About Jonathan Goodwin
Jonathan Goodwin is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Posts by Jonathan Goodwin
Saturday, April 10, 2010
I had trouble reading Suttree in the room with my sleeping infant daughter, as I often couldn’t stop myself from cackling. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve read: probably more funny than Bouvard and Pécuchet, Decline and Fall, Cold Comfort Farm, or any of a variety from Wodehouse, which would be the closest contenders in recent memory. I’ve now taken the step of reading some of the criticism on the book, and I was somewhat surprised that there wasn’t more of it. (I didn’t yet finish the long recent article in Contemporary Literature by J. Douglas Canfield, though I did notice at least one recent University of Alabama book that is available in its entirety from google books, in what I hope is a continuing trend.)
Who thinks Suttree? Free indirect style seems to be used, but it’s implausible to imagine that Suttree’s consciousness operates in the way that the rest of the narrative does. Though he attended university,* he’s never described reading anything except newspapers, magazines, and dime store novels, so lexically, at least, the descriptions in the book are not attributable to his mind during the fact. As a memoir written among consoling dictionaries, an attempt to shape a formless experience with exact words, it has a certain plausibility and logic. I can’t imagine that “murenger” and “macule” leapt unbidden from his wordhoard. “Grumous” and “anthroparians”** share a page (188). McCarthy’s dialogue is not as strong as his descriptive writing, I don’t find, being frequently poisoned by eye dialect. He has to be among the worst offenders ever for using “would of” constructions in dialogue, for example. I once thought that this might be deliberate, in that he was trying to reproduce the inner lexical structure of the words as they would be written by their speakers, but the characters in this book are frequently of dubious literacy, so I’m not sure how far that would go. It’s more likely that he simply hasn’t realized that “would of” and “would’ve” sound the same.***
Toward the end of the book, Suttree, felled by typhoid fever, (which mirrors an unelaborated histoplasmosis fugue that his troglodytic familiar Harrogate suffered earlier), has a series of “Circe”-style hallucinations.
I was drunk, cried Suttree. Seized in a vision of the archetypal patriarch himself unlocking with enormous keys the gates of Hades. A floodtide of screaming fiends and assassins and thieves and hirsute beggars pour forth into the universe, tipping it slightly on its galactic axes. The stars go rolling down the void like redhot marbles. These simmering sinners with their cloaks smoking carry the Logos itself from the tabernacle and bear it through the streets while the absolute prebarbaric mathematick of the western world howls them down and shrouds their ragged biblical forms in oblivion.” (458)
This passage shows something of the complexities of McCarthy’s style, with the mild archaism of “prebarbaric mathematick” evoking both Babel and Heraclitus and then being cannily qualified with “western world.” I remain interested in the politics, if you want to call it that, of McCarthy’s work, which have received significant, often negative, attention in recent years.**** An early article on McCarthy referred to the “ambiguous nihilism” of his work.***** Here it seems that Suttree presents a justification of his descent into the underclass of McAnally Flats before his imagined jury. The Logos has to be smuggled from the tent and born through the streets of the world to purify it.****** There is one and only one Suttree, as he tells the priest, and he has been purified by his descent into the underworld, now being demolished for a superhighway. That poverty and blight are metaphysical conditions—-preterition, even—-and that only a descender from the heavenly realms (upper middle classes) can describe it in thoughts worth having would seem to be an easy criticism to make of the book, as would its apparent scrupulous avoidance of the large-scale socioeconomic forces that have deformed the lives of most of its characters.
Among the items that the Harry Ransom Center acquired for its David Foster Wallace collection was his edition of Suttree. He noted on the title page, alongside an amusing doodle on McCarthy’s author photo, that it starts very slowly. I couldn’t help but think of Wallace when I read this in an interview that McCarthy gave to the WSJ:
But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like The Brothers Karamazov or Moby-Dick, go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.
