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Poetry


The Chain

Tom Sleigh
The University of Chicago Press, $35 (cloth), $11.95 (paper)

by Peter Sacks
To gauge the new weight and orientation of Tom Sleigh's third collection of poems, The Chain, I'll link three portrayals of artists, one from each of his books. While the depictions of the poet himself or the faces of painters reveal Sleigh's constant resolve to interrogate the maker of art, and to submit all self-renderings to the mediation of a disciplined craft, the successive portraits shed light on some of the poet's own maturing features. The first lines are from "The Painter," (After One, 1983):

He painted my portrait once,
Took the feeling from my eyes and put it
In my hands about to clench the bone handle
Of a knife. There was no knife in the picture,
Just my face and hand upraised toward the viewer,
My elbow cropped out. It looked in the background
Like the stifling of an explosion,
Though all that force seemed like a pressure
That kept the figure from flying apart.

The next are from "Ending" (Waking, 1990):

Today, my birthday, I felt well enough to walk
Through the mist drifting
Along the shore-
and as if the waves were
molten silver

Shining back to me my thoughts,
I kept seeing
Bonnard's self-portrait
In which he paints

his own reflection
In the bathroom mirror, his ribs sharp
Against the skin, eyes buried in the sockets,
Sunlight behind his bald head
Shining intolerably bright, a shuddering
Brilliance off the tiles walling him in-
his gaze
Comprehends his own impending death, the deaths of his family
And oldest friends-
yet the eyes captive in the glass

Stare undismayed by their own sadness
As if eyes behind the eyes staring
From a void of heart and thought
saw his emaciated
Nakedness, the triumphant prominence of the bones,
As the world's
frail, breathing ribs,
his breath

Joined to the world's. . . .

And the third quotation, from The Chain, is made up of the beginning and a later section of "For a Young Painter":

I watch you hunch your shoulders as if you
Were a boulder smoothing, smoothed in the middle
Of a river, around you the conversation flows

And eddies, snagging when your mother tries
To catch your eye. . .

-But now, as if those waters had receded

And left you stranded here, face worn to rubble
Extinguished at its core, you sit unmoving
As the cold creeps down, icing you inch by inch. . . .
From the displaced gaze and pent ferocity whose source in the first example remains unnamed and hence all the more explosively cropped, the poetry moves to the far more patient comprehension of Bonnard. The lines are more open, exploratory, speculative. And with their closely monitored range of respirations, they enter into a delicate yet unflinching alliance with the posthumous transparency of Bonnard's own far-sighted meditation on mortality-an "undismayed" achievement of the spirit, which becomes inseparable from that of the mortally ill speaker of the poem. From the vantage of that clairvoyant "waking," Sleigh's most recent work seems to have taken on a still more objective cast. Entrapment and decay remain vivid, but the poetry is less subjectively burdened, more composed in its regard for the external world and for the obdurately independent lives of others.
Thematically, this last modulation is worked out in The Chain by a series of poems which recount the very divergence between the poet and those with whom his life has intersected-drugged-out buddies, derelict squatters, a suicidal painter, his own younger selves, a brother whose version of the truth he cannot share, a dying father. These acts of clarified distancing (however sympathetic) take on a greater formality-a lucid, near-classical poise-as the poet's individuation both draws upon and strengthens his access to the impersonal repose of the art itself. From the choral opening "Lamentation on Ur" to the elegiac sonnets for his father (poems whose intimacy is balanced by the necessities of form and genre, and whose grief undergoes what the sequence-title simply calls "The Work"), the poems of The Chain emerge link by link with the marks of a passionate but rigorously self-tempering maker of artifacts.
What makes the objectifying character of Sleigh's new work still more impressive is the fact that it includes so many poems of biographical memory-poems that might have succumbed to mere reminiscence. Instead, memory here works as a purging fire, and the formal contours of the poems serve not only to reinforce selectivity but also to make each crucible strong enough to bear the heat of refinement and self-revision.
Notice, for example, how "The Word" begins:

Like a ruin living in its own destruction. . . .
-Or so I thought until I really looked at him,
Newspaper spilling from his overcoat bulging

From sweatstiff clothes he sleeps and eats in,
Driven by cold down these cliff-edge stairways
Blazing night-long underground. . . .

Trenched by ellipses and dash, the first line-break interrupts the act of perception, and shifts from simile to harder observation. Only within this more engaged regard can the tercets then reach toward the rhetorical power of the carefully line-stepped "stairways," the stanzaic form now suiting the infernal cliff-edge and underground blazing-effects that augment without glamorizing what they describe.
Characteristically, this initial gain in moral and aesthetic authority gets challenged before it can harden into a resolved attitude. Again the challenge is crucially patterned: ellipses, line-break, dash ("his fingernails. . . // -But a ruin? He didn't seem like a ruin / That time I heard him shouting"). But now the reproof is more intense and more external, as the bagman, like some convulsive oracle, hurls his reiterated "You you you you!. . . at each passerby." Called out by this horrifying election, the poet moves forward only by way of yet further revisions:

Not a ruin-more a nerve-end of the city
Twitching uncontrollably, his storming ganglia
Short-circuiting, You you you you!

-But not a nerve-end either. . . .

As with the task of a sympathetic yet objectifying remembrance, the projects of revision and individuation in these poems bring on their own struggles. And Sleigh's acknowledgments of distances between persons (and within the self) are both stressed and strengthened by his susceptibility to states of identification, camaraderie, love. With this much in mind, we might check the book's actual opening "Invocation":

Spirit,
in me accomplish your work-

the ineradicable work
that even as my strength begins to fail

you still build
as beautifully in the approaching ruin.

The spirit's difference from mere biography is to be marked precisely by a "work," the lasting beauty of whose construction must take place both "in" and against the mortally corruptible life of the poet. Consequently, the work of these poems will be inseparable from kinds of agon. This is ground zero for all of Sleigh's work thus far: It consistently thematizes an agon with which its own makings, however recuperative, remain more than analogous. And it never takes for granted its ability to reach any relation to that agon other than one of tragic inextricability.
After the "Lamentation on Ur," the first poems move inward by way of "The Word" to a suite of recollections whose region (judging from the Augustinian allusion in a later narrative, "Shame") could be called Sleigh's memories of youth in Carthage:

John and Mike roused me, calling, "Hey, little brother,

Roll us a joint." Sensible of the honor,
I see myself nervous with the cigarette papers,
Then holding it out for their shrugging approval. . .

After we smoked, we floated in drifts
Of sun and shadow, suspended like souls
Poised alive on golden scales, no judgment

To awe, or frighten us-if it wasn't
Fearful or awful to huddle
In that chill room, night freezing to the pane. . . .

This passage from "The Line" partially releases an impulse which, "huddling" throughout these early poems of transgression and of a lurching, entrapped companionship, comes more fully into its own as the book progresses. For behind their repeated acts of alienation ("Even my mugshot swelling the deadpan files // Was the face of someone else"), and within the eroticized narcotic cravings ("And wasn't it part sexual, that hunger to get high. . . ?"), there stirs an irrepressible hunger not simply for a more sustaining kind of intimacy but also for a transformation of a distinctly spiritual cast. And given an absence of orthodox belief in transcendent judgment or in immortality, we may ask to what degree the speaker can satisfy what may turn out to be his true addiction.
To digress for a moment, I'd suggest that one useful approach to poetry may be to identify a particular poet's "addiction"-recalling the Latin dicere (to speak) and addicere's primary reference to acts of dedication, consecration, devotional surrender. What if poets were addicted to this form of addiction? From Hesiod, whose originating account of the Muses explains their work as a sedative sung no doubt addictively to the gods, through Keats's questor having to burn aromatic leaves for the terminally spaced-out or timed-out Moneta, to Sleigh fraternally rolling his expertly made verbal joints for all of us chain-readers of poetry, poems may be one of the more enduring substances through which readers interested in altered states of consciousness and in non-lethal, indeed immortal, kinds of companionship can get high together while giving themselves up to acts of originally divine address. I'd suggest that Sleigh is addicted to making such offerings, whether to vagrant veterans, brothers, lovers, or families-in-arms, or some yet further, continuously reconstructed audience among the living, the dead, and the undying.
"Crossing the Border" accordingly closes the first section of the book by crossing Acheron. And the second section takes us further down through the nightmarish complicities of "The Denial" into the sequence "Terminus"-a Virgilian-Dantean account of two brothers' diverging memories of a shared childhood. One of the marks of Sleigh's emerging mastery is his ability to align this material (a potentially chaotic abyss of alleged sexual violation, betrayal, amnesia, suppression) with an encompassing moral-philosophical question: Lacking a metaphysical witness or court of appeal, how can we reach outside our own empirical experience in order to establish a true account of that experience? Within a fraternal rending, Sleigh thus mourns "the Truth fissuring into truths. . ." even as he conjures the concluding, classically poetic image of a creatural solicitude for one another's self-mappings: "Ears attuned to every echo as you / Weave like bats through the others' calls."
I would be cautious about using this conclusion of "Terminus" to assert that poetic conjuring itself may rescue us from epistemological and familial impasses, or that its fabrications may satisfy an individual's hunger for spiritual release. And yet I wouldn't discount such a possibility without carefully reading what follows. Indeed we're at the exact center of The Chain; and the third of the book's four sections leads off with an explicitly literary linkage across time and death, "Great Island," a translation and elaboration of a Latin self-address to the soul. While the language of "Great Island" retains the echoes of "Terminus," another sense is added to the poet's sonar as he (or rather the prolonged transpersonal identity of Hadrian-Sleigh) moves into the realm of language:

Pallid, naked, almost numb, my own
small soul, if we can, let us pass

into this darkness, this limbo
of echoes, this nesting ground
for all the world's
orphaned words,

with open eyes.

In what remains, this open-eyed vision turns to a still widening range of subjects that bind several of the book's preceding elements into new convergences. Poems of domestic love ("Some Larger Motion," "The Canoe," and "The Distance Between") bring a more integrated passion to the discovery of the right relation between lovers who remain roundly individuated from each other. From "The Canoe":

. . .The grooves
Our paddles wore away into transparence
Drifting away behind us like the pleasures we would prove

Caught in that moment, balancing clear-eyed:
Freely giving no quarter and expecting none,
Both of us careful to keep our own side,
I matched your every stroke as you matched mine.

The beauty of these lines derives in part from their unforced equilibrations. Many of them have taken the more balanced form of quatrains, matching their symmetries to those of the maturing lovers. And while the level of feeling has come to the brim, the tone is somehow calmer, more relenting, more fluently inclusive (the Marlovian love-phrase, for example, barely breaking the surface as the craft moves on).
Shaping a course that he cannot merely will into being, securing the gifts of a sustained affection, the poet finally steers toward the superb closing sequence of sonnets and framing poems on the death of his father. I'm struck here by the inner and outer poise, and by the lack of any straining for heroism. The ultimate agon no longer needs to be sought out; for like love itself-indeed serving to intensify love-it comes to the poet against his will. He is drawn into that web of fully realized mortality, where one is "both its maker and its target."
What I'd urge readers to look for in these concluding poems is their blend of gravitas and lightness of touch; their skeptical yet mythic imaginative reach; their wary anxiety about "stealing" from death (a sorrowfully purged reprise of earlier thefts); their formal engineering (the father's profession) of "miraculous / Suspension" as well as of "Payload, liftoff, escape velocity;" the conversational voice in which they nevertheless complete their archaic "work," now fashioning a chain of voices, now weaving and unweaving a text of air; their sober yet deeply felt interposings between son and father, living and dead, body and soul:

The god bends me to the work, my fingers driven
By the god, blinded by the god's
Neutrality, until I pull apart the threads
In this place the god commands:

Faces wholly unwoven, without heart, mind, you
Are nothing in my hands but my hands moving.

("The God")


I lead you back, your Orpheus, until you
Stand inhaling, on the topmost stair...

But there is no dark, no stair, no Orpheus

-Only this voice rehearsing breath
By breath in words you'll never read these
Lines stolen from your death.

("The Rehearsal")


-His soul too, which still watches as he sleeps,
Hovering over his bruised, diffusing flesh;
Yet restless in its care, anticipating its own delight,

Finally knowing itself free to depart:
Lingering a moment even as its wings begin to beat,
His soul's eyes peer into his face.

("The Souls") n


Meadowlands
Louise Glück
Ecco Press, $22


by Elizabeth Macklin
Over the past 30-odd years, the poet Louise Glück has been a problem-solver, an increasingly lyrical engineer of diagnosis and analysis. And, since Ararat (1990), part of her skill has been to disclose her own tools at work, though it's the current she reveals, more than the circuitry. A first-time reader read through her book The Wild Iris (1992) thinking, "And this 'you'-is it plural or singular, vocative or imperative, formal or familiar?" Of course, the true dilemma in The Wild Iris was the nature of a human identity: Is it divine or is it vegetal, or is it actually somehow human?
The poems of Glück's latest book, Meadowlands, perhaps by way of their breakthrough overtness of tone, humor, and setting, know who the "you" is-the book is about a marriage-and are interested in third-person roles, "he" and "she," and also the first-person "we." While each poem here is discrete, a world, in sequence they make a near-novel-in trajectory like one of Christa Wolf's short books or, even more, like a late Alice Munro, one that extends back and forth through time. Meadowlands is the novel of a marriage whose ancestors are, among others, Penelope and Odysseus during and after the Trojan War, but it's a marriage that's trying to be different-between equals-and has no simple models at hand. Its metaphors aside, Meadowlands' marriage takes place now, in the real world, which means within the context that includes, for example, last spring's Congressional debate on marriage:
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill): . . .If two men want to love each other, go right ahead. If you want to solemnize your love affair by some ceremony, create one. But don't take marriage, which for centuries has been a union between man and woman. . . and try to say that what you're doing is American.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass): . . . There are plenty of people here who have had marriages that have meant a great deal to them. I salute that. I don't for a minute understand how it demeans, and I would ask the gentleman. . . . The gentleman's marriage, the marriages of other members here are based on a deep love, a bond between two people. . . . How does anything I do in which I express my feelings toward another demean the powerful bond of love and emotion and respect of two other people?. . .
Hyde: Because many of us feel that there is an immoral-
Frank: How does it demean your marriage? If other people are immoral, how does it demean your marriage? That's what you're saying.
Meadowlands is as stark-and often as darkly funny-as this, but much more realistic, in its outlook on marriage; also more imaginative. It's not a polemic, for one thing, though it contains at least one argument. The husband and the wife of Meadowlands, in their own way, sound like nobody else:

. . . Fennel
I never liked.

One thing I've always hated
about you: I hate that you refuse
to have people at the house. Flaubert
had more friends and Flaubert
was a recluse.

Flaubert was crazy: he lived
with his mother. . . .

I have deep friendships.
I have friendships
with other recluses.

Another thing: name one other person
who doesn't have furniture.

Nine of Meadowlands' 46 poems are eavesdropped remnants of one of those long-rhythmed low-grade "discussions" that go on in every marriage settled in for the long haul-conversations half-funny when spoken, but later, off in the other room, dead-serious.
But these characters are articulate in new ways. Some Wild Iris-styled disorientation remains; we aren't always clued in as to who exactly-husband or wife-is speaking, whose consciousness we're in, although, oddly, we always guess right. Meadowlands catches us in our assumptions. Glück's work has never courted voyeurs, and this book doesn't either; but its mode is clarity. From the start we're grounded: in the settings of a postwar romance-house and yard, in a small-town neighborhood ("It's early summer; / next door the Lights are practicing klezmer music. / A good night: the clarinet is in tune"); then, or simultaneously, the Greek palace where Penelope waits ten years for her husband; the Mediterranean islands Odysseus is drawn to, or the beach at Troy, where he got the idea of travel. Most of all, we're grounded in the characters-Circe or a siren; the wife and the husband, Penelope and Odysseus; and (especially) their son Telemachus, who in seven poems speaks about his parents' lives.
Toward the end of the third, "Telemachus' Kindness," we notice a disjunction. "When I was younger I felt / sorry for myself / compulsively," the poem begins:

in practical terms
I had no father; my mother
lived at her loom hypothesizing
her husband's erotic life.

Gradually, as if in a seer's voice (purely perceptive, not archly "knowing"), Telemachus lays out the parental problematic:

what
a life my mother had, without
compassion for my father's
suffering, for a soul
ardent by nature, thus
ravaged by choice, nor had my father
any sense of her courage, subtly
expressed as inaction. . . .

Wartime or postwar, Telemachus tells us, all that's simply a given now: "as a grown man / I can look at my parents / impartially and pity them both," adding, "I hope / always to be able to pity them." It's once he's said "as a grown man" that we abruptly rehear the underlay of Meadowlands' defenseless
and defended women, and see that his
understanding is worlds beyond mere
"forgiveness."

The reverberation of generations-up, down, sideways-is Meadowlands' greatest realism. Directly and indirectly, the book continually raises questions of feeling-coolness or passion, intensity-so that you're aware of it and of median worldly reactions to it. The dictions Glück's women use vary; they aren't always "call out to him. . . with your dark song, with your grasping, / unnatural song-passionate, / like Maria Callas" ("Penelope's Song"). For the men (whose voices are laconic, though also changing), intensity is prized in a lover but considered a failing in a wife. And the supreme intensity may be poetry, the writing of it, the capturing and understanding. Here it's Glück's accurate metaphor for a mode of passion: an independent footing in delight, or a counterpart to Circe, and frightening in a similar way.

What do you think I wished?

I don't know. That I'd come back,
that we'd somehow be together in the end.

I wished for what I always wish for.
I wished for another poem.

