Monday, November 15, 2010


I do not work for the CIA because I am too dumb
And I am not a Mormon
Besides my patriotism is lacking
I wouldn't have passed any of their tests
It's clear I do not work for the CIA

Do I maybe, after all, work for the CIA?
It's hard to believe I do
I begin my day later than them
And teach language at night
CIA people would be analyzing language
Arabic and Urdu and such
Documents of specs in Chinese
But me I teach language
The CIA wouldn't be teaching anything
They'd be writing up reports to answer
Yes or No Yes or No
But me I teach and joke with students
Trying always to play out the Maybe
For as long as possible

I keep to myself and drink scotch
This is very CIA
How long have I been CIA now?

I'm damn good at what I do in fact
My Chinese is better than many a fellow agent's
And my French was once good too
I still get the subjunctive wrong less often than many a Mormon
Who passes me sober in the halls at Langley

I've never been to Langley
There's no way I'm CIA
I'd have cracked under pressure sooner
And told everything I know

Though I've been under immense pressure at times
And have cracked twice or more
I've never quite told everything I know
But it wasn't because I was holding back
Out of patriotism or to protect some asset
But because I didn't quite know how to put it
How to frame it I mean
Everything I know
And sometimes I didn't even know really
That I knew it

This kind of thinking is definitely not CIA
Maybe that's why I'm such a precious asset to them
They wouldn't risk me on any small mission
Translating chatter from Urdu
Instead they coddle me
Keep an eye on my drinking
They've pared me down to one cigar a day
They're encouraging me now to find a new health club
Get back in the shape I was in
When we were winding down the Cold War

In fact I will not find a new health club
I'm tired of this far-flung Asian assignment
I want them to know it too
I'm tired of the metro ride back and forth
The students half of whom are ADHD
I'm waiting for my station chief to finally have enough of me
And drop word that I'd be better off
Somewhere with more action
Berlin or Rome
Nice would be nice
But I'd settle for Damascus or Tel Aviv
As long as it wasn't too dangerous
In short somewhere my skills can be used

Now that it's clear
I'm solid CIA
I must pay off those back taxes soon
Plan a visit to Langley
I must stop messing around with Maybe
And get back to basics
Yes or No
Me or You
One of us is in the wrong here

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On Red State Spelling


From: . . . .
Subject: Fwd: Obama Admits/Not a Natural Born Citizen
Date: Wed, 14 Jul 2010 19:05:04 -0400

Obama Admits He Is Not A Natural Born Citizen!!!

Please read this before it is pulled off the internet!!!

Obama admist he was born in Kenya and is a Muslim. If it were Bush, we would have udder chaos! Why are we NOT dragging him out of the Whitehouse???

Is this evidence enough?

Obama admits he is not a Natural Born Citizen & Also Admits He Is A Muslim

Maybe the "Birthers" are on to something.


Watch it before it’s pulled!
* * *
Dear . . . :

Thanks for sending this. My connection here is slow, so I'll watch it when I get a chance on the computer at the office. Of course Obama was born in Hawaii.

What I like about this email forward is how it follows the usual red state spelling rules. Note that it says "If it were Bush, we would have udder chaos!" An udder is a part of a cow. I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a red state tendency to use farm terminology when something else is meant. One email talked about the Clintons in the White House and their "fowl language." Fowl language means bird language. The words wanted are "utter" (not udder) and "foul" (not fowl). This is part of the fun of reading all these Fwds!

I also remember reading one about all the "bazaar people" Obama has given positions to. I suppose we are meant to understand that the president has promoted Turkish carpet salesmen to high positions.

And in this Fwd there's the usual advice to watch the video soon--"before it's pulled!" As if our administration is regularly trolling through and deleting things it doesn't like.

"By their fruits ye shall know them," Matthew quotes Jesus saying. Yes--and by their spelling ye shall know the weight of their arguments.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Criticism and Philosophy

Reading Joe Wenderoth and Gary Lutz. There's a kind of septic undertow dragging in the work of both. Lutz especially is chin deep in it--his style a delicate flailing as he's dragged away in a flood of the various excreta we flush.

Lutz is the more accomplished stylist.

Both writers are sick fucks, but Lutz is clearly the sicker.

Despair and shit and the body are recurrent themes in Gabriel Gudding's work too, but somehow Gudding has none of the potty negativity of Lutz and Wenderoth. (Could we speak here of the Potty-Hegelians?)

Also reading Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici. Browne turns a wonderful phrase and demonstrates a generous spirit for his time and place. But intellectually Browne was a crabbed provincial next to Montaigne. (Which may not reflect that badly on Browne. Nearly everyone was a crabbed provincial next to Montaigne.)

One wonders how Shakespeare would have written had he taken up the essay as a genre.

* * *

Is it the importunity of beings that makes us yearn for Being?

There are many that would not tolerate the nagging of beings were it not that they glimpse Being and feel that part of them is grounded in Being.

But perhaps this is putting it badly. Not that "part of them" is grounded, but that some grasp of Being would, they hope, offer a ground on which they could build an edifice against the painful storms of unknowing that wrack them. That wrack us.

Is it the importunity of beings that makes us yearn for Being?

My body, with its daily nagging, is one of these beings of course, or rather is itself a panoply of beings, as is my mind, in which I am not sure where to place the "I."

Is it only this importunity, this nagging--at times merely troublesome, but finally deadly--that makes us project "Being" to begin with?

I would agree with Heidegger by saying No. Being is not merely an illusory projection, a trick of language or a dead end: to say it is is to speak from a structure that has ignored the question of Being. Not answered, but ignored.

Beings are objects of pleasure, or annoyances, or toys, or threats, or traps, or illusory, or all there is.

Being is illusory, or all there is.

Parmenides: the greatest philosopher.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Droste Effect

I remember it was a Thursday afternoon. I'd ducked out of the office a bit early and decided to stop in at Moran's on the way home for a pint. When I walked in the door the place was strangely quiet, the barman wasn't behind the bar and the only soul in sight was an odd-looking fellow who eyed me as I sat down at the bar. After a moment he came up and sat next to me, introduced himself, and said: "You know, I think I can explain, because darn near the same thing happened to me! I remember it was a Thursday afternoon."

"What?" I said.

"It was a Thursday afternoon," he repeated. "I'd ducked out of the office early and decided to stop in at Moran's on the way home for a pint. When I walked in the door the place was quiet, the barman wasn't behind the bar and the only soul in sight was an odd-looking fellow who eyed me as I sat down at the bar. After a moment he came up and sat next to me, introduced himself, and said: 'You know, I think I can explain, because darn near the same thing happened to me! I remember it was a Thursday afternoon.'

" 'What?' I said.

" 'I'd ducked out of the office early,' he said, 'and decided to stop in at Moran's on the way home. When I walked in the place was quiet and the barman wasn't behind the bar. There was a fellow who eyed me oddly as I sat down at the bar. After a moment he came up, sat down next to me, and said: "You know, I think I can explain, because darn near the same thing happened to me! I remember it was a Thursday afternoon."

' " 'What?' I said.

' " 'After leaving the office,' he said, 'I decided to stop in at Moran's. When I walked in the place was quiet. There was a fellow who eyed me oddly as I sat down at the bar. He came up, sat down next to me, and said: "You know, I think I can explain, because the same thing happened to me! I remember it was a Thursday afternoon."

" ' " 'What?' I said.

" ' " 'I decided to stop in at Moran's after work,' he said. 'But when I walked in the place was dead quiet. There was a fellow who eyed me oddly as I sat down at the bar. Then he came up to me and said: "I think I can explain because the same thing happened to me! It was on a Thursday afternoon."

' " ' " 'What?' I said.

' " ' " 'I stopped in at Moran's after work,' he said. 'But the place was dead quiet. There was a fellow who eyed me oddly as I sat down. Then he came up to me and said: "The same thing happened to me! It was on a Thursday afternoon."

" ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

" ' " ' " 'I stopped in at Moran's,' he said. 'The place was dead quiet. There was a fellow there who eyed me oddly. He came up to me and said: "The same thing happened to me! It was a Thursday afternoon."

' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

' " ' " ' " 'It was dead quiet at Moran's,' he said. 'A fellow there eyed me oddly, then came up and said: "The same thing happened to me! It was a Thursday afternoon."

" ' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

" ' " ' " ' " 'Moran's was dead quiet,' he said. 'An odd fellow eyed me and said: "The same thing happened to me! It was a Thursday afternoon."

' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

' " ' " ' " ' " 'Moran's was quiet,' he said. 'An odd fellow came up to me and said: "This happened to me! It was a Thursday afternoon."

" ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

" ' " ' " ' " ' " 'Moran's was quiet,' he said. 'An odd fellow said: "This happened to me! It was a Thursday afternoon."

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'Moran's was quiet. A fellow said: "This also happened to me! It was a Thursday afternoon."

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'In Moran's a fellow said: "This also happened to me! It was a Thursday afternoon."

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'In Moran's a fellow said: "This also happened to me! It was on a Thursday."

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'In Moran's a fellow said: "This also happened to me on a Thursday!"

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'In Moran's a fellow said: "This also happened to me Thursday!"

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'In Moran's a fellow said: "This also happened to me!"

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?' I said.

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'In Moran's a fellow said: "This happened to me!"

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?'

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'A fellow said: "This happened to me!"

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?'

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'A fellow said: "It happened to me!"

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?'

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'A fellow said: "Happened to me!"

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?'

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'Fellow said: "Happened to me!"

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?'

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'Fellow said: "Happened!"

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?'

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'Fellow: "Happened!"

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'What?'

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' "Happened!"

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'Wha?'

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' "Happened!"

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " 'Wha?'

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' "!"

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " '?'

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' "!"

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " '?'

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' "!"

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " '?'

' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' "!"

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " '?'

" ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' " ' "!"

By this point the fellow was gesturing and shaking as like he was in a kind of fit. I didn't know if I should prod him to snap him out of it or if I should turn tail and get outa there.

