Saturday, July 04, 2015

Malcolm Bowie, in Proust Among The Stars, analyses a long Proust sentence from Sodom and Gomorrah

"But when they see another man display a particular predilection towards them, then, whether because they fail to recognise that it is the same as their own, or because it is a painful reminder that this predilection, exalted by them as long as it is they themselves who feel it, is regarded as a vice, or from a desire to rehabilitate themselves by making a scene in circumstances in which it costs them nothing, or from a fear of being unmasked which suddenly overtakes them when desire no longer leads them blindfold from one imprudence to another, or from rage at being subjected, by the equivocal attitude of another person, to the injury which by their own attitude, if that other person attracted them, they would not hesitate to inflict on him, men who do not in the lead mind following a young man for miles, never taking their eyes off him in the theater even if he is with friends, thereby threatening to compromise him with them, may be heard to say, if a man who does not attract them merely looks at them, ‘Monsieur, what do you take me for?’ (simply because he takes them for what they are) 'I don't understand you, no, don't attempt to explain, you are quite mistaken,' may proceed at a pinch from words to blows, and, to a person who knows the imprudent stranger, wax indignant: 'What, you know this loathsome creature? The way we looks at one! A fine way to behave!'"

In single sentences built on this model, the propositional structure of the main utterance is almost smothered by subordinate material rushing forward to its aid. 'But... men who do not in the least mind... may be heard to say' is the 'main' proposition, but devices of amplification are used so intensively in the build-up to this anodyne remark that much of its force has been pre-empted by the time its moment of completion arrives. The clauses beginning 'or' are brazen queue-jumpers, and their copious display of alternative sexual motives and dilemmas in a sense tells the whole story before the sentence has developed anything resembling narrative thrust. The weakened proposition is then reinforced, but also outstripped, by the fragments of direct speech on which the sentence closes. From a list of abstract moral and psychological formulae we move to a playlet illustrating certain of these. We pass from abstraction to dramatic enactment by way of an almost characterless claim whose task, syntactically speaking, is to hold the whole thing together but whose contribution at the level of sense is easily lost in a clamour of other, subtler, voices. Meaning is destabilised by the syntactic pattern. It crystallises suddenly in this corner or that of a variegated open field, and may as suddenly dissolve again as new elements in the verbal texture rise to prominence. 'This is what it feels like to be a gay man pursuing sexual pleasure in a maze of untrustworthy signs', the sentence in its feverish motion seems to say. But inside this dynamic portrait of a specifically homosexual social scene, Proust's risk-filled syntax has another drama to enact. This is everyone's desire in perpetual displacement. This is how desire is...

The loss and the precarious restoration of meaning in sentences is Eros become visible. The hide-and-seek games that Proust's sentences play not only pay their imitative tribute to the feints, detours and side-glances that mark all sexual pursuit but offer themselves as a model for speculation, all mental efforts to make headway, in a resistant medium, towards a desired goal.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Second opinion

Snakes are recommended in five counties as intermediate agents or recipients of the very affliction they cause – snakebites – evidently on the theory that they are immune to their own poison. “To treat a snakebite,” a Shelby cure says, “kill the snake by cutting off his head. Place the body of the snake against the wound to draw out the poison.” A symbolic ritual is outlined in a Dallas example: “Catch the snake and cut him into small pieces. Build a fire and burn each piece one by one for a sure cure.” An even stranger remedy from Harris says to “cut up the snake and eat the meat raw.”

from “Magical Transference of Disease in Texas Folk Medicine” by John Q. Anderson

If you or someone you are with is bitten by a snake you should not try to catch or kill the snake.

from "Snake bites - Treatment" on the NHS website

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Before Google Alerts

In the 1870s a young Pole in Paris named Henry Romeike watched an excited artist buy two dozen copies of a newspaper in which there was a favorable notice of his recent exhibit. Disturbed by this squandering of papers and yet aware that everybody likes to see his name in print, Romeike started a new business – the world’s first press-clipping bureau…

The agencies do not claim infallibility. The 100 or so girls in a large agency who flip and mark pages at breath-taking speed seven hours a day sometimes make mistakes. Most of these arise from the interesting fact that the girls do not really read – they glance, their eyes alert for certain key words. Cartoonist John Held, for example, once received a startling clipping head “STAGE DOOR JOHN HELD BY POLICE.” Another time a dairyman interested in milk production drew “PARI-MUTUELS MILK GAMBLERS.”

Why do people subscribe to press-clipping bureaus? Strangely enough, Henry Romeike’s original observation that everybody likes to see his name in print accounts for only 10 percent of all clippings, according to the manager of one large New York bureau. Publicity today is more than a matter of satisfying vanity; it is good business. Consequently, insurance agents are interested in fires, a tombstone maker has highly practical interest in obituaries, stores or homes struck by lightning are “leads” for the man who sells lightning rods, and makers of electrical appliances seek all the items they can find about careless souls who started fires with kerosene.

One of the most unusual orders was placed by a Detroit father who wants clippings derogatory toward the theater. He is trying to discourage his daughter, a would-be actress…

It may be of interest to note that women work out better than men in the clipping bureaus, where each worker must cover the equivalent of four Gone with the Wind’s each day. The trouble with men is, they get bored – and begin to read the news.

from "When Clippings Tell The Tale", The Rotarian magazine, October 1950

I also find, in yesterday’s mail, that I owe Henry Romeike, Inc. 220 West 19th Street, N.Y., sixteen dollars for clippings, and as I have no dollars and Mr. Romeike, who is I believe by his own admittance the original Romeike, is very lovely about sending clippings, I wonder if you could have this sixteen dollars sent to him and charged to what must be rapidly becoming my account.

from a letter from Ernest Hemingway to Maxwell Perkins, 21st August 1926

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Every author's dream

'Koestler himself was soon benefiting from the Information Research Department’s propaganda campaigns. Darkness at Noon, whose depiction of Soviet cruelty had established Koestler’s credentials as an anti-communist, was circulated in Germany under its auspices. In a deal struck with Hamish Hamilton, director of the the eponymous publishing house and himself closely tied to intelligence, 50,000 copies were purchased and distributed by the Foreign Office in 1948. Ironically, at the same time, “the French Communist party had orders to buy up every single copy [of the book] immediately and they were all being bought up and there was no reason why it should ever stop being reprinted, so in this way K[oestler] was being enriched indefinitely from Communist Party funds."'

from Who Paid the Piper? by Frances Stonor Saunders, quoting Living with Koestler by Mamaine Koestler

Sunday, May 17, 2015

In the course of offering her a role in The Big Steal (1949), Howard Hughes informs Jane Greer that she is pregnant:

When The Big Steal came along, Robert Mitchum had been arrested for possessing marijuana and his leading lady Lizabeth Scott already had her wardrobe. But when she found out he had to go to jail, she said, “I don’t want to do it.” So they were trying to find someone to work with him, because they wanted to go down to Mexico the next Tuesday. Well, the phone rang, and it was Howard.
  “Bettejane” – he always called me Bettejane – “Bettejane, are you interested in doing this picture with Bob Mitchum?”
  I said, “I’d love to, Howard. I love Bob, you know that, I worked with him and I’d love to work with him again.”
  He said, “Well then, all right, but you’d have to wear Lizbeth Scott’s wardrobe. You leave next Tuesday.”
  “All right.”
  “You have anything else to tell me?”
  I said, “No, I don’t think so.”
  “You liar, you’re pregnant! You’re knocked up!”
  I said, “Am I?”
  “Yes!”
  I said, “I didn’t know, they haven’t called me yet. I did take a test, but I haven’t gotten the result of the test yet.”
  “Well, I got it, and you’re knocked up.”

from Movies Were Also Magical by Leo Verswijver

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Some events I'm doing

May 23rd: with The White Review at Outpost Gallery, Norwich
May 26th: launch of Headless at Open School East, Haggerston
June 18th: with Laura Van Den Berg at Daunt Books, Chelsea

