Paulus Torchus

Month: April, 2014

Staggering Geniuses

This article has been eating at me all day.

If you don’t want to read the article, it’s about Dave Eggers’ introduction to the 10 year anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I think I own that edition and I think I skipped the introduction. The problem that the journalist of this article seems to have is that Eggers’ introduction gushes superlatives over the book, but when the book was initially released in 1996, Eggers wrote a negative (-ish, I would say) review of it. A lot of questions spring to my mind.

Did Eggers turncoat because the book is now widely considered one of the great literary works of our time? Did he maybe do it for the money and notoriety (Eggers seems to like money and notoriety)? But also, why are we talking about the introduction to an 8 year old edition of a book right now? 2006 was before Wallace did his quietus make, so what did Wallace think of Eggers’ writing of the introduction? I genuinely don’t know and the article doesn’t seem to address that unless it’s in the link to Wallace-l mailing list that directs me to a page that my browser says is of untrustworthy security. I already find the journalist unreliable, so I’m not going to click on “I know the risks.” And I don’t care enough to dig around and see if Wallace ever commented on it. It is my intention that, by the end of this blog post, you will understand why.

Does Wallace really need for people to jump to his defense?

I disliked the article because it struck me as a character assassination job on Eggers. While I’m no Eggers fan (more on that in a moment), I don’t like ad hominem attacks (or any of the other logical fallacies employed in the article). Pieces where the writer is “taking the subject down a few pegs”, especially in the literary world, always make me think, “Ok. Where’s your masterpiece to eclipse anything the author in question has written? I’m looking forward to reading that, because clearly you’re sitting on a solid literary gold throne to be making sweeping pronouncements like this.” Seems a bit… easy to me. A bit like sour grapes. And, anyway, it’s entirely possible that even if Eggers did write a book romanticizing a domestic abuser, that may not be related to his introduction of Infinite Jest in any way. If a person makes a mistake at one point, that does not mean that everything they do everywhere else in their life is a manifestation of that same mistake. In the complexity of existence, it is possible for someone who you disagree with on one or more points to have within them the capacity to behave admirably on other points. That’s part of what’s so frustrating about the monsters in, as it were, the real world. They call their mothers and give to charity and might have good table manners. Part of what’s so unnerving about real world villains is that they end up looking a lot like us.

Maybe Eggers forgot that he wrote that review. Maybe Eggers changed his mind in that 10 years (people are also allowed to do that). Or maybe it was a crass money and notoriety grab.

It does seem odd that Eggers wouldn’t address it. I don’t think, as the journalist seems to, Eggers has some sort of shadow government with the power to suppress an older piece of his writing (and I guess we should give this journalist a medal for posting the original book review. He’s like V from V for Vendetta or something, right?).

And people can disavow things they’ve written in the past. Personally, I disown a great deal of what I’ve written in my past. But Eggers isn’t even doing that. He is saying nothing and, if the article is correct, he is safely stowed in his high tower behind a moat of PR.

So we don’t know!

I’m preparing a class on art of the early Christian church this week and I’ve been struck by the variety of interpretations that art historians bring to the material. This one has a vine and therefore must be aligning itself with the Dionysian. That one has a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders, much like another statue of Greek origin depicting a man bringing a sheep to sacrifice to Athena. It’s the old “early Christianity stole from the pagans” game. Maybe. Or maybe two pieces of art of a man with a lamb can exist contemporaneously without relation to one another. It is possible that the objective truth is the surface appearance of The Good Shepherd being a Christian metaphor concocted for their own purposes.

Likewise, Eggers is not speaking and so we are left to interpret the information on our own. If we hate Eggers already, we can use this as evidence to support our case, but that does not mean it is objectively true. This is what is called a pre-supposition and it t’ain’t necessarily so. We could assume that Eggers forgot or changed his mind, but that also does not mean it is objectively true. We don’t know. As with any artwork produced by an artist whose full biography we do not know (which, when you think about it, is every artwork except for the ones we have personally created) there is a large percentage of our reaction that should be focused on the work itself rather than the signature, the person who produced it. Art should be able to stand on its own and transcend the sins of the father.

I also couldn’t help noticing that while the journalist reproduces the 1996 review with all the glee of The Gawker producing the Donald Sterling tapes, he suddenly grows a healthy fear of copyright infringement over the 2006 introduction. We have to take his word for how glowing an introduction Eggers published. If the two pieces were placed side by side, perhaps we, the readers, could be trusted to draw conclusions for ourselves?!!?

Now for my personal big reveal: I’ve read both Eggers and Wallace. I found Eggers’ work to, indeed, contain a great deal of what I dislike about my own time. I found him to be dazzled by his own precious cleverness. I’m sure in conversations I’ve described AHWOSG as “a book by a privileged, white, Bay Area man who was almost on MTV’s The Real World. Imagine a work of literature by such a person and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s like.” Although I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Just because an individual has had certain advantages in life does not mean that they are of poor moral character or that they do not feel as other humans do or that they are incapable of producing a great work of art. In fact, while all I’ve said so far of my reaction is true, I also found him to be an enjoyable read and at least half as clever as he seems to think he is. But, yes, I would agree with the assessment that Eggers here is the pot calling the kettle “self-indulgent.”

Wallace is more of what I like of my own time. He stands on the shoulders of previous literature, notably the post-modernists who were of his father’s generation, but he created literature that was decidedly literature and decidedly of our time. He was to academia what Eggers is to the current mindset of seeking advertising and entertainment that will keep you transfixed until you die (yeah, I said it!). Yet Wallace retains an emotional sincerity without ever growing soppy. He has a sort of icy humanity that resonates with me. It’s honest with baroque complexity. Of the two, I prefer Wallace as an author, and suspect, as much as anyone can know such a thing, I would prefer him as a human given what I know of the two. But at this point and to me in my little life, the former is of much greater importance. I’ve read both and enjoyed both. I imagine that I will read more of Wallace before I die. Possible not so of Eggers.

In the end, I think that Wallace’s work can survive anything Eggers said or didn’t say about it. I think it highly likely that Wallace will be studied long after Eggers and I certainly think that Wallace will age much better than Eggers. All of which will not change because of anything I’ve written here or anything dude wrote in his article about the Faberge Eggers scandal. So what ate at me enough to compel me to write a lengthy blog article about it?

I don’t like sloppy arguments.

Nec Spe, Nec Metu


I dreamt that a dwarf sycamore tree at my current house (which is not an actual tree at this house, but was in the place of my olive tree) had huge limbs falling from it. I had to chop them up while trying to keep vagrants from entering my garage.

In the morning, I was, again, depressed over the loss of my house. It was one of those mornings where you almost start crying from walking out the backdoor, realizing how limited a number of times you have left to walk out of that particular backdoor in this life. This was my marriage house, what we came home to from the honeymoon nearly seven years ago. I wanted to retire here some day… to an extent. As the quality of the neighborhood disintegrated, that became less joyous of a prospect.

Then, halfway through my workday, I was thinking about the books I’ve ordered with my birthday money. I’m especially looking forward to a book about Diogenes the Cynic, the philosopher of antiquity who lived in a storage container of his own free will and who is reported to have said:

“Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.”

And I thought, I am a straight, white male, age 18-55, in a First World nation with freedom of religion and, to some extent, freedom of political views. I am sad about losing my three bedroom house to move into a two bedroom house. This is hardly the stuff of high tragedy. This is, more accurately, the description of someone in some of the most privileged circumstances on Earth.

None of the pets will be put down or even rehoused (well, rehoused with us, I suppose. But we don’t have to lose the pleasure of any of their company is my point). We have a realtor who is helping us through the Deed in Lieu process which should make the process as painless/annoyanceless as possible. We haven’t even paid our first month’s rent and we’ve already had more help than either of us have ever had in a move before.

When I was in college, I had a friend with whom I would occasionally play a game called “The Blessing Game.” We would each get a bottle of Merlot and sit on her patio, usually late at night. We would drink our wine and list the ways in which we are blessed.

I had another compass that I recently was able to pass on to a friend who was struggling with some situations. I told him about a concept that I learned from a teacher in the theater (and later learned that he got it from Quentin Crisp). The concept was:

“Accelerate through the chaos.”

