The gentle Turgenev (and one of our masters, surely

The gentle Turgenev (and one of our masters, surely, if we love this arrogantly modest art), writing about Fathers and Children—writing about himself—said: ‘Only the chosen few are able to transmit to posterity not only the content but also the form of their thoughts, and views, their personality, which, generally speaking, is of no concern to the masses.’ The form. That is what the long search is for; because form, as Aristotle has instructed us, the soul itself, the life in any thing, and of any immortal thing the whole. It is the B in being. The chosen few … the happy few … that little band of brothers … Well, the chosen cannot choose themselves, however they connive at it.

—William H. Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (preface).

—not a mensch among them— from Middle C, by William H. Gass

When young and full of fellow feeling, Professor Joseph Skizzen has been tormented by the thought that the human race (which he naïvely believed was made up of great composers, a few harmless lecherous painters, maybe a mathematician or a scientist, a salon of writers, all aiming at higher things however they otherwise carried on) … that such an ennobled species might not prosper, indeed, might not survive in any serious way—symphonies sinking like torpedoed ships, murals spray-canned out of sight, statues toppled, books burned, plays updated by posturing directors; but not, older, wiser—more jaundiced, it’s true—he worried that it might (now that he saw that the human world was packed with politicians who could not even spell “scruple”; now that he saw that it was crammed with commercial types who adored only American money; now that he saw how it had been overrun by religious stupefiers, mountebanks, charlatans, obfuscators, and other dedicated misleaders, as well as corrupt professionals of all kinds—ten o’clocks scholars, malpracticing doctors, bribed judges, sleepy deans, callous munitions makers and their pompous generals, pedophilic priests, but probably not pet lovers, not aborists, not gardeners—but Puritans, squeezers, and other assholes, ladies bountiful, ladies easy, shoppers diligent, lobbyists greedy, Eagle Scouts, racist cops, loan sharks, backbiters, gun runners, spies, Judases, philistines, vulgarians, dumbbells, dolts, louts, jerks, jocks, creeps, yokels, cretins, simps, pipsqueaks—not a mensch among them—nebbechs, scolds, schlemiels, schnorrers, schnooks, schmucks, schlumps, dummkopfs, potato heads, klutzes, not to omit pushers, bigots, born-again Bible bangers, users, conmen, ass kissers, Casanovas, pimps, thieves and their sort, rapists and their kind, murderers and their ilk—the pugnacious, the miserly, the envious, the litigatious, the avaricious, the gluttonous, the lubricious, the jealous, the profligate, the gossipacious, the indifferent, the bored), well, now that he saw it had been so infested, he worried that the race might … might what? … the whole lot might sail on through the floods of their own blood like a proud ship and parade out of the new Noah’s ark in the required pairs—for breeding, one of each sex—sportscasters, programmers, promoters, polluters, stockbrokers, bankers, bodybuilders, busty models, show hosts, stamp and coin collectors, crooners, glamour girls, addicts, gamblers, shirkers, solicitors, opportunists, insatiable developers, arrogant agents, fudging accountants, yellow journalists, ambulance chasers and shysters of every sleazy pursuit, CEOs at the head of a whole column of white-collar crooks, psychiatrists, osteopaths, snake oilers, hucksters, fawners, fans of funerals, fortune-tellers and other prognosticators, road warriors, chieftains, Klansmen, Shriners, men and women of any cloth and any holy order—at every step moister of cunt and stiffer of cock than any cock or cunt before them, even back when the world was new, now saved and saved with spunk enough to couple and restock the pop … the pop … the goddamn population.

Middle C, by William H. Gass

That romantic disease, originality—from The Recognitions, by William Gaddis

“That romantic disease, originality, all around we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original … Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your way. When you paint you try not to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates … you do not invent shapes, you know them, auswendig wissen Sie, by heart …”

—The Recognitions, by William Gaddis.

our first sign of the presence of a master’s hand—from The Recognitions, by William Gaddis

The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string. The buttons down the front of those duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy’s ingenious drear deception, of coated cardboard. After many launderings they persisted as a row of gray stumps posted along the gaping portals of his fly. Though a boutonnière sometimes appeared through some vacancy in his shirt-front, its petals, too, proved to be of paper, and he looked like the kind of man who scrapes foam from the top of a glass of beer with the spine of a dirty comb, and cleans his nails at table with the tines of his salad fork, which things, indeed, he did. He diagnosed Camilla’s difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin. That was the morning.

The Recognitions, by William Gaddis.

From William H. Gass’s introduction to The Recognitions, by William Gaddis

Because there is plenty to listen to here; because we must always listen to the language; it is our first sign of the presence of a master’s hand; and when we do that, when we listen, it is because we have first pronounced the words and performed the text, so when we listen we hear, hear ourselves singing the saying, and now we are real readers, we are participating in the making, we are moving the tune along the line, because no one who loves literature can follow these motions, these sentences, half sentences, of William Gaddis, very far without halting and holding up their arms and outcrying hallelujah there is something good in this gosh awful god empty world.

—William H. Gass, introduction to Dalkey Archive edition of The Recognitions, by William Gaddis.

It’s always a projection back into the past

“It’s always a projection back into the past, the idea that there was a single moment when you decided to become a writer, or the idea that a writer is in a position to know how or why she became a writer, if it makes sense to think of it as a decision at all, but that’s why the question can be interesting, because it’s a way of asking a writer to write the fiction of her origins, of asking the poet to sing the song of the origins of song, which is one of the poet’s oldest tasks. The first poet in English whose name is known learned the art of song in a dream: Bede says that a god appeared to Caedmon and told him to sing ‘the beginning of created things.’ So while I assume I was asked to talk about how I became a writer with the idea that my experience might be of some practical use to the students here, I’m afraid I have nothing to offer in that regard. But I can tell you how, from my current vantage, I have constructed the fiction about the origins of my writing, such as it is.

—Ben Lerner, 10:04

Use of a noun as a verb creates measurable surge in reader’s brain

Emily Dickinson was an avid reader of Shakespeare and took similar liberties with English grammar, as when she coins ‘perfectness’ to convey a uniqueness too intractable for standard ‘perfection.’ In that poem on the impossibility of objective perception (‘Perception and Object costs’) she transforms the passive voice of the verb ‘is situated’ into an ungrammatical active form, ‘situates.’ Each transformation has its rationale. ‘Situates’, like ‘perfectness’, conveys a wilful distance from definition—a disruptive energy crucial to her art. It turns the noun to a verb. Research on Shakespeare’s grammar, in particular his use of a noun as a verb (say, ‘foots it’ for dance), has demonstrated a measurable surge in the brain of his reader or audience. This research is still at an early stage, but one idea is that nouns and verbs may be processed in different regions of our brains, which means that when the usual connection is challenged a new pathway opens up. A ‘surge’ in the brain registers on an electro-encephalogram one six-hundreth of a second after we hear a novelty of transformed grammar.

This surge is said to be a kind of syncopation. In jazz, the jolt of syncopation interrupts the glide of musical pathways. This rhythm, as vital to jazz as to Dickinson’s start-stop lines, has made her appealing to composers, from John Adam’s Harmonium with its marvellously objective choral treatment of ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, to pop stars who adapt her lines. The British pop star Pete Doherty, interviewed on his release from prison in 2006, owned to selling a copy of Dickinson from his Bedford school (as well as a copy of Crime and Punishment from Her Majesty’s Prison library).

‘Actually, I nicked one or two of [Dickinson’s] lines,’ he whispered, sipping a Guinness in London’s Boogaloo bar. ‘Aargh, she’s outrageous man! She’s fuckin’ hardcore! Can’t ignore her.’

What did he pinch?

‘I took one Draught of Life, paid only the market price,’ he quoted. ‘I added, “now I’m estranged”.’ He delivered each word with a point in the air, like an invisible karaoke ball. ‘Bom bom bom bom bom bom.’ He saw his present-day life—estranged, imprisoned, finding solace in words—in what Dickinson had to tell of her time in 1862:

I took one Draught of Life—

I’ll tell you what I paid—

Precisely an existence—

The market price, they said…

Curiously, Doherty expresses a Dickinsonian aversion to public eyes. To perform in public is a nightmare, like war, ‘but to sit down and write in solitude is like a dream.’

Lives Like Loaded Guns, Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon.

A plastic palimpsest: Judge Woolsey’s judgement on Ulysses

James_Joyce_Time_magazineJoyce has attempted—it seems to me, with astonishing success—to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on , not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.

In may places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers … when such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middles class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?

—Judge Woolsey, The United States of America v. One Book Called “Ulysses.”

It’s strange to think of it now, but the Post Office Department was a major federal law enforcement agency

It’s strange to think of it now, but the Post Office Department was a major federal law enforcement agency. On the eve of World War I, the FBI (then called the Bureau of Investigation) was a fledgling subsidiary of the Justice Department. When the Espionage Act was signed in 1917, there were only three hundred Bureau of Investigation agents, and the Secret Service had only eleven counterespionage agents in New York. But the Post Office (an executive branch department in those days) was well established. It had 300,000 employees, including 422 inspectors and 56,000 postmasters overseeing the circulation of fourteen billion pieces of mail every year. The Post Office reached the far corners of the country, and it had been that way for decades. Long before there were highways and telephones there were postal roads and mail couriers. Small towns had post offices before they had cemeteries.

So when the United States entered World War I and the government wanted to censor dangerous words with a nationwide mechanism that had a long history of constitutional authority, it turned to the Post Office. The government gained the power to censor words by mastering the ability to circulate them, and warfare—the other foundation of big government— justified more censorship. This was how the government found James Joyce. The censorship of Ulysses began not because vigilantes were searching for pornography but because censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists.

The growth of the federal government is largely the story of the growth of the Post Office, and a powerful Post Office was the cornerstone of the U.S. censorship regime. Since its establishment in 1782, the Post Office had a legal monopoly over mail circulation, but the government didn’t exercise that power until 1844, when Congress declared that the system’s purpose was “elevating our people in the scale of civilization and bringing them together in patriotic affection.”Out of a diverse population sprawling across the continent, the mail would make Americans. The policy began a half-century expansion during which the Post Office build roads, slashed postage rates and stiffened penalties for private carriers violating the government’s monopoly. From 1845 to 1890, mail volume increased one hundred times over.

The Post Office garnered most of its strength by slashing postal rates. In 1844, it charged twenty-five cents to carry a letter four hundred miles, and if the letter had two sheets, the postage doubled (envelopes counted as another sheet). Seven years later, that same letter could be delivered nearly across the continent for only three cents. Newspapers and magazines enjoyed reduced rates since before the days of Ben Franklin, and yet periodical postage also plummeted. By 1879, newspapers and magazines were grouped as “second-class mail” and delivered anywhere for two cents per pound. If the recipient lived in the same county as the sender, delivery was free. Rates didn’t hit rock bottom until 1885, when periodicals were delivered anywhere in the country for one cent per pound, and it remained that way until 1918.

World War I dramatically expanded postage censorship. Postmaster General Albert Burleson claimed the Espionage Act gave him the authority to judge mailed material without court approval or congressional oversight. When Congress asked Burleson to disclose his surveillance instructions to the nation’s postmasters, he simply refused. The Post Office decided who broke the law, who deserved the rate increases or outright bans and deserved criminal prosecution. Burleson was a man to be reckoned with. He wore a black coat to match the black umbrella he carried at all times, and one of the president’s advisers called him “the most belligerent member of the cabinet,” which was saying a lot in 1918. He once complained about a socialist newspaper’s “insidious attempt to keep within the letter of the law.”

The most dangerous book: the battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham (pp 109-110) (The Penguin Press, 2014).

Trained hawks have a peculiar ability to conjure history

Trained hawks have a peculiar ability to conjure history because they are in a sense immortal. While individual hawks of different species die, the species themselves remain unchanged. There are no breeds or varieties, because hawks were never domesticated. The birds we fly today are identical to those of five thousand years ago. Civilizations rise and fall, but the hawks stay the same. This gives falconry birds the ability to feel like relics from the distant past. You take a hawk onto your fist. You imagine the falconer of the past doing the same. It is hard not to feel it is the same hawk.

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald