Listening to Archival Interviews and Sweating

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Derrida had a diagnosis for this…

Also, there’s this:



Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

January 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

This is the first book I’m reading for fun in several months. Let me tell you, it is a charmer. Don’t let the fact that this work is on everyone’s 10th grade reading list fool you; Miss Havisham is guaranteed to, among other things, elicit an earnest “wtf” at least every three sentences. Also, I seemed to have forgotten that Dickens is really, really good writer, almost a British Twain. Almost.

Typical Dickensian prose:

As Wemmick and Miss Skiffins sat side by side, and as I sat in a shadowy corner, I observed a slow and gradual elongation of Mr. Wemmick’s mouth, powerfully suggestive of his slowly and gradually stealing his arm round Miss Skiffins’s waist. In course of time I saw his hand appear on the other side of Miss Skiffins; but at that moment Miss Skiffins neatly stopped him with the green glove, unwound his arm again as if it were an article of dress, and with the greatest deliberation laid it on the table before her. Miss Skiffins’s composure while she did this was one of the most remarkable sights I have ever seen, and if I could have thought the act consistent with abstraction of mind, I should have deemed that Miss Skiffins performed it mechanically.

By and by, I noticed Wemmick’s arm beginning to disappear again, and gradually fading out of view. Shortly afterwards, his mouth began to widen again. After an interval of suspense on my part that was quite enthralling and almost painful, I saw his hand appear on the other side of Miss Skiffins. Instantly, Miss Skiffins stopped it with the neatness of a placid boxer, took off that girdle or cestus as before, and laid it on the table. Taking the table to represent the path of virtue, I am justified in stating that during the whole time of the Aged’s reading, Wemmick’s arm was straying from the path of virtue and being recalled to it by Miss Skiffins.

Just charming.

Twilight Reviews

November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

I. In Defense of Team Jacob (July 2010)

Lloyd Braun: Previously, on Twilight…

1. We learned that it’s okay to put your entire life on hold for a dude that leaves you without an explanation.

2. It’s okay to string along the freaking hot guy that is trying to cheer you up, and it’s okay to break his heart when you tire of him.

3. It’s okay to lie to your family and fly to the other side of the world for a pasty man that sparkles (and yet is not standing on the corner of Santa Monica and LaCienega).

4. It’s okay for Dakota Fanning to act.

This time around, Eclipse opens with Bella’s recitation of Frost’s “Fire and Ice” – a motion which I second so intensely that I almost third it. It musicalizes Turandot’s riddle and breezes across Norwegian folklore.

For those of you who haven’t read the poem, or don’t remember it, I’ve infringed here:

Some say the world will end in fire;

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

Bella will suffer a two-fold death: First, if she is “changed” by Edward, she relinquishes her soul, unceremoniously withdrawing from the upward helix toward nirvana; and, second, if she chooses Jacob, out of pragmatism, she’ll lose her freedom to “make mistakes” (thank you, valedictorian, for that), and Edward.

But it is not just pragmatism that steers dear Bella into the cove of Jacob’s deltoids. She cannot hide her limerence toward him from him, for Bella is caught in a unique situation where the men in her life can either READ HER MIND or PERCEIVE HER FEELINGS [I know, right?]. She begins to acknowledge her physiological state around Jacob when, preparing for the big showdown, Edward says to her in so many words, “Bella, I will need you to be carried through the woods by a shirtless Jacob, with his pungent MAN fragrance, to a romantic camping spot on a hilltop. I will neglect to consider the effect that the subzero nightfall temperatures at 10,000 ft above sea level will have on your body, since I am, you know, dead, and will have to acquiesce to Jacob’s spooning you in your *sleep* as you listen in delight to the two of us squabbling over your best interest.”