For example, if you’re balding, shave your head. In my experience, it’s a way of coping with, and even enjoying, our powerlessness in this world. Sometimes it works out to be the way to solve problems. We saw our financial dire straights about to fall on us, so we set into motion the mechanism of losing our house. This will likely keep us from being foreclosed upon and will move us into a bigger house, with all of our pets, in a better neighborhood, for cheaper. Like grain for the famine years, we store up wisdom in times of calm to prepare us for times of distress. Wisdom is a map to navigate troubled waters.

Of course it will be sad to leave this house. We have a lot of memories in it and we love it. We put a lot of work into it. But there’s really only so sad it can get. And, realistically, we were going to leave it someday one way or another. At one point I just expected that next home to be a small box placed gently into the sod and padded by lilies.

That’s the reality of our situation. Yours too. Don’t let’s get too attached to all of this.

Sonnet no. 2- The Easter Bonnet

The robin’s egg in fabric lights the color of your eyes,

like abysses of clement, pacific pools.

And standing in the front pew singing of the Savior’s rise,

you reflect the mysteries universal.


Pale pink of ribbon hugs circumference of the bonnet

like the Spring sun resurrected new each morn.

I deign to dare to wish to have been there when you donned it.

The lilies of the field are not so adorned.


The inclusion of a feather has given my soul flight,

to be standing next to Aphrodite’s blessed,

Hat that show you virtuous and erudite,

the model of behavior to a fallen world confessed.


Your Springtime beauty deserves renown.

Nature’s flowers never made such a crown.

Finnegans Wake 1.3

Hopefully, after the move, I’ll average more than one chapter a week.

The wading got a bit deep in this section, but it resolved into one of my favorite passages so far. There is a reference to television early on, which was a bit of a surprise as Mr. Farnsworth’s invention came into this world contemporaneously with the composition of this book. There’s also a joke in this section about “Sid Arthar”, a reference to The Buddha and a joke I’ve heard Eddie Izzard tell. I’m afraid one of the effects of reading so much Joyce is beginning to learn where a lot of jokes I’ve heard before came from! Joyce was a brilliant comedian. A bit of a Mozart.

There is also, in this section, a reference to Oscar Wilde. I think the introduction mentioned that this is one motif in the book. I would imagine the theme of older to younger sexual disgrace which would be familiar to Joyce’s contemporaries. But I also hear that there was a strange book released as Joyce was writing Finnegans Wake which was some occultist conjuring the words of Oscar Wilde from beyond the grave. One of the things the undead Wilde saw fit to comment on was the work of James Joyce, which he was not in favor of. Joyce seems to have been familiar with this book and this may have been the catalyst to the inclusion of this motif! Stranger and stranger.

In this dream state, the rumor mongers all come to a bad end while Humphrey is also assaulted at his home by them, or attempted assaulted possibly. The angry mob is at once dying over time and actively lynching, much like how Finnegan is dying as HCE is doing whatever HCE did.

Language plays a daunting role in this text. While Joyce runs roughshod over English, he also does not hesitate to employ quite a few other languages. Latin, French, Gaelic, but especially in this section Italian. Laurie and I were discussing Joyce on the phone on my lunchbreak the other day (or, rather, I was raving about Joyce while she may have been listening) and I mentioned that I don’t know a lot about Joyce as a person (this because I’m excited to purchase a collection of his essays and opinion pieces). Then I began to think and realized that I do know more than I thought I had. Irish, never entirely recovered from his Catholic upbringing, ended on a religious sour note with his mother, stepped out with Nora first on June 16th 1904, the famously salacious love letters, lifelong poverty, loans, patrons, moved around a lot, obscenity trials (even in countries that are supposed to have free speech), daughter-a magnificent giant of a modern dancer who became schizophrenic, son-an alcoholic, drinking with Hemingway and making him finish fights for him, scared of dogs and thunder, went blind and wrote a good deal of this book in huge letters on a chalkboard as Nora copied it down, died of an ulcer or something and his last words were begging them to call his wife. But I still don’t know what he was like as a person really and I find myself increasingly… well, a Joycean. I find myself fascinated by this author and keen to learn more.

I also know that he spoke Italian and seemed to have preferred to do so at home. I don’t know Italian. Or Gaelic. And my Latin’s pretty rusty.

