Friday, February 26, 2010

Faulkner's Corn Cob: How I Know Nabokov Would Have Liked Wyndham Lewis

Since I like Wyndham Lewis so much, and since so few other people do, I am often curious to know how my favourite artists feel about him.

Since Lewis was so famously jerky, answers are surprisingly easy to come across—surprising given the fog of neglect in which WL otherwise sits. Hemingway, for instance, definitely did not like Lewis. He famously said, in A Moveable Feast, that Lewis possessed "the eyes... of an unsuccessful rapist." (Speaking of A Moveable Feast, I was once on a bus ride when the person sitting next to me struck up a conversation and said "Oh, A Moveable Feast—reading that book makes me so hungry!") Virginia Woolf was terrified of Lewis. The mere announcement of a forthcoming review from Lewis's pen led her to write in her diary, "Now I know by reason and instinct, that this is an attack; that I am publicly demolished; nothing is left of me in Cambridge and Oxford and places where the young read Wyndham Lewis."

This is the sort of behaviour I would expect from Hemingway and Woolf—it would be weird and make me uncomfortable if they were to say something nice about Lewis. (Lewis did write a chapter on Hemingway called "The Dumb Ox," after all.) It makes me very happy, however, when people I really like turn out to like Lewis. For example, Mark E. Smith of the English punk band The Fall. Here are his remarks on Lewis, from a 1986 issue of Melody Maker, where he lists his heroes (among them Hulk Hogan and Philip K. Dick):
He was a funny old stick, Wyndham Lewis, the most underrated writer this century. I can't believe how good his stuff is when I'm reading it. He was a much better writer than he was a painter. People always say that Paul Morley ripped off Lewis, which is bollocks. WE ripped off Lewis, and Morley stole his ideas from us! The thing that pissed me off is that ZTT uses his ideas and then put them into a context that Lewis would have hated. He loathed the futurists. His stories are great; things like 'The Crowd Master' in Blast. What a great title for a story. Wyndham Lewis is so real and so now. He wrote a book about Hitler in 1934 [actually 1931] saying that this is maybe the way forward and was condemned during and after the war for being a Nazi. Yet in another book, 'Rotting Hill', he says he wrote an essay in 1938 to say that he was completely wrong and that Hitler had to be stopped [The Hitler Cult, published 1939]. The critics made sure he was only remembered one way - the wrong way. He was a real man though. He'd always be the first to condemn himself if he got something wrong. He went for the critics before they went ever got to him. I like people than can admit to their mistakes. When people ask me about The Fall back in '77 and the whole punk thing I say it was shit. Everyone hated us. Punk bands hated us. Even we hated us! I'm not going to lie about it. It's hard, but I like people that are real and tell the truth. His books are hard to read but if you stick with them they're great. "Rude Assignment' - what a title! 'Rotting Hill' is the greatest phrase I've heard in my life. It's so simple you'd never think of it. The things he was talking about in 1911, people are just beginning to talk about now. A man years ahead of his time.
Anyway, I'm getting off-topic. The question I have set out to answer is: Would Vladimir Nabokov have liked Lewis? As people, I'm sure they wouldn't have gotten along. And perhaps Nabokov would have been a bit too much an aesthete to please Lewis, and Lewis too much of a politician to please Nabokov. But they do have a lot in common, especially as critics. They are uncompromising and belligerent, and they're lively and entertaining.

As far as I know, neither read the other. I have never seen a review or mention of the one by the other. But I do have the following excellent reason for supposing that, critically speaking, they would have gotten along. They both make delightful fun of William Faulkner, in precisely the same way.

I don't like Faulkner. I find his prose unbearable. It is one of the great mysteries of my life why a relative would have given a Faulkner "box set" containing The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and others to my mother for Christmas one year. So I was reassured when I first read Lewis's Men Without Art (1934) and saw that he also disliked Faulkner. In a chapter titled "The Moralist With the Corn-Cob" Lewis produces impressive lists of stupid words over-used by Faulkner, such as "myriad" and "sourceless." He also produces purple passages like this:
Moonglight seeped into the room impalpably, refracted and sourceless; the night was without any sound. Beyond the window a cornice rose in a succession of shallow steps against the opaline and dimensionless sky.
For me this is damning evidence. Lewis concludes, "William Faulkner is not an artist: he is a satirist with the shears of Atropos more or less: and he is a very considerable moralist—a moralist with a corn-cob!"

I must confess that I had no idea what all this corn cob business was about. I found it to be a funny phrase, and I supposed it was some sort of good joke. Luckily I kept the image in my head. Because it was the key to settling the question, "Would Nabokov and Lewis get along?"

One day I was told to look up the Nabokov videos on YouTube. Let me tell you, they are very good. The one of Nabokov on our very own CBC is disorienting and dizzying in more senses that one. But the video called "Nabokov and the Moment of Truth" was the one that provided the revelation. I have embedded it below. Advance it to the 3:25 mark and pay special attention at 3:50.

In this passage Nabokov says the following (reading from a script, as apparently he always did in interview):
I've been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called Great Books. For instance, Mann's asinine Death in Venice; and Pasternak's melodramatic and vilely written Doctor Zhivago; or Faulkner's corn-cobby chronicles.
Corn-cobby chronicles! I almost fell out of my seat when I first heard Nabokov utter those divine words. At first I thought it was evidence that Nabokov had in fact read Lewis—that he was making fun of Faulkner via Lewis's essay, "The Moralist with the Corn-Cob." A bit of further research revealed that in fact in Faulkner's novel Sanctuary one character rapes another with a corn cob. I'm happy I've never read that book.

But in any case: that Nabokov and Lewis, my two favourite prose stylists of the English language, should demean Faulkner—one of my least favourite English prose stylists—in the exact same manner I consider sufficient proof that they would get along, and that my taste is coherent. Perhaps at some small table in a particularly unfashionable corner of heaven (for they are both there!), the two of them meet once a decade for a chat.

I leave you with a painting of my dog, drawing a strong visual simile between corn cobs and his Golden Retriever snout.

Friday, February 19, 2010

R.I.P. Kitz

Today I saw a Kitty who got the worst of an encounter with a train.

To prevent this ever happening again, I have created a super-hero named Panini Loaf. Panini Loaf's job is to warn all cats to stay away from train tracks, and to "train" Mama Cats how to teach this lesson to their Kittens and Teens.

May that Kitty rest in peace.

And you, Panini Loaf: Allez!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Schoolyard Conversation Between Three Cats

Speaking of James Joyce, the following is inspired by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is a schoolyard conversation between three cats.

So Kitsie, we hear your Mama Cat kisses
you at night when you go to sleep.


Yeah we heard she
kisses you every night.

Umm... no! 

No, guys, my Mama
Cat doesn't kiss me!

Hmm, then I guess your
Mama Cat doesn't love you!

Because everyone knows
that a Mama Cat 
who loves her Kitten kisses
him at night before bed.

Isn't that right?

Yeah, that's right.

Everyone knows it.

Okay, okay.

Then she does kiss
me at night!

My Mama Cat kisses me.


Did you hear that?




I heard it alright!

I bet she cleans
his anus too!

No way, guys!

Hey, that's gross!

She doesn't clean
my anus! 

Well, I guess that
explains why you're
so stinky.

You know, it's a Mama
Cat's responsibility
to clean her Kitten's anus.

Otherwise he'll get
made fun of for being

Yeah, your Mama Cat does a
bad job of keeping you clean.

Just look at the marmalade
jam on your chin.

You're dirty and you smell bad.

You're not going to trick
me this time, guys.

I don't let my Mama Cat
clean my anus, 
but I'm not stinky.

I lick my own anus.


Did you hear that?



I heard it alright!


Thursday, February 11, 2010

History of the English Language

In Virginia Woolf's Letter to a Young Poet she says, "English is a mixed language, a rich language." Here, in graphic form, is the proof.

When I was an undergraduate I wrote an essay on the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, and the general idea of "history." In the course of researching that paper, I came across an image representing the history of the English language as a sort of nightmarishly complicated confluence of rivers. But I didn't note where I had found it, nor did I "use" it in the resulting essay. Since I became increasingly obsessed with this image over the years, I eventually went on a hunt for it. Five or six years after I first spotted it, I was reunited with the image this past winter, and can now introduce it to you. (Before I do so, click on it to enlarge—you'll be able to spot most of the details.)

English really is a strange language. It's a highly appropriate language to have taken over as the new "lingua franca," because it comes from all over. I knew about the collision between the Germanic Old English and Latin French before seeing this image; but there are, as we see, many others. I wasn't aware that Danish had such an influence, for example. Nor had I considered the "sneaky late arrival" of Greek into the technical language of the sixteenth century. This general division of labour between invading streams is interesting too—according to this chart, basically all of the words of daily life come directly from Old English, and basically nothing else does. It's hard to change our daily habits, English speakers, but we're marvelously open to new ideas!

Of course the diagram itself is interesting. On the one hand, it wants to show us how complicated and messy the history of the English language has been. On the other hand, it wants to make sense of this for us. As the course of the River English approaches the present day (this was produced around 1910), things become too complicated to represent—though the encyclopedic urge persists, and the diagrammer does absolutely everything in his power (it is surely a he!) to detail the smallest intricacies of the discontinuous influence of, say, "Oriental and Barbarian" (without specifying which!) tongues. And the lines do, in fact, resemble tongues—though more closely and increasingly the forked ones of serpents!

I'm sure that such a map would be completely impossible to produce today. The English language, in spreading and coming into contact with endless other languages, is always changing. And there is no longer—if ever there was—an English language, of course, but many. "Rich and mixed"—Virginia Woolf is right!

