Well Wrought Urns and Stuffed Owls – or – Squished Between the Beach of Limited Freedom and the Breast of Trodden Patience and all that

by John Holbo on July 30, 2011

I’m teaching “Philosophy and Literature” this semester. For one unit – Well Wrought Urns and Stuffed Owls, or somesuch subtitle – we’re going to read the really strong stuff. Like Irene Iddesleigh, Chapter 1 (not the whole book). But also more genuinely enjoyable incompetence: The Young Visiters. And Crippled Detectives. See this Village Voice piece for some – rather sad – background on the latter. Maybe a bit from A Nest of Ninnies. Who knows? Maybe even Ulysses? I’ve always thought of that book as basically The Young Visiters writ old. Bloom is Mr. Salteena, all grown up, but still a child at heart.

I won’t bore you with my specific teaching plans – well, ok, just a little bit, since you asked so nicely: it’s funny that the New Critics rattled on about Well Wrought Urns, because it’s really the Stuffed Owls that suit their style of close reading. You need a yawning gap between what was intended and achieved to get you in the proper mood to focus on what the work does, quite apart from what its author intended. Many a slip between the cup and the lip, where verbal vessels are concerned, hence the modernist affinity for child cult. If you cannot be Daisy Ashford, you must at least fake it. Mannerism as a systematic failure to comprehend the meaning of manners. (See also, Ulysses.) This brings us to the ethics of formal incompetence as authenticity, and the attendant formal disciplines of sentimental mimicry of the aforementioned. Of course it is not so simple as just that. We’ll also read a bit of Donald Davidson, “Nice Derangement”, that sort of thing.

Really what’s nice about reading the best ‘bad writing’ is that the experience is intensely intentional, in Wimsatt and Beardsley’s forbidden sense. You are constantly aware of the author as intriguing personality behind the page. And it is exquisitely formalistic. You are aware of how the work works, quite apart from any intention. And again, authors too competent to achieve this high standard of incompetence can always fake it. Perhaps it should be regarded as a sub variety of pastoral. (Used to be you had to pretend to be a shepherd. Now you pretend to be a child.)

I would like to request from you, today, volunteer close readings of chapter 1 of Irene Iddesleigh. In particular, the first paragraphs. See what you can come up with:

Sympathize with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn.

Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected. Sympathy can wound the breast of trodden patience,—it hath no rival to insure the feelings we possess, save that of sorrow.

Alduos Huxley wrote a genuinely thoughtful review of our author, Amanda McKittrick Ros. “It is remarkable how late in the history of every literature simplicity is invented.” This gets at the crucial difference between Ros and, say, Daisy Ashford. The latter is enjoyable, as the former is not, because the latter feeds our late taste for simplicity, without being too bland for our late taste in complexity. Ros is a more difficult molehill to climb: the snob as outsider artist.

(Here’s her Wikipedia page.)



Phil 07.30.11 at 9:36 pm

Off-topically, in my browserthe widgets in the right-hand column (Recent Comments, Contributors & so on) are currently displaying below the end of the main column instead of alongside it. Is anyone else having this problem, & can anyone suggest anything?


Jared 07.30.11 at 10:13 pm

That passage seems to be a defense of Chill Wave against detractors who think it’s nothing but empty hype; the author claims that it is both the soundtrack of the under-employed post-graduate years (“beach of limited freedom”) and a style of experimental pop that avoids the trap of post-humanism (“oases of futurity”). Right?


nnyhav 07.31.11 at 12:55 am

The preponderance of genitive constructions, bolstered in the final clause by property-oriented words (insure, possess, save) clearly mark a concern with late-Victorian crony capitalism. In fact, the Earl of Iddesleigh (pronounced ‘idsly’) in the County of Devon had only recently been established in the Peerage of the United Kingdom for Sir Stafford Northcote, who served as President of the Board of Trade, Secretary of State for India, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and First Lord of the Treasury.


ernesto 07.31.11 at 1:10 am

“beach of limited freedom” = pond shore?


Bill Benzon 07.31.11 at 6:16 am

On close reading, you might want to check out this discussion at Arcade, where the young’un’s are expressing doubt about the continued intellectual viability of the practice. I thought about their discussion for a minute or three and concluded, with an ever so mild dollop of affirmative irony at the end, that close reading is toast.


Th 07.31.11 at 12:25 pm

Bill has just cast himself upon the “chill waves of troubled waters” by hitting the submit button on “the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected.” Will John “allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn?”

Your comment is well-taken, th, but I have – as you predicted I might – expunged it’s occasion, alas! But thanks to Bill for the link to the close-reading discussion, which is interesting.


Bill Benzon 07.31.11 at 4:50 pm

Methinks John may have spotted the key to all mythologies in those two modest paragraphs. For they contain words that seem to fit all occasions.


Wilfred 07.31.11 at 5:37 pm

As the Professor has taught the class throughout this semester the key thing or concept or idea in close reading is to identify contradictions inside the text that is being closely read, that is, to identify where the text contradicts itself. In the text being closely read in this paper, the big contradiction happens right away in the first paragraph where the writer/speaker says to sympathize with her and then right way again says not to do this. To explain why she has a contradiction the speaker then uses a long metaphor to explain what this contradictory sympathization with the speaker is best for.
First, sympathy is to be cast like it was bait on a fishing rod, this is because cast is used semantically in this sense and in the sense of casting a part in a movie. But this would be inconsistent with the internal coherence and unity of the text which is about sympathy and not about, say, fish or Hollywood. The sea metaphor takes on greater critical meaning when sympathy is dashed against rocks like Ulysseus’s (In greek, Odysseus’s) boat slams against Sicilian rocks. The speaker continues this metaphorical coherency when she says before this that sympathy should be flung (semantically in meaning very close to cast but stronger) on the oases of futurity. Oasis appear in deserts, but have water in them which again consistently follows the logical unity of the coherent closely read text and its overall idea, or central unifying imageric theme, that sympathy is a boat that the speaker does not want to leave the beach to get on, even if it can take her from the limits of the beach she is apparently walking on. At the end, the speaker steps away from metaphor, one of the defining features of books, and says that the person giving the sympathy ( a woman because of bosom, a word semantically related to women) should keep sympathy there, at once removing the metaphorically semantic sense of a boat, which cannot be stored in a bosom, although bosom is related ontologically with bosun, a word which means a boat, or a person on boat steering it.


Aspergum 07.31.11 at 6:16 pm

Wilfred, my sympathies to you for clearly having read far too many written-the-night-before student papers.


John Holbo 07.31.11 at 7:47 pm

I was sleepily reading through comments and almost deleted Wilfred’s as spam. That would have been an unjust verdict but it suggests a good Turingesque challenge: spam or undergraduate close reading written the night before it was due?


Fred 07.31.11 at 8:37 pm

In the archives of Conrad H. Roth’s sadly defunct blog, there’s a great post on the opening sentence of “Delina Delaney” by Ros:



Bill Benzon 07.31.11 at 10:24 pm

In honor of this sudden interest in close reading, I’ve dug into the archives and pulled out an old old essay of mine that illustrates why close reading got in trouble and led, inevitably, to deconstruction and its aftermath. I’ve republished it with introductory commentary and a new title: The Problem with Close Reading: GIGO. And the garbage I’m referring to IS NOT the text being closely read.


Wilfred 08.01.11 at 2:09 pm

@Aspergum: Heaps upon heaps. Some of the best are masterpieces of loose association free-fall. Ros reads like parody – what better than undergrad parody in return?

Close reading as practice deserves to stay. I make a point of introducing it with the “Statement of Principles” and “Critique of the Philosophy of Progress”, both of which help students appreciate the political and cultural factors behind what can seem to be arid aesthetic wankery .

@ Bill : I think you have to distinguish between formalists and the New Critics to make that claim. Is it easy to parody? Sure, but what isn’t?


Bill Benzon 08.01.11 at 8:57 pm

@Wilfred: What claim? & how do YOU distinguish between formalists and New Critics?

BTW, I’m certainly in favor of looking very closely at the text. And just don’t think the profession has done that very well. Too much has been missed in the greed to recover meaning.


Bill Benzon 08.05.11 at 1:44 pm

BTW, John, remember The Valve? The blog thingy you started? It’s just gone over the 20M mark.

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