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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
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Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
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Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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About John Holbo

John Holbo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He works on philosophy of literature and literary theory; Wittgenstein and Nietzsche; also, science fiction, fantasy, film, comics; also, more highbrow literary stuff. He blogs at Crooked Timber and John & Belle Have A Blog. Some of his writings are here. The Valve is pretty much his baby, and he's pretty much Editor-in-Chief.

Email Address: jholbo@mac.com
Website: http://examinedlife.typepad.com/johnbelle/


Posts by John Holbo

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Posted by John Holbo on 12/12/07 at 08:32 AM

InvincibleAustin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible [amazon] is a good read.

I’ve been meaning to write a meaty Michael Chabon/Austin Grossman review post, concerning certain structural limits of genre fiction. This will have to do. The best part of Invincible is the voice of Doctor Impossible, the villain of the piece.

OK, I’ll back up. It’s a straight superhero story. The New Champions are a thinly-veiled Justice League. Blackwolf is Batman. Damsel is Wonder Woman. Corefire is Superman. There are tons of ironic-affectionate nods to Marvel and DC, lots of touches to put a smile on my fanboy face. Half the chapters are narrated from the point of view of Fatale, a 90’s-style cyborg heroine (you can practically see the Rob Liefeld drawings of her long legs and silver hair.) She’s trying to break into the A-list.

So I’m the last to arrive. Nobody looks up - the meeting’s already running. Being this close to so much power is a vertiginous sensations. The heroes pop out at you, impossible vivid, colorful as playing cards but all from different decks, a jumble of incompatible suits and denominations dealt out for an Alice in Wonderland game. A man with the head of a tiger sits next to a woman made of glass. The woman to my right has wings. This is where I want to be - the players.

The problem is - what is the problem? Partly, Fatale’s voice doesn’t seem quite right. Too often she sounds like (I’m making an educated guess here) Austin Grossman, ironically commentating on the absurd attractiveness of superheroes. Also, she doesn’t end up being funny. But that’s not quite it. In fact, she’s just fine. She’s the heroine of a save-the-world story and, frankly, I enjoyed every page. You know why I like superheroes? The tight plots. This one is highly competent as entertainments go. But there really wasn’t any special need for it to be a novel, at least in the Fatale chapters. Nothing distinctive is being done with the form we have chosen, at least in the Fatale chapters. Which brings us to ...

Continue reading "Soon I Will Be Invincible"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Framing Theory’s Empire - Event and Text

Posted by John Holbo on 12/05/07 at 11:24 PM

I’ve got a book out! Framing Theory’s Empire [amazon]; or support your local independent publisher by buying direct. You can buy the paperback or download the entire book as a free PDF from the Parlor Press site. UPDATE: and it’s been marked down! Now Parlor direct is cheaper than Amazon. $17.60 vs. $22! A bargain! I’m still waiting for my paper copy to show. (Any of you contributors out there gotten yours yet?) I think the cover is rather handsome. But, then: a father should love his child. The lovely Belle Waring and I designed it together.


A book, eh? See here! What’s all this about? ‘Theory’? Yes, exactly! In the English/humanities department sense: the idiomatically ofless sort, you might say; as in, ‘I do theory’. The stuff that started in the 60’s, got really big in the 80’s. Then either went away or is still hanging around, depending who you ask. (If you ask me: it’s still hanging around.)

If you spent late 2005 in a coma and missed all the glory, we staged a ‘book event’, round-table reviewing the Patai and Corral edited Theory’s Empire (Columbia UP, 2005). See the sidebar for link. Framing Theory’s Empire contains contributions to that event, cleaned up, polished up, edited. (I’ve written an introduction, talking about these issues. If you care to read it.)

