Sunday, May 31, 2020

"Touching but meaningless" or "meaningless but touching" – in search of a phrase from W. G. Sebald

After coincidences, I quote W. G. Sebald – "touching but meaningless" – or was it "meaningless but touching"? And where did Sebald say that? This morning, a search for the German, "bedeutungslos aber berührend", led me to a blog post by Pierre Joris – with the "Austerlitz" quotation in a comment I myself had written! Anthea Bell translated this as "entirely insignificant in itself but nonetheless [...] curiously moving", so I could now start saying "insignificant but moving". But while both "insignificant" and "meaningless" work for me, I prefer how "touching" makes the experience of coincidence a matter of sensation, of the sense of touch. These distinctions are themselves perhaps "insignificant" but still "touching". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 31 May)


Im Verlauf meiner weiteren Beschäftigung mit den Skizzenbüchern und dem Leben Turners bin ich dann auf die an sich völlig bedeutungslose, mich aber nichtsdestoweniger eigenartig berührende Tatsache gestoßen, dass er, Turner, im Jahr 1798, auf einer Landfahrt durch Wales, auch an der Mündung des Mawddach gewesen ist und dass er zu jener Zeit genauso alt war wie ich bei dem Begräbnis von Cutiau. (W. G. Sebald, "Austerlitz")


During my subsequent studies of Turner's life and his sketchbooks I discovered the fact, entirely insignificant in itself but nonetheless one I found curiously moving, that in 1798 he, Turner, had himself visited the estuary of the Mawddach on a journey through Wales, and that at the time he was exactly the same age as I was at the funeral in Cutiau. (translation by Anthea Bell)

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Dehumanization without dehumanizing language: "I'm going to tell them there's an African-American man threatening my life"

"I'm going to tell them there's an African-American man threatening my life", said Amy Cooper to Christian Cooper in Central Park on Monday, 25 May. If "African-American" is a neutral term, then in doing the racist thing – calling the police when "an African-American man" challenged her – she repeatedly used language that isn't considered racist at all. She was able to appeal to structural racism without offensive language. One of Terrance Hayes's "American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin" imagines how "[e]ven the most kindhearted white woman" could "chant inwardly" along to the n-word in hiphop. She might then angrily use it – but Amy Cooper didn't. Dehumanization doesn't require dehumanizing language. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 30 May)


Friday, May 29, 2020

Forms in Dickinson's "After great pain"

With its iambic pentameter and AABB rhymes, the first stanza of Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" reads like heroic couplets. Its discursiveness could even fit into an imaginary Alexander Pope poem, "Essay on Pain". The second stanza then shifts to five iambic lines of 4, 2, 3, 2, and 4 feet, with internal rather than end rhymes. But if the stanza had followed them as AABB, it would have had iambic lines of 4, 3, 4, and 4 feet, with the unexpected four feet in the last line disrupting the common meter. The poem's "formal feeling", then, is a feeling for forms being explored for "great pain". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 29 May)

Earlier posts on this poem: first and second.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Wrapping up the "111 Words" course

Today is the last day that the students in my course "111 Words a Day: A Writing Project" have to write their daily text. Their writing has developed incredibly quickly in the course of the past 14 weeks. After I had gone over some of their early texts to highlight ways to make their writing more precise, concise, clear, and convincing, the daily practice led them to a wonderful combination of those goals and their increasingly individual styles. If they can take what they've learned from this project and apply their newly developed skills and styles to their papers for the university, then the course will have been a complete success. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 28 May)

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

"The stiff Heart questions" in Dickinson's "After great pain"

The third line of Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" does not settle into the steady iambic pentameter the second line seems to have established but returns to a variation on the stress pattern of the first line: "The stiff Heart questions" does not reproduce the initial troche of line one, but the second foot is again a spondee. The heart's questioning is thus linked to the "great pain" of the first line: it may come after that pain, as the "formal feeling" does in general, but that feeling has to return to the form it first gave to the pain in order to formulate its "stiff questions". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 27 May)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

After "After great pain"

