Tuesday, January 25, 2005

"Dirty Dream #2 (Slight Return)" b/w "Under the Sign of Sontag (8)"

Two dreams I came across in my notes (please note, there is a parental advisory issued for dream #1):

1. 9/19/04: A modernist cube of a prep-school library, chocolate-colored brick more than glass. Near a commissary, a somewhat elderly attendant was intoning some sort of greeting/advisory that sounded more like a Sphinxian riddle, and was (also) in fact a passage from *Macbeth*, for which it was possible he was rehearsing. I passed by this part of the building several times. The books I was drawn to were shelved in the corner, at the top of a rather family-home-style set of stairs. The information on the shelves was tantalizing, if somehow inaccurate, promising (e.g.) books by/on Russell Hoban, Edgar Rice Burroughs; those books seemed to be somewhere else, an instance of inventory outpacing signage. The books before me seemed to keep changing. I was thrilled (moreso than I might be in real life) however to see mass-market paperback thrillers, some of which might have been real. I believe there were some James Bond books (written post–Ian Fleming). I repaired to the lavatory to urinate several times (hence hearing the lines “from” Macbeth) before my body, taking the hint, awoke.

Dream of 10/23-4, 2004: I gave an impromptu talk for some houseguests, whose number included Susan Sontag. It seemed to go on for hours—the talk, the dream—and I was utterly charming.

Monday, January 24, 2005

California Screamin'

I have no idea what that title means, but perhaps we'll find out. Am finally back in New York after over a week in California, where the temperature was consistently in the 70s and occasionally the 80s. I had a moment of gloating, or something, when I heard about the blizzard and chilly conditions hitting NYC and the Northeast in general. Not gloating: Let's call it "vacation luck," those moments when where you are is nicer than where you've come from.

When our flight on Saturday was canceled, though, I was yearning for New York. Enough of this balmy California paradise—there's nothing to do out here. JetBlue (which I love, normally) had us on the runway for over an hour, finally, regrettably saying that conditions at JFK had deteriorated and there was no way we'd be able to land; when they told us the earliest flight we could have was on Tuesday, I wondered how we were going to fill the time. I had seen enough birds. We had played enough tennis. We went for a walk on the same trail from the other day, saw the same cormorant. If you didn't focus too much, you could look at the tile-topped roofs of units in the various gated communities and pretend you were in Tuscany. Then you had to look straight and keep walking.

I'm from Buffalo, I thought. I belong in wild weather. I am a creature of snow. The nothing that is not there and the nothing that is, and all that Wallace Stevens stuff. Give me dazzling storms—enough of this false summer!

We flew back on Delta today (Monday), about which all I'll say is: Don't ever fly Delta.

Cabbing it home, I made low-level marveling noises at the snowscape. But then when I went out to get some milk, I found myself saying: "This weather sucks!"

My one accomplishment while being stranded on the tarmac at JFK today (after touching down, our plane didn't get to a gate for over two hours—unwelcome visions of this flashed through my head) was finishing Michelle de Kretser's novel The Hamilton Case. Set in Sri Lanka, the book got off to such a wonderful start—but then dispensed with its engaging unreliable narrator, lawyer Sam Obeysekere, and translated the bulk of the action into the third person. It was backstory city; the murder mystery that was highlighted in the first part was almost completely obscured. Much of the writing was quite beautiful, and de Kretser can do a list of flora and finery like no one else. But there was perhaps one infant death too many, and the emotions didn't register in this distanced voice. By the time the book got back to the "case" in the title, I had lost interest in it, and the alternate solutions offered were wearying. Much attention was drawn to the act of storytelling itself—not a dull topic normally, but one that pales in comparison to just plain vigorous indelible storytelling (i.e., what de Kretser was so impressively accomplishing early on).