The contributors are: Scott McLemee (he generously contributed a preface), John Holbo, Mark Bauerlein, Michael Bérubé, John McGowan, Scott Kaufman, Sean McCann, Daniel Green, Adam Kotsko, Tim Burke, Amardeep Singh, Jonathan Mayhew, Jonathan Goodwin, Chris Cagle, Christopher Conway, Kathleen Lowrey, Brad DeLong, Matthew Greenfield, Morris Dickstein, Jeffrey Wallen, John Emerson, Mark Kaplan, Jodi Dean, Kenneth Rufo, Daphne Patai, Will H. Corral. (Patai and Corral were kind enough to contribute an “Afterword”. At the moment Amazon is giving them erroneous prominence, in the author line. I’ll have to see whether I can get Amazon to correct that. Not that I mind so very much. They themselves will probably be even more annoyed, because it might create some product confusion with Theory’s Empire itself.)

It’s the perfect stocking stuffer for the humanities graduate student on YOUR list!

I think it turned out to be a really great book. In addition to several posts that turned out to be just plain really solid essays, there is some lively, sharp conversation between several participants. There’s intelligent back and forth, actual addressing of critical points and hashing of differences, which is not something one always gets in themed anthologies. I think the informal quality of many of the pieces turns out to be a real virtue as well. It suits the topic. But you tell me. What do you think of the book? What do you think about our event, two years on?

I’m glad to get this done as well because, frankly, my Glassbead Books efforts for Parlor haven’t been quite rolling off the assembly-line, as I had originally hoped. It turns out making books is incredibly hard and time consuming, and folks don’t do stuff when you tell them to, and it’s hard to get folks to commit to helping out. Academics are always busy. I’m hoping that, with a grand total of TWO titles out now we’ve actually got a series. That is, a line, not just a single point. Anyway, next comes our Moretti book - I think. I want to get these things rolling out a lot faster.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

“The Swimmer” as SF

Posted by John Holbo on 11/29/07 at 11:33 AM

In other podcast news, I’ve been enjoying Mindwebs on my daily commute: semi-dramatized readings of classic SF stories; radio show from the 70’s. Oddly, there are two John Cheever stories in the lot: “The Enormous Radio" and “The Swimmer". The first is, technically, SF - I guess. Guy buys wife new radio and she finds she can eavesdrop on fellow residents of her apartment building. Revelations of Cheeveresque despair ensue. The radio is a zap gun for zapping away social veneer. (Did I mention it’s a Cheever story?) “The Swimmer” is not SF by any stretch. But the guy’s social veneer cracks, in the course of his strange journey. The episode opens and closes with wheep-doodle 70’s SF sound effects, “MIND-WEBS!” Which burble on in the background, faintly, during the reading. So, weirdly, “The Swimmer” becomes an SF story. I mean: a series of swimming pools is ‘technology’, and he uses this technology in a new way, inducing a self-alienated ‘childhood’s end’ revelation: MindWebs!

Podcasting and Bert Dreyfus

Posted by John Holbo on 11/29/07 at 09:05 AM

I was Bert Dreyfus’ TA for this class for several semesters back in the 90’s, so I guess I’m pretty happy to hear that the enrollment is up:

BERKELEY—Baxter Wood is one of Hubert Dreyfus’ most devoted students. During lectures on existentialism, Wood hangs on every word, savoring the moments when the 78-year-old philosophy professor pauses to consider a student’s comment or relay how a meaning-of-life question had him up at 2 a.m.

But Wood is not sitting in a lecture hall on the UC Berkeley campus, nor has he met Dreyfus. He is in the cab of his 18-wheel big rig, hauling dog food from Ohio to the West Coast or flat-screen TVs from Los Angeles to points east.The 61-year-old trucker from El Paso eavesdrops on the lectures by downloading them for free from Apple Inc.’s iTunes store, transferring them to his Hewlett-Packard digital media player, then piping them through his cabin’s speakers. He hits pause as he approaches cities so he can focus more on traffic than on what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead, then shifts his attention back to the classroom.