Although relegated to beta, Jacob is not hesitant to take advantage of his resumed role of protector. He accosts Bella’s obstinacy (in a rice paddy? was that a rice paddy??) and pulls her in for an unwarranted kiss. Brushed off, Jacob devolves into an increased asshole (his appellation) during a road-side Bella trade-off, to which he shows up baring a torso that stole the scene, stole next seven scenes, stole subsequent scenes he was not even in, stole scenes from the movie playing next door, and that will probably trivialize the next couple movies that I endeavor to watch. Taylor Lautner’s abs are looking GOOD, and now that we got that out of the way, we cannot be ignorant of Jacob’s unacceptably immature spite toward Edward and Bella. Human jealousy is not a good look on anyone. But it is *human*…

Despite obvious, if not bulging, reasons to choose the wolfman, Bella will not give in. Sparkleface, similarly, will not give in to Bella’s charmingly mortal libido. Edward refers to “his time” – historically, the plague-era of Chicago – often enough so as to convince Bella that there are certain rules which he’d prefer not to break – namely, that of maiden virtue. As a character, Edward serves not only as Bella’s eventual demise, but he is, in fact, disestablishing the entire 20th century. Modernism? No. Postmodernism? Not a chance. Women’s suffrage? I don’t think so. Feminism and free love? That stuff never happened. The great strides made by Mary Tyler Moore and Maggie Seaver never existed! For this, Bella labels Edward “old school,” a term which throws Charlie into a subdued fit during a moment of Joycian father-daughter awkwardness.

The plot line – gingerly added as a supplement to the love triangle and perfectly dispensable to the movie – is simple: The vengeful redheaded-stepchild lady is out to kill Bella because whatshisface killed her lover, and she wants whatshisface to feel the pain. Bella, needing protection, as usual, puts everyone out – that is, all of the people in the town who have magical powers. It’s all about Bella (see DSM IV code 301.81). And rather than fearing for her life – after all, an army of Pacific-Northwest hipster vampires is out to zap her arteries – she somberly gleans the attention. Life is good in Bellaworld.

In the mountain-top clash, Edward snaps Victoria’s head off like a porcelain doll. At the end of the fight, he looks miffed; maybe some dirt got under his fingernails, but otherwise he is unscathed [meanwhile, Bella’s arm is gushing blood from a self-inflicted pinebark diversion, proving, once again, that it’s OKAY to cut yourself for the man you love]. In the forest clash, a vampire shatters half of the bones in Jacob’s body. HALF OF THE BONES IN HIS BODY. Carlyle is able to reset the injuries by re-breaking half the bones in his body, a painful process which takes hours, and during which time Jacob shrieked like a hen giving birth to a mule. Bella visits Jacob, swaddled in linen, and offers him nothing more than an “I love you, but I love this other guy slightly more.” Half the bones in his body, my friends. Rebroken.

One should seek that which is long-lasting, the least susceptible to alterations by time, money, and weather. That which will die will, ironically, last. In dentum veritas est, which is my poor Latin way of saying Jacob has a way better set of chompers. Go with Jacob.

But despite protests from all sides, Bella is going to go through with the transformation. She doesn’t want to be a better person; she wants to be with Edward, who fully accepts the weirdo she is. She doesn’t want to challenge herself, grow, change, live; she wants to “exist” as a static ember of ice, a tepid existential question, an elective h(a/o)llow of sterility. Edward does not offer her a way out. He offers her death. Let’s be real.

Next time: Hermione + Ron = …Really?

II. Breaking Headboard: The Alliterative Morte Bella (November 2011)

“…there ys no maker can make hit, nothir no harte can thynke hit, nother no penne can wryte hit, nother no mowth can speke it.”  -Sir Thomas Malory

“We found love in a hopeless place.” – The Poet Rihanna

The primary appeal of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I is simply that Stephanie Meyer wrote an unfilmable story; namely, two specific, inekphrasible scenes for which all manner of 14-year-old girl, 45-year-old mom, and mid-to-late twenties English grad student alike was bracing:

  1. The breaking of the “headboard,” after which Bella wakes up with a mess of broken capillaries
  2. The birth of the muggle child

We’ll handle these straight away. Besides being an absolute waste of a Brazilian wood four-poster bed, the night on which Edward does his best not to kill Bella is quite benign.  Redeemingly, the human moments Bella takes alone in the bathroom bookending the defurniturization of the honeymoon suite touch more heartstrings – the ferocious shaving of legs, the clumsy brushing of teeth, etc., followed by the disbelieving retracing of maculated skin.  One of my favorite lines from the original text, “How to people do this?” does not manifest in the film, but the sublime terror and enigma of the evening is diegetically preserved.

