Friday, December 12, 2003


Our friend T. in New York City just sent us a letter about The Book of the Prick. This surprised us, as we had been thinking of the review of that book ever since we read it in the December 8th New Yorker. The reviewer was the biographer of Colette, Judith Thurman, and she expressed a common prejudice in her review:

�Cazzo is the vulgar Italian word for the male organ, hence the title, whose "closest English rendering," Moulton writes, "is probably 'cockery'-but that is too close to 'cookery.' . . . 'Prickery' might work, but it lacks the specificity of the Italian word. In English, 'prick' is a word with many meanings; in Italian, 'cazzo' can mean only one thing. In the text, I have translated 'cazzo' as 'cock,' but 'Book of the Cock' sounds like it might have something to do with poultry, so for the working English title, I settled on 'Book of the Prick.' " Anglo-Saxon sexual slang, however, has a much harsher impact on the ear than its mellifluous Romance counterpart, and equivalent terms don't carry the same charge. The percussive monosyllables and/or double final consonants of cock, balls, shit, dick, buttocks, jerk-off, prick, cunt, and fuck have a blunt, expletive force that isn't rendered by (and betrays the puckish delicacy of) cazzo, potta, culo, fica, scopare, merda, coglioni, and cacca. The verbs incazzare and inculare, especially used reflexively, are certainly rude, but hardly so heavy-handed as "to take it up the ass." It's the difference, perhaps, between Ariel's nimble tongue and Caliban's thick one.�

This is an old college wife�s tale, one that we have all heard. Yes, English is devoid of the subtlety vis-�-vis ars amore, especially in comparison with those French and Italians. This clumsiness � Caliban at the bat, so to speak � is, according to Ms. Thurmon, all in our velars. Instead of the harem like slither and insinuation of the sibilant, English vulgarities come right at you like the most vulgar of car salesmen drunkenly serenading a stripper jumping out of a cake.

Ourselves, we doubt the puckish delicacy of cacca is lost in the steaming pile of shit it becomes in English. In fact, lately � doubting much -- we�ve certainly doubted the whole sexual divide that notoriously mirrors the English channel.

Let�s take the yeoman �fuck,� which is, in its way, a general stripping off of the overalls. Is it really so �heavy-handed,� or is it that our squeamishness has found an intellectual excuse, a compromise between the responsibility of fuck and the Puritanism endemic to certain parts of our culture? We�ve been reading a biography of Robert Burns, and the one striking thing about Burns is how willing he was to strip off the overalls � there�s fuck all over his letters and poetry. In fact, if you compare him to almost any of the 19th century French poets � the ones who lifted the seal, so to speak � he comes off surprisingly well. Here�s Nine Inches will please a lady:

Come rede me dame, come tell me, dame,
My dame come tell me truly,
What length o' graith, when weel ca'd hame,
Will sair a woman duly?

The carlin clew her wanton tail,
Her wanton tail sae ready -
I learn'd a sang in Annandale,
Nine inch will please a lady.

But for a like mine,
In sooth, we're nae sae gentle;
We'll take tway thumb-bread to the nine,
And tha's a sonsy pintle;

O leeze me on my Charlie lad,
I'll ne'er forget my Charlie!
Tway roarin handfu's and a daud,
He nidge't it in fu' rarely.

But weary fa' the laithron doup
And may it ne'er ken thrivin!
It's no the length that maks me loup,
But it's the double drivin.-

Come nidge me, Tam, come nidge me Tam,
Come nidge me o'er the nyvel!
Come lowse and lug your battering ram,
And thrash him at my gyvel!

What, we wonder, would Thurmon make of the double drivin' of Burns� �souncy pentle�?

This, remember, comes from a very hardcore Presbyterian culture. But one, perhaps significantly, that is still very gaelic. We suspect that the erotic lacuna in our literature after the eighteenth century owes more to the class system and less to the percussive sound of �dick,� as opposed to, say, the lilting sound of �cul�.

