tom moody

Archive for the ‘books’ Category

angela nagle, simon reynolds on rightwing transgression (but what about bullying by the left?)

My years on (from which I'm still recovering) saw a constant meme-play tug-of-war between left and right attitudes. Which was better, to shock the left or to be the left?

That question comes up (not in those exact words) in Simon Reynolds' post today discussing Angela Nagle's book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right (alt-right is a Clinton term but we'll let it go since everyone seems to think they know what it means). (FYI, Nagle discusses ideas similar to those in her book in a recent Baffler essay.)

Reynolds notes that Nagle references his 1995 book The Sex Revolts (co-authored with Joy Press). Here's what he has to say today about that book and how it relates to the current situation:

Nagle references The Sex Revolts a couple of times during her thesis. That book is a bit of an orphan in the oeuvre, indeed there have been quite long periods when I've completely forgotten that Joy and I ever wrote it. While I can't quite reconstruct the head that came up with the over-arching thesis on which the thing is scaffolded and which I'm not certain stands up anymore (that was the peak / swan-song of my infatuation with French theory), whenever I've looked back at a specific portion or patch of it - the stuff on grunge, or Siouxsie, or the whole section on psychedelia - it still seems on the money.

Probably the sharpest part is the stuff that relates to Nagle's book, which is the early chapter dissecting the masculinism of all the immediate precursors to rock rebellion - the Beats, the Angry Young Men, James Dean, Ken Kesey, et al - during which we bring up "Momism", a concept coined by Philip Wiley in his 1942 book Generation of Vipers. Wylie identified a form of new American decadence in the growth of consumerism, mass media entertainment like radio, and suburbia, which he linked to matriarchy and domesticity: American virility, the frontier style of rugged martial masculinity on which the nation was founded, was being smothered by over-mothering, comfort and niceness. The Sex Revolts mentions Robert Bly's Iron Man as a modern-day, therapeutically tinged and New Age-y resurgence of the Momism critique, a sort of Jung Thug manifesto. But, published in 1995, our book was a year too early for Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club: angry young men reacting against metrosexual consumerism and sensitivity, a creeping decadence weakening from within.

Fight Club was the book that coined the term "snowflake," and the novel has proved to be a prophetic parable. The ugly contorted face of anti-Momism today is the paranoid impatience with political correctness, safe spaces, trigger warning -- the new proprieties that are felt as intolerable constraints, restrictions on the male right to spite. Underlying it all is the crisis of masculinity that doesn't know what its for anymore, in a demilitarized and post-industrial era. Hence the fixation on guns, on rapacious extraction industries like coal and the removal of protections for Mother Earth, on macho posturing foreign policy - surrogates and displacements for an eroding and increasingly irrelevant style of manhood.

Left-bullying has also grown increasingly macho -- from the virtual stoning of Ryder Ripps a few years ago to the nazi-punching video craze -- but it will be a while before a book is written about that. It's too complicated. Angela Nagle sort-of-covers it in Kill the Normies -- as Reynolds notes, its thesis "asserts that there is a commonality of psychology in the desire-to-shock, whether manifested on the far right or far left of the political-cultural spectrum." But the nazi-punchers and the Ripps mobbers aren't out to shock. They think they are noble. The shock Nagle is talking about is old-left transgression against the Man -- beatniks not bathing, etc. -- which morphed in the late '70s punk era into "Nuke the Whales" events, the patrician humor of P. J. O'Rourke and other jokes at the expense of left-pieties. 4Chan is a slightly nastier version of that. (The first time I heard the phrase "politically correct" was in the late '80s -- Reverend Ivan Stang of the Church of the Subgenius found both the left and the right insufferable and used that phrase to chide the idea of "off limits" humor.)

- tom moody

September 21st, 2017 at 2:05 pm

Posted in around the web, books

left reactions to Clinton's book of blame; end of "Trump insurgency"

Reviews from the left side of the dial of Hillary Clinton's book Wha' Happened? have not been kind.

Jeffrey St. Clair:

What Happened is a sordid book, petulant and spiteful. It made me feel queasy and dirty while reading it, like the whole 25-year-long experience of Clintonism itself. By the end, I got the sense that its sleazy torrent of invective and blame-mongering was more an attempt to console the frail psyche of the author rather than to repair her shattered image to any readership the book might find. In the years to come, What Happened will prove much more valuable as documentary evidence for psycho-historians than political scientists.

Paul Street:

Wow. This is the thanks that the Hillary Clinton has for Sanders’ energetic and self-effacing efforts to save her sorry, vapid, sold-out, and uninspiring political career. After everything Bernie did for her, after all the exhausting campaign stops he made for her, she still has the sneering sociopathic audacity to lay her abject failure partly at Sanders’ feet. [italics Street's --tm]

Caitlin Johnstone (a Green voter) doesn't actually review the book but contributes a fine, foul-mouthed rant:

As we all know, nobody actually wants Hillary Clinton to keep talking. Nobody, if they’re really honest with themselves, wants her to keep coming back, smearing Bernie Sanders, shitting on progressives, and blaming every living vertebrate not named Hillary Rodham Clinton for her loss in the 2016 election. Even her most ardent supporters are secretly wishing she’d just shut the fuck up and go away at this