Bert was a big influence on my own teaching style. I learned a lot, watching him do his Bert thing. I think I was the only non-Heidegger-getting TA he kept liking to have around, semester after semester, so he must have thought I was OK, too. He’s really a remarkable guy - remarkably likable, patient, open. He has this weird habit of being totally networked, personally - of knowing so many famous people, academically and otherwise, apparently quite by chance. People who’ve wandered through Berkeley the last half century. And he does it effortlessly, and certainly not sleazily or even schmoozily, or even glad-handedly (whatever the Heideggereze is for that). He doesn’t work the room. It just ... works. So it seems like fate that he would end up with thousands of podcast fans. That is very Bert. (I remember back before we knew who the Unabomber was, except that probably he had been at Berkeley, and we looked at each other - the other graduate students and I - and said: it’s going to turn out he knew Bert. Except of course that wasn’t the case, because that would have been a bad thing. Bert, by contrast, leads a charmed life. And, since everyone likes him, that’s fine by everyone.)

One week last spring, before Apple started promoting the lectures on its home page, one of Dreyfus’ philosophy and literature lectures—he calls it “From Gods to God and Back” - ranked 58th among podcasts on iTunes. It trailed programs from the BBC and Comedy Central but was downloaded more often than NPR’s “This I Believe” and NBC’s “Meet the Press."

Yeah, I remember that lecture.

So. Universities handing out free podcasts. That’s pretty damn great. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Things & Rose

Posted by John Holbo on 11/28/07 at 10:28 AM

Luther was complaining about it a bit last week - the things thing, that is:

I have no right to be cranky, having not read the book, but I’ve been hearing rumbles from my friends who still attend lit conferences that “thing theory” is really taking off.  Bill Brown’s book was interesting, but Christ, do we really need a new theory?


It’s modernism-ad-absurdum, where the Proustian elevation of the life-story to art meets the Pound-Williamsian attempt to make the poem a thing.  But where Pound and Williams tried to erase the self, and Proust dissolved the self into everything around it, now we have the self-on-display, the self as pure immanence, the self as widget.  Or the widget as self.  We are, proudly, the crap around us.  I think Marx said something about this.  But I remember he was sort of sad about it.  Thank god all that’s changed.

That’s sort of right. Then again, is it? The day after I posted about Taking Things Seriously, the library emailed to tell me a book I ordered had arrived: Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination [amazon]. (I’m department rep for philosophy stuff, which gives me the gratifying power of suggesting other things I think would go nice around the place. Isn’t Joseph Cornell philosophical? I find so.)

And a very nice book it proves to be. So many. Lovely. Things.

‘Thing theory’ has apparently come a long way from the days when people wanted to gussy ‘mere objects’ as something more. Cornell: “I never expected the so-called ‘objects’ (from Surrealist lingo) to become so typecast as sculpture.”

And another thing: “Many of the older films are seen to far better advantage in such quick glimpses as these, the fuller context often proving disappointing.” That’s Cornell talking about the joy of the mash-up, the remix. From the book:

Rose Hobart is an extended expression of trompe l’oeil curiosities and self-conscious, elliptical montage. Cornell rearranged and cropped segments from the campy East of Borneo, a black-and-white film with sound made in 1931 by his part-time employer Universal Pictures. His editing gives even greater presence to the film’s heroine, actress Rose Hobart. He also incorporated frames from an unidentified, most likely scientific, film; the intermittent appearance of images of water disturbed by a dropped object adds a dramatic counterpoint to East of Borneo‘s faked effects of a solar eclipse and volcano’s eruption. Eliminating the film’s sound track, Cornell projected his version of tropical misadventures silently but simultaneously played a recording of Nestor Amaral’s Holiday in Brazil. He also slowed the film’s playing time and projected it under a deep blue filter. The combination of these features suggests the atmosphere and characteristics of silent films, their drama or comedy regularly heightened by recorded or live music. What would readily strike the eye as accidents or inept editing was instead the product of deliberate and adventuresome manipulation. Like the early “primitive” films he admired, Rose Hobart is a “trick film” that demonstrates what Cornell so appreciated about the medium: the “defiance of the limitations of the physical world.” (p 72)

YouTube has got it: part I; part II. Lovely stuff.