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A preview of the novel I'm working on, from an illustration in Popular Mechanics, April 1931:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Excitability is a natural, physical property of nerve cells. In every neuron, the membrane potential undergoes ceaseless fluctuations in voltage. Those fluctuations are due in large part to the random release of vesicles of neurotransmitters at some of the neuron synapses. In the final analysis, this randomness arises fron thermal noise, whitch constantly rocks and rolls our mollecules around. One would think that evolution would minimize the impact of this noize, as engineers do in digital chips, when they set very distinct voltages for 0s and 1s that thermal noise cannot offset them. Not so in the brain: neurons not only tolerate noise but even amplify it – probably because some degree of randomness is helpful in many situations where we search for an optimal solution to a complex problem.

Whenever a neuron's membrane fluctuations exceed a threshold level, a spike is emitted. Our simulations show that these random spikes can be shaped by the vast sets of connections that link neurons into columns, assemblies, and circuits, until a global activity pattern emerges. What starts out as local noise ends up as a structured avalanche of spontaneous activity that corresponds to our covert thoughts and goals. It is humbling to think that the 'stream of consciousness,' the words and images that constantly pop up in our mind and make up the texture of our mental life, finds its ultimate origin in random spikes sculpted by the trillions of synapses laid down during our lifelong maturation and education."

from Consciousness and the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Geese with their exceptional eyesight and wide field of vision, combined with their strident voices, make excellent guards against approaching strangers or predators since outsiders cannot calm them into silence. This was shown in 390 BC, when Rome was attacked by Gallic troops. It was the alertness of the holy geese housed in the temple of the city's fort that allowed the defenders to wake in time to resist the attacking enemy. Today, in the high Andes, Southeast Asia and many other places, geese replace guard dogs. In Europe, they are used to guard whiskey warehouses and sensitive military installations."

Saturday, March 07, 2015

From the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the adjective "ebon":
Pretty humiliating for Elizabethan poet Giles Fletcher that this mistake is still in the dictionary 420 years later.

One of the only other uses of the phrase "ebon thighs" that I could find is in this collection of (vile but interesting) racist satirical poems about the alleged sexual relationship between President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.

Friday, March 06, 2015

"Metallic siege money of Leyden [was] struck in 1574 from a round coin die onto a diamond shaped silver planchet. As the supply of silver available for coinage dried up during the siege, Leyden continued to mint coins made from paper torn from prayer books. These cardboard 'notes' became the first paper money to appear in the Western world. Prior to this only the Chinese used paper money."

from "Siege Notes" by John E. Sandrock


"The latest use of leather for regal currency in Europe appears to be that of Russia. From about the eighth century onwards, as the commerce of that country expanded, and the supply of hides for exchange or barter purposes failed to keep pace with the monetary requirements of the people, the use of whole skins was discontinued, and skin snouts, ears and claws were substituted. These, in turn, gave place to pieces of skin or leather, which at first were of irregular shape about an inch square in size, but were afterwards issued in a circular form, and impressed with the government stamp. They continued in use until the reform of the currency in the latter part of the reign of Peter the Great, who died in 1725."

from "Leather Currency" by William Charlton

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Glow has now been published in the US! "Virtuosic," says the LA Times.

Incidentally, those of you who've already read Glow may remember a mention of Linnaeus' horologium florae or flower clock. This weekend the New York Times' Michael Tortorello has published a wonderfully thorough article on that subject, in which I am briefly quoted.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

On the use of beheadings by the Zetas drug cartel in Mexico, from El Narco by Ioan Grillo:

"It is still unclear exactly what inspired such brutality. Many point to the influence of the Guatemalan Kaibiles working in the Zetas. In the Guatemalan civil war, troops cut off heads of captured rebels in front of villagers to terrify them from joining a leftist insurgency. Turning into mercenaries in Mexico, the Kaibiles might have reprised their trusted tactic to terrify enemies of the cartel. Other point to the influence of Al Qaeda decapitation videos from the Middle East, which were shown in full on some Mexican TV channels. Some anthropologists even point to the pre-Colombian use of beheadings and the way Mayans used them to show complete domination of their enemies."