As for the unhallowed parturition, Edward performs a C-section with his fangs (read: he ate the baby out of her) and pulls forth a writhing barbecued chicken. Bella dies of course, causing Edward to inject venom to her heart then perforate her limbs with his British cuspids. Then all there is to do is to wait in patient assurance that her grad school-like bruised eyes and blemishes will give way to false eyelashes and heat-styled hair.

Once these cinematic mysteries are revealed, something of the thrill is gone. The saga enters a counter-romantic function, à la Helen Cooper, in that, as Sarah Blackwood mentions in “Our Bella, Ourselves,” we arrive at the final panel of the romantic triptych – the birth of the lovechild – the stage that is often abbreviated in contemporary narratives wishing to shy away from occasions of disgust. This is why we are forced to see the displaced chicken expelled from Bella’s mouth into the private island toilet. Bill Condon will not that our gaze be averted from the realities of Mormon motherhood.

Additionally, we are denied the delicious, if abortive (heh), insinuations between Jacob and Bella that peppered Eclipse and New Moon with marvels and grete dedys worthy of impromptu Facebook notes written at desk jobs of yore. That Jacob tears off his shirt within the first 20 seconds of the film (watches were set and ready) but then remains fully clothed after suggests that the narrative is moving beyond romantic possibilities of the Bella Quest (for her life, her personhood, her body) and into the realities of completing what’s been started. As wolves make and break alliances, smoting each other down in the forest and realigning with new alpha hostile takeovers, Jacob emerges as a leader whose desire has been subliminated by imprinting on Renesmee.

The name is uttered. 

“Renesmee?” asks Jacob, with affect flatter than the state of Illinois.

Absolutely the jewel in the diadem of shame that is this film, this series, and the idea of my life.

“Actually it wasn’t so much an idea as much as it was a snide comment.”

Provide for me, for I am at a loss, a reaction other than “I like my coffee Black.” Let us not neglect Jacob’s influential role in the transgressive triangulation that produces the demon-child, the bone Meyers throws him. Blood-gulping preggars Bella, who still smiles at him like he’s her “favorite person in the world” (manipulative to the last, this one), refuses to listen to her husband (who seems to grow increasingly impotent as the reels unwind), but still grants audience to Jacob, with whom she has a bond that Edward does not understand. You couldn’t, man, because you’re dead. (“Do you have cold feet?” asks Bella the night before their wedding. Of course he does! Edward’s feet are always cold.) Much appreciated by the audience at the Arclight Dome was Jacob’s ability to offer his dismissive beloved warmth, a recurring trope that magnifies Edwards (many) deficiencies. And who did not enjoy the wedding dance, Potter rip-off or not (see:

The Jacob’s obdurant brilliance is not tarnished in Breaking Headboard, but his agency as third wheel is unhinged. At the feet of Renesmee (“Renesmee?”), Jacob, Sir Jacob of the Snyde Commentys, falls to his knees, free will permanently neutered. Imprinting, by the way, is a real thing, and perhaps it is due to Wettermarck effect that he and Bella could never work out (I understand Bella was his babysitter at some point?). Disclosed through a sequence of flash-forward visions, Jacob and Renesmee are catapulted thus into the final triptych, sealing the narrative arc, but leaving us with little to debate, nothing to make tee shirts about.

So let us return to the lady of the hour: Our baby girl walks down the aisle in a dress no less anticipated than Kate Middleton’s, stares into Edward’s “domes of honeyed luminosity,” and recites the vows that eschew her Pauline attachment to childhood. The Corinthians reference in the beginning voice-over (almost missed due to aforementioned shirtlessness) finds its apagee not at the marriage altar but at the altar of motherhood where Bella is definitively sacrificed. Here I confess a change of heart towards Bella’s obnoxiously selfish MO; she gives up everything she has to that her own narrative, an already-counterclimatic triptych, can begin again through her daughter.

Before the wedding, Renee gives Bella her grandmother’s studded comb, and Bella, unable to confess to the discontinuous nature of her impending vampire state, believes it to be the death an heirloom. The audience held its breath as it witnessed what it believed to be the death of a story, or at least the interesting part of it, and with that opinion, I might agree. The ambiguity involved – necessarily involved – in triptych romance is essential to its life, and Bella sealed the deal for death. On the other hand, we still have one more to go to see if anything lies beyond the third panel, and if so, if it can keep us interested without Taylor Lauter having to disrobe.