The range of shifting, momentary moods in a marriage-joy to total irritation to longing or pleasure or sorrow-clarify themselves in nine "parables," lyrically narrative, like dreams; because of their placement, they sound like alternative tales the wife might reread to herself, perhaps read to her husband, in lieu of the immutable and unhelpful Penelope-Odysseus story.
The poems in Meadowlands are constantly exchanging information, nudging, touching, receding, rethinking. "Midnight" dynamites the cliché of abject Penelope at her loom: "where is your sporting side, your famous / ironic detachment?" "The Parable of the Swans" addresses love as "what one did," as distinct from "what one felt in one's heart." Telemachus reports that every other child on his wartime island was in the same situation he was: "I could share these perceptions / with my closest friends, as they shared / theirs with me, to test them, / to refine them." In Meadowlands, Glück is most unsparing toward herself, but nobody here is willfully ignorant for long. Thus even the Greek soldiers (in "Parable of the Hostages") on the beachhead at Troy: "a few grow / slightly uneasy: what if war / is just . . . a game devised to avoid/profound spiritual questions?"
The Penelope Glück starts off with ("Little soul,. . . perpetually undressed one, / do now as I bid you, climb / the shelf-like branches of the spruce tree; / wait at the top, attentive. . . . / He will be home soon") is very probably Rep. Hyde's kind of wife. (Though even she remarks, "too many falling needles.") Conceivably, Telemachus could be Rep. Frank's kind of husband: "I never / wish for my father's life." From all sides, Meadowlands tests the dilemmas of late 20th century marriage: so fluid, so constantly reinvented; it's hard to live with an equal when the equal is different. Glück, while cognizant, never has to resort to the phrase "the Other"; these poems are way too specific-too loving-for that.
At the end, the marriage is over, and yet not over in its essentials. The last poem, "Heart's Desire," is one of the conversations. Together in the house, the woman and the man are considering, in their tough back-and-forth, planning a party. "For one night, affection will triumph over passion," the woman's saying. "The passion will all be in the music." Back on page 9, a wife had noted that "the answer / depends on the story." Now the woman adds, " If you can hear the music / you can imagine the party. . . ." That, of course, is the heart's desire: "First Norma/then maybe the Lights will play." n



Prose

The Life of God (As Told by Himself)
Franco Ferrucci
Translated by Franco Ferrucci and Raymond Rosenthal
University of Chicago, $22

by Allison Stark Draper
The Europeans, steeped as they are in their rich and self-sufficient cultural history, are fond proponents of the occasional essay in a way that Americans are not. The occasional essay, broadly speaking, is one that takes as its genesis a single conceit, an amusing internal idea of the author's, and spins it into a miniature and fully formed world. It is an intelligent and delicate game, primarily concerned with the marriage of erudition and wit, and therefore of less interest to Americans, who tend to prefer characters to ideas. A handful of writers have won American followings, at least in part, with occasional essays, most notably Jorge Luis Borges, who was educated in Europe and whose Labyrinths embodies perfectly the profundity in tiny focus of the form; Julian Barnes, whose History of the World in Ten & a Half Chapters has been much discussed in this country, if not bought in any significant numbers; and recently Roberto Calasso, with The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony. Franco Ferrucci, an Italian who lives and works in the United States and teaches at Rutgers University, has written an occasional novel that, promisingly for the American audience, takes the development of a character as its premise; it is constructed as the autobiography of God.
The Life of God (As Told by Himself) is a smart and charming knitting of secular and ecclesiastic views of the world. God himself rises out of chaos and brings into being, with a scientifically approved chronology, the specificities of the universe as we know it. "The truth is that the world began when it dawned on me that I was all alone and I tried to do something about it. Everything that came later was a consequence of that moment: of the great shudder that scattered the form within me throughout time and space, a closed fist that finally opens, a seed that explodes and shoots out leaves in every direction." He creates the sun, other stars, and a group of planets, of which he much prefers the Earth. He settles on Earth and creates life, marine and amphibious. When he grows tired of reptiles, wanting "life to meditate upon itself so as to better comprehend itself," he shifts from eggs to live birth and mammals are born. Eventually he finds in the monkey, originally conceived as a jester, the blend of humor and melancholy that impels him to the creation of the human soul. Creation is the direct but slightly random result of God's desires. "I would have a notion of a tree-and bang, there it was, roots and branches and leaves and trunk and bark, rooting in the earth, with arms flung wide in the open air." He can mold his creatures, and does a great deal of work on the brain, whose complexities he loves-"working on the brain made me feel as if I were creating a minuscule Earth all anew and from scratch. The world itself was enclosed in that fleshy, gelatinous sphere"-but nothing, once created, whether with delight or with regret, can be undone. "Once I created something, I could not destroy it. The sun was up there forever, or until its own natural death. I could not play around with the created world, and make and unmake as I pleased."
The character of God is likable-sweet, utterly human, and, although clearly male, white, and Eurocentric, I believe intended to feel essentially "neutral." God is a pacifist. He believes in peace and love and common sense. But he is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. Most crucially, he does not know more than we do; he is constantly learning from his own creations and he cannot interfere with the real action of the narrative of the universe. He is like a novelist who has limned a world that has taken on a life of its own, growing, according to its own sure internal logic, into a density and complexity beyond the author's view. God's world is inhabited by characters whose relationships are independent of him, who know more than he about the topics he initially assigned them, who have power over one another with which he cannot interfere. He can get inside the world to try to influence or redirect the action, but he cannot alter its established internal rhythm.
In the beginning of the world, God is alarmed by the predatory nature of his creatures. Later, he is alarmed and disgusted by the sadism and cruelty of human beings, and he is continually slow to understand them. He is extremely mobile, capable of skimming through the cosmos and merging with any one of his creations, from a quiet provincial exorcist to a lizard torn to bits by little boys. But he cannot save Christ from crucifixion; he cannot, in human incarnation, paint as well as Caravaggio; he nods a lot while listening to Einstein, who assumes, erroneously, that God must naturally understand the astronomical complexities of what he has wrought. Most of the Great Minds with whom God interacts recognize him; some of them understand his true relationship with the world, some of them ignore it, some of them reject it. Mozart is predictably irreverent. Freud is particularly unpleasant. An unnamed painter in Amsterdam paints God-who poses frequently, without being asked-"on the pretext of painting himself." When God appears to Dante without concealment, Dante sees him as he is: "father and son of my very own self, the fire of intelligence that circulates through the cosmos and pours into human kind in order to attain the form of thought and words. Through his mind flashed the image of divine incarnation, the God who becomes man in order to be helped rather than to help. It was too much for the pilgrim-poet. Dante's mind renounced this final step."
The book is translated from the Italian by the author and Raymond Rosenthal, and in an endnote we are told that "it often departs freely from the Italian original and at points is better characterized as an adaptation." Translation or adaptation, the prose is delightful; after a slightly precious start, the writing is consistently witty and intelligent and periodically hilarious. Ferrucci manages to blend sincerity and irreverence in all of his descriptions. When God meets Teresa de Avila he tells us that she "had adored me for some time in her fantastic and excessive way. . . she only wanted to love me, and I was happy to have her do so. . . I recall her pleasure in the swift rhythms of prayer, her eyes rolled back, her breath jagged, her limbs gripped by ecstatic tremors. As I penetrated the folds of her soul, a scent of incense swathed the nuptial couch and an ingenious carillon wrought in gold beat out a sound of bells: the third, the sixth, the ninth."
The Life of God is a tight and tidy little history of certain arbitrary world highlights. The "humanization" of God as fallible and affable and buffeted by life is accomplished by the introduction of Darwinism and the removal of divine special effects. God creates thunderstorms and he adores them ("I am not talking about thunderstorms, which nobody likes except me and a few other dramatically inclined souls, poets and lovers especially") but he certainly cannot throw lightning bolts at erring individuals. He cannot stop Moses from killing his lover as an adulteress; he is easily hoodwinked by the Devil. This kindles, in the human reader, a sympathy for God the character, this divinity in human form who lives serially among us, but also a certain smugness that our world has grown so potently and intricately out of God's control; that our human world is somehow larger than our God. Ironically, the human world that Ferrucci
gives to us is not. Unlike his God, or the metaphoric novelist, Ferrucci has not attempted to create something that lives beyond his sharply delineated parameter.

