Guy Davenport

by Henry Farrell on January 5, 2005

Via Matt Cheney at the “Mumpsimus”:, I learn that Guy Davenport “has died”: By coincidence, I’ve mentioned Davenport three times on this blog in the last week; he was one of the finest cultural and literary critics of our time. His essays cumulate into a long allusive conversation; digressive, enlightening, quietly humorous. You could warm your hands at them. He had a gift for finding the detail, the miniature axis on which the world turned for Kafka, for Gerard Manley Hopkins, for Picasso, for Louis Agassiz. From his essay, “On Reading” (collected in _The Hunter Gracchus_):

bq. Students often tell me that an author was ruined for them by a high-school English class; we all know what they mean. Shakespeare was almost closed to me by the world’s dullest teacher, and there are many writers whom I would probably enjoy reading except that they were recommended to me by suspect enthusiasts. I wish I knew how to rectify these aversions. I tell bright students, in conference, how I had to find certain authors on my own who were ruined for me by bad teachers or inept critics. Scott, Kipling, Wells will do to illustrate that only an idiot will take a critic’s word without seeing for oneself. I think I learned quite early that the judgments of my teachers were probably a report of their ignorance. In truth, my education was a systematic misleading. Ruskin was dismissed as a dull, preacherly old fart who wrote purple prose. In a decent society the teacher who led me to believe this would be tried, found guilty, and hanged by the thumbs while being pelted with old eggs and cabbage stalks.

On this count, as on many others, Davenport was gloriously, radiantly, exuberantly innocent. He inspired you to read new books, and re-read old ones differently. He’ll be sorely missed.

The Garden State

by John Holbo on January 5, 2005

Zoë likes They Might Be Giants, "No!". Santa brought it. Amazing how many of the things Santa brought daddy likes, too. "The Edison Museum", for example:

The Edison Museum, not open to the public
Its haunted towers rise into the clouds above
Folks drive in from out of town
To gaze in amazement when they see it

Just outside the gate I look into the courtyard
Underneath the gathering thunderstorm
Through the iron bars, I see the Black Mariah
Revolving slowly in its platform
In the topmost tower, the lights burn dim
A coiling filament glowing within

The Edison Museum, once a bustling factory
Today is but a darkened cobweb covered hive of industry
The tallest, widest and most famous haunted mansion
in New Jersey!

Behind a wooden door, the voice of Thomas Alva
Recites a poem on a phonograph
Ghosts float up the stairs, like silent moving pictures
The loyal phantoms of his in house staff
A wondrous place it is, there can be no doubt
But no one ever goes in, and no one ever goes out

The Edison Museum, not open to the public
Its haunted towers rise into the clouds above it
The largest independently-owned and operated mausoleum.

As Henry James might have said, for actual implies possible (see p. 18): "It was an adventure, unmistakeably, … to be learning at last, in the maturity of one’s powers, what New Jersey might ‘connote’."

Not what ‘New Jersey’ might connote, mind you.

Consider this an open thread only for those in the maturity of their powers.

May I remind you, and this goes as well for those with lesser powers: there are disaster victims who need your help. Please consider donating generously. And – I am sorry to repeat myself – if you were going to buy something from Amazon anyway, please consider using the Search Box under the fold to do so. Costs you the same, and that way 5.75% goes to me and I give it to the Singapore Red Cross. Thank you, those of you who have helped already. (And, to our anonymous drunken monkey offerer of matching funds: they have been met. You may donate your 200 euros now. Thank you!)

[click to continue…]

My favorite things

by Ted on January 5, 2005

The Adversary

Class Trip and The Moustache

The Arcade Fire, Funeral

Radio Birdman

Remote thermometer

The foolish man

by Ted on January 5, 2005

I honestly can’t believe it.

Via American Coprophagia. In the midst of a heartfelt Congressional prayer service, Tom DeLay chose this reading, from Matthew 7: 21-27:

21. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

22. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’

23. Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

24. Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.

25. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.

26. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand.

27. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.” (my emphasis; I don’t think that DeLay emphasizes any particular passage)


Living in a narrow strip hemmed in by the sea and backwaters, only those who were able to climb atop strong houses could manage to survive the tsunami strike. Showing a spot where a house once stood, Susheelan said only an old man of a family of five survived the mortal blow of the sea. The man is now in a relief camp near the place where his kith and kin are buried.

You can watch the service yourself on C-SPAN (it’s the “109th Congressional Prayer Service”). Tom DeLay starts at 12:30. This was not an off-the-cuff joke or unfortunate phrase; these were his prepared remarks, in total.

How would we have reacted to a powerful Arab mullah who appeared on television, on September 20, 2001, to read a passage from the Koran about how the fools who reject Allah will be thrown from their towers? (I seriously doubt that such a passage exists, but you get my point.)

I had to take a break from blogging. I was tired of getting so angry. But when Tom DeLay is one of the most powerful men in the United States, what other response is appropriate?

System Error

by Henry Farrell on January 5, 2005

The Washington Post finally gets around to “reviewing”: Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, but makes a blunder. The reviewer, Gregory Feeley, commends Stephenson for his anachronisms.

bq. Stephenson’s tongue-in-cheek verbal anachronisms can be witty, as when he manages circumstances so that a character can speak plausibly of a “Routine Upgrade” or name a private tavern the “Kit-Kat Clubb.”

But the “Kit-Kat Club”: isn’t an anachronism; it was a real institution, and the epicenter of “Whig”: debate in the early eighteenth century. That said, Feeley shouldn’t be chastized too harshly for his mistake. It’s exactly this collision between present and past, so that you really can’t tell the one from the other, that makes for the fun in “System of the World.” And indeed, Stephenson’s depiction of the Kit-Kat as a sort of elevated girly-bar may not be entirely true to history. To “repeat myself”:

bq. Stephenson uses anachronisms to jar our sense of the seventeenth century as a fixed stage along the progression that has led ineluctably to the modern world. He wants to bring home to us how the past was, like the modern age, a ferment of possibilities. It could have developed in many different directions. In Quicksilver, the past and the present are related not because the one has led to the other, but because they are both the same thing at different stages; vortices of possibility.

The plot creaks, the characters are a little thin, and (as always) Stephenson isn’t very good at endings, but there’s still a zip and verve to the book. It’s ambitious, chaotic, and sometimes falls flat on its face but picks itself up again by virtue of its sheer exuberance. The combination of geek sensibility and economic history is difficult to resist.

Addendum: since I’m linking to the Amazon page for SotW in this review, I should say that I’ve earned approx $100 through the Amazon link in the last several days, which I have sent on to the Red Cross. Not as much as John (no terabyte drives alas, although I’m grateful to the person who bought several classic movies) . I’ve decided to make this into a permanent feature – all earnings from links from my posts will be donated to charity from here on in.