I wonder if he mentally included Suttree among those unread works (though only 500 pages.) It’s easily as difficult in its way, but the idea that people’s brains are different is a subject for another post.
*I’m sure this country sheriff’s sentiment would make a fine addition to a University of Tennessee recruitment brochure, for example: “I will say one thing: you’ve opened my eyes. I’ve got two daughters, oldest fourteen, and I’d see them both in hell fore I’d send them up to that university. I’m damned if I wouldn’t” (158).
**Spelled “anthroparion,” this seems to be a Greek word for “homunculus,” which fits the context. See Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, v. 5, p. 487, viewable at google books.)
***People have disputed this point with me before, though I’m not sure on what grounds.
****There were several disparaging, and to my mind, not very well considered, remarks about McCarthy in the recent “Bad Books” featurette, for example.
*****Vereen M. Bell, “The Ambiguous Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy,” The Southern Literary Journal, 15.2 (Spring 1983): pp. 31-41.
******It has been suggested that this passage was the inspiration for the relevant scene from Indiana Jones.
Friday, March 26, 2010
The Last Suck on a Mango
Among the many idioms listed in Jag Bhalla’s I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears (National Geographic, 2009), this Czech idiom for poorly dressed leaped to my attention: “look like the Mona Lisa after a spanking” (85). I checked google books for a source on this and wasn’t able to find anything, though I can’t claim to have looked very hard. As with many of the idioms listed in the book, which is subtitled “And Other Intriguing Idioms from around The World,” I can’t even begin to recreate the context for this. I wonder, and perhaps any Czech speakers might be able to enlighten me, if “Mona Lisa” is the referent in the original; and, if so, from when does it date? Is is a Cold War-era phrase? (It couldn’t be, could it?)
Bhalla is good about recognizing the larger consequences of idioms for the study of language, especially that their origins quickly become lost without this affecting the frequency of their use. (He cites at the end an essay by Pinker and Jackendoff that uses, in Bhalla’s summary, the prevalence of idiom as an argument against the non-selectability of language proposed by Chomsky, Fitch, and Hauser in “The Evolution of the Language Faculty: Clarifications and Implications” (Cognition 97 : 179-210). It seems clear at various points that Bhalla has been influenced by certain evolutionary psychological notions, and he seems more sympathetic, though without making a big deal of it, to Pinker and Jackendoff, in the aforementioned example.
I’m not, myself, but this didn’t bother me much. The point of the book is to provide a long list of intriguing idioms. And who can argue with “to eat owl’s flesh” (to act foolishly, Hindi) or “ink pisser” (office drudge, German*) ? Bhalla makes a case, if somewhat unconvincingly, for the non-inclusion of the original language in the idioms; but I found this to be disappointing. But the wit shown by describing MRI scans as “phrenological,” for example, without stopping to explain it, mostly makes up for it. Though he admits that he himself hasn’t read Adam Smith, he provides an interesting interlude in the work idioms section about the disconnect between what Smith actually wrote and believed and how his name is often invoked, and furthermore does it by citing books by P. J. O’Rourke and a former Financial Times correspondent about him.
One turn that I would have liked to have seen in the book, and which I understand is an idiosyncratic preference, would have been invented idioms in literature. Not the “truth is stranger than fiction” type, but the imagined idioms of a non-existent language (human, or otherwise. I seem to recall that Vance did this in some place or another, but I admit that nothing is coming readily to mind. Examples are welcome.) Another, somewhat related topic is when a plot turns on misused idiom, either as Freudian parapraxis or the more conventional murder/espionage type. But this is not a serious criticism of Bhalla’s book, which I enjoyed and am glad that he asked if I wanted a review copy.
*I should have heard this before, I think.