The book's mission is to reconcile the chaotic progress of human events with a higher but endearingly non-absolute power. It starts toward this end buoyed by a deft usage of anachronistic simile; the dinosaurs are "extremely conservative and not particularly bright-. . . like old aristocrats in remote provincial towns, handing down to new generations both their idleness and a disquieting physical resemblance." The constellation of Orion is, early on, "a confused jumble of lights, like a chandelier shop." Mixed among these adorable descriptions with alarming casualness are fairly weighty and unscientific pronouncements attributed to this God who, though no rocket scientist himself, is setting in motion the meaning beneath the mystery of the natural world. After creating mammals, for instance, he informs us that he "had chosen the females to carry the burden because they were the more generous and patient gender." This is creepy not necessarily because the opinion is inherently creepy, but because the entire path of God's progress through human history is dictated by a similarly opinionated and naturalized understanding of the world. It is worth noting that Emily Dickinson is the only woman who figures among the Great Minds to whom we're introduced and that almost all of them are white. God's favorite form seems to be music; he spends much time silently inspiring musicians, all of them European, all of them male, all of them white. He does spend a little time in "the Orient," establishing a character contrast between East and West based, for what it's worth, on the personalities of Buddha and Heraclitus.
The best way to read this book is as a slender, if erudite, entertainment, and not to take personally that it is essentially a backconstruct of God from the experiences and for the purposes of the white, male, heterosexual, Christian (and probably Catholic) European. The occasional essay was never intended as an analytic or prescriptive form; its topics are traditionally slight, intriguing, and arbitrary, protected by the boundaries of their own defining idiosyncrasies. The specious completeness of the subject matter of The Life of God undermines its efficacy, and to some extent its charm. The decision to characterize the higher power who has set us all in motion as both sentient and chaotic, amiable and divine, is clever, compelling, and eminently readable. But ultimately the book does less and more than we want. It promises us the personality of God and it gives us a chronological set of solutions to certain historical questions about his activities: Did Moses really spend all that time with God? Why are Bach's symphonies so inarguably divine? Did Einstein ever have anyone to talk to about his work? This is simultaneously a very small and a very large idea; and while its whimsy protects it from serious criticism-after all, the book only smilingly claims to be about everything that ever happened-its limited scope prevents it from the serious exploration for which the ingeniousness of the idea makes us hunger. n