The barman Niall came out just then and his eyes widened to see the man in such a state. Seems he'd seen this before, which made me none too comfortable to be engaged in this dialogue.

Finally in his swaying and gesturing the fellow bumped against me and snapped out of it.

"It was. . ." he said looking at me in fright. "It was like that for me too!"

"Gilbert," Niall began.

"Let me be!" Gilbert said. "I know what I heard and I won't be told otherwise. It happened on a Thursday right here, smack on the same hour, and the fellow went on and on til he was shaking, just like I was telling it."

Niall didn't reply, but began pouring me a pint.

"But how did it end?" I asked the man.

Niall frowned that I was pursuing the question. He shook his head and retreated back down to the store room from where he'd come.

"How did it end?" the man repeated. "How did it end, you want to know? You really want to know?"

I thought it over. My pint stood on the wood before me, a perfect head to it. Glancing at Gilbert, I could see the sweat beading on his forward, the question he had asked still in his eyes. Clearly he was burning to finish the tale.

"No," I said. "Not today. Maybe next Thursday."

Gilbert slumped like the air was let out of him. He got up and went back to where he was sitting when I came in.

* * *

The next Thursday I was there early, waiting in a corner. Gilbert was nowhere to be seen, however, and again Niall was down in the store room. After ten minutes or so a new fellow came in, gave a look round the place, and went up to sit at the bar. I started to feel a kind of itch in me, a compulsion to speak to the man, though I'd never seen him before. I got up and walked over to where he was seated. I sat down next to him and introduced myself.

"You know, I think I can explain," I began, "because just about the same thing happened to me! It was a Thursday afternoon."

"What?" the man said.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Guns and My Regrets

I got my first gun when I was nine or ten, a BB gun with a hand pump under the stock. It was a lousy gun. It fired metal BBs sold by the thousand in cardboard boxes, BBs which exited the barrel at such low velocity I could visually trace their arc through the air. My gun was so weak that if I was wearing jeans I could shoot myself in the leg without feeling much of anything. Even so my mother considered the gun dangerous because at close range it could doubtless "put out an eye." Close range in this case being about three inches.

Though my BB gun was weak, I certainly tried my best to kill things with it. I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, near an exceedingly placid town called Hartland (literally "Stagland," from the old word hart: adult male deer). Though the place I grew up was placid, I was not. One side of our house faced a forest and the other butted up against an 18-hole golf course. In short there were animals of all kinds to shoot at: rabbits, gophers, raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels and birds of every sort. Deer could even still be seen sometimes. I shot at all these animals, occasionally even hitting one, but none ever dropped down dead. The BBs coming from my gun were far too weak for that. Once hit, the animals would just stir, then run or fly away.

So my situation as an aspiring hunter was annoying, and it only became more so as time went on. I remember once in frustration I snuck up on our neighbor's dog, a golden retriever, and shot her in the side. She turned her head, looked at me and began to wag her tail. Not even a yelp. That was the last straw.

During the many months I hunted with that BB gun I'd managed to kill only one thing: a frog. It's true I hit quite a few frogs while down at the pond near my house, but only one had actually been slain. Probably I'd hit it at just the place where the spine was weakest. Or maybe it was already dead before I shot it.

In despair I pestered my parents to buy me a proper gun: a .22 rifle for instance.

"There's no way," my father said. "You could kill someone with a .22."

"Then how about a pellet gun?" I asked.

"You don't need a pellet gun," my mother said. "They're too dangerous."

"Mike Schroeder and Doug Omen both have pellet guns," I replied, referring to two other boys in our whitewashed, country-club neighborhood.

"They're both older than you," was my mother's answer.

"Only by one year," I said.

"Well, we'll have to think about it."

That was the answer I wanted. At my next birthday I got my pellet gun: a Sheridan rifle with a silver barrel, a high quality make in fact. It had a pump under the barrel that one could pump up to ten times. The more you pumped before shooting, the more powerful the shot would be. Although my BB gun would only make a "ping" sound when fired at a glass bottle, my pellet gun would smash the bottle outright. The killing could begin in earnest.

My first real kill was from my bedroom window, which was on the second floor looking west over a small stand of trees. Already during the BB gun days I'd made a hole in the screen so I could shoot at animals from my room. The day after I got my pellet gun I saw a woodpecker on one of the trees outside. "Rat tat tat. . . Rat tat tat tat. . . ." I took aim and shot. The bird fell to the ground. Tossing the gun on my bed, I rushed downstairs and outside to see the kill. As it turned out, the woodpecker wasn't dead. I'd only shot its beak off. I found the beakless bird flopping around on the ground at the base of the tree. What was I to do in such a situation?

I picked up the bird and held it. Its warmth and the speed of its heartbeat transmitted themselves instantly to my palm. I was surprised at how light the bird was. I held it that way for a moment. Two little drops of blood fell from its wound onto my wrist. Carefully putting the bird back on the ground, I went to get a rock. I smashed the bird with the rock, putting it out of its misery. But what to do with the corpse? Carrying it to the edge of the yard, I tossed it into the high grass.

In fact during all this there was a lump in my throat. Although elated about actually killing something, I also felt bad the animal hadn't died straightaway. I felt there was something sickening about it, that I'd done something wrong. But soon I forgot this feeling.

Over the course of the following months I shot a handful of chipmunks, two or three rabbits, countless sparrows and robins and red-winged blackbirds, a crow, two squirrels and dozens of the gophers that lived in holes and stuck their heads up along the fields edging the golf course. It was mainly while shooting the gophers that I had the company of Mike Schroeder and Doug Omen, who also lived on the golf course and whose houses were near a large stretch of field the gophers seemed to like particularly. But they couldn't much have liked that field during the first summer I had my Sheridan. I believe the three of us depopulated the whole neighborhood of them. While we were busy at this gruesome work, the fat summer-dressed golfers would yell curses at us and wave their clubs in the air because we'd hunt just off the margin of the fairways and disturb their game. Finally word of our hunting got round to our parents, who were also club members, and I was told I could no longer hunt along the edges of the golf course. So we hit the woods and went after chipmunks and birds instead.

I remember once while out hunting with Mike we cornered a squirrel at the top of a dead tree trunk. The squirrel clung tightly to the trunk, about thirty feet above us, and scurried round from one side of the trunk to the other. But Mike and I took turns shooting and managed to hit it a couple times. Eventually, weakened by its wounds, the squirrel couldn't scurry round the trunk any more. But still it clung tightly to the tree, refusing to fall. I remember how we then sunk another pellet into the squirrel's back, then another, and finally a third. It was only with the third or fourth slug sunk into its body that the squirrel's claws finally gave way and it fell down to the ground with a heavy thud. Mike and I laughed at our triumph and I carried the squirrel back home, where I intended to use a heavy-gauge wire cutter to cut its tail off. I collected them.

I think I got that first pellet gun when I was eleven. I later got another pellet gun, a pistol that used CO2 cartridges, and I also occasionally went pheasant or duck hunting with my father, when I'd get to use an actual 12-gauge shotgun.

Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, I must have killed several hundred animals and birds with these guns. Then suddenly, at age fourteen, the lump in my throat returned and I couldn't kill them any more. I even stopped fishing, which was another one of my favorite sports. I no longer wanted to kill even the fish.

By the time I reached the age of sixteen, I felt a horror of all the animals I'd killed. I remember once coming upon some boys trying to electrocute a gopher they'd caught in a wire cage. I thrashed one of them and chased the others away, finally setting the gopher free. I also mangled the cage they'd made so it couldn't be used again.

At age seventeen, just before my last year in high school, I decided to spend the summer away from home. I set up a summer job in northern Wisconsin in a resort town called Minocqua. I'd be bussing and waiting tables at one of the resort restaurants.

There was an Indian who worked in the same resort. He was in charge of the boats they rented out and he also did work around the resort grounds. He'd drink a few beers in the bar every night and talk quietly to the bartender. Once I overheard him explaining to another man that white men's hunting was a terrible thing, that it was in fact a terrible sin. When the other man left and I'd punched out I decided to talk to him a bit.

He explained to me how white men just kill animals for sport, that they have no use for the animals they kill and no respect for the animals' souls. The Indians, on the other hand, only killed what they needed and would balance the deed of killing with the proper rituals of respect. The Indians had maintained harmony with all the souls of the world's living things, whereas the white men were corrupted to their core and understood nothing about the souls. He also explained that such disrespect for the souls of nature meant that the souls of these men would end up in hell after their deaths.

I told him I had respect for these ideas, that for years I'd felt there was something sickening in killing animals just for sport. I also told him my story, how I'd killed hundreds of animals with my pellet gun when I was a kid. I told him how I'd felt sickened that first time killing the woodpecker at age eleven, but that somehow it hadn't stopped me from going out hunting again the next day. I explained about all the gophers and robins I'd shot, about how I'd cruelly sunk pellet after pellet into the squirrel's back until it fell from the tree, about how my friend and I had laughed after the kill and how I'd later cut the animal's tail off with a wire cutter. I told him about the pheasant's head that got shot off, about the rabbit I literally blasted into two pieces at close range with my father's 12-gauge. I asked him if there was something I could do to atone for all the animals and birds I'd slaughtered, if there was some Indian ritual that could set things right with nature.

The Indian took a sip from his beer and shrugged sadly. "There's nothing you can do," he said quietly, gazing at the bar. "You're going to hell."

My regrets about killing animals continued into university. I became a vegetarian my freshman year and began to study political science. And then I learned about cultural criticism and Marxism. I began to understand why the country-club neighborhood I'd grown up in had always so annoyed me: why I'd never wanted to golf or play tennis with the other rich kids but was always interested as a child in guns and hunting and later, as a high school student, in Jim Morrison and marijuana. It was the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of that ridiculous bourgeois place: the church-going hypocrites who claimed to worship Jesus but thought only about their countryside estates and their ever more expensive, ever flashier cars. All through my childhood I'd watched them out on that golf course with their beer bellies and fat asses wrapped in plaid. On Sunday I'd see them at church listening to sermons and singing hymns to an ancient Palestinian spiritual leader they claimed as their "Savior" but whose teachings they didn't make the slightest effort to follow. Even a kid like me, even a kid with the weak, milquetoast American education I'd had, could see how ridiculously out of tune it all was.

