Fifty Gestures of Love, in honor of William Gass (continued)

25 remaining, & here they are, picking up where we left off, with Tolstoy & his disgraced Natasha

26) The Prince has immersed himself in war work, Napoleon’s on the march, and Natasha attempts suicide, arsenic, then spends weeks in bed. Only her old friend Pierre, our hero more or less, can wring from her an agreement to meet.

27) Pierre’s no innocent himself, though rather a bumbler, badly married, an embodiment of how the good in Russia has gone sour, but Natasha always liked him and when they meet, in the parlor, they’re chummy a while.

28) But finally Pierre has to ask, “Could you really love… that evil man?” aware even as he asks that he’s bumbling again, sounding full of hoke, and yet at his question Natasha undergoes another of those reality-replenishments. Continue reading

Fifty Gestures of Love, in honor of William Gass.

25 now, 25 to follow, with many thanks

1) In The Odyssey, there’s Penelope’s more intimate test of this stranger who claims to be her husband — after he’s gotten through the messy, public business of slaughtering all her suitors down in the castle hall.

2) Of course Penelope has enacted some significant gestures of love herself, during the course of her man’s wanderings, most especially the way she’s undone, every night, the shroud she’s been weaving every day, the funeral shroud for the former king, while meantime promising the suitors: just as soon as the shroud’s done…

3) But now this fellow claims to be the once and future king, and he’s proven pretty impressive, plus their son Telemachus accepts the story, the boy’s helped to cut all the pretenders to ribbons, and now the stranger stands in the bedroom, and so it’s time she too sprang a test on him. Continue reading

The Dividing Line, the Defining Meals: Kafka Sermon Final

For a few days here on Big Other, now while we’re still in soul-shot of Passover and Easter, I’ve been posting about a short-short by Franz Kafka that he titled “On Parables.”  The original along

Franz Kafka, bifurcated.

with my opening thoughts on it can be found here, and the followup with my developing sermon or something, that’s here. Now I’l wrap up my thinking, at least for the time being.

I left off with the notion that, while we fallen creatures do the best we can,or some of us at least, striving for the good, Kafka’s stern divider remains. He lays a strict, harsh line between what’s parable, what’s merely human.   Continue reading

The Sister, the Lover, & Skepticism: Kafka Sermon #2

A couple of days ago, here on Big Other, I posted my first round of thoughts on one of Kafka’s briefest yet most resonant pieces, “On Parables.” On the one hand a pokerfaced jeu, on the other a stern admonition against that very idea, the story’s had hold of me for some time, it’s even shaken a couple of lay sermons out of me, and now this.

Kafka by R. Crumb

My second round of thoughts begins with Kafka’s own. He couldn’t have dreamed up his thumbnail tragedy without recalling how the clash of his opposed universes — Believer and Infidel, Teuton and Slav — had led to tragedies much larger. He derived inspiration in part from his readings in the Mishna rabbinic tradition, and he knew well the word for people who’ve chosen to become parables. We call them martyrs.

Jesus of Nazareth, himself a Jewish master of parable, leaves no question about how much may be at stake: Whoever loses his life will save it. Whoever commits to another world has finished with this one. Continue reading

The “Fabulous” vs. the “Struggle:” Kafka Sermon #1


Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: “Go over,” he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with everyday; that is a different matter.

Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.
Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
The first said: You have won.
The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
The first said: No, in reality; in parable you have lost.

Franz Kafka, c. 1922

Considering the  “fabulous yonder” we’re in, the world we call Big Other, my fellow travelers will readily recognize the voice and vision above. It’s Franz Kafka, sure, a short story or meditation or something finished in 1922, two years before his death. Tuberculosis took him at the young age of 41, when he was still a mid-level insurance exec in Prague, the hometown he termed “the little mother with claws.” Like most of his work, especially the work without narrative, this piece saw print well after his death, thanks in particular to Max Brod, a writer far more widely published and celebrated during Kafka’s lifetime. Brod, a Jew like his friend, had to flee Prague in 1939, yet he took time to gather up Kafka’s remaining unpublished manuscripts; Continue reading

Plensa, ALEXANDRA, alabaster, Des Moines: Best of 2011

Has 3000 pounds of alabaster ever been mistaken for gossamer?  Ever, anywhere?  In Des Moines, Iowa, in the final month of 2011, it might just happen. The vision was made manifest by Jaume Plensa, and here’s one man’s rough video, which I couldn’t get to stand upright: Continue reading

Stanley Elkin, ghosting through Boston, beautifully.

Stanley Elkin proved remarkably supportive and generous with me, c. 1977 in Boston.  He’d come to town as a visiting writer at Boston U., just another of the amazing lineup (Barth, Barthelme [Donald], Cheever [alcoholic, alas], more…) brought in by George Starbuck while he was running the writing program.  I was a recent graduate and still spending a lot of time in the department, while freelancing as a teacher and writer in town.  I’d read a couple of his novellas, stuff that later wound up in Searches & Seizures and The Living End, and I’d started A Bad Man after seeing Gass recommend it in one of his essays, then had it snitched off my seat by a stranger on the MBTA.

The photo used elsewhere on Big Other is the figure I recall. Elkin and I met at a department functionStanley Elkin, c.'78 and, drink in hand, he proved a delightful sourpuss, for instance regarding his friend Bill Gass.  “Listen,” he groused, “I’ve written better novels than Bill ever will.”  This with obvious fondness!  And energy, too — this was before Elkin’s MS put him in a walker.  I don’t even recall seeing him with a cane.   Continue reading

Reading @ KGB Bar, Sunday, Feb. 6th.

Last time I showed up on Big Other, it was to offer some final big ideas about Dante and his Divine Comedy.  Now, I might be falling from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Here’s the notice about a reading of my own — with others — at KGB Bar down in lower Manhattan, on E. 4th just off the Bowery.  That’s next Sunday, Feb. 6th, starting at 7 PM.

The reading celebrates Gival Press, out of Arlington, VA.  Gival published my 2008 novel A Tomb on the Periphery, and many other splendid pieces of work.  Other readers include New Yorkers David Winner (The Cannibal of Guadalajara) and Thad Rutkowski (Haywire).

If you’re not snowed in, or if you haven’t got a stake in the Super Bowl, do stop by.

Dante 2020-6: Tower, Tree, Candle, & the Triumph of the Fragile.

The Divine Comedy has its end, after 3X9 spirals rendered in 100 evenly distributed cantos, and it’s about time my posts about the Poem wrap up too.   The big question that’s kept me on BIG OTHER: why should so complex a work, about places and beliefs that have long since ceased to matter, actually continue growing in impact, now nearly 700 years after it was completed?  Earlier posts have raised that question, then looked at Inferno, then Purgatory,  then Paradiso, and after that begun to provide an answer.  Now, (with a last salute to Southwest Review, where all this appeared in very different form) I reach final conclusions.

My Universal Field Theory for the Poem’s continuing appeal hardly springs, full-grown, from my brow alone.   Continue reading

Dante 2020-5: the Intimate Erases the Monolith.

BIG OTHER, gracious blog, has been letting me post my ideas about Dante’s Divine Comedy.  The basic question: Why should so long and formal a piece of work, coming up on its 700th birthday and all about notions of faith hardly anyone believes in, still enjoy enormous contemporary impact?  Earlier stages of my investigation have laid out the problem,  then looked at Inferno, then Purgatory, then Paradise.  Also I have to thank Southwest Review, where this material appeared in considerably different form.  Now, I begin to see what I can make of the whole.

The core of my Comedy, then, resides in these three end-of-the-road images: the the slum-tower, the the garden-tree, and softer lights of Heaven.  In concert, I would argue, they enact something more ambivalent than a “conversion narrative.” Continue reading

Dante 2020-4: Big Lights & Small Grapple in Paradise.

Three times, recently, I’ve posted my ideas about Dante’s Divine Comedy.  I’m exploring why a long poem coming up on its 700th birthday, one with a form and a theology that few people care about any longer, should have such enormous contemporary impact. The earlier stages of my investigation are here, here, and here, and again I have to thank Southwest Review, where these ideas appeared in a different form.  Now, Paradise, with a sketch from Sandro Botticelli to begin with.

The Comedy’s last canticle demands a move away from the familiar.  The realm of the Blest must come across as something else again, and it does, with glowing cross-galaxy swoops and landings that suggest computer animation, centuries ahead of its time.  But then the subject has no truck with time; it exists outside time.  Nor should anybody confuse actual Paradise with its faint simulacrum, the Earthly Paradise.  The flowers and waters of the Empyrean, in the final cantos, recall the peak of Purgatory, but they’ve gone unearthly.

A key example, both for what’s special about Paradise and for my larger argument, is the “stream” that forms the border to Highest Heaven, in Canto XXX.  In keeping with the mad experiment Dante conducts throughout the canticle, this stream is not a stream.  Rather it’s a ribbon of mosaic, now jewels and now flames, an infinite flow of innocent sensuality and envy-free abundance.  All this has been distilled, somehow, from the Celestial Rose beyond. Continue reading

Dante 2020-3: Cleansing as Carnival, Tree as Anchor.

Twice in recent days, I’ve posted stages in a developing idea about Dante’s Divine Comedy.  The work is coming up on its 700th birthday, yet its impact seems greater than ever, and we have to ask why.  My own answer appeared first, in different form, in Southwest Review.  Now, we climb towards salvation, led on by William Blake’s depiction of a bizarre parade from Purgatory .

The closing of this canticle offers no small assortment of the strange.  The phantasmagoric charade up in the Earthly Paradise, in Cantos XXIX, XXX, and XXXII, present Christianity as acid trip, the faith in hallucinatory allegory.  Continue reading

Dante 2020-2: Nothing so Claustrophobic as a Castle

A couple of days back, I posted the first of my thoughts about Dante’s Divine Comedy.  With the 700th anniversary of the work approaching, its impact seems greater than ever, and we have to ask why.  My own answer appeared first in a different, longer piece in Southwest Review, and my thanks to them.  Now, the question takes us underground.

Extravagant as the Comedy is, more extreme than anything in Jackson or Tolkien, Dante nonetheless puts the period to each of his journeys-within-a-journey by means of something small and ordinary.  The word that concludes each canticle is stelle, stars: a glimmering diminuendo, in which the sound softens from fricative to glottal to mere breath.  But of course this closer contains considerable power as well; it takes us towards immeasurable unknowns.

Throughout the Comedy, then, what guides Dante’s Pilgrim towards God often finds fragile embodiment, fragile as starlight.  Indeed, the contrary holds true.  Infernal landmarks are notable for their size, the devils and damned saddled with grotesque protuberance; the same proportions apply to the trials of the purgatorial mountain.  Hence the dramatic problem of Paradise, the challenge of creating story tension in a place of infinite harmony, extends to the problem of creating images: what shape can enlightenment take, when any natural form derives from the Fall?  Continue reading

Dante 2020, or How Does That Guy Get Away with a Fedora?

Struggling to deliver for BIG OTHER, I’ve kept coming back to the following, on Dante and his Divine Comedy. In different form, longer, the essay first appeared in Southwest Review.  My thanks to the editor, Willard Spiegelman, for allowing me to adapt the piece, and to John M. and other OTHERs, for urging me on.  I’ll put up what I’ve got to say up in portions, one every two or three days.  For starters:

I crown and miter you lord of yourself!

— Virgil to Dante, as they exit Purgatory
(Musa translation, Canto XXVII, line 142)

Those who read this will likely participate in the eighth century of discussion concerning The Divine Comedy.  Clean copies of the finished canticles, with all their intellectual sizzle and range, their right-on humanity and intertextual strutwork, and above all their poetic command, flexible, profound, precise — with all that intact already, the completed work began to circulate in 1320, the last year of its author’s life.  Yet with 2020 less than a decade off, in every creative arena, “the Poem” (as the scholar Charles Singleton liked to call it) looms as an ever-more-common referent.

I’m not the only one to have noticed.  Joan Acocella, in The New Yorker, beefed up her ’07 review of the Hollander translation of Paradiso (with commentary, 742 pages) with a look at  20th Century Dante criticism.  She assumed that readers would go along.  Continue reading

Spawn of Stevens

A monster is known by its spawn.  Or that’s one way we know a monster, at least, and few presences in American poetry loom so monstrously — in the best sense, like the challenge that confers meaning on our voyage — as Wallace Stevens.  From the first his work found itself trailed by spawn.

Poets couldn’t help but respond.  Whatever their school, their sensibility, their skill-set, they had to address this mooncalf of their art’s quiddity.  A word-monger of scintillating finesse, Stevens also took readers beyond all refinement, to the tropical back-of-brain, the palm at the far end, the residence of The Unknowable.  Poets couldn’t help but respond, even if in irritation.

Continue reading

Stat & Astonished

As a fiction writer — primarily — I think a lot about imaginative literature and how it fits, nowadays, in a tightly-wired yet tatterdemalion world.  Yet over the weekend the most provocation considerations on the issue turned up in the papers, the New York Times.

On the Times “Opinion” pages, recently, they’ve invited contributions from philosophers.  The series is called “The Stone,” and the Oct. 24th take “on issues both timely and timeless” (as the subtitle has it) was by John Allen Paulos, a mathematician as well as philosopher.  Paulos went to one of his specialties, statistics, to try and explain the human impulse to storytelling.  He says:

[T]he notions of probability and statistics are not alien to storytelling. From the earliest of recorded histories there were glimmerings of these concepts…. Consider the notions of central tendency — average, median, mode, to name a few. They most certainly grew out of workaday activities and led to words such as (in English) “usual,” “typical,” …and so on. The same is true about the notions of statistical variation — standard deviation, variance, and the like. Words such as “unusual,” “peculiar,” “strange,” “…come to mind. It is hard to imagine even prehistoric humans not possessing some sort of rudimentary idea of the typical or of the unusual. …These and other fundamentally scientific concepts have in one way or another been embedded in the very idea of what a story is — an event distinctive enough to merit retelling….

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