Slowness
Milan Kundera
Harper Collins, $21

by Erik Rieselbach
Milan Kundera's most recent novel is the fourth in succession with an abstraction as its title; like its predecessors, it's organized around certain philosophical themes, explored alternately through the antics of its characters and pages of essayistic analysis.
One theme here is given by the title: the contrast between the modern world's headstrong craving for speed, which Kundera equates with a rush toward forgetting, and the slowness of an earlier world, whose tempo afforded the leisure to experience things in their full complexity. A second theme involves those whom Kundera calls (rather unjustly) "dancers": people who strut across the global public stage, celebrating themselves and their morality in a series of flamboyant gestures of one-upmanship. Berck, a French politician, is such a dancer. Upstaged when a political rival plants a kiss on an AIDS patient, he hastily flies off to an Asian country to show his support for its oppressed. (His haste undoes him, and he arrives, instead, in some "tiresomely peaceful country.") Dancers are relentlessly public people, and their insistence on making their challenges and proposals in public forces their opponents to spring into action with an assent or risk humiliation. Hence, there is no time to consider the matter, develop alternatives, and counterproposals (here the two themes cross).
This talk of dancers is put into the mouth of Pontevin, a café intellectual. A young entomologist, Vincent, is something of a devotee of Pontevin's; his adoration of his mentor is mixed with a certain degree of resentment, since Pontevin is invariably listened to with delight when he speaks, while Vincent has to struggle to make himself heard. With typical Kunderian irony, these mockers of "dancers" are themselves desperate performers. The novel's main events take place at an entomologists' convention, where Vincent picks up a lovely woman named Julie. Here he crosses paths with Berck, who meanwhile has been tortured by the reappearance of a woman he'd lusted after many years ago. This memory refuses to jibe with his carefully crafted public persona, since she'd always humiliatingly rebuffed him (there's that desire to forget again), and consequently he now loathes her. Having seen him on television (of course), she begins writing him letters reminding him of "their innocent love" and how he'd called her his "Immaculata, sweet bird of night that troubles my dreams." Immaculata is herself a television journalist, and when she encounters him at the convention, she springs the cameras on him, forcing him to act magnanimous until he can get her aside and whisper hatefully in her ear-much to her shock and dismay.
For Pontevin and Vincent, Berck is the dancer par excellence, and so Vincent is hardly surprised to see him surrounded by cameras. Vincent makes a dismissive speech along Pontevinian lines, only to be scornfully mocked by an onlooker. In the public space of the hotel bar, Vincent has no time to think before he responds. To assuage his wounded feelings, he drags Julie off to the hotel's swimming pool with a desire to shock everyone by fucking in public-meanwhile endlessly thinking of the great story he'll be able to tell Pontevin. Julie assents, although Vincent can't get an erection-he's performing, not really fucking-but when they are interrupted by a mournful Immaculata, Julie rushes off and is lost to him forever.
By way of contrast, Kundera retells the story of Vivant Denon's 18th century novel Point de lendemain, which describes one long, slow night of seduction and lovemaking between a young chevalier and an older woman. The chevalier is ignorant of her motives in seducing him, and she causes the tensions between them to build and relax symphonically over the course of the long evening, thus "giving the small span of time accorded them the semblance of a marvelous small architecture. . . for what is formless cannot be grasped, or committed to memory. Conceiving their encounter as a form was especially precious for them, since their night was to have no tomorrow and could be repeated only through recollection."
The chevalier will embrace his past through memory; Berck wishes to expunge his; Vincent will replace his with a story-a performance, a lie, a kind of suicide. It's not hard to see where the author's sympathies lie. Ah, if only Vincent had slowed down! He could have had a wonderful night with the lovely Julie! Kundera has spilled much ink lately in protesting against "messages" in novels, but this one has a rather obvious one, and unfortunately it boils down, basically, to "Stop and smell the flowers." The great pleasure of Kundera's previous novels is the way in which the contradictions of the characters' mundane lives illuminate all sides of an issue: the respective laughters of the angels and devils, for example, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. This time around the analysis is all too one-sided. Only the unnamed man who mocks Vincent gives brief voice to a counterargument:
We cannot choose the era we are born into. And we all of us live under the gaze of the cameras. That is part of the human condition from now on. . . . When we want to protest against anything, we can't make ourselves heard without the cameras. . . . Either we're dancers or we're deserters. You seem to regret, dear sir, that time marches on.
This is a reasonable response-though an unwelcome one-and developing it further would have added some meat to the book.
Because they chiefly serve to underscore the author's points, the novel's figures are rather thin. Vincent's inner justifications only emphasize his shallowness. Berck and Immaculata have skeletal motivations at best. Julie is a complete cipher. Only the minor figure of the Czech entomologist Cechoripsky has the ironic richness one expects from Kundera: a figure neither admirable nor scornful-or perhaps both admirable and scornful. A dissident by accident, simply for not having the wherewithal to deny some real dissidents the use of his facilities, Cechoripsky still has a certain rootedness that the others lack, if for no other reason than that he knows who Jan Hus was and that Mickiewicz was a Pole, not a Czech, as Berck proclaims grandiosely to the assembled cameras. The scene in which Cechoripsky goes up to read his entomological paper is the best thing in the novel.
Curiously, Kundera seems to have saved up all his unspent irony for himself. Midway through the book, his wife, Véra, says to him:
You've often told me you wanted to write a novel someday with not a single serious word in it. A Big Piece of Nonsense for Your Own Pleasure. I'm frightened the time may have come. . . . Stop making jokes. No one will understand you. You will offend everyone, and everyone will end up hating you. . . . You know they're waiting for you, the wolves are.
No overt claim is made that this is that book, but one can't escape the sense that he's carefully crafted himself an out for the most message-ridden of his novels. Slowness is the first to be written in French instead of Czech (he's lived in France for two decades now), and it feels a bit like an attempt to graft old themes onto a new context. The Communist government of Czechoslovakia, like that of the USSR, consciously obliterated the past by force, and by opposing to this the laughter of the devils, Kundera was able to delineate a human essence that went far outside the bounds of his homeland. Politicians were comic figures, but with an edge: They could destroy your life. Intellectuals were comic, but with an edge: They were trying to find a way to live freely within oppression. Western politicians and intellectuals lack that edge: You can take them or leave them. A Berck and a Vincent don't have the existential gravity to hold together a novel; there's nothing at stake to balance their shallowness.
What's disconcerting about Véra's speech is the idea that anyone would be offended by this novel to the point of wanting to devour its author (there are no Ayatollahs in France); far more likely is that they'll simply dismiss it. And in some ways it's worse to be dismissed than hated; after all, novelists are dancers too. n


Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music
Simon Frith
Harvard University Press, $27.95

