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The world’s most difficult books?

[ 146 ] August 7, 2012 |

The Guardian responds to the Million‘s list of the most difficult books, and to be frank, the results are underwhelming. Here is what the Millions managed:

Granted, like all lists, this one is shit. Its flaws include, but aren’t limited to the fact that it has a size fetish, the fictional works are entirely in English, and the philosophical works are philosophical works and so why should they count? I’d scratch Being and Time and The Phenomenology of the Spirit off on that account, and add The Guardian‘s suggested amendments: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But the amended list is still problematic, because I’m not sure anyone finds To The Lighthouse a difficult read, and Women and Men is only difficult inasmuch as it’s been out-of-print for so long a paperback copy will cost you $180. McElroy’s Plus is a far more difficult novel, because it’s narrated from the perspective of an ornery satellite. (And it’ll only run you $187.90.)

Maybe it’s because of my unusual graduate school career path, but of the novels listed only The Making of Americans, Nightwood, Finnegans Wake and Gravity’s Rainbow seem to me to be genuinely difficult novels. Except they’re not really that difficult for the people who read them, because the people who read densely poetic world-building novels do so because enjoy doing so. I know that Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t for everyone, but there’s a subset of the reading population for whom it’s very much for. I’d have no qualms, for example, recommending it to someone who’s obsessed over Infinite Jest.

A better list of the world’s most difficult books would expand its purview to “the world,” and it would be comprised of books that people who love difficult books find difficult, instead of ones that people who don’t do. I’d suggest adding:

  • Appleseed, John Clute
  • Dhalgren, Samuel Delany
  • JR, William Gaddis
  • The Tunnel, William Gass
  • Anything in German or Chinese, Because SEK Can’t Read German or Chinese

My list isn’t exhaustive, either, but at least it suggests that The Glass Bead Game might be tremendously complex or The Man Without Qualities can match Clarissa page-for-page. Since my list is a list and, as stated above, all lists are shit, I invite you to give me the what-for in the comments.

The Sorrows of Young A., Part I

[ 18 ] August 7, 2012 |

[If this strikes you as a peculiar thing to appear on this blog, that’s only because it is. It’s a serialized novel that I’ll be writing over the next few months.]

He remembers the first time it happened. It is his earliest memory. A. had awoken eager to walk along the banks of one of the city’s three rivers—he cannot remember which one—on that morning. He cherished these rare moments to himself, far from the wailing of E., his new brother. His mother insisted he not stray too far from home, but A. knew the area well and that E. would prevent her from following him, so he ranged rather further than he led her to believe.

But on this particular morning, A. felt differently adventurous, so he followed his father to the small walled garden occupied by his family’s honey bees. The bees frightened him, but he thought if he harvested a comb of honey he could prove to his father he was more worthy of attention than E. He hid behind the bushes lining the front wall and waited for his father to leave. It felt like hours before his father tired of his toil, but eventually he exited the small garden through the side gate and made for his favored tavern. A. allowed a few minutes to pass in case his father—who was always forgetting something—had forgotten something. He emerged from the bushes and approached the clay pots that housed the hives.

When the first bee crawled from the nearest pot and took flight, A. felt a strong urge to follow suit. He closed his eyes. He heard the bee circle his head twice, then once more, before he felt it settle on his shoulder. He wondered whether the bee recognized that he was his father’s son and pride shuddered through his young body. The bee had tested him and not found him wanting. His mettle steeled, he opened his eyes and glanced at his shoulder. The tiny bee made no effort to sting him, nor did it seem in any hurry to leave. A. took this as a good omen and stepped closer to the hive from which his new friend had departed.

He reached the hive and peered down into it. His new friend had many old ones. They danced up and down the walls of the honey combs in what A. could discern to be a pattern. He admired the orderliness of their movement, though he could not discover its purpose. Suddenly, he heard a footfall from beyond the wall. It had the character of a sound made by someone trying not to make sound. A. knew it could not be his father, because when his father returned from the tavern his feet made no effort to hide their tread. He waited, as still and silent in the garden as his new friend was upon his shoulder. One minute passed. Two minutes. Three. He decided that he had imagined the sound and returned his attention to the pot before him.