I haven’t written much for the Valve over the last year or so, but I have written some book reviews for my own personal site that you possibly may find of interest. Cosma Shalizi recommended a fantasy trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. I didn’t like it that much, and the author noticed my review and seemed to find my use of Zizek there at the end to be objectionable. That’s hard to dispute, in retrospect. I requested a review copy of an ensqualmation-noir; here’s the result. I talked about some transhumanist currents in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and found the usual things you would look for in DeLillo’s Point Omega. I enjoyed both Banville’s The Infinities and Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. For a pot-boiler serialized in Playboy, you can’t fault Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move. And I wrote about two Gene Wolfe books, one of which I liked more than the other.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
I asked a related question here a couple of weeks ago, but I was curious about what single work of fiction has taught you the most new words. (In English, I mean, and read during your maturity, if you want to be cute.)
I first read Blood Meridian fairly recently, but it’s clearly a contender. And one filled with dense, considered words too, like “anareta.”
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Miller on Olsen on Galbraith on Golding
From Nancy K. Miller’s “On Being Wrong,” Profession 2008:
[Tillie] Olsen attended a lecture given at her daughter’s high school during parents’ weekend. Inspired by his reading of The Lord of the Flies, John Kenneth Galbraith, then professor of economics at Harvard, was holding forth on the lessons of the novel, concluding that “human beings by nature are wired to be individualistic, and to crush those in the way as they strive to get to the top of the heap and to look out for themselves. At this point, Laurie Olsen described her mother rising from the audience, interrupting the speaker’s peroration to declare in a voice that echoed throughout the room, “You are wrong, sir!"
Miller then describes Olsen telling Galbraith how children comfort each other and that “to feel and respond to another’s pain is one of the deepest human impulses, wired into the human spirit” (58-59).
I agree with Olsen. The problem is that Galbraith must have as well. He was holding forth on the lessons of the novel--not, unless I’ve completely misunderstood everything I’ve ever read by him, agreeing with them.
I found a reference in an introduction to The Lord of the Flies that mentioned presidential advisor JKG’s fondness for the book, so I’m not as sure as I originally was about this. My memories of Galbraith’s reference to the thesis about human nature quoted above are mostly mocking references to the neo-classical economic view of man, but comments about this are welcome.
Friday, October 24, 2008
The TLS is running a review of Russell A. Berman’s Fiction Sets You Free by David Hawkes. It begins
Political-activist literary critics were once an endangered species. The rise of capital to absolute global dominion and the concomitant withering of socialist aspirations affected departments of literature throughout the 1980s and 90s, and by the turn of the millennium even the best political criticism lacked all conviction.
At the moment, directly to the right of this is a notification that Fredric Jameson has won the Holberg International Memorial Prize for 2008.
(I had lunch with Prof. Hawkes in ‘02 or ‘03, I think, and I would have loved to have discussed this issue with him then.)
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
A Note and Query
An old course blog just got a hit for “rape of the lock modern english version.”
In this interview with Chomsky, he remarks, “In America, the professor talks to the mechanic. They are in the same category.” So, why can Chomsky’s American academic talk with a mechanic but not William Deresiewicz’s with a plumber?
Friday, October 10, 2008
The Vicar of St. Leavis
Leavis thought that Auden’s “Miss Gee" exhibited “pointless unpleasantness.” After discussing the poem in class earlier today, I can understand his point. But it also seems clear that Auden turns that reaction back on the reader at the end. It is Dr. Thomas who speculates about the repressive origin of cancer, and I think many readers finally recoil at Miss Gee’s corpse in the hands of Buck Mulligan’s right noble scholars.
So, is this “shameless opportunism,” even if you accept the ironic turn? (My quotes are from Leavis’s review of Another Time. I believe it should be viewable via Google Books.)
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
The Current Consensus
Adam Gopnik has an article in the current New Yorker on Chesterton that’s worth reading. It’s not on-line, I don’t think. Toward the end, he observes:
Besides, if obviously great writers were allowed onto the reading list only when they conform to the current consensus of liberal good will---voices of tolerance and liberal democracy---we would probably be down to George Eliot.
I thought this was piquant and immediately sought counterexamples. Some French ones came to mind: Rimbaud ("Solde," in particular), Céline, Bataille, Blanchot, and Houellebecq all seem to be voices of tolerance and liberal democracy, but are they “obviously great?” Some might suggest Joyce, I suppose. (In fact, I think he probably is a better example than Eliot.)
Friday, January 18, 2008
Seems like a great idea for a recurring feature, doesn’t it? Anyway, here’s Ron Rosenbaum, writing about whether Nabokov’s “The Original of Laura” should be burned: “Think of that: the final ‘distillation’ of the work of perhaps the greatest, certainly the most complex, writer of the past century."
1) Perhaps the greatest?
2) Certainly the most complex?
I don’t like to argue about #1. Let’s try the other. Did Nabokov write anything as complex as a Harry Stephen Keeler novel? Not in terms of plot. Did he openly disdain the most obvious counterexample, even if you somehow agree that he was #1 equivalent with Joyce? Yes. Would anyone care to argue that one of Nabokov’s works is more complex than Finnegans Wake? What are other complexity contenders for those in #1 set with Nabokov, however you choose to construe that?
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
I suspect that this sentiment from Doris Lessing is going to get a lot of negative attention, if it’s not taken out of context. (Well, even if it obviously is. You know how that goes.)
But I wondered briefly about what would have happened had the IRA decided to kill the same magnitude of people at once during Thatcher’s regime. Has there been a fictional treatment of this or a related idea? (Would they have attacked Boston or New York, for example?)
Sunday, October 07, 2007
The Mirror Was Watching Us
"Bioy Casares had dined with me that night and talked with us at length about a great scheme for writing a novel in the first person using a narrator who omitted or corrupted what happened and who ran into various contradictions, so that only a handful of readers, a very small handful, would be able to decipher the horrible or banal reality behind the novel” ("Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius").
John made a similar inquiry a while ago, but would you care to propose an existing novel meeting Bioy’s criteria? The banal interpretation seems especially interesting to me, but you have to be among the handful in any case: i. e., not something that’s been amply discussed in the literature.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Alan Wolfe is quoted in this NYTBR piece: “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ” — Chinua Achebe’s novel about postcolonial Nigeria — “but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”
Even before the last season of The Sopranos, this was so far from literal, allegorical, or anagogic truth that my eyes are still burning. Did Wolfe write this somewhere other than an email? (Emails are quoted.) Was this a silvercroak from Orthanc, so that it might be printed?
Thursday, April 05, 2007
Leroy Searle’s “Literature Departments and the Practice of Theory”
The Valve has admirably or irresponsibly avoided discussions trending meta about matters such as theory, the profession, and the like. I would be interested, however, in hearing what you think of Searle’s piece. The English building at the U of Washington is apparently more of mass oubliette than panopticon, for example. (I haven’t seen it, but it sounds like a specimen of the “prison-functionalist” school of campus architecture. Turlington Hall at the U of Florida, affectionately referred to as the “Death Star,” is another noteworthy example.) Allow me to use a footnote for the obligatory quotation:
See, for example, Lindsay Waters’s sobering comments in Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2004) on the ongoing decline in book buying even by libraries, which together with the current tax laws on inventory held for sale, puts the average sale of university press books, almost all of which are printed with the aid of subvention, at under 300 copies before they are remaindered. In the same context belongs the unprecedented presidential letter to the membership of the MLA from Stephen Greenblatt about four or five years ago concerning the crisis in book publication in the humanities, which directly affects the ability of our junior colleagues to get tenure. They just have to publish a book—and it is in far too many cases, a middling dissertation dished up as a book that answers to no compelling need and will not be read in any case. It is in every way a self-destructive syndrome.
Yikes. (I personally don’t buy the “will never be read” argument. It will, when it has to be.)
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
The lowest (or highest, depending) ordinal to be used before “-rate” is third. I was reading one of the n+1 threads, and someone referred to someone else as a “tenth-rate Satie.” Could you really begin to distinguish between a ninth-rate and eight-rate Sartre, for example?