by Ivan Kreilkamp
What do tastes in popular music reveal? What sorts of cultural effects do value judgments about pop have? If such judgments are more than just consumer choices-rock in aisles one and two, rap and r&b in three, soundtracks and oldies in the back of the store-then what do they tell us about ourselves?
These are the questions that preoccupy Simon Frith in Performing Rites, a learned, wide-ranging, often brilliant investigation of pop music aesthetics from a sociological perspective, and of pop music sociology from an aesthetic perspective. Frith has written and edited some of the best-known volumes of popular music criticism of the past 15 years-including Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock and Roll and On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. For many years a full-time rock reviewer for London's Sunday Times and a columnist for The Village Voice, he is also a Berkeley Ph.D., director of Scotland's Economic and Social Research Council's Media, Economics and Culture program, and chair of the English department at the University of Strathclyde. While the sight of tweedy professors slipping, Clark Kent-like, into leather jackets to go to raves or rock clubs is less rare than it once was in the United States, Frith's double life is in some ways peculiarly British; he is a critic in the Birmingham-school tradition of cultural materialism inaugurated by such figures as Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall, and Raymond Williams (who wrote a TV column in a popular magazine in the late 1960's). And although Frith is no longer an active rock critic, this book dissolves the normally firm boundary between applied criticism and academic theorizing.
Performing Rites takes for granted that pop music deserves to be taken seriously-but the book refuses to conform to either of two critical traditions. The first, the Romantic aestheticist approach, values pop music as a demotic art making up for what it lacks in complexity and gravity with the spontaneous virtues of a folk culture. The second, sociological, tradition explains music "entirely in terms of its social function, the organization of taste." Frith faults the aesthetic approach for failing to consider social context and the interpretive communities in which tastes develop, yet the rock critic in him isn't entirely satisfied with a sociological analysis either. It's hard to spend years writing record reviews, after all, if you don't at some level want to convince the world that your tastes are more than just the referent of your own social position, that they are the right tastes; that's part of what caring about pop music means. So Performing Rites stages a dialectical encounter between the two professional and philosophical positions Frith has occupied, trying to arrive at a theory of pop music's value that will do justice to both identities.
Frith believes that the meaning of popular music cannot be separated from the value judgments that accompany its consumption and performance; the common judgments people make about which songs or groups they like and which they don't are integral to what pop music is, to what it means. In his incisive opening chapter, "The Value Problem in Cultural Studies," Frith argues that academic study of popular culture has been vitiated by a failure to understand the centrality of "making judgments and assessing difference" in pop's consumption and production. Sifting through the products of the 1990's boom in academic Madonna studies, Frith muses, "I couldn't tell whether Madonna was a good singer (as well as a skilled media operative); whether she was an engaging dancer (as well as a semiotic tease); whether I'd actually want to play her records and videos as well as read about them."
In his own criticism, then, he combines aesthetic and sociological concerns. His discussion of the mixed meanings of American accents in British pop and British accents in American pop, for example, yields a variety of insights about the way voices "move between languages within a song." A singer's adoption of a foreign accent might indicate envy of a superpower's cultural riches, appropriation of an exotic subculture's energy, or ironic allusion to a distant musical tradition; that much the sociology of pop tells us. But analysis of a song needs to go further, to consider the aesthetic yield of particular choices. How well, for example, does Madonna pull off her lounge-singer act, her 1940's film star or 1980's material girl personae? How do these different "languages" translate into a given performance-and is it one you would want to hear more than once?
Sociologists have usually identified value in pop music with social or class position. Traditionally, the academic critic's job, in examining the meanings of, say, heavy metal in 1980's suburban New Jersey, or of mod in 1960's Manchester, was to trace the links between the genre of music and the social groups who identify themselves with it. Why a given person or group favors The Who and hates the Small Faces, or loves Metallica and hates Megadeth, isn't important; what matters is that these various tastes define membership in subcultures. But, as Frith eloquently argues, this critical strategy underestimates the degree to which listening to and evaluating music "is itself a social process." "Music gives us a way of being in the world, a way of making sense of it: musical response is, by its nature, an ethical agreement. The critical issue, in other words, is not meaning and its interpretation-musical experience as a kind of decoding-but experience and collusion: the 'aesthetic' describes a kind of self-consciousness, a coming together of the sensual, the emotional, and the social as performance." Thus, the preference of certain kids for Metallica does not simply point backward to a pre-existing subculture, but itself helps to create that culture. Loving Metallica doesn't place someone in a stable social category; it actively shapes one's particular experience of being in the world.
Frith claims throughout that discriminations in pop music, exercises of taste, are important forms of "sociability": "Music, we could say, provides us with an intensely subjective sense of being sociable. . . . It both articulates and offers the immediate experience of collective identity." With this argument, Frith allies himself with the ideas of the American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, who argues in The Political Unconscious that we should read texts as at once constrained by the particular social structures in which they are produced, and also reaching toward an imaginary political/social utopia. Similarly, Frith suggests that even if the particular choices we make about culture mark us out as occupying a necessarily limited social sphere, that process of making distinctions may also open up a more liberating experience of "being in the world" with others. The vaudeville stage of the 19th century music hall has given way to the private, individualized domestic interior of our bedroom stereo system; but even our most secluded listening experiences, Frith insists, participate in a system of social meanings. To hear a piece of music, and interpret it as music rather than noise, is to participate in an interpretive community, a community shared with and shaped by others.
The 13 chapters of Performing Rites develop a steady stream of provocative ideas, explicating them in the widest context of scholarly and journalistic explorations of popular culture. (Citations range from Adorno to the fanzine Why Music Sucks; my favorite footnote is the one that begins, "Most rappers would agree, I believe, with Henri Lefebvre. . .") The book does have two limitations. It is rather less coherent than it sets out to be. Certain chapters, while extremely interesting on their own terms, are written as if they are independent essays and fail to advance the book's central thesis. More problematic is Frith's reluctance to make judgments himself in a book about the centrality of the exercise of taste in popular music; he drops only tantalizing clues about his own preferences (he loves the Pet Shop Boys and seems to dislike U2). Given its subject, Performing Rites gives short shrift to precisely those concrete declarations of personal preference that Frith so convincingly defends. And ultimately, he begs the fundamental question of whether some tastes are better than others. He seems at times to promote a musical pluralism even as he also argues that we define who we are, and who we aren't, by liking some kinds of music, and despising other kinds. Though he implies that there are such things as good taste and bad taste, at least within specific contexts, he never directly addresses this controversial point.
But this is an impressive and entertaining book, one that deserves crossover
success among critics and listeners.
Resoundingly discrediting the old saw
that about tastes there is no disputing, he demonstrates how deeply the manner in which we dispute our tastes is bound up with our identities and our communities.
n


Giving Offense: Essays on
Censorship

J.M. Coetzee
University of Chicago Press, $24.95

by Mark Sanders
Censorship comes virtually at the beginning of Dusklands, J.M. Coetzee's first work of fiction. He imagines a writer (Eugene Dawn) imagining a character (Coetzee), a censorious other-self whose judgment interferes with the writing process, but for whom the writer nonetheless finds himself forced to write:
Coetzee has asked me to revise my essay. It sticks in his craw: he wants it blander, otherwise he wants it eliminated. He wants me out of the way too, I can see it. I am steeling myself against this powerful, genial, ordinary man, so utterly without vision. I fear him and despise his blindness. I deserved better.
More than 20 years later, the essays in
Giving Offense address the dynamics
of censoring in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and England, as well as feminist anti-pornography activism and apartheid. Coetzee again asks readers to consider what the novelist knows about the paranoiac rivalry that accompanies censorship.

