Monthly Archives: March 2009

I wrote a week or so ago about a list that Georges Perec includes in his book Species of Spaces.  I had not read very far in Perec’s text when I wrote that post or I would have realized that his style, at least in this particular work, the only one that I have read, is largely dominated by the form of the list, which becomes a kind of stylistic motif. Vast portions of the book are made up of lists, and Perec’s descriptions of the spaces that he is contemplating almost always take this form. He even instructs his readers to approach the world in the mode of the list.

For example, in the section on “The Town”, he says, “Make an inventory of what you can see.  List what you’re sure of.”  Earlier, in a section on “The Street”, he describes the literary observation of an urban landscape in precisely the same way.  He instructs his audience to list the items around them, not the uncommon things, but the obvious and seemingly unimportant things.  “Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque, or pointless, or stupid.  You still haven’t looked at anything, you’ve merely picked out what you long ago picked out.”  A few pages later, he describes the purpose of this process: “Carry on,” he admonishes, “until the scene becomes improbable, until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or what is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town.”  What is being articulated here is a practise of writing that is explicitly concerned with the form and the function and the aesthetics of the list as a literary form.

It interests me that Perec locates the function of the list in its ability to defamiliarize what it is describing.  He suggests that, by attending to the common place, by itemizing, inventorying, cataloguing what is commonplace, the list, at least in the extreme and desirable case, makes these things strange. The items in the list become suddenly foreign, unrecognizable, incomprehensible.  In this way, at least according to a certain formalist tradition of literary criticism, Perec is making an argument for the list as a legitimate literary genre, since formalist critics often identify defamiliarization as one of the primary functions of literature and art.  By demonstrating that the list is capable of this kind of literary effect, not occasionally, but in a sustained way, Perec is essentially showing that the list should be understood as a literary form, as an artistic form.  Considering the affection that I have for the well-written list, I appreciate Perec’s efforts on its behalf.

Some of you may remember that I am trying to grow trees from seed, which is why I have been stratifying seeds in my refrigerator all winter.  At the beginning of this month, I planted the first seeds, Flowering Quince and Oregon Grapes, into pots, but I had low expectations that they would actually germinate.  Neither species is native to our area, so Henry Koch does not mention them in Growing Trees from Seed, the book that I have been using as my guide.  This meant that I had to guess about the length of their stratification period from his recommendations about other similar species, so I knew in advance that successful germination would be the result more of luck than of anything else, and it seemed that my meagre expectations would be confirmed.

The Flowering Quince fared much as I feared they might.  There is a single sprout, but it looks decidedly unlike a tree seedling, and I am suspicious that I am growing a weed.  I am giving it the benefit of doubt at this point, having never actually seen the seedling of a Flowering Quince, but I feel as though I am probably harbouring in my flower pot the vegetable equivalent of a cuckoo egg.

The Oregon Grapes seemed to be just as unproductive.  Actually, they seemed even less productive, since they had not managed to give me even a weed.  Yesterday, however, there was a sprout, tipped with the correct seed casing, undeniably the beginning of an Oregon Grape.  Today, there was a second sprout.  I am as excited as my sons are, who have to be restrained from watering the little plants on an hourly basis.  It is almost enough to make me romantic about spring.

Home is not a place for walking on water.  It does not give itself to miracles of this sort.  It is a place for wading deeply, up to the neck, until its crests pass over us and we breathe the still necessary air of the world, only in gasps, between its warm and uterine swells.  This is its miracle, that we find ourselves submerged in it, like a womb, and yet we do not drown.

When I finished writing my paper on Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, sometime during my BA, I never expected that I would have to write about her again. This past fall, however, I found myself reading and enjoying her novel The Passion, and I included a brief discussion of this book in a post on what I was reading at that time.  Now, for the second time in less than a year, I am writing about Winterson again, having discovered Tanglewreck, a children’s novel, while I was wandering the library with my children this past week.  These little literary ironies never cease to amuse me.

