October 10th, 2012
Whatever follies may be committed in art, once they are accepted among the upper classes of our society, a theory is at once elaborated to explain and legitimize these follies, as if there had never been epochs in history when certain exceptional circles of people had not accepted and approved of false, ugly, meaningless art, which left no traces and was completely forgotten afterwards. And we can see by what is going on now in the art of our circle what degree of meaninglessness and ugliness art can attain, especially when, as in our time, it knows it is regarded as infallible.

Leo Tolstoy in What is Art?, quoted by Abby. The point is that we forget the limitless fallibility of contemporary human judgements even as we deride the past for its errors: “as if there had never been epochs” of worthless, celebrated art, decades and schools and theories and rebellions and geniuses all laboring towards the “false, ugly, [and] meaningless.” But when we walk through museums, we cannot believe that anything on the walls might be not merely “not to our liking,” but in fact bad, imbecilic, embarrassing!

And as if it were impossible that our museums should be so misled, when in fact it is a feature of the time that there seems to be no agreement between the common person and the expert —such as she is— as to art’s very definition, as to what art is, as to what qualifies as art. This definitional confusion results from an epistemologically-debased philosophical culture in which even the ambitious give up and say, “Well, art is whatever anyone says is art!” or some similar nonsense. That is: we do not know what art is, we cannot distinguish it from non-art, and we do not think it is even possible in principle to do so.

It would be no surprise to me if a far smaller percentage of the canonical work of the past century or so endures —or even makes sense— for long; I sometimes suspect that we’re living through an extraordinarily ridiculous time, culturally, and I only hope that it will at least be comic for those who study it in the future.

Reblogged from pocket
July 31st, 2012

Abby and I celebrate our three-year anniversary today. We met through Tumblr, as it happens, and so far as I can tell this was my first post for or about her. Many others followed as I fell in love, moved across the country, and settled in for a wonderful life with her. This past weekend, we hosted some great friends in town and helped one prepare in secret to propose to the other. The trip and the proposal alike went off perfectly, and we even took a photograph of the moment. It feels nice to be part of something like that.

I am not an easy person to love, but I doubt many of us are. Abby’s pretty easy to love, though, honestly. I hope I get to keep at it for a long time.

July 24th, 2012

Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it a place in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurge of cowardice; accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac—that’s your business; the novelist has nothing to do with it.

Creating the imaginary terrain where moral judgment is suspended was a move of enormous significance: only there could novelistic characters develop—that is, individuals conceived not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws. Western society habitually presents itself as the society of the rights of man, but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself such and to be considered such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly of the art of the novel, which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own. In this sense E. M. Cioran is right to call European society “the society of the novel” and to speak of Europeans as “the children of the novel.”

Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed
July 9th, 2012

Dani Lierow was so severely neglected for the first seven years of her life that some consider her a feral child; the original story of her rescue, recovery, and adoption was both shattering and arresting; it is impossible not to wonder at the silent interior world of an unsocialized mind, a mind both human and not:

She wouldn’t make eye contact. She didn’t react to heat or cold — or pain. The insertion of an IV needle elicited no reaction. She never cried. With a nurse holding her hands, she could stand and walk sideways on her toes, like a crab. She couldn’t talk, didn’t know how to nod yes or no. Once in a while she grunted …

[T]he scene at the house, along with Danielle’s almost comatose condition, led [doctors] to believe she had never been cared for beyond basic sustenance. Hard as it was to imagine, they doubted she had ever been taken out in the sun, sung to sleep, even hugged or held. She was fragile and beautiful, but whatever makes a person human seemed somehow missing…

The most extraordinary thing about Danielle… was her lack of engagement with people, with anything. “There was no light in her eye, no response or recognition… We saw a little girl who didn’t even respond to hugs or affection. Even a child with the most severe autism responds to those.”

A follow-up report by Melissa Lyttle, who took the photo above, details her progress with her extraordinary adoptive parents:

Three years later, Dani, now 12, has grown physically and emotionally. She’s a foot taller and clearly responsive to her dad’s affection. She hugs him back, kisses him and playfully bites his nose.

The photographs are quite moving; the Lierows seem like heroes.

July 2nd, 2012
His own tweets were extremely boring; bland promotional links or seasonal announcements (‘Summer is coming. Quark Cola never tastes so good as at a backyard BBQ!’). Nevertheless, once posted, he watched the retweets and favourites amass. Often he visited the accounts of the retweeters, trying to establish what kind of person reposted the announcements of an impersonal soda drink corporation. But Twitter pages of individuals held a strange opacity of their own. A tiny mugshot, a list of tweets, and a personal network that you could sense but couldn’t see from the outside. Replies and retweets from other unknowable accounts. No context, no usable chronology. It was like having access to a stranger’s phonebook.

Pierce Gleeson in "Four Million Followers," a perfect short story which calls to mind a question that interests me: how will fiction be written, how will the interior world of the human mind be conveyed, now that so many of its elements depend for their description on branded language, non-words with ephemeral meanings, temporarily-universal but easily-forgotten software conventions? How intelligible will any of what we experience be to those just a decade older or younger?

Love affairs and suicide-threats within the confines of streams on screens, annotated with @s and requiring familiarity with all these little accidents of technology: how can this be turned into literature? Twitter is unlikely to endure even as long as ham radio, but what can one say about a typical contemporary teenager without mentioning the performative passive-aggression of the so-called sub-tweet? Language is being de-genericized; many necessary phrases are proprietary (and ludicrous), but worse is that whole constellations of words and ideas fade from our sky nightly, and are replaced by newer, brighter arrays by morning.

Soon no computer will have a manual: all devices will be listening, waiting to be touched, eager to understand you as you are, responsive to your intuitively-expressed desires; and all novels will come with manuals explaining “key concepts” and describing the relative synchronousness of this or that protocol, the trademarked terms of discarded products. While it’s only an acceleration of what has always been the case —after all, one must read about patronymics, footnotes about old customs, and so on in novels from the past— changes in degree can become changes in kind. Perhaps the novel won’t die from an absence of readers, but simply because who can write quickly enough? Readers will snicker at characters’ social networks as you might if you opened a book detailing a courtship over Friendster.

Reblogged from Is that blogging?
June 29th, 2012

Gottfried Helnwein, Epiphany I (Adoration of the Magi), 1996; Epiphany II (Adoration of the Shephards), 1998; Epiphany III (Presentation at the Temple), 1998.

June 29th, 2012
It took me almost another decade after graduate school to figure out what writing really is, or at least what it could be for me; and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discovery of certain remaindered books … in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax, in which almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy. As a reader, I finally knew what I wanted to read, and as someone now yearning to become a writer, I knew exactly what I wanted to try to write: narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself. I once later tried to define this kind of sentence as “an outcry combining the acoustical elegance of the aphorism with the force and utility of the load-bearing, tractional sentence of more or less conventional narrative.” The writers of such sentences became the writers I read and reread. I favored books that you could open to any page and find in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained—as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.

Gary Lutz, "The Sentence is a Lonely Place," reprinted in The Believer in 2009 and brought to my attention by Ben Lansky. This is as good an essay on writing as I’ve read, and it satisfies a requirement for a good discussion of craft which David Cole called “determinacy.” Writing about craft is determinate when it provides concrete, actionable knowledge.

Lutz is specific; he gets into details, documents the relations between letters, thinks about the components from which, after all, writing is made. An astonishing amount of writing-on-writing (and the overwhelming majority of writers themselves) fail to do so, preferring the heights of feelings and ideas and politics and so on.

In her story “The Blood Jet,” Schutt ends a sentence about “life after a certain age” by describing it capsularly as “acutely felt, clearly flat”—two pairs of words in which an adverb precedes an adjective. The adjectives (felt and flat) are both monosyllabic, they are both four letters in length, and they both share the same consonantal casing: they begin with a tentative-sounding, deflating f and end with the abrupt t. In between the two ends of each adjective, Schutt retains the l, though it slides one space backward in the second adjective; and for the interior vowel, she moves downward from a short e to a short a. The predecessive adverbs acutely and clearly share the k-sounding c, and both words are constituted of virtually the same letters, except that clearly doesn’t retain the t of acutely. The four-word phrase has a resigned and final sound to it; there is more than a little agony in how, with just two little adjustments,felt has been diminished and transmogrified into flat, in how the richness of receptivity summed up in felt has been leveled into the thudding spiritlessness of flat. All of this emotion has been delivered by the most ordinary of words—nothing dredged up from a thesaurus. But what is perhaps most striking about the four-word phrase is the family resemblances between the two pairs of words. There is nothing in the letter-by-letter makeup of the phrase “clearly flat” that wasn’t already physically present in “acutely felt”; the second of the two phrases contains the alphabetic DNA of the first phrase. There isn’t, of course, an exact, anagrammatic correspondence between the two pairs of words; the u of the first pair, after all, hasn’t been carried over into the second pair. (Schutt isn’t stooping to recreational word games here.) But the page-hugging, rather than page-turning, reader—the very reader whom a writer such as Schutt enthralls—cannot help noticing that the second phrase is a selective rearrangement, a selective redisposition, of the first one—a declension, really, as if, within the verbal environment of the story, there were no other direction for the letters in the first pair of words to go. There is nothing random about what has happened here. Schutt’s phrase has achieved the condition that Susan Sontag, in her essay about the prose of poets, called “lexical inevitability.”

Writers who aren’t thinking of this level of detail, who aren’t working on their sentences in this manner, aren’t writing; they’re talking in text. Poetry is typically the densest, most-perfected composition, where nothing is incidental, extraneous, automatic, empty, or indifferent to form; prose can approach poetics quite closely if written with attention and concern, with equivalent obsessions for form and content; but most writing is just content: ideas that might as well be written another way, stories that could be told (and are appreciated) as memes or mirrors for selves.

I was delighted to see DeLillo cited repeatedly in the essay (which would be worth reading if only as a sample of extraordinary sentences). I adore his sentences, which combine concreteness and poetics, plainness and depth, with such easy facility that I can stare at them for minutes, come back to them again and again trying to work them out; they seem either like magic or like the result of more-than-sufficiently advanced technology, operated with cold and perfect precision.

All of Lutz’s examples and analyses are a delight, worth reading whatever one’s relationship with prose.

June 28th, 2012

How much would you pay to force many people to look at and think about your dog?

June 24th, 2012

Thanks to Rachel, Andi, Isaac, Joshua, Melissa, and Sheila Heti and everyone who came to the Tumblr/Believer party last night. I think I was the only reader who is not, in fact, a writer, and I was grateful to everyone for their forbearance. I also want to apologize for not opening with my planned joke:

Wit: Did you hear the story about the three holes in the ground?
Interlocutor: No, tell me!
Wit: Well, well, well…

Oh, and thanks to David for that joke. And to Vic for shooting this video. And to everyone, for everything.

June 19th, 2012
Good news. I am working on a 1400 page novel called “The Man Who Saw Life Clearly”. It will be post-modernist in style and is intended to be the first ironic treatment of irony. But that’s not all. It will be structured around Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, much as “Ulysses” is structured on “The Odyssey.” The problem of self-reference and the Turing machine will be developed novelistically for the first time.
My father in an email to me from December of 1998! So far as I know, this novel remains unfinished. Happy belated father’s day, dad!
June 14th, 2012
Cotter feels a mood coming on, a complicated self-pity, the strength going out of his arms and a voice commencing in his head that reproaches him for caring. And the awful part is that he wallows in it. He knows how to find the twisty compensation in this business of losing, being a loser, drawing it out, expanding it, making it sickly sweet, being someone carefully chosen for the role.

Don DeLillo, Underworld. My entire life is a complicated self-pity.