I was reminded of Ian McEwan's Atonement, a book I liked, but which I liked markedly less at the end than at the beginning. I don't want to invoke the M word (meta) here—I don't think these writers' agendas are violently postmodern. But whereas some writers in that reality's-a-shiftin' mode are entertaining and provocative because that's what they're all about, McEwan's and de Kretser's novels are a bit diminished by their creators foray into narrative carpet-pulling. In other words, they start out so strong that you want them to keep on being strong, rather than to resort to marginally curious reframings of the central drama.

Or was it that their beginnings were too good somehow that they needed to abandon, disfigure, escape them? Like someone leaving California for a climate 50 degrees harsher.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

In praise of coots

Stranded in California! Have finished Home Land and The Maltese Falcon and am halfway through The Hamilton Case -- all of these are excellent. Last night I picked up Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows, an essay of about 40 pages, and read it straight through. I first heard of it while reading the terrific In Praise of Blandness (about the sublime "bland" element in Chinese thought and aesthetics) last year; I'd also read In Praise of Slowness, a disappointing treatise-cum-self-help-book on how we should slow down and savor life. Is there a copy of In Praise of Folly somewhere in this house?

Remember the dream I had where I walked on water? Feeding bread and assorted non-bread leftovers to the birds at the manmade pond, I noticed that coots actually manage to Jesus-strut in dramatic fashion. Their strange feet are apparently adapted for this purpose. I have not seen coots flying, and wonder if they are, like hens, more or less flightless (in terms of being able to propel themselves through the air).

Your friend,
Charles Darwin

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Maltese falcons, Californian coots

California! Dizziness has abated, as it does on trips. The weather's beautiful. We walked by the ocean and saw a frog, the inside of a computer, and someone hunting for buried treasure using a metal detector. The sky is blue and at night you can see the stars. The sky also sometimes has a thin brown line of smog, like some atmospheric skidmark.

We brought these books with us:
1. Sam Lipsyte, Home Land
2. Frederick Prokosch, The Asiatics
3. Michelle de Kretser, The Hamilton Case
4. Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

and we might read this one: 5. Ryu Murakami, Coin Locker Babies.

Yesterday we spotted a roadside eatery, Dizz's As Is.

Sitting on the patio yesterday, I was startled by a hummingbird. It moved like an insect. By a manmade lake I saw dozens of coots--black, hensized, with white beaks and odd, aspidistra-looking feet. Some of them have beads on their foreheads--a vestigial "third eye"/pituitary gland? Does it indicate a gender?

Mysterious stuff, Dizzyheads.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Under the Sign of Sontag (7)

I just stumbled upon this in the Oxford Book of Prose (OBP) notebook, a small, spiralbound affair, the covers culled from an edition of the Oxford Book of Prose, the front endpaper cryptically illustrated with the sillhouette of a hula dancer:

"I'm a genius! I want to dispute sentence structure with Susan Sontag!!"
—Zippy the Pinhead

Too late, alas—

"The Fact-Checker in My Head" b/w "Precipitation Compilation" (7" mono mix)

Woke from a dream in which I was at a wedding in Florida . . . friends from childhood . . . mysterious women . . . for some reason I was walking on water. No one seemed too excited.

Before I opened my eyes, I heard the rain falling and the hiss of car tires on the wet road outside. I was wrapped up like a mummy.

I got up and poured some coffee and walked slowly to the computer, with this lyric running through my head:

"Rain is bound to fall/It's April after all"

(from Ron Sexsmith's "April After All").

Then I said to myself: But it's not April!

When it rains and I'm out and about, I play the "Rain" mix I made on my iPod. Aside from the aforementioned Sexsmith song, the precipitation compilation includes:
"A Foggy Day," Frank Sinatra
"Buckets of Rain," Bob Dylan
"Downpour," The Figments
"Fixing a Hole," The Beatles
"Hello Rain," The Softies
"I See the Rain," The Marmalades ("Stay indoors/while it pours/till tomorrow...")
"It's Raining Today," Scott Walker
"Prayers for Rain," The Cure
"Rain," The Beatles
"Rain" (7" mono mix), The Beatles
"Shelter From the Storm," Bob Dylan
"To Turn You On," Roxy Music ("Is it raining in New York...?")

There was a time last year when it rained so much that I began to get slightly sick of the playlist—so I added songs that were about the sea, water in general. Titles in this category include the Velvets' "Ocean," Joao Gilberto's "Waters of March" (but it's not March!), The Thrills "'Til the Tide Creeps In," and The Byrds' "You Don't Miss Your Water."

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Top 10 Blog Names

Snap these up quick! May be used in conjunction (or substituted with) top 10 cat's-cradle maneuvers (below):

1. Days of Being Wild
2. Hotel du Lac
3. What You Waitin' For?
4. The Curious Sofa
5. The Rachel Papers
6. Miserable Miracle
7. Strada-who?-vius
8. Jeremy's Iron
9. Wide Right
10. No Goal

It has been brought to our attention that the last two entries, significant to sports fans of the Western New York region, have been mashed up into something called widerightnogoal.blogspot.com.

Oh Henry!

"I liked this idea. Yes, but what an appalling quantity of 'I's and 'me's."
—Stendhal, The Life of Henry Brulard

Harping on

If you're like me, you have trouble moving about the house because you're always bringing a book to the next room—and if you bring one book, why not two, why not five? (And hey—why not bring two novels, a section of the newspaper, and a magazine *every morning* for the commute? You never know—*you might get bored in the middle of one book and need to switch to another*!)

I'm immobilized by choice.

Last night, I needed the equivalent of a literary apéritif around 1:30—I knew I should be getting to sleep, but part of the ritual is reading a chapter or two before groping for the light switch and nodding off. And it's good to have about a half a dozen books on the nightstand because *what if I get bored* on the way to trying to get to sleep?

With a glint of self-awareness, I decided to only bring one book to bed—and decided it should be one I might actually finish before slumber overtook me. And the title?

Edward Gorey's THE UNSTRUNG HARP! This agreeable little—novella? story? graphic whosit?—has more prose than the usual Gorey book, and it just might be the most enjoyable writing-about-writing (and drawing-about-writing) I know. (The subtitle is *Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel.*)

It contains, among other things, one of the most delightful lists in (why not say it?) literature, as C.F. Earbrass communes with a general feeling of post-publication bleakness:


* * * * *

In other favorite-book news: Donna Tartt gives props to Charles Portis's TRUE GRIT in her introduction to a new UK reprint. It appears as an essay in the Guardian.

I too have found it to be a book for the whole family—my parents and sister have all read and enjoyed it.

Blogging: Essential development in the history of communication (Exhibit A)

The other day I had an *amazing* grapefruit!

Friday, January 07, 2005

'Chinese Whispers'

I came across a Borges quote in the Blue Commonplace Book, which I thought would make a fitting epigraph to a piece written four years ago, on Edward Payson Vining (mentioned in an earlier posting).

Unfortunately, the link won't work (the Voice's archives are tough to access this week), so I reproduce the whole piece below. The only new material is the Borges quote, which I've added right under the title/date. Italics have dropped out, though I've indicated title italics using asterisks. The original footnote symbol toward the end has been amplified to a double asterisk.

Lately the word *error* has been hypnotizing me—from *errorem* a wandering, a going astray. Is my favorite writing an indulgence of error?

A sequel or complement to this piece, which I hope my friend Hua Hsu will write, would look at later literature along these lines, particularly Henriette Mertz's PALE INK and Nancy Yaw Davis's THE ZUNI ENIGMA, as well as the work of the Smithsonian's Betty Meggers.

