WRB—Mar. 8, 2023
A total system of perception and language
By nightfall the WRB would be reporting devastation.
To do list:
avail yourself of our world-famous classified ads, either by placing or responding to one;
What, are you not gonna read the Justin Smith on drugs piece?
[Many years ago I took a seminar on the work of Michael Polyani from a philosophy professor nearing retirement. The course started out in a fairly straightforward manner, marching through Polyani’s (frankly half-baked) critiques of positivism and critical philosophy, but by a few weeks, in a progression which you can track in my margin notes in my copy of Personal Knowledge (1958), our professor began assuming a more and more mystical tone about the importance of the material, going on at length speculating about a friendship (for which there is no evidence) the Hungarian philosopher might have had with C.S. Lewis, drawing stranger and stranger comparisons to the study of Polyani’s work and Lectio Divina, and, memorably, spending whole classes talking about the dubious work of Carlos Castaneda. —Chris] Daniel Miller looks back on 50 years of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yanqui Way of Knowledge in The Critic:
A religious critique of modernity was precisely what was at stake. The first edition of The Teachings included a foreword by anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, which framed the book “as both ethnography and allegory”. Castaneda, Goldschmidt argued, had performed a virtuoso demonstration of “the essential skill of the good ethnographer — the capacity to enter into an alien world”. Except this world wasn’t the world of the Yaqui, but the world Castaneda called “non-ordinary reality”: the world of his non-ordinary protagonist.
There was somebody behind don Juan. In 1960 a native informant had supplied Castaneda with previously unknown information about the ceremonial use of datura, which he presented in an academic paper he wrote soon after starting at UCLA. It would have been almost impossible for him to have come up with it independently. In The Teachings this information appears in a speech a year later, however, after Castaneda has already encountered peyote. This was also his point: what was important wasn’t empirical facts, but a world in which empirical facts cease to matter.
“The voice of don Juan has always been with us,” Joyce Carol Oates recognised. Castaneda didn’t invent him, but rather summoned him in order to focus his own disordered drives.
We haven’t read the new Patricia Lockwood thing in The Atlantic yet, but we assume many of you will be keen to, so here it is: “I Actually Went to the Lighthouse: Searching for Virginia Woolf on the Isle of Skye”
Two from the new issue of The New Yorker:
Here, though, the implication is that we can read people without reducing them to a type. Owen Darvish loves to watch his wife “take that caricature and refine it, improving the likeness, adding depth and subtlety, shading it in.” Although not an optimistic book, Birnam Wood suggests that the greatest spook technology of all remains human love, with all its presumptive qualities, and that no external approximation will ever beat it at its game. There are things you just won’t know about other people, even if you intercept every text and every e-mail, unless you have loved them for a long time. There are gambles you are willing to take, acts of heroism and trust you are willing to commit to, because you know that you know them.
As for whether those acts matter, Birnam Wood, like all good books, doesn’t supply an answer.
And Parul Sehgal reviews Jenny Odell’s new book about time management (Saving Time, out yesterday):
Odell’s signal question is to ask whose time is being devalued. I began to respond in the margins, faintly at first, and then with despair. Whose time is being devalued? Mine, I wrote. Of all the “overlapping temporalities” Odell attends to, the one she seems indifferent to is the time unspooling within her book. A writer, after all, is in the business of taking up time; time is her medium. It is not an unusual experience to feel that one’s time has been misused by a book, but it is novel, and particularly vexing, to feel that one’s time has been misused by a passionate denunciation of the misuse of time—and by a writer who invokes the act of reading to illustrate the very attention she enshrines. “This is real,” she writes in How to Do Nothing: “Your eyes reading this text, your hands, your breath, the time of day, the place where you are reading this—these things are real.”
Very often, problems of style and pacing are actually problems of thinking, and here is where one difficulty of Saving Time lies.
For The Walrus, Elisabeth de Mariaffi reviews Steven Heighton’s forthcoming, posthumous book of stories (Instructions for the Drowning, April):
While every good story has a turn—a place where the reader is blindsided and the narrative moves off in a new direction—the stories in Instructions all turn as sharply as sonnets. Any poet enjoys constraint, but Heighton is also a formalist and is formal in his unpredictability—especially here. Because the final turn in “The Stages of J. Gordon Whitehead” is not the appearance of the reporter; it is the appearance of Heighton himself, the writer.
In the epilogue scene, Heighton suddenly swaps genres. We leave the story and its setting behind and instead find ourselves in a memoir.
“I Was Wrong to Buy This Notebook, Very Wrong”: What a great opening line! [I have never not regretted buying notebook just a little. —Chris] Joy Castro in LARB on a new translation by Ann Goldstein of “a classic domestic novel by the Italian-Cuban feminist writer Alba de Céspedes” (Forbidden Notebook; 1952, 2023):
Other moments of unreliability are less sympathetic, and de Céspedes relies upon her reader to know more than the novel spells out. Like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which expects readers to know not only Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) but also the fate of the Caribbean under European colonialism, Forbidden Notebook expects readers to realize that “the war in Africa,” from which Valeria’s husband had written her romantic letters, is Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, and that the moment “when he wore the uniform again, in 1940,” is World War II. Valeria reflects only on the impact of her husband’s absence upon her personal life, revealing an insularity and willed refusal to confront the political culpability of her own nation.
Not a lot going on right now! [I’m going to cook this stew for my houseguests this week. —Chris]
March 14 | Coffee House Press
The Nature Book
by Tom Comitta
From the publisher: What does our nature writing say about us, and more urgently, what would it say without us? Tom Comitta investigates these questions and more in The Nature Book, a “literary supercut” that arranges writing about the natural world from three hundred works of fiction into a provocative re-envisioning of the novel. With fiction’s traditional background of flora and fauna brought to the fore, people and their structures disappear, giving center stage to animals, landforms, and weather patterns—honored in their own right rather than for their ambient role in human drama. The Nature Book challenges the confines of anthropocentrism with sublime artistic vision, traversing mountains, forests, oceans, and space to shift our attention toward the magnificently complex and interconnected world around us.
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