(Surprised at “sickly sweet,” though; it had long been a cliché by the time Underworld was written. Could it be deliberate? As a boy’s self aspires to archetypes, takes the shape of a tradition, the language takes the shape of a cliché. No, that’s not sensible, is it?).

June 8th, 2012

One of my heroes died on May 7th. His name was Denny Fitch, and I couldn’t have admired him more; I feel shamefully incapable of memorializing him, but fortunately one of my other heroes, Errol Morris, devoted an episode of his outstanding First Person series to Fitch and his role in the crash-landing of United Airlines Flight 232, in Sioux City, Iowa.

Fitch was a training-check-airman flying as a passenger, headed home to his wife and children, when the DC-10 suffered a catastrophe from which no airliner had ever recovered: the total loss of all flight-surface controls. The story of how Fitch and the flight crew responded to the task of landing an almost entirely uncontrollable jet airplane with nearly 300 people on board, how they considered landing on interstates, how their ground controllers told them they had no guidance because their situation wasn’t considered survivable, how they felt smashing into the ground, exploding, being thrown about as the plane burst into flames: it is a story only Errol Morris could coax, support, convey with the sort of power it merits.

Largely because of Fitch, 185 aboard survived, a fact one can hardly comprehend when one sees the video of the crash (at the start of the documentary above) or sees photos:

It is a sad story, of course, but it is also —why do I flush to say this?— an inspiring story, and I think of Denny Fitch and Al Haynes and the passengers often, often, often; I do not want to use them, recycle them into metaphor, but I cannot help it; theirs was a kind of crucible of crisis, problem-solving, fear and its overcoming. When I learned today that Fitch had died of brain cancer, I cried and cried. I hate that we vainly personalize others’ deaths this way, but all I mean is that he was really important to me and many thousands of others, and that the basic, attainable, direct, courageous, disciplined spirit he had seems to me more important than nearly all other forms of heroics.

I suppose I simply feel grateful to him, and I recommend Errol Morris’ short documentary highly.

June 8th, 2012
Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies—my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961), Vintage International, 1998, p. 228, quoted with characteristic precision by Ms.Odradek.
Reblogged from Ms. Odradek
June 7th, 2012
Sometimes I see a thing so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.

Don DeLilloUnderworld. Nothing could be more fatal to this love than the Internet’s compulsive mediation of experience; it requires that we not content ourselves with mere private trust, with internal and decaying moments; instead, we are asked to transform everything into data artifacts, monetizable post-types, feeds or streams inside of branded spaces.

But it is not the Internet per se but media in general that make us uneasy about our private domain of experience. In his 1961 novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy discusses the evisceration of reality by representations with a weird prescience. Most comically, he notes the transformative power that celebrity has; its mere proximity can rehabilitate our shabby, quotidian days, dissipate our malaise.

Elsewhere, he writes:

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

The substantiation of reality by ersatz commercial realities is old news, but it’s interesting to note that the problem Percy detected halfway through the 20th century was not addressed by a return to reality or recriminatory changes to how we conceive of technology. Rather, we developed distributed fame: from network broadcasts to the broadly-cast nets of the platform makers who want us all in buckets, represented as objects, graphed with lines along which can be placed the occasional advertisement, like billboards on a highway. Ads are the cost of experiencing and relating now, just as they were once the cost of traveling.

The nightmare scramble to archive, collect, capture is a meaningless frenzy, a rain-dance, a protest against a power which takes no note of us. Death means that you will be forced to leave, so better to have loved and trusted your experience than to have spent your life trying to turn it into something real, transactable, postable, permanent. All memory remains short-term memory. "The manner dies with the matter," after all, and "the world dies with the individual": even the parts photographed, backed-up, saved in the cloud.

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Hello! My name is Mills Baker. I write about art, culture, love, philosophy, memory, history, and more. Here are some relatively better posts. This site has been featured on Tumblr Tuesday and is listed in the Spotlight, but it pines for its youth as a coloring book. (Header lettering by the amazing Chirp).