"After great pain, a formal feeling comes": after the comma in the first line of Emily Dickinson's poem are three iambic feet. But before that, "after" has first-syllable stress, so the first foot is a trochee. One can experiment with the stress of "great pain" (as I just did while writing this), but only one reading makes sense: a spondee, with both syllables equally stressed. As the next line continues with the iambic pattern of the end of the first line, the poem's own "formal feeling" – its "mechanical feet", to paraphrase the fifth line – is only established after the phrase "after great pain". That is, the form acts out the content. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 26 May)

Monday, May 25, 2020

Getting out of one's chair in Virginia Woolf short stories – or not

In Virginia Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall", the narrator never gets up from her chair to identify that mark. In "The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection", "one" also never gets up to see outside without the help of the mirror. But in "A Haunted House", "one" puts down one's book and gets up to see what's haunting the house. If this search is at first as fruitless as the narrator of "The Mark on the Wall" expects such projects to be, a first-person speaker later wakes up and understands what the ghosts were communicating to her. An answer is found – but not because one gets up from one's chair. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 25 May)

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Reading John Ashbery for two-and-a-half years

On 14 October 2017, I read John Ashbery's poem "Two Scenes", which opens his 1956 debut "Some Trees", and posted a quotation from it on Twitter and Facebook: "From every corner comes a distinctive offering." From then until today, with only a few missed days, I have been reading and posting quotations from the two volumes of Ashbery in the Library of America editions, and today I read and quoted from "The Lyricist", the last previously uncollected poem at the end of "Collected Poems 1991-2000": "So I was bewildered, OK?" It's been wonderful to follow the development of Ashbery's "distinctive offerings" and be pleasantly "bewildered" by their humor "from every corner". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 24 May)

Saturday, May 23, 2020

"Le Livre des Questions," by Edmond Jabès

I began reading Edmond Jabès' "Le Livre des Questions" in October, 2018, in a one-volume edition of its three books, a few lines or pages a day, occasionally with a few days without picking it up. I'd read the first book in Rosmarie Waldrop's translation back in the 1980s and was delighted to return to Jabès' unique style. I finished it a few days ago, but I also recently discovered that there is another one-volume edition of four more books that also belong to this series! I'll return to it someday, but for now, for my French reading, I've decided to turn to a giant anthology of French poetry from 1960-2010. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 23 May)

Friday, May 22, 2020

The authoritarian mind in Virginia Woolf's "Solid Objects"

In Virginia Woolf's 1920 short story "Solid Objects", the movement of John's mind from his moment of immediacy with a "lump" of beach glass to the return of mediation in the form of kitsch as he imagines possible origins for the "gem" resembles the workings of movements emerging when the story was published. First, history and politics are rejected in favor of a direct experience of the world beyond all partisan interests; then, the desire for an origin story arises to fill the gap left behind by that rejection; finally, history and politics return in their simplest forms with heroes stripped of tragedy and authoritarian leaders of the whole "imagined community". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 22 May)

[A continuation of my previous post on "Solid Objects", which was a continuation of my first such post, so that makes three in all.]

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Kafka, translator of Joyce

In 1931, the Frankfurter Zeitung published a story attributed to James Joyce, but it was actually by Michael Joyce. The newspaper blamed the translator; the translator blamed her secretary; even Michael wrote James an apology. The translator's name was Irene Kafka. In part because of my course this term (Joyce, Kafka, Woolf), I tried to find out some things about her: she lived in Vienna; she translated French and English literature, including Julien Green and Agatha Christie; she might have been a cousin of Franz Kafka. And as these stories end all too often in Central Europe in the early part of the twentieth century, she died in Ravensbrück in 1942. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 21 May)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

From immediacy to kitsch in "Solid Objects"

As John in Virginia Woolf's "Solid Objects" digs into the sand, he discovers a "lump of glass" he finds fascinating. When he wonders about its origin, he imagines it is "really a gem" that could have been "worn by a dark princess" or an emerald from "a sunk Elizabethan treasure-chest." So with his focus on unmediated experience, the only origin story he can imagine is a generic romance or adventure. At the same time, the political world that John just "damned" returns through the royalty of the Princess and through the era named after its Queen. Instead of a "background of thought and experience", he's left with aesthetic and political kitsch. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 20 May)

[A continuation from the previous post on "Solid Objects“.]