I almost passed over the book, just from sheer laziness.  Winterson’s name caught my eye from the shelf, but my immediate assumption was that there must be a second author by the same name, since I had never heard of Winterson publishing for children.  It was not until I followed my youngest son down the aisle for a second time that I became curious enough to take the book down and discover who the author of Tanglewreck really was.  Since it was the Winterson I knew, I borrowed it and read it last night in a single sitting.

Tanglewreck is a lovely little fantasy.  It has something of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere about it in the parts that take place below the streets of London, and it has something of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series also, though perhaps I only feel this because it plays with time as Pullman’s series does.  The narrative moves quickly, and the characters are entertaining, though, with the possible exception of the protagonist, a girl named Silver, they never really develop beyond the kind of charming stereotypes that make fairytales seem so familiar in their fantasy.

I was apprehensive at first, as soon as it became clear that the story would involve the manipulation of time, which I usually find is productive of nothing but incoherence and absurdity, particularly when it is combined with multiple universe theory, as it is to a small degree in this story.  The disjointedness that time travel and multiple universe produce is the principle reason why I am never really able to enjoy Pullman’s novels, for example, despite his sometimes startling originality.  In the case of Tanglewreck, however, Winterson manages to avoid some of these difficulties by refusing to provide a rational system to explain travel through time.  She makes no attempt to have the time fluctuations appear realistic, using them in an almost metaphorical role, a comment on the increasing speed of our technological culture. Travel through time, as the sudden reappearance of the past or of the possible future in the present, becomes an image of how technological society’s insistence on measuring time, on being on time, on making the most of time, can be disrupted by the past and the future, which remind us of time that cannot be measured, of time in which we cannot be present, of time that we cannot make.  As Winterson’s narrative voice says at one point,

“The river flows in one direction, but time does not.  Time’s river carries our spent days out to sea, and sometimes those days come back to us, changed, strange, but still ours.”

To me, this seems to be, among other things, an apt justification for the genre that Winterson is using.  I have always thought that one of the primary functions of fantasy as a genre, in its preoccupation with a mythical past, is to reintroduce a kind of instability into our perception of a manifest present.  The importance of this function grows in direct proportion to our culture’s technical, scientific, and industrial capacity to construct the present as self-evident.  The very genre of fantasy, therefore, brings back our days to us, changed, and strange, but still ours, and these days make our present strange also, so that we might learn to live in it differently.

I have been distracted these last few days, so I am only just getting around to writing about this past Saturday night’s Dinner and a Doc, which is a bit unfortunate, because it was a memorable evening, even if partly for the wrong reasons.

The first of these wrong reasons was a slew of cancellations. Some people were away because of March Break, others were ill, others had commitments, and so the only visitors who were added to the not inconsiderable population of our own home was a couple who had not been able to join us for Dinner and a Doc in almost a year. I was not too distraught. My intention has always been to show films that I would like to see anyway, and to watch them whether anyone joins me or not, and besides, I have often found that fewer people mean better conversation, especially when I have not had a chance to really converse with these people in some time, and especially when they have brought a nice bottle of wine.

The second of the unfortunate reasons was that, about halfway through the screening of the film, Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club, the couple who had come were called away by a minor family emergency, leaving just my wife, my mother, my mother-in-law, and me. Though we enjoy each other’s company, it was not exactly how we had expected the evening to unfold.

Fortunately, there were also many good reasons that the night was memorable, not least among them being the Smoked Beer and Cheddar Cheese Soup that I made, and the homemade bread and cinnamon buns that my mother baked to accompany it. The soup was not universally acclaimed, some finding the smoky taste a little overwhelming, but I enjoyed it very much, perhaps as much as any soup I have ever made. The opinion on the baking, however, was undivided. Loaves of whole grain bread and cinnamon buns filled with cranberries, both fresh from the oven, almost always produce a consensus of opinion, at least in my experience.

The film itself was also memorable, of course. Having heard so much about it, I was worried that it might not match my expectations, but I was not disappointed. The music is what it is: vital and marvellous, even for me, though Latin music is not at all a part of my regular listening. It is the musicians, however, who make the film compelling. Wenders arranges them in the homes and the streets and the buildings of their city and allows them to reminisce about their lives, causing their stories and their personalities to carry the narrative weight of the film, and creating the sense that the music is merely symbolic of the people who have spent their lives creating it.

