  It's also an idea that, as the children of the sixties undertook the long march through the academic institutions became, a large part of how some academic disciplines, particularly in the humanities, operated.

This is not the time to rehearse the theoretical and methodological disputes in the humanities in the 1980s and 1990s.  In fact, having lived through those disputes, I don't think I could bring myself to revisit them in all their acrimonious tedium ever again.  But I will point to one article, quite influential in my field, by the scholar William Spanos: an enormous 1985 effort called “The Apollonian Investment of Modern Humanist Education.”   Here Spanos maintains that inquiry aiming at disinterest is, necessarily, going to serve as a screen for received prejudices.  Advocates of disinterest, says Spanos, merely reaffirm “the abiding ‘touchstones’ of the logocentric humanistic mind - ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ (by which, as the omission of reference to any other makes clear ... means the Western world).”  With language echoing that of Culture and Anarchy, this is very much a shot across the bow of the H.M.S. Matthew Arnold.  According to Spanos, the Arnoldian ideal is bankrupt, and thinkers committed to disinterested inquiry will always end up seeking a cultural “re-centering,” a “restoration of a common body of knowledge” based on old ideas and unexamined biases.  In its stead, Spanos offered an ideal of  “understanding as antagonistic dialogue”—the kind of public clash that the student from Hass' anecdote called for in a rather less articulate way.

If this combative, interest-group-specific model of inquiry is what you believe in—if, that is, you consider self- or interest-group advocacy a part of what you, as an academic, may or may not be right.  But (and perhaps this is something you will hear with pride) you are no gentleman.

Slight Return: Remix and Ekphrasis

Jeffrey Side has been doing good things for poetry for a long time via his organization The Argotist.  My favorite Argotist project has been the collection of interviews with various poets and critics, including Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff, Ron Silliman, Amiri Baraka, Rae Armantrout, and some guy named Archambeau.

Side has also edited a series of Argotist ebooks. They're downloadable free in pdf format, and my favorites include: Maxine Chernoff's A House in Summer, Jerome Rothenberg's The Jigoku Zoshi Hells: A Book of Variations, and Don Share's Harmonia.

Joining them now is a small collection of my own work, Slight Return: Remix and Ekphrasis. Here's the promotional blurb:

What if Kafka had written the Kama Sutra? What if the rhetoric of manifest destiny were mashed up with the destruction of Hiroshima? What if the icons of punk and glam found themselves curled up with Sheena of the Jungle? What happens when a poet draws a lucky card in the Mexican lotteria? What if poems were made from the flotsam and jetsam of culture, high and low? What if the author really has died, as Roland Barthes told us he would, and been replaced by the scriptor, whose sole power is to mingle texts? What if Jimi Hendryx had only given us the last two words of ‘Voodoo Child (slight return)’? The questions, if not all the answers, are in the poems in Slight Return: Remix and Ekphrasis.

Hope you like it.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Your BlackBerry is a Poem

A post I wrote about the appropriation of the symbolist poetics of Mallarmé and company by contemporary advertising and branding is up on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog.  Check it out.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Fifty Cult Books, Some of Which I've Read

I'm as skeptical of "top 50" or "top 100" lists as you are, chain-smoking over-caffeinated neurotic cynics that you are.  So when an English friend recently sent me the Telegraph's list of the "Fifty Best Cult Books," I was all set to start complaining about it.  Then I read my friend's note, appended to the URL: "here's something to attack."  If there's a real value to lists of this kind, it's that you can attack them, as my friend suggested.  Such lists, like the contents of anthologies, provide wonderful opportunities for arguing and howling with derision—pleasures not to be disdained!  They also allow one to remember one's own encounters with the listed books.  And by encounters I don't just mean reading experiences: books are (for the moment—we hover on the cusp of an electronic era) physical artifacts, things one runs across in particular times and places.  So here are my off-the-cuff notes on my experiences of the books on the Telegraph list.  I reckon I've read about two thirds of the fifty.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
         I read the bejesus out of Vonnegut when I was a teenager.  I even read God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.  I wrote a blog post once about how Vonneget comes by his absurdism honestly, unlike most of the young guys who read him, who are only going through a brief phase of junior-varsity level absurdism, as I was.

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
         My mom likes the books of Durrell's brother, Gerald, who writes about exotic animals.  When I was in junior high I got mixed up about this, and bought a copy of Lawrence Durrell's Black Book as a gift for her.  Do not repeat this mistake.

A Rebours by JK Huysmans
         It gets dull as hell in the middle, but there are some really good bits, like the part where the protagonist holds a funeral for his libido, and the chapter about how he builds a kind of pipe organ for making combinations of perfumed scents—after which, when he catches a breath of fresh country air, he passes out.  But beware: reading this will diminish Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray for you, since you'll see how totally derivative it is.  If this book is the Beatles, Wilde's is Badfinger.  Or maybe ELO.

