Not much vnlike the wondrer haue ye another figure called the doubtfull, because oftentimes we will seeme to cast perils, and make doubt of things when by a plaine manner of speech wee might affirme or deny him.


Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative (Temps et Récit), 3 vols. Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984-1988 (1981-1985). 

I kind of want to Cafepress myself a JE COEUR PAUL RICOEUR T-shirt. I had been wondering where was the account of nineteenth-century historiography and the novel; why no one could engage with Hayden White’s tropological theory of history without sliding into his dumb relativism; where was the reasonable account of those qualities that make narrative an indispensable counterweight to science which still took seriously the ways in which our lives are not very much like The Brothers Kamarazov. Every vein here is loaded with ore, and as with Truth and Method, which I read over the holidays, this was only a first pass through something I’ll be returning to for a long time. (I did kind of skim the twenty pages about The Magic Mountain. Hans, the magic mountain sucks! Go home!)

Peter Carey, His Illegal Self

Carey, Peter. His Illegal Self. New York: Knopf, 2008.

On the long list of things that Mr. Carey does damn well, I would give top place to children. Those who fear that the child POV was exhausted with high modernism and is now verboten and twee will be glad to meet Che, or Jay, who is rendered with fidelity in his moments of perception and emotion and transgression, who is used neither sentimentally as a miniature adult nor sadistically as a punching bag for the world’s arbitrary cruelty. Both cruelty and love in this book come as surprises, reversing themselves without warning – Carey has the genuine storyteller’s confidence, with no fear of the leaping metaphor or the unexpected lurch in time and perspective. Damn if he doesn’t know how to deploy them. This doesn’t enter the marketplace for another month or so (a friend in high places scored me a review copy), but watch the skies.

Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pécuchet

Flaubert, Gustave. Bouvard and Pécuchet; with the Dictionary of Received Ideas (Bouvard et Pécuchet, Dictionnaire des id<ées reçues). Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin, 1976 (1874-1880).

It’s so funny. It’s so mean. It’s so funny. There’s no way to do right by it – one of B. and P.’s principal occupations is mocking the stupidity and unoriginality of other people, and they aren’t precisely wrong to do so. It doesn’t feel unfinished. The tone is so homogenous that it’s easy enough to superimpose it over Flaubert’s plot sketch for the last chapters (with another steel-trap ending, just like L’Éducation Sentimentale), have the received ideas for dessert and go to bed with heartburn.

John Keats, works; letters; life

Keats, John. The Complete Poems. Ed. John Barnard. 3rd ed. London: Penguin, 1988 (1814-1820).

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Maurice Buxton Forman. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931 (1815-1820).

Bate, W. Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.

You can't do this kind of concurrent reading with every writer (the thought of trying it with Henry James gives me the shivers), but Keats's career is so brief and changes so rapidly that periodic switching from work to life and back again makes a pretty congenial project. What cheered me in the overall sad story was Keats's silliness as a person (at dinner he starts an impromptu concert with his friends; he makes the bassoon noises), his nerdy bookishness (Shakespeare and Milton are never out of his mind for a moment), and the way his ambition keeps pace about a league ahead of whatever he's actually working on. The unfathomably brilliant works — the sonnets, odes, ballads — appear almost by accident, while his greatest effort is turned to those longer pieces in which compositional brilliance is tied to structural flaws that he's always aware of, keeps trying to outpace, keeps discovering in new forms. It's the admission of uncertainty, the continued questing, that makes me feel so warm – maybe in this era of improved medical care there is still hope for us all.

M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp

Abrams, M.H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Oh man, this really is how it's done. Remember how an account can be detailed and historically grounded without being reductive about it? Remember?…

One thing this has finally brought me to articulate is that if you're going to talk seriously about lit and philosophy, you have to distinguish between philosophy and poetics – that is the poetics are rules of art which may imply a philosophy but need not necessarily do so – they are a background for the construction of forms and are not identical with philosophy any more than life itself – though both life and poetic form may be subjected to the interpretive art which aims to distill out the unspoken propositions of philosophy drop by drop – All this needs much more room to spread like the pattern of a Persian carpet into the length and breadth of the treatise I hope to complete if I am granted the time – and yes I have been reading the letters of Keats and have contracted his epistolary style. Gentle Poet! – yours ever – adieu

Rainer Maria Rilke, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge. Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp, 1996 (1910).

