Friday, April 11, 2008

Architect and Loop

Willow and Pond

Nothing in the hopper, “pretty vacant,” foul play suspect’d with my good intent. That kind of morning, and wet. Vague accetta uprisings in the brainstem region. (That’s Italian for hatchet, or for urp up. Some kind of unsettlement catapulting forth all kinds of untenables.) I read, I think, not four words last night, squib’d fewer.

John Dos Passos, in a fierce introductory brief for a 1932 Modern Library edition of Three Soldiers, after having pinch’d off the false buds of many a reason to write (“A novel is a commodity that fulfills a certain need; people need to buy daydreams like they need to buy icecream or aspirin or gin”), most succinctly with “Writing for money is as silly as writing for selfexpression”:
I think there is such a thing as straight writing. A cabinet maker enjoys cutting a dovetail because he’s a cabinet maker, every type of work has its own vigor inherent in it. The mind of a generation is its speech. A writer makes aspects of that speech enduring by putting them in print. He whittles at the words and phrases of today and makes of them forms to set the mind of tomorrow’s generation. That’s history. A writer who writes straight is the architect of history.
Considering, did William Carlos Williams read Dos Passos? (Another reason to read novelists: possibility that the vigorous beasts’d arrive at things in advance of some of us poor trepidatious and fey poet-types with our comminuted bits of high-preciosity?) Dos Passos continues:
What I’m trying to get out is the difference in kind between the work of James Joyce, say, and that of any current dispenser of daydreams. It’s not that Joyce produces for the highbrow and the other for the lowbrow trade, it’s that Joyce is working with speech straight and so dominating the machine of production, while the daydream artist is merely feeding the machine, like a girl in a sausage factory shoving hunks of meat into the hopper. Whoever can run the machine runs it for all of us. Working with speech straight is vigorous absorbing devastating hopeless work, work that no man need be ashamed of.
Which’s got all the “manly” trademarks of the era, and with trace of Marxist theory. Against accusations of Joyce’s tendency to draw “literary snobs,” and how the work’s “a luxury product like limited editions, without influence on the mass of ordinary newspaper readers,” Dos Passos says, “The power of writing is more likely to be exercised vertically through a century than horizontally over a year’s sales.” And, in a move that may predict the late swing to rabid conservatism of Dos Passos’s late (post U.S.A.) writing, he notes the twin racehorses, Current Chaos and Classic Verities and hints at that prime right-wing-trigger the fear of loss of control (“years of confusion, when everything has to be relabeled and catchwords lose their meaning from week to week”):
None of this would need saying if we didn’t happen to belong to a country and an epoch of peculiar confusion, when the average man’s susceptibility to print has been first enflamed by the misty sentimentality of school and college English teachers who substitute “good modern books” for the classics, and then atrophied by the bawling of publishers’ barkers over every new piece of rubbish dished up between boards. We write today for the first American generation not brought up on the Bible, and nothing as yet has taken its place as a literary discipline.
Insert to-be-assembled speculations and innuendoes (based on examinations of control needs as evidenced by public doings and statements) as to what writers of the current “crop” ’ll age badly à la Dos Passos, drifting ever right.

A line stumbled on in a Campbell McGrath poem about “tourists with digital camcorders / pre-editing their memories.” Choosing in advance what’ll be recall’d: why do I find that terribly spooky, viscerally so?


Je commençais d’écrire une Ode à la Police
et une Apothéose du couperet.
                          —Albert Camus, La Chute

The way the chopper descends
With initial hesitant vibratory rattle
Mimicks imperfectly the tousle of
Sand accelerating into a liquid
Stream out of its particulate
Solid insusceptibility and inertia to
Rush down through the narrows
Of the hourglass: that is one
Beauty of the blade hoist’d
Up high above the hole
Wherein one’s head is stuff’d
Brusquely as a cabbage, and
Kept still with a yoke,
Final burden, leaving one free
To listen for the rattle
And, inevitably, the rancid thump
(Moldy worm-infest’d wheel of
Cheese) of that head, hearing
Itself hit the basket provided.

Off into hinterlands south, east, a vagary big loop. Jusqu’à mercredi, mes potes.

Tina Modotti, “John Dos Passos,” 1926

“Dos Passos traveled to Mexico in late 1926 to research articles for the radical magazine,
New Masses, which espoused political and social views Modotti ardently shared. It was sometime during this visit that she took this snapshot, later identifying Dos Passos by name on the front of the photograph.”