13 Minds #2 Enlightenment

Field notes and preliminary remarks by Charles Brownson


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
Wallace Stevens: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: II

Enlightenment is very rare. Sometimes it can be found growing under the protection of a nomind bush, but ordinarily it is found growing alone in bare areas, as for example after a fire, or in deserts with rainfall above five inches (130mm).
The 10th century traveler Ibn al-Mansoor found specimens of enlightenment growing in the Tibetan mountains at high altitude, where they seemed especially to thrive. When Kilmartin returned to the area in the 19th century, in the course of his expeditions against Russian incursion, he found that many of the valleys which al-Mansoor had identified as most fertile for enlightenment were barren. It was presumed that the cause was a change in the microclimate. We now know from studies by the Buddhist sociobiologist Wen that the importation of non-native cattle is to blame. The animals trample the encrustations of tao moss which provide essential nutrients to the enlightenment. The role of the now endangered tao was previously unsuspected.


Two monks passed by a rock along the roadside.
Oh, how beautiful, said the younger monk.
The older walked on, saying nothing.


It is said that enlightenment and nirvana are the stakes to which donkeys are tied. In Zen tradition there is to be found considerable mockery of the methods and goals of ordinary Buddhism. Partly this stems from the pedantry of so many Buddhist scholars and partly from the desire of ordinary followers for tenets which will lead, with sufficient assiduity, to coveted results, usually release from karma and the Great Wheel of life and death. Of course, the very existence of desire (for leaders, followers, seekers) in itself is worthy of ridicule.

The botany of Enlightenment is interesting in its dependence on both Nomind and Tao moss. The rarity of both is the primary cause that Enlightenment should be perennially endangered. The relationship with Nomind is straightforward; that with the moss is not. It is thought that the two species share a connection similar to that of trees, carried by aerosols resembling pheromones, but this has not been verified. Nor have the receptors for such been identified.

Enlightenment, like other plants which facilitate awareness and counter the closed mind, is mildly toxic. Its effect is cumulative and will not be experienced for years after a regimen is begun. Given the hostility of both authorities and ordinary unsusceptible people, it is nearly impossible that such a regimen could be followed outside some protected environment such as a monastery.

His reply to Stevens

When food does not nourish
we starve. By such means
we are nourished. 

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13 Minds

No Mind
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
Wallace Stevens: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I

Nomind can most often be found growing along river beds and at the edges of wooded areas. It prefers mixed sun and shade and moderate temperatures, but is very tolerant and may be found growing in harsher places. Windy environments such as ocean dunes and mountainous regions, deserts, deep forest, or other extremes will almost always harbor a few specimens. It is slow-growing even in the most favorable conditions. Plants found growing in hostile environments may be very old. The nomind’s age is hard to estimate. Authoritative dating is possible only after death.
Nomind has a number of medicinal uses. Like tea and some other plants, it is most effective when steeped in hot water. Taken with proper care it is most useful as a restorative. Nomind promotes alertness and calm vigor. Taken regularly it is conducive to long life. Some instruction, however, is necessary to achieve these benefits. Indiscriminate or unregulated ingestion will rarely be of help and may be fatal.
Nomind is a small inconspicuous plant. It spreads underground by means of rhizomes and produces seeds infrequently. The leaves are small and thick and covered with short hairy fibers that hold rain. Some species have thorns. Adaptation and growing conditions may make it hard to recognize. The foliage is thick, affording protection to many small birds and animals. Flowers are 25mm, five-petaled, and most often white or pale green, In acidic soil they can be more brightly colored. The plant’s odor most resembles mint.

A warrior makes no war. Mushin makes no mind. We watch it grow but are not enlightened.

The horticulturist Wu Xie first described the nomind in 1614. Formerly its varied growth habit and tolerance of environmental conditions had caused it to be classified as several species, a confusion reflected today in the varied way of spelling the colloquial name. In this respect it is also a challenge to the intellect, but deeper understanding reveals this challenge to be superficial, as Wu showed by his unification. Unfortunately, Wu’s work has been shown to be itself unsatisfactory in this respect. (Xiaopin Roshi, 1796)
The Tao of No Mind is to be found only in books. (Wu Li, 1840)
Mushin is the foundation of zen and the mindset of the martial arts. In everyday life the situation is like that of the koan, which has no “solution” but a response which reveals the student’s understanding must be performed, not explained. Popular examples are the one-handed clap and the extinguishing of the candle. The well-known responses are now not zen, as a true response must be spontaneous and not calculated; that is, the product of no mind. (James Peel, 1925)

C’s poem
Nomind grows by my door,
narrowing the way.
But my small hut will hold many guests.

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75 Books Your Book Club Probably Won’t Read

I published this list a few years ago, and as my ideas haven’t changed I thought I’d publish it again.

1. A Coat of Varnish
C.P. Snow
A detective story, but a rather odd one, lacking a detective, or rather what passes for the detective is oddly lethargic. A mystery with, on the one hand, an excess of mystery, and on the other very little. Embedded in this book is a deep critique of how our obsession with facts and knowledge distorts our understanding of what is truly important, ideas not unexpected from the man who started the two cultures argument. Written in Snow’s limpid style, utterly readable. He did write another detective story in the early 30s, Death Under Sail, which is clever, but primitive in comparison to this one.

2. A Dance to the Music of Time
Anthony Powell
Much the best serial novel among such competitors as Snow’s Strangers and Brothers and Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion. With a little thought, however, this initial judgment seems facile. There is Proust, of course. What about Mishima’s four-volume The Sea of Fertility? What about Lord of the Rings? Powell’s massive story is to some extent a roman a clef (see Hilary Spurling’s handbookInvitation to the Dance) It’s chock with interesting characters all through, and with the requisite upstanding colorless fellow at the center of it all, the window which looks out on the ocean shore, the eternal ocean which brings us these bottled messages. The character Kenneth Widmerpool who is woven through the book is a very grating monster of unfeeling who the reader will think impossible to humanize, but the narrator manages this feat. Other feats await a long, placid, satisfying investment.

3 A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf
Advice to writers on what is necessary, Woolf’s manifesto is also a statement of female independence. Actually, it is addressed to all of us, and concerns the fully realized life of the mind. A core statement of the respect which is due everyone.

4 A Year in the Maine Woods
Ravens n Winter
Bernd Heinrich
Here is much of what we know of one of the smartest creatures on earth, coupled with magnificent nature writing. Heinrich is in a right relationship to the spiritual world as well as the material one. A natural hermit, he spends winters alone, entering the lives of these wonderful birds. The books are also narratives of research and discovery (some of his graduate students can be seen in the background) and contain many insights into how this work is conducted. In 1960 Niko Tinbergen published a book on gulls, some of the founding work in modern ecology. Heinrich is a worthy heir to that. Maybe, as Thomas Nagel says, there are some experiences beyond the conscious mind’s ability to comprehend. Heinrich thinks it’s worth a try, anyway.

5 Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll
What is there to say? Martin Gardner’s annotations only add to the delight. Ranks with Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Rabelaise’s Gargantua and Pantagruel as examples of the profundity of games.

6 The Ambassadors
Henry James
A bildungsroman. Lambert Strether is a likable naïf, the agent of convention, on whom Europe works as it did James himself. James’s familiar delicate, probing nuances are all here. From the inventor of the modern novel of 20th century realism and the master of The Art of Fiction

7 Ashenden
Somerset Maugham
The first spy novel. Before Ashenden, spying was an adventure, not a job. Maugham the story-teller turned his eye on the melodrama of amateurs and showed us the first professional. Hitchcock made this into silly and ignorant film. Ashenden

8 Bartleby the Scrivener
Herman Melville
Moby Dick was too obvious. Bartleby is the Great Inscrutable, with his mantra “I prefer not to.” rivaled only by Poe’s never more. Bartleby is an open rebuke to us all, whether we prefer to or not. Whatever it is, we’ve got it wrong.

9 I changed my mind about #9

10 Blood on the Dining Room Floor
Gertrude Stein
I can’t imagine any list without Stein on it. This is a charming murder mystery in Stein’s inimitable, intelligent style. Hemingway observed that Stein discovered many things about rhythm and repetition, and so she did. It begins:

They had a country house. A house in the country is not the same as a country house. This was a country house. They had had one servant, a woman. They had changed to two servants, a man and woman that is to say husband and wife.
The first husband and wife were Italian. They had a queer way of walking, she had a queer way of walking and she made noodles with spinach which made them green.

Delicious. This is not Agatha Christie. This is not The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
As to who dunnit I will say nothing.

11 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Dee Brown
Biographies of canonical Indian heroes and an encyclopedia of Native American history. Put it on your bookshelf next to Galloway’s One Vast Winter Count and a few others. What can be found here is knowledge essential to understanding the American West – the Old World, already civilized by the time of the Babylonians. I’m not qualified to comment on this book, other than having grown up a couple of hundred miles from Wounded Knee Creek. My college band played a concert in Pine Ridge one year and we were billeted on the residents for a night. I didn’t see a lot of difference between that place and the town of six hundred or so where my family’s home farm was. Tourists never see anything.

12 The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer
Must read aloud in Middle English to appreciate the poetry. Over-analyzed, as are most such cultural monuments. These are tales, as the title says, a form supposedly inherited from the bards and their ilk but in fact nothing more than the banter around the campfire (fireplace, stove) in the evening when the work is done, or to pass the time while the tribe is on the move to summer quarters (in flight to Hawaii). Some of them are of the killing the mammoth sort, some are what you say to strangers when asked who you are and where you’ve been, some are clever tales to be exchanged in something like a story-slam. And the whole thing is a shaggy dog story intended to go on however it may. Chaucer’s eye was sharp, even sly, but kindly. Therein lays the deep meaning of the pilgrimage to Canterbury.
Also: Derek Pearsall The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography

13 China Men
Maxine Hong Kingston
The lives of Chinese men who immigrated to America, leaving their families behind, in search of money which they would send home from the Gold Mountain. Lives lived for the most part alone, for most never returned. Bachelor lives of toil lived in squats. An upsetting read, with a clinging odor like boiled cabbage. Kingston wrote another book about Chinese women, Woman Warrior, more formally autobiographical.
China Men
The Woman Warrior

14 Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky
A poor student, one Raskolnikov, murders an old woman for a trifling amount of money. Raskolnikov occupies the first half of the book trying to be convicted of his crime. He succeeds, with the help of the policeman Porfiry Petrovitch, in making himself confess. The second half of the book is occupied with Raskolnikov’s efforts to be punished and recover his humanity. Not every writer could bring off the moral earnestness to be found here, nor this lugubrious plot of seeking guilt and punishment. Notable for the character of Porfiry Petrovitch. Lacking evidence, but convinced of Raskonikov’s guilt, he simply wears his victim out and uncovers the need to confess. Inspector Slimane in the 1937 film Pépé le Moko is an exact copy. (Remade in English as Algiers.)

15 The Crying of Lot 49
Thomas Pynchon
Much smaller and more efficient than V or Gravity’s Rainbow, but with all the Pynchon themes: paranoia and conspiracy, period detail, manic sex, done up in Pynchon’s arch, satirical style. Oedipa Maas, wife of small-time disc jockey Mucho Maas (typical Pynchon names) finds herself the executrix of the estate of the wealthy Pierce Inverarity and embarks, with a lawyer who she promptly seduces, on disentangling it. Matters quickly focus on a stamp collection containing stamps of the medieval courier Thurn and Taxis. And what were they up to, and why had Inverarity been interested? Pynchon’s first three novels are worthwhile. Everything else is perfunctory, derivative, and tired.
Also: Slow Learner: Early Stories a new book of self-criticism. What Pynchon thought he was up to.

16 The Death of Virgil
Hermann Broch
The last days of the Roman poet Virgil, evoked in a poetic, interior, lyrical way that does more justice to the poet than a simple narrative. Requires close and thoughtful reading, which it will repay.

17 Death on the Installment Plan
Journey to the End of the Night
Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Destouches)
Proletarian doctor confronts depravity and desperation. Appalled .by the human condition, he decides to write about it. A breathless style marked by frequent ellipses to mark unfinished thoughts and incomplete assertions and an infinite and horrible continuation of more or the same. The first-person narrator is very angry. In his personal life Céline was an anti-Semite who was interned for a time after the war as a German sympathizer, but was ultimately freed. These books are worth reading. The rest are not.
Tom Clark. The Exile of Céline

18-20 mysteriously redacted

21 Dog Years
Günter Grass
The postwar continuation of Grass’s path-breaking The Tin Drum. The same political commitments the same incantatory style. Big Money dominates the German reconstruction. This sequel casts its net wider, is more capacious, if that can be believed.

22 moved

23 Erasers
Alain Robbe-Grillet
A murder mystery (incomprehensible) from the author of Jealousy (obsessive) and Last Year at Marienbad (boring). A detective, Wallace, arrives in a bleak de Chirico town in northern France, assigned to investigate a reported murder of which nothing is known, including whether there even was one. What Wallace discovers will amaze you. Robbe-Grillet was a spokesman of a 1950s reform movement which aspired to expunge from contemporary writing all limp description, meaning among other things most adjectives, which infect and detract from the actual facts of what happened.[See the affective fallacy in Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity] Robbe-Grillet’s principles can be found in the book For a New Novel. The method is well suited to stories concerned with what we think we know, but actually do not, such as detective stories. The method is (or is thought to be) forbidding by those who limit their reading to less ambitious, more timid books, and so we have learned little from this intelligent author.

24 Essays
Michel de Montaigne
A much-admired exponent of the situational ethics now despised, a spite which only exposes the confused and specious thinking which Montaigne rejected. A standing rebuke to our pundits of frightened thought control. Montaigne is always lucid and humane, even in the long essay Apology for Raymond Sebond. in which he argues that as we cannot determine the truth of religion we might as well believe – a lucid exposition unlikely to convince anyone not already convinced. The authoritative translation is by Donald Frame.

25 Ficciones
Jorge Luis Borges
What is astonishing about this book (and others by Borges) is not so much the cleverness of the stories (fables?) themselves but the incredible density of them. In the shortest and possible space Borges fits references and associations which resonate with vast areas of human culture and endeavor. The tardis of literature.

26 The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney
Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Lindsey Richardson)
Volume one, Australia Felix (1917); volume two, The Way Home (1925); volume three, Ultima Thule (1929). Acquired its collective title 1930. Notable for rich characterizations, and especially more than the eponymous Mahoney, his wife, a young initially self-deprecating woman who finds herself thrust into resourceful competences when her husband is disabled by mental illness. One of the great Australian novels. Check out Wikipedia for a many-page plot summary.

19 Dictée
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Originally published in 1982, I reviewed it in 1987 – fortunately laudatory, since it has acquired a formidable reputation since her death shortly after the book was published. It’s hard to say what this book is. Formally classified as fiction, but just as easily regarded as history, memoir, poetry, manifesto. Dictée was a power word of the Surrealists, associated with Breton’s ideas of automatic writing. There is indeed an air of taking dictation, a semi-controlled passion. Cha was a Korean nationalist. Much of the book is concerned with Korea during the years of Japanese occupation; to give a full précis or even an adequate summary would be impossible. It is divided into nine parts, named for the nine Classical muses; Dictée is stuffed with references of this sort but emphatically not limited by them. A challenging but enlightening book.

20 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste
Pierre Bourdieu
If you thought you knew why some things are good and others bad, read on and be exposed as the follower of fashion that you are. Chock with data. One of the key concepts here is that of habitus, a set of linked practices and beliefs which persons of a particular class, economic status, or other group hold in common. These things come in packages. If you believe or prefer this thing, then you are more likely to prefer this other thing. Given this insight, it becomes possible to ask (and answer) questions on matters of cultural capital, tastemakers, the influx of new standards, and so forth. The ideas in this book are explored further in Bourdieu’s The Field of Cutural Production. A book which puts to work the same methods is Randall Collins’s The Sociology of Philosophies. Among Collins’s discoveries is that the optimum number of competing systems of thought is three. A monopoly, such as Confucianism had at one time, smothers growth. More than four systems of thought produces a muddle. Philosophies tend to fuse or fission to settle on the optimum three systems.
This way of thinking tends to undermine ideas of fixed truths, aesthetic standards, canonical lists.

21 Pierre Bourdieu
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste
The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature
Randall Collins
The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change
27 Hadrian VII
Baron Corvo (Frederick Rolfe)
Rolfe was a frustrated man, desperate to become a Catholic priest, a vocation which he repeatedly failed to be admitted to. So he wrote a book about the first English Pope. By far the best part of the book is the long initial section detailing the Papal election procedures and the machinations which produce the stalemate of the Cardinals.
AJA Symons wrote quite a good biography of Rolfe. The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A.J.A. Symons

28 The Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad
A foundational metaphor for what lies below human civilization, an ineradicable element of humanity itself. Tapping the mythic core of story, Conrad’s tale has been many times borrowed and adapted, but remains definitive. Told impeccably by the unimpeachable Marlow to some friends relaxing on a ship awaiting the tide on the Thames, the story approaches its black and horrifying center with excruciating and methodical stealth, leaving us to imagine until the very end what evil might await. A tense and compact short novel from one who is among the best of writers and a one of the three, with James and Ford, who codified the principles of literary Modernism.

29 Invisible Cities
Italo Calvino
Calvino is possibly best-known for Cosmicomics, but I like this better. It’s a quiet little meditation or poem, a set of little inventions told by Marco Polo to the aging Kublai Khan who senses the end of his empire and himself. Marco describes for him the cities he has seen – fat and thin, hidden, cities and eyes, and names, and the dead, and the sky – but in the end they are all the same city: a temporal succession, “future cities already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable.”

30 J.R.
William Gaddis
Impeccably voiced, a claim more than usually apt, as the book consists entirely of dialogue. Gaddis’s skill at capturing the subtleties of the way we speak is uncanny. No he seds and yet we always know who is talking. No it izzes and yet we always know where they are and how situated. No authorial remarks and adjectives and yet we always know what these people want and how they intend to get it. Gaddis’s previous book The Recognitions is also much admired, and with good reason, but it has no hold on this one for acid humor. The subsequent A Frolic of His Own is just as funny but less acid; there is little to prefer among them.
William Gaddis
Frolic of His Own
The Recognitions

31 Japanese Inn
Oliver Statler
Statler recounts the history of a single Japanese inn which stands beside the road between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto over the last 400 years. Because of its location and of its high-born guests, a great deal is known about this inn and its generations of innkeepers, and we ourselves learn a lot of Japanese history from this charming book.

32 Jealousy
Alain Robbe-Grillet
Alone on a vast banana plantation, a man whose wife is cheating on him, told in a manner ideally suited to such a subject. The jealous observer goes over and over the facts of his surroundings and the little which happens there, resolutely ignoring, as a jealous man would, his jealousy, thereby reducing it to a thing which can be pushed under the bed with the dust kittens. Resembles the minimalism of Philip Glass or Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Riveting.

33 Judge Dee
Robert Van Gulik
Van Gulik was a Dutch Sinologist long resident in China. Dee was a real person, a Confucian public official living around the year 800, about whom tales were told of his acuity and the strange problems with which he was confronted. Van Gulik translated a selection of these (Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee) which he modernized with respect to style to make them both more readable and self-explanatory. Having done so, he decided to write more of them himself, the first of which, The Chinese Maze Murders, tells of the first assignment of the young magistrate and his family retainer Sargent Hoong. In the course of the following tales the Judge meets and subdues two robbers who become his loyal assistants, and through successive promotions rises in stature and reputation. These are charming and clever detective stories.

34 The King
Donald Barthelme
Barthelme wrote also a version of Snow White which is decorous but not quite virginal. This is a story of King Arthur and his troubles with the unfaithful Guinevere and her philandering paramour, Lancelot. It is marked by a distinctive voice which is part children’s story and part Gertrude Stein – an excellent voice, humorous and elegiac at the same time. Deceptively simple.

35 Life on the Mississippi
Mark Twain
If you like comprehensive books, this is one of them. Twain’s instantly recognizable voice with its undertone of amusement. Facts, experiences, history, tales, sights and sounds, how to steer a riverboat in two feet of water at night when you can’t see where you’re going – what more could you want?

36 Life, A User’s Manual
Georges Perec
Perec is the fellow who undertook to write (in French, of course) a book without the letter e. He was a member of a group of writers organized under the acronym Oulipo, which translates as “workshop of potential literature”. Prominent members have been Raymond Queneau (a founder, in 1960) and Italo Calvino (see this list under “Invisible Cities”. La vie, mode d’emploi concerns the residents of a single apartment house (hôtel) in Paris. Among the numerous subplots in this ensemble piece is one concerning a maker of jigsaw puzzles of the intricate precision-cut wooden sort. As you might guess, this is of wider significance.
Oulipo founder Raymond Queneau’s most popular book Zazie in the Metro has been translated into a bazillion languages plus a movie. Queneau also wrote Exercises de Style, which was a staple of the stage revue Les Freres Jacques (a troupe of four men) at the Rose Rouge for years after WWII. If you can imagine such a book turned into vaudeville. I can’t.http://ocotilloarts.com/Nine/Nine8.jpg

37 Lord Grizzly
Frederick Manfred (Feike Feikema)
The story of Hugh Glass, mauled by a grizzly bear on the northern Great Plains far from any habitation, White or Indian. Glass crawled two hundred miles on his hands and knees. He bound his wounds, found food and water, and survived. A masterpiece of adventure writing, far above anything else Manfred wrote. Unfortunately, he attached the story of Glass’s subsequent quest, which is a piece of ordinary work, but it remains a memorable read in spite of that.

22 The Maine Woods
Henry David Thoreau
The best of Thoreau’s less read travel books, an account of a climb of Mt. Katahdin. Astute as always, with nothing stinted of Thoreau’s unique voice. Thoreau was a dedicated armchair traveler. John A Christie’s Thoreau as World Traveler (Columbia, 1965) amounts to a compendium of the best travel books of the first half of the 19th century.

38 The Martin Beck novels
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahlöö
This husband and wife pair of Swedish writers set out in the 1950s to produce a set of ten novels which, taken in chronological sequence, would form a critique of declining Swedish society along with a portrait of group of detectives, headed up by Martin Beck, as they age. Hardly a new idea, but unusual in the detective genre, similar to the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain but constructed as a set rather than an open-ended series. The crimes and their solutions are competent and interesting but mixed. What carries the series forward is the aging detectives themselves.

39 The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov
I read this book so long ago that I’ve forgotten what it was about. Connoisseurs of tequila? Mustard pizza? Oh, yes.. It was, um – The plot alternates between two venues, 1930s Moscow and the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate. Stuffed with historical characters, it concerns of the Devil (a dapper gentleman) and … Well, there is a whole website devoted to this book.

40 The Master of Go
Yasunari Kawabata
A newspaper reporter recounts the passing of mastery from one generation to the next. This elegy contains much knowledgeable discussion of the progress of the game over many days, just as an account of a Western chess tournament would. Sad and uplifting simultaneously.

#41-43 changed my mind

44 The Metamorphosis
Franz Kafka
Who hasn’t heard of poor Gregor Samsa and his life as a beetle? This has to be one of the most frightening and melancholy metaphors for the human condition ever invented.

45 The Mysteries of Paris
Eugène Sue, 1843
With Alexandre Dumas, the originator of the newspaper serial. Sue got rich from this book. Originally a writer of adventure stories copied from Fenimore Cooper, Sue began in the 1840s to write longer and more complex tales. The Mysteries of Paris concerns the efforts of a minor German noble, Baron Gerolstein, to find his daughter, kidnapped and sold into prostitution. He appears in the Paris underworld as Rodolphe, and in this guise pursues his inquiries. Sue discovered a social conscience in the writing of this book, which was immensely popular and read by all classes from the nobility to the servant. A romping good melodrama, undeservedly little known in English since the 1870s. There is no contemporary translation, but used copies are not hard to find. It is available on Kindle for free, and there are a few paperback reprints also. The only biography of Sue is in French, by Jean-Louis Bory: Eugène Sue, le roi du roman populaire.

46 The Nature and Art of Workmanship
David Pye
Pye distinguishes between two major regimes: the workmanship of certainty and the workmanship of risk. The first corresponds to machine processes; the use of machines is intended to achieve incremental progress toward the goal of flawless reproduction. The second corresponds to handmade processes which value the process equally with the product and seek chance and accident rather than control, a set of concepts close to the Japanese idea of wabi sabi. Much flows from this.

If you Google “Pye workmanship” you will see some of the range of activities to which Pye’s ideas have been applied. What about reading? There are the analytically inclined people who survey the possible interpretations, gather the evidence and the expert opinion, crafting what they hope will be a definitive argument. So how would you describe a risky, handmade style of reading?
46 Novel on Yellow Paper
Stevie Smith
My copy of this book actually is printed on yellow paper – the stuff an underemployed secretary might use to write a novel on in idle moments, as is the case here. Smith was a poet, with one of the all-time great book titles to her credit – Me Again – a title which gives the flavor of her poetry and of this book.

47 Pale Fire
Vladimir Nabokov
Everyone who wants to tone up their list mentions this book.
A novel in footnotes. The pedantic neighbor of the poet John Shade attempts to explicate the 1000-line poem left at Shade’s death. It’s quite a good poem. The explicator goes awry at a number of points – in fact, assumes or concludes quite the opposite of the truth, misreadings and false assertions about false premises which we are expected to disentangle ourselves. Not as hard as it looks, unless you are expecting a firm conclusion. Nabokov had some cogent ideas on how to read a novel which he delivered in a series of classes at Cornell and which the students very presciently recorded. Lectures on Literature

48 The Palliser novels
Anthony Trollope
A set of six novels published between 1864 and 1879, in order: Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, The Duke’s Children. They are political novels, but the first is also about the condition of women and the third is a detective story of sorts. During much of the last century Trollope stood in the shadow of Thackeray and was thought rather plodding.

My copy of Phineas Finn is apparently the first American edition (Harper, 1868) which I rescued from the trash. It had lost its covers, the sewing was almost gone, and the paper is very brown. Its one of my favorite books, but that doesn’t have anything to do with it.

49 Parade’s End
Ford Madox Ford
A set of four novels concerning the life of one Christopher Tietjens, something of a sad sack who bungles most of the problems he encounters due to an extreme sense of propriety and what is the right thing to do. Lugubrious. Morbid, almost. These should be sufficient recommendations for the author of some very fine historical novels, that masterpiece of unreliable narrators The Good Soldier and the editor of the Transatlantic Review.

Ford’s style is like a massive low-pressure system which sucks you in and won’t let go, usually accompanied by unrelenting rain. Hemingway complained of his bad breath. He was originally named Ford Hermann Hueffer and was the grandson of Ford Madox Brown, the Pre-Raphaelite painter of moralizing history pictures.

50 Philosophical Investigations
Ludwig Wittgenstein
As was the case with Nabokov’s Cornell lectures, these are class notes. Wittgenstein’s place in contemporary philosophy needs no more discussion than Shakespeare’s in theatre. The book is by turns puzzling as a koan, witty, and epigrammatic, a species of poetry. At random, #326:

We expect this and are surprised at that. But the chain of reasons has an end.

Philosophical Investigations
Wittgenstein’s Vienna
The World as I Found It
This last is quite a good novel about the relationship of Wittgenstein and Russell in Cambridge.

51 Pnin
Vladimir Nabokov
I’ve decided not to include this book because of Pale Fire above, #47 already discussed. This is a small book, anyway, and not typical of Nabokov. It belongs to the genre of “college novels” which is in turn a sub-genre of the bildungsroman except that in this case Timofey Pnin seems to learn nothing from the shabby treatments and humiliations which are his lot except how to endure them. There are no Nabokovian challenges here. There is little of his famous pyrotechnics. It is, in fact, a simple story so heartbreaking as to be unbearable and so I have chosen to say nothing about it.

52 Poems
Emily Dickenson
Here are three bits for comparison

When Continents expire
The Giants they discarded – are
Promoted to endure –

We expect this and are surprised at that.
But the chain of reasons has an end.

on the philosophy mattress tonight.
My sister is going to attempt to join the morning after
and Aristotle’s Ethics

Which of these is by Dickinson? Is there any important difference between them? They are from very different projects – different enough that we might say contradictory or mutually exclusive – but if you didn’t know that? If you took them all to be enigmatic little stories requiring rather more of the usual exegesis? The Collected Stories of – who? You. For the record, the second is from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations quoted above in item 50. The third is from Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. (Phillips is a book artist who paints or scribbles on the pages of books so as to bring out hidden qualities. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel )
My point is this: that we limit ourselves in our reading in entirely unnecessary ways. Heidegger’s Being and Time is notoriously difficult, but what is not known (except among the cognoscenti) is that it was actually written by James Joyce under a pseudonym. It is also true that many poems thought to be Dickinson’s are actually bits which Gertrude Stein edited out of Tender Buttons. Who says otherwise? Literature is supposed to liberate the mind, isn’t it? Help us to new ways of thinking with the right side of the brain? Why is it supposed to be hard?

There are a lot of editions of Dickinson. Use the reading edition of the poems edited by RW Franklin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000)

53 Pogo: The Jack Acid Society Black Book
Walt Kelly
Cold War humor. A talking opossum bandies metaphysics and political doctrine with a crocodile. Kelly was completely out of the box in his time and he still is.

54 Maus
Art Spiegelman
Not Cold War humor. A talking mouse bandies history and moral wisdom with his father, another talking mouse.