There’s a long section in the middle that I found to be obscure, but I think was an elaboration on the theme of lecherous older men preying on young women OR the story of another particular lecherous older man preying on the same young girl(s?) involved in the HCE incident. And this may have been a courtroom testimony.

We have the first reference to HCE’s wife’s (ALP) letter in his defense. I also know enough about this book that the contents of this letter close the book and are striking. The letter may or may not turn into a coffin in this section.

Right, all of which, believe it or not, I’ve made less confusing here than it is in the text. But then there is a German man who either barges in as an uninvited guest to HCE’s home OR HCE has suddenly become the bartender at a pub and has cut him off. There follows a list of insults that the German hurls at HCE. They are Joycean insults. The list goes on for a few pages. I’ve underlined my favorites and plan to start using them as insults in life:

1. Old Fruit

2. Wheatears

3. Bogside Beauty

4. York’s Porker

5. Cainandabler

6. Moonface the Murderer

7. Acoustic Disturbance

8. Thinks He’s Gobblast the Good Dook of Ourguile

9. Burnham and Bailey

10. Artist

11. Unworthy of the Homely Protestant Religion

12. Lobsterpot Lardling

13. Leathertogs Donald

14. Luck Before Wedlock

15. Twelve Months Aristocrat

16. Lycanthrope

17. Stodge Arschmann

18. Sleeps with Feathers end Ropes

19. Wants a Wife and Forty of Them

20. Plowp Goes his Whastle

21. Sower Rapes

22. Sickfish Bellyup

23. Edomite

24. Bad Humborg

25. Woolworth’s Worst

26. Fast in the Barrel

Near the end of this section, in keeping with the “too much to drink” skit, there is a reference to Dog-an-Doras. I had an excited moment where I thought “Hey! I get that reference!”

I got it because, when I was in high school, I inherited a record collection which included some records by Sir Harry Lauder, the famous turn of the century Scottish music hall singer (other kids were into Nirvana. This is what I was doing). I’ve sang this song for nearly 20 years:

I love the musicality of this book. I love that I’ve read three chapters and had a song to associate with each response so far.

The book is peppered throughout with little references like this. I’m noticing myself, in writing about this and, indeed, in reacting to this book, reflected heavily on my personal experiences and thought-life. I don’t think this is entirely inappropriate. I seem to remember reading someone in preparation for this book, which would make Hercules run back into the horse stalls, say that the real hero of Finnegans Wake is the reader. I think there is truth to this. While the book does have an obscured plot, I feel like the complex machinery is aimed at providing the reader with a crowbar to take to one’s own subconscious. Or maybe I could put it like this: The beautiful thing about a book is that one, as a reader, can have a conversation with the author. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce does not just record a dreamlike environment, rather he builds a dreamscape. It is Joyce’s dreamscape, his subconscious, but the book allows the reader to enter with their own mind and interact. Thus, indeed, elevating the act of reading to a heroic act.

One theory less than 1/6th of the way through, but there you go.

More soon.


Finnegans Wake 1.2

One erratum from last week’s post: HCE is not the Dublin common man. He, rather, seems to be one of the elite (at least in this section), sort of a Pere Ubu type of character, some sort of dignified figure. He also seems to be in the rotund side as we shall see anon. I have a great appreciation of Joyce’s tendency to shy away from conventional lead actors. I mean, think about it. Channing Tatum and Jennifer Lawrence as Leopold and Molly Bloom? No, Joyce has a Fellini-esque realism and this, I assume, is why Virginia Woolf found him vulgar. Well… that and the swears and Onanism I guess.

First, I would like to say a few words about having pierced the membrane of the first 29 pages. I am finding that, in a way, it worked! What I mean to say is, everything I’ve said previously about the book (the important of help material, the crucial “plot” outline) stands, but I am finding myself having a much easier time with it. Custom hath made it in me a property of easiness. Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement actually, but I am finding the comparison of learning how to read this book to learning a new language apt. Right now I feel a bit like I did watching Run, Lola, Run right after my first year of German. I could kind of sometimes not look at the subtitles!