I am just as attracted to this image as an image. It has a lurid, organic, veiny quality. There's something thrilling and dangerous about all those tentacles! I therefore asked my friend Mardam Hammowicz to make one of his gigantic enlargements of this image for me. You can see the process on her Flickr page. This way of enlarging the image, with all its patched-together-ness, just reinforces the "message" of the image itself: that the language we speak and write in is a tremendous jumble. 

It's a fine image to keep in front of one's face—and a fine lesson to keep in one's mind—as one writes!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Chutney Goes to Camp

In my last post, about Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke, I discussed pupas, cuculs, tushes, pre-teens, and half-wits. I also used the phrase "Hands off the Tush!" All of this called to mind an idea for a novel or screenplay I've been developing for some time, Chutney Goes to Camp.

Anatomy of a Chutney

A Chutney is a species of furry creature. A typical pre-teen Chutney is pictured at right. Most of the important features are visible there. Teen Chutneys are generally timid and well-behaved. They all wear beanies, suspenders, shorts, and sandals. Their shorts are absolutely packed with pockets—it's like stripes on a tiger: the more the better. If one were to look inside these pockets, one would find maps, compasses, comic books, field guides, and vials of chutney in various flavours (apple, mango, banana, pizza) prepared for them by their Mama Chutney.

A prominent physical feature of an adolescent Chutney not visible in this photograph is its extremely large bottom. Mama Chutneys are naturally very fond of touching their Baby or Teen Chutneys' bottoms. It is a typical form of Teen Chutney rebellion, however, to forbid their Mama Chutneys from touching them there (especially under the shorts). Thus the highly typical Teen Chutney exclamation, "Hands off the tush!"

Life Cycle of a Chutney

Chutneys are remarkable in one respect: though they reproduce asexually, there are nonetheless male and female Chutneys. This is explicable as follows. When they are born, all Chutneys (Baby Chutneys) are male. They remain male through the Pre-Teen and Teen phases. At the end of the Teen phase, however, female reproductive organs develop. At the stage indicated by the lightning bolt in the above diagram (click to enlarge), the male reproductive organs fertilize the female ones. This process of consummation consumes (in the chemical sense) the male reproductive organs and the Chutney is left a (pregnant) female.

A Chutney becomes pregnant only once in its (his and her) life. Population increases through twins and triplets, which are not uncommon, though single-Chutney births are the norm. In their adolescence all Chutneys are male; for a short time at the end of their Teen phase they become hermaphroditic; and then all adult Chutneys are female.

There is one uncommon deviation from the above-outlined developmental schema. This occurs when fertilization does not take place in the Thunder Bolt stage and the male reproductive organs are not consumed. Though technically hermaphroditic, these childless Chutneys continue to live as males. They are called by other Chutneys "Weird Chutneys" and are regarded both with suspicion and reverence. The trusted Weird Chutneys work at Summer Camps; the others constitute a Chutneian Underworld.

Chutney Goes to Camp

The novel or screenplay Chutney Goes to Camp follows a Teen Chutney (named Chutney; a common Chutney first name) to a Summer Camp. Such camps have special significance in the lives of Chutneys. It is at Summer Camp that the Thunder Bolt Stage occurs. With instructions from Camp Counsellor Weird Chutneys, Teen Chutneys are sent off into the woods for a period of several weeks to undergo their life changes. They leave as incipient hermaphrodites and return pregnant females.

Mama Chutneys send their children to camp at the first sign of Teenness (looking for signs such as unwillingness to allow their tushes to be touched or refusal to eat chutney). It is unusual for a Chutney to experience its Thunder Bolt Stage in the first year at camp. Most Chutneys spend 3-4 summers at camp.

Chutney Goes to Camp is envisioned as the first in a series of Chutney Summer Camp novels/screenplays. The first installment is designed primarily to introduce the reader/viewer to Chutney life; Chutney will not undergo his Thunder Bolt Stage in his first summer at camp. Instead the plot will focus on his struggle to fit in with other Chutneys (led by the coolest Chutney in camp, Chuttz, whose return from the woods as a pregnant female ends the novel/film) and to resist the efforts of a deviant Weird Chutney (Chutnikoff, the dance instructor) to pervert him and sabotage his normal progression through the stages of the Chutney Life Cycle.

An advantage of a film version of Chutney Goes to Camp would be the inclusion of a number of Chutnikoff-choreographed dance/song numbers, such as a Backstreet Boys-style backwards-chair-punctuated version of "Hands off the Tush."

The Chutney project is but one currently simmering in my imagination. Other works and series to be outlined in future posts include The Adventures of Criffin J. Masterclaw, Kitten Pirate, a series of high-seas adventure tales with a feline protagonist; Adamillo, a multi-generational saga based on the life of a Texan armadillo raised in Poland; The Adventures of a Dirty Cookie, a serial comic strip about a dirty and filth-loving bipolar cookie; and Poo Poo the Musical, a musical play about the efforts of Poo Poo the Cat to be elected mayor of Skunkopolis.