55 The Rabbi’s Cat
Joann Safar
Jewish humor. A talking cat bandies metaphysics and Jewish doctrine with her rabbi. Hilarious drawing, great story lines. Out of a proliferating number of comic strips, one of the best.

56 A Contract with God
Will Eisner
Not Jewish humor. Eisner wrote and drew The Spirit in the 1940s. In his preface to this book his remarks on the early history of graphic story-telling suggest how much needs to be studied and written about this art form.

57 The Smiley trilogy
John le Carré
The definitive spy novel, which invented much of the terminology now used by actual spies.Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People sandwich the rambling and neglected The Honourable Schoolboy. This is hard-edged stuff for the most part, with occasional breaks for one of Smiley’s peeved sermons. The best of his earlier work, such as A Murder of Quality or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is mushy by comparison, and everything since has been whiny and self-involved.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Honourable Schoolboy
Smiley’s People
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
A Murder of Quality

58 The Rings of Saturn
WG Sebald
This appears to be a collection of 91 short pieces on diverse subjects grouped into ten – um, ten what? There is some order hidden here. Sebald’s epigraph reads: The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.

Ten rings, then. The remnants of a destroyed self. An autobiography taken to bits and recast – literally strewn like grain – into this new form. But not fertile seeds. Rather cold crystals and flinty rocks. And what is this planet at their center, the fons et origo, shrouded, immense, too near?
Bits of stuff in orbit will sort themselves in time into an internal order. What order? From the outer ring to the inner, from one edge of each ring to the other, there is a principle at work, a force analogous to gravity which locks these apparently diverse remnants into some reminiscence of their former whole.

Ought there not be 100 of them instead of 91? Perhaps I miscounted. Perhaps
the absence of formal symmetry points to something deeper. Perhaps it’s an explosive accident of lost wholeness. Perhaps it’s a snare, drawing you through the rings in search of truth, of reasons, until you get too close.

59 Rites of Spring
Modris Eksteins
An absolutely lucid exposition of the development of avant-garde Modernism. Who were these people and what did they hope to accomplish? Find out here.

60 That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana
Carlo Emilio Gadda
One of the best detective novels of all time, despised by that curmudgeon Jacques Barzun, itself a recommendation of sorts. Detective Ingravallo of the Roman constabulary investigates the robbery and murder of a cousin, an inquiry which steadily expands to include all of Rome and its people of all classes and origins. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the crime is solved in the end. The solution hinges on a green scarf.

Jacques Barzon and Wendell Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime/Being a Reader’s Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, and Related Genres This is the second edition.

I must say that on a trip to Rome I located the Via Merulana and the building in which the crime occurs. It is exactly as Gadda describes it. even now. Since I almost never visit literary landmarks, this is a measure of my liking for the book. In London I once stayed at the end of the curved street where Jane Austen lived, but this was an accident and doesn’t count. Then, in the mountains where I now live there was a cabin occupied by Zane Grey, which I went to look at. Shortly afterwards it burned down. There is, I assure you, no connection between these events.

61 To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf
A family drama now wrongly overshadowed in the public mind by Mrs Dalloway, which is this novel’s inferior. At a summer home, the residents plan a trip to visit a lighthouse offshore. The plan falls through. In a long center section, time passes as the house stands empty and begins to decay, a tour de force on this subject, in which the house is the only character. In the third part some of the characters of part one return, and the trip is finally completed. As with all of Woolf, to be read for the writing and the character portraits equally. Both are notable for subtlety and nuance. To be savored like a meal in a five-star restaurant.

62 Tropic of Cancer
Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
Henry Miller
Here we have two books on the same subject, which is how to live fully. The salacious reputation of the first is of course an artifact of its time and greatly over-rated. Miller arrived in Bohemian Paris after it was over, which did not deter him from writing this book about a poor bohemian living hand to mouth and surviving the joy. Toward the end of his life, Miller arrived at the hippie commune party twenty years early, which did not deter him from writing a charming book about the community of Big Sur, a remote area of California seacoast south of Monterey. I finished both books consumed by envy. On the subject of Miller, the third volume of his Paris trilogy, Black Spring, contains a short piece “The Angel is my Watermark” which is one of the great descriptions of the creative process. If you don’t know it, take a look.

63 Trout Fishing in America
Richard Brautigan
The only worthwhile thing Brautigan ever wrote, but worthwhile it is. Quirkedly poetic, episodic, goes nowhere. “Trout Fishing in America” is an embodied fishing magazine, the main character, who (which?) begins by commenting on the cover of its own book, that being a photograph of Brautigan himself with a companion in a San Francisco park. As a new graduate student at the University of Oregon with hopes of admission to the MFA program, I found a just-published copy of this book in the University bookstore before classes started. It was utterly revolutionary for me then and has remained so.
Downstream from Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan

64 Under the Volcano
Malcolm Lowry
Drunken diplomat, lots of tequila and some of it dubious, bodegas, Mexican peasants, relationships twisted like ropes of yucca fiber. It’s The Day of the Dead, 1938. This is Lowry’s masterpiece, one of only two novels he completed, neglected but withal one of the formative texts of the last century. A must read.

65 War Music
Christopher Logue
Logue has re-created a piece of the Iliad which will take you by the throat in a way no translation ever could.

Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upward of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal fleet.

Now look along the beach, and see
Between the keels hatching its western dunes
A ten-foot-high reed wall faced with black clay
Then through the gate a naked man
Whose beauty’s silent power stops your heart

Logue was one of the expatriate generation in Paris after WWII, and an editor of the little magazineMerlin which first brought Samuel Beckett to wide attention. Around this time he was making a small living publishing pornographic novels with Olympia Press. In this photo of the Merlin people, Logue is at the left of the front row. http://ocotilloarts.com/Nine/Nine17.jpg

66 Memoirs of Hadrian
Marguerite Yourcenar
Published in 1951, twenty-five years after it was first conceived. The Roman emperor Hadrian writes a letter to his cousin and successor Marcus Aurelius, in which he meditates on poetry, music, and philosophy, recalls his military campaigns, and recounts his love of Antinous. A first-rate, fully imagined historical novel.
Memoirs of Hadrian

67 Fantomas
The Fantômas tales were written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre beginning in 1911. Souvestre died in 1914. The series was carried on after that for another eleven volumes by Allain alone.

Fantômas comes from the long tradition of the picaresque and his particular type would have been best known to the English as Raffles. But Fantômas is a more ambiguous and dangerous character than Raffles. He can be seen as a prototype combination of the early, dark Batman, the insouciant James Bond, and the modern-day serial killer. Cover illustrations portray him against a lurid Technicolor background, in evening wear with cane and top hat and an ominous smile. The official detective in the Fantômas tales is one Inspector Juve. Needless to say, Juve makes no headway, and his obsession with catching the arch-criminal draws suspicion onto himself as possibly insane. Might he himself be Fantômas? Juve has a sidekick/partner (Jérôme Fandor, a reporter) and gets occasional indirect help from Fantômas’s mistress Lady Beltham, and Fantômas’s daughter Hélène. The real, iconic Detective is of course Fantômas himself, and one of the central and enduring interests of the tales is how he is able to play both roles, detecting his own crimes, working through surrogates like Juve to see that all the right people (excepting himself) are punished. The basic plot has roots in ancient theater and folklore and is also the parent of, for example, the modern caper flick such as The Thomas Crown Affair. The Fantômas website supplies more infrmation http://www.fantomas-lives.com/fanto3.htm but repositions the character and the series into something for teenaged genre fandom.

Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre
The Collected Fantômas

68 The Man Without Qualities
Robert Musil
May be the world’s longest unfinished novel. The ordinary American reader will struggle with the apparent silliness of the satire, which has a Monty Python quality but as with Python requires a lot of history and culture to appreciate – in this case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To be “without qualities” is more or less a state of existential alienation, the condition of “absurdity” later described by Camus, Sartre, and others. This is one of those books where you read a couple of hundred pages and then ask “Why on earth am I reading this?” and then go on reading another couple of hundred pages anyway. While you are poring it, you might look into these associations:

Boredom. Patricia Meyer Spacks
A Brief History of Time
Tristram Shandy (thought to be the world’s longest shaggy dog story)
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
Considered one of the most beautiful books ever published, and an astounding example of bravura typography only half a century after Gutenberg, this anonymously authored and illustrated book was printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice in December 1499. Intended for Quattrocento aristocrats, it also draws from a humanist tradition of arcane writings. The text is written in a bizarre Latinate Italian full of mysterious invented words based on Latin and Greek roots. The illustrations include Arabic and Hebrew words, and the author invented new languages when the ones available to him were inadequate. The story, set in 1467, consists mostly of precious and elaborate dreams within dreams of courtly love. Helen Barolini has written informatively about it in Aldus and His Dream Book and has herself written an interesting collection of stories entitled More Italian Hours – well, you see what sort of thing goes on with Musil. Your eigenschaftlich mind tends to wander…

Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind
A Brief History of Time
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
More Italian Hours & Other Stories
Aldus & His Dream Book: An Illustrated Essay
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: “The Strife of Love in a Dream”

69 The Arcades Project
Walter Benjamin
A ragbag book. For years, Benjamin acquired quotations, anecdotes, and any sort of thing related to the covered shopping arcades to be found around Paris. As the project continued the connection with the original interest became more tenuous – the most significant part of the book is a long essay on Baudelaire. The entire collection is organized in Benjamin’s own filing system; it is a repository from which he drew the material for many of his published articles. The contents of the (virtual) file drawer itself were published in 1999. The closest literary form would perhaps by the Japanese pillow book; it is something like a dictionary arranged according to an inscrutable logic. So, for example, item T5.2 (modes of lighting) “The cashier; by gaslight, as living image – as allegory of the cash register” (p570) What does this mean? I don’t know. Benjamin was a powerful thinker, a major figure of the inter-war years. The Arcades Project is the material of that creativity. It is a pirate’s treasure, Monte Christo’s bottomless chest of loot. There’s too much of it to spend, so you needn’t be burdened with any pusillanimous warnings to spend it wisely.

70 Cigarettes
Harry Matthews
Here’s a link to the Paris Review interview with Matthewshttp://www.theparisreview.org/intervi…
Cigarettes is a fairly conventional novel constructed according to rules known only to Matthews himself. The book plays close attention to the subtleties and nuances of relationships – an attention which, it has been observed, is close to that of Jane Austen’s. Matthews wants to show how relationships are based on false perceptions, so that one character’s view leaves its impression on another’s narration, producing endless revisions and versions… This is beginning to make Cigarettes seem a difficult, dry intellectual novel, which it very much is not. It’s small and tart, just right after a heavy meal.

71 Celebrated Cases of Charlie Chan
Earl Derr Biggars
Biggars based Chan on a real detective, Chang Apana. The original novels (there were only five) are much better than the films. Chan is taken seriously there as a working detective, and he may be one of the first appearances of a fully humanized Chinese man in American literature.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History by Yunte Huang

72 Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders
Lawrence Weschler
At the time this book was written (1995) The Museum of Jurassic Technology actually existed. It was the creation of David Wilson, one of the great polymath eccentrics. On one level there is the magnitude, the splendiferous variety of the things which Wilson has collected. On another level is the arrangement of this material by a curatorial logic that opens new sets of ideas and associations. And then there is the cautious, playful hedging of the scientist, the artist – perhaps, it may well be that, consider this alternative …

A marvelous little book which will remind you of the joys of thought and discovery.

73 The Alexandria Quartet
Lawrence Durrell
Four novels (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea) providing four perspectives on a single set of events and characters. The first three are set in Alexandria before and during WWII; the fourth takes place in Corfu after the war. In what is for me a unique instance of synesthesia, this book tastes salty-sweet like nachos. Or perhaps it’s Turkish Delight. It certainly is exotic. Combines hothouse love and menace in a compelling story which deepens with every retelling.

74 Rejoyce
Grace Slick
Jefferson Airplane, After Bathing at Baxter’s (1968)
A nice problem in explication, a restatement of Molly Bloom’s final chapter of Ulysses (Penelope), which I consider to be in its turn the best expression of adult love ever written. Jefferson Airplane was the epitome of San Francisco rock along with The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Santana.
Dennis McNally, A Long Strange Trip

75 Da Vinci’s Bicycle (Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier)
Guy Davenport

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on the maddening popularity of Jane Austen novels
or: Whether to Write Your Congressman

Bear with me on this one. We’ll get there.
If you believe that, then this is for you.

A Jane Austen novel is driven by a single narrative strategy. The impetus of the plot is that two people do not understand each other on some important point, i.e. Mr Darcy believes that Elizabeth scorns him, whereas Elizabeth believes that she is the scorned victim. The plot is driven by the inability or unwillingness of people (in general) to resolve the matter — they won’t talk about it — and is resolved when the truth is revealed by some adventitious circumstance.
Jane Austen characters are averse to fact-checking.
So are we all.
The popularity of Jane Austen derives from the hope that, given a chance, the truth will reveal itself, and that there is such a thing as truth. We believe, however, to the contrary. Jane Austen novels are popular because they reinforce the truth, so we believe, that things are to the contrary, and we readers are thereby proved superior beings.
Which we believed to be true before we picked up the book.
Inferior people do not read Jane Austen novels.

This phenomenon is ubiquitous.

There is a Taoist cautionary tale of a man with a horse. A neighbor is scandalized when the owner of the horse lets it run free.
It doesn’t matter, says the man with the horse.
The horse returns with a mate, and the man’s wealth is doubled by not wishing for it, and so keeping his horse confined.

The world is composed of two sorts of people. The Taoist believes that it illustrates a valuable truth. The non-Taoist believes that the other is a fool.
Likewise, the depressed person preserves his comfortable and familiar way of life by the certain knowledge that those who think otherwise are deluded.

This is not a profound insight.
What is overlooked is that Jane Austen novels encourage bullies and the practice of writing your Congressman.

Let’s explore a familiar case, the collapse of sexual relations following the birth of children.
One partner (the man, in this case) believes that the other has switched loyalties, and that the other (the new mother) now cares for the child rather than for him. This is proved by the mother’s new disinterest in sex, and furthers the belief that women choose their mates primarily in order to get children. The man feels used. Our present feminized culture condemns this as sexist.

The other partner (the woman) believes that the cause of the collapse of sexual relations (her partner’s disinterest in sex) is that he cares more for sex than for her. This is proved by his unwillingness to partner enthusiastically in the care of their child, which he persists in regarding as hers, and she feels accordingly used. Our present insistently unreformed culture condemns this as sexist.

Each set of beliefs is self-reinforcing. The way to break the impasse is to behave as the Taoist in the story about the horse. Both partners should pursue the strategy of allowing the other to do as they please indifferent to the outcome. Our present culture of authenticity disparages this as hypocritical. Not being Taoists (as most of us are not) this will be done not out of true indifference but out of the hope of each that they are wrong and the belief that they are right and the other will be proved a fool.

Thus the popularity of Jane Austen novels.

