Fredson Bowers essentially founded the UVA English Dept. As part of our orientation I was part of a group who gave a talk on Bowers scholarship and role in the dept. Below is my section as pertains to why I am at UVA. Thought it might be interesting to like 3 people.
Fredson Bowers’ legacy continues today. Were it not for Bowers I doubt I would be here. Bowers’ legacy lies not so much in his publications per se but in the discourse he initiated, specifically at UVA. Prior to Bowers’ Principles of Bibliographic Description the study of bibliography existed as the handmaiden of literature. Bower’s choice to privilege the physical book as an object as worthy of study, as more than simply a container for an author’s text, rubbed some the wrong way.Moreover his conception of bibliography as a rigorous discursive field of categories and terms felt too ‘scientific’ for many literary scholars. Perhaps Bowers was a decade early. By the late 50s and early 60s Theory with a capital T oozed out of Paris and into every niche of the academy, Theory deeply concerned with structures and achieves, Theory that was pervasively conditioned, as our own Bruce Holsinger has shown, by a medievalism rooted in bibliography. And yet, simple recapitulating his influence in the field of bibliography fails to do Bowers justice. Had Bowers formidable intellect been any less accommodating to divergent views, had he been any less stringent in his responses to those same critics, Bowers legacy would be akin to any number of other great critics. Bowers did run from his critics. He invited them into his home: his campus and his journal. Today that is his greatest gift to us. He both initiated a defining discourse and insured that the critical conversations took place here. He embedded bibliography into the fabric of the university by ensuring UVA became a place where critics of all stripes could and would flourish. To close briefly: I remember the feeling the first time I ‘got’ a book in the Bowers-ian sense. It changed the course of my life. It happened under the tutelage of Ralph Hanna, himself deeply influenced by Fredson Bowers and then three years later when it came time to make my PhD decision Ralph was the one urging me towards UVA because, he said, they will respect what you do. For me, for all of us, Bowers’ legacy is the chance to continue his conversation in his house, under his house rules. The rules are simple: Be excellent. Be interesting. Don’t hide.We hope that we live up to his standards, sartorial included.
So I finished The Pale King last night. It is pretty much a novel about boredom, tedium, and everyday life. It is rather obviously unfinished, and rather not obviously fiction in the strictest sense (re: ‘This is Water;’ [listen here] it seems DFW was exploring permeable membrane between truth and fiction at the time he died, perhaps the regions George Steiner once labeled ‘real’ and ‘more real’).
Nothing much happens. We keep expecting something to happen but it never does. Furthermore, there isn’t even a protagonist. The book is not a novel in any normal sense. Yet it is perhaps the most perfect novel of the decade. DFW’s marries Nabokov’s pitch perfect lyricism with a blistering sincerity all his own. He plums the depths of the era’s deepest fear: boredom. Ennui. Sameness. Lack of uniqueness. It seems the overall conceit of the novel is to bring together the most exceptional batch of IRS employees so as to demonstrate palpably the superiority of computers. Discussions of tax occupy pages and pages.
Tax theory links the narrative. One practically expects to be able to outline the chapters vis a vis a 1040. The choice of the tax world as his hyper-reality is incisive. To most people, taxes represent the most boring task in the world and the IRS terrifies because it is comprised of group of people who have conquered their capacity to be bored. They are all freaks to most ‘normal’ people.
In this world of hyper normalcy DFW explores the abnormality of all human life and the vital importance of paying attention. Of concentration. The Pale King, at times, feels like a vivification of ‘This is Water’ (listen here), but that connection is too hard to hold. The Pale King killed the author. Or at least he killed himself while writing it.
Much as we try to disassociate author and work- pace Barthes- DFW, esp. the DFW explicitly presented in The Pale King as very much the type of person the real DFW directed ‘This is Water’ at, is rather explicitly pushing back at a darkness of near Beckett-ian absurdity. And the real, the living, breathing, writing DFW, apparently lost. It has been said novels, poems, and paintings, all art, is an apology for a life that couldn’t be lived. One hopes that via his last works DFW will point others towards a light we hope he found. His are, as Steiner said, ‘night words,’ Saturday speech in hope of Sunday.