He slipped his hand down the side of the comb and attempted, gently, to dislodge it. His efforts resulted in the arrival of even more new friends. They lit upon his arm but, unlike his first friend, they were not still and silent. They made a noise that sounded like the air before a thunderstorm felt. Their orderly dance had been disrupted and they seemed upset about its abandonment. It was not until his first friend joined the rest of his hive in voicing its displeasure that A. began to worry. And worry he did. He removed his hand from the comb and began to retract it, slowly, slowly, from the pot. His hand was nearly free when he heard the front gate slam open. The bees heard too, but they seemed not to care who had been intruding where, only that an intrusion had occurred. A. felt a thousand tiny needles stab his hand. He reeled back, but the offense had already been given and must have been quite grave because the hive did not relent. He looked to the front gate—if he could make it to the gate he could jump into the river—and only then remembered what had startled the bees in the first place.

A man in a strange black coat stood in the gateway. His hair and complexion were dark, much like A.’s own, but his whiskers were unlike any A. had ever seen. He had something in his hand. The man shouted something that A. could not understand and began to run toward him. A. tried to say something but a bee flew in his mouth. He hoped it was not his friend, but there was no time to mourn.

The man was upon him.

The world went black. The sharp pains in his hand were replaced by deep pains everywhere else. A. desperately clutched at the black but a new pain arrived every second: on his head, in his chest, to his stomach. He felt the ground beneath him go slick. He tried to slip away but the blackness was too strong. The pains continued to arrive for what must have been hours. When the blackness finally drew back, A. found himself staring at a blue sky. The bees were still panicking but appeared to have lost interest in him. His back felt wet and the world smelled of shit and sick. He tried to move but the attempt only brought more pain.

Then the man returned. He leaned over A. and grabbed him by the hair. He shouted another string of words which had no meaning to A. and shook him. A. could no longer judge which of his many pains he was feeling. When the man struck him in the face with the object in his right hand, A. ceased to care. He no longer felt pain—he had become pain. He longed for the blackness to return and, quickly enough, it did.

It was light when he awoke, in his own bed, still very much in pain. Outside the door he could hear his parents arguing, as he would many times again, about what had happened. About why A. had been near the hives and how lucky they were that his father returned when he had. He learned that there had been a confrontation, but that the man had escaped his father, and that they had not been able to find him. A. did not want to think about that. Not now, not ever again.

But think about it he would, again and again, because this was only the first time it happened.

Dear The Media,

[ 140 ] August 6, 2012 |

I understand why you’re reluctant to identify Wade Michael Page as a white supremacist, but I’m an expert in visual rhetoric and I’m here to help you out. Consider the photograph of Page you’re currently using:

There are some subtle clues as to Page’s ideology hidden in this image. First:

That is a Nazi flag. You can tell because it contains a Swastika in a white circle surrounded by a red hem. It is highly unlikely that someone hung it because it means “good luck” in Sanskrit. Also:

The repeating patten on that guitar strap is the Confederate Battle Flag. It reminds white people of those glorious antebellum days when blacks were in their place and no real American had even heard of Muslims. Also:

That is a Celtic cross. It is the most favorite symbol of the good people at Stormfront.org. Also:

That is the number fourteen. It stands for the Fourteen Words most dear to oppressed white men in America today. Those words are “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”

So let me assure you: if you have correctly identified the man in the photograph above, you don’t need to “speculate” as to whether he was a white supremacist. Because there’s no room for speculation. That man in that picture is a white supremacist. Whether his white supremacist beliefs influenced his decision to murder peaceful Sikhs, that may well be a matter for debate. But that man? The one in the picture? He’s a white supremacist.

You’re welcome.

UPDATE: Looks like they finally figured it out. Glad I could be of service.