The neighborhood I'd grown up in was neither urban nor truly rural. It was that indefinable nowhere land called "the suburbs." And being a richer suburb than most, it proved to be all the more alienated from real life. It was a neighborhood where each home stood apart like a miniature aristocratic estate. This meant there were no sidewalks, no real place where the community of kids could gather. One rarely saw one's neighbors, who entered and left their houses in their expensive cars. Or if one saw them it was out on the golf course, where they pretended to enjoy themselves playing a sport that they liked mainly because of its prestige factor.

So as I continued in university I started to analyze more and more my experience growing up, the kind of culture I'd grown up in, how it had shaped me and distorted my sense of the world--or rather how it had tried to distort my sense of the world, for with my intellectual awakening I'd in some measure escaped from it. And eventually my regrets at shooting all those animals started to pale next to a different regret, one based not on things I'd done but rather on things I'd neglected to do. It was a sin of omission that began to bother me, one that could be formulated as follows: During all those years living in that neighborhood I'd had a perfectly good pellet gun at my disposal, so how was it--I asked myself--how was it I'd never thought to use that gun to sink a few pellets into the fat asses of those overstuffed pseudo-Christian slobs who showed off their ridiculous plaids every weekend on that golf course? All those fat asses bending over to take their shots and never a single shot taken by me. How was it I hadn't been smart enough then to leave the poor gophers alone and shoot the culpable golfers instead? This eventually became my central regret, and it still burns in me today.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Steiner on Heidegger

Notes on/quotes from George Steiner's book Martin Heidegger

One may get to the heart of the matter by asking: How is a page of Heidegger to be read, what orders of meaning can be drawn from it? For Heidegger it is the right asking that matters. (18)

The beginning of our asking should be treated with the same dignity as the goal we hope to reach.

One starts out on "a path." There are different paths one may start on, and one can't know if the path one has chosen will lead where one hopes. One must be sure, however, that the path is at least "in the forest"--i.e., in what is proper to philosophy and not somehow extraneous to philosophy. For Heidegger most of Western philosophy has been a matter of elaborating things extraneous to philosophy.

One does not read Heidegger so as to understand his texts if understanding means the ability to summarize or explain in different words, a different idiom. One reads so as to experience his texts, his project.

Steiner: "What blazes in Heidegger at best is a slow lightning. Heidegger would have been the first to underline the preliminary, fragmented nature of his labors. He conceived of these as a didactic, purgative preparation for a revolution in thought and in sensibility yet to come." (xxxiv-v)

Steiner takes up the issue of Heidegger's association with the Nazi movement and concludes: 1) there is no way to demonstrate that Heidegger's work in Being and Time had any direct influence on the Nazis; 2) there are in fact many areas in which Heidegger's concerns overlap with aspects of Nazi ideology; 3) the most troubling fact of all is not Heidegger's original collaboration, but his complete silence on the Holocaust after the war. (Heidegger said almost nothing about the Holocaust for the remainder of his life.)

Steiner's treatment of these questions seems at times very condemnatory, at other times even-handed: Heidegger's associations with Nazism are neither treated as insignificant, nor however are they reason to neglect Heidegger's philosophy.

Considerations on a 1955 colloquium in France: Was ist das--die Philosophie?

Heidegger's insistence on listening to etymology: "The word 'philosophy' speaks Greek." Steiner elaborates:

It is not we who are using a word that happens to be derived from the classical Greek lexicon. The power and agency of statement lie inside the word philosophia . . . . It is language that speaks, not, or not primordially, man. This, again, is a cardinal Heideggerian postulate, to which I must return. (22)
Heidegger: "[Philosophy] determines the innermost basic feature [Grundzug] of our Western-European history." Philosophy is the founding and shaping impetus of our history.

Philosophy for the Greeks was a working through of their astonishment before the question of Being/beings. Heidegger:
All being is in Being. To hear such a thing sounds trivial to our ear, if not, indeed, offensive, for no one needs to bother about the fact that being belongs to Being. All the world knows that being is that which is. What else remains for being but to be? And yet, just this fact that being is gathered together in Being, that in the appearance of Being being appears, astonished the Greeks and first astonished them and them alone. (26)
It is the task of philosophy to be, as Steiner puts it, "incessantly astonished at and focused on the fact that all things are . . . . This astonishment . . . what Heidegger will call 'the thinking of Being' . . . sets philosophy on the way toward the question of what it is that is, of what it is that indwells in all extant things, of what it is that constitutes beingness . . . ."
Socrates and Plato were the first to take 'the steps into philosophy.' This is to say, they were the first to pose the question of existence in an analytic-rational guise. Theirs is a great achievement, says Heidegger, but . . . also a symptom of decline. Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, who came before, did not need to be 'philosophers.' They were 'thinkers' (Denker), men caught in the radical astonishment (Thaumazein) of being. They belonged to a primal, therefore 'more authentic' dimension or experience of thinking, in which beingness was immediately present to language, to the logos. Just what it signifies to experience and to speak being in this primary and 'thoughtful' way is something that Heidegger labors to explain, to illustrate, and, above all, to 'act out' in his late writings. (27)
As to the question of what philosophy is, we should not seek an answer--for to seek an answer is to guarantee a "philosophic" answer--but rather a response, a correspondence [Entsprechung]. Steiner: "A 'thinker,' as distinct from a post-Socratic or academic philosopher, is 'answerable to' the question of being." (29)

The history of philosophy is thoughtless, unthinking. Though we must engage a dialogue with "that which has been handed down to us as the Being of being," we must not do so from within the history of philosophy. Rather philosophy must be "the expressly accomplished correspondence which speaks in so far as it considers the appeal of the Being of being." (30) The summons:
Man is only a privileged listener and respondent to existence. The vital relation to otherness is not, as for Cartesian and positivist rationalism, one of "grasping" and pragmatic use. It is a relation of audition. We are trying "to listen to the voice of Being." It is, or ought to be, a relation of extreme responsibility, custodianship, answerability to and for. Of this answerability, the thinker and the poet, der Denker und der Dichter, are at once the carriers and the trustees. This is because it is in their oneness to language (to the logos), in their capacity to be spoken rather [than] to speak--a distinction that will become more intelligible as we proceed--that the truth, or can we say with Wordsworth and Hölderlin "the music of being," most urgently calls for and summons up response.

. . . Philosophy is a "distinctive manner of language," a manner that interconnects thought with poetry because "in the service of language both intercede on behalf of language and give lavishly of themselves." (32)
Heidegger was to rephrase his central question in a number of ways: "What is the Being which renders possible all being?" Steiner: "To ask why there is being instead of nothingness is to ask of the foundations (Ursprung, Urgrund) of all things. But it is also, and explicitly, to put in question the nature of the questioner himself (this will lead to the Heideggerian notion of Dasein, of that in man which 'is there'), and it comports a constant questioning of the language which enables us to, or inhibits us from, posing the question in the first place." (36) Language both enables us to and inhibits us from posing the essential questions. This is what both philosopher and poet must realize first of all.

Heidegger: "Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are." (37)

Heidegger insists that the forgetting of being is the cause of our particular dilemma. Steiner:
How did it come about that the most important, fundamental, all-determining of concepts, that of being, should have been so drastically eroded? What "forgetting" of being' has reduced our perception of "is" to that of an inert piece of syntax or a vapor? . . . To Heidegger, the history of Western civilization, seen from the two crucial vantage points of metaphysics after Plato, and of science and technology after Aristotle and Descartes, is no more and no less than the story of how being came to be forgotten. The twentieth century is the culminating but perfectly logical product of this amnesia. (38)
Steiner regrets that Heidegger neglected to use the question of music as an analogy to the question of being, as an example of an experience that we cannot summarize in other words. (43-5)

The forgetting of the question of being is now entrenched in language: it is an historical-linguistic cover-up managed through the triumphant constructions of metaphysics. Steiner: "If the 'question of being' . . . strikes us as vacuous . . . the reason is, literally, linguistic." Heidegger: "Many words, and precisely the essential ones, are in the same situation: the language in general is worn out and used up--an indispensable but masterless means of communication that may be used as one pleases, as indifferent as a means of public transport." (45)

Steiner begins an analysis of the words for being on page 46.

The Greek terms for being: ousia, or, more fully, parousia; and physis.

We have wrongly translated parousia as "substance." Parousia rather has a cluster of significations: homestead, at-homeness, a standing in and by itself, a self-enclosedness, an integral presentness or thereness.

As for physis: to emerge, to come to stand autonomously, to grow; nature.

Heidegger points out that neither term can be translated as existence, which means "a standing outside of." One may thus say that the Greek existence is almost the opposite of being. Heidegger can ground his critique of Sartrean existentialism in this etymology. Against existentialism, we must work toward a true ontology.

Steiner: "Being lives essentially in and through language. If we had no comprehension of being . . . there could be no meaningful propositions whatever, no grammar, no predications. We would remain speechless. But 'to be a man is to speak.' Man says yes and no only because in his profound essence he is a speaker, the speaker. . . . For Heidegger, to be is 'to speak being' or, more often, to question it." (50) Heidegger: "For it is questioning that is the piety of thought." (55) Steiner:
Heidegger [analyzes] what he takes to be the relation of "is" to a number of decisive "surrounding" concepts. These are "becoming," "appearance," "thinking," and the notion of obligation in "ought." This analysis is conducted via seminal passages in Parmenides, Pindar's Ninth Olympian Ode, fragments of Heraclitus, and the celebrated first chorus from Sophocles' Antigone. . . . Heidegger's return to origins, whether in the etymology of a word or in the stream of thought, is not, as we have already seen, an arbitrary or pedantic archaism (though there are elements of both in his work). It is, at its best, the expression of a deeply meditated conviction that in human thought, as in all important phenomena, "the beginning is the strangest and mightiest." (51-2)
Language is the primordial poetry in which a people speaks being. Conversely, the great poetry by which a people enters into history initiates the molding of its language. The Greeks created and experienced this poetry through Homer. Language was made manifest to their being-there [Da-sein] as departure into being, as a configuration disclosing the essent. (52)
Steiner writes on the problematic of the grounding of idealism on pages 52-3. The permanence of being vs. the flux of becoming and how thought "actualizes both being and what is opposed to being." Steiner: "That which is actually seen to be stands opposed to the changing appearance of the seeming. It is thought, not the eye, that distinguishes between permanence and motion, between essence and appearance." Thus Heidegger: "Thought is the sustaining and determining ground of being."

The metaphor of the arrow pointing upward or downward. Steiner: "As soon as being realizes itself as 'idea,' as soon as essence is 'idealized,' the arrow points upward. It points, inevitably, to 'ought,' to the category of the exemplary, the prototypical, the teleological and obligatory. In the realm of 'ideas,' essents are endowed with a purpose, a forward-directed rationality, a 'should.' This conjunction of futurity and obligation is the core of Platonic and Kantian idealism."

Steiner: "For Plato the Being of beings resides in eternal, immutable matrices of perfect form, or 'Ideas,' for Aristotle in what he calls the energeia, the unfolding actuality that realizes itself in substance. The Platonic notion engenders the whole of Western metaphysics down to the time of Nietzsche. The Aristotelian concept, with its concomitant investigation into 'first causes' and 'dynamic principles,' lays the foundation of our science and technology. [par.] For Heidegger, neither of these two legacies, the idealist-metaphysical and/or the scientific-technological, satisfies the original, authentic condition and task of thought which is to experience, to think through the nature of existence, the 'Beingness of being.' From Sein und Zeit onward, Heidegger conceives it as his essential enterprise to 'overthrow' (in a sense yet to be defined) the metaphysical and scientific traditions that have governed Western argument and history since Plato and Aristotle. Heidegger will urge relentlessly that these two great currents of idealization and analysis have sprung not from a genuine conception of Being but from a forgetting of Being, a taking-for-granted of the central existential mystery. More than this: Heidegger will seek to prove that it is the continued authority of the metaphysical-scientific way of looking at the world, a way almost definitional of the West, that has brought on, has, in fact, made unavoidable the alienated, unhoused, recurrently barbaric estate of modern technological and mass-consumption man." (28)

A long central chapter on Being and Time

Steiner: "To 'think Being' is the task of H's Fundamentalontologie, that 'ontology of foundations' which is to be distinguished utterly from the Platonic model of ideal Forms, from the Aristotelian-Aquinian network of cause and substance . . . . The 'fundamental ontology' is to replace all specific ontologies such as those of 'history,' of the physical or biological science, or sociology. . . . How does a fundamental ontology proceed? By differentiating absolutely between the 'ontic' and the 'ontological,' this is to say between the realm of external particulars, of beings, and that of Being itself. Let us note at once: the 'ontic' and the 'ontological' are as different as any two concepts or spheres of reference can be. But the one makes no sense without the other. . . . Without the 'beings' whose 'isness' it is [for us as Dasein, of course], 'Being' would be as empty a formulation as pure Platonic Form or Aristotle's motionless mover. Only by keeping this distinction sharply in mind can we ask: Was ist das Seiende in seinem Sein? In the Sophist, Plato equates this question with the attempt of mortals to wrestle with Titans." (80-1)

To repeat: "Without the 'beings' whose 'isness' it is [for us as Dasein, of course], 'Being' would be [an empty formulation]." And, according to Heidegger, it is only as Dasein that we can think Being, it is only Dasein that experiences Being as a problem. To speak in a theological register, Dasein is different from both animals and God: neither animals nor God experiences Being as a problem (though these two--presumably--avoid the problem in very different ways).

The question of Being is the problem that Dasein must wrestle with. Thus Heidegger insists that what he calls 'everydayness' and what he calls 'facticity' are constitutive of Dasein--not accidental properties added later, as if one could somehow consider Dasein abstracted from its '"being there" in the world. Heidegger uses the composite term In-der-welt-sein to stress how radically we are immersed, rooted, grounded in the world. Steiner: "[H]uman has in it humus, the Latin for 'earth.'" (82)

Theological question: But if Dasein is at its core a pre-existing soul/spirit/spark 'thrown here'? Heidegger doesn't acknowledge this of course, and he uses the concept thrownness differently. But does his very use of this concept indicate a Platonic slant? Can one speak of thrownness without also evoking the the questions: Thrown whence? Thrown whither? (Steiner notes on page 85 that for Heidegger "the notion of existential identity and that of world are completely wedded. To be at all is to be worldly. The everyday is the enveloping wholeness of being." See also p. 87.)

Steiner: "A being that questions Being by first questioning its own Sein is a Da-Sein. Man is man because he is a 'being-there,' an 'is-there' . . . . The ontic achieves Da-Sein by querying the ontological. It does so, uniquely and necessarily, by means of language. Thus, in a way that only the later Heidegger develops, Da-Sein and Sprache are mutually determinant." (82)

Steiner: "Man's being is a 'being-there.' Heidegger now expounds on the nature of 'thereness.' The crux is Alltäglichkeit, signifying 'everydayness.' All Western metaphysics, whether deliberately or not, has been Platonist in that it has sought to transpose the essence of man out of daily life. It has posited a pure perceiver, a fictive agent of cognition detached from common experience. It has disincarnated being through an artifice of introspective reductionism of the sort dramatized by Cartesian doubt and Husserlian phenomenology. This is why metaphysics has loftily relinquished the study of metaphysics to psychology, the understanding of behavior to morals or sociology, the analysis of the human condition to the political and historical sciences. Heidegger utterly rejects this process of abstraction and what he regards as the resultant artifice of compartmentalization in man's consideration of men. (82-3)

The world comes at us in the form and manner of things. The things that constitute Dasein's being-in-the-world are not just any things, but what the Greeks called pragmata and what Heidegger calls Zeug. Heidegger explains pragmata as "that which one has to do with in one's concernful dealings." His word Zeug has been translated as "equipment," "instrumentation." In German Werkzeug is "tool." Steiner: "The distinction between 'anything' and Zeug is essential to Heidegger's entire world-view." Presentness-at-hand is opposed to readiness-to-hand (Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit). The former characterizes the matter of theoretical study, the latter the things that are taken up. And so, rocks are present-at-hand to the geologist but ready-to-hand for the stonemason. Steiner: "That which is zuhanden, literally 'to-hand,' reveals itself to Dasein, is taken up by and into Dasein, in ways absolutely constitutive of the 'thereness' into which our existence has been thrown and in which it must accomplish its being." Heidegger:
The process of hammering does not simply have knowledge about the hammer's character as a tool, but it has appropriated this tool in a way which could not possibly be more suitable. . . . [T]he more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become. . . . No matter how sharply we just look at the "outward appearance" of Things, in whatever form this appearance takes, we cannot discover anything ready-to-hand. If we look at things just "theoretically," we can get along without understanding readiness-to-hand. But when we deal with them by using them and manipulating them, this activity is not a blind one. It has its own kind of sight, by which it acquires its own Thingly character.
Steiner: "Appropriate use, performance, manual action possess their own kind of sight. Heidegger names it 'circumspection.' . . . Heidegger's differentiation is not only eloquent in itself; it brilliantly inverts the Platonic order of values which sets the theoretical contemplator high above the artist, the craftsman, the manual worker." (89-90)

On pages 91-4 Steiner treats of Heidegger's understanding of the "they" and the structural foisting of responsibility in the social order--in short, inauthenticity. Steiner:
Inauthentic Dasein lives not as itself but as "they" live. Strictly considered, it scarcely lives at all. It "is lived" in a hollow scaffolding of imposed, anonymous values. In inauthentic existence we are constantly afraid (of other men's opinions, of what "they" will decide for us, of not coming up to the standards of material or psychological success though we ourselves have done nothing to establish or even verify such standards). Fear of this order is Furcht. It is part of the banal, prefabricated flux of collective sentiment. Angst is radically different. In its Augustinian, Pascalian, and, above all, Kierkegaardian sense, Angst is that which makes problematic, which makes worthy of questioning, our being-in-the-world.
Following this is a like differentiation. Heidegger distinguishes between the authentic language of Dasein, which he calls Rede, and the inauthentic language (in which Dasein is lived through the "they"), which he calls Gerede. Rede may be translated as "speech," Gerede as "talk" or "idle talk," with these two terms bordering on gossip, cliché, jargon, other such concepts. Steiner points out that there are no suitable English translations for the terms, Rede being "less formal than 'discourse,' but certainly less colloquial than 'talk.'" (94-5)

On the distinction between Furcht and Angst, Steiner writes:
Dasein "is in anxiety." Angst is the taking upon oneself of the nearness of nothingness, of the potential non-being of one's own being. "Being-toward-death is, in essence, anxiety," and those who would rob us of this anxiety--be they priests, physicians, mystics, or rationalist quacks--by transforming it into either fear or genteel indifference alienate us from life itself. Or, more exactly, they insulate us from a fundamental source of freedom. . . . Angst reveals to Dasein the possibility of fulfilling itself "in an impassioned FREEDOM TOWARD DEATH--a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the 'they,' and which is factual, certain of itself, and anxious." . . . The taking upon oneself, through Angst, of this existential "terminality" is the absolute condition of human freedom. . . . The refusal to see death as "an event," the stress on the dialectical oneness of existence and ending, arises closely and consequently from the whole construct of "being" and of "time" . . . . Without finitude there can be no truth. We are at the antipodes to Plato. (106-7)
Being and Time is a poetic work as much as a philosophical work. Or rather: for Heidegger the two inextricably overlap.