I also checked out Bill Brown’s A Sense of Things. It’s ok. I don’t really think he’s got a theory.

Friday, November 23, 2007

If your prose had feet, I would punch it in the balls of its feet

Posted by John Holbo on 11/23/07 at 05:52 AM

You are stupefied with turkey and unable to read Adam’s post. This DeLillo. He is so la-dee-da mister fancypants so many words. Who has time for “They put son of a bitches like you” this and “I’m a person if you ask me questions” that. There is not enough room in my stomach for so many words.

As I was saying: what got left out of Best of American Comics 2007 was, clearly, Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series. The new one just came out: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together [amazon]. Apparently it’s all sold out so Amazon is pretending it’s not out until December. But either you knew that already or you need to order the first three volumes. So do. This is so pure:


But you are worried. What if there is more than one talk bubble per page? Not a problem.


You think you might be able to handle all that. Then read the first few pages here.

Monica Beetle, if you are looking for more free stuff. Oh, and this unfinished tale of a girl whose music God hates. Guy’s blog is here. He does a good Batgirl.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Horror of Simply Being Alive

Posted by John Holbo on 11/20/07 at 09:45 AM

Luther Blissett complains, mildly, about the Chris Ware edited Best American Comics, 2007 [amazon]. But I gotta say: it’s $15. It’s hardback and pleasing to the eye in every way. It’s 350 pages. It’s nice paper. It was a good year for comics. I already owned about a quarter of this stuff. Alison Bechdel, Seth, Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman, Kevin Huizenga, Adrian Tomine, Kim Deitch. If any of these names are unfamiliar, it’s probably worth your while to fix that little problem. Who got left out, that I know? Seems to me we need a bit of Tales of Woodsman Pete [amazon] around the place. Also, I know he edited the thing, but does anyone doubt that there should be some, ahem, Chris Ware? But the first three panels of this Ivan Brunetti strip made me laugh. Maybe I’ve been teaching Descartes too many years; this one busted me right up, man.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Contingency, Irony, Solidity

Posted by John Holbo on 11/19/07 at 07:23 AM

Josh Glenn has a little book out, Taking Things Seriously [amazon]. The concept is pretty intuitive: “a book’s worth of photos and essays about ordinary things instilled with extraordinary significance.” So he asked 75 interesting people to send in their things. ‘Essays’ is a generous characterization.  I doubt a single entry breaks the 500-word barrier. Which is pretty good discipline. Some of the entries amused me because I know - at least of - hence give a personal damn about the person. Example: I like James Kochalka’s stolen and re-stolen cheap rubber yellow pig because I like his comics. He’s the author of The Cute Manifesto, among other things. You’ll just have to take my word for it that his pig sort of looks like this little guy (I got him from here):


UPDATE: Little rubber pig.

Lindsay Waters, in his entry, relates a personal anecdote: what if you had a technicolor dreamcoat and, frankly, no one cared all that much? (Not that he has a technicolor dreamcoat, per se. More of a lamp.) Best line: “It’s not funny for the turtle!” (You can probably think of numerous values of ‘turtle’ for which that is true.) My 6-year old daughter gives the palm to the porcelain whippets. (Well, of course.) David Scher presents the sawed-off couch arm his mom smoked and smoked on. Which his brother brought to New York “where it is screwed to a wall once in a while.” Because: somebody has to think of the kids?

Josh has gotten quite a bit of good attention for the book, but - a little bird told me: namely, Josh - he didn’t much care for reviewers calling it ‘wacky’. So I decided to do something scientifistic. I composed a little matrix and reread the book, making little technical-seeming checkmarks as I went. Each object + essay was allowed as many checks as seemed like major ‘values’. But I generally limited them to three or four. So here it is. I am not going to explain my categories to the likes of you. I take a very ‘no retreat, no surrender’ approach to pie charts. It turns out not to be a terribly wacky book, on the whole.