Also, my favorite entry at “The Rosewater Chronicles” is this selection of readers’ reports. If I may quote one:
You stupid fuck! How can you submit to us an article with this incredibly stupid footnote? You obviously have not learned anything. . . . Keep playing around with Walter Benjamin and you will have a brilliant career among assholes such as yourself.
I gathered that there was a backstory. I have some that I’d like to quote from, but a combination of cowardice and discretion prevents me. Nothing as piquant as the above, however. But by all means feel free to share.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
Alvin Plantinga Admits There’s No Political Bias in Academia
In his review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, a volume I don’t think has been discussed here but has attracted attention (and criticism for being theologically unsophisticated) from some quarters, Plantinga writes “Here it’s not easy to take them seriously; religion-bashing in the current Western academy is about as dangerous as endorsing the party’s candidate at a Republican rally.“
Unless I’m mistaken, he means that it’s as easy to bash religion as it is to endorse a Republican candidate. I don’t think, from the tone of the rest of his piece, that he means that there are negative consequences for this so-called bashing, so therefore he admits that, as well all know, endorsing a Republican candidate is widely done in the humanities at least and the source of no fuss.
I found this review from the dispensable (yes, “dispensable,” as it’s universally described as “indispensable” and I’m a contrarian) Political Theory Daily.
UPDATE: Some more from Plantinga.
This paragraph is from his SEP article “Religion and Science"
Next, note many thinkers going back at least to Nietzsche (Nietzsche 2003) and possibly William Whewell (Curtis 1986) have pointed to a potentially worrisome implication of evolutionary theory. The worry can be put as follows. According to orthodox Darwinism, the process of evolution is driven mainly by two mechanisms: random genetic mutation and natural selection. The former is the chief source of genetic variability; by virtue of the latter, a mutation resulting in a heritable, fitness-enhancing trait is likely to spread through that population and be preserved as part of the genome. It is fitness-enhancing behavior and traits that get rewarded by natural selection; what get penalized are maladaptive traits and behaviors. In crafting our cognitive faculties, natural selection will favor cognitive faculties and processes that result in adaptive behavior; it cares not a whit about true belief (as such) or about cognitive faculties that reliably give rise to true belief.
I believe the passage from Nietzsche he means is the fragment entitled “Against Darwinism”:
---the utility of an organ does not explain its origin, on the contrary!
---for the longest time while a quality is developing, it does preserve or prove useful to the individual, least of all in the struggle with external circumstances and enemies
---what, after all, is “useful?” One must ask, “Useful in regard to what?” E.g., something useful for maintaining the individual over time might be unfavorable to its strength and magnificence; what preserves the individual might simultaneously hold it fast and bring its evolution to a standstill. On the other hand, a deficiency, a degeneration, may be of the highest use, inasmuch as it has a stimulatory effect on other organs. Likewise, a state of distress may be a condition of existence, in that it makes the individual smaller to the point where it coheres and doesn’t squander itself.
The rest of the fragment seems to point at a vitalist criticism of natural selection, which doesn’t concern me as much. I believe that it’s a psychological truism that healthy human belief tends towards the self-deceiving; happier people think they’re better-liked, more attractive, and more talented than other people would judge them to be. Nietzsche clearly anticipated the “less they know, the less they know it” effect, and his criticism of Darwinism seems based on psychological insight and aesthetics, both categories difficult to extrapolate from the theory itself.
I know that Plantinga’s argument against naturalism has attracted several philosophical rebuttals, many of them attempting to outdo one another in their deployment of Bayesian algebra. I also know that this type of thought experiment is used in several of the counterarguments; but doesn’t Plantinga’s argument for theism work as well for a deceiver deity, a demiurge familiar to us from various contemporary neo-Gnosticisms?
I talked about Gosse’s Omphalos in class yesterday, so perhaps the idea’s fresh in my mind.