Fetus in Fetu

December 9, 2008

In a dream, I had emigrated to Germany and taken a job delivering the results of DNA tests. On one assignment, I rode a train out to a field of identical apartment buildings under thick nimbus clouds and informed a woman that her 3 year old son was not hers. She was overjoyed, but the woman to whom I delivered the child was so upset that she got everyone in her building to leave in protest and to cover their floors with coconut shavings before they did so. On the train ride home, I was musing over my experience when I told another rider about what I’d just done. “Did I do the right thing?” I asked her in German. “No matter what you would have done, they wouldn’t have been pleased,” she replied. She was an American who had lived in Germany for 40 years.

Suddenly, I found myself at a concert or festival in France. Green lights swept across the crowd as word spread that I had just had a dream about emigrating to Germany and taking a job delivering the results of DNA tests. Everyone was so interested in my dream that I was being impelled towards the stage where I would recite it for them all. My first translator was Sparrow, a poet who does speak French; but as I tried to organize my dream into some kind of coherent story, he disappeared. My second translator, a young brunette, disappeared in the same fashion. The crowd grew restless and actually began to chant in anticipation of my dream, so a hip-hop act was sent out to appease them. I was flustered by this point, and I told the director that I not only didn’t speak French, but was having terrible stage fright. He nodded and said only, “They’re used to people stringing words together.” Looking over the stage at the crowd, I gathered my courage.

The Fourth Month Sky

December 8, 2008

“There was something indefinably pleasant about the Fourth Month sky and the trees were a lovely expanse of new green.”
The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (trans. Seidensticker)

I reread this phrase several times, wondering why I found it more affecting than I would have found a statement about an April sky — wondering how a Westerner is supposed to parse this reference to the lunar calendar, which would have been invisible in the original. I hate to think, of course, that it’s just the use of a different name and a foreign system of time-keeping that gave me pause. Borges said, in reference to Genji, that “what interests us is not the exoticism — the horrible word — but rather the human passions of the novel.” So if the Fourth Month piques me, it’s not, I hope, simply by giving me reason to reflect on some mysterious essence which the name “April” had shielded from my view, but that the ordinal system of naming months reveals a view of time in which noticing the pleasantness of the sky and the “new green” is especially touching.

I wonder whether giving months the names of ordinals is more appropriate in a society given to nostalgia. References to the Heian Period as an age of decline occur regularly throughout Genji, with some characters saying that even the ability to play music — but how could they even pretend to know this? — had suffered sadly since its height among the ancients; likewise, nearly every conversation labelled “intimate” is later said to be about old times. Giving months numbered names would allow a more easily gauged distance between the past and the present, even within the space of a year, just as numbered years almost inevitably make us ask, “Has it really been so long?”

The business of putting distance between the past and present — objectifying it enough to make it suitable for nostalgia — means making a linear story, and the ordinal names of months seem to demand a certain clarity in the order of events. And if we’re able to spread analogies across onomastic fields, we can say that the Japanese naming system for months makes our own system seem as whimsical as the Indian system of giving proper names to single-family houses does today. When we consider how converting names to numbers is always touted as an increase in efficiency, it’s worth considering that the ordinal system for naming months might seem positively bureaucratic. The affection a Westerner might feel for the quote that began this entry, then, might stem from an apparent contrast between lingering enough to notice the sky and the relentless ordering of time within a system that denies any essence to a month outside of its numerical position.

This is the easiest way that the humane, perhaps, can appear to modern people: as the exception, even as the ineffectual.

The bland of the free

July 23, 2008

Health food, in particular, seems especially prone to the recent trend of placing lists on food packaging declaring all the substances of which the contents are “free.” These litanies can run up to half a dozen items, and are often placed in colorful boxes or even starburst designs — all of which adds an air of celebration and relief to the product.

Of course, celebration and relief are emotions appropriate to freedom (a word now so loaded it can perhaps best be approached through its use on food packaging) as it pertains to a heavy yoke having been lifted, or a burden which one learns that one does not have to bear after all. The idea of freedom, though, is rather meaningless without the possibility of oppression and necessity, which leads me to wonder what the opposite of these alimentary appellations might be: would a product which is not dairy-free be dairy-laden? or something which is not soy-free be held soy-captive? or be soy-sullied?

The degree to which these antonyms are ridiculous is the same degree to which it’s ridiculous that food manufacturers seem to hope that their “gluten-free” products will be greeted with a certain joy, whereas a phrase like “no gluten” on a label might look sullen by comparison. This, though, is only the rational way of looking at it — the side of us that knows the two phrases are perfectly equivalent — while consumption is a thoroughly irrational undertaking, containing as it does elements of both identification and aspiration. What we must consider is the idea of health food consumers as a discrete group with characteristic ideas about themselves and the modern world.