Click here for a larger image

Also, I will have you know this post was composed in the shadow of a deerhead painted blue, with silvertipped horns. Courtesy of my wife, before she left. (She’s coming back. She didn’t LEAVE leave. The head is still here, and so freshly painted.) Its presence is very minatory. Pardon me (I sneezed): minotaury. The labyrinth of things.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis

Posted by John Holbo on 11/13/07 at 11:21 AM

I’d totally forgotten about this one, until it cropped up in Scott K.’s comment box. Do you know about the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis? If not, go here.

Right. Now this is a silly parlor game, but lemme work something out.

Continue reading "The Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis"

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Africa and Dragons

Posted by John Holbo on 11/06/07 at 02:11 AM

Still working through Our Mutual Friend ... this one is for Tim Burke. Some time ago he solicited “Images of Africa” for a course he was teaching, i.e. he wanted tropes and cliches: hidden city/lost civilization deep in the jungle, etc.

A good one just cropped up in Dickens.

‘I don’t know whether you happen to have read many books of African Travel, Mr Rokesmith?’ said R. W.

‘I have read several.’

‘Well, you know, there’s usually a King George, or a King Boy, or a King Sambo, or a King Bill, or Bull, or Rum, or Junk, or whatever name the sailors may have happened to give him.’

‘Where?’ asked Rokesmith.

‘Anywhere. Anywhere in Africa, I mean. Pretty well everywhere, I may say; for black kings are cheap—and I think’—said R. W., with an apologetic air, ‘nasty’.

‘I am much of your opinion, Mr Wilfer. You were going to say—?’

‘I was going to say, the king is generally dressed in a London hat only, or a Manchester pair of braces, or one epaulette, or an uniform coat with his legs in the sleeves, or something of that kind.’

‘Just so,’ said the Secretary.

‘In confidence, I assure you, Mr Rokesmith,’ observed the cheerful cherub, ‘that when more of my family were at home and to be provided for, I used to remind myself immensely of that king. You have no idea, as a single man, of the difficulty I have had in wearing more than one good article at a time.’

‘I can easily believe it, Mr Wilfer.’

In an earlier chapter R.W. is introduced as sartorially frustrated: “So poor a clerk, though having a limited salary and an unlimited family, that he had never yet attained the modest object of his ambition: which was, to wear a complete new suit of clothes, hat and boots included, at one time. His black hat was brown before he could afford a coat, his pantaloons were white at the seams and knees before he could buy a pair of boots, his boots had worn out before he could treat himself to new pantaloons, and, by the time he worked round to the hat again, that shining modern article roofed-in an ancient ruin of various periods.” But presumably the point would be clear even without that. Tim had this type in his collection already: “an avuncular chief (often, as a Crooked Timber contributor observed, sporting a monocle and claiming to have been educated at Eton).” But it’s nice to see the cliché recognizing itself, as itself, in a classic of 19th Century fiction.

In other Tim Burke news, he is nit-picking the Temeraire novels, which I haven’t read - but which I’m told are pretty good, as Napoleonic war dragon-riding fiction goes. It strikes me that one feature of this sort of alternate history is that it tends to be structurally similar to Karl Kraus’ equation, per this post: namely, the bit that looks so fancy and complicated turns out, on examination, to be nothing. If you rig it so that actual history and alternative history run as closely in parallel as you can manage - so they have their Napoleonic war and we have ours, and they have their Atlantic slave trade and we have our, etc. - then the focus of the book - dragons! - is obliged not to make an overall difference to the way history runs. This is similar to a standard problem with serial storytelling: you aren’t allowed to introduce real change into the character’s lives. You have to reset them all, after each issue or episode. So, basically, this sort of fiction can never be fully satisfactory, as ‘subcreation’ - Big Dumb Object creation, call it what you will. This seems to be Tim’s complaint. The strain of keeping the thing on the parallel rails is showing. Africa evidently gets treated as somewhat conveniently blank (which was my original contribution to Tim’s original list).

Alternatively, you could just take as a premise that there’s something hopelessly dorky about dragons and unicorns and things like that. Still, unicorns can be cool.

