The Accidental Modernist

March 26, 2010

I’m only about 70 pages into The Book of Basketball, but it’s already quite clear that Bill Simmons is Sholem-Aleichem’s heir to the title of mythologist of the mundane, transforming everyday occurrences into the stuff of legend. (Feel free to substitute Proust for Sholem-Aleichem if that better fits your frame of reference). Haverstam is right: Simmons is something of an accidental modernist. His “fan’s voice” is a unique, stylized version of language on par with Hem or Stein–though completely different–and his use of footnotes is unparalleled as a means for cultivating digressions. Modernism is both William Carlos Williams and Thomas Mann. And now, at a new century’s start, Bill Simmons.

Jonesin’ For Reality

March 16, 2010

I’m very excited for David Shield’s new Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a quest to define our obsession with the appearance of the real, truth, and authority. You know, truthiness. Half of the book is made up of unsourced-until-the-end quotes. You’ll never know what belongs to Shields, and what he lifted from other authors unless you constantly flip through the index. Some might find this fun, and others might just enjoy the ride. The mash-up culture orwhathaveyou.

Everyone invokes Walter Benjamin’s desire to write a whole piece consisting of nothing but quotes, so I won’t do that here. Nor will I address the scandal over James Frey and the general proliferation of memoirs in recent years. I will mention Andrew Sullivan’s running list of “The Odd Lies of Sarah Palin,” (because it’s great) many of which stem from her own memoir, since it led Stanley Fish to revisit his argument in the Times that a memoirist is incapable of lying since the lie serves their project of constructing the narrative of their life. This is interesting. Perhaps the conflict here owes to the fact that we (at least some of us) expect our politicians to be honest. How else could we know if they’re representing us? Either way, Fish is far from the (more accepted) idea of the “autobiographical pact,” the compact said to exist btw readers and autobiographer that everything about to be described is the truth.

My own thought on the matter is that all autobiography is like Roth’s The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, in that all autobiography is a draft waiting for someone to smack it down, but one impression of a life. Truth and reality is only ever provisional.

I don’t know whether or not Susan Sontag ever saw “The Wire.” She died in 2004, so it’s possible that she saw an early season or two, but I would guess that she did not. She largely stopped writing about popular culture after the 1960s, and–no matter the magnitude of its scope at the end–the first season superficially doesn’t rise above the level of procedural. Viewers know, of course, that it transcends the procedural, but casual TV guide flippers would not.

Unfortunately, after examining the evidence, I can’t come to a definitive position.

Argument in favor of her loving “The Wire”: length. In Notes on Sontag, Lopate remarks that Sontag gradually starts to acclaim only really long movies in her reviews. Says he,

She seemed to rater artwork in direct proportion to the number of hours it took to experience it. She was demonstrating …a “taste for spiritual and physical effort—for art as an ordeal” (USS, 33) She had become the queen of sitzfleish. * A Yiddish word meaning to apply one’s ppsterior to the seat for as long as it takes.

If she loved the paltry 15 hours that is Berlin Alexanderplatz, then she no doubt would have found The Wire orgasmic.

Inherently contradictory evidence: her attitude toward realism. She hates it. Until she loves it. Her early work is all about proving how great avant garde fiction is and how awful realist fictions are (read–or rather don’t–The Benefactor). Later, she comes to write realist romances in a way that enthralls Cynthia Ozick, sells books, and alienates lovers of consistency. She was against realism before she was for it! What’s to stop her from being so capricious again?

(Special thanks to the Republican National Committee for helping with this ad)

Evidence against loving The Wire: she dismissed the format completely. This is a theme of one of her later essays, “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning.” She might have liked the show, but you would have first had to get her to watch it.