With brand names like “Back to Nature” (which I can’t help but interpret as a command in want of an exclamation point) and “Eden Foods,” it’s clear that health food manufacturers (and therefore the consumers [I should point out now that this includes me]) seek to distinguish themselves by their purity — the converse of this distinction being, of course, that mainstream manufacturers are estranged from nature and despoilers of what is otherwise Edenic. Collectively held ideas about what foods are polluting emerge, which means that we should refer to the anthropologist Mary Douglas; explaining her idea of food taboos as symbolic ways of maintaining the integrity of the body politic by closely guarding each body’s orifices, she writes, “I suggest that food is not likely to be polluting at all unless the external boundaries of the social system are under pressure.” This she writes specifically about the Brahmin caste and about Jews, both of whom are minorities the lapse of whose vigilance could quickly bring about their end as a distinct group.

This, to me, explains in large part why health food consumers seem to respond well to the notion of their food being “free” of various (and occasionally dubious) taints; rather than being a demographic, a certain sense of aspiring to be a fully functioning “social system” has developed among likely consumers of health foods — one that I think I can safely label environmentalist. The “freedom” from certain ingredients, then, becomes a way of creating in one’s body the idea of freedom from a mass culture where finding virtually anything without high-fructose corn syrup is a chore.

Later in her book Purity and Danger, Douglas writes that if a metaphysical system has no way of tilling the evil and tragic facts of life back into its system, it not only stultifies itself by creating a too-static environment, but risks asking its members to go through life with a forced smile and eyes closed to the easy falsifiability of its ideas and rites. This is what concerns me — that environmentalists want their freedom too free, and will continue to move the bar of purity from organic to biodynamic to local, from gluten-free to GMO-free to soy-free. These are the marks of coolness straight out of any high school, not the marks of sustainability.

The Bookseller’s Pique

July 12, 2008

It’s no secret that publishers often ask authors to change the names of their books in order to fit what their market thinks of as an appropriate title for a book. But those expectations of appropriateness can create some rather humorous bottlenecking as publishers flock to a certain onomastic scheme and then, once they’ve surfeited the public on that trope, abandon it. I’d like to point out the two naming schemes that seem most prevalent today as formulas for the naming of books.

The first is one that I’ll call The Occupation’s Female Relation, and its members fit into the formula suggested by my own meta-title perfectly. We can only speculate on why no nieces or grandmothers seem to be named, but here follows a few examples of this genre:

  • The Zookeeper’s Wife
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife
  • The Astronaut’s Wife (There seem to be no fewer than three separate books and a film bearing this title.)
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter
  • The Abortionist’s Daughter
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter

A second trend is one I’ll name The Eccentric Conflagration; its titles are a little tougher to pin down, and my Google skills failed me somewhat when I was searching for examples. Nonetheless, all of them concern a grouping whose purpose (or at least name) is somehow, as the following show, triangulated between nonsensical, paradoxical, and quirky —

  • The Tea-Olive Bird-Watching Society
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  • The Master Butchers Singing Club
  • The Buenos Aires Broken Heart Club

— all of which exude an almost pained specificity that, even if it doesn’t explicitly include hyphens, begs silently for them to be added in the mind of the reader. (I would add that, in the case of the second title on that list, hyphens would save it from being parsed as concerning a society that bakes or eats both literary and potato peel pies, rather than one that concerns itself with “literary [things]” and “potato peel pie[s].”)

If it seems obvious that there would be trends in the naming of books, it’s somewhat less obvious why — for surely not all of these were altered by the publishers, but were voluntarily named by their authors. If it is a case as simple as the now chronic appendage of the lowercase “i” to the beginning of tech products — a case of hoped-for high sales simply by association with a single best seller — it’s an explanation that is simple in itself, but somewhat more complex and not at all heartening in the explanations for which our specific examples seem to beg. For in the first, we seem to be reverting to a way of referring to women by their relations to (almost certainly) male characters; and I would point out, too, that this is a reversion to, really, pre-novelistic schemes of reference, since novels featuring female characters were previously named, primarily, by eponymous means (Jane Eyre, Pamela), and secondarily, either by a place name (Bleak House, Wuthering Heights) or more abstractly (Sense & Sensibility, The Wings of the Dove) — never by that character’s relation to a male.

And in the case of the books which fall under my meta-title of The Eccentric Conflagration, I can only suggest that the frantic specificity of their titles lies in stark contrast to the realities of a nation in which people cannot seem to gather for anything other than the most officially sanctioned, banally celebratory functions. If their titles are any indication, it seems that these books contain a myth of a non-internet world so packed with clubs and societies that there is room for niches and sub-niches. But isn’t the whole idea of a common naming scheme for popular literature mythological in nature? Doesn’t it appeal to a sort of folk consciousness of some unarticulated desire?

The park in the morning

June 17, 2008

The park in the morning is a line of aged men, alone in large sedans or mid-size SUVs, encircling the pond. The park in the morning is the liturgical procession of their synthetic blend polo shirts. Or the park in the morning is a formation of newspaper chevrons opened over steering wheels.

Sine qua non coffee makes vapor puffs on windshields, waning when sipped by the aged men who pause to look straight ahead. And when they do, I can look at them more or less with impunity, myself staring at them staring as I walk to work through the park in the morning. They do not look to either side, but content themselves with the view of the vehicle in front of them or the more immediate surroundings of their perpetually tidy automobile interiors; which is to say that they are happy simply knowing that they are in a scenic place, like diplomats who meet in exotic locations only to spend their visits in windowless rooms.

