Commonplace


… I was rarely sure what the men whom I met while staying with Mr Thims really meant; for there was no getting anything out of them if they scented even a suspicion that they might be what they call ‘giving themselves away.’ As there is hardly any subject on which this suspicion cannot arise, I found it difficult to get definite opinions from any of them, except on such subjects as the weather, eating and drinking, holiday excursions, or games of skill.

If they cannot wriggle out of expressing an opinion of some sort, they will commonly retail those of some one who has already written upon the subject, and conclude by saying that though they quite admit that there is an element of truth in what the writer has said, there are many point on which they are unable to agree with him. Which these points were, I invariably found myself unable to determine; indeed, it seemed to be counted the perfection of scholarship and good breeding among them not to have–much less to express–an opinion on any subject on which it might prove later that they had been mistaken. The art of sitting gracefully on a fence has never, I should think, been brought to greater perfection than at the Erewhonian Colleges of Unreason.

However this may be, the fear-of-giving-oneself-away disease was fatal to the intelligence of those infected by it, and almost every one at the Colleges of Unreason hadh caught it to a greater or less degree. After a few years atrophy of the opinions invariably supervened, and the sufferer became stone dead to everything except the more superficial aspects of those material objects with which he came most in contact. The expression on the faces of these people was repellent; they did not, however, seem particularly unhappy, for they none of them had the faintest idea that they were in reality more dead than alive. No cure for this disgusting fear-of-giving-themselves-away disease has yet been discovered.

I’ve got a soft spot for Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. I first read it early in my graduate career, and it’s one of the books that convinced me that the Victorian period was full of kick-ass-ness. This particular passage I’ve kept close to me, and one of the reasons I’ve done this blog using my full, googlable name has been to take preventive measures against this disease.

Lately, though, I believe I’ve become infected, to a greater degree. Partly this is due to the doom-and-gloom that’s come to settle on humanities departments world wide (although maybe not Singapore, from what I heard there at the AVSA conference this June), which has had me walking around with a constant feeling of the possibility I won’t have enough funding to finish my degree. It reached a head last night and today when I was serving on a faculty membership committee making decisions for appointments to the Graduate Center from the CUNY colleges. The degree of scrutiny to which candidates were subjected to was terrifying. Of course, the scrutiny’s entirely justified, but throughout the meeting I couldn’t help thinking about all the shortcomings a team of academics would be able to find in my scholarship, my teaching evaluations, my responses to Q & A, my team spiritedness, this blog (and hey, maybe even my fucking tweets [before I go on the market, I’d better scrub my online personae of all f-bombs, but for now, hey, I’m in NYC, it’s how we talk]). It’s one thing to think, in theory, how I don’t want to be an academic paralyzed from fear of making the tiniest of mistakes, but it’s another thing entirely to hear the tiniest of mistakes dissected and debated at length. With the knowledge that these decisions and dissections are being made in reference to tenured faculty, whereas here I am, a mere adjunct with little job security, now ineligible for tuition remission. It could be worse–I know I’ll be teaching next semester, whereas there are people in my program who may have to not take classes in the spring since all of CUNY’s slashing adjunct classes. And, even though I’m not making a living wage (and I mean living wage, not middle-class-lifestyle wage), I am making a wage.

Should i be voicing my anxieties? Am I breaking taboo by talking about how deeply my financial precariousness has impacted my intellectual confidence?

I believe I had a point when I started writing this post. Oh yeah, that disease thing, it’s one of the reasons why it’s been so long since posting here. And why it might be a while before I post again. And why I’m considering disappearing the site.

Adolphe was, by profession, an artist in hair — ingeniously forming weeping willows out of auburn tresses, and baskets of flowers out of chesnut, or, indeed, any other kind of locks. His hairy nosegays, he boasted, were the admiration of all who had seen them; and his flaxen roses and raven lilies he prided himself upon being the perfection of imitative art. Still, the hairy art was merely an imitative one, and the talented Sheek had a soul for nobler things. He had occasionally soared as high as a fancy composition in hair, and had executed an elaborate hairy marine piece, displaying a hairy sea and a hairy ship in the distance, with a hairy cottage, thatched with hair, in the foreground, and a small hairy pond in front of it, with two hairy ducks swimming among a thicket of hairy weeds.
Henry Mayhew, 1851, or the Adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Sandboys

So I spent today’s ride on the North Jersey Coast Local looking through Thomas Blackburn’s 1967 study of Robert Browning’s poetry. It’s a book that somehow came across my radar a few weeks ago, enough so that I interlibrary loaned it and then completely forgot that I had done so — enough that I was completely surprised when I got the email saying the book was in.

I still haven’t quite figured out why this book was so important. I have, however, stumbled across what’s obviously a forgotten gem of Browning scholarship.  Some examples:

“Browning’s admirers have not been remarkable for their subtlety. Perhaps it is just their lack of subtlety which has attracted them to some aspects of the poet, for when he is off-form he is a bird of the same feather and shares their heavy obviousness of thought and feeling. Time may well be an acid in which bad verse and bogus critical opinion dissolves, but the process is a lengthy one. Robert Browning has not been dead for a hundred years and around his great poems there is an exceptionally thick rind of bad work for the acid of time.”

“No doubt Baudelaire’s angst and syphilis were as effective in keeping his work clear of rubbish as a post in the Board of Trade. All Browning had was Elizabeth Barrett.”

“Unfortunately, though In Memoriam was extremely popular the public had an equal relish for Tennyson’s sentimental and didactic verse. The poet’s wife was a piece of human litmus paper. He had only to dip the devoted creature into some new poem and her change of color would suggest its value – in current market prices, not unfortunately in terms of poetry.”

On the “climax of … falsity” in Browning’s “Christmas Eve”: “…the poem’s supposed vision of Christ; a vision described in terms which would delight the heart of any producer of a super-technicolor film about Jesus; and was probably no more a part of the poet’s actual experience than the ascent of Everest.”

Those, at least, were the highlights I was able to record in my iPod while I was on the train. I’m sure I missed many other gems because I was skimming. I do think that the problem of a good poet writing bad poetry is an interesting one, and I think that we do tend to shy away from discussions like that in our contemporary criticism. On the other hand, I’m not sure that anyone who relies so much on the “thick rind” metaphor for bad writing (that’s an image that crops up with rather alarming frequency) gets to criticize other people’s poetic process.

In other news: it’s NVSA time! Inaugurating the lovely season of Victorian-tasticness that culminates in the CUNY Victorian Conference. I’m a bit sad to be missing the Pickwick Papers reading tonight, but I’ll be driving (!!) over to Princeton in the morning for a full day of panels and the big banquet. Now that I have a WordPress app installed on my iPod, anything is possible — depending on whether Princeton’s generous with the wifi.

So I admit that I’ve sort of been coasting on the series of posts I wrote in January, and once again I find myself in blog arrears. As an apology, I offer a smattering of my recent reading and scattered nineteenth-century-related thoughts:

At the risk of forever branding myself as a closet hipster, I confess that I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the song “A Horse is Not a Home” on Miike Snow’s debut album (the two Is in Miike are intentional) is a rewriting of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” [Ed. note: the e on the end of Childe is intentional ;)] This has been the obsession of several commutes this past week. I don’t have any particular fantastic analysis for why these two texts have become connected in my mind, except for the similar images they evoke and (arguably) a shared mood. I think maybe it has something to do with the chorus, disenchanting the same things that Browning was: “With a hole in my heart I was supposed to ride / In morning traffic / With a golden hand by your fortress side / But without magic.” Okay, these guys aren’t Browning. And they’re, um, Swedish. But I can respect a good pop song. You can decide for yourself. The song is here. The lyrics are here. “Childe Roland” is coming to the Dark Tower here.

I don’t remember exactly why I went to the NYU library last week, but I’ve ended up checking out a bunch of books, many of them pulled from the shelf in fits of semi-desperate inspiration. One of these was Andrew Miller’s The Burdens of Perfection. I realize that I’m late to the party on this one, but–wow. Good stuff. I hope that I can write a book like this someday. It was somewhat gratifying to see that Miller and I are coming from a similar view of 19th century history, a shared sense of the “epistemological disarray” of Victorian modernity and a need for thinking about receptivity to others. Miller also quotes Maurice and Newman, two figures who are virtually guaranteed to lead to an hour of fun on GoogleBooks and the entertainment of the idea of writing my second book on Victorian theology.