In this section we are finally introduced to HCE (I’ll use the initials for the sake of clarity as his name seems to shift, but the initials stay the same). He encounters a common man who seems to be accusing him of a sexual indiscretion (the nature of which also shifts. In the dreamscape of Wake, I sense that the indiscretion amounts to general sexual guilt and HCE’s claimed innocence seems like it might indicate the sense of sexual guilt when one hasn’t actually done anything wrong).

The man is first identified as a “quidam.” This took me back to my teenage years when my older brother worked in the ticket booth of a Cirque du Soliel show of that name. I remember him telling me about an affluent man who came to the ticket booth and sneeringly asked, “What’s Quidam supposed to mean?”

My brother said, “You know that guy walking down the street who you don’t know and who you don’t care if he lives or if he dies? That’s ‘Quidam!'”

Not a story that Joyce would have known, but I feel that this sort of free association is not out of line in response to this text.

HCE is accused of the indiscretion by the quidam (another moment where I audibly laughed was when, for simplicity, Joyce suggests we call him “Abdullah Gamellaxarsky.” And then proceeds to never call him by that name again). HCE denies it, and goes on his way. The rest of the chapter is an account of the rumor spreading. It comes to the ear of a priest. We hear a stutterer commenting on it. We see it pass through a pub (the wonderful term “alcoherently” is coined) of hunters, ladies, ne’er-do-wells, professionals, and thence to a group of waggish parody song writers. They take it upon themselves to write a satirical ballad.


One of the beautiful tools of this modern age is Youtube. Whenever you approach a piece of literature that includes music, you can rest assured that one of the billions of users on Earth have attempted to record the song. Usually you’ll have your choice of versions. While I have a bare-bones enough music education to sight read, my imagination is not so great as to fill in what a song sounds like just by looking at the notations. I like this performance, although I’m not so crazy about his commentary. He says this song is an outline of the plot of the book and I don’t think it is. Also, he’s settled on one version of HCE’s indiscretion and I don’t think the book does that. However, bravo for performing the whole droning thing in front of a live audience! So I’d recommend starting the video when the music starts at 1:07.

More soon.

Finnegans Wake 1.1

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

Yes, it is a dense work. Yes, it is slow reading. Yes, it does not make conventional sense nor is it in conventional English. But about ten pages in, as I was struggling with the text in the way I’m sure everyone struggles with the text, I thought to myself, “Yes, but am I enjoying it?”

And I found that I was. Much like Ulysses, in spite of the overly reported difficulty of the book it also strikes me as a highly joyful book. The wordplay is sweeping, cosmic, immense, sublime. The comparison I imagined was Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, another overly reported difficult work. If one were to buy a ticket to that opera, one finds one’s self in the opera house for around five hours observing a piece that is famously both minimalistic and abstracted. People have made all sorts of accusations against the work of Philip Glass, some of which I can intellectually understand where they are coming from, but I’ve never been able to shake the fact that I simply enjoy his sound. When one realizes this, one can settle back into enjoying the next five hours or six hundred pages.

Well, I guess that remains to be seen.

As I predicted, the Oxford World’s Classics edition has proved invaluable. There is one passage early on:

“This is camelry, this is floodens, this is solphereens in action, this is their mobbly, this is panickburns. Almeidagad! Arthiz too loose! This is Wellingdone cry. Brum! Brum! Cumbrum!”

What on Earth is Joyce on about? Well, in the introduction there is a Chapter by Chapter Outline of the, as it were, plot. In regards to this section “Finnegan’s ‘mild indiscretion’ projected onto the battle of Waterloo”. These sections, these plot fragments, flow not nearly so neatly as they are delineated in the introduction, but, having read this and knowing it was coming, at one point I realized “Oh! The Duke of Wellington!”

YOU HAVE TO HAVE THIS! You cannot travel this land without a Virgil! I am convinced of it and I think Joyce meant for it to be. I think he meant to open a deep deep mine and throw the reader into it, leaving it up to the reader to find the tools to mine anything from it or even a lantern. I think I read someone somewhere compare the first 29 pages to learning a new language. It is daunting, but I am assured that it’s also rewarding. I’ve also heard it compared to a dream, the night-twin of the day of Ulysses. Considering the intersections between the lives of Joyce and Jung, this interpretation has a rather startling edge to me.

Also, onomatopoeia is one of Joyce’s chief playthings in this work. Famously, at the beginning, he makes a joke about The Fall of Man:

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!)”

The “word” in parenthesis is, perhaps, the thunderclap of God’s wrath over Adam’s sin or, an option that made me chuckle when I read it, the written sound of someone falling down a flight of stairs. The book is brimming with this kind of “joke.”

This book does require a great deal more digging than Ulysses required. Indeed, people can spend a lot of time and energy… well, I suppose a better way to put it might be to say that what one gets out of it depends upon what one puts into it, much like life (and, as Tom Lehrer observed, a sewer). I discovered that someone actually put this moment to music:

<p><a href=”″>Thunderclap for Six Kinetic Light Drums + Finale</a> from <a href=””>Jenn Figg</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

People have devoted a lot of time and energy to this book. I am thankful for so many civic minded individuals who have traveled this path and left landmarks.

And speaking of music, it is helpful to know the song from which the work takes its title. In the first 29 pages, I think the lyrics of the song have cropped up nearly a dozen times:

The Fall of Man seems to be a motif. Since this is Joyce, it is transposed over a common Irishman with a problematic relationship with religion whose sin is succumbing to sexual urges. In this we see both an indictment of and an attraction to the baser instincts, which reflects the nature of Original Sin, that is to say the inclinations towards impurity. Also since this is Joyce, these themes are going to go into the high speed blender. As form meets content, we are warned of this. The first lines seem to reference the beginning of Tristan und Isolde and we who read the introduction know that the daughter of the… I suppose we should call him the title character although Finnegan morphs into a man named HCE for most of the book (I think), anyway the daughter is named Isolde. Also knowing that Joyce’s daughter Lucia, upon whom he doted, was descending into schizophrenia as he was writing this, we are prepared to see this theme of Original Sin in this form permeate every human in the story like sunlight through glass.

And looking back on the sentences I just wrote makes me keenly aware of how difficult it is going to be to talk about this.

I suppose one of the hotly debated, polarizing questions surrounding this book is whether a work of literature should demand this much of a reader. I would hazard a guess that out of nine billion people, only a thousand some people on Earth have read it at any given time. I have six hundred daunting pages to go still and I’m wary of making any hubristic statements at this point (picturing myself as Stephen Icarus), but I think that this is a fine use of the form. If I wanted everything presented to me on a silver platter, Western Civilization is chock full of entertainment outlets happy to provide for a fee. Should a book be difficult as this? Sure! Should a book be simple as Hemingway? Sure!

Am I going to make it through this book?

Am I going to make it through this book?



Is this thing on?

On Losing My Home

So, Laurie and I are moving.

We have known for some time that our ability to keep the financial ball in the air is unsustainable under current circumstances. There are a number of reasons for this: our financial situation has changed drastically and unforseeably since we bought this house, the whole world of home-ownership in America has changed in the past 7 years to the point where the axiom “safe as houses” is unavoidably laced with bitter irony, exterior forces and a smattering of ill advised choices, an impending balloon payment which we once had a plan for that has since fallen through, etc., etc.

We have seen this coming for a long time.

We wanted to be proactive, not to simply allow nature to run its course. Neither of us is comfortable with hunkering down to wait for a foreclosure and we still have not hit that point. The incitement to move now came in the serendipitous offer of a house to rent, larger than the one we live in now and significantly cheaper, permission for all pets and as much gardening as we like, in a nicer and quieter neighborhood, and I even like the decor (I keep describing it as “retro-1950s with full PeeWee’s Playhouse potential”). 

The bad news is we are returning to the world of renters, the dream failed, we are losing a home that we love and in which we’ve had some of the happiest memories of our lives. And a home that we dumped barrels of money into. C’est la vie.

The good news is that we will have new memories, a new home to decorate, and, for the first time in our marriage, to live below our means, giving us the opportunity to possibly do some good rather than doing nothing more than constantly flailing to keep our noses above water.

If you’re local and want to help, you can start saving boxes and/or block out some time in the first weekend of May to help us move. If you’re not local… well, thanks for your kind attention and expect any further pictures of us at home to be in a different location.

As you were.