After Being and Time

After Being and Time Heidegger begins to give concealment ontological precedence over unconcealment. Steiner: "It is the mark and nature of significant truth to stay hidden, though radiant in a through this occlusion. Man, moreover, is not the enforcer, the opener of truth (as Aristotle, Bacon, or Descartes would have him), but the 'opening for it,' the 'clearing' or Lichtung in which it will make its hiddenness manifest. . . . Truth, [Heidegger says,] relates fundamentally to 'nothingness.' This 'nothingness,' however, is not nihil ('nothing'), or Vernichtung ('annihilation'). It is Nichtung, an untranslatable neologism in which 'negation' is made an active, creative force. This negation takes away from Dasein its self-evidence, its habitual inertia. It restores to Dasein its primal astonishment in the face of being. To be thus astonished is to . . . lay oneself open to the concealed presentness of the truth."

Heidegger begins to realize that in Being and Time he had fallen back into the language of metaphysics, "albeit wrenched into idiosyncratic shapes." This language cannot achieve access to the essential secret of the truth, to that hiddenness of generative nothingness at the heart of being. "If being is to be thought in depth, if Western through and society are to be freed from their anthropomorphism, from their arrogant humanism, a new kind of language must be found. Already, Heidegger is moving toward the idea that it is not man who speaks meaningfully, but language itself speaking through man, and through certain poets above all. By 1933, he is turning, increasingly, to Hölderlin." (115-6)

Heidegger: "Language is the house of Being. Man dwells in this house. Those who think and those who create poetry are the custodians of the dwelling." (127)

Steiner: "[D]welling in a house of which he is, at his rare best, a custodian, but never architect or proprietor, the thinker must be prepared to speak seldom, to speak fragmentarily when he speaks at all, and to suffer constant misunderstanding and contradiction. . . . To think fundamentally is not to analyze but to 'memorate' . . . to remember Being so as to bring it into radiant disclosure. Such memoration--again Heidegger is strangely close to Plato--is pre-logical. Thus the first law of thought is the 'law of Being,' not some rule of logic which, in any event, is a late product of the opportunistic-mechanistic impulse, incarnate in Aristotle, to classify beings, to index the world according to man's purposes and convenience." (129-30)

"It is art that allows the later Heidegger to delineate, to make as palpable as he can, the antinomy of truth's simultaneous hiddenness and self-deployment. It is art that enacts the dialectical reciprocity of cloture and radiance. . . . [The work of art conserves and gives] to Being a dwelling and a sanctuary such as it can find nowhere else. . . . Art is not, as in Plato or Cartesian realism, an imitation of the real. It is the more real. And Heidegger's penetration of the paradox leaves traditional aesthetics far behind." (134-6)

"True art, true knowledge, true technique are a 'vocation,' a 'calling forth' that imposes upon man his native 'calling.' Since Roman engineering and seventeenth-century rationalism, Western technology has not been a vocation but a provocation and imperialism. Man challenges nature, he harnesses it, he compels his will on wind and water, on mountain and woodland. The results have been fantastic. Heidegger knows this: he is no Luddite innocent or pastoralist dropout. What he is emphasizing is the price paid. Things, with their intimate, collaborative affinity with creation, have been demeaned into objects. . . . We have compelled nature to yield knowledge and energy, but we have given to nature, to that which is live and hidden within it, no patient hearing, no in-dwelling. Thus our technologies mask Being instead of bringing it to light." (139)

"The fatality of technicity lies in the fact that we have broken the links between techne and poiesis." (141)

"The nerve of poetry is the act of nomination. Authentic poetry does not 'imitate,' as Plato would have it, or 'represent' or 'symbolize,' as post-Aristotelian literary theory supposes. It names, and by naming makes it real and lasting. . . . Poetry is not language in some esoteric, decorative, or occasional guise. It is the essence of language where language is, where man is bespoken, in the antique, strong sense of the word." (145)

"Obsessed with instrumentality, with informational functionality, language has lost the genius of nomination and in-gathering as it is explicit in the original meaning of logos." (146)

Hölderlin: "Mankind dwells poetically, in the condition of poetry."

The question of Being, concealment and tautology

Steiner: "Being is not itself an extant, it is not something that can be identified with or deduced from particular beings . . . . To inquire into being is not to ask: What is this or that? It is to ask: What is 'is'? . . . Even to ask is to realize that this question has not been posed nakedly in Western thought since the pre-Socratics and that Western systematic philosophy has, indeed, done everything to conceal the question. But it is also to realize that human speech, either through some inherent limitation or because the impress of conventional logic and rational grammar is too incisive, cannot give an answer that simultaneously answers to, is authentically answerable to, the nature of the question, and satisfies normal criteria of intelligibility. This, says Heidegger, leaves only the resort to tautology. . . . [But] it may well be that the 'tautologous is the sole possibility we have of thinking, of thinking through, that which dialectics can only conceal.' We cannot paraphrase is. We cannot explicate the 'isness' of Being. We can only state it tautologically: Sein is Sein ('Being is Being')." (154) Steiner refers to the period in which Heidegger thus defends tautological thinking as a "tranquil, summarizing moment in [Heidegger's] lifework." It does seem to me however to indicate that although Heidegger has well articulated the problem he has not gone beyond an initial wrestling toward an answer. Such tautological formulae (Sein ist Sein) may stand as the best we can accomplish, but they can only be tentative. There may yet be more that language can do, if, perhaps, it stretch itself out of its current shape. Of course it is the poets that are called to undertake this deforming and reforming of language.

Is it true that only by concealing itself Being can make beings appear? That to give being to something Being itself must withdraw? The problem of this dialectic between the concealment of Being and the unconcealment of beings seems particularly worthy of thought.

Lévinas: "Being does not identify itself with [any being], not even with the concept of being in general. In a certain sense, Being is not (il n'est pas). For if Being were, it would in its turn be a being: il serait étant à son tour, whereas Being is, in some way, the very occurrence of existence in and of all beings, l'événement même d'être de tous les étants."

Richardson: "Being contracts into the beings it makes manifest and hides by the very fact that it reveals." "Being as the process of non-concealments is that which permits beings to become non-conceald (positivity), although the process is so permeated by 'not' that Being itself remains concealed (negativity)." This latter seems to me overconfident in its playing with positivity/negativity. There is something else at issue or at work.

Steiner: "To this process of concealment which brings forth openness, as the chemical medium, invisible in the darkroom, brings forth the picture, Heidegger gives the Greek name for truth, aletheia ('the unconcealed')." (66-8)

We might begin to query other metaphors like Steiner's darkroom metaphor: one of them might bring some light to the question.

Check George Steiner: Martin Heidegger at

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Odysseus vs. Irus

ZEI students rewrite the Odyssey, cont'd. When the beggar Irus got word that there was a newcomer begging in the palace, he was furious. He came to kick out the intruder. But the intruder refused to leave! Soon it was clear there was going to be a battle of beggars. The suitors were delighted with this entertainment. When Odysseus removed his clothes, however, Irus saw his rival's muscular body. He shook with fear. But it was too late to back down.

May's Version

. . . . The suitors around them were also astonished.

"How can an old beggar have such a muscular body?" they wondered.

Those who at first wanted to see a bloody movie, Beggars' Fight, started to tremble and thought about fleeing. Of course the unluckiest of all was Irus: he wanted to run, but his feet were rooted to the spot. All he could do was cry for mercy.

"Have mercy!" he begged. "You must be an 'Odysseus' of beggars."

"You will regret your bad attitude," Odysseus replied. "You insulted me, and today you will learn your lesson--that one must show hospitality to strangers."

As soon as Odysseus finished speaking, his muscles began to get bigger; his pectorals were swelling and his arms were growing. He began almost to look like a balloon in the shape of a man. But he still continued to grow, swelling larger and larger, because he had eaten too much spinach earlier in the morning in preparation for his fight with the suitors. Swelling and swelling, suddenly BOOOM! the balloon exploded. The great hero Odysseus was dead! He had died in his beggar's disguise.

No one in the palace understood what had happened. They were all too amazed at the mystery.

Jenny Lin's Version

Indeed the fight was a cruel nightmare for Irus. At first Odysseus hit him in the face, and he nearly fell to the ground, jabbing Antinous in the arm by accident as he swung backward. When he again stood still, Odysseus prodded him in the chest and kicked him in the stomach.

"Hurray!" Amphinomus yelled and whistled for Odysseus.

"You mad fool!" Melanthius said, and kicked him. "What is Irus doing? C'mon, Irus, kick your rival!"

Irus wanted to surrender and beg for clemency. The fury surged in his heart as he was beaten by Odysseus, who finally gave him a full punch to the chest as he stood hesitating.

Irus was on the ground, Odysseus standing on him as victor.

Ariel's Version

Odysseus saw the beggar's face: it was white as chalk, and the beggar was trembling. But the suitors didn't care, they were still yelling for the fight.

Odysseus spoke to Irus: "Dear brother, let's not fight," he said. "Let's be friends. We can help each other and share what's here."

"What are you talking about, man?" Irus said. "Kill me! Kill me! You don't have to let me go."

Odysseus shook his head. "No, brother," he said, "really I want to be your friend, because I'm lonely, and you're lonely. Please, let's be friends."

Then Irus smiled. "Okay, old man," he said.

But the suitors were angry; they wanted to see the fight. They started to throw things at the two beggars. Just then Penelope appeared and told them to stop and ordered the maids to lead the beggars inside and take care of them.

Jenny's Version

"Let's fight!" Odysseus revealed his sharp teeth.

The two beggars began a fierce fight. Irus gave him a boxing, but Odysseus quickly dodged and gave Irus a sharp kick as fast as lightning. Irus fell like a hurt cat, weak and with no ability.

"You'll regret your foolish treatment of me," Odysseus said. "You'll pay for your cruelty!"