…which explains why I was probably the only person on the North Jersey Coast Local line yesterday kicking back with a copy of Newman’s “Christ Hidden From the World.” Here, Newman’s dwelling not on the works of Jesus as they are recorded in the gospels but on the obscurity in which Christ passed the first thirty years of his life, and it imagines Jesus in those years as being deemed unremarkable to those around him, particularly his close family and friends.  One of the recurring themes, in fact, is how difficult it is to tell the difference between someone who is merely outwardly good because of habit or calculation and someone who is truly holy, since many of the acts of holiness that exceed outward form are hidden from view. Holiness, Newman implies, must almost by definition be misunderstood by most people who are not holy — even though not everyone who is misunderstood is holy. Newman delivers a particularly strong smackdown to those who assume that they would have been numbered among the faithful in Jesus’ time:

We are very apt to wish we had been born in the days of Christ, and in this way we excuse our  misconduct, when conscience reproaches us. We say, that had we the advantage of being with Christ, we should have had stronger motives, stronger restraints against sin. I answer, that so far from our sinful habits being reformed by the presence of Christ, the chance is, that those same habits would have hindered us from recognizing Him. We should not have known He was present; and if He had told us who He was, we should not have believed him. Nay, had we seen His miracles (incredible as it may seem), even they would not have made any lasting impression on us. … I believe this literally would have been the case with most men.

Burn! There’s also a somewhat weirder passage where Newman goes into pretty specific detail about how the people physically closest to Christ would have been those who tortured and crucified him, though that’s less relevant to the above to what I’m still trying to do with “Karshish.” I’m sure, incidentally, that there’s a lot of Christian fiction out there that’s predicated on the idea that Newman presents here, of our  not being able to recognize Jesus if he was literally our next door neighbor — there was a skit that I used to perform in my evangelical youth group days that was based on this premise — but it certainly doesn’t seem like a major epistemological concern in these days when everyone has a Personal Jesus. (You had to know I was going to go there. I thought the Johnny Cash version would be particularly appropriate.)

Also did some detouring through Arnold this week, revisiting some of my old favorites: “The Buried Life” (which I sent to my lovely first-year writing students this weekend), “The Scholar-Gipsy,” and “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse.” I’m probably going to have to get Matt into my dissertation somehow. Maybe that will be the chapter I write when it’s a book. I’m very susceptible to some of Arnold’s complaints, even when I should know better. The following lines from “The Scholar-Gipsy” made their way into my notes for Wednesday:

For early didst thou leave the world, with powers

Fresh, undiverted to the world without;

Firm to their mark, not spent on other things;

Free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt,

Which much to have tried, in much been baffled, brings.

O life unlike ours!

Who fluctuate idly without term or scope,

Of whom each strives, nor knows for what he strives,

And each half lives a hundred different lives;

Who wait like thee, but not, like thee, in hope.

It’s at least a tempting lament when one is looking forward to days of meetings and various bureaucratic strife.

Speaking of “The Buried Life,” I haven’t yet caught the MTV show of the same name. I’m sure I will at some point — many of the cardio machines at the gym I recently joined are connected to TVs, and I’ve already seen several meta-iterations of Jersey Shore and an intensely disturbing feature called “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” So, yeah, “The Buried Life” can’t be far behind.

Finally, I’ve also been enjoying Pater this week. I’ll leave you with a quote from his 1865 essay, “Coleridge,” which was reprinted in Appreciations.

The relative spirit, by its constant dwelling on the more fugitive conditions or circumstances of things, breaking through a thousand rough and brutal classifications, and giving elasticity to inflexible principles, begets an intellectual finesse of which the ethical result is a delicate and tender justice in the criticism of human life.

In other news, I started my Christina Rossetti bibliography today in hopes of spurring myself to finish up with Browning. Am annoyed by journals that still have obnoxiously slim archives online. Essays In Criticism, I’m looking at you.