By the way, Walt Whitman wrote a very nice essay on Burns -- of course, it was on the nineteenth century's Burns, for whom there was no such a poem as Nine Inches, not to speak of the rest of Burns' smut. Still, Whitman saw what was interesting about Burns as a koontrie cunt:

His brightest hit is his use of the Scotch patois, so full of terms flavor'd like wild fruits or berries. Then I should make an allowance to Burns which cannot be made for any other poet. Curiously even the frequent crudeness, haste, deficiencies, (flatness and puerilities by no means absent) prove upon the whole not out of keeping in any comprehensive collection of his works, heroically printed, "following copy," every piece, every line according to originals. Other poets might tremble for such boldness, such rawness. In "this odd-kind chiel" such points hardly mar the rest. Not only are they in consonance with the underlying spirit of the pieces, but complete the full abandon and veracity of the farm-fields and the home-brew'd flavor of the Scotch vernacular. (Is there not often something in the very neglect, unfinish, careless nudity, slovenly hiatus, coming from intrinsic genius, and not "put on," that secretly pleases the soul more than the wrought and rewrought polish of the most perfect verse?)

Sunday, December 07, 2003


LI�s readers should check out Umberto Eco�s essay on the fate of books at al Ahram, an Egyptian weekly. The re-commencement of the Library of Alexandria (a silly, theme park project, in LI�s view � what was burned in 600 is good and gone, and by no Humpty Dumpty tricks are we going to piece that civilization back together again) is the occasion for Eco�s meandering meditation on the meaning of texts, and the chances for their survival as texts in the age of the Net. He begins with a marvelous classification of memory: organic, mineral, and vegetal:

�WE HAVE THREE TYPES OF MEMORY. The first one is organic, which is the memory made of flesh and blood and the one administrated by our brain. The second is mineral, and in this sense mankind has known two kinds of mineral memory: millennia ago, this was the memory represented by clay tablets and obelisks, pretty well known in this country, on which people carved their texts. However, this second type is also the electronic memory of today's computers, based upon silicon. We have also known another kind of memory, the vegetal one, the one represented by the first papyruses, again well known in this country, and then on books, made of paper. Let me disregard the fact that at a certain moment the vellum of the first codices were of an organic origin, and the fact that the first paper was made with rugs and not with wood. Let me speak for the sake of simplicity of vegetal memory in order to designate books.�

This is marvelous but, we think, conceptually dubious, for two reasons: one is that these memories do seem to interpenetrate into one another, the mineral crystallizing in our nervous systems, the vegetal being interwoven with chemical synthetics, and the whole system being subordinate to function rather than substance, which is where the real distinction lies. Of course, there�s an Aristotelian echo here: he postulated three souls: the vegetal, the rational, and the animal. A long dead classification, but not completely bogus. The superstition that the human body is conducted by the brain as an orchestra of automatons might be conducted by a conductor with numerous switches ignores such anomalies as the immune system, which is certainly net plugged into some cerebral oversoul, and might well be considered separate souled. But I digress�

From LI�s painfully Derridean point of view, the second problem with Eco's memories is with the very idea that a text is a memory. Of course, a defender of Eco might say that memory is a metaphor. But a little Derridean delving would reveal that the metaphor is deeply implicated both in the way we conceptualize memory and the way we conceptualize writing. Eco recapitulates the gesture of the Pharmakon of Plato, going back to the Greeks (in fact, back to the story in the Phaedrus to which Eco, later in his essay, explicitly refers). It is under the sign of myth that the definitional contract is sealed. Yet that seal doesn't hold in practice. I hold a book in my hand, say Deity and Dirt, the biography of Robert Burns that I am currently reading. I have read fifty pages. I have not read page 62. Is page 62 somehow part of my potential memory? Is page 62 part of some general consciousnesses memory � l�esprit du bibliotheque, or Uber-Seele, or some such thing? What, then, is it a memory of? The obvious answer would seem to be that the book �remembers� Robert Burns. But this is a memory without a subject � insofar as the biographer doesn�t claim to �remember� Robert Burns, but to report on his life, and interpret it according to the norms of biography. There are books � called memoirs � that claim to be written out memories, but they are a small subset of books. They pose their own problems. However, that they have become paradigmatic for he way we think about texts is interesting � in this sense, autobiography, not poetry, is at the center of the literary cosmos.

The claim that a text is a memory is part of a larger ideological program, one in which literature is the �memory� of a culture, while memory becomes the written, the code, and eventually the essence. We recognize this as the old White Mythology� it is, in general, what we call liberalism. Memory works in this ideology to displace an older ideology, I think � in which literature is merely a tool of redemption, and the memory of a culture is taken care of by the Creator. Of course, my story, there, is way too simple. But there is some part of it that seems valid. The debased reverence that is given to books might have something to do with traces of this older religious framework.

Eco�s does make a more solid distinction later on in the essay, between books that exist to be referred to and books that exist to be read � between the dictionary and the detective story, to use his examples. I might, at some later time, comment on what he has to say about the story in the book.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...