Reading Proust

August 31, 2010

“And on one of the longest walks we ever took from Combray there was a spot where the narrow road emerged suddenly on to an immense plain, closed at the horizon by strips of forest over which rose and stood alone the fine point of Saint-Hilaire’s steeple, but so sharpened and so pink that it seemed to be no more than sketched on the sky by the finger-nail of a painter anxious to give such a landscape, to so pure a piece of ‘nature,’ this little sign of art, this single indication of human existence.  As one drew near it and could make out the remains of the square tower, half in ruins, which still stood by its side, though without rivalling it in height, one was struck, first of all, by the tone, reddish and sombre, of its stones; and on a misty morning in autumn one would have called it, to see it rising above the violet thunder-cloud of the vineyards, a ruin of purple, the colour of the wild vine.”

Swann’s Way, “Combray,” p. 48 (2 vol. Random House ed., trans. Moncrieff)


Two articles in today’s Courier-Journal about Wendell Berry that might interest people.  First, Actor’s Theatre in Louisville is set to beging performing a play, Wild Blessings, based on his work.  It’s apparently “composed of 36 poems” — and hopefully will work out better than that Billy Joel musical someone slapped together a few years back.  I don’t have much to say about it, though if I weren’t leaving for snowy Chicago today I wouldn’t mind going to see it.

The second article, “Poet will step off farm to hear works read on opening night,” is a brief profile of Berry which includes these entertaining sentences:

“In addition to poetry, Berry writes essays and novels by hand and his wife assists with the typing of them. He has made a slight concession to computers. His manuscripts are copied onto disks when it’s time to send them for publication by a main press.”

 That brings to mind a Berry-esque rant about handwriting in Bringhurst’s book that I read the other day (and was trying to figure out a way to make relevant to a posting):

“Many people now cannot form legible letterforms at all except by tapping on a keyboard.  For those people, writing and the alphabet have, quite literally, ceased to be human.  How do you expect to be able to cook good food or make good love when you write with prefabricated letters?  How do you expect to have good music if you live on a typographic diet of bad Helvetica and even worse Times New Roman — never mind the parodies of letters that flash across your cellphone screens and the parodies of numbers marching over the screens of your pocket calculators and cash-dispensing machines?  How can things so ill-formed have a meaning?” (“The Typographic Mind” in Everywhere Being Is Dancing pp.217-8)

My handwriting, as described by one classmate “is either the worst-best or the best-worst handwriting I’ve ever seen” and, in the words of another, “Looks really distinguished and pretty until you actually try to figure out what it says.”  (Or, as a teacher once put it, “It’s not illegible.  It’s just difficult.”)  So I’m not quite there yet — and I certainly don’t have the hand-stamina to do what Berry does.  I don’t know: I like to think that a little bit of one’s personality comes through in handwriting, which is part of why I don’t like reading handwriting that’s blandly sloppy — when it comes across like the person writing was irritated that they had to be bothered to take the time to write something out.

The idealized image of what handwriting should be, in my mind, will always be my grandfather’s (though it has suffered a little recently as he’s aged, but it’s still more elegant than mine, and probably than mine ever will be).  He’s a retired elementary school principal, and among the many laments he has about things that are no longer taught in schools is penmanship.  (And good posture.)

I’m going to try to put together some more descriptive/cohesive thoughts on conservatism, writing, and reporting over the weekend, but for now I’ll point you toward William Beutler’s take on it from way back in May, or at least this paragraph, which is the point I particularly want to channel:

“The reaction is usually to set up an alternative forum which is defined as being explicitly conservative. The problem is that these alternative organizations often operate inside a bubble which their “liberal” counterparts do not. This can be the case beyond journalism as well. On the web we can see this very clearly: The non-partisan but in some ways “liberal” Wikipedia has been answered by the conservative-minded, low-quality Conservapedia.”

If nothing else, it seems that C11’s shuttering has reopened discussion of conservatives and reporting — not merely about politics, but about culture.  So there’s your silver-lining for the day.
In his C11 post-mortem, Joe Carter answers the question I spent five months pondering: What’s up with that name?  And why is Google unable to help me figure it out?

“In case you hadn’t heard, LibertyWire was our original name. But it didn’t fit. Even if we were to be a political site, LibertyWire didn’t convey the type of site we wanted to become. As William Beutler said, the name “sounds like an Associated Press for Ron Paul voters.” So we searched for a new name. And searched. And searched.

Choosing a domain name is a tough task; choosing a domain name that suits a crew of hardheaded and opinionated writers is nearly impossible. The suggestions ranged from the horrible (Voxtale) to the bland (MainStreetScene) to the what-were-they-thinking (The Confabulum(!)). I had been kicking around the idea that we should be focused on 11 key areas of culture (which became our 11 categories), so I suggested “Culture11.” We didn’t hate it, which was consensus enough. It was short, easy to remember, and – most importantly – the URL was available. Culture11 we became.”

I tried writing this last night, but it wasn’t clicking.  Not only am I incapable of writing two non-obits/non-elegies back-to-back, but what’s to be said in memorium has been said better than I could hope to.

I always viewed Conor’s essay, “Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism,” as something of a manifesto for the site.  The fate of Culture11 in particular notwithstanding, the piece remains true.  What conservatism needs now is more journalists, broadly defined, not activists.  I say “broadly defined” because I want to include the full breadth of form that could be included in this very apt definition of his (emphasis mine):

“Unless colleges and journalism schools start assigning Burke, Hayek, Friedman, and quite a few others, the answer depends upon whether the right is willing to invest in talented young people who understand conservatism and libertarianism, but whose foremost loyalty is to investigating their world and conveying whatever they find.

Perhaps it’s arrogant for a would-be writer to go about proclaiming that what we need now are “writers” — but that word alone kind of misses the point.  If a general conservatism is more right than wrong, then the recording and transmission of what we see in the world around us should prove that point.  Showing, not bloviating, is the way forward.  And — lest we forget that the title was composed of words (well, a word and a number) — it establishes culture.  The “culture wars” are the wrong wars in our society because they are a fight between “cultures” rather than a fight to retain and further establish the beautiful one we have, and the tradition underlying it.

That essay, and a week-long spate of pure energy crackling out of PoMoCo last fall, pushed me into getting started with this writerly experiment you’re reading (a form I never imagined using and at a time I would have never imagined beginning), and, like many others, gave me my first opportunity to see my writing published.  I’ll always be grateful for that, even if I wish I were more satisfied with the piece.

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy reading Alan Jacobs’ new blog at Culture11, Text Patterns?  Anyway, today he’s got a post up talking about “The Age of Correspondance.”  Though it’s not his title for whichever age it is that text messages and e-mail are ushering us into, my immediate reaction was to draw a distinction between the average e-mail (at least in my inbox) and certainly the average text message and the term “correspondence.”  I think the latter denotes something more substantive, and not necessarily by means of a fountain pen or typewriter.

Letter-writing isn’t dead by any means, nor do I think it’s going to go that way.  But what remains will be increasingly intentional: writing a letter with the aim of engaging in correspondence rather than merely keeping-in-touch.  After all, we have e-mail and The Facebooks for that now, no?  My only real engagement with letter-writing (excepting those obligatory notes home from summer camp) have been very deliberate: between a friend and myself, in part because her camp-counsellor job one summer was going to severely limit internet access, but also because we both wanted to try that type of writing as a particular form

I’ve got to admit: I find it much more pleasurable than e-correspondence; there’s something inimitable about the feel of a pen on paper — whether it’s one of my nicer “writing” pens or the cheap Bic ballpoint I was using today to take notes in class.  Writing by hand requires a more deliberate mind and prose than typing on a computer: when each mistake and correction still leaves some trace on the page (unless you scrap it entirely), you become more cautious about the type of mistake you’re willing to make, if not mistakes altogether.  The result is a style at once more finished and with more traces of having been hewn from something — of having been written?

That, and the “small pleasures, small moments of imaginative vision,” are not limited to the archivist and the academic: the form itself has a certain character otherwise lacking (compare a vinyl LP to a CD or mp3, except it’s visual stimulus, and probably more real), and I, at least, find great pleasure in reading handwriting that — even though it may win no awards for penmanship (mine certainly wouldn’t) — has character to it.

Statistical Noise

November 24, 2008

“[I]f you have to be at a coffee house full of pretentious hipsters in order to write, it seems you haven’t got much to say.”

Quite frankly, I wish I’d written it, or thought of something comparable, because I almost want it to be a life motto, or something like a life motto, but with a sarcastic and self-depreciating category title.  Anyway, my favorite little coffee shop in Evanston got a bad review in NorthbyNorthwestern (it’s an online magazine thing) sparking a little bit of back and forth in the comments, including that zinger from A.K.S.  You apparently can’t “be postmodern and indulgent” there.  It’s too quiet.  (This could be my problem: I don’t want to write self-indulgently “meta” tractates on myself; then again, I do have a blog.)

Maybe I’m of a dying breed if I want to have somewhere I can hear myself think to do large portions of my work and writing.  For example: I turned off my music when I sat down to write this, and the sound of the washer in the next room getting ready for the rinse cycle is exceptionally distracting.  Douglas Adams claimed that music aided his writing precisely once in his life: it’s far easier to get things consistently done when it’s silent, I’ve found.  I spent an hour last spring searching for a cranny in the library where I had both an outlet and not even the sound of the A/C to distract me.

But reading the article this morning, I found myself thinking about Anthony Daniels’ essay on silence in April’s New Criterion, where he laments the loss of

“silence as a prerequisite for thought, contemplation, creativity, and perhaps even the development of character and individuality.”

When it’s quiet (even moderately so), you’re alone with yourself.  Which is when thought happens most clearly and most sharply.  Thoughts in loud places are best preserved and advanced by writing them down in as much detail as possible and returning to them later.  Or running away quickly.Writing (for me, at least) is an exceptionally private and individual act.  Sometimes I need to leave my desk for the sake of scenery, or to keep from distracting myself too easily, and when I do, I like to go where the coffee/tea is “delicious” (in the reviewer’s words), the sandwiches fresh-made, and the pastries tasty.  Which, in this twenty-first century world of coffeeshops, tends to limit my options unless I’ve managed to get restless during non-peak hours.

(Of course, this is all just because I’m personally offended.  The reviewer rattles off a list of all the customers between 3 and 6:30, but I’m not included–even though I was sitting there for most of it.  [I’m even in her little picture!  Eating coffee cake — awkwardly, apparently — and reading something.])