They call it a novel, but the notebook format basically turns it into a series of prose poems held together by the Brigge persona, who sometimes is a solid character with a personal history and sometimes is just a voice – more willfully naive than a lot of Rilke's poetic speakers but recognizably continuous with them. So it's a book of wonderful moments: funny, often scary, circling around anonymity, death and time. My favorite might have been the fable about the man who exchanges his fifty remaining years of life for a titanic heap of seconds, which immediately start to vanish on him – but it's hard to choose.

Alice Crary (ed.), Wittgenstein and the Moral Life: Essays in Honor of Cora Diamond

Crary, Alice, ed. Wittgenstein and the Moral Life: Essays in Honor of Cora Diamond. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007.

Honoring Cora Diamond is an action I approve of, so I was happy to grab this off the new releases shelf at the library. The book probably should have been called Wittgenstein or the Moral Life – most of the essays tackle one or the other – but if you're into this kind of thing I especially recommend Juliet Floyd's subtle analysis of what's at stake in the Tractatus controversies. Hilary Putnam also interjects some considered doubts about the remarks on mathematics and David Finkelstein has a commonsense emendation of the questionable Davidson/Rorty line on animals having no thoughts. (Do not read James Conant's long and annoying parody of Johannes Climacus, which confirms his status as Diamond for Dummies.)

And then I was privileged to encounter the latter part of a long interpretive chain – John McDowell remarking on Stanley Cavell reading Diamond reading Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello – all of them being fine enough thinkers and writers that meaning accretes rather than attenuates in the process. It's nice when the good people cluster together. The rest was anticlimax.

Herman Melville, The Piazza Tales

Melville, Herman. "The Piazza," "Benito Cereno," "The Encantadas," "The Bell-Tower." In Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. New York: Bantam, 1984 (1856).

This Billy Budd edition is rounded out with the entire contents (minus "The Lightning-Rod Man") of the only story collection Melville published in his lifetime. The famous ones are "Bartleby," which was never a huge favorite of mine, and "Benito Cereno," which what do you say about "Benito Cereno," but "The Piazza" is one of the weirdest versions of pastoral I've ever read; the whimsical narrator superimposed on a scene of actual hardship strikes (and strikes hard) that difficult, uneasy note that the early Wordsworth is always trying for. "The Encantadas" is an amazing series of sketches on the Galapagos islands with a lot of quotes from Spenser; Melville allegorizes the Galapagos tortoise with no less ingenuity, though at far less length, than he allegorizes his whale, and then there are these sorts of inimitable moments:

If now you desire the population of Albemarle, I will give you, in round numbers, the statistic, according to the most reliable estimates made upon the spot:


Making a clean total of………11,000,000

exclusive of an incomputable host of fiends, anteaters, man-haters, and salamanders.

W.J. Rorabaugh, Berkeley at War

Rorabaugh, W.J. Berkeley at War: the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

I had to do a little fact-checking for the fiction. (To clarify: I would not describe this project as being in any way about the 1960s.) It's more reasonably written than that cover picture would lead you to believe, although a lot of the gestures toward scholarly objectivity were interpreted by at least one previous reader as a betrayal of the Cause, prompting large pink marginalia – "Um… no! Asshole!…  a) you're biased and b) you got there after the fact… Fuck you Rorabaugh, you're a bitch!" I assume this person is a careful student of the Phaedrus and likes to pick fights with books because they don't talk back.

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo

Rulfo, Juan. Pedro Páramo. Ed. José Carlos González Boixo. Madrid: Cátedra, 1992 (1955).

Since I'm starting the semester with two of my very favorite books, I took the opportunity to go back and read this in Spanish, which I'd never done before. (I wish I could show you the awesome cover of my edition, which appears to depict a skull eating a watermelon.) Páramo in Spanish means a barren stretch of land; apparently Eliot's Waste Land was first translated into Spanish as El Páramo in 1930, but it's unknown if Rulfo ever came across it.

To the extent that there are traces of modernism in this book, it's modernism of a certain stripe only. The jumbled chronology and focus on a rural past could have been another case of Faulkner gone south, but Rulfo's terse sentences give precisely the opposite effect; and if Quentin finds himself in limbo at the end of Absalom, Absalom!, compelled to narrate the past, Rulfo goes one better by putting his young narrator six feet underground and breaking his consciousness completely apart. The narrative that emerges is in a sense historical, but not really interpretive; a tragic structure gradually comes into view, but as with old Aeschylus the facts are formidably bare, somehow discouraging psychological explanation. (The reigning critical controversies tend to do with ambiguities of fact – who kills who at the end, whether the narrator is dead all along, etc.) And the book's brief length draws a sharp limit to what can be said about history — if such a sordid hodgepodge of events even deserves the name. In the end you can only stare at it.