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

"An inscrutable depth" and a "clear transparent surface" in Virginia Woolf's "Solid Objects"

In Virginia Woolf's "Solid Objects", the young politician John's first words are a dismissal of his profession: "Politics be damned!" When he then "burrows" his hand into the sand of the beach he's on, the expression in his eyes changes:  "[...] the background of thought and experience which gives an inscrutable depth to the eyes of grown people disappeared, leaving only the clear transparent surface, expressing nothing but wonder, which the eyes of young children display." As John "damns" the "inscrutable" world of adulthood, of politics and history, he experiences a childlike "wonder" unmediated by any "background". But this apolitical, "surface" immediacy only leads to the return of "depth" as kitsch. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 19 May)

Monday, May 18, 2020

"It is the wish of the majority to arm themselves with the weapons of the minority"

"It is the wish of the majority to arm themselves with the weapons of the minority," writes Natascha Strobl, a political scientist who specializes in right-wing extremism. In one example that immediately crossed my mind when I read Strobl's aphorism, white Americans respond to accusations of racism by claiming that people of color are the actual racists. Further, Strobl's observation clarifies why anti-lockdown protestors keep stylizing themselves as oppressed people and comparing themselves to those murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The majority sees the "minority" as using the concept of oppression as a "weapon" to defend themselves, so they pick up that weaponto challenge whatever threatens their majority status. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 18 May)


Es ist der Wunsch der Mehrheit sich mit den Waffen der Minderheit zu bewaffnen. (Natascha Strobl)

Sunday, May 17, 2020

"Corona is spread invisibly through the air"

The flyer in my mailbox says that coronavirus is "the biggest lie in the world". All the demonstrators around the world seem to agree, and they might well share the flyer's xenophobia: "Corona was introduced by foreigners and asylum seekers!" But this particular variant has a local spin unlikely in Lansing or London: "Basel pharma companies are behind it!" Apparently, Roche and Novartis introduced the virus to make money with a vaccine. So many of the flyer's statements are absurd that it even makes something true sound like paranoia: "Corona is spread invisibly through the air." – Yes, and the viruses of xenophobia and fascism are spread visibly by flyers into mailboxes. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 17 May)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

"If only in one line of unwritten poetry" (Virginia Woolf, "The Waves")

On his way home from boarding school for the summer, Louis in Virginia Woolf's "The Waves" imagines resisting the transience of his individual life with poetry. Even just one unwritten line would position the passing moment in the grand sweep of history all the way back to Egypt. With poetry, he can imagine the Egyptian women who "carried red pitchers to the Nile"; if he could transform his train journey into a poem, then his experience "in a third-class railway carriage full of boys going home for the holidays" would also be part of that shared, imaginable history – one in which, apparently, the women work and the men go on journeys. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 16 May)


I should be transient as the shadow on the meadow, soon fading, soon darkening and dying there where it meets the wood, were it not that I coerce my brain to form in my forehead; I force myself to state, if only in one line of unwritten poetry, this moment; to mark this inch in the long, long history that began in Egypt, in the time of the Pharaohs, when women carried red pitchers to the Nile. I seem already to have lived many thousand years. But if I now shut my eyes, if I fail to realize the meeting-place of past and present, that I sit in a third-class railway carriage full of boys going home for the holidays, human history is defrauded of a moment's vision. (Virginia Woolf, "The Waves")

Friday, May 15, 2020

"Did someone think we didn't have souls?"

In Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go," the Hailsham teachers send the best art by the pupils to a mysterious "Gallery". Only as adults do Kathy H. and her friend Tommy D. find out why: "We took away your art [...] to prove you had souls at all." Kathy is puzzled: "Did someone think we didn't have souls?" – The Hailsham students are clones raised to be organ donors, and the "normal people" deny their humanity. And works of art created by the dehumanized will never be accepted as proof they have souls. Or in coronavirus terms, who is being dehumanized to justify the sacrifice of their lives for the community's survival? (Andrew Shields, #111words, 15 May)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

If I were as tall as they?

