WRB—Mar. 4, 2023
Reading and rereading in the widening gyre
The WRB does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything the Managing Editors have taught me, and continue to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.
To do list:
avail yourself of our world-famous classified ads, either by placing or responding to one;
“Ecologically, the loss of the bison coincided with the loss of the prairie. Humanly, it coincided with the near loss of native cultures and ways of life, contributing to generations of economic and social disadvantage for those growing up on Great Plains reservations. As the bison went, so went the West.” Nathan Beacom in Plough on megafauna matters out west.
Gravity’s Rainbow is 50 this week:
Gravity’s Rainbow is, in many ways, a relic. It’s not that there aren’t books with similarly self-assured ambition still being published (there are plenty); it’s that the kind of wide-reaching critical scrutiny that emerged around Pynchon, a writer who’d only published three novels (I personally own seven books about him that all came out before he published his fourth), and the general curiosity of the public, who made it a brief bestseller, feel positively old-fashioned. The fact that a madcap postmodern novel by some beatnik Joyce would have such influence and fascination is the true relic.
But as I read it for the second time, I wasn’t thinking about the 70s or the 40s. I was thinking about today, right now, and wondering how it was that Pynchon saw forward into the future. Tucked into an inscrutable tome about wars and rocketry and Pavlov and entropy—and which, by the way, doesn’t even take place in America—lie some of the origins of our present political reality
One of the things that separated the novelists of Pynchon’s generation from those that preceded them was that they were the first to have grown up on theory. One of these theorists was Northrop Frye, whose interpretative frameworks showed the cyclical-interconnection of all narratives, and presented themselves, with geometric elegance, as a key to all mythologies. (Don’t Frye’s diagrams look like targets, or rocket bottoms?) The other was Marshall McLuhan, the guru who spoke the mythical idiom of modern tech and identified its traumatizing effects, as well as its potential to become a tissue for a kind of global consciousness. And it was out of this same 60s spiritualist milieu, which Pynchon wrote so much about, that the founders of Silicon Valley (the real Raketen-Stadt of our world) hatched the techno-capitalist dream of total connectivity.
But it would be wrong to suggest that Gravity’s Rainbow is a scholastic text, the kind of book you need to have read reams of criticism in order to “get.” Indeed, it is the opposite: a book that should be approached with zero assistance.
for Pynchon, the switch to a quasi- Dostoevskian realism is just the exception that proves the rule, the clinching demonstration that no narrative style is excluded from this author’s playbook.
In the final analysis, this very all-inclusiveness stands out as the most salient characteristic of Pynchon’s novel. The postmodern impulse to allow all styles, all contents to mix and mingle, to rub shoulders no matter how foreign their origins, finds its most complete realization in this big book, which respect no boundaries, knows no limits. Such a project is ultimately bound to produce vertigo among its readers, and disappoint those who are seeking some unifying vision, some holistic stance behind it all.
The unorthodox Sinology of Simon Leys, by Michael Sheridan for Engelsberg Ideas.
Fuccboi and The Delivery seem to be premised on a cynical understanding of the twenty-first century experience of time. In place of an ideal reader, minigraphs posit an addled reader capable of reading only in quick spurts between subway stops, Zoom meetings, or key bumps of digital content. Of the two novels, Mendelsund’s is the more anxious about this sorry state of affairs. The Delivery’s minigraphs are separated by horizontal lines which, like the ticks of a clock, split time into intelligible subunits. Mendelsund’s hero, in his constant race against the clock, has an adversarial relationship to time; he is most at ease when running ahead of it, as when he sits daydreaming on the curb above a storm drain glugging a stream of runoff. The novel’s metafictional denouement, with its sudden swell of paragraphs and Proustian run-ons, represents an attempt to escape from this lifeless, regimented time—yet it registers as a failed attempt, however heroic. No hope, in this book, of time regained in the Proustian sense.
Two in The Nation:
In contrast with their recalcitrant narrators, each of these novels has a certain unresolved quality, a minuteness that gestures at the world beyond these particularly small lives. They read less like typical stories than accumulations of carefully curated incidents—portraits, not narratives. There are no crowbarred revelations or righteous speeches. Our narrators do not change their lives or repair their relationships. This gives them the ring of reality, as if each novel were a series of brief excerpts from a longer life story, necessarily incomplete.
And Glory Liu on two books on ballet being a rather difficult thing to be involved in (What You Become in Flight: A Memoir, 2020; Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet, February) [Two ballet links this week! Wow! —Chris]:
Ballet is full of contradictions. The dancer must take every effort to make everything look effortless. Repetition and ritual are, as Robb notes, the source of an extreme sense of escape and sense of control. “Even as the trappings of ballet—the competition, the impossible physical standards, the punishing hours—can be a source of profound anxiety and distress,” she writes, “ballet itself—the movement, the music, the choreography—is simultaneously a salve for these emotions.”
The discipline required of ballet is more than just a source of tension or admiration. Discipline is productive: It quite literally creates the dancer. Reading these two accounts of the rituals of training, it is hard not to think of Foucault’s notion of discipline in Discipline and Punish, which “produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile bodies.’” Discipline seeks to enhance the dancer’s body as a set of capacities and aptitudes—sharper dégagés, higher extensions, loftier grand jetés—while simultaneously rendering a form of power and control over its subject.
The Waste Land has a way of shucking off new anatomies, even very good ones. By that I mean that it is so seductive in the rhythms and sequences it imprints in us (in me) over decades that we reflexively revert to our familiar responses. We always know what is coming next (the neurasthenic lady or Mr. Eugenides), so that the poem sings out its lines and we are unable to stop them long enough to apply some new corrective analysis that would make them deeper, more lucid and understandable. This is not the case when we reread a lyric by Yeats or Frost and are “schooled” in some revisory way.
[Clark says in that Esquire piece above, “Fifty years ago, Gravity’s Rainbow was like its own little internet.” Similar: “My heuristic, that we are living through the early ’70s with worse music, remains unbeaten.”]
Into the Woods is playing at the Kennedy Center through March 19.
March 7 | Norton
From the publisher: Phosphorus has played a critical role in some of the most lethal substances on earth: firebombs, rat poison, nerve gas. But it’s also the key component of one of the most vital: fertilizer, which has sustained life for billions of people. In this major work of explanatory science and environmental journalism, Pulitzer Prize finalist Dan Egan investigates the past, present, and future of what has been called “the oil of our time.”
The story of phosphorus spans the globe and vast tracts of human history. First discovered in a seventeenth-century alchemy lab in Hamburg, it soon became a highly sought-after resource. The race to mine phosphorus took people from the battlefields of Waterloo, which were looted for the bones of fallen soldiers, to the fabled guano islands off Peru, the Bone Valley of Florida, and the sand dunes of the Western Sahara. Over the past century, phosphorus has made farming vastly more productive, feeding the enormous increase in the human population. Yet, as Egan harrowingly reports, our overreliance on this vital crop nutrient is today causing toxic algae blooms and “dead zones” in waterways from the coasts of Florida to the Mississippi River basin to the Great Lakes and beyond. Egan also explores the alarming reality that diminishing access to phosphorus poses a threat to the food system worldwide—which risks rising conflict and even war.
With The Devil’s Element, Egan has written an essential and eye-opening account that urges us to pay attention to one of the most perilous but little-known environmental issues of our time.
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