When it comes to alternate history, dragon-riders military stuff, I would recommend Kurt Busiek’s Arrowsmith. It’s pretty good.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


Posted by John Holbo on 11/03/07 at 08:56 AM


Friday, November 02, 2007

Joel Turnipseed Interviews Douglas Wolk

Posted by John Holbo on 11/02/07 at 11:39 PM

I haven’t found the time to say it in too many words, the way I’d like. But to say it in just enough words: Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics [amazon] is the best damn book of literary criticism I’ve read in many a moon. It’s just fantastic. Really. (I made a bit of fun of the learned gentleman, with this post. But I subsequently struck up an acquaintance, which has been even better fun.) I do mean to get around to writing that post about comics and canonicity. But not today.

Joel Turnipseed, author of Baghdad Express, did an interview with Wolk, at kottke. Joel opens with a passage from a Robert Warshow essay, which just goes to show - as I have hinted before - how awesome is Warshow:

On the underside of our society, there are those who have no real stake at all in respectable culture. These are the open enemies of culture.... these are the readers of pulp magazines and comic books, potential book-burners, unhappy patrons of astrologers and communicants of lunatic sects, the hopelessly alienated and outclassed.... But their distance from the center gives them in the mass a degree of independence that the rest of us can achieve only individually and by discipline… when this lumpen culture displays itself in mass art forms, it can occasionally take on a purity and freshness that would almost surely be smothered higher up on the cultural scale.

The great thing about Warshow is that his echter-than-thou anti-comicbook screeds, so often conjoined with admissions that comics can be pretty good, are so far out of the mainstream, so alienated from the rise of pop culture, that their distance from the center gives them a kind of authentic independence that can hardly be matched by any of these feeble ‘comics are awesome’ posts the rest of us offer up. A book of his essays, The Immediate Experience [amazon], recently came back in print, with an introduction by Lionel Trilling, an epilogue by Stanley Cavell. The Amazon page contains excerpts from various favorable reviews - including one from Midge Decter (!). It’s very interesting, peculiar stuff.


Joel, by the by, usually blogs at Hotel Zero. Just a couple weeks ago he was peddling some mighty peculiar cultural criticism, courtesy of Karl Kraus:


Bloofer Lady

Posted by John Holbo on 11/02/07 at 09:52 PM

As I believe I’ve mentioned, so soon as I finished Dracula, I started in on Our Mutual Friend. It turns out there’s an odd linguistic connection between the two, which underscores my point that Dickens really does have the knack for sentimental uncanniness.

From Dracula:

During the past two or three days several cases have occurred of young children straying from home or neglecting to return from their playing on the Heath.  In all these cases the children were too young to give any properly intelligible account of themselves, but the consensus of their excuses is that they had been with a “bloofer lady.” It has always been late in the evening when they have been missed, and on two occasions the children have not been found until early in the following morning. It is generally supposed in the neighborhood that, as the first child missed gave as his reason for being away that a “bloofer lady” had asked him to come for a walk, the others had picked up the phrase and used it as occasion served.  This is the more natural as the favourite game of the little ones at present is luring each other away by wiles.  A correspondent writes us that to see some of the tiny tots pretending to be the “bloofer lady” is supremely funny.  Some of our caricaturists might, he says, take a lesson in the irony of grotesque by comparing the reality and the picture.  It is only in accordance with general principles of human nature that the “bloofer lady” should be the popular role at these al fresco performances.  Our correspondent naively says that even Ellen Terry could not be so winningly attractive as some of these grubby-faced little children pretend, and even imagine themselves, to be.

And when one of the victims wakes, in hospital:

“Even this poor little mite, when he woke up today, asked the nurse if he might go away.  When she asked him why he wanted to go, he said he wanted to play with the ‘bloofer lady’."

You recall, I trust, that Lucy Westenra turns out to be the vampiric ‘bloofer lady’, taking the children. ‘Bloofer lady’ is a curious compound, from the mouths of babes. Where does it come from? From a dying child in Dickens!