"Old beggar, old beggar!" Irus begged, grabbing Odysseus' knees. "No, no! Noble elder, please don't kill me. I have to take care of my parents and young children. Forgive my foolishness!"

"Don't worry," Odysseus said. "I will take care of them. Now you will get what you deserve."

Suddenly time stopped. Poseidon appeared with a can of spinach and said to Irus: "Irus, try this. It'll make you stronger."

Irus ate it. Almost instantly he towered up into the sky, his right foot becoming as big as the palace itself. He began to stomp on the suitors and all the people of Ithaca.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Leyner and Saunders: Two Kinds of Edge

Mark Leyner and George Saunders are the premier American satirists of the recent two decades. They are right on target in terms of what they intend to send up, and they are a riot to read: they both consistently make me laugh out loud.

There are striking differences between the two however. One difference I discovered recently is that I can maybe reread Leyner once or twice, whereas the best of Saunders' work I can return to repeatedly. Why is this?

Whereas Leyner's work is driven by cynicism, Saunders is the rare case of a razor-sharp satirist driven as much by cynicism as by warmth. This makes Saunders, for me, the greater writer. It is also, I think, the reason Saunders can capture the American idiom (the voices of different classes, professions, generations) in a way Leyner can't.

Leyner's character Mark in his novel The Tetherballs of Bougainville is a teenager only in a very conscribed Leyneresque way: it is hilarious, brilliant writing, but Mark, like Mark's dad, are both more or less Leyner himself slightly refracted. Take a Saunders story, on the other hand--"Pastoralia," or "CommComm," or the amazing Huck-inspired "Bounty"--and each character is a wonder of suffering linguistic specificity; they are palpable to the point you can see their hands gesture and feel their facial expressions as they speak.

Leyner offers off-the-wall, trenchant literary hijinks of a high order. Saunders is something different. Saunders is almost a matter of the miraculous.

Best of the Best:

Saunders: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

Saunders: Pastoralia

Leyner: The Tetherballs of Bougainville

Leyner: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Fat Tax: An Idea Whose Time has Come

What bracket will you be in?

Picking up today's paper, I read that film director Kevin Smith was ejected from a Southwest Airlines flight because he was too fat to fit in his seat. Smith claims he had no trouble fitting in the seat--"I could buckle that seat belt"--and is now in a rage against the airline.

A few years back another overweight flier tried to sue an airline for making her buy an extra seat to accommodate her flab. The airline, she said, was discriminating against her because of her body shape.

All this raises the question: Should fatties have to buy an extra seat to fly?

My answer is simple: First, hell yes! And second, you ain't seen nothing yet.

In the same paper with the news bit on Smith was an editorial about the problems we Americans now face with our gargantuan budget deficit. Because of our unpaid-for two wars in the Middle East, and what with the government stimulus package and painful Wall Street bailout, we now face years of deficits in the trillions of dollars. How will we ever cover such huge expenses? I think, for a helping hand, we should look to huge Americans.

What I am proposing is very straightforward, a novel way of reforming the tax code. Until now, an individual's tax bracket was determined based on income. Starting next year, we should add a new and more effective criterion. We should determine a person's tax bracket based on his or her weight.

The fact is that we as a nation are way overweight. And we are now also deeply in debt. This is bad for our health and bad for our economic future. Take a stroll round the local shopping mall and you'll realize the merit of my plan. Hundreds of billions of dollars could be raised if we started taxing all those sagging bellies and elephantine hips. It's time all those man boobs cost a little. At least as much as breast implants.

My proposed tax would presumably be a hit with the couple now in the White House. Our president now faces more criticism for his ballooning budgets than for anything else on his agenda. And our First Lady has undertaken to fight obesity. Hmm. Isn't it true that a fat tax would be a way to solve both these problems at once? What's more, I think Michelle Obama would support my proposal even though, based on what I've seen, it may knock her into a higher bracket.

The fact is that if seriously overweight Americans were required to pay seriously higher taxes they might finally decide to get off those tens of millions of sofas and shake their booties a bit.

The question arises as to how this proposed tax reform would be implemented and enforced. How, in short, would we go about the business of assessing a given citizen's tax burden? I already have ideas on this.

You know how on highways you'll occasionally see signs that read "Weigh Station Ahead"? Those signs are for semi trucks of course. I suggest we open similar Weigh Stations for tax assessment purposes. (Though I do think there are people who may finally have to use the semi-truck weigh stations, given the poundage at issue.)

We could open up Weigh Stations in every town, and each year before tax day citizens would have to come in with their IDs and get weighed. First, the assessor on duty would measure the person's height, then the person would be required to walk over a long series of weight-sensitive tiles. I picture it like walking down a hallway, but in this case each section of the hallway is calibrated to buzz at a certain weight, the poundage decreasing as one walks.

And so, stepping off the yellow starting line, you step onto the first large tile. That first tile will only buzz if over 350 pounds is placed on it. So far so good. It didn't buzz. But the tile after that buzzes at 330 pounds, and the one after that at 310 pounds, and so on down to the lightest weight.

The further you make it down the hallway without setting off the red buzzer light, the lower your tax bracket and the less you'll have to pay. If however you set off one of those first few tiles-- Well, brother, looks like you'll be covering a hefty chunk of our national debt this year. Needless to say, you'll be encouraged to lower your tax bracket next time around.

I know the fast food and soft drink lobbies will fight tooth and nail to defeat my proposed reform. Nonetheless I'm looking to some of our thinner members of Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, to sponsor it. And like I say, I believe Obama will be behind it, so there's little chance of it getting vetoed.

In any case it is time Americans stopped whining about fiscal difficulties and started putting their money where their mouth is. Instead of stuffing that mouth with thick-crust pizzas and bag after bag of "diet cookies."

With a new fat tax, America's health care burden will shrink as obese folks realize they're paying too much to Uncle Sam and decide to cut calories. Admittedly there will probably be cases of citizens who try to perform lipposuction in their kitchens or who desperately amputate limbs in a last-ditch effort to lose poundage before Weigh Day. But such cases should be few and far between, and can be considered unfortunate casualties in what is a necessary policy of national austerity.

As for myself, my bracket will not be the lowest, that's for sure. I have a small belly problem, and I won't make it to the end of that hallway. But I'm willing to do my part for America. I'm willing to pay a little extra. And you? If you are not one of those shameless slobs we see lumbering through food courts, ice cream cone in hand, all across this Great Big Nation, you have every reason to give your support to this new proposed fat tax. Write your representatives today.

Director Kevin Smith is upset. Cry me a river.

Michelle will be paying a little extra too.

Yeah, you're laughing now.

Safety in numbers.

These gals will be a doing a swimsuit calendar to raise money.

"Lemme tell ya what I think of your proposal, Eric. . . ."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Daniil Kharms' Orchestra

I'll begin with a few of Kharms' texts:


Once there lived a red-haired man who lacked eyes and ears. He was also lacking hair, so he was called red-haired only in a general sense.

He couldn't speak, as he was lacking a mouth. The same with his nose. Even arms and legs, he just didn't have any. Nor stomach, nor backside, nor spine. And no intestines. He didn't have anything! Therefore it is totally unclear who is being discussed.

It's better if we don't talk about him anymore.

* * *


Once Orlov overate on mashed peas and died. And Krylov, having found out about it, died too. And Spiridonov died of his own accord. And Spiridonov's wife fell off the cupboard and died too. And Spiridonov's children drowned in the pond. And Spiridonov's grandmother took to drink and went off panhandling. And Mikhailov stopped combing and got sick with dandruff. And Kruglov drew a lady with a whip and lost his mind. And Perehrestov was wired 400 roubles and started acting with such self-importance that he got fired from his job.

All decent people, but they don't know how to keep a firm footing.

* * *

March 28, 1931 at 7 o'clock
in the Evening

Lord, smack in the middle of the day
a laziness came over me.
Permit me to lie down and go to sleep, Lord,
and while I sleep, oh Lord, pump me full of Your Strength.
There is much I wish to know
but neither books nor people will tell me.
Only You can enlighten me, Lord,
by way of my poems.
Wake me up strong for the battle with meanings
and quick to the governance of words
and assiduous in praising the name of God
for all time.

* * *


Anton Mikhailovich spat, said "ech," spat again, said "ech" again, spat again, said "ech" again and left. To hell with him. Instead let me tell you about Ilya Pavlovich.

Ilya Pavlovich was born in 1893 in Constantinople. When he was still a boy, they moved to St. Petersburg, and there he graduated from the German School on Kirchnaya Street. Then he worked in some shop; then he did something else; and when the Revolution began, he emigrated. Well, to hell with him. Instead, let me tell you about Anna Ignatievna.

But it's not so easy to tell about Anna Ignatievna. First, I know almost nothing about her, and second, I've just fallen off my chair, and have forgotten what I was about to say. So let me instead tell about myself.

I am tall, fairly intelligent, and dress prudently and tastefully. I don't drink, I don't bet on horses, but I like the ladies. And the ladies don't mind me. They like it when I go out with them. Serafima Izmaylovna has invited me home several times, and Zinaida Yakovlevna also said that she was always glad to see me. But I was involved in a strange incident with Marina Petrovna, which I would like to tell about. A quite ordinary thing, but rather amusing. Because of me, Marina Petrovna lost all her hair, became bald as a baby's bottom. It happened like this: Once I went over to visit Marina Petrovna, and bang! she lost all her hair. And that was that.

* * *


It's hard to say something about Pushkin to a person who doesn't know anything about him. Pushkin is a great poet. Napoleon is not as great as Pushkin. Bismarck compared to Pushkin is a nobody. And the Alexanders, First, Second and Third, are just little kids compared to Pushkin. In fact, compared to Pushkin, all people are little kids, except Gogol. Compared to him, Pushkin is a little kid.

And so, instead of writing about Pushkin, I would rather write about Gogol.