I think that Wenders reinforces this idea that it is the musicians rather than the music who are the focus of the film by portraying the Amsterdam concert in black and white. Wenders had used black and white footage symbolically in at least one earlier film, Wings of Desire, a drama in which an angel decides to give up immortality and become human so that he can be with the woman he has come to love. Scenes from the angelic perspective are all shot in black and white in this film, while scenes from the human perspective are all in colour, representing the lack of feeling and emotion that is the cost of the angels’ immortality.

Considering this earlier usage of black and white film, I think that Wenders might be making a similar symbolic gesture in Buena Vista Social Club, keeping the footage of the concert in black and white to represent how it lacks the human life and vitality of the footage that is taken of the musicians in their own city and in their own homes. That the final Carnegie Hall concert is shown in colour might argue against this thesis, and while it might be that the black and white footage is merely intended to visually remind us of the fifties, the period when the Buena Vista Social Club was alive and active, I would argue that the effect of this footage is to mark a difference between when the musicians are on the stage and when they are in their homes. In the light of Wings of Desire, the black and white scenes seem to say, yes, you can have these wonderful musicians come and perform for you, but only at the price of removing them from the lives, and the emotions, and the contexts that make them who they are.

In this way, the film calls into question the act of going to the concert, at least insofar as this act is understood as a way to see musicians “live and in person”. In other words, it raises the problems of performance and identity, and it seems to argue that a meeting in the home is more live and in person than a concert in a hall. The film itself, however, is obviously as much a performance as a concert, and it is perhaps illusory to think that it offers any greater degree of intimacy than a music hall, but the subjects of the film make it difficult to maintain this kind of scepticism. However much they may be performing for the camera, however much Wenders may be arranging and prompting and editing their performances, there are moments when they seem to somehow emerge from the film and approach the audience.

Perhaps this is the reason that the final concert is shown in colour. Perhaps this is Wenders’ own concession that, however much media might distort their subjects, there are moments when the people themselves transcend the medium and come forth to us. Whatever the case, it is in this coming forth that the film finds itself. It is in the lives and persons of the musicians that it becomes what it is.

I have a kind of fascination with what I might call the poetics of the list.  While most lists have little poetry about them, I sometimes do come across one that manages to achieve something that is actually beautiful or ironic or profound.  I first started noticing this in some of the lists in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and I have been finding them ever since, most recently in my friend Dave Humphrey’s post on spring.

This morning I discovered another such list in Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, a book that was recommended to me by TC in a comment that she left many months ago and that I am now making the time to read.  The list appears in an early section of the book  where Perec is describing how just about every aspect of our culture, even what is most mundane, passes through writing.  He begins to list the ways that these things become inscribed, among which he includes the form of the list itself. In his own words,

“A list of urgently needed supplies (coffee, sugar, cat litter, Baudrillard book, 75-watt bulb, batteries, underwear, etcetera).”

There is something beautiful to me about Baudrillard being listed among Perec’s necessities, but at the same level as cat litter and underwear. This says much about Perec, and it may even say something about Baudrillard. It certainly says something about me, that I am so entertained by it.

I received an interesting email today in regard to my most recent post on open conversation. The email was from someone with whom I have exchanged several emails over the past few weeks, and he indicated that he was affiliated with Salon de ver Luisant, the site that had been discussing one of my older posts on expertise and amateurism in a forum that I had been unable to join.

The email made me aware that the site is not absolutely closed to new registrations after all. Though its Register link does say, “This forum is not accepting new registrations,” there is a thread on Registration Issues that provides an email to which requests for registration can be forwarded. This thread is clearly posted on the bottom of the site’s mainpage, though it is not posted on any of the other pages, which merely carry the misleading Register link.