Serious waste of a bed though. Serious.

Bronchitis or Malaria

November 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

‎”Siam’s King Mongkut had a harem of 9,000 women. On his deathbed, before succumbing to the ravages of syphilis, he confessed that he was truly in love with only 700 of his lovers – less than eight percent of the total. Why he didn’t concentrate on that eight percent and forget the rest, we’ll never know.

“Proposed experiment: If given the chance to indulge in a wealth of pleasurable adventures, seek out only the fraction that will nourish your f***ing soul.”

Words of genius from Rob Brezsny.

The Browning Poem

November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Now here is something,” said Molly. “I have never known what to think.”

“Oh, Heavens!” murmured the sick man, smiling. “Is it short?”

“Very short. Now please attend.” And she read him twelve lines about a lover who rowed to a beach in the dusk, crossed a field, tapped at a pane, and was admitted.

“That is the best yet,” said the Virginian. “There’s only one thing yu’ can think about that.

“But wait,” said the girl, swiftly. “Here is how they parted:-

“Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain’s rim–
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.”

“That is very, very true,” murmured the Virginian, dropping his eyes from the girl’s intent ones.

“Had they quarrelled?” she inquired.

“Oh, no!”


“I reckon he loved her very much.”

“Then you’re sure they hadn’t quarreled?”

“Dead sure, ma’am. He would come back afteh he had played some more of the game.”

“The game?”

“Life, ma’am. Whatever he was a-doin’ in the world of men. That’s a bed-rock piece, ma’am!”

“Well, I don’t see why you think it’s so much better than some of the others.”

“I could sca’cely explain,” answered the man. “But that writer does know something.”

“I am glad they hadn’t quarrelled,” said Molly, thoughtfully. And she began to like having her opinions refuted.

– from Owen Wister’s The Virginian

Harry Potter, in Three Sentences.

June 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

If  you’re like me, the latest and greatest Harry Potter life lessons have come just when you needed them most (i.e., when Harry realized it was really his own patronus that came to his rescue from another time dimension at the climax of The Prisoner of Azkaban. So deep.)

I have lots of things to say about the last book, which I completed in preparation for July 15th, three years after I said I would. If I could write my dissertation on Harry Potter, I probably would. In fact, I probably can…the embedded tale of the the three hallows alone warrants a book. And “hallows or horcruxes” is in and of itself a lifelong question: should we strive to avoid the bad in life, or focus on chasing the good?

Three short passages will live with me forever, the arc of which speaks to what I am accepting gradually as my hopeless romanticism:

1. They seemed so long ago; they had always seemed too good to be true, as though he had been stealing shining hours from a normal person’s life, a person without a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead.

2. Her arm curved to the floor, her fingers inches from Ron’s. Harry wondered whether they had fallen asleep holding hands. The idea made him feel strangely lonely.
…and then, absolutely the greatest line of English verse..
3. There would be time to talk later, hours and days and maybe years in which to talk. 

Mermaids, Apes, and Goblins – Oh My! On Beauty, Zadie Smith

May 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

It never occurred to me, although it probably should have, that having an academician in one’s family is like living with someone who, typically themselves unaware, has a terminal and chronic disease. PhDs have a way of disrupting the pH balance within the self, let alone within the environment of the home, university, or community.  At least that is what I’m gathering from Smith.

For those unfamiliar with the court of the university, the opening scenes might be humorous but vaguely humiliating; for anyone more familiar with the territory, the uncanniness is downright nauseating. English-born art professor Howard (Smith’s tribute to Howard’s End), driven mad by a desire to control his son who has become – wait for it – a theist, demands that his wife (over)analyze the Boston-London email exchange in which their son sets out a plan to propose to Howard’s academic archrival’s daughter. ‘Calmly’ requesting the location in London where he can find and chastise his son (no bother, since he is giving a paper in those parts), Howard neither acknowledges nor addresses his wife Kiki’s allusions to his infidelity, committed allegedly at an academic conference, and dismisses her admonishment that surely, with his approach, he will drive their son away completely. Howard seems undeterred on his path to further irreparable family destruction.