Braddon started writing Aurora Floyd (serialized 1862-63) in the period between the failure of Robin Goodfellow, which had been serializing Lady Audley’s Secret, and the time when she was forced to finish Audley due to popular demand. All signs point to a formulaic hack job–and, honestly, this is what made me put it on the list, and I thought there’d be some interesting bad writing going on.
But no! I’m finding AF disappointingly good. I’m about a third through it, and it doesn’t really feel like a sensation novel at all–it’s almost as if Braddon listened to complaints about sensation novels and wanted to write proper realist fiction. And i think she succeeds. Here’s one set piece narratorial self-indulgence that sounds like it could have been written by George Eliot:

I might fill chapters with the foolish sufferings of this young man; but I fear he must have become very wearisome to my afflicted readers; to those, at least, who have never suffered from this fever. The sharper the disease, the shorter its continuance; so Talbot will be better by-and-by, and will look back at his old self, and laugh at his old agonies. Surely this inconstancy of ours is the worst of all–this fickleness, by reason of which we cast off our former selves with no more compunction than we feel in flinging away a worn-out garment. Our poor threadbare selves, the shadows of what we were! With what sublime, patronizing pity, with what scornful compassion, we look back upon the helpless dead and gone creatures, and wonder that anything so foolish could have been allowed to cumber the earth! Shall I feel the same contempt ten years hence for myself as I am to-day, as I feel to-day for myself as I was ten years ago? Will the loves and aspirations, the beliefs and desires of to-day, appear as pitiful then as the dead loves and dreams of the bygone decade? Shall I look back in pitying wonder, and think what a fool that young man was, although there was something candid and innocent in his very stupidity, after all? Who can wonder that the last visit to Paris killed Voltaire? Fancy the octogenarian looking round the national theatre, and seeing himself through an endless vista of dim years, a young man again, paying his court to a “goat-faced cardinal,” and being beaten by De Rohan’s lackeys in broad daylight.
Have you ever visited some still country town after a lapse of years, and wondered, O fast-living reader! to find the people you knew in your last visit still alive and thriving, with hair unbleached as yet, although you have lived and suffered whole centuries since then? Surely Providence gives us this sublimely egotistical sense of Time as a set-off against the brevity of our lives! I might make this book a companion in bulk to the Catalogue of the British Museum, if I were to tell all that Talbot Bulstrode felt and suffered in the month of January, 1858,–if I were to anatomize the doubts and confusions and self-contradictions, the mental resolutions made one moment to be broken the next. I refrain, therefore, and will set down nothing but the fact, that on a certain Sunday midway in the month, the captain, sitting in the family pew at Bulstrode church, directly facing the monument of Admiral Hartley Bulstrode, who fought and died in the days of Queen Elizabeth, registered a silent oath that, as he was a gentleman and a Christian, he would henceforth abstain from holding any voluntary communication with Aurora Floyd. But for this vow he must have broken down, and yielded to his yearning fear and love, and gone to Feldon Woods to throw himself, blind and unquestioning, at the feet of the sick woman.

Okay, it’s a bit over the top, but what do you expect from Victorian prose? What I particularly like is that idea of separate selves from different time periods that Andrew Miller talks about in Burdens of Perfection (he puts it much more eloquently than that, but I don’t have time to make things pretty). And the idea of a “sublimely egotistical sense of Time” leads to all sorts of directions you wouldn’t associate with a sensation novel.
Where AF does feel like a variation of the LAS formula, though, is the whole idea of some chick having a secret. Really, it could have been called Aurora Floyd’s Secret. And it’s thinking about these secrets that I got my Clever Idea about the genre of sensation fiction. The Basic Story about it is that it’s like Gothic romance, but instead of taking place in suspect Papist places on the Continent, it happens within the domestic sphere, and that’s what’s so spooky about it. So here’s my Gothic/Sensation grand narrative. In “The Eye of Power,” an interview translated in Power/Knowledge (1980), Foucault explains the Panopticon in relation to the Gothic:

A fear haunted the latter half of the eighteenth century: the fear of darkened spaces, of the pall of gloom which prevents the full visibility of things, men and truths. It sought to break up the patches of darkness that blocked the light, eliminate the shadowy areas of society, demolish the unlit chambers where arbiitrary political acts, monarchical caprice, religious superstitions, tyrannical and priestly plots, epidemics and the illusions of ignorance were fomented… During the Revolutionary period the Gothic novels develop a whole fantasy-world of stone walls, darkness, hideouts and dungeons which harbour, in significant complicity, brigands and aristocrats, monks and traitors. The landscapes of Ann Radcliffe’s novels are composed of mountains and forests, caves, ruined castles and terrifyingly dark and silent convents. Now these imaginary spaces are like the negative of the transparency and visibility which it is aimed to establish. (153-154)

If the Gothic novel (and the Panoptic gaze) centers on the issue of space, sensation fiction obsesses about time. Robert Audley (like Walter Hartright before him) carefully plots events in time, whittling away a mysterious three year period into, finally, two specific days. Everything is about the Andersonian “meanwhile,” and the precision with which it can be fixed. And how is AF’s secret framed? It seems to me that it’s not so much sensational that we don’t know what she did and want to find out–it’s the maddening sense that there’s this span of time with definite start and definite end (which again gets whittled down) about which we know nothing. Dark time instead of dark space.

…is about as annoying as I had feared. Still, there’s an interesting bit on China in Past and Present:

Or let us give a glance at China. Our new friend, the Emperor there, is Pontiff of three hundred million men; who do all live and work, these many centuries now; authentically patronised by Heaven so far; and therefore must have some ‘religion’ of a kind. T his Emperor-Pontiff has, in fact, a religious belief of certain Laws of Heaven; observes, with a religious rigour, his ‘three thousand punctualities,’ given out by men of insight, some sixty generations since, as a legible transcript of the same,– the Heavens do seem to say, not totally an incorrect one. He has not much of a ritual, this Pontiff-Emperor; believes, it is likest, with the old Monks, that ‘Labour is Worship.’ His most public Act of Worship, it appears, is the drawing solemnly at a certain day, on the green bosom of our Mother Earth, when the Heavens, after dead black winter, have again with their vernal radiances awakened her, a distinct red Furrow with the Plough,– signal that all the Ploughs of China are to begin ploughing and worshipping! It is notable enough. He, in sight of the Seen and Unseen Powers, draws his distinct red Furrow there; saying, and praying, in mute symbolism, so many most eloquent things!

If you ask this Pontiff, “Who made him? What is to become of him and us?” he maintains a dignified reserve; waves his hand and pontiff-eyes over the unfathomable deep of Heaven, the ‘Tsien,’ the azure kingdoms of Infinitude; as if asking, “is it doubtful that we are right well made? Can aught that is wrong become of us?”–He and his three hundred millions (it is their chief ‘punctuality’) visit yearly the Tombs of their Fathers; each man the Tomb of his Father and his Mother: alone there, in silence, with what of ‘worship’ or of other thought there may be, pauses solemnly each man; the divine Skies all silent over him; the divine Graves, and this divinest Grave, all silent under him; the pulsings of his own soul, if he have any soul, alone audible. Truly it may be a kind of worship! Truly, if a man cannot get some glimpse into the Eternities, looking through this portal,– through what other need he try it?

Our friend the Pontiff-Emperor permits cheerfully, though with contempt, all manner of Buddhists, Bonzes, Talapoins and such like, to build brick Temples, on the voluntary principle; to worship with what of chantings, paper-lanterns and tumultuous brayings, pleases them; and make night hideous, since they find some comfort in so doing. Cheerfully, though with contempt. He is a wiser Pontiff than many persons think! He is as yet the one Chief Potentate or Priest in this Earth who has made a distinct systematic attempt at what we call the ultimate result of all religion, ‘Practical Hero-worship:’ he does incessantly, with true anxiety, in such way as he can, search and sift (it would appear) his whole enormous population for the Wisest born among them; by which Wisest, as by born Kings, these three hundred million men are governed. The Heavens, to a certain extent, do appear to countenance him. These three hundred millions actually make porcelain, souchong tea, with innumerable other things; and fight, under Heaven’s flag, against Necessity;–and have fewer Seven-Years Wars, Thirty-Years Wars, French-Revolution Wars, and infernal fightings with each other, than certain millions elsewhere have!

Which passage follows his advice to factory operatives to wash themselves.

Césaire, Memmi, Fanon vs. Said, Spivak, Bhabha

In my ever-shifting reframing of the po-co list, my latest title is ‘Post-colonialism, Globalization, and the Cultural Turn.’ The idea is to look at po-co theory from a kind of history of ideas perspective, thinking about postcolonial thought in terms of this decades-long ‘cultural turn’ which may, I wonder, be coming to an end? By ‘cultural turn,’ I mean work during the post-war and decolonization era that argued that politically engaged work should engage with culture at least as much as economics. And then, with the rise and declawing of cultural studies, the glossing over of class, labour, and economic issues.

I’ve only gotten through two of the three before the three, but I’ve already started to forget the first one, for which I failed to take any notes at all. Oops. I’ll only talk about C and M here.

An embarrassing admission: I hadn’t heard about Albert Memmi before noticing his name on a lot of poco lists. Rather than blaming myself though 😉 ,  I’ll blame it on an Anglo-American structural bias (i.e. limited syllabus space, disciplinary boundaries) against French work that’s not Theory with a big T. Still, though it makes a difference to think about Fanon as part of a movement, and to think of C as one of the founders of postcolonial theory instead of the negritude dude (okay, I know, I really should have known that).

Alrighty, so the cultural turn and Césaire and Memmi. Discourse on Colonialism is all about decadence. It begins,

A civilization that proves  incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.

Civilization is pretty much synonymous with culture here, and there’s nothing necessarily economic about those ‘problems.’ Nevertheless, it’s clearly Marxist in orientation, with constant reference to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat:

It is a fact: the nation is a bourgeois phenomenon. (57)

There’s the by now familiar idea that colonization works by dehumanization or “thingification” (21). What’s most indicative of the cultural turn is this fantastic (and very Victorian) passage:

Therefore, comrade, you will hold as enemies–loftily, lucidly, consistently–not only sadistic governors and greedy bankers, not only prefects who torture and colonists who flog, not only corrupt, check-licking politicians and subservient judges, but likewise and for the same reason, venomous journalists, goitrous academicians, wreathed in dollars and stupidity, ethnographers who go in for metaphysics, presumptuous Belgian theologians, chattering intellectuals born stinking out of the thigh of Nietzsche, the paternalists, the embracers, the corrupters, the back-slappers, the lovers of exoticism, the dividers, the hot-air artists, the humbugs, and in general, all those who, performing their functions in the sordid division of labor for the defense of Western bourgeois society, try in divers ways and by infamous diversions to split up the forces of Progress–even if it means denying the very possibility of Progress–all of them tools of capitalism, all of them, openly or secretly, supporters of plundering colonialism, all of them responsible, all hateful, all slave-traders, all henceforth answerable for the violence of revolutionary action. (33-34)

(Of course, one of the reasons this stuck out to me is my role as an academician, while not wreathed in dollars to the extent as somebody who blows up the world economy, still gets paid in first-world currency, who is certainly quasi-functioning in the “sordid division of labor.”)

Memmi. He’s a lot more careful about the hierarchy within the colonized (in part to his own Jewish identity, as he explains). In terms of thinking about the difference between the colonial model and the globalization model, the idea of “linguistic dualism” is important:

The colonized is saved from illiteracy only to fall into linguistic dualism. This happens only if he is lucky, since most of the colonized will never have the good fortune to suffer the tortures of colonial bilingualism. They will never have anything but their native tongue; that is, a tongue which is neither written nor read, permitting only uncertain and poor oral development.

Granted, small groups of academicians persist in developing the language of their people, perpetuating it through scholarly pursuits into the splendors of the past. But its subtle forms bear no relationship to everyday life and have become obscure to the man on the street. The colonized considers those venerable scholars relics and thinks of them as sleepwalkers who are living in an old dream.

Possession of two languages is not merely a matter of having two tools, but actually means participation in two psychical and cultural realms. Here, the two worlds symbolized and conveyed by the two tongues are in conflict; they are those of the colonizer and the colonized. (106-107)

I don’t feel like typing up yet another huge block quote, and it’s getting late, but the part a few pages before about the “refuge value” of family and religion is really important.

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