* * *

Chinese Whispers
Edward Payson Vining's Art of Error
(from The Village Voice, January 17–23, 2001)

"I would not be surprised if my history of the legend turned out to be legendary, formed of substantial truth and accidental errors." —Borges, "Forms of a Legend"

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue: So runs the New World catechism. But some doubted his primacy even then. Oviedo relates the "romantic story" of a Spanish caravel that blew off course, making landfall on the future Indies. The mortally ill crew returned months later, and the pilot revealed the location to his friend Columbus before rather conveniently dying.

Such revisionism may be unconscious flattery: America is so great, so stunningly singular, that it needs to be discovered not once but eternally. The first foreigner is ever changing, his proponents holding up artifacts or rethinking twice-told tales, map in hand. He was of course Leif Ericsson. For Welsh-wishers, he was Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd and he reached Alabama. He came from Carthage, he was a Phoenician, he left strange mounds in Michigan.

He was a monk named Hwui Shan or Hoei-shin or Hui-shên and he came not from the east but the west.

* * *

In 499, then, Hwui Shan, a Buddhist missionary originally from Afghanistan, arrived at last in China. He told of having sailed to four lands lying east, and dilated on the third, called Fusang. Here grew many "fu-sang" trees, from which the inhabitants derived food, clothing, paper (they had the art of writing), and toponym. They knew nothing of war and did not value gold. Hwui Shan noted, among other things, the changing colors of the royal wardrobe, two prisons (for serious and light offenses), courtship and mourning rituals, and titles of nobility. Most curious, though, was the information that he and four fellow mendicants introduced Buddhism to the people of Fusang in 458.

Well over a thousand years separated the bonze's tale from its staunchest advocate, Edward Payson Vining. The monk's account surfaced in the seventh-century Liang dynasty annals, wherein the transcribing prince proceeded to lampoon it, to the amusement of his friends. By the time the historian Ma Twan-lin included it in his Antiquarian Researches (1321), it had shaded into mere fancy.

So the discovery of America required discovering. While researching his book on the Western Tartars, the French sinologue M. de Guignes came across the Fusang story, and in 1761 identified the country as Mexico. Continental scholars weighed in on either side. The geographer to George III applied the label "Fou-sang" to what is now Vancouver; the Prussian Orientalist M.J. Klaproth thought Japan more likely; the physician of the Russian legation in Peking attacked the botanical evidence, and somehow ended by placing the country in decidedly unfloral Siberia. Nearly a century later, the story found a transatlantic vector in the polymath and wit Charles Godfrey Leland, then a young Princeton graduate studying at Heidelberg, where he heard Carl Friedrich Neumann lecture on the topic. In 1847, Leland urged his stateside brother to find a publisher for his translation, perhaps a touch hastily ("Some words . . . puzzle me, but you can easily correct them, and if you can't, let them go, don't give it an excuse for not getting it published, let it rather go, faults and all"); nevertheless, three years passed before it appeared in *Knickerbocker Magazine*.

* * *

Amplified into an 1875 book, Leland's *Fusang* caught the attention of Edward Payson Vining, general freight manager of the Union Pacific Railroad. He had a reputation for driving hard, even unscrupulous bargains with rival and lesser train pools; according to a Chicago agent, he was "so despised here that not one of the RR men want any further business relations with him." But on the printed page, his inflexibility turned into an elastic curiosity, amenable to radical hypotheses—which he then pursued to their logical ends. In *The Mystery of Hamlet* (1881), he fingered the dithering Dane as a woman pretending to be a man for reasons of state—a theory that found favor with the American actor Edwin Booth (brother of Lincoln's assassin) and shaped Danish actress Asta Nielsen's 1920 screen version. (If his take is no longer much invoked, his ghost must be satisfied with an appearance in *Ulysses*, ch. IX.)