Followers of this blog my remember previous ‘review’ of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night in which I noted that it was not a book I would have appreciated prior to living abroad but while living abroad it was a positively terrifying book. This Side of Paradise is worse in that it is far too close to home. Paradise, it seems, comes at the apogee of Amory and Isabella’s relationship which coincides neatly with the apogee of Amory’s status at Princeton. While it would be hard to call Amory idealistic or naive, he has a sort of innocence for the the first half of the book, the innocence that comes with believing oneself worldly, urbane, and wise- the innocence of privilege, be it wealth, talent, or beauty, all of which Amory enjoys to a certain degree. The book, however, is written from this side of paradise, the far side: paradise lost. It is not, however, a peon to an idealized past. It is the realization that paradise only ever existed insofar as the subject is able to dwell solely on the self at the expense of all others. Amory’s affairs- as he realizes- are self-actualizing to the extreme. Rather they are self-fashioning. They are what Amory uses to define himself, an Amory he bounces off the Amory fashioned by Monsignor Darcy. While he treasures ‘the fundamental Amory,’ the hard truth gained by the book is quite simply that there is no fundamental Amory. There is only Amory the product of his experiences rather than the master- the commander- of them. Paradise is Princeton. It is the aristocratic life Amory aspires to at Princeton. The ideal of idealized life- a world fashioned by Amory for Amory. At the end, though, when ‘the egoist’ becomes ‘a personage’ it seems the primary knowledge gained by Amory, his self knowledge, is quite simply that he is not the arbiter of his own reality. This is Fitzgerald’s first- and most formally daring- novel. It darts between prose, poetry, and drama to capture a world now almost a century old. And yet it feels strikingly appropriate. And far to close to home for someone reading it on the far side of an Oxford much like Amory’s Princeton- an idea as much as an education- and who’s life, to a great extent, has charted by relationships with women. Amory’s diagnoses of others and himself- and Fitzgerald’s diagnoses of Amory and Amory’s world- ring too true for enjoyment. Amory’s ennui is unsettlingly familiar. As the Gatsby movie approaches, it may be worth dwelling on Fitzgerald, especially for young, privileged people (if you are reading this online, you are privileged, fyi). This Side of Paradise is, in fact, a deeply anti-nostalgic novel, in my opinion. It, like much of Fitzgerald’s work, is the excoriation of nostalgia, the realization that we all must have at some point that that was not paradise and to desire a return is to reject any chance of a future. The past is not castigated, it is simply the past, it is part of who Amory is, but it is not his future. His walk to Princeton is no walk to Emmaus but rather the last grasp at past more beautiful in memory than in truth.
It is hard to ‘review’ George Eliot’s Middlemarch. At nearly 800 pages it cannot really be compressed or distilled into easy parts. In fact, it’s great strength is that it is a profoundly inconvenient novel to modern readers. It took me a full 450 pages to see how the two basic halves of her story- town and country- would come together in any fashion other than proximity. That is not to say the book wanders or dithers (as I am prone to think most Dicken’s novels do), rather it takes time to consider- vis-a-vis a plethora of memorable characters- the full sweep of parochial England poised on the edge of The Reform Bill. Moreover, Eliot’s prose is adroitly self-conscious: she is ironic with out being bitter or compromising a basic sympathy towards humanity. She affords her self the time and space to both consider the ramifications of human choice on other humans but also gently check, glosses, and reproofs her characters. I could go on, and perhaps later will, but really it is hard to say anything other than it is the quintessential Victorian Novel.
Publisher’s proofs of my first real academic article w/my final corrections/revisions. Now, I did write this 2 years ago and while I stand with the broad lines, I think I would say things a bit more maturely now (or at least I hope so) but time and the bell have buried the day (dear God someone please get the allusion…SO MANY people quote him and have read so very little of him) and it is as it is and I am not unhappy with it. Please ask for permission before reblogging as this actually represents professional work for me. If you have a good reason I am liable to give permission. As a rule I don’t care if people reblog photos with out asking but this is kind of different to me. Anyhow, only like 3 people will find it interesting anyhow, not 3 people on tumblr, but more like 3 people world wide.
"He was but seven-and-twenty, an age at which many men are not quite common—at which they are hopeful of achievement, resolute in avoidance, thinking that Mammon shall never put a bit in their mouths and get astride their backs, but rather that Mammon, if they have anything to do with him, shall draw their chariot."
— George Eliot, Middlemarch, Chapter 15. W/r/t Tertius Lydgate but applicable to most men in their mid-twenties…aka the oldest 1% on tumblr
Last week I finished Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. I liked it a lot, but I am not entirely sure what to make of it. It is, of course, ironic but not, perhaps, in the way we always expect. The target of much of Stendhal’s satire is, of course, upper class French society in the 1830’, yet at the same time me thinks he pokes gently at cross currents of Romanticism as well. Let’s be perfectly clear: Julian Sorel is a deeply compromised individual, morally dubious at best. He is hard to latch onto, so to speak. While anyone who has felt out of place will identify with some of his behavior, the end to which it is directed seems petty and hollow. Perhaps this is Stendhal’s point. Perhaps, in the end, the entire societies behavior collapses into Julian’s botched murder attempt and his sucidal defense at his own trial. Perhaps Stendhal uses Sorel to expose the sucidal impulse of the very society that both condems Julian’s birth and affirms his behavior. The challenge they face is not of a commoner evidencing more nobility but of the realization of the complete ludicy of nobility as a construct at all. Anyhow, was a good read, glad I read it, and would recommend to others. I wish I could read it in French.
VI Although I do not hope to turn again Although I do not hope Although I do not hope to turn
Wavering between the profit and the loss In this brief transit where the dreams cross The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying (Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things From the wide window towards the granite shore The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying Unbroken wings
And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices And the weak spirit quickens to rebel For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell Quickens to recover The cry of quail and the whirling plover And the blind eye creates The empty forms between the ivory gates And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
This is the time of tension between dying and birth The place of solitude where three dreams cross Between blue rocks But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away Let the other yew be shaken and reply.
Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden, Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still Even among these rocks, Our peace in His will And even among these rocks Sister, mother And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea, Suffer me not to be separated
So, for those wondering just how I have been making a living the past few weeks, here ‘tis: Piers Plowman. I have been checking the transcriptions of every manuscript of the A-Text of Langland’s much loved alliterative poem. So basically I have read the prologue and Passus 1 and 2 20ish times. I know this makes me a super nerd, but it’s quite neat to see the same lines in various dialects and iterations. It really makes you appreciate the textual variety and realize how far George Kane’s edition is from the poem’s original state. Not that Kane is wicked or anything, really just a by product of textual editing in general, but the manuscripts certainly embody a more robust and dynamic image of Piers.
This is, by the way, the opening of Trinity MS of Piers.
Michel de Montaigne, On Solitude, Penguin Great Ideas, Series 4, no. 64 (London: Penguin, 2009)
First, this is the first of likely many reviews of various volumes of the Penguin Great Ideas series. This series is brilliant. It actualizes a point a great mentor of mine- Dr. Paul Vincent- made in a memorable chapel address years ago: the best books, those most worth reading, should be able to fit in the hip pocket of a pair of jeans. Moreover, Penguin brings a sense of style to these books. The understated elegance of the paperback production makes them a pleasure to read and addictive to collect. Blackwell’s 3 for 2 deals help. But with out further fuss- de Montaigne.
Michel deMontaingne is, in my opinion, not at his best in the titular essay: ‘On Solitude.’ I will return to my thoughts on it at the close of this essay. But to start, I must simply remark on the near perfect simplicity of ‘On the Length of Life.’ It is, to my mind, Montaigne at his best: speaking directly and with out undue recourse to classical allusion. He is witty and canny, notably pointing out the ludic undertones of the term ‘natural death.’ He bobs and weaves like a boxer having fun and it’s hard to keep count of the hits he registers because you are just enjoying the show too much. His effortless wit and ability to move quickly from trivial to sublime is on display in other essays as well, but at times, I think, his penchant for antiquity reduces some essays to chains of examples. Frequently he draws from Seneca, and often to great effect. And yet, I think this is where my creeping issues with de Montaigne begin. In his discussion of solitude he endorses a Senecan, stoic, withdraw or detachment. In a through away comment he mentions the stress of managing ones estates to point out that country retirement does not always equal rest, or properly: otium. There is, like in Seneca, a darker undertone. de Montaigne’s leisure was contingent upon the backbreaking labor of others. His patrician tone extends past his predilection for the ancients. It seems harsh, or unduly Marxist, to judge a man retroactively- he was no worse and likely much better than most of his class- and yet his exhortations on some issues are impossible to accept because the require an entire socio-economic system we have rejected wholesale. Perhaps my ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ occludes my judgement, but- I must say- I must reject the solitude he suggests precisely because it- to my mind- is a house built upon sand, and perhaps worse, watered in blood. Now, I don’t wish to put off de Montaigne entirely. When he speaks of life, of human emotions such as anger or constancy, he is scintillating. I guess I speak in the light of my days. Without being too political (and anyone who actually knows me knows how laughable the charge of liberalism is) it is hard to read anything today that does not recognize the problems of class, labor, and money. Montaigne’s virtue requires, to some extent, unvirtuous acquisition of the material means necessary to obtain the requisite otium he sees paramount to living the good life.
So, the Bodleian has a very cool, very free Exhibition on at the moment: ‘The Romance of the Middle Ages.’ It is located in exhibition room of Old Schools Quad and hours of opening can be found here. While the room itself is quite small, it is positively choc full of stunning manuscripts and the accompanying text is well thought out and really ties the exhibition together. Among the manuscripts on display are the earliest copy of Le Chanson de Roland, the Welsh Red Book of Hergest, and- most impressive to my mind- British Library Cotton Nero A.x, the Pearl Manuscript and the only extant witness to Gawain and the Green Knight. I really cannot speak highly enough of this compact but exciting space. While it might seem trivial, anyone who has every tried to get the BL to let them consult Cotton Nero A.x realizes the formidable (hopeless) nature of the task. One would be more likely to win a beheading game with green giant then spend quality alone time with Cotton Nero. As such, I was fully surprised and duly impressed by the curator’s ability to secure the book on loan for public viewing. Even if you don’t care two bits about medievalism or adventure, this specific book is such an important cultural treasure- at least for anyone who speaks English- that seeing it alone is worth the time to walk over. Nor does the curator limit themselves to the medieval period. While the exhibition is primarily historical, it does explore how medieval romance has filtered into the medievalisms of our day- i.e. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rawling. And, seriously, it’s free. Like the Treasure Room at the BL, you are really quite foolish if you pass by and don’t spend a half an hour there.