Thus the belief in the efficacy in writing your Congressman — you hope that it is efficacious but believe that it is not because to so believe proves your superiority and the Congressman a fool. Our present political culture regards this as foregone.

Thus also the legacy media practice of seeking out two views on any matter of contention. Our present rationalist culture regards this as fair. And so it would be, if what we were given were actually two views. What we get is each party’s (usually bombastic) recitation of his or her positions without explanation or conversation. Thus it is in a Jane Austen novel. We all hope that the matter will be resolved expediently without taking any part in it, each thereby proving himself to be the superior and his opponent as mendacious, stupid, hypocritical, and deluded.

The media reinforces its false belief that it is promoting the public’s ability to discover the truth when it is not, thereby reinforcing the belief that the public are fools which the media’s services will ameliorate.
The solution to this impasse is indifference to Jane Austen novels, sex after childbirth, and the behavior of Congress. If you don’t care about these matters they may come to pass. If they don’t that is a matter of indifference, but you will have stepped onto the Way of the Tao, which is the true way to the enlightenment of us all.

If you believe that the Way has no end, then this is for you.
If you don’t, then you are on your way to being a bully.


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Rebirth of The Arrow

On the demise of the Ocotillo Arts Press its blog, The Arrow, is undergoing a remake. (The Press backlog will remain in print — follow the link in the sidebar.) I’ve archived most of the old posts, kept my favorites, and loaded the rest into the categories you see in the bar under the blog title. From now I’ll post when I have something to say, which at times may be infrequently, mostly on on of those topics.

Bon appetit.


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Old, eccentric, tuo zio

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The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
is thought to be by Franceso Colonna, is considered one of the most beautiful books ever published, and also the most bizarre and inscrutable. It is an astounding example of bravura typography only half a century after Gutenberg, the work of Aldus Manutius in Venice in December 1499. (Manutius is also the inventor of Italic type.) Intended for Quattrocento aristocrats, it also draws from a humanist tradition of arcane writings. The text is written in a bizarre Latinate Italian full of mysterious invented words based on Latin and Greek roots. The illustrations include Arabic and Hebrew words, and the author invented new languages when the ones available to him were inadequate. The story, set in 1467, consists mostly of precious and elaborate dreams within dreams of courtly love.

Helen Barolini has written informatively about it in Aldus and His Dream Book (Italica Press, 2011) and has herself written an interesting collection of stories entitled More Italian Hours (Bordighera, 2001), poetry, essays, and a book on courtly love.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: “The Strife of Love in a Dream”
More Italian Hours & Other Stories


This is, I will suggest, the first artists book. Of course, virtually every manuscript book before it might count — books of hours, the Lindisfarne Bible — and perhaps Gutenberg’s own Bible. But I ask you to notice the difference, indeed the chasm, between the work of Aldus and Colonna and what we now call by the name of artist’s book. I ask you to notice the ambition of this book and compare it to the nakedly capitalist livre d’artiste.



I ask you notice the little art of our times — the starved and etiolated writing of Raymond Carver (compare that other minimalist Hemingway), the meager efforts of new MFAs constrained by foolish and timid injunctions to “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” as if we were all in kindergarten and had been on summer vacation to the next village. I ask you to notice the imitative and derivative bricolage of our theatre and ask you to compare it to O’Neill or Ionesco. I ask you —
Nertz. Get thee to a monastery, and meditate on these things.
But wait. Without attempting to make a special case for Aldus’s book, what is the status now of the values it embodies? I’ve been re-reading Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! What strikes me is how much my own writing owes to Faulkner, and how often my writing has been disapproved of for that very reason. This is not your Elmore Leonard “Ten Rules for Writing” stuff. This a taste for elaborate expression, words and wordplay, for their own sake. This is not Walter Gropius, this is Antoni Gaudi. This is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
There’s another issue. So many people want to write these days — well, perhaps they always have, but with the advent of e-books and self-publishing, now they do. And they do it before they have learned anything of the basic craft of writing. Yet they all want to begin with a novel, the hardest and most complex fictional medium. It’s as if someone who did know how to hammer a nail were t set out to build a mansion. As if someone were to pick up a book of Dickenson’s poetry and say “Heck, this doesn’t look so hard.” Or, as so many people did say in the early days of Abstract Expressionism — “My kid could do that.”
And perhaps those are more common ideas than we might think. The underlying and controlling assumption in so many wannabe authors is that writing is easy. Anyone can do it. And they expect to teach themselves how to write in their spare time. I have to ask, what did they do to do the job by which they get their living? Some years getting an education and then an MBA, perhaps? An apprentice period, and then time working their way up the employment ladder in order to have enough free time to even consider writing something? And — and here we get to the mud — what have they read? Elmore Leonard? Maybe a little Hemingway (who is way harder and more complex than he looks). Fifty Shades of Gray? The da Vinci Code?
Faulkner? I don’t think so. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili I don’t think so.
Come aaahn. I’ll save the jeremiad for later. Live a little.

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On Reshelving Your Library

Friends: I never thought it and I wish it hasn’t happened, but my science fiction novel E has become a prescient critique of the threat to democracy we now face. It may be crass of me to use this crisis to sell a book but the fact is an old man in a wheelchair has to stand up somehow, and this is what I can do. The book is on the sidebar of this post and I hope it scares the daylights out of you because it’s supposed to. I must and need to say something for democratic values and this is my statement.


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You can turn off the background music with the button in the upper right corner. One button is the Chinese character for chi, breath or life. The other is a crushed chi.

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You can quote me on this

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You can quote me on this

library school

You can turn off the background music with the button in the upper right corner. One button is the Chinese character for chi, breath or life. The other is a crushed chi.

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The basic fundamental basics of fundamental basics

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There are a great many things people natter about where novels are concerned. When the covers are closed and the monthly meeting of the book club has finished the chocolate cake and the discussion is about to begin, two topics are sure to come up early: the characters and the plot.

I will have to take up characters another time. People will persist in regarding characters as people, like themselves. They talk approvingly of strong characters (especially women) and others (frequently men) who are weak or otherwise deplorable. If a novel does not have a strong woman and a morally disabled man in it there will be outcries. It doesn’t take much reflection on the genre of autobiography and memoir, writing which is centrally concerned with the self, to discover there is no such thing. A self is a particular sort of character which vanishes when the person who imagines he owns one (a self) tries to explain what it is. People write autobiographies for this purpose, to explain (and probably justify, or excuse) why this or that regrettable occurrence has been falsely attributed to himself, or why some achievement has been regrettably ignored — or worse, falsely assigned to some other self. Autobiographical selves are also subject to another peril. Real people who talk about themselves a lot, or assume some importance to their actions, are often called narcissistic (especially by other people who prise anonymity, caution, fear and trembling). This rather disables the whole enterprise of autobiography. I would say that a creature which prides itself of no self indicates lunacy rather than narcissism.

The illusion that characters are people leads readers to reconstruct them just as if they were husbands whose dinner time stories were in need of correction, whose grasp of the facts were deplorable or perhaps deluded, or who ought to pay more attention to the guests. How rude, she says when they are alone, and threatens divorce. The reader rubs her hands in delicious anticipation, having made up something really much better than the author.

I will have something to say about the supposed existence of “facts” another time.

The other feature of a novel which will invariably come into the conversation is the plot. It will come as no surprise to you when I say there is no such thing, because as you well know that is what I say about everything: whatever it is, there is no such thing.