UPDATE II: Or not. I watched CNN while eating lunch and Jane Velez-Mitchell was horrified to discover that “There’s an entire underground society devoted to promoting hatred of the sort the Sikh gunman is alleged to have felt.” I’m tempted to be a grammar scold and tell her that she could probably phrase it better than “the Sikh gunman,” but they’re clearly having a rough day over there, so I’ll relent.

Why would anyone like someone like us?

[ 72 ] August 4, 2012 |

Because it’s a Saturday and Saturdays are slow around these here parts, I’m going to get a bit personal. I’ve been told that this post about Howard Zinn—which was written by someone clearly more talented than me—is more popular than the post on which my entire Internet Career is predicated. But because the truth matters, I confess before all the assorted masses that this is the post that most people remember me for. (At least according to Sitemeter.) All of which is another way of saying: given that we’re all about Internet Traditions here, what’s the first thing you think about when you think about any of us?

I’m interested to learn, and not just because I’m on the job market or anything.

We should applaud Harry Reid. No, I don’t care what Jon Stewart said, we should.

[ 202 ] August 2, 2012 |

Harry Reid crossed a heretofore unknown Rubicon yesterday when he repeated his claim that Romney might be withholding his tax returns because “[h]e didn’t pay taxes for ten years.” National Review‘s Jim Geraghty pounds Reid with a series of “How likely” questions, the answer to all of which is “Not very.” Jeff Goldstein condemns Reid for “trying to manufacture a news cycle and gin up innuendo [in a manner that's] so transparently hamfisted.” Ed Morrissey demands an ethics investigation for behavior he deems so “despicable and grossly irresponsible … it should be actionable in court.” Nor is it just the far right that considers Reid’s statement to be bad form: even Jon Stewart’s upset with him. In their own way, each of these folks fails to realize that Reid’s probably laughing at them.

He’s made two statements that demonstrate tactical savvy, because he knows we live in a country where National Review writers and professional charity cases have been not-so-idly discussing evidence of kerning on birth certificates. He’s heard the soft denunciations of birthers by self-styled “serious” thinkers who just want to remind their readers that it’s patriotic to question the validity of state-issued birth certificates. He realizes that saying he has third-hand knowledge of an alleged tax impropriety means that people will be hearing that there are allegations that Romney’s tax returns may not be kosher. Do you know what I think about that?

I like the fact that someone who’s nominally a liberal has finally recognized what conservatives have been doing to Obama for four years now, and I appreciate the fact that he’s choosing to do so about a financial disclosure instead of, for example, whether someone’s really an American or whether they’re a sleeper agent for the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s not Harry Reid’s fault that conservatives have tacitly authorized this particular model of public document-shaming, he’s simply taking advantage of the fact that they have.

Racism? Solved. Sexism? We’re … working on it?

[ 45 ] August 2, 2012 |

In the spirit of this, I present this.

Conservative Minority Outreach Initiative … GO!

[ 36 ] August 2, 2012 |

The mind boggles:

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) delivered his opening statement in Spanish at a hearing on Thursday about an English-only bill proposed by House Republicans.

Republicans at the panel said Conyers’ speech actually supported their point.

“I would ask the gentleman in the interest of fairness here. Would you repeat that in Yiddish and Vietnamese and French, please,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) said after Conyers’ speech.

Because I’m sure Franks would’ve understood him had he made his statement in Kike-speak, Gook-tongue, or Frog-croak. I’m sure all the Hispanic voters Rep. Franks tried to court by not including their language in his ill-born list won’t notice that Rep. Conyers was delivering his statement in Spanish. It saddens me that the campaign against The Aborted Lesbian Walrus may be one of the smarter propositions conservatives forward this week.

Then it makes me really happy.

“Wrigley Co. Uses Bestiality to Sell Skittles”

[ 166 ] August 1, 2012 |

I lack the parodic skills required to improve the title or content of John Nolte’s latest screed. But I’ll try to shorter it anyway:

I used to laugh at loud at the term “slippery slope.”

Then I grew up.

AND WHEN I GREW UP LESBIANS WERE MAKING OUT WITH WALRUSES.

Can you tell which sentence I wrote? Me neither. Did I write this?

If you don’t think there’s an agenda behind this, you haven’t been paying attention the last 40 years. And if you don’t think that there are those who hold the levers of power in our popular culture that would like to remove the stigma from bestiality, you don’t understand the depths of sexual depravity the human animal is capable of.

Or what about this?

Again, what was the point of feminism?  Here’s your real war on women.  Waving enough money in front of an actress and have her do whatever depravities you can dream of.  Liberated?  If by that you mean women are to be accorded no respect and you can expect any female to do anything because to say no would be so uncool. Abortion liberates men because it allows them to walk away.  And if they pay for the abortion then they’re the good guy, taking responsibility.

Parody is dead. Long live actresses who kiss aborted walruses!

… and I support this message.*

[ 16 ] August 1, 2012 |

I’m not sure why conservatives are panicking about the responses of Romney’s spokeperson, Al Swearengen. They seem rote enough to me:

CNN: Governor Romney are you concerned about some of the mishaps of your trip?

AL SWEARENGEN: We’re forming a fucking government, you loopy fucking cunt.

NEW YORK TIMES: Governor Romney, do you have a statement for the Palestinians?

AL SWEARENGEN: You’re the cocksucker. Change the fucking angle.

WASHINGTON POST: What about your gaffes?

AL SWEARENGEN: Get a fucking haircut. Looks like your mother fucked a monkey.

CNN: Governor Romney just a few questions sir, you haven’t taken but three questions on this trip from the press.

AL SWEARENGEN: We’re illegal. Our whole goal is to get presidented to the United fucking States. We start answering questions, what’s to keep the United States fucking Congress from saying, “Oh, excuse us. We didn’t realize you were a fucking sovereign community out there. Where’s your cocksucker’s flag? Where’s your fucking navy, or the like?”

CNN: Would it hurt to let us …

AL SWEARENGEN: …  say you’re a pain in my balls that can’t desist from inquiry till told to shut his fucking mouth?

CNN: I’d rather not any of that.

AL SWEARENGEN: Don’t I yearn for the days when a draw across the throat made fucking resolution. Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair, or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man and give some back. That’s the fucking sum and substance of it.

CNN: So you support—

AL SWEARENGEN: I will profane your fucking remains, CNN.

*I do so love literature.

Walking and talking with Louie and Liz

[ 24 ] July 31, 2012 |

Jim Emerson’s appreciation of Louie captures something I don’t think I quite did in my initial comments about the relationship of form to content in The Dark Knight Rises. The episode, “Daddy’s Girlfriend II,” largely consists of a slow-motion Sorkinian walk-and-talk around New York City. The key features of the typical Sorkinian walk-and-talk are present in the linked clip: the characters approach a camera at a brisk clip and end up in a medium or medium close-up with a shallow focus. The world recedes into blurriness because the emphasis is on the dialogue and the characters’ reaction to it. The blurriness also imparts an unearned importance to the dialogue because it creates the impression that the characters have no time to waste and people with no time to waste are very important people. The viewer knows exactly where to look and how long to be looking there because there are, essentially, only faces in the frames and the one with words departing its mouth is the one to be paying attention to. But whatever narrative momentum the Sorkinian variation provides to what amounts to endless conversations between bureaucrats in the hallways of the Circumlocution Office comes at a high price: boredom.

Sorkin’s shows are exhausting not because of the amount of information his characters breathlessly provide, but because Sorkin leaves his audience with nothing to do. In any given sequence, he indicates exactly where we should be looking and dictates exactly how long our eyes should linger there. Thinking is not required to watch an episode of Sorkin’s shows, and not thinking for forty-two consecutive minutes dulls the wits. Not so with Louie. The stills Emerson pulled from the episode bear this out. Consider this medium shot of Louie and his date, Liz, stopping-and-chatting in front of a pool hall:

Louie02
Note the depth of field. We can clearly see what’s happening behind Louie and Liz, and even though the director, one Louis C.K., wants us to pay attention to the conversation. The movement of the pool players—which occurs, significantly, in the dead center of the screen—threatens distraction throughout the entire conversation. Our attention shifts from the conversation to the pool and back to the conversation and then back to the pool. It makes for uncomfortable viewing because we aren’t entirely sure what we’re supposed to be paying attention to. But it makes for compelling viewing for the same reason: when we don’t know what we’re supposed to be paying attention to, we start scouring the frame for visual cues. As our eyes dart from Louie to Liz to the pool players, unsure of where to find safe harbor, it becomes possible for us to be surprised. Because when we don’t know where to look it becomes possible to not see something coming.

The formal qualities of this stopping-and-chatting sequence create an awkwardness that borders on discomfort, but despite our misgivings we want to keep watching because we have no idea what might happen next. Do you know what that situation happens to be? Identical to the one Louie is experiencing during this conversation. Liz had informed him that him that her name was actually “Tape Recorder,” and as she spins out the story of how her parents named her that Louie is visibly uncomfortable. The medium shot allows us to watch his face as her increasingly improbable tale develops, and what his face tells us is that a mental assessment of Liz is being performed behind it.

In this sequence, then, Louis C.K., the director, replicates the discomfort felt by the characters in his audience via the formal elements of his shot composition. Which, to bring this post full circle, is why the formal incoherence of The Dark Knight enhances the film while a very similar one nearly ruins The Dark Knight Rises.

Only, there’s no such thing as Social Darwinism.

[ 83 ] July 30, 2012 |

Erik’s posts (here and here) on the seemingly Darwinian politics of modern conservativism aren’t wrong about the lilt of these contemporary thinkers, but they do a bit of injustice to the historical ones, because there was no such thing as “Social Darwinism” during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. There was such a thing as William Graham Sumner, and his collected essays bear the title Social Darwinism, but those essays were collected in and published in 1963. The editor of those essays was following the lead established by the historian Richard Hofstadter, whose Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) identified Sumner as the brains behind the social Darwinist movement in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The problem is that there wasn’t a Social Darwinist movement during the Gilded Age or the Progressive Era. I’m not just kicking against the pricks here—as people writing dissertations are wont to do—as will become clear if you ask yourself a simple question:

When was the Modern Synthesis formulated?

The Modern Synthesis, if you don’t know, is the combination of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolutionary theory, and represents the moment when the previously theoretical Darwinian model finally found itself a mechanism of transmission. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was elegant, but prior to the Modern Synthesis scientists lacked a means of proving that it could exist in nature. When was it formulated? Between 1936 and 1942. Why is that significant?

Because prior to the Modern Synthesis there was little consensus as to the driving force behind the development of species. Russian scientists, for example, were working under Lamarckian assumptions about the heritability of acquired characteristics well into the 1960s. (The had an ideological commitment to keeping the Lamarckian faith after the Modern Synthesis, but eventually even they relented.) Point being, during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Darwinian thought wasn’t the dominant strain of evolutionary theory. It lacked the evidence required to back up its elegance, and so its status in the scientific community was as tenuous then as its competitors are now. Vernon Kellogg, then president of Stanford (or not?), wrote a book entitled Darwinism Today (1908) that basically argued that there really wasn’t any. It devoted itself to explicating “the various new theories of species-forming with … names, such as heterogenesis, orthogenesis, metakinesis, geographic isolation, biologic isolation, organic selection, or orthoplasty.” So why do we associate Darwinism with this period?

Because of the Whigs and their history. The aforementioned Hofstadter wrote Social Darwinism in American Thought in 1944 in order to create a bogeyman whose existence would justify the policies of the New Deal. From what Stephen J. Gould called the “maximal diversity” of evoultionary thought during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Hofstadter selected those thinkers whose work contained implications dire enough that politicians in the 1940s could point to them to frighten the masses. Darwinism, as I demonstrated above, wasn’t regnant during the period, much less the social application of it, but Hofstadter had handed New Deal liberals their bogeyman and they weren’t about to give it up.

Ironically, the scientific community bolstered Hofstadter’s claim during the centennial of the Origin in 1959. In a book titled Darwin’s Century, Loren Eiseley and his fellow scientists created a teleological narrative of Darwinism’s development in which all evolutionary thinkers were groping their way towards the Modern Synthesis. Which is ironic because the key insight of Darwinian thought is that development isn’t teleological—that natural selection isn’t based on forethought and doesn’t working according to a plan. Eiseley and his colleagues transformed the development of Darwinian thought into the stuff of Intelligent Design, and when that narrative was welded onto Hofstadter’s, the result was the impression that Darwinism reigned supreme during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

It didn’t. It only seems to have because people have forgotten all the other evolutionary theories that were in play at the time, the most prominent of which was Lamarckian, not Darwinian, prompting prominent medical thinkers (and popular novelists) like Silas Weir Mitchell to declare:

I have sometimes been led to think that over brain-work tends not only to stunt the body and to contract the pelvis, but, by the law of evolution, to develop bigger headed offspring, or at least offspring with heads relatively disproportioned to the pelvis of the mother.

That’s correct. The most prominent neurologist in America opposed educating women because they would become smarter, pass on their larger brains to their children, then die during childbirth. Outside of giraffes, it’s difficult to find a more classic formulation of Lamarckian thought. I could go on for ages—or pages, hundreds of them—but I think I’ve established that “the Social Darwinism movement” is an ahistorical construct designed to justify policies and theories with which I otherwise agree.

Sorry, there’s just no good on it.

[ 33 ] July 29, 2012 |

[It appears the only site that had this available was scuttled in December 2010. I first read a version of this during my BBS days, but as you can tell from DISADVENTURE!, DISADDENDUM!, DISMORALIZED!, DISINSOMNIA!, WHARTON!, GRADING! and DISBELIEF! the form stuck with me. It’s an inspiring tale of nerd from a time when nerdiness lacked its current cultural capital. So without further ado I return to the living Internets the glory that is The Tale of Eric and the Dread Gazebo.]

ED: You see a well groomed garden. In the middle, on a small hill, you see a gazebo.

ERIC: A gazebo? What color is it?

ED: (pauses) It’s white, Eric.

ERIC: How far away is it?

ED: About 50 yards.

ERIC: How big is it?

ED: (pauses) It’s about 30 ft across, 15 ft high, with a pointed top.

ERIC: I use my sword to detect good on it.

ED: It’s not good, Eric. It’s a gazebo.

ERIC: (pauses) I call out to it.

ED: It won’t answer. It’s a gazebo.

ERIC: (pauses) I sheathe my sword and draw my bow and arrows. Does it respond in any way?

ED: No, Eric, it’s a gazebo.

ERIC: I shoot it with my bow. (rolls for hit) What happened?

ED: There is now a gazebo with an arrow sticking out of it.

ERIC: (pauses) Wasn’t it wounded?

ED: OF COURSE NOT. IT’S A GAZEBO.

ERIC: But that was a +3 arrow!

ED: It’s a gazebo, Eric, a GAZEBO. If you really want to try to destroy it, you could try to chop it with an axe, I suppose, or you could try to burn it, but I don’t know why anybody would even try. It’s a FUCKING GAZEBO.

ERIC: I run away.

ED: It’s too late. You’ve awakened the gazebo. It catches you and eats you.

ERIC: (reaching for his die) Maybe I’ll roll up a fire-using mage so I can avenge my Paladin.

[UPDATE: I made a good-faith stupid on the Internets. Traditional awareness and what-all were likely violated. Please forgive me my anti-plagiaristic sins.]