And this interests me, for the park in the morning is a Confucian cruising ground, a space rigorously ruled in its decorum and in its membership, but inviting a certain permeation of those rules — just as people all seem ecstatic when somebody on a subway acknowledges that she’s sharing that space with others and begins talking to them. I know this because I read about it on the internet.

Zombie lit

July 18, 2007

From William H. McNeill’s Venice:

Dositheos’ second great achievement was to give the Orthodox tradition a historical definition. He did this by writing a History of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, published in 1715, eight years after his death.

I have to wonder if his editors got so grumpy (like me) with the fact that McNeill mentions Venice only a very few times in his last chapter that they failed to notice (unlike me) that he slipped in a bizarre instance of posthumous writing. A great achievement indeed!

Mnemonics #1

July 13, 2007

ébranler – to shake or weaken

Who can resist the urge towards puerility when asked to remember a word with “bran” as its middle syllable, especially when it obliges the uvula to heap one syllable on top of its predecessor in so viscous a manner as this word does?

Rest assured, I am not so strong; nor can I forebear to note the certain explosive quality of the accented e, which ushers in the bare fact of a weakening the cause of which is only to be discovered in the musing, elongated phonemes that follow – the phonemes, of course, where “bran” is found. The accented e – which, in being set apart from the rest of the word by the distinctness it commands in the face of the muffled remainder by means of whose contorted efflorescences one sound heaves sickly into another, allows the word to contain its own meaning by obliging one to perform, first, an enervating coup, then a muddled reaction so far back in the throat that it may as well be abdominal – bears an accent aigu, which, in starting just above that vowel and rising, illustrates a movement precisely opposite to the lost buoyancy of the weakening’s object.

The result of the negation affected by the rising accent aigu and the sudden enfeeblement of the object is a kind of stasis which I choose to interpret not as a conflict with the active sense of the word, but as a recapitulation of the weakened state where decisive action in one direction or another is rendered impossible.

A journal of my infancy

July 10, 2007

An ancillary yet durable fear – my personality’s gallbladder, let’s call it – is that I will somehow forget the whole of the English language. To fixate on a single, temporarily-forgotten word whose connotation matches your thoughts as well as possible, or to describe that word, wringing your own entrails to divine its first letter or its number of syllables: these are ordinary experiences enough, but to forget the entirety of the only language you speak is nothing short of horror. To forget English would, for me, mean being reduced to my partial knowledge of German and French, plus a considerable amount of impotent gesturing; and because I love words, love to swaddle the most recondite members of our lexicon, the idea of having the English language, whose nuances I have worked so hard not simply to know but to render part of myself, snatched from me is enough to make me shudder, however unlikely it may be that the thought could come true.

Which is all as much to say that, yes, at this point I am shamefully monolingual and that I presently feel the weight of this dependency, this rigidity or this American middle class sine qua non, as something more akin to a pain than an itch. I feel not simply annoyed, but virtually disabled by the fact that I’ve somehow failed to grow fluent in another language in the 25 years of opportunity I’ve had; or as if that failure is itself somehow a stigma not on my facility with language (of which I’ve frankly never had cause to regard as anything but exceptional), but on my intellectual history, as if it were to prove that the arabesques into which I take such pleasure in shaping the English language belie not curiosity with the possibilities of language but an unshakable laziness with respect to content.

But let me be easy on myself, for I’m working hard to teach myself French, am taking advantage of as many resources as my embarrassment of the difficulty with which that language issues from me allows; but at the same time, I am motivated primarily by a spite the object of which is the torpid manner I’ve heretofore used in approaching language; a spite the object of which, in short, is myself. That an easy, forgiving attitude towards my past mistakes — even the objection, tempting because there’s an undeniable truth there, that dwelling on the mistakes of an unchangeable past is fruitless — becomes obviously counterproductive in light of my motivations.

But that the whole of this process has had a decisively negative tinge to it with respect to my own laziness or my past objections doesn’t adequately describe the principle frustration which I’ve confronted in a steadily increasing degree as I approach the end of the textbook: that is, how absolutely infantile my command over the language is. To simply not know a language is, in that respect, less frustrating than to know it partially; to use words in a way that feels like coughing up inflatable furniture is much worse than the resigned placidity of someone who can’t speak the language at all.

It’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t known for my facility with English; but to have to face again that unremembered time is a much more difficult feat than simply disciplining myself to study everyday.

A bilious confection

July 4, 2007

My respect for academia was stricken with yet another blow yesterday when I received news that a colleague, the impression of whose mental flaccidity and ability to sully the pages of any text with his blindly-flung bullshit has not received any abatement since I first met him, has accepted a tenure track position at a well-respected university. Nor is he the only colleague who seeks the Good Life in a close, oral inspection of our faculty’s collective ass – only the most recent to have purchased some success through his osculant efforts. Some of them even seem to go about this as a sort of Pokemon game, hunting down and conversationally cornering the professors who most resist their sycophancy.

The Ecstasy of the iPhone

July 2, 2007