Somewhere between brushing up his Saxo Grammaticus and adjusting rates on eastbound tea transport, he found time to compose his Fusang exegesis, *An Inglorious Columbus*, which appeared in 1885. (The adjective here means "obscure"—a description of Hwui Shan rather than a poke at Columbus.) If it were fiction, it would be Nabokov's *Pale Fire*, spun out to the length of a couple of *Ada*s: From the 746 Chinese characters of Ma's text, Vining extrapolated a book of over 800 crammed octavo pages. Where the locus classicus is brief, almost elliptical, the commentary obsessively collates and rationalizes, approaching in density a state of pure information.

It is a fascinating book; it is also nearly unreadable. After a thumbnail history of Buddhism, Vining relinquishes a third of the tome to his precursors (from de Guignes on), reproducing most of their arguments in toto. Each version repeats part or whole of the essential story, then attacks or defends certain aspects, responding to other glosses—thus leaving the reader with another substrain of repetition. (One may recall, uncharitably, the "never-ending series of transmigrations" that Prince Siddhartha set out to escape in the first place.) The cento culminates in a 38-page chart, looking something like a timetable. Each verso gives a section of the Chinese original, while the recto stacks eight translations, one atop the other. Skilled in many languages, Vining alas had no Chinese. This did not stop him from providing the final version.

The vertiginous scheme illustrates Vining's contention that centuries of error and approximation have obscured the truth of Hwui Shan's description. He saw words as archaeological sites, their pasts reposing in every stroke and diphthong. Thus he intimates slips of the redactor's brush (for the agave's "barbed" leaves, someone may have read "copper," distorting the fu-sang plant into a mulberry "tree"); thus he fills pages in an attempt to equate Fu-sang-kwoh (kwoh=country) with Mexico, not just geographically but phonetically. After asserting that the latter's xi was originally sounded shi, he lists possible historical variants for the Chinese syllables in question, basing some of his conclusions on sinotized Sanskrit. Judicious patching gets him to "Ve-shi-co," where he might deservedly rest his pen—except for the fact that "one language is mentioned by Buschmann as closely connected with the Mexican, which substituted V for the Mexican M, and which would therefore pronounce 'Me-shi-co' as 'Ve-shi-co.' "

One more example must suffice. Inspecting the full panoply of definitions for quetzal and coatl, Vining deduces that the name of the chief Toltec/Aztec deity does not mean "plumed serpent" but "honored guest." Quetzalcoatl was no myth, but Hwui Shan himself.

* * *

It was said that Hwui Shan brought back as proof a stone mirror of marvelous efficacy; we reflect that Columbus, after all, was seeking China. The two voyages—dubious from the west, indisputable from the east—configure a rough palindrome. The next notion is as natural as it is absurd. Count Gobineau declared that the "peuples jaunes" had come from America; Hubert Howe Bancroft, in his magisterial work on the native races of the Pacific coast (1883), allowed: "It is true, the Old World may have been originally peopled from the New. . . . " We might read as metaphor a Smithsonian report of 1872 (quoted by Leland) that attempts to find Asiatic roots for the Dakota tongue: "[T]he people who speak those languages would begin sentences . . . where we end ours, so that our thoughts would really appear in their minds as inverted."

* * *

Vining penned his preface in Chicago on March 3, 1885. In December of that year, he addressed the New York Shakespeare Society on "Time in the Play of Hamlet." Hewing to the text, he refuted the notion that the tragedy was evocatively laissez-faire in the matter of dramatic time and instead pointed to a rigorous chronology (A: two months). "We may safely conclude," Vining said, "that whenever faults appear to us to exist in his work, they are much more likely to lie in our own carelessness and ignorance than in any imperfection in the poet." Hwui Shan's story was similarly blameless; only over many years, by the agency of countless hands, did its points get misconstrued and exaggerated, the way a sentence resolves into nonsense during a game of Telephone. The monk, like the Bard, could do no wrong.

