Thursday, November 23, 2006
The Hardy Boys, Siegfried Kracauer, Ornithopters
I just read a pleasingly strange essay in the latest issue of the Southwest Review: “Even the Hardy Boys Need Friends: An Epistolary Essay on Boredom.” The essay includes all of the things mentioned in my title, and also the Oakland A’s, Walter Benjamin, Georges Bataille, Oprah, Kafka, relief maps, extravagance, modernity, a squirrelfish, a spiny dogfish, and of course Sandor Ferenczi. The essay takes the form of a series of plaintive, irritable, slightly mad letters addressed to Franklin W. Dixon, the author of the Hardy Boy novels, who was probably not a single person but many different anonymous authors, most of them now dead.
The author of this essay, Ramsey Scott, seems to have reread the books in the original Hardy Boys series, revisiting a kind of simulacrum of his own childhood, unable to stop reading despite his boredom, his diffuse and unpredictable tendrils of desire (reading the Hardy Boys does not inspire thoughts of self-abuse in everyone!), and his loathing for these creepily innocent boyish adventures in an alternate universe where every mystery has a solution and every phenomenon is a clue.
Ramsey Scott is apparently a student at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. I taught a course at the Graduate Center last spring, but I don’t think I ever met Ramsey. I have a hunch, though, that he has worked with Wayne Koestenbaum, a brilliant, constantly surprising man of letters who has recently taught courses on sleep, on humiliation, and on “the lyric essay,” a flexible and capacious term which he defines as follows: “A lyric essay is a hybrid form, borrowing, as it pleases, from poem, story, drama, diary, and manifesto. Often autobiographical, a lyric essay reveals an idiosyncratic personality, obsessively attends to its own unfolding, and trespasses on the territory of other genres.” Instead of assigning the usual semester paper, Wayne asked students to write a two-page lyric essay every week. This is a wonderfully subversive aberration within a doctoral program: it preserves a small zone for the playful, the useless, and the unauthorized. I think that graduate education needs this kind of tiny inner antagonist, and I would be interested in hearing of other courses with similar projects. I would also be interested in hearing nominations for a syllabus for a course of this kind. Wayne’s course description mentions the following possibilities: “Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete, Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, Lydia Davis’s Almost No Memory, Maurice Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death, Lyn Heijinian’s The Language of Inquiry, Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother, David Markson’s Vanishing Point, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value, Roland Barthes’ Sade, Fourier, Loyola, book reviews by Marianne Moore, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, and more.” Off the top of my head, I would nominate the prose of Ben Jonson, J. M. Coetzee, Susan Stewart, Francis Bacon, Susan Sontag, W. G. Sebald, Thomas de Quincey, Soren Kierkegaard, Elizabeth Bishop, Marcel Proust, Mark Strand, Italo Calvino, Thomas Carlyle, Marina Warner, Baudelaire, Laura Kipnis, and Wayne Koestenbaum himself (his brief essay on logorrhea, which appeared in the Southwest Review many years ago, is an exemplary specimen of this genre, or non-genre, or counter-genre).
...and of course Sandor Ferenczi.
I have never read a Hardy Boys book but I can guess the sort of thing (or am I kidding myself?) - and I very much admire the graduate student who can turn the dreadful avoidance urge which drives some of us to do things like resentfully reread a series of old books to a productive end.
I have to confess, though, that I’m slightly turned off by the timbre of this writer’s eclecticism - this is cynical but it strikes me as a little bit ‘OK for 2006’.
Nominations for a syllabus: Robert Southey, Elizabeth David, Henry Treece, Charmian Clift, Christopher Isherwood, Gilbert Adair.
A pedant writes: “...Lyn Heijinian’s...” Lyn Hejinian.
This does sound wonderful, though like Laura I haven’t read the Hardy Boys. Clive James wrote an LRB (or TLS) piece not unlike this on Biggles, not long ago.
Also: “This is a wonderfully subversive aberration within a doctoral program: it preserves a small zone for the playful, the useless, and the unauthorized.”
Because doctoral programmes have hitherto never countenanced ‘the useless’?
Thanks for the reading suggestions, which I will pursue tout de suite. I happen to have inherited from my maternal grandfather a first edition of Southey’s Commonplace Books, vols. I-III. But I never really gave them a chance. I do think that Southey’s poetry deserves a bit more respect than it has gotten. My impression is that Romantic-era poetry has been a kind of winner-take-all game. Women writers have been added to the very small canon, but it is not acceptable to work on Southey in the way that it is acceptable to work on, say, Richard Brome in the early modern period.
When I suggested that graduate schools suppress the useless and the playful, what I meant is that graduate students feel a strong pressure to devote all of their time to professionally sanctioned reading and writing habits. What literary critics produce may be useless in external terms, but it is extremely useful in professional terms: it has the power to get one a dissertation fellowship, a job, a grant, tenure, a distinguished professorship, etc.
The Hardy Boys books were utter crap. I can’t imagine why any grown-up would waste any time rereading them.
The Three Investigators, on the other hand, were awesome. I reread a couple of them every summer.
Matt: yes, I take your point of course.
This recent editorial on the Litvinenko affair in Pravda takes what seems to me to be an unfair swat at le vice anglais.
So far, the (excellent) lists have left out my earliest personal heroes in the form, Lester Bangs and Thomas Nashe.
I have mixed feelings about people like Lopate and Koestenbaum turning “the lyric essay” into an academically and commercially approved category, but that’s probably just feckless territoriality or a “Where were you when I needed you?” sort of reaction.
I have not read the Hardy Boys as well. I am a writer (custom essay writing), and I would appreciate if you could suggest some topic relating to the Hardy Boys as I have an essay due.