I spend my days sitting at a study carrel, its tiny desk and shelf space overwhelmed by books. There is a reason for each book being there; each one represents a line of thinking, a narrative thread, a potential avenue in my dissertation. Like the space itself I often sit overwhelmed by all of these books and the seemingly infinite yet always overlapping research possibilities they represent. At the recommendation of The Ciceronian, I have decided to present an annotated bibliography of these books, a few at a time, in order to expunge some demons. However, since this is the internet (and more specifically Yesterday’s Salad), I will view these works through the gaze of why they’re important to me and not why they’re important to you. I originally planned to write about all of the books I could squeeze into frame in one picture taken with my cell phone’s camera, but I think I’ll run out of steam before that happens. And so, without further ado, I give you the first part in a series.

Wolfson of Harvard: portrait of a scholar by Leo W. Schwarz; with appreciations by Charles Angoff and Isadore Twersky and an epilogue by Lewis H. Weinstein

This is a biographical study and appreciation of the life and work of one of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century, Harry Austryn Wolfson. Wolfson was the first appointment in Judaic studies at an American university and contributed significant studies in the history of philosophy as well as the philosophy of religion. He was also one of the main advisers of Jacob Agus, the guy I’m writing my dissertation about.

Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish transition figures from Eastern Europe by Hillel Goldberg
This book is at times insightful and at times batty. It examines seemingly disparate figures who nevertheless share a background in the world of the Lithuanian Yeshiva in general and in circles associated with the Musar movement in particular. Musar was a phenomenon within East European orthodox Judaism that stressed the perfection of one’s moral character and the cultivation of virtue. What Goldberg does that is interesting is that he studies a figure like Wolfson who completely abandoned Jewish observance in order to pursue the universal claims of philosophy in order to demonstrate that his method of reading philosophical texts was somehow (unconsciously? subconsciously? this part is unclear) inspired by the orthodox Musar thought-world he rejected. Goldberg also looks at those whose continuity with orthodox tradition was unquestioned, like Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the patron saint and revered teacher of thousands of modern orthodox rabbis, Goldberg himself included. This book is just kind of crazy, but it’s kind of fun too. My guy, Agus, grew up in a very similar milieu but came to embrace non-orthodox, liberal Judaism, hence my interest in the book. These questions of intellectual biography consume me these days. How do we weigh continuity versus change? When a figure breaks with a tradition to what extent do they by necessity bring aspects of it along with them? Are we not equally defined by what we reject as we are by what we embrace?

(A draft of this post was saved at 11:11:11. Spoookkkkyyy.)

Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life
Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein by Hilary Putnam

Widely considered one of greatest philosophers of our time, Hilary Putnam’s career has been as varied as it has been important. He is known as a naturalist, a philosopher of science, and an important builder of bridges to span the chasm separating “analytical” and “continental” philosophy. What is less known, however, is that later in life, Putnam began to take an interest in Jewish religious practice. In an autobiographical introduction he tells the reader what brought him late in life to examine works by three of the 20th century’s finest exponents of Jewish religious thought…and Wittgenstein (he explains the seemingly odd choice to include him in the introduction as well). I don’t think I’m going to end up using this book at all, especially since I learned today that somebody recalled it and Butler Library will have my head if I don’t get it back there before the 22nd of this month. What’s really interesting about this book is what it tells us about Putnam himself; about the appeal of religion to even the sharpest of philosophical minds; about how we see people return to religiosity later in life. (Is there any connection here to Said’s argument about “late style”? I’m not being rhetorical; I’m asking because I don’t know.) Another interesting exercise is to link Putnam’s story to the broader narrative of the Jewish intellectual in American life. If Wolfson was an immigrant who was reared in pietistic, East European orthodox Judaism, but left the fold to pursue the universality of scholarship and philosophy, then Putnam (Professor Emeritus at, you guessed it, Harvard!) represents the scholar for whom Wolfson blazed the trail. (I can’t help but think of Tommy Lee Jones’ speech in No Country for Old Men about the dream he has.) Putnam also represents the story coming full circle as the defender of the universal finds himself groping for a way into a tradition previously left behind.

I’ll take my completely blown mind as a sign that it’s time to leave this exercise behind…for now. This has been “Annotated Study Carrel”.

I always write in library books. I’m not proud of it, but I do. I use pencil so that I can erase it if I have to. I always erase it if it’s a book that could be used by one of my cohort. I don’t want them to see what I’ve thought, whether it be smart or ridiculously stupid, since they aren’t full readings, only notes. Sometimes I intentionally leave things for other people to find them. I left a note in a copy of “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N” for Mr. Dale Pickle, explaining a Yiddish pun. I want to make sure he gets the joke.

And yesterday I left a note of sheer disgust in The Benefactor, Susan Sontag’s first novel. This is not a good book. Crash Davis said it best when in the middle of his seductive discourse to Annie he tells her:

Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap.

I’m actually surprised that anyone is overrating these books, since, at the time of Bull Durham, her only two successful novels (The Volcano Lover and In America) had yet to be released. The Benefactor is almost universally panned. Here’s how the generous New York Times review ended:

Miss Sontag is an intelligent writer who has, on her first flight, jettisoned the historical baggage of the novel. However, she has not replaced it with material or insights that carry equal, or superior, weight. Instead she has chosen the fashionable imports of neoexistentialist philosophy and tricky contemporary techniques. She has made an unfortunate exchange.

If this is overrating, than Crash Davis must really really hate Sontag’s novels.

My own experience with the book was: generally unpleasant but not all together painful…until the narrator tells us a long story about healing a horse by building a ridiculous home for it, a small tower, about 6 meters high with a view of the ocean, with a spiral ramp leading to a comfortable room up top for the horse to ascend and descend (I’m pretty sure that this was supposedly built by a poor peasant woman).

When the horse gets better, the narrator tells us…”Such are the curative powers of the right dwelling, with the appropriate architecture.”

At that point, I left the following note in the book: “uh…”

As eloquent as Crash Davis, I ain’t.

TJROB

February 25, 2010

I have really, really enjoyed the first issue of The Jewish Review of Books. I’ve especially enjoyed reading the 11X19 print edition, particularly since Abe Socher’s introduction to the publication talks about the presumed death of print as prophesied by Dr. Egon Spengler. It can still be enjoyed online of course.

The content is quite varied, with contributions as disparate as Harvey Pekar, Dara Horn (writing on Isaac Rosenfeld and the death of the luftmentsch) and Hillel Halkin (who just strikes me as a baller).

The best part of The New Republic‘s new online book review “The Book” is the prominence given to classic reviews. The “TNR Classics” section is one of the most visible on the homepage, located immediately below the lead review, next to recent articles, and above new takes on classic books. Better: “TNR Classics” isn’t just an invitation to search their archive but a deliberately curated trove of reviews that speak directly to contemporary issues.

Consider today’s lead article, “The Cult of the Best,” by Randolph Bourne, written in 1916. Bourne criticizes art education for concentrating on the teaching of masterpieces instead of fostering the sense of taste. He writes,

Artistic appreciation in this country has been understood chiefly as the acquiring of a familiarity with “good works of art,” and with the historical fields of the different arts, rather than as the cultivating of spontaneous taste. The millionaire with his magnificent collections has only been doing objectively what the anxious college student is doing who takes courses in the history and appreciation of art, music or literature, or the women’s clubs that follow standard manuals of criticism and patronize bureaus of university travel.

Zing!

Bourne’s essay somewhat anticipates Sontag’s famous “On Camp” in its insistence on taste as an aesthetic category, but it differs in its broader focus. “Camp,” since transformed from an interpretive mood to a category of art, can be acquired in much the same way as masterpieces for a similar type of cultural capital. Your iPod Video (do they still make iPod videos?) can hold “Priscilla: Queen of the Dessert” as easily as it does “Last Year At Marienbad.” For Bourne, this acquisition is worthless. What matters is “spontaneous taste,” the ability to appreciate and interpret at the moment of experience. And acquisition says nothing about aesthetic engagement.

But it’s not just that Bourne’s essay is vibrant in content, it’s presentation is indistinguishable from one written yesterday.  Read the rest of this entry »