“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, November 15, 2012

rivers and Adam

Sometimes, after Adam is full to the brim with milk and formula, I sweep him back to me and let him lounge on my chest, his feet hanging off one side of me, his head cradled in the crook of my arm on the other side, and I let him sigh, nestle, burb and burble there. At these times, I think of Adam as a little Huck Finn on his raft. It is a strained association, and yet, to me, an irresistible one. Perhaps it is that he is so small against me, perhaps it is that he is so contented – the analogy to Huck, being pulled by a gigantic force beyond his reckoning, while looking up after his stew at a night sky full of riddles and of vast extent,  at the still point in his flight from his father to territories unknown, conversing with Jim – well, the analogy makes sense to me, and it is why I jump from this image I have so clearly in my mind to  Adam, here, pulled in his own way by gigantic forces, too, the irresistible growth of the body that flows, too, forward, carrying brain, limb, heart, as relentless as a river heading South. And as vulnerable to the blows of life as any boy on a raft in the midst of a mile wide river. I see Adam’s tininess and how he is incredibly bereft of any way of coping with the world of adults, and that he it doesn’t concern him. He still trustingly sprawls across me, making those sucking motions with his mouth between yawns and shutting his eyes (and me on the lookout for the one sure sign of impending sleep, the balled up fists) – this sense of him in the play of giant forces of course floods me with a mixed sense of anxiety (knowing that my fuckups from now on out won’t just weigh primarily on me) and gratitude (to be entrusted with such utter vulnerability somehow must mean, or so my deluded feelings say, that I am  a trustable person).
Of course, Adam has never seen a river, never set eyes on the stars at night or the moon. He hasn’t perhaps even properly seen me or A, as his eyes are not yet operating at that level. Even if he could see, with Paris’ sullen weather and these chill evenings, he isn’t going outside to gaze at the cosmos. Myself, it wasn’t until I was a boy – seven or eight – that I really started dreaming of rivers. The nightly bath was the Amazon. The stream in the woods near our house was the Mississippi. However, I was a suburban Atlanta kid, and never ever imagined the Seine – which will, to my everlasting astonishment, be Adam’s first river. His second will be the Chattahoochee… just so he doesn’t get the idea that a river is always such a civilized thing, so easily spanned by old bridges, so tame, but a thing that is still of the New World, can flood, can carry uprooted trees and flooded houses down with it, and will not be taken for granted by God, babe, or the Corps of Engineers.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

on taste

Gracian’s first book to acquire a European reputation was The Hero. It was translated into English in the seventeenth century, and into French in the early 18th century by a translator who remarked on Gracian’s resemblance to La Bruyere. A book with such a title, one might expect, is an essay on heroes that one finds in history or literature. But this isn’t so – the book is in a sense a how to book about how to become a hero, or great man. Gracian worked in the field of worldly wisdom – his distant heirs now retail banalities about “leadership science”. The heirs are writing for an audience of essentially uneducated businessmen, and are often as lacking in education themselves, and make up for this last point by being ardent collectors of the inspirational sayings of the famous. Context, of course, isn’t the point – leadership disdains context, which is full of obstacles and other people’s objections, and marches proudly into war, or a higher ROI, with the conviction that the long term will simply be taken up with collecting various sayings of the leadership that did it, to inspire others, and will pay no attention to the blood and guts on the field, the fired help, the long term disasters born out of intoxicating short term gains.
Leadership, in other words, is a royal screwing.
But we can’t blame Gracian for this sad state of affairs, since he was evidently intent on giving advice on how to become a universal man (suitably Catholicized). One of the properties of the hero that Gracian promoted was what his English 17th century translator called “gusto” – evidently, taste had not yet grown out of its vulgar accountrements of tongue and appetite at this point:
EVery great capacitie is ever hard to be pleased: The Gusto must as well be improv'd as the wit. Both rais'd and improv'd are like Twinns begotten by capacity and coheirs of excellency: Ne|ver sublime wit yet bred a flat or abject Gusto. There are perfections like the sun, others like light. The Eagle makes love to the sun. The poor frozen fly destroyes her self in the flames of a Candle. The height of a Capacity is best taken by the elevation of a Gusto.”

Gracian’s Gusto operates though the logic of praise and dispraise. The taste of the hero is perfect in as much as its praise and its scorn are appropriate to the object – and there’s the rub. There’s a crooked line under the skin of the culture that leads from Gusto to fandom, or from the universal man to the fan. The world of like and dislike – our ultimate buttons – have simplified and rationalized Gusto until it works for anything. Until, I think, it gets in front of everything.

For years, I was a book reviewer. I am not exaggerating when I say I’ve reviewed more than 500 books – mostly in small reviews for Publishers Weekly, but in bigger reviews for various newspapers and mags. And in the course of reviewing, I began to seriously hate like and dislike. It seemed to me that my like and dislike were not really at stake in reviewing a book. True, it was hard to give a “good” review to a book I disliked, and vice versa. Still, I tried to make my reviews struggles with what the books were doing. I tried to make them diagnostic, exploratory, a way of getting a good surgeon’s grasp on the innards of the book. This, I must say, didn’t go down well with editors, who would often send me emails commenting, what did you think of the book? Meaning, did you like it? And usually I had to throw in a few words of praise or dispraise. Mostly, though, I tried to so subordinate the like the like or dislike moment in the review to the more interesting business of, well, thinking of the book, thinking about it, thinking with it, thinking through it.    

Monday, November 12, 2012


There’s an essay by Louis Marin, the French critic, which begins with him discovering a 16th century Venetian book with the marvelous title, Of traps, of their composition and use, which, in the fashion of the humanist epoch, took the metaphorical sense of trap as an argument to organize an investigation not only of those devises by which we catch mice and rabbits, among other varmints, but also by which we catch men, in courtrooms and in power plays, in art and in the street. 
However, I don’t think this book included the first and greatest of all traps: clothing. Just as we don’t really see ourselves as apes, which are an animal whose habitat is behind bars, or in front of a National Geographic film crew, contentedly shrieking and scratching their hairy hides, we don’t see our clothing as a way of trapping our ape’s bodies. Surely, however, they are. When I unbutton Adam to change him (showing a delight in the fact, if it happens, that this time, there is caca, that I would not have believed in myself a year ago – one so fears the mysteries of infant digestion!) and then diaper him up again and encase him in a thin undergarment, and then in his usual pjs, I notice, and he notices, that each snap is the closure of a trap – first his little legs, then the arms, then snap snap snap the stomach and chest. Depending on whether Saturn is in Virgo, or he’s hungry, or he’s not hungry, or he’s bothered by the light, he will kick against this indignity, the way a dog will try to escape from the grasp of a child determined to dress it up in human clothes. If the child is seen by an adult, he or she is scolded – dogs don’t wear clothes! But we, of course, do.
Snap snap. From the adult perspective, the trappiness of infant clothing really comes out in those pjs, which are all too common, which require snapping in the back. Sometimes these are the cutest clothes, but they require that you turn your child around, and this is not welcomed by any infant. So you pick him up, and you wrestle with the snaps as the protests get louder and the neighbors begin to wonder about your parenting skills. Oh well, let them. In fact, fuck them. And you briefly rehearse all the noxious noises that they have produced over time. This is displacing your frustration in a classically neurotic manner, yes, but you don’t care. 
Finally, though, I have all the snaps that I can reach snapped, and my little lapin is trapped, and sometimes we both have to acknowledge that that was, in a way, fun – fun the way a roller coaster is fun. The tears, the screams, the snaps are forgotten, and we are ready once again to live like human beings – the animal that traps itself.