The story

In life, things happen one after another. Which things is limited by our perception — we can’t see all of what is going on everywhere. Given the series we observe, we desperately want to believe that the first causes the second. Not to believe that entails believing instead unhappy things — there is no causality anywhere, there is causality but for some reason we have not been privileged to see it, or else we’re too stupid to recognize it, the causality we see is unpleasant or horrifying and so we look for a different one, which entails… etc. There have been philosophies built on all of these possibilities. What a novelist would do is simply, for whatever reason, choose one. The sequence of events plus the rationale, weltanschauung, or whatever for the asserted sequence then becomes the “story”.

The narrative
The author is then free to scramble, confuse, re-order, add a polysemy of other patterns of cause or sequence or choice of events. The then becomes the “narrative” — what the reader is confronted with on the page and has to disentangle.

These are the essentials of story-telling. The author’s discretion consists in the choice and sequencing of events and in the narrative. But there must be in all cases at least two events, a sequence, and a narrative.

1. Something happened
2. to someone (it could be a rock but that wouldn’t be very interesting)
3. with consequences (the second event, and noting that ‘consequences’ are constructed and in a sense create the sequence, so that the process is recursive)
4. that we are told about. (If we aren’t, whatever it is, it isn’t literature. The nature of the teller is a fundamental issue but secondary to these four conditions.

Now where shall we say the plot is to be found? In the suppositious order of events and the equally suppositious claim that they have anything to do with each other? After all, we only know (think we know) these things because the narrator told us so. And not even the author, mind you, but a character created by the author for the purpose of giving his version of events. Such a person’s veracity is not to be trusted. (See above, re dinner table conversation.)

In the narrative, then. Worse and worse. Here we see the narrator openly fiddling with the story, his hands busy with the levers and buttons of fantasy. When we say that a novel is well plotted, do we mean that the narrator has demonstrated his cleverness in getting us to approve of something which is patently false?

I will have to take up this matter of true and false another time, though as you know already what I will say perhaps you won’t bother to read it. The plot is terrible.

In Memoriam Umberto Eco, 1932-2016.
Six Walks In the Fictional Woods

I'd like your opinion on this post. Is it the sort of thing you'd like to read more of?

Books by Charles Brownson 

In Uz

The Figure of the Detective

And these (click on any link or the cover image)


Posted in Craft, For a new novel, How to write, narrative, Novels, sequence in fiction, Stories, storytelling | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The reader’s responsibility to the writer

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One: An author with no readers is silent

Communication is a two-ended process. Message sent, message received. Inevitably garbled and noisy, as Claude Shannon showed in the 40s. Clear communication is impossible. What we take as clear is the result of cleaning and descrambling, first of all. Then there has to be a negotiation between the parties to agree on such things as the semiosis of the message. Without these things there is no communication. In order to communicate, the author needs the reader.

Two: The reader who doesn’t listen silences the author

Communication is a two-ended process. Message sent, message received. Inevitably garbled and noisy, as Claude Shannon showed in the 40s. Clear communication is impossible. What we take as clear is the result of cleaning and descrambling, first of all. Then there has to be a negotiation between the parties to agree on such things as the semiosis of the message. Without these things there is no communication. In order to communicate, the reader needs the author.

Three: The reader’s bargain with the author is asymmetric

The reader who rejects the offer of communication remains in ignorance. But, says the reader, I can pick and choose. This is true. It is also true that in order to choose it is necessary to communicate. The buyer must examine the merchandise on sale.

The writer who rejects the offer of communication loses a chance to impart what he knows. But he does not lose all chance. He is mute but not silenced, and he does not forget what he knows, for it is written for all to see who will look.

Four: The reader has more at risk

The sensei knows that when he accepts a student he accepts the responsibility to speak. Otherwise it is better to remain silent. The sensei also accepts the responsibility to speak the truth. Having spoken, his responsibility is discharged.

The student knows that when he asks to hear the truth he accepts the responsibility to listen. Having listened, his responsibility is not thereby discharged. Those who first listen must then understand. Learning is a two-way process. Inevitably garbled and noisy, to clearly speak the truth is impossible. The false sensei who speaks less than he knows cheats the student. The student who gives less than his full effort cheats himself.

Five: The reader as supplicant

Wittgenstein said: Of that about which we cannot speak we must remain silent. Heidegger said: knowledge is genealogical, and requires ancestors and progeny. No sex, no knowledge. No desire, no sex. Desire can be communicated in many ways. Desire can be accepted in only one. Even the trees talk to each other.

Six: The writer decides for himself

The relationship between readers and writers is asymmetrical. But writers do have one responsibility solely their own — shut up. Those who worship at the feet of the Logos had bloody well consider what they are doing.

Seven: The writer’s isolation

Most authors don’t get to talk to their readers, unless they’re Mom and Dad. The writer’s audience is imaginary. All the writer has to go on is books sold, hoping some of those buyers will actually read the book.

Eight: The writer’s screen

The author wrote the book, but it’s the book talking. Turn the situation over. The reader asks the same question again and again and gets a different answer every time. All of them are true. Now we know we’re talking to a book. The author should hope to make a book which can speak many truths at once, for truths do not come singly.

Nine: The writer’s first responsibility is to his book

I wrote a book which I hoped would speak the truth. For a long time I did nothing to publish it, until I decided that I owed it to the book to give it a chance to speak. So it was published, and my responsibility to the book was discharged. One who thinks of reading it owes no responsibility to the book, takes no risk, invests no wealth. Which of them is most likely to profit?

Ten: The writer’s first friendship is with his book

Nobody listens to me. I’m that schmuck with a glass of soda water standing in the corner trying to look intelligent. But people talk to my book, who is a more fun person than me. So I’m happy for my book, and sometimes we sit out on the patio with some good wine and talk about where’s the best place to retire. There isn’t one. There’s something wrong everywhere.

Some people think there’s more to it than that. There isn’t. It’s the people who think there is who are writing all those boring stories.

Eleven: Commitment brings vulnerability

There is a bibliographic law that if a paper is not cited within the first year of publication it never will be. I find this ineffably sad for the lonely spurned paper and for the author who tries to add something to the conversation and is simply ignored, talked over. Publishing (or trying to) is an emotionally dangerous enterprise for some people. You have to be driven by some power, some great need, to risk it. It’s so much easier not to.

Twelve: Writers who refuse commitment will be lonely. Readers who refuse commitment are condemned to solitary confinement.

Humans are one of the most gregarious beings on Earth. That need cannot be satisfied with party talk, platitudes and formulas. Boring stories are written by people who won’t take risks.

Thirteen: Writers risk their enlightenment. Readers risk their chance at enlightenment.

People wonder why Zen provides no moral guidance, no precepts. If you are enlightened you will do the right thing without precepts because anything else will destroy your enlightenment. The analogy with storytelling is exact.

Fourteen: Writers can choose to make it new. Readers must choose life or death.

An author can re-invent the form or he can do the usual so meticulously and intelligently that it rises up. Consider which has the more value: a new person brought into the world or a dead one returned to life. Lazarus is of importance to no one but himself. Having written his thirty-first piano sonata Beethoven had the good sense not to write it again.

Fifteen: Writers control their language. Readers control their literacy.

Ezra Pound said: make it new. The Cantos have very little in them which is new, and yet they are new. How is that done? We needed to learn how to write, not corner an agent at a party. The reader needs to learn how to read. The reader needs to learn the language, not simply to stop strangers in the street and point to his mouth or his ass.

I'd like your opinion on this post. Is it the sort of thing you'd like to read more of?

Books by Charles Brownson 

In Uz

The Figure of the Detective

And these (click on any link or the cover image)


Posted in For a new novel, How to write, Stories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment