Sunday, August 20, 2017

Public Service Announcement

Some practical advice for eclipse-watchers, from Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Lal & Mike Waterson: The Scarecrow

A beautiful, melancholy song with a sinister twist of child sacrifice in the third verse, "The Scarecrow" first appeared on an LP called Bright Phoebus in 1972. The artists, siblings Lal and Mike Waterson, were one half of the popular English folk quartet the Watersons, who were known for their a cappella renditions of carols and other traditional songs, but the LP, which featured original compositions and instrumental accompaniment, was poorly received at the time and has been largely unavailable since. It has now been remastered and released in the UK by Domino Records.

At least one of the other songs on Bright Phoebus ("Child among the Weeds") is said to have been prompted by the stillbirth of one of Lal Waterson's twins. The third verse of "The Scarecrow," however, was reportedly Mike Waterson's contribution.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

On Rayuela

Every novel is philosophical, in that it consciously or (more usually) unconsciously embodies a theory of being. We know that this is true because novels are, by definition, fictive, that is, false. The rules by which a novel elaborates its false world (the "true" one being, in all likelihood, unknowable in any case) constitute its theory of how things are.

Interesting novels embody interesting theories of being, banal ones banal theories. Rayuela, as an antinovel, is antiphilosophical; it questions (by first thoroughly exploring) the very possibility of understanding, the possibility that any theory of being capable of expression in words (and how would it be a theory if it were not?), could ever be valid or even meaningful. Language is seen as self-refuting by nature. The real nature of being — if such a thing even exists — is irredeemably contaminated by the act of referring to it. A lemon may be adequately named by the word "lemon," at least for utilitarian purposes, but "love" (to choose just one example) is an idea whose referent is fatally entangled with its linguistic sign. To grasp what love is without taking into account how it has been named would require us to revert to a prelinguistic state. Such a project would, naturally, be self-defeating.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Purpose of Things

Guy Davenport, on family expeditions to gather arrowheads, when he was a child:
What lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things – earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem never to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoutly in its midst, aromatic stands of rabbit tobacco, beggar’s lice, lizards, the inevitable mute snake, always just leaving as you come upon him, hawks, buzzards, abandoned orchards rich in apples, peaches or plums...

I learned from a whole childhood of looking in fields how the purpose of things ought perhaps to remain invisible, no more than half known. People who know exactly what they are doing seem to me to miss the vital part of any doing. My family, praises be unto the gods, never inspected anything that we enjoyed doing; criticism was strictly for adversities, and not very much for them. Consequently I spent my childhood drawing, building things, writing, reading, playing, dreaming out loud, without the least comment from anybody. I learned later that I was thought not quite bright, for the patterns I discovered for myself were not things with nearby models. When I went off to college it was with no purpose whatsoever: no calling in view, no profession, no ambition...

I know that my sense of place, of occasion, even of doing anything at all, was shaped by those afternoons. It took a while for me to realize that people can grow up without being taught to see, to search surfaces for all the details, to check out a whole landscape for what it has to offer. My father became so good at spotting arrowheads that on roads with likely gullies he would find them from the car. Or give a commentary on what we might pick up were we to stop: "A nice spearhead back there by a maypop, but with the tip broken off."

And it is all folded away in an irrevocable past. Most of our fields are now the bottom of a vast lake. Farmers now post their land and fence it with barbed wire. Arrowhead collecting has become something of a minor hobby, and shops for the tourist trade make them in a back room and sell them to people from New Jersey. Everything is like that nowadays. I cherish those afternoons, knowing that I will never understand all that they taught me.
"Finding," in Antaeus 29.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Coming Attractions

What I'll be reading this Fall: Mike Wallace's Greater Gotham, the long-awaited sequel to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, the definitive history of the city that Wallace (no relation to the CBS correspondent) co-wrote with Edwin G. Burrows and published in 1999. Though slated to be slightly shorter than the first installment (which ran, with index, to nearly 1,400 pages), this follow-up covers a span of a mere twenty-one years — which, as it happens, corresponds fairly exactly to the period in the city's history that interests me most. Good news, even if it does leave one wondering when — if ever — the third installment will appear. A release date of September or October is projected for this one.

Also on the horizon: Harry Mathews's last novel, The Solitary Twin, is scheduled to be published by New Directions in March 2018.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

In Color (Spencer Holst)

"On moonless nights he walks over the oozy bog in snowshoes taking time exposures in color of luminous mushrooms. It is the police chief's son." — Spencer Holst