Daniel Bosch on Daisy Fried’s poem “Torment”

Here is a fine reading by Daniel Bosch of one of the best poems of the last few years, Daisy Fried’s “Torment,” from her Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013). I wonder, though, if Bosch is right? That is, is it true that “Torment” doesn’t allow any ironic distance between the character and the creator/narrator? The difference isn’t secure, true, just as the “Daisy” character can’t feel smugly superior to the confusions of the Princeton students; all this makes for powerful drama. But Bosch’s reading undercuts the reflective power of the poem, its ability to see ironies in retrospect that you can’t see when immersed in experience as it unfolds. That’s another level of “torment,” but also suggests something else: the poem does more than lacerate its characters and author. The Larkin comparison is brilliant, but I’m really struck by how Larkin resorts to quasi-religious/Christian imagery and allusions to generate ironic distance from unthinking happiness or envy in “High Windows,” whereas Daisy on the Dinky train does not (except perhaps via the distant echo of Dante in the title). That said, the depth of this reading definitely honors “Torment,” a poem that’s well worth reading and re-reading. [Full disclosure: Daisy Fried is a Swarthmore grad, but that has little to do with why I so admire this poem.]


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on Rilke’s Duino Elegies: the best translation in English

A Goodreads review on mine:
Duino Elegies

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Sharing an essay by Leigh Alexander, from the Gamasutra website: The tragedy of Grand Theft Auto V

Gamasutra – Opinion: The tragedy of Grand Theft Auto V.

For my own much earlier piece on the bizarre metaphysics of video games, plus one way to think about video games’ links to early animated cartoons, see Gamer (1999).

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on Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken being sold by PAFA

Click on the link below for a short piece on Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken (1934), being sold by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to raise money to buy contemporary art.

on Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken

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On “In Search of a Gay Aesthetic” in Fashion History, a NYTimes article about a show at the Fashion Institute of Technology

In Search of a Gay Aesthetic – NYTimes.com.

Some key things you get to learn about in this sweet piece by Guy Trebay: 18th-century “molly” houses (yet where is the equally important invention, from even earlier, of the “fop”?); the “tell” as it has changed over time; how things can be “hidden in plain sight”; and how much work it takes to recover a richer knowledge of “history.” But I thought the most moving writing came near the end, with the discussion of Bill Robinson and the generation or more lost to AIDS. As the article suggests, Robinson’s interpretation of queer signifiers in fashion was subtler than many of his contemporaries, which shows a different kind of strength and pride (not to mention wit and style). It’s just one hint here that — despite this article’s headline — the show itself doesn’t encourage us to stress only sameness when we do queer history.

Some things that needed to have been explored more: 1) the article assumes the show suggests the “gay aesthetic” is uniform, but most of the examples point in another direction, hinting that it may not be wise to assuming queering is always the same; 2) the show favors queer, the Times gay: what’s lost in translation?; 3) how to understand the practice of ‘inning,’ the opposite of outing, especially as it occurs in an industry (and a culture) that is both rife with homophobia yet also dependent on queer designers and culture for much of its best creativity; 4) how well does the show balance men’s and women’s contributions?; and 5) what happens when styles originating on the lavender catwalk (as the show and article call it) begin circulating elsewhere, where many viewers and wearers enjoy the aesthetic of something but have no knowledge about its origins or history.

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Air Effects (on Proctor & Gamble Febreze TV ads)

Anyone else besides me creeped out by the Febreze air freshener commercials on TV, sponsored by Proctor & Gamble? Some of them feature various folks blindfolded and sequestered in gross spaces—ratty cars, moldy abandoned apartments with scuzzy old couches, etc. They are then surrounded with foul things like rotting vegetables and days-old fish, which of course they can’t see but WE can. The air in their space has been recently heavily sprayed with Febreze. The subjects are asked what they smell, and they say things like “mmmm, smells like fresh pine,” or mention other scrumptious scents, while we the audience are grossed out by the contrast between what they think surrounds them and what we can see. Some images feature not just blindfolded “subjects” but other folks in lab coats, as if the commercial we are watching is somehow a documentary of a lab experiment–with us as both watcher and blindfolded subject.


The most disturbing and interesting detail: in some of the ads, the person is told to remove the blindfold near the ad’s end—and realizes to her or his shock that they are alone in a disgusting place. One of them plaintively says, “hello?” like she’s hoping someone will show up and help her to get out of this creepy place and explain to her what the heck is going on. (In other ads, the subjects have their blindfolds removed and are shocked to see their gross surroundings–and then shocked again, and embarrassed, to see others watching them as they realize they’ve been fooled. Their facial expressions show horror, embarrassment, disgust, but never anger (why not? because they’re being paid?)….

These ads were surely intended simply to show us a “scientific” experiment with a blindfolded subject to convince us that Febreze works miracles and we should buy it. But I can’t get past how they make unforgettable that moment of profound shock. Not just embarrassment and disgust (at the smells, at being manipulated), but–in the ad where the person is left alone, not surrounded by those in the know–a reaction something like this: “I’ve been blindfolded, deceived by aerosol perfume, and abandoned. How do I get out of this place?”

I wonder, do the Febreze ads also work on another level, as powerful (unintended?) commentary on our current political rhetoric? After all, we’re in a profoundly scary and rotten place as a nation, and many have been blindfolded and had perfumes wafted by our noses in order to keep us secure. What happens when that blindfold is removed? “Hello?”

The Febreze marketing campaign has another name for the results Febreze has on blindfolded people: “air effects.” You can sample a wide array of recent Febreze blindfold test subject commercials on, where else, YouTube.

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See my U.S. fiction class’s annotations to Gary Shteyngart’s satire _Super Sad True Love Story_ (2010)

Click on the Digital Humanities Projects link in the menu above, which will take you to the table of contents for the annotations and a link to the annotations themselves, in a pdf file. Enjoy! Based on work produced by students in English 52B, Spring 2013, Swarthmore College.

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Two Mistakes Jonathan Franzen’s Haters and Fans Both Make

Introduction for Jonathan Franzen, Swarthmore College, Feb. 14, 2013.

Good evening. Speaking for our community of readers, I’d like to welcome you, Jonathan, back to Swarthmore. As for you, the audience, I will do you credit and not list Jonathan’s books and prizes, nor will I discuss a certain TV talk-show host, nor even cite what national magazine featured him on its cover. (Though I must admit that I’m grateful to them for printing an article on Jonathan’s most recent novel, Freedom, for their piece gave me some different reading when I came across it among piles of magazines like Guns & Ammo and GQ while enjoying waiting for an hour in the fluorescent customer lounge of a local auto repair shop.) Instead, by way of introduction I’d like to speak briefly on two common misperceptions about Jonathan’s fiction held by many of his detractors and his fans.

The first misperception is that many assume Jonathan’s fiction is disguised autobiography. This is a common problem many fiction writers face, particularly in the U.S. Jonathan himself in interviews and essays has been very open about the ways in which, say, Enid and Alfred Lambert in The Corrections are somewhat inspired by certain traits in his parents. He’s also spoken eloquently about how he sees himself basically as a comic novelist, and that a significant breakthrough in his development happened when he learned to treat ironically his own obsessions and self-delusions. “Self-deception is funny,” Jonathan’s said. As Henri Bergson argued about comedy long ago, we laugh at what is mechanical and unconscious in others, and comedy’s hope is that such laughter may liberate us from our own unconsciously imprisoning behaviors. But many readers either miss or downplay the critical self-engagement in Jonathan’s work and assume that his narratives are primarily self-regarding, a mirror held up to himself, even if that reflective surface is sometimes admitted to be a rather well-made fun-house mirror. Let me offer a somewhat different point of view. I think when we call his work autobiographical it is often a defense mechanism—it’s because his writing makes us uneasy. It touches a nerve; it holds a mirror up to us and shows us all too clearly delusions and difficulties we share with his characters. The Corrections, for instance, gives us not just richly drawn protagonists, one of the most profound portraits in all of American literature of the loving and demonic dynamic of family life. It also parodies all kinds of master narratives that hold sway over our psyches. To name just two, he imitates concepts from market economics that influence how we treat each other, and also what Jonathan has called the new materialism of the brain, in which character and memory themselves are seen as mere functions of chemistry adjustable by drugs. Jonathan is also adept at mixing competing master discourses in unusual ways, so that we become conscious of them as full of questionable assumptions and results. They seem suddenly rather laughable; their authority detumesces. A classic example would be a comic paragraph in The Corrections that describes Gary Lambert’s pornography using the diction of industrial mass production. “There was something of the assembly line in these images. The beautiful nude blonde was like fresh raw material…. [T]he worker clamped the material into a series of horizontal and vertical positions, crimping and bending the material as necessary, and very vigorously processed it with his tool” (169). (By the way, if you want an example of how this kind of discourse functions when it takes itself with utmost seriousness, as high-tech sublime rather than as parody, consider the recent Calvin Klein male underwear ad featuring abs, pecs, and oiled engine parts that got such a buzz during the Super Bowl. This new underwear design is dubbed Calvin’s “Concept” line.)

As Austen and Dickens and Thackeray well understood, fiction’s ventriloquism can expose such master languages as seductive fictions, I might even say frauds, and it does this not just by pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes, but also by showing us why we so intensely need to outfit such master narratives with robes and authority in the first place. “Concept” lines, indeed. As I said, the Franzen fun-house mirror is primarily directed at us, and this both delights and disturbs.

The second common delusion about Jonathan’s writing follows from the first, and it too is symptomatic of larger issues in American and contemporary global culture on which Jonathan helps us focus. Instead of being too autobiographical, this way of reading him overemphasizes the satiric. True, irony and satire are present on just about every page of his fiction, and they are delicious. Those who enjoy his work’s satire, though, often identify with the author as a kind of cruel god far above his characters—Olympian, aloof, ironic, and unforgiving as he skewers their self-delusions with sentences as sharply honed as Zeus’ thunderbolts. Yes, it’s heady fun; we can smile at a character’s misunderstanding of his or her own life from an apparent position of superiority somewhat approaching that of the author himself. But lots of contemporary popular culture is driven by safe mockery, even a kind of smiling sadism. To last, art has to counter this kind of arrogance, not just feed off it. Franzen is primarily a tragicomic author, as my colleague Phil Weinstein demonstrated in his faculty lecture here a few weeks ago. I agree. Franzen rightly understands that satire must be a means, not an end. The materialistic master-languages that he mocked in The Corrections have only become more powerful in contemporary life since 2001. That materialism, he believes, is “antithetical” to the ancient project of literature, which “is to connect with that which is unchanging and unchangeable, the tragic dimension of life” (Franzen, Paris Review interview). Empathy and catharsis, not just satiric distance, are crucial to understanding the full resonance of his art. That his sentences simultaneously inspire in us so many different responses is a miracle only the best writing can achieve.

For instance, consider the prose near the beginning of The Corrections portraying Alfred Lambert trying to pack a suitcase (p. 11). An expert builder of railroads and communications systems, Alfred has the work ethic and world-view of the mid-twentieth century generation that created modern industrial America. But now his own systems are beginning to fail due to Parkinson’s disease—his body won’t often do what his mind wants and his mind keeps losing its train of thought. Asked by his wife Enid what he is up to, he tries to speak a simple sentence— “I am packing my suitcase,” subject, verb, object, job done—but he gets lost in the middle of that sentence by runaway thoughts and fears. These are rendered for us by a magnificent periodic sentence of Jonathan’s that takes place between dashes in the time-space gap that opens up when Alfred pauses speaking. I’ve had to trim this long sentence for this introduction, but my excerpt will still give you a taste of its headlong momentum and haunting imagery:

“I am—” but when [Alfred] was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he’d entered, he would realize that the crumbs he’d dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds…. In the instant of realizing he was lost, time became marvelously slow and he … became trapped in that space between words and could only stand and watch as time sped on without him, the thoughtless boyish part of him crashing on out of sight blindly through the woods while he, trapped, the grownup Al, watched in oddly impersonal suspense to see if the panic-stricken little boy might, despite no longer knowing where he was or at what point he’d entered the woods of this sentence, still manage to blunder into the clearing when Enid was waiting for him, unaware of any woods— “packing my suitcase,” he heard himself say. (11)

This sentence plunges us into Alfred’s vertigo, his desperate attempts to keep order and purpose even as forces he calls the “darkness” undo his efforts. We follow and feel his very self split into desperate child and dying man, a Hansel in the Hansel-and-Gretel tale losing his map of the world. The syntax here, which endlessly revises itself while also swerving in new directions, makes us as we read experience the chaos of Alfred’s thoughts. And yet the sentence itself, when seen as a whole, is not chaotic at all; it is superbly balanced and calibrated. As readers we experience Alfred’s panic from inside yet also are outside of it, guided by a master sentence-maker who shows us both the comedy and the tragedy, the outside and inside, of Alfred’s fate. This is great art indeed, and something far more rich and complex than just satire.

One good term for it might be borrowed from the critic James Wood, who has argued that much of the best modern fiction creates “comedies of forgiveness” very different from either mockery from a distance or tragedy experienced solely from within. Certainly the plots of both The Corrections and Freedom move toward profound moments of forgiveness, given and received, for some of their characters—Denise and Chip in The Corrections allowed to understand their parents in a new, more adult way, or Patty, my favorite character in Freedom, saying “it’s me, just me” near that novel’s end (559). (Whether Walter or Richard in Freedom, or Gary in The Corrections, eventually seek or earn forgiveness would be an interesting matter to debate.)

Introducing a fine novelist in under five minutes, as you can see, is an impossible task. So I’ll end with my own simple sentence. Please give Jonathan Franzen some Swarthmore Valentine’s Day love.

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Philip Roth Says He’s Done Writing Books – NYTimes.com

Are we supposed to be crestfallen about this news, or just relieved?  (I’m very much a fan of Roth’s early and middle period work, but think his fiction precipitously drops in quality beginning with American Pastoral, which was over-written and over-praised.  The Counter-Life and Ghost Writer, however, are at least two of his novels that will hold up brilliantly for future readers.)

Looks like from comments at the end of this interview that Roth is now most concerned with writing his own publicity and shaping how we should interpret his legacy….

Philip Roth Says Hes Done Writing Books – NYTimes.com.


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Introduction for Zadie Smith’s talk at Swarthmore, Nov. 7 2012: “Why I Write.”

It’s an honor to introduce Zadie Smith.  I shouldn’t be nervous, because introductions are easy, right?  Zadie Smith, meet Swarthmore College and Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.  Swarthmore, Zadie Smith.  Yet introductions are really impossible, because more words need to be said but it’s hard to be brief—and don’t worry, I will be brief—about a writer whose intelligence in these insane times we desperately need.

Zadie Smith has published lots of fiction and nonfiction and won lots of honors, but I don’t want to list these, for you can easily find out about these on your own.  We all secretly know that prizes for books may be good for many things but they don’t ensure that new generations of readers will keep an author alive.  Only immutable but light-filled writing will do that.  So let me mention just a few of my favorite passages and sentences of hers, ones I believe will last because, as Ezra Pound said, only emotion that has found its form endures.

Consider some of the treasures to be found in her essay collection Changing My Mind.  There are meditations on Zora Neale Hurston, E. M. Forster, George Eliot, Barthes and Nabokov, Kafka, and David Foster Wallace that will make you want immediately to read these authors if you haven’t, and if you have will make you want to go back to your book shelves and pull them down again.  There’s surreal and harrowing journalism on what she saw and heard during a trip to Liberia, and delightful pieces on Hepburn and Garbo and what it’s like to be in Hollywood during Oscar Weekend.  (About the latter, she hilariously imitates both a star-struck celebrity puff piece and an intellectual’s disdain for everything that is fun but “vulgar.”  But don’t be fooled; Smith is ultimately up to something very different.)  Changing My Mind also has her thoughts on Obama’s Dreams of my Father, which include these sentences:  “The tale he tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one.  The tale he tells is all about addition.  His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man” (136).  And her analysis of contemporary fiction, which discusses its metafictional vs. realist divide and then slyly hints that really good fiction not just changes our minds but finds ways to synthesize these two traditions while making neither insular nor predictable.

