Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mind the Gap

Below is a quote from p. 324 of my edition of Wings of the Dove. For my readers (all two of you...hi Bob, hi Myrna!), I apologize for being as stuck as I have been on Henry James, thereby neglecting all those scintillating articles I'd planned to write on Thousand Island dressing and cribbage. The Wings of the Dove is just so....domineering. Really it's more like a landscape than a novel: I'm hiking it, and I keep stopping to look at this interesting rock, or that noisy streamlet. Plus my view keeps changing every twenty steps or so, so that I can never quite get the full sense of the place.

OK, so interesting rock #346:

"That produced a relation which required a name of its own, an intimacy of consciousness in truth for each- an intimacy of eye, of ear, of general sensibility, of everything but tongue."

I like this quote. It also makes me squirm a little. I think both reactions are rooted in the way the passage points up the gap -sometimes narrow, sometimes wide- between what you think and what you say.

Backing up a little, I once took an introductory linguistics course in which either the professor or the textbook -both were vaguely dusty- kept hammering home the assertion that thoughts and words were distinct. This word/thought separation is the gateway drug for Chomskian linguistics: if your thoughts presage your words, then they're free to be fed into a neat little grammar machine and packaged for display.

For a long time, this assertion irritated me. This was probably because it was so alien to my own experience of consciousness (ugh, I just used the phrase "experience of consciousness." That dies here) which pretty much amounted to a lot of words rattling around in my skull. Over the years, though, I've reconsidered. Just because a thought is couched in words doesn't mean it's not a thought. After all, there's a difference between the sentences in my head and the ones that come out of my mouth.

Anyway, the more I tromp through The Wings of the Dove, the more convinced I am that the heart of the novel beats in that flexible space between what's thought and what's said. No one in James's world says what they mean; all social interaction is an intricate campaign wherein words are marshaled, vetted, and deployed in the service of intention. Moreover, the "intimacy....of everything but tongue" described by James seems to be most characters' social ideal: interaction is considered "beautiful" when full communication is achieved using only a few well-chosen (and often superficially irrelevant) words.

In short, James likes his gap wide. In this, he's atypical for an American. We're a nation, after all, that likes its politicians and cultural leaders straightforward and none too smart. Americans tend to distrust people with large gaps, deeming them calculating, devious, or worse. Small-gap folks, with their more immediate transfer of thought to mouth, are more reassuring.

I have mixed feelings. Although I'm more than a little alarmed at the monstrosity our small-gap bias has wrought in the voting booth, large-gap people do have a tendency to make me nervous. If I'm honest with myself, I'd guess that this is because, as a person with a larger gap than I'd like, I know just how much can fall into the crevice between what you think and what you say. Not that large-gap folks can't be talkers; it's just that there's always room for one or more operations between impulse and act, thought and word. Large gaps mean adulteration, modification, guile.

At the same time, though, there's a tricky beauty to it, some quality that James, with his tongueless intimacy, was trying to describe. You see the crown of the tree but not the roots; the fruit but not the vine. You see only part of something and so you look closer, imagine deeper, think long...trip and fall headfirst over the interesting rock. Ah, well.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Check Please

There was an article in the Style section of the NYT today (hi my name is Anne and I read the Style section before I read the Week in Review) about life lists. Apparently, lots of people like to make checklists of the things they want to accomplish before they die. I confess to occasionally contemplating thinking about starting to begin to make such a list, sometimes partly on alternate Tuesdays.

That I never actually set pen to paper speaks in part to the amazing attention-grabbing power of just about everything else, but also to the fact that life goals are so alarmingly....big. Sure I could inscribe my desire to write a novel or contribute to society or do unmentionable things to Jeff Goldblum (please note that the above sample list should not in any way be construed as remotely resembling my own), but if I do, I've set myself up for a veritable Sophie's Choice. Either I have to expend enormous (and possible futile) effort working toward my goals, or I'm a failure. Just thinking about it makes me tired.