The first two lines of Emily Dickinson's "Will there really be a 'morning'" (148) establish trochaic tetrameter as the poem's meter (with the final unstressed syllable of the second line omitted to form a "tailless" or "catalectic" line). The next two lines can easily be read the same way in a fairly neutral tone. Yet in both lines, the opening trochee could also be inverted to put a quite convincing stress on "I" that implies that the speaker wonders if she, too, could do what others do. This alternative emphasis adds a personal urgency to the question that reflects back on the first two and makes them seem less neutral, too. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 14 May)


Will there really be a "morning"?

Is there such a thing as "Day"?

Could I see it from the mountains

If I were as tall as they?

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Medicines or Natural Remedies?

A pharmacy in Basel had a sign in their window: "Medikamente oder Naturheilmittel?" – "Medicines or Natural Remedies": This choice is also a sales pitch to appeal both to those who prefer "medicine" and those who prefer "complementary and alternative medicine", which would include such "natural means of healing" (to translate each word in that German compound). The provision of "alternatives" makes the pharmacy look open-minded, of course. But if this alternative obscures how any "natural remedy" can always be reclassified as "medicine" as soon its efficacy and safety have actually been demonstrated, it also betrays the fact that marketing, not medicine, is the essence of the "natural remedy" or "alternative medicine". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 13 May)

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

A trip to the Embassy with "1984"

I took the train to Bern this morning to renew my passport at the U. S. Embassy. The security requirements there restrict what you can take inside – no laptops, for example, and no backpacks, with no lockers to store things while you're inside. So all I had was my wallet, my phone, a charger for it on the train, and a small cloth bag with my documents. On the train there, I read "1984" on my phone, and I finished it on my way back. The security experience was nothing like Orwell, though – and I did not return to Basel with anything resembling Winston Smith's final realization: "He loved Big Brother." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 12 May)

Monday, May 11, 2020

Who's afraid of going to work?

People in "essential" jobs have continued working during the coronavirus pandemic – often with little or no access to testing and protective gear. Despite their fears of contracting the virus, many cannot afford to leave their jobs. As Kevin Hassett says, “It is scary to go to work. [...] I think that I’d be a lot safer if I was sitting at home [...]." But Hassett is not an "essential" worker on the "front lines" of the "war against" coronavirus – he is a Senior Adviser to President Trump who has called for "the economy" to re-open quickly, and he has access to testing and face masks (which he only wears "at times"). (Andrew Shields, #111words, 11 May)


Sunday, May 10, 2020

Virginia Woolf and the wandering imagination in "The Mark on the Wall"

While the narrator of Virginia Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall" wonders whether an unusual "mark on the wall" is a nail, a hole, or something else, she wanders through long trains of associations. When she considers getting up to check, she rejects the idea first because she couldn't "say for certain" and later because she can't see what she'd "gain". When she exhorts herself, her mind still wanders into questions: "I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is – a nail, a rose-leaf, a crack in the wood?" Only when someone complains about the "snail" on the wall does her imaginative wandering end. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 10 May)

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Keep moving

Keep the economy burning, keep it moving, keep money moving from account to account, keep moving resources around to be burned up, keep the people moving around and crossing each others' paths, keep everything moving so that the economy keeps moving, don't stop moving to keep a virus from moving, keep producing produce, keep producing waste, keep producing carbon dioxide to produce produce and products and waste, keep everything moving even when so many people are dying – and that is the link to climate catastrophe, which also follows from an economy that always has to keep everything in motion, people, produce, resources, fossil-fuel vehicles, even when a virus is moving, too. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 9 May)

Friday, May 08, 2020

Fortune I do not want: Emma and "inducements to marry"

Jane Austen's Emma turns up the rhetoric when she tells Harriet Smith about her attitude toward marriage: "Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want [...]." The preposed objects and the epistrophe hammer home Emma's clarification of why she has "none of the usual inducements of women to marry": she's already wealthy; she already has plenty to do; she already has high status. But all this rhetoric is also over-insistence, especially when she later finds a man to marry who offers more of all the "inducements" she says she does not "want". She may not have lacked them, but ultimately, she did want them. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 8 May)

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Reopening schools without consulting schoolchildren

Throughout the discussion of reopening Swiss kindergartens, primary schools, and middle schools on Monday, one voice has been absent: schoolchildren themselves. Perhaps it's too much to ask kids in primary school to participate in such a discussion, but children attending middle school in Basel are 12 to 15 years old, and it wouldn't be hard to find a small but significant number of teens who have read and absorbed more about the coronavirus than most adults, including the politicians, educators, and parents now making decisions for them. At the very least, the schoolchildren's concerns should've been heard before re-opening educational institutions to give them somewhere to go while their parents work. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 7 May)

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Saved from experience in Juana Adcock's "The Serpent Dialogues"

The woman in Juana Adcock's "The Serpent Dialogues" talks with a snake, but one day the snake stops coming to visit her, and she begins to keep a diary. On day 27, shortly before the snake finally returns, she writes about "reaching for my phone as a form of / noise or interference, like wanting / to be saved from experiencing this instant / with all its beautiful and devastating aloneness". The potentially beautiful experience of the unique instant is replaced by the noise of the interchangeable experiences offered by the phone – but that replacement of the unique moment is also a form of salvation, in which one escapes from "devastation". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 6 May)

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Poetry preserves the past in "1984"

When Winston Smith in George Orwell's "1984" returns to the shop where he bought his diary, the shopkeeper recites an old rhyme: "Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's, You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St. Martin's." Winston is struck by the poem's effect: "When you said it to yourself you had the illusion of actually hearing bells, the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten." These verses about old London churches contain not only the history but also the past atmosphere of the city. Even in half-remembered fragments, poetry preserves the past against the Ministry of Truth's erasure. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 5 May)

Monday, May 04, 2020

My January 20 is May 4

Georg Büchner's "Lenz" begins with a date: "On January 20, Lenz walked through the mountains." In his Büchner Prize speech, Paul Celan made something out of that wounded date: "Every poem is inscribed with its own January 20." The poem's date is not a historical, public event but a private moment, like Lenz in the mountains (which becomes public and historical only when Büchner makes it literature). But the January 20 inscribed in my poems is actually May 4, a date both historical and private: the date of the Kent State shootings in 1970 (50th anniversary this year), and the date in 1982 when I first lost a friend to suicide. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 4 May)

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Texts and Instrumental passages in Grateful Dead songs

In Grateful Dead songs, instrumental passages often contribute to the narrative or argument. In "Cassidy", the lines before the final improvisation set up the shift from words to instruments: "Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine." The return of words at the jam's end is then also thematized: "Flight of the seabirds, scattered like lost words." Other songs also conclude jams with comments on what the band just played, as in "Uncle John's Band" ("How does the song go?") and especially "Let It Grow": "What shall say, shall we call it by a name?" The preceding improvisation has no name – except perhaps the band's proper name: The Grateful Dead. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 3 May)

Saturday, May 02, 2020

On a comic comparing Austen and Hemingway

John Atkinson's comic quickly compares standard ideas about the feminine Jane Austen and the masculine Ernest Hemingway. But in Austen, sisterhood is far from always positive; etiquette is a mask for cruelty; there isn't much tea; status is as political as the "politics" in Hemingway; balls don't end in brawls but are full of verbal and psychological brutality; the novels end in marriages but only after broken engagements and rejected proposals; and war and military masculinity are pervasive. In fact, Austen explores all the themes associated with Hemingway here (even booze doesn't go untouched by her characters), and if he doesn't address "hers" themes, he's the more limited writer than Austen. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 2 May)

Friday, May 01, 2020

Extended senses of "poet" and "poetry"

In the New York Review of Books, not only does Susan Tallman refer to Gerhard Richter as "contemporary art's great poet of uncertainty", she also quotes a 1989 review in the Washington Post: "Richter wars on poetries." Despite its loss in cultural status, poetry remains a model for other art forms, and even quite far from art (as with an athlete's "poetry in motion"). But according to the OED, the extended use of "poet" appeared in1839, and the extended use of "poetry" even goes back to 1654. So "poet" and "poetry" gained their extended meanings when poetry still had a higher status, and those senses have remained in use even today.  (Andrew Shields, #111words, 1 May)
OED, poet 3b:  In extended use: an imaginative practitioner of any of the fine arts; a person working with creativity and imagination in any art form. (earliest example in 1839)
poetry, 6a: Something comparable to poetry in its beauty or emotional impact; a poetic quality of beauty and intensity of emotion; the poetic quality of something. (earliest example in 1654)