But tonight I’d like to spend a little more time introducing you to two essays, “Smith Family Christmas,” written for the New York Times in 2003, and her moving tribute to the novelist David Foster Wallace, who died in 2008.  The commissioned Christmas piece contains no schmaltz.  It’s a sad and funny look back, at parents and siblings and the craziness of family, which in some ways mirrors the craziness of the nation you happen to be born into.  “On this most sacred of days,” she remembers, her uncle Denzil wanted to do “the things we do not do because we’d always done them another way, our way—a way we’d all hated, to be sure, but could not change.  Denzil wants to open a present on Christmas Eve—don’t do that, Denzil” (227).  Note how she’s both voicing the family rules here and viewing them from outside and beyond, a rueful retrospective on how small holiday tensions hide greater ones.  The same supple voice, full of deadpan wryness, works on her birth country as well:  “the Smiths lived in London in a half-English, half-Irish council estate called Athelstan Gardens, one black family squished between two tribes at war.  It was confusing.  I didn’t understand why certain football games made people pour into Biddy Mulligan’s pub and hit other people over the head with chairs and bottles” (226).  Yet in the end her little essay about our wars disguised as celebrations is full of forgiveness.  Now that she has her own family, regarding holiday festivities she says let’s try it again, let’s believe we can do it better, “the ritual, the dream, the animating spirit, the whole shebang” (229).

Swarthmore’s Jonathan Franzen published in The New Yorker his own tribute to David Foster Wallace, one in which he recounts how he was tempted to put his own life in danger in a kind of bizarre tribute to Wallace’s own edgy battle between his death wish and his will to live and write.  Yet Franzen also suggested that for all his friend’s pyrotechnical writerly gifts there was one subject he couldn’t explore deeply:  human interconnectedness, especially love.  Zadie Smith takes a very different tack.  Writing about Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace’s uncanny gathering of experiments in short fiction, Smith says that “the real mystery and magic lies in [its] quasi-mystical moments, portraits of extreme focus and total relinquishment.  We might feel more comfortable calling this “meditation,” but I believe the right word is in fact prayer.  It’s true that this is prayer unmoored, without its usual object, God, but it is still focused, self-forgetful, moving in an outward direction toward the unfathomable….  Wallace understood better than most that for the secular among us, art has become our best last hope for undergoing this experience” (295).  Wallace’s stories, she says, “repel the idea that a just society can come from the contract made between self-interested or egotistic individuals.”  And then, marking Wallace’s interest in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and what she sees as his spiritual affinity with Simone Weil and Kant, Smith gives us a dazzling Wallacean footnote that begins, “All three [have] in common that the business of ethics properly concerns good relations between people rather than the individual’s relation toward some ultimate goal, or end” (291).

Zadie Smith’s own fictions have quite similar concerns, and they map these locally and globally.  They appeal to the better angels of our nature even as they make us see ourselves at our most embarrassing worst.  In Smith’s latest novel, NW, the narrator at one point articulates a character’s worry and frets that “Nothing survives its telling” (16).  Yet for a novel to get written and live for readers, of course, that must not be completely true—we need to worry about how false language may lie and even kill, but novels we keep reading prove the right words eventually, after some struggle, can be found, and, when found, generate pocket-sized miracles of understanding.  Otherwise, why write, and why read?

We are passing through a time in our nation where many of us are increasingly self-segregating by class, education, income, religion, and politics—how we work and travel, to some extent, but especially where we live and how we spend our leisure time.  The factors driving such homogenization are many and complex, but these developments, if they continue, will be as corrosive for democracy as money buying politicians.  The trend is happening globally as well.  One of the purposes of education should be to combat stratification, but historically that has been the novelist’s role too—and it’s never more needed than now.  Don’t believe in the death of the novel.  It’s the dearth of novel readers that ought to cause worry.  Today’s best novelists model for us what it’s like to talk and to listen across our many divides.  And let me suggest to you they don’t sound like Tom Wolfe, whose characters only know how to scream at each other.  In the long history of social fiction, the great story-tellers have always told us tales about contact zones, not comfort zones.  Zadie Smith’s four novels are most famous for detailing the rhythms and crossings of urban contact zones, but she’s also explored how contact zones can be experienced on the road, or at a college or university.  This writer is a powerful search engine, a social network generator who works not by cajoling us to click “like” but to take risks as readers, to change our minds.  Please give Zadie Smith a most warm welcome.


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