Coetzee's book is subtitled Essays on Censorship, but it attends to the "censor" rather than to systems of "censorship," plotting the dynamics of contending desire more than it maps patterns of institutional power. The essays can be read as relating the agon of two characters: the censor and the writer. Their tale is told by a rational-skeptical intellectual, who "does not particularly respect his own being-offended," and who would prefer not to take sides in their rivalry.
Giving Offense is part of a larger project of claiming a position-or rather "nonposition"-away from, and critical of, the scene of political rivalry. Coetzee uses René Girard's account of mimetic desire to link this project with the issue of censorship. According to Girard, human desire is triadic: The desirer takes another's desire as a model, and imitates it. What ensues is a dynamic of escalating rivalry over the desired object, in which desirer and model become increasingly indistinguishable. Girard makes it possible for Coetzee to read writer and censor as vying for the attentions of a reading public, and helps him to "pass by two tired images of the writer under censorship: the moral giant under attack from hordes of moral pygmies and the helpless innocent persecuted by a mighty state apparatus."Studies of individual writers form the core of Giving Offense. The longest and most interesting deals with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his role in Cold War anti-censorship polemic. Coetzee shows how certain of Solzhenitsyn's Western readers unwittingly "betray their champion" as a novelist by pitting him against a crazed Stalin, in effect merely mirroring state diagnoses of madness with Cold War counter-diagnoses. In so doing, the critics reduce the two to indistinguishable warring twins, and indeed act out the very antagonistic rivalry they stage between writer and censor. The Russian author's often rivalrous self-presentation no doubt contributed to their misreading, but, according to Coetzee, "The judgment on Stalin that emerges from Solzhenitsyn's chapters [in The First Circle]. . . is above all moral and spiritual." He links Solzhenitsyn's judgment of Stalin to novel-writing, asking: Yet what is Solzhenitsyn doing. . . but, by a meticulous process of
detail-by-detail admission of
Stalin. . . establishing both his own likeness to Stalin yet at a higher
level his difference from Stalin? (Is that not one of the essential functions of character-creation: to define the self by defining what
the self is not but is no longer
afraid to entertain the possibility of being?) In Solzhenitsyn's case, writing Stalin "is the painstaking, healing rebuilding of the possibility of difference." Reflecting on his own practice, the
novelist describes the phenomenon of censorship and self-censorship with an intimacy that histories of legislation and institutions cannot match. The art of the novelist depends, then, not on defeating the censor in a violent show-down, but on learning to manage the figure of the censor-no less than any other character, a part of the self.A number of the essays in Giving Offense are South African in focus, and reveal profound parallels between censorship in Eastern Europe and the fraternal intimacy of apartheid-era censorship. Reading them, one is led to speculate on the extent to which Coetzee's account of the censor as figure-of-the-psyche is informed by the experience of Afrikaans writers; especially Breyten Breytenbach, who, even in his non-prison writings, carried on a "hidden contestatory dialogue" with "voices against which [he] speaks." The most intriguing of the South African essays is not on censorship per se, but on apartheid theorist Geoffrey Cronjé. "Apartheid Thinking" follows the obsessive metonymic association of Blacks with disease in Cronjé's academic writings. Although identifying a degree of self-censorship in Cronjé, Coetzee does not directly relate Cronjé's "counterattack upon desire" to the activity of "the censor"-whose business is, as Coetzee puts it, "track[ing] 'the undesirable.'" This could nevertheless still be done: Giving Offense does not mention it, but Geoffrey Cronjé chaired an official Commission of Enquiry in regard to Undesirable Publications which tabled its findings and recommendations in 1956. Coetzee's application of the mimetic model of desire complicates our understanding of censorship by showing how "follow[ing] the censor as he tracks 'the undesirable'" is also a journey into the fictionalist's unconscious. As one reads the essays, one wonders, however, whether the account the book gives of writing under censorship could not apply to fiction-writing in general, with or without the presence of an institutionalized censor. Meditating on his own activity as a novelist in a country "Emerging from Censorship," Coetzee is led to suspect that his writing might be inflected by the self-censoring paranoia described by Danilo Kis as "'reading your own text with the eyes of another person. . . where you become your own judge stricter and more suspicious than anyone else.'" This paranoid dynamic is, according to Coetzee, "a contest with the censor . . all too likely to assume an importance in the inner life of the writer that at the very least diverts him from his proper occupation."What is a writer's "proper occupation?" Giving Offense does not explicitly say. On the one hand, writing could itself be described as a "proper" occupation, being "a very private activity, so private that it almost constitutes the definition of privacy: how I am with myself." On the other hand, though, the creative writer addresses others: "Insofar as writing is transactional, the figures for whom and to whom it is done are also figures in the [unconscious]: for instance, the figure-of-the-beloved." What is the difference, then, between the "censor-figure" and "the figure-of-the-beloved," if both are figures for whom and to whom the writer writes? Coetzee asks us to picture the following scenario:Imagine, then, a project of writing that is, at heart, a transaction with some such figure of the beloved, that tries to please her. . . and imagine what will happen if into this transaction is introduced in a massive and undeniable way another figure-of-the-reader, the dark-suited, bald-headed censor, with his pursed lips and his red
pen and his irritability and his
censoriousness-the censor, in fact, as parodic version of the figure-
of-the-father. Then the entire
balance of the carefully con-
structed inner drama will be
destroyed. . . . The censor is an intrusive
reader, a reader who forces his way into the intimacy of the writing transaction, forces out the figure of the loved or courted reader, reads your words in a disapproving and censorious fashion. The censor usurps the beloved. Does
Coetzee mean that, were there no
institution of "censorship," there would be no unconscious censorship, no un-
conscious censor-figure to interrupt a
writer's "carefully constructed inner
drama?"Indeed, on the mimetic model,
dyadic desire is a nostalgic fiction, and
such interruption and rivalry cannot
be avoided. When one subject's desire
is coordinated through another's, can
the writer, writing for the beloved,
avoid also writing for the censor? Is
the censor-or at least the censorious
reader-not, therefore, a hidden ad-
dressee of all writing as Coetzee describes it, and not just that done "under censorship?" Or, alternately, is there always
censorship?Coetzee's essays provoke these
questions, and leave them open.
Teaching us that the institution of
censorship cannot reliably be reached through the censor, that the censor
may not always be its representative,
Giving Offense refuses the self-certainty
of protest writing on censorship.
Yet, as Coetzee's first novelistic
work and his thoughts on writing
unequivocally testify, no fiction (and,
one would think, not only fiction
in the narrow sense) can be written
while the censor is in the way. Between Eugene Dawn and the censorious
Coetzee of Dusklands, and "the carefully constructed inner drama" designed to
get the censor out of the way, lie most
of J.M. Coetzee's novels. The new
essays, themselves the outcome of
scrupulous character-creation, invite us
to reread that fictional project for signs
of the censor, and of the writer's negotiations with him. n


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