As I was reflecting on this misunderstanding, it struck me that what was required in the situation was something like a gesture of openness on my part. If I would have refused to accept what I thought was a closed forum and had contacted the person who had used my post in the first place, I would have found someone who was not only willing to open a dialogue but one who had opened such a dialogue with me already. Even if this had not been the case, however, even if I had found someone who utterly rejected the possibility of a conversation, this gesture to openness would have been a far more appropriate response in many ways than my post was.

This raises a possibility for me. Though I would still say that an insistence on openness involves a kind of receptivity, a kind of passivity, a kind of availability to the approach of the other, even and especially through digital media, it is possible that certain situations might require a kind of activity that appears as a refusal of closedness, real or perceived. This is not the activity of a response, which encounter with the other always requires, even if it is only required in ways that appear as a passivity. This is an activity that, though it may not be an openness in itself, is a demand for openness, a call for openness, an insistence on openness on the part of the other. It is an activity that does not easily accept a closedness in the other, because it hopes that this closedness may be temporary, or illusory, or failing, and that an openness might appear there after all, against hope.

A week or so ago, I ran across one of my posts on a discussion forum. It had been copied and reposted in its entirety, along with my name and a link to the original post. The discussion was quite interesting, though sometimes critical of what I had written, and I thought that I would add my own comments in order to address some of the questions that had been posed. Unfortunately, the discussion group was closed to visitors, and I was informed, when I tried to join it, that it was not accepting new members. I can hardly overstate my frustration.

It was not that the group had chosen to pursue the discussion on their own site rather than mine. I know that many online writers consider this to be bad etiquette, but I think that there are perfectly valid reasons to begin a new discussion elsewhere rather than to pursue it entirely through a single source site. I myself have used my site to discuss other writing on the web, and I would say that this practise can only encourage the kind of open dissemination that is the greatest advantage of internet media.

Neither was it that the forum had copied my post in full that made me frustrated, because this also accords with what I believe the practise of the internet should be. I have not yet officially released the material on my site through a Creative Commons license, but this is entirely due to my own laziness. As long as my writing is attributed properly and is not being used to make a profit, I have no reservations at all about how people copy, share, and mix it. I firmly believe that this kind of openness is essential to promoting cultural creativity, whether through the internet or anywhere else.

No, what frustrated me was that the discussion was closed, that the conversation was posted publicly but restricted to its private members. To me, this kind of closedness is an affront to the nature of the internet. It takes a medium whose strength is in its capacity for openness and sharing, for dialogue and interaction, and makes it into the same kind of closed dialogue that could exist through any other medium.

I admit that there may be perfectly good reasons to keep a conversation private. I would even say that a good deal of what is posted publicly on the internet should probably remain private. However, to post publicly a closed conversation eliminates the very openness that make the internet function most effectively. It closes rather than opens dialogue. It arrests rather than mobilizes thinking. It paralyses rather than stimulates writing. It fails to encourage what I find most valuable in the internet: the open conversation.

Tom Abel and I took a break from I and Thou this week. We have not abandoned Buber altogether, just deferred him a little, until a friend of Tom’s can join us and contribute his more experienced voice to the discussion.

In Buber’s place, we read Hugh Kenner’s The Elsewhere Community, which was originally delivered as the 1997 CBC Massey Lectures. We chose it for the very simple reason that Tom found copies for two dollars each in the discount rack at a local mega-bookstore that I will leave nameless. Neither of us had ever heard of Kenner before, but the title and the summary on the back seemed interesting, so we read it.

It is a meandering, anecdotal book, circling around its argument rather than stating it outright, providing examples rather than definitions. Its thesis, far from explicit, is something like, “Going elsewhere, experiencing other places and people, becomes the basis of a kind of community between those who have had similar experiences.” Most of the book is not concerned with elsewhere communities generally, however, but with a literary elsewhere community, one that he describes mostly through his own experience of the community that he found among the modernist poets, particularly Ezra Pound. In this way, the book is also autobiographical to a degree, relating the history of Kenner’s introduction into the elsewhere community that defined his own work.

Kenner’s idea of the elsewhere community is an interesting one, and there is much in it that I recognize from my own attempts to foster community. For example, my first instinct in meeting someone for the first time is to discover the books and the films that we might have in common, and my first instinct to develop these relationships further is to suggest a book or a film that we might approach together. It is not necessary that this text be the subject of any sustained study or reflection, only that we begin to create the shared experience of these texts as a place through which our community might develop. In this sense, these texts function as an elsewhere, as Kenner himself argues, that can serve as the basis for community.

I do have several reservations about Kenner’s idea, however. The most significant of them is that he fails to distinguish between two different experiences that I would regard as being fundamentally different. On the one hand, he describes that places and the books and the people that one experiences and though which one forms community with others. On the other, he describes the people who are met themselves, the people with whom a community might be formed. Whereas I would mark these as very different things, even recognizing how they might interrelate, Kenner never really distinguishes between them. He speaks of going to Rome to see the ruins that Cicero saw in much the same way as he speaks of going to meet Ezra Pound, as though these two journeys were essentially the same, despite the fact that the latter resulted in a long lasting and significant relationship with Pound. I do not think that Kenner would actually understand these two kinds of journey to be the same, but he never marks them as being different, never suggests that they might be functioning in very different ways.

I find this especially interesting because Pound’s instruction to Kenner, the instruction that Kenner says is “the single most pregnant sentence” that he has ever heard uttered, does recognize this difference that I have been describing. “You have an ob-li-ga-tion,” Pound says to Kenner, “to visit the great men of your own time.” This is no injunction to merely read what these people have written or to go and see what they have seen. It is a demand that these people be met face to face, that they be encountered in themselves.

It was this demand that I found more compelling than Kenner’s own wandering narrative, and I found myself posing the question of who I would meet if I had the opportunity. Which writers and thinkers would be among the great for me? With which would I most like to form some sort of community?

After eliminating those who were already dead, I was surprised at how easily I arrived at a short list. I would meet David Cayley, because he is the one who introduced me to Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, and he stands as a sort of link for me to these deceased authors. I would meet Annie Dillard, because she writes the things that should be written. I would meet Walter Wangerin Jr., because he is the only living representative of a certain tradition of fantastical and allegorical writing that has influenced me tremendously over the years. I would meet Jean-Luc Marion, because he has had so profound an influence on my understanding of how theology and philosophy should be thought. These four would be the ones whom I would meet.

Interestingly, most of them are relatively accessible to me. Cayley lives in Toronto, a mere hour up the highway from me. Wangerin lives in Valparaiso, Indiana, which would be a fair drive but would be very close to Marion’s residence in Chicago, Illinois. To see the two of them on the same trip would neither be overly expensive nor exceptionally time consuming, and I am now seriously considering the possibility of making such a journey.

I am also interested to see how Pound’s demand might appear for others, so I am now referring the question to you. Who are the great writers and thinkers of our era, not speaking generally, but speaking according to their influence in you? Who would you go see? My only criterion is that they must be living, that you must be able to meet them face to face. The rest I leave to you.

There are several factors that went into choosing Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club for this month’s Dinner and a Doc. First, it is one of those famous documentaries that I should have seen by now but have not. Second, it is a film by another of the great contemporary documentarians that I want to introduce to people. Third, it is by all accounts a very positive film, and I am in the mood for something that will not be telling me how the world is coming to an end in one horrible way or another. We will have plenty of opportunity to depress ourselves in the coming months.

The Buena Vista Social Club was a Havana club that was a favourite place for Cuban musicians to meet and play during the 1940’s. It served as an inspiration for an album of the same name that featured several veterans of the club alongside guitarist Ry Cooder. The film explores the lives and music of these artists, following them from their home country to their acclaimed world tour in 1998.

Further information about the director and the film can be found at Wender’s official site.

Clips from the film can be found at the following links: Chan Chan and Candela.

As usual, the event will be at my place, 130 Dublin Street, Guelph, and all are welcome, though I do appreciate an email to let me know that you will be coming. We will eat at about 5:30 and begin the film at about 6:00.