But, Johnny murmuring something with his eyes closed, and Mrs. Boffin not knowing what, old Betty bent her ear to listen and took pains to understand. Being asked by her to repeat what he had said, he did so two or three times, and then it came out that he must have seen more than they supposed when he looked up to
see the horse, for the murmur was, ‘Who is the boofer lady?’ Now, the boofer, or beautiful, lady was Bella; and whereas this notice from the poor baby would have touched her of itself; it was rendered more pathetic by the late melting of her heart to her poor little father, and their joke about the lovely woman. So, Bella’s behaviour was very tender and very natural when she kneeled on the brick floor to clasp the child, and when the child, with a child’s admiration of what is young and pretty, fondled the boofer lady.

And, dying in his hospital bed:

With a weary and yet a pleased smile, and with an action as if he stretched his little figure out to rest, the child heaved his body on the sustaining arm, and seeking Rokesmith’s face with his lips, said:

‘A kiss for the boofer lady.’

Having now bequeathed all he had to dispose of, and arranged his affairs in this world, Johnny, thus speaking, left it.

His ‘boofer lady’, Bella, is not a vampire - merely, as she says, thoroughly ‘mercenary’. It’s interesting that Dickens little touches are so readily convertible into classic horror effects. Googling around, others have already figured out that Stoker’s ‘bloofer lady’ probably derives from Our Mutual Friend, so I’m not making any discovery here, merely a rediscovery.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

He and his toothpick at my worship’s mess

Posted by John Holbo on 11/01/07 at 04:02 AM

My friend Josh Glenn, cunning Brainiac that he is, seems to have hauled off and solved an honest-to-gosh minor literary mystery. He argues compellingly that the “little nameless object” in Henry James’ The Ambassadors is ... well, I’ll let you read it.

I hope I won’t be giving anything away if I point out that the earliest evidence in English letters that, once upon a time, the toothpick was deemed a disreputable, foreignish implement of oral hygiene - a real English gentleman sucks his teeth - comes in Act I, scene i of Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John. Here the Bastard (whom I have quoted before on the subject of commodity fetishism) is fantasizing about what life will be like when he is so raised up that he can call someone Peter, if his name is George, and from there he works round to:

... Now your traveller,
He and his toothpick at my worship’s mess,
And when my knightly stomach is sufficed,
Why then I suck my teeth and catechise
My picked man of countries ...

Fascinating stuff. But seriously. Josh has a new book out: Taking Things Seriously [amazon]. And I quite enjoyed it and mean to write a little reviewamajigger soonish.

(Obviously you already read Crooked Timber, so you already knew - maybe even read McLemee’s interview with Glenn. Still, it seemed worth mentioning.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Come up and be dead! Come up and be dead!

Posted by John Holbo on 10/31/07 at 08:51 AM

I am richly enjoying Our Mutual Friend. Since it’s Halloween, I’ll just take note of how Dickens has the knack for sentimental uncanniness:

Thus, Fascination Fledgeby went his way, exulting in the artful cleverness with which he had turned his thumb down on a Jew, and the old man went his different way up-stairs. As he mounted, the call or song began to sound in his ears again, and, looking above, he saw the face of the little creature looking down out of a Glory of her long bright radiant hair, and musically repeating to him, like a vision:

‘Come up and be dead! Come up and be dead!’

Dickens likes these little scenes in which characters are invited to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of life, for life. My favorite lines from A Tale of Two Cities:

“You know that you are recalled to life?”

“They tell me so.”

“I hope you care to live?”

“I can’t say."

In other uncanny news, I’m reading vol. 2. of B.P.R.D. [Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense]: The Soul of Venice and Other Stories. I’m rather disappointed so far. I devoutly hope I like a good Lobster Johnson yarn as much as the next fellow. And a ghost story as much as the next fellow. But a story about Lobster Johnson as a ghost seems like gilding the lily. Even on Halloween. (I know, I know, he’s also a ghost in some other Hellboy story I haven’t read, The Conqueror Worm, which is supposed to be good. Well, I haven’t read it.)

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