Fortunately, I've repaired to the brainmobile and come up with the following handy solution. I'm going to make a life list, but rather than large, meaningful, sharp-toothed goals, I will select small, amiable goals of the type it would be difficult not to accomplish in the course of oh, say, walking around.

To wit, Anne's life list:

1) Take a nap
2) Eat cheese
3) Eat a number of apricot cream-cheese danishes greater than, but not limited to, three
4) Nap number two
5) Smile at kittens

All in all, I think this should be -barely- manageable. Readers, please keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I embark on this difficult journey.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Split my Infinitive, Captain

I've been trying to cut back on shame lately, so I'll just come right out and confess that between the ages of 12 and 14, I was a huge fan of Star Trek TNG. I think in part this was because TNG's vision of the future is so comforting: humankind really has bettered itself, and people are out there trying to do good. Whereas at 13, my vision of the future pretty much amounted to a vague hope I'd make it out of middle school.

In TNG, everyone HAS made it out of middle school (more or less), and adulthood is one big holodeck. Of course, there are problems. Riker's an ass, for one. Also everyone has to wear spandex. And then there's the borg.

The borg (is? are? The confusion between singularity and plurality was really the point, I think) a hive-mind species that incorporates stray humans into itself. I sort of suspect the borg was supposed to be code for Socialism run amok: they even pilot square grey spaceships, as if to echo Soviet-era design.

But that's neither here nor there. The point is that, although I don't think about the borg very often (the world just seems to be filled with more gripping thing to think about, like cheese), I did today. I was driving around in the mid-sized Midwestern city to which I have to move in two months. It's the kind of city that consists almost entirely of sprawl. One strip mall flows into another strip mall, metastasizing out and out and out until you hit the bulldozers on the edge of town. There are places to work, places to park, and places to buy.

I was watching the traffic inch forward and suddenly I thought: all these people think this is life. The working, the driving, the buying: they think this is life.

Because it is. For the family in the Saturn and the woman in the Ford and the guy picking his nose in the Escalade, every minute of it is real, live, technicolor life. How long before I'll think so, too?

I'm taking bets.

Friday, August 24, 2007


There are some questions I carry around with me all day, kind of like a lumpy purse. There's Why am I so much colder than everyone else all the time? There's Now that Karl Rove has resigned, who's operating Bush's neuroanatomy? And then there's the eternal Celery: why?

Lately, though, my oldies but goodies have been shoved aside to make room for a new and pressing query. Lately all I have the strength to wonder is: What's the point of Susan Stringham?

Susan Stringham, for those of you who don't operate my neuroanatomy, is a peripheral character in Henry James' The Wings of the Dove. (This is a book club, right? I thought this was a book club.) I'm smack in the middle of the novel right now, and the three main characters are, in turn, smack in the middle of their nasty little machinatory muddle. Some of them are busy embodying passivity, some of them are busy embodying activity, and some of them are busy embodying passivity in the service of activity. And in the midst of it all, poor little Susan Stringham, nee Shepard, is busy embodying, as far as I can make out, squat.

Other peripheral characters serve as foils or perform instrumental plot functions. Other peripheral characters -Mrs. Lowder, Lord Mark- have substance, or, at the very least, style. What has Susan got? A one-paragraph, snooze-worthy backstory, a little bit of hand-wringing, a lot of zero.

As a result, she's all I think about. Is James just going to leave her dangling there? Or is she going to be like gasoline: inert until tossed on the fire? I confess I can't see it, but if Susan Stringham does ignite a blaze, I'll be the more delighted for my blindness.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Striped German, Tommy Toe

One of the biggest disappointments of adulthood is that you don't really get to squish anything anymore. You come of age, and suddenly, rather than flattening play-doh, you're supposed to be doing useful things with your hands. Pulling the voting lever and flipping through Hustler are in; societally-sanctioned squishing is out.

That's why I was so excited to see this recipe (blithely poached from Melinda Clark) for pan con tomate (NYT, 8/22).

4 thick slices country-style bread, toasted
1 garlic clove, halved
extra virgin olive oil
coarse sea salt
1 large tomato, halved crosswise

Rub bread with garlic halves. Drizzle slices with oil and sprinkle with salt. Rub tomato cut side down on toasted bread, GENEROUSLY SQUEEZING INSIDES OUT as you go. More salt. Eat.

Okay, so maybe I did some judicious editing. But how often do you get a free pass to generously squeeze the insides out of something? That deserves emphasis! And second helpings. Bye now.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

p. 181

So last night I misread "a permission of which he took, she could feel, both immense and unconscious advantage" as "a persimmon of which he took, she could feel, both immense and unconscious advantage" and was promptly incapacitated with laughter. Sometimes I feel like the universe's cheap date.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


The first thing I did after buying a plane ticket to Europe the summer after my super-senior year in college was to launch my search for the perfect paperback. It needed to be long -I was going to be gone for close to a month- and light -I was only carrying a backpack. It needed to be interesting enough for me to bear reading, but not so riveting that I'd be tempted to hole up in the hostel with it and not actually, well, travel.

I settled on a pocket classics edition of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. And it was, for that trip, exactly right. She was traveling; I was traveling. She was an American in Europe; so was I. The plot proceeded at a stately pace- and so did the trains.

Now I'm reading James again, except this time I'm stationary. James's prose is the same: dense, marvelously circuitous, forever toying with some feeling a fingersbreadth away But I've altered, or at least my physical surroundings have, and there is something about reading peripatetically that's different from reading at home.

Well, you ask, so what?

Let's look at it from another angle. Musicians have long considered not only the work of art itself, but a person's experience of it. That's what's at the root of the vogue for "authentic" performances -that is to say, performances which, for the listener, hew as closely as possible to either a) the intention of the composer or b) the experience of an audience member at the time of composition. (There's a whole delightful war in there, but I'll leave it be.)

Yet, no similar impulse towards "authentic" experience has even been breathed of for reading. This either points up the ridiculousness of the whole "authenticity" enterprise, or raises an interesting set of questions. (Or both.) To what extent is reading a "performance?" Is the reader's role that of performer, audience, or some combination thereof? Did James have a set of "intentions" or expectations for what his readers would experience, and if so, to what extent do they matter? What about the norms (semantic, syntactic, societal) of James's time, and the way these shaped the book's initial readings?

Among the most salient features, for me, of James's writing is its density. The average syntactic complexity of James's constructions is noticeably higher than the average syntactic complexity of the constructions of modern authors. As a modern reader, I'm forced to slow down and pay close attention to the unraveling of every sentence. If I'd grown up reading James and his contemporaries, though, I might breeze through every tangled clause. Instead of slow and dreamlike, James's books might seem sharp and fast-paced.

Then again, maybe not.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Subdivde This

Sometimes I get a lunch break. When I do, I celebrate by scarfing my PB&J (let's hear it for regression!) and setting off for a walk in The Subdivision.

The Subdivision is new. There are large things (houses, lawn sprinklers, SUVs, waistlines) and small things (trees). There are hard things (asphalt, avoiding faux-Greek architecture) and soft things (dogs). Signs proclaiming the virtues of The Subdivision (and directing you to its sales office) outnumber pedestrians three to one.

In honor of the sbudivisory nature of The Subdivision, I hereby and herein subdivide my reactions thereto. (So there.)

1) A Girl's Guide to Desecration

-walk hard and fast
-mock, mercilessly, trees of less than fifteen feet
-dust off the more ridiculous regions of your vocabulary so as to counteract the restricted architectural vocabulary of your surroundings.
-never lead with your garage

2) Q: Why?

A: Fear of neighbors. Fear of not-so-neighbors. Fear of burglars and murders and dogs and disease and connection. Fear of your parents: out here I can do what I want.

3) Apocalypse Tuesday.

Biting into The Subdivision, you get a rush of indignation, followed by the mingled flavors of confusion, stupefaction, and dread. But the taste that lingers on the back of the tongue isn't any of these. It's post-Apocalyptic: empty, wasted, perversely attractive.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Junk Science is Fun

So there's a substantial body of research suggesting that for kids, familiarity with, and exposure to, narrative conventions, especially written narrative conventions, supports literacy in the early elementary years. This is why you see parents propping books in front of their six-month-old blobs. It's also, perhaps, one reason why a child from a home where reading isn't emphasized might have trouble learning to read. And there are Viking longboat-loads of research linking trouble reading to, well, Deep Shit.

So. Early exposure to narrative = good. I'm so comfortable with this conclusion I'm ready to break out the metaphors! Early exposure to narrative is a primer. It's a foundation. It's an inoculation against the ravages of educational failure.

Wait a minute. Inoculation? Inoculation is so terribly medical. Medications have to be used sparingly, under strict parental supervision. That's why there's that handy childproof screw cap I still can't get open. If you overdose on a medication, you could die.

But narrative doesn't come with a screw cap. Once you've got the bottle open, you're free to huff, snort, inject, or knock back as many stories as you choose. Frankly, I've been under the influence since I learned to read. And I don't remember learning to read.

So. Let's blithely ignore, for a moment, the army of narratively underexposed children marching toward poor life outcomes, and ask ourselves this: what happens if, in your formative years, you're narratively OVERexposed?

Every so often, I give this semi-serious (and wholly-guilty) thought. A mental run-down of people I know who started hitting the books early and often suggests some possible consequences, including anxiety about one's life-path (how's my narrative shaping up?), trouble making decisions (which narrative do I choose and why do I only get ONE!?) and a certain dissatisfaction with the non-narrativity of life. I'd wager it's that dissonance- between the narrative skeleton and the mess you're slapping on the bones- that drives the narrative junkie out of her head.

In short, narrative overexposure fucks you up.

That's my hypothesis for the evening, at least. It would be hell to sort out the confounds -SES, IQ, temperament- but I'd love to see the data. Of course, barring random assignment of kids to different reading groups, you'd never know whether narrative fucks you up or if fucked-up kids like narrative. And even if by some miracle you could achieve random assignment, the effect might be a needle buried in a statistical haystack.

But wouldn't it be fun to get your story straight?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007 Believes in Truth So Why Can't I?

Psychotherapists refer to the moment you figure out something about yourself as "insight." According to (a site which, incidentally, appears to labor under the misapprehension that definitions sell car insurance), insight is "an instance of apprehending the true nature of a thing." That's all very delicious and dramatic, but what if your psychological insights are, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid?

For instance, it has taken me until today (that's a solid 26 years of life for those of you who are counting) to come, with a jolt, to the realization that I really, really, really like empty public spaces. University classrooms, government offices, churches, synagogues, monuments, schools, parks. If they're empty, I'm wandering around in them feeling vaguely transcendent.

I was gifted with this epiphany circa 12:15 EST, whilst ambling through the grounds of an elementary school in search of a shady spot to eat my lunch. There were no students- one last day of summer break- and the teachers were indoors decorating feverishly. There were three or four birds, a desolate playground, a strip of scrubby land abutting the highway: beauty. Appalling and real.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Wrong or Left

Among the difficulties -abundant, faintly ridiculous- of having an ethicist for a parent is susceptibility to something I like to call the ethicicity coma. To the definition mobile! Ethicicity is a marvelous word I made up approximately 48 minutes ago. Coma is a state of profound inactivity. An ethicicity coma results when two or more ethical imperatives collide, like weather fronts, and proceed to ravage those defenseless farming communities, your frontal and temporal lobes. Eyes glaze. Mental activity grinds to a halt. You either have to sleep it off or retire to a corner with your drink.

I figure I've gone under three or four times this year and I'm running out of both sleep and liquor. What happens next? Whatever it is, it's going to be fun.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

37; '69

I'm driving a particular stretch of highway with my father and he tells me the story he's told me at least a dozen times before, how he was coming down from the airport, degree in hand, for his first job interview after graduate school. He's driving a rented car, or someone else is driving him, or else he takes the shuttle. What's important is that he's young, a year older than I am now. What's important is that heretofore, his prospective home state has borne out every prejudice he's ever harbored. It is flat; it is anonymous; it is aggressively middle-of-the road.

He comes to a particular stretch of highway. There's a rise, only a gentle one, but the car noses upward and the trees break open and the green spreads, pooling on the shoulder and the verge and the asphalt and the pedals of the rented Chevrolet. My father crests the hill, considers accepting the job.

But we're already past the place where the road does its trick. We're past the story I've heard a dozen times before but could listen to thirteen more. My father accelerates through the wrap-up, barrels out the other end with another story, a new one. It's the kind with no weight, the kind that, if you rested it on your palm, would leave only the slightest of indentations. It is, in fact, the story of a story: two or three years after my father takes the job, his first and last, he goes out to the country to visit a friend of a friend. The man takes my father around his property, points to a spot of boggy ground. And that's where my uncle Hiram tripped, the man says. That's where he lay twitching until they found him.

The man goes on doing that, pointing out a place, pointing out the corresponding place in his personal topography, the one that overlays the ridges and the creek beds and the stretches where the land sags flat. It's a palimpsest, or a groove: layer over layer or touch after touch. He does that until my father leaves, divorces, marries, forgets, comes home.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007


I've been thinking a lot (now's the time to run) about stricture. Specifically stricture in the context of creativity. Yes, creativity encompasses originality, and yes, creativity is in some sense defined by newness. But in order to have originality or newness, you must have a point of comparison or departure: the mossy old penny beside the nice spanking new one, or the ground bass under your variation. (Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence stuff speaks to this in a literary context, if you're interested).

Sooo...stricture (boundary, parameter, stenosis) is creative fuel, driving your generativity, sustaining it, and finally packaging it for attractive display. Of course, it's not that simple. There are, for starters, different kinds of stricture: parameters can range from simple (words need to fit on standard piece of paper) to complex (words need to form cohesive retelling of Beauty and the Beast), from familiar (western tonality) to less familiar (microtonality). They can also be imposed by a variety of internal (Schoenberg's 12-tone rules, for Schoenberg) and external (Schoenberg's 12-tone rules, for Berg) sources. They can be hewn to or they can be subverted. And then there's the problem of mutability: one person's creative impulse (the folia baseline) can become another person's stricture (the folia baseline). Even within a single piece of art -a sonata, say- a contrasting "b" theme can undergo variation. Phew.

But maybe all this variability signifies something. I've consumed a lot of "high art." I've also consumed a lot of "low art." But how do I know what's what? Partly, of course, because people tell me. But then how do they know what's what? I wonder if it doesn't have something to do with stricture. Does a person's perception of art as "low" or "high" vary in accord with the number, type, source, etc. of limiting parameters? Some possible independent variables:

number of parameters
complexity of parameters
familiarity of parameters
obviousness of parameters
degree to which parameters are subverted

You could probably test this, but it would be irritating.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Want Not

I'm beginning to dream about my freezer. The freezer is surprisingly persistent, pursuing me into and out of the troughs of dream-susceptible sleep, hauling its white bulk up hills and alleys and towers and clocks. I can see the black, snaky tail of the cord, hear the small grumbling song it sings to itself at night. Whenever it gets close to me, it opens its mouth.

In other words, I'm moving! And despite superhuman effort, including an entire dinner consisting of blueberry pancakes and bacon, my freezer still contains the following:

One and three-quarters packages of frozen peas
One package of frozen green beans
One eighth of a package of frozen raspberries
One very desultory package of frozen brussels sprouts
Two-thirds of a package of frozen corn
One unopened and never-to-be-opened package of Krazee-Pops (don't ask)
One locally-raised skirt steak (mmmm)
Half a tub of vanilla ice cream
One Boca burger
Two bags containing two slices of bread each
Half a bag of flour of a type I don't like to use (bleached)
One hamburger bun
One plastic baggie of crystallized ginger
One yogurt container of vegetable stock
Two black bananas to make banana bread, which I don't eat
One one-pound bag of persimmon mush

Three days til D-day and I am thoroughly daunted. Persimmon sprout pudding? Vanilla-banana glaze for steak? Help?

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Queen of the World

So I was in the bathroom. Doesn't every good story start this way? So I was in the bathroom, specifically one of the dozen-plus identical bathrooms that honeycomb the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. I'd gone in for the usual reasons and all signs pointed to a quintessential bathroom experience. There was tasteful blue tile. There were empty paper towel dispensers. There were sinks of marginal cleanliness.

And then there was BWV 1030, sonata for flute and obbligato harpsichord by J.S. Bach, performed on period instruments. Yes, folks, the historical performance movement has ascended the throne.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I settled for drying my hands on my pants. Later, though, staggering through the neon bustle of the airport, I couldn't seem to shake the opening bars of the allegro, or, for that matter, the dulcet dribble of the tap. Isn't the early music movement charged with refreshing our ears, with injecting new life into half-dead sonatas, with overturning our expectations? If so, a slot on Top Bathroom Ballads of the Upper Midwest surely constitutes less than complete success.

Then again, early music is settling down nowadays. Performers are worn out with reflexive rebellion and are starting to make noise about simply engaging the ear. What if the early music movement's goal is merely to produce music audiences appreciate? Again I think a bathroom debut spells trouble. How many people are able to eliminate and musically engage at the same time?

Ah, but if we subscribe to the notion of authentic performance? Of recreating music as it was heard in the time of its composer? Well then, my early music brethren, we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. For music has become what it often was in the time of Bach: incidental. Background to liturgy or socializing, political maneuvering or food, but seldom the star of the show.

Don't forget to flush.

Thursday, August 2, 2007


I recently ran across "Bowling Alone," Robert Putnam's book on the unraveling of the American community. (Thesis: we're all steadily disconnecting from one another.) That's all well and good, but Putnam ignores a far more profound question. Never mind whether or not we're bowling alone. Are we bowling enough?

The answer is, without a doubt, no. Enthusiasm for bowling is at a low ebb. People have in large part abandoned the joys of the lanes. And think what they're missing: the subtle discipline of the wind up and release, the satisfying crack of ball against pin, the meditative waiting-for-the-ball-to-come-back. Bowling "strikes" patience and humility into the hearts of men. It "spares" nothing in its insistence on calm control. And most importantly, it restores to the bowler, in these tumultuous times, a sense of his own efficacy. How much of the nation's rage and frustration is ascribable to insufficient bowling?

Take to the lanes; save the world.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Lurve in the Lib

Pain comes in many flavors. There is getting dumped. There is walking nose-first into plate glass. And then there is the particular pain associated with coming across a book in the return slot, liking its look, making yourselves better acquainted, inviting it home with you -only to realize the book needs to go on the holdshelf. For someone else. Ohi me.

In this case the book was "Women and Romance," edited by Susan Weisser. And I managed to read one article, at least, before my amour was snatched away: a critique of late-1970s Harlequin novels by Ann Snitow. Here are the vital stats if you want to read it (and you do):

Snitow, Ann Barr. "Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different." Radical History Review, Summer 1979, v. 20.

This is fascinating stuff: Snitow interprets romance novels as part of a continuing conversation between publishers, readers, and societal constructs of female success. Provokingly, Snitow quotes Lillian Robinson: romance novels are "leisure activities that take the place of art." But my paraphrasing is a poor substitute for the real thing, and besides, what Snitow really got me thinking about is how certain narratives actually become commodities. Women buy millions of romances, but really the narrative skeleton of every salable romance is the same. Each time a woman brings a romance novel to the cash register, she's purchasing a narrative she's likely purchased several times before.

Yet, another aspect of a romance novel's salability is its deviation from the formula. Who wants to read the same book over and over again? Readers crave new names, new details, small subversions of expectation.

This raises the question of what is being purchased, exactly? Is the it the formula? Or is it the interface between actual and ingrained narratives, the dialogue between what should happen, and what does? Are readers actually buying a kind of negative space, a distance or a gap between narrative frame and narrative upholstery, between what is and what has been? Is most of a romance novel incorporeal, located somewhere in the space between page and brain?

God, I need a real job.