“You know what’s weird?” berates Kiki. “Is that you can get someone who is a professor of one thing and then just so intensely stupid about everything else.” Kiki, by the way, is a huge, black woman of Floridian roots.

I cringed for Howard, as he sat rearranging his bathrobe. Kiki continues to sympathize acerbically with Howard’s life of “deprivation” while ferociously packing a small satchel for herself. Just when the reader hopes that he will redeem himself in the conversation, make some conciliatory effort to delay his wife’s packing of things, or even shut the hell up, he unperturbedly asks,

“Might the address be in the green moleskin?”

Facepalm all over the place. Jesus Howie, a moleskin? Of course you have a moleksin, of course you do.

On Beauty is a story of stereotypes. The Haitian jewelry dealer. The biochemist from New Jersey. The California girls at the East Coast liberal arts college. The middle-class mixed-race kid who wants to be street. Some are overwrought. Some are painfully true. I am not far enough to know where Smith settles on these matters, but given her recent acquisition of tenure in the NYU English department, I’m sure it turns out alright.

One scene that mirror’s E. M. Forster’s original was particularly jarring. The family goes to see a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in the park. After driving his son away with some side-splitting bad rap, Howard explains to his bewildered wife that the choir elevates from out of the pond during the show. He falls asleep once it begins, despite his ‘concern’ that Mozart, being under-celebrated already as he was, might fall out of favor as a result of such behavior. (Howard notes that his humor is so English and dry, that it often takes people days to realize just how rude he was to them. Smith was definitely not going for a thoroughly self-questioning, Gabriel-type intellectual a la Joyce). As Kiki is existentially alone in a sea of concert-goers, we get the following exegesis:

Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit. The pit is on the other side of a precipice, which you cannot see over until you are right at its edge. Your death is awaiting you in that pit. You don’t know what it looks like or sounds like or smells like. You don’t know whether it will be good or bad. You just walk towards it. Your will is a clarinet and your footsteps are attended by violins. The closer you get to the pit, the more you begin to have the sense that what awaits you there will be terrifying. Yet you experience this terror as a kind of blessing, a gift. Your long walk would have had no meaning were it not for this pit at the end of it. You peer over the precipice: a burst of ethereal noise crashes over you. In the pit is a great choir, like the one you joined for two months in Wellington in which you were the only black woman. This choir is the heavenly host and simultaneously the devil’s army. It is also every person who has changed you during your time on this earth: your many lovers; your family; your enemies; the nameless, faceless woman who slept with your husband; the man you thought you were going to marry; the man you did. The job of this choir is judgment. The men sing first, and their judgment is very severe. And when the women join in there is no respite, the debate only grows louder and sterner. For it is a debate – you realize that now. The judgment is not yet decided. It is surprising how dramatic the fight for your measly soul turns out to be. And also surprising are the mermaids and apes that insist on dancing around each other and sliding down an ornate staircase during the Kyrie, which, according to the program notes, features no such action, even in the metaphorical sense.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

That is all that happens in the Kyrie. No apes, just Latin…The experience of listening to an hour’s music you barely know in a dead language you do not understand is a strange falling and rising experience. For minutes at a time you are walking deep into it, you seem to understand. Then, without knowing how or when exactly, you discover you have wandered away, bored or tired from the effort, and now you are nowhere near the music. You refer to the program notes. The notes reveal that the past fifteen minutes of wrangling over your soul have been merely the repetition of a single inconsequential line. 

Let’s compare to Forster’s own similar scene, describing a performance of Beethoven’s 5th:

“No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back,” breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.

For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then–he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins–they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return–and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

Did Smith intend for us to project the panic and emptiness into Kiki’s soul? We have all, in our preoccupation, wandered away from the music. She is looking beyond it, trying to make meaning, but without the stiff hermeneutics beloved by the society she keeps. Intellectuals stand always at the verge of an apocalypse. You might say they like it that way. But technically we are all, as the great composers of varying degrees of celebration remind us; only with something of a concerted effort do we keep each other from falling in.