Baby and Child Care by Dr Benjamin Spock
         About three years ago, just before my daughter was born, my wife and I loaded up on books about babies and parenting.  It's sort of our approach to things to research the hell out of them ahead of time (you can take the happy couple out of grad school, but…).  Never read the books.  Turns out this parenting thing is experiential.  Who knew? 

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
         Never read it.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
         I teach Plath's poems to freshmen, because the early ones are technically very fine, and therefore a good way to show students what technique is good for.  The later poems are shrieky and over-the-top, but they tend to like that.  As for The Bell Jar: I dunno.  Maybe I went out with too many girls who read it.  I keep my distance from the thing.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
         The Telegraph says "literary history would be entirely different if Heller had followed his original intention and called it Catch-18: it was changed to avoid confusion with a Leon Uris book."  Too true!  It'd be as if Shelley has called his sonnet "User-ma'ra" instead of "Ozymandias," which was just a Greek garbling of the Egyptian original.

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
         I hate Salinger.  I hate everything about Salinger.  Pretentious, precious, and unaccountably over-rated.  But this is all probably the result of having read it for the first time when I was in my late 20s.

The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
         If you ever see me reading this, rip it from my hands and use it to slap me upside the head.

The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart
         Never heard of it.

Chariots of the Gods: Was God An Astronaut? by Erich Von Däniken
         My parents were a bit too old to be hippies, though my dad had been a kind of beatnik.  But they had hippie friends in the 70s, hangers-on at the university art department where my dad taught.  One of them had a house where the doorways were hung with dozens of little hand-made brass bells, and all the toys were unpainted wood.  They had a copy of this book, and they were very keen on talking to their plants. 

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
         I wanted to like this book, because I love walking around New Orleans.  But I did not find the protagonist charming.  I wanted him to pull an Edna Pontellier and just swim out into the Gulf and be done with it.

Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
         I love this book.  Not only do I love the full candor about the contradictory nature of the soul, I like the way Rousseau confesses both his crimes (he probably got a servant fired and thrown into prostitution) and his misdemeanors (pissing in the teapot when he was a boy).  He's a sexual oddball too: likes to be smacked on the butt by a girl pretending to be his teacher. So if that's your thing, he's your guy.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
         I've had a copy of this somewhere since the mid-90s, but despite the great narrative gap in the title ("Justified sin, you say? Do tell!) I'm just not motivated enough to crack it open.

Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health by L Ron Hubbard
         I read part of this as research when I was writing the John Matthias chapter of my book Laureates & Heretics.  Matthias' poem "Bucyrus" is based, in part, on the lunatic teachings of Hubbard.  I thought the poem was bizarre, but it's got nothing on its source.

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
         This is better than people think it is.  I keep coming back to Huxley's description of the mind as a "reducing valve" that filters out the "irrelevant" parts of experience, unless we derange it a bit and see things anew: it's actually helped me explain Kant a few times, and I think it's a useful concept for discussing not only LSD experiences, but the disinterested perception of art.

Dune by Frank Herbert
         Back in high school I lent my paperback of this to a friend.  I was very insistent that he return it in good shape, since he was known for being a bit of a barbarian.  He read it and got it back to me, but instead of talking about it with him I started to give him a big lecture about how it was important to handle things with respect.  Just then my grip faltered and the book slipped, the cover tearing in half.  He laughed and I deserved it.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
         Everything I had to say about adolescent absurdism in that post about Vonnegut (link above) applies here.  But I don't think Adams has a profound experience of absurdity: his is absurdity  more the mild, suburban, youthful kind that you and I experienced.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
         Whenever I read Wolfe I think there's no need for sociologists: Wolfe does it better.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
         Never read it, never going to read it.

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
         See my note on Fear of Flying.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
         I actually did start reading Atlas Shrugged once, just to see what the asshats were on about.  I don't think they're on about much.  And don't think Rand ever got over the Soviets taking her father's small business away.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R Hofstadter
       The Telegraph says this is 
"about what it means to think, and how that happens, this is written in the spirit of Lewis Carroll. Pattern recognition in the work of geniuses. Loved by maths geeks and anybody with Asperger's syndrome and anyone with sense. But at root a chess textbook."  That's about right, I think.

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
         I think I missed the window to read this.  It's a Cold War book, right?

 The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln
         Never heard of it.  But the Telegraph says it's like The Da Vinci Code, so I don't think I'll be getting a copy.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
         Knew a young woman who thought highly of it.  Told her I'd read it.  Hadn't.  That was a long time ago.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
         Along with the passages of The Prelude in which Wordsworth talks about how he can't pick a topic, this is one of the great literary stuttering sessions: a whole set of beginnings, left hanging.

Iron John: a Book About Men by Robert Bly
         I'm just not going to go in the woods and beat drums with you guys.  Sorry.  But good luck with that.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach and Russell Munson (1970)
Odious treacle.  But I was happy to read this, from the Telegraph: "Richard Nixon's FBI director, L Patrick Gray, ordered all his staff to read it. Later, he resigned for gross corruption, a fitting punishment for his dreadful taste."

The Magus by John Fowles
         Go see Anthony Quinn in the movie version instead.  The book isn't bad, butAnthony Quinn is notably absent.

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
         Erudition both real and imagined, fun-house mirrors reflecting other fun-house mirrors: what's not to like?  The only problem is that if you get truly hooked on Borges and are of a completist disposition, you'll end up reading the sonnets he wrote late in life, and Borges will be much reduced for you.

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
         The jacket of the paperback I've owned for something like 15 years boasts that this is one of the greatest novels ever written.  I begin to wonder whether I'll ever get around to finding out.  I mean, I even left it on a side table for a while, but it just ended up being used as a coaster.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
         I was on a thesis committee for a young man writing about this book.  Read both the thesis and the book, liked them, but the thesis defense turned out to be all about Russian social history.  I listened and nodded before voting to approve the project.

No Logo by Naomi Klein
         I'm on her side.  But this thing would have been much better if it were, say, 15 pages long.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac
         Back in my undergraduate days I had a big orange Viking Critical Edition of this.  I read it in the apartment of the guy from whom I used to buy pot (he's now a radio D.J. in Montreal).  One day his brother came in from the benighted small town where he lived and borrowed it.  He played drums in a band, and lent it to the bass player, who lent it to the bass player in another band that went on tour in a crappy van.  I lost track of that band somewhere on the Canadian prairies and the book with them.  It was exactly the right way to part from that particular book.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
         I devoured this thing one weekend around 1990 instead of reading whatever I was supposed to read for class.

The Outsider by Colin Wilson
         If it had been the fifties, and I had been twenty, I think I'd have liked this.  But it was a couple of years ago, and I was forty, and it wasn't doing much for me.  Some books are too much the product of their time and place to mean much outside of those co-ordinates.  Others (like Catcher in the Rye) seem keyed to a certain age group.  This one, I think, is tied to both time and generation.  I wonder if its moment will ever come round again.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
         "Where does one find other books like this?" asked a short, squat, vaguely street-person like Latin American man in a sky blue suit and dark glasses who had cornered me in the old Aspidistra Bookshop where I worked.  "Where," he continued "are the books on how one lives?"  I sent him to the self-help section, which I consider a failure on my part.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
         I really want to read this someday, since it seems like the good ole left-wing religion.  But when I say "I really want to read this," the statement  needs to be measured against my continued inaction.  Maybe I don't really want to read it that badly.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám tr by Edward FitzGerald
         When I'm feeling sentimental, I kind of like this.  When I'm feeling cynical, it seems like kitsch.

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
         Never read it.  I think I only ever read travel writing when it appears in Granta.  I've loved old issues of Granta ever since I read the one called "While Waiting for a War" back when I was a freshman.  That's the issue where I fist encountered Hanif Kureishi's work.  I still love The Buddha of Suburbia, My Beautiful Laundrette, and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
         Back in grad school I shared a house with a biologist doing a postdoc.  A German colleague of his dropped by once looking for him, but he was out.  The German saw my complete set of Hesse on the shelf and, in an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent, asked "do you like Herman Hesse?" I've always been a bit ambivalent about Hesse, thinking him good but didactic.  But I didn't want to insult a German writer in the presence of a German, so I said "yes, yes I do, very much."  "Ach," said the German biologist, "I hate Herman Hesse."  

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
         I put this on the syllabus of a graduate seminar I and a senior historian colleague were teaching.  I taught it as a kind of statement about the turn to morbid emotion brought about when the middle-class protagonist is shut out of the position he deserves by aristocratic snobbery.  "Nice little Marxist reading," said my historian colleague, before demolishing it with the great snowplow of German romanticism.

Story of O by Pauline Réage 
       "A guaranteed detumescent," says The Telegraph.  Opinions vary.

The Stranger by Albert Camus
         Apparently a lot of books on this list make me think of my post on Vonnegut and absurdism.

The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda
         I know a guy who keeps saying he's going to write a book about this.  Somehow that seems wrong.  It just feels like this book should have been abandoned after Jimmy Carter lost to Reagan.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
         Never read it.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
         I really don't think Nietzsche should have attempted this.  Except for The Birth of Tragedy, all of his best work is in the epigram and the fragment.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
         Do you wish she'd written more?  Not me.  I think it's kind of perfect just to have this by itself.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry into Values by Robert M Pirsig
         When I was 14 I objected to my English teacher about the books we were reading, saying they were juvenile.  She said I could write an essay on something else if I wanted to.  I declared I would write on Zen and the Art of Motorcylce Maintenance, which seemed to my young self to be both sophisticated (zen) and badass (motorcycle maintenance).  When I got the essay back, her sole comment was "did you read anything beyond the jacket?"  I had not.