In 1886 Yale awarded Vining an honorary M.A.; he also published a book on freight classification (perhaps a more divisive issue than it sounds, given his professional reputation). In later years, his philological articles appeared in the millenarian *Watchword and Truth*. For the final book of his diverse if scant oeuvre, *Israel: Or Jacob's New Name* (1908), his canvas is smaller than ever: Genesis 32:28, or indeed just the word "Israel," or indeed just the middle syllable, cognate of the verb "SaR"—the true etymology of which, as divined by Vining, establishes the veracity of the Pentateuch. But however supple his learning, his rhetoric often turns acid, as he inveighs against "modern 'higher' criticism" and "adherents of German infidelity."

On the last day of 1920, Vining suffered a fatal stroke. The *New York Times* obituary noted his biblical and Shakespearean scholarship, though not his labors on behalf of a neglected Buddhist priest; it gave his birthplace as "Reichertown, Mass." But in 1943, *Who Was Who in America* bestowed the honor to "Belchertown, Mass." Both seem feasible as American town names; which is correct? The R is now a B, the i an l. Had the paper of record erred? Vining would have savored the confusion (though one wonders how he felt when Leland, in his 1893 Memoirs, approvingly cited "the truly great work of Vinton"). A day cold, and already the sort of corruption that he claimed had compromised the Chinese account was at work on his own memory.** [footnote]

Infidelity adhered. Nothing he wrote proved his point so well as his death.


**My notes include a 1902 dismissal of *An Inglorious Columbus* ("the term Fu-Sang is not mysterious, but uniformly is applied to Saghalin"), by one Edward G. Bovine; I suspect the name is Bowne. Leland misrememoirs de Guignes's name as Desguignes. Heidelberg's catalog for 1846 lists a "Carl Leland of America as being a studiosus philosophiae," but no Charles.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Snow country

Two ravens stitch a black line between bits of snow. Their love dance, like mine, is a picture of vertigo. The air shakes, then drops and hardens. Snowflakes make dizzying, vaulting leaps. Pine winds bunch needles into whisks for tea, brooms for sweeping away confusion.
—Gretel Ehrlich, "Prelude: A Winter Solstice Blizzard"

Monday, January 03, 2005

How to write a screenplay

Here's an exchange from my screen adaptation of The Dizzies. Can you say, à la Rilo Kiley, "It's a Hit"?

[They enter the generator room.]
TRUNG: You know what I always say. "Ut vertigine correptis videntur omnia moveri, omnia iis falsa sunt, quum error in ipsorum cerebro sit..."
MAX: Yes, but—

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Two by Powell

Two quotes, Dizzyheads, from the journals of Anthony Powell (1990-1992):

"We talked of Faulkner, regarding whom I feel I must hold some coherent opinion before I die, rather than saying: Well, I quite liked *Sanctuary*, but have never really been able to get on with any of the other ones."

and (this one closes the volume)—

"Last day of what I would not dissent from HM the Queen's view in calling a 'horrible year'. 'Envy and calumny and hate and paint' cover it pretty well. I realize more than ever how much I depend on V. and on the rest of my family."

I wonder if I mistranscribed that word "paint"—"pain" must be right. But paint somehow works with "cover," so there you have it.

Dots in the universe

See the muted colored dots speckling the screen of this your favorite blog? They are the duller cousins of the circular confetti that still swirls around Times Square. (Square fans, take heart: there were also some four-sided confettos.) Walking up from 32nd Street (after my traditional Korean new year's meal of dukk mandoo kuk) through the still impressively thronged TS this afternoon, I spotted an orange circle in the gutter and assumed it was a carrot slice. A block later, dots and squares of all colors could be seen on the pavement and—even better—swirling high in the sky. One was dropping vertically, as if it had been falling, Zeno-like, since midnight. Then a gust of wind picked it up and sent it south.

Dot dot dot . . .

All the way in the West 80s, I spotted a New Year's dot doing its little Ashlee Simpsonic jig in the brisk twilight air.

Incidentally, I'm reading Lucy Ellmann's novel Dot in the Universe.

OK, you Dizzyheads. Here's to a happy 2005.

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