Although, Gogol is so great that not a thing can be written about him, so I'll write about Pushkin after all.

Yet, after Gogol, it's a shame to have to write about Pushkin. But you can't write anything about Gogol. So I'd rather not write anything about anyone.

* * *

Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) was one of the key members of the Russian avant-garde literary collective OBERIU, Union of Real Art. Kharms’ work cannot really be classed as surrealist, and Matvei Yankelevich, the most dedicated Kharms scholar working in English, argues that the frequently used epithet “absurdist” is not accurate either. How then to characterize these texts?

Kharms is working at the kind of destructive narrative techniques one finds in another writer in my personal canon: the master French prose poet Max Jacob.

One might also note, from the above, that Kharms was a believer, again like Jacob. The “Prayer before Sleep” is heartfelt, and the line Only you can enlighten me, Lord, / by way of my poems reveals how Kharms understood poetics as it relates to faith or revelation. Kharms considered his work a channel of grace; a quest, through his creative/destructive poetics, for enlightenment.

“Blue Notebook #10” is frequently quoted in introductions to Kharms. When I first read this text, it reminded me of Lichtenberg’s famous paradox: “A knife without a blade, from which the handle is missing.” Kharms was fluent in German and knew German literature well (Gustav Meyrink’s uncanny novel
The Golem was one of his favorite books). Was #10 written in response to Lichtenberg?

“Symphony #2” is of particular interest. It's the most brilliantly orchestrated piece of non sequitur I know of. Kharms moves from an unknown old man hacking, to the dryness of an encyclopedia entry, to self-ridiculing slapstick, to what starts to shape up as something approaching the erotic, but finally collapses in a totally shameful, ridiculous, utterly deadpan blast of absurdity--an anticlimax that couldn't be improved on. I say the progression here is orchestrated, and it is: thus the aptness of the title "Symphony." In a sizable handful of texts, Kharms, like Max Jacob, is above all a consummate conductor.

Both Kharms and Jacob died as victims of the extremist ideologies of the mid-century: Kharms in 1942 of starvation in a Soviet mental hospital; Jacob in 1944 of pneumonia while awaiting transfer to a Nazi concentration camp. Both writers practiced an art of intractable ambiguity, though Jacob, it is true, was victimized for being Jewish rather than for his playfully Cubist texts.

Kharms is best read in Matvei Yankelevich’s collection
Today I Wrote Nothing. I offer two of the pieces quoted above (the prayer and “Something about Pushkin”) in Yankelevich’s translation. The book has been widely praised for giving English readers access to this important voice in Russia’s literature. It is only in the recent couple decades that the Russians themselves have rediscovered Kharms’ work. In his introduction, Yankelevich explains how close the manuscripts came to being lost forever. We are lucky to have them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Gospel of Thom Smit

I.-- Once upon a time was the Word. And the Word was without form, and void.

In short, the Word was many words, and sometimes even things.

One could not tell the difference in any place, for all words and things were different; they were all different from each other, and they were even more different from the Word. And the Word, in its turn, was different according to whom you asked, and in what words you asked.

What's more, all was such that one could not fix one's eyes on any thing, or fix one's ears on any word, and expect it even to stay the same as itself.

In short, all words were different from themselves, and all things were different from any words, and also from each other, and also from themselves.

Even one's eyes were different, the left one from the right, and either eye was certainly different, very different, from either ear; and the ears protruded from each side of the head: in short, they were very different.

Then Thom Smit was born.

II.-- And Thom Smit did grow to be a youth of fourteen years, and his virtue did show forth in many ways.

And the people were astonished by his words, for he spoke as one with wisdom, and not as one who watched TV.

Said he: "Just as our elders, weakened by years of compromise, submit to the presence of those they loathe, so do our melons soak the fouled waters of the plain, till they poison both themselves and those that partake of them."

And: "Submit not to both these poisons. Though you eat the melons to the skin, yet leave the elders to chew their own bitter rinds."

And Thom Smit did take ceramics class at the Pottery Barn of the strip mall as you drive into town from Monona.

And he did throw him many a mean pot. And he did paint upon his pots designs and symbols, and the people did look at what he painted, and did say, "What hath this youth?"

For they said: "This youth is not like others, but hath him a perversion of the head."

And the owner of the Pottery Barn in those days was named Chuck, and Chuck did keep the pots of Thom Smit in the back, lest other youths should see them, and lest they should speak of them unto their parents. For on the pots were many things that youths should not see.

And some of Thom Smit's pots did the owner break outright, pretending they had cracked in the kiln. "For this one," sayeth Chuck unto his assistant, "this one is surely too much; I will not even fire this one."

And Thom Smit did suspect Chuck of thus breaking his pots, and spoke sorely unto him.

And Thom Smit did take him a can of maroon glaze, and did pour it into the drawer of Chuck's desk.

And the can was a large can, and did foul the books and papers in that desk, dripping even unto the floor.

And Thom Smit did break seventeen ceramic owls made by the ladies of St. James Lutheran. And Chuck did see him do it, and did hear him speak bitter words as he did it.

And Thom Smit was no longer welcome at the Pottery Barn, but did take up tennis.

Said he: "Our world is all preprocessed, and full of fakes; fakes upon fakes. The boredom of Formica covers all things here, even unto death."

And all of these things were when Thom Smit was still but a youth of fourteen years.

III.-- And it came to pass as Thom Smit was a young man that he went forth like many of his generation to work as a barista.

And this work was as he was a student at the university in the town of Madison; and the cafe in the which he did work was near upon the university, and was often filled with people.

And the people of the cafe were of many sorts.

And Thom Smit did work next to the scribe of that place, and he did serve forth the drinks unto the people.

And the prophet of that place in those days was named Cosmo di Madison. And Cosmo di Madison did preach the word of the Lord unto the people there. But the people heeded him not.

And Cosmo di Madison did resent the presence of Thom Smit at the espresso machine, and did make him out to be a servant of Belial.

And Cosmo di Madison complained sorely to the scribe of that place, and spoke many bitter words.

And the scribe of that place recorded the words of Cosmo di Madison, for in those days did he note down all his words.

And it came to pass when Thom Smit heard the words against him, that he did say unto Comso di Madison, and he said it unto his face: "A prophet art thou not, but art rather a paranoid schizophrenic."

And: "The symptoms are obvious upon you, O Cosmo di Madison, and all do know it. Thou art one who barkest at the moon. Woof woof!"

And Cosmo di Madison did not suffer the words of Thom Smit in silence, but did rail against him to all that would hear.

And Cosmo di Madison would drink no drink made by his hands, but did speak of such drinks as having a poison in them.

And one day Thom Smit did say unto Cosmo di Madison: "Today it seemeth you have not taken your medicine, O great prophet, and so it is that you speak forth loudly your prophecies, and the people heed you not."

And: "Today I have a hangover, O prophet, and care not to hear you. So get you hence through the door, or pay for your coffee like the others. If you cannot pay, so must you go hence to the street. For today I have a hangover, O prophet, and care not to hear your prophecies."

And upon hearing these words a rage did come upon Cosmo di Madison, and he did complain ever more sorely of Thom Smit, and did attribute to him many conspiracies and sundry larcenies.

And the scribe did write down all his words, for in those days did he write down all the words that the prophet did say.

IV.-- From the Scribe's Journals:

Thom Smit--to think he is a student of engineering! He's blond and small, of muscular build. He's a great reader of Gilles Deleuze, and considers himself a Nietzschean. It's lucky for me he's at the cafe. He's proving an excellent foil for Cosmo di Madison. I've recently got him reading Rabelais. --May, 1992

Cosmo di Madison now recognizes in Thom Smit a nemesis worthy of the swiftest action. That I'm responsible for his being hired at the cafe is generally known, and I confess it openly. I should have seen the man's character for what it was. Needless to say, Cosmo di Madison has forgiven this lapse on my part, pointing out that Pseudo-Sergeant Major Smit is obviously a professional and had been trained by Kissinger's people specifically to pull the wool over my eyes. Cosmo di Madison himself was almost taken in. "At first I thought he was just a loser like all the other losers. But it's worse than that. He's a fucking impostor--ya hear me?" --July, 1992
Remarks of Cosmo di Madison on Thom Smit:
1. "That useless fucking bastard calls himself a fucking lieutenant major, but he's just a fucking high school dropout drug addict who couldn't tell his ass from a hole in the ground if his life depended on it."

2. "How many customers do you think that fucking punk is gonna short change before Mark [the owner] wises up and fires him?"

3. "You know he's got his finger in the till and he's supplying all the barbiturates to Craig and Monkey Butt. Kissinger's got him working the joint to make sure they do their job and try to drug me every fucking chance they get. I wasn't born yesterday what do you think! Pssh! That fucking Craig has been selling the barbiturates on the side too.... Oh, don't act so surprised! You know it goes on."

4. "Mark needs to spend more time in his shop. I got enough stuff to do keeping the customers clean. If Kissinger buys out your staff, this place is finished, ya hear me? I won't come back. Ya hear me? You just see what'll go down then. Mark will wish he never even heard of this town. Ya hear me?"
V.-- And soon after these things had come to pass, behold it did happen that the spirit of the Lord came upon Thom Smit, and he began to speak in parables.

And all at the cafe did wonder upon it, and did say, "What hath Thom Smit, that he speakest thusly?"

And he did leave his work at the cafe, and ceased from his study at the university.

And Thom Smit went forth to preach unto the people like Cosmo di Madison, for the spirit of the Lord had moved him.

And Thom Smit did wander the streets on the west side of Madison, whereas Cosmo di Madison did preach in the downtown.

And Thom Smit preached the word unto the people of the west side, as you head out of town toward Monona. And the people heeded him not.

And thus it was that the people said amongst themselves: "Is Thom Smit also one of the prophets?" And these words are as a proverb even unto this day.

VI.-- And Thom Smit built his house on sandy ground, and sowed his seed upon the rocky wayside, and combed his hair with a goblet.

And he took a fox for a mango, and made of it a hairy puree.

And many did laugh at him, and said: "Thom Smit does not know his ass from a hole in the ground."

And they said: "Thom Smit could not find his ass with both hands."

But verily it was said unto them, and it was said by Thom Smit: "A day shall come to pass when none shall be able to tell their ass from a hole in the ground. And then shall a great wailing be heard."

And he said: "Only those who from the very beginning could not tell their asses from holes in the ground--only such as these shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven. All others shall be cast out, and their asses shall be grass, and they will know not if they have been turned into a golf course, or what. Boy, will there be wailing then."

And he said: "Those who mistake their asses for a wheelbarrow shall inherit the earth."

And he said: "Blessed are they who try to catch flies in their mouth. Blessed are they who would rather hang out in a juice bar than flay the fox with the big boys."

And he said: "My father is a colonel and I am a sergeant major. My father could thrash all your male relatives with his left hand if he wanted. My father has forty-seven Cadillacs."

But the people heard him not, and they sent him packing from their patio parties; and their daughters did tend to throw garbage at the back of his head.

But verily, reader, can you tell your ass from a hole in the ground even now?


NB: Written in 1993 or so, and published in Heretic Days. Cosmo di Madison, whose real name was Robert Hicks, was a well-known charismatic in Madison, Wisconsin, from the 1980s until his mysterious death in 2008. Thom Smit was, like myself, a student and barista in one of Madison's busiest downtown cafes in the early 1990s. "Monkey Butt" was, if I remember correctly, one Dean Estrada, and worked at the cafe with us and "Craig", Craig Kilander (sp?). Further matter on the Great Cosmo di Madison here: Gospels from the Last Man

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gudding's Bestiary

I first encountered Gabriel Gudding's hair-raising work not six months ago in David Lehman's anthology Great American Prose Poems. Lehman included Gudding's stately, footnoted tirade "A Defense of Poetry," in which the poet unleashes what I now know to be very Guddingesque gambits: no-nonsense direct address, Rabelaisian bodily humor; a subtle, defamiliarizing mix of verbal registers, animals, and more animals. It's fair to say this last struck me most. My own writing tends toward animal tropes and fables.

After reading the piece in Lehman's anthology, I had to place an order to Amazon to get Gudding's first book, which I read and reread while waiting for his second book to arrive, his 436-page road poem entitled Rhode Island Notebook. Written between 2002 and 2004, Notebook records the writer's musings as he drove back and forth between his wife and daughter's residence in Rhode Island and his own residence in Normal, Illinois. It's a journal of sorts, written by a brilliant poet working to keep a long-distance marriage together and struggling in particular to stay close to his young daughter even as the marriage finally fails. There's much agonistic battling of heartbreak in its pages, but there is also, all along, a preternatural poetic verve, a new kind of American beauty that is both virile and playful. I've read nothing like it for years. As writer and humane observer of himself and others, Gudding has accomplished something I wouldn't have believed possible: he's written a long poem that is, through most of it, unputdownable.

Aside from the many themes the poet delves into (dung, the life of rivers, the Iraq war, alcohol, American history) Gudding also displays his penchant for animals. There is in effect a kind of Gudding bestiary one can construe across his two books. Rhode Island Notebook contains one of his many poetic epistles to animals, this time a letter to the whole huddling lot of them:


Many of you do not have breasts. This is
undeniable. I think immediately of amphibia,
the reptilians, birds--none of these possess
breasts nor anything upon which a nipple may
be mounted. I for instance have no fur.

. . . Though you and I
have very little in common, and I find your
bodies disturbing, I must say that despite your
biological distance from me, you and I ought
perhaps to have some coffee, should you drink
it--or possess a mouth.

What's more, I know that many of your penises
are odd, your vaginas strange, and your
faces long, flat or otherwise with horns. I
notice none of you wear watches, whereas I
gain distinct pleasure from a new watch . . . .
This is a totally human delight. Yet you must
have your own delights, like honking in a pond
or looking at your hooves for hours.

Gabriel Gudding
The flatness and wonder are characteristic of many of Gudding's most unsettling and effective passages. Elsewhere we find gnomic evocations like the following:
The chicken will never be let into
the European union because
it is not only impoverished, it is also not a
European country it is a chicken (47)

Butterflies are the bowties of fairies. (69)

Spiders are held together by very small tendons. (55)

I took the pig's shadow and made a
suit of it. The suit smelled of ham
and slop. A suit of ham shadow. (69)

A substantial portion of a cat's energy
goes into the production of fur.

The mentality of the housecat is principally that
of a decentralized bureaucrat, she is a loose soft
clerk who has lost the hallways. The groin
is full of leaks. (47)

A chicken is a chain of meat and bone
and a two-watt brain. (48)

There was no summer because the memo
ordering it was swallowed by the Gar. Stella
should not have. Who but the fish
can fully know worrisome lilies. (122)

I did not understand the dog, I think
that is why it bit me. (121)

A dog at heart is made of dust
and dust is wind that's mad (122)
There is the long sequence on "meat bees" which begins on page 123 and is woven into the next dozen pages:
Just crossed the Hudson. It is
caked w/ ice floes. Very deep
snow along hwy

A mammoth cloud is strapped to a bee
who tows it down to make
a slow fog. The meat of
a bee is weak and tastes of egg.

Meat bees are few in the
winters around Birmingham. Yet
here they fly, like flecks & bolts
of squeaking mutton.

. . .

Bees come from a
land of Clocks.

. . .

The face of the puppy was a
bumpy bacon. Yet we did not
skin the dog for its face. Instead we
sought to catch and flay the meated bee.

The beefy bee was like an large airborne pill
but w/ a coating of meat that made it

. . .

If I do so drive my rubber car
through the winds and plains of night
It is for to hunt the bee
and bring my family food.
Illinois State Line 9:52 PM CST
1012 M
But I do so for the sake of Merica,
to quieten its cloying huzzing.

A bee is a pill between wings.

I am like Cordelia who remaineth
quiet. But the bee is not. The
bumblebee reminds America
of the internal combustion engine
--and therefore all bees
must be suppressed:
bee meat is loud. (123-133)
There are the 70-mph drive-by observations:
Intricate nest of dogs and heavy cats
on hillside
garnished in a fluttering of Ducks.(69)
There are many hawks observed as Gudding covers his thousands of miles, many flocks of geese, and two sequences around the eagle, the first beginning:
We burned the eagle w/ Petroleum, pumpin
2 bullets into its tiny knees. We took a
nutcracker to its beak. (32)
I quote these animal passages only because they continue what is for me one of the most interesting strands in Gudding's work: his ongoing poetic adjudication of the oddness of animals and the oddness of our sameness/difference from them. Much of the poet's writing on animals is rough and tumble, but there is fellow feeling: a recognition of the importance of animals to any assessment of our own place in the world.

There's much else in Rhode Island Notebook to slap one awake besides the fragmentary bestiary. Gudding's poetics has in huge measure just the things I most value in literature. Foremost, he has a strong sense of the complex relations of literary humor to both suffering and healing. This is a theoretical or philosophical insight which, for Gudding, is of a piece with his practice as poet. The humor he deploys is not that of the aloof satirist, but rather that of the clown--a clown whose understanding and suffering lead to laughter and who laughs in order to further understand, and perhaps be healed.

Gudding's theory of humor has many antecedents, but I'm guessing one of the more important ones is Rabelais (a writer who, besides, is alluded to in Notebook), particularly in those aspects Bakhtin underlined in his writing on medieval laughter and the carnivalesque.

The poet also has a keen awareness of defamiliarization as one of the essential functions of literary language: namely that literature exists to break the frozen perception of things by exposing it as merely conventional. Literature reawakens the strangeness of all those things we'd come to take for granted. In one interview he puts it thus:
The purpose isn’t to be strange for the sake of strangeness. The point is to slow down the perception of the reader, so that the reader is not experiencing the poem automatically. Once our perceptual habits become automatic, we’ve dampened our innate capacity for wonder. So, one enstranges language not to put on a gratuitous display, but to allow again for wonder, to make, as Shklovsky says, “the stone stony again.”
All poets employ defamiliarization to different degrees: strong rhetoric is often a matter of effective defamiliarizing. Strictly speaking, one may say that tropes do double service: in service to the poetic, they defamiliarize; in service to ideology, they are agents of familiarization. It would be interesting, I think, to study Gudding's own arsenal of defamiliarizing moves and to compare them with the similar/different techniques of his contemporaries. There's something in Gudding that stands apart, and it seems to me that this difference is in the way his work defamiliarizes.

Finally, Rhode Island Notebook shows a poet ever aware of how language is used to hoodwink the gullible--aware especially of how depressingly effective official rhetoric is. Part of Gudding's work, then, is ideology critique, and in this vein his essay on dung is a masterpiece, a concise American rejoinder to the psycho-corporal economics of Freud and Bataille. Gudding pinpoints the "prissy" right there in the heart of what many compatriots take to be the most manly segment of the population: the red-state South. In this he is certainly correct. A central point in this road journal is that America is no longer so much the home of the brave as the echo-chamber of the fearful: security obsessed, isolated, prissily afraid both of the other and of its own private dung.

Alan Sondheim has called Rhode Island Notebook "the first 21st century classic." Sondheim also underlines what the book is not: "What could have been an experiment in conceptual writing has emerged into an exhilaration that makes me glad I'm still alive." This is apt. Gabriel Gudding's theoretical sophistication hasn't kept him from writing a brave and hilarious and readable book.

Rhode Island Notebook is published by the Dalkey Archive Press, the same folks who bring us Flann O'Brien.

Check Rhode Island Notebook book at

Links of interest:

"On Kindness and Hipness as They Relate to Cultural Production":


The above-quoted interview on poetry and creative writing:

Gudding takes part in a roundtable discussion on humor in poetry:

Some of my teen students in Taipei try their hand at Guddingesque defense: