Monday, 17 October 2005

Geological Weirdsma; or, When This Floor's A-Swayin', We Best Start A-Prayin' [Pithy Prefatory Remarks: Lots of people read Kos. More read Instapundit. I've already replaced the wheel on that counter twelve times this weekend.] Six years in California acclimates you. There I sit at the desk pictured left (albeit in its embarrassinly cluttered mid-quarter state) when all of the books I've added to the piles you see start to sway. My mind invariably turns first to the prospect of cats wrestling where cats ought not be wresting. Then I turn to the bed and see all four cats, ears perked, tales interrogative, seeking the source of this sudden shaking and it occurs to me that I'm experiencing what the natives call an "earth quake." Everything slows down. Things sway slowly and ignoring the unverisal impulse to survive I shout "I think the earth itself protests!" The wife shouts back her quick concur and the next thing you know we're staring at each other from opposite ends of the hall thinking the same thought: Is this someone else's The Big One? It isn't. (Not today at least.) But in honor of the small one located 49 miles SSE of San Clemente Island, I present the following quotations from John McPhee's magisterial Annals of the Former World: As we could plainly see from the interstate, the rock now residing in that striped mountainside had once been brutally shoved around—shoved, not pulled, and with such force that a large part of it had been tipped up more than ninety degrees, to and well beyond the vertical. Overturned. Such violence can happen on an epic scale. There is an entire nation in Europe that is upside down. (50) The declivity was by no means sheer, just steep—a steepness, I judged, that would have caused the vehicle, had it slipped off the road, to go end over end enveloped in flame at a hundred yards a bounce. (106) On the striated pavement of Algeria lies the till of polar glaciers. there are tropical atolls in Canada, tropical limestones in Siberia, tropical limestones in Antarctica. (115) Certain English geologists produced confusion by embracing continental drift and then drawing up narratives and maps that showed continents moving all over the earth with respect to a fixed and undriftable England. (118) The swelling up of mountains was described as an orogeny. Ontogeny, phylogenry, orogeny—accent syllable two. The Antler Orogeny, the Avalonian Orogeny, the Taconic, Acadian, Alleghenian Orogenies. the Laramide orogeny. The center of the United States had had a dull geologic history—nothing much being accumulated, nothing much being eroded away. It was just sitting there conservatively. The east had once been radical—had been unstable, reformist, revolutionary, in the paleozoic pulses of three or four orogenies. Now, for the last hundred and fifty million years, the east had been stable and conservative. The far-out stuff was in the far west of the country—wild, weirdsma, with its welded tuffs and Franciscan melange (internally deformed, complex beyond analysis). (32) And that, children, is why we stand in doorways when we feel the...
When the Heart Beats, Bruise It; or Part the Second of an Interminable Series on Evaluative Criticism The responses to my initial offering cloud (through no fault but my own) the issue more than I'd already managed to: Rich reaches for the universal, Luther points to the particular and Stephen goes Goebbels. To my tired eyes, I think the strongest account mashes their three incommensurable ones into a single incoherent whole: the particular qualities of a literary text woo the reader into thinking in familiar enough terms while simultaneously challenging those same terms which render them communicable. What are those terms? Why does every evaluative critic consider Shakespeare an achievement and the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders beneath consideration? Because both accomplish what they intend to accomplish: Shakespeare produced entertaining comedies and tragedies of value commensurate with that of his sources and the DSM-IV's multiaxial analytic guides mental health professionals through the biological, psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, interpersonal and familial contexts responsible for mental disease, defect or disorder. The Shakespearian corpus, however, need not correspond to reality as must the DSM-IV. This obvious but essential difference pays immediate dividends for my argument (whatever it will turn out to be) because it dispenses with the need for the creative work to refer in any empirical sense to the world. Call this "the First Fuzziness." (More fuzziness, intentionally or otherwise, will no doubt follow.) Unburdened of the need to be referential, the work of literature can address whatever world it wants in whatever manner it sees fit. A work which addresses neither a recognizable world nor recognizable human relations will either be entirely unintelligible as an act of communication (think post electro-shock therapy Artaud) or a highly suggestive but never specific or entirely effective simulation. A book like Finnegans Wake has one foot squarely planted on both sides of this unintelligibility border, but one foot remains (albeit barely) within human ken. It challenges the human ability to produce and understand language without ever exceeding it. Here Luther's "stupid rhetorical question" becomes critical: if the critic wants to mirror the sciences, then a work like the Wake interests as a technical achievement made possible by contingent circumstances at a particular historical moment in a particular neurobiological environment; if the critic wants to parrot the arts, then a work like the Wake becomes an occasion to produce criticism in the style of the Wake (or at the very least informed by it). I think this dilemma has horns too wide for human arms. To grab one requires the other be released. This decision seems unreasonable because literary scholars imagine, by professional proxy if not personally, that the line between the two exists for one reason and one reason only: for people like literary scholars to toe. What we need then is a governing system we all feel free to violate the moment its restraints chafe more than usual. But we need the system and the restraints and the chafing for the show to whiz-bang. Now keep in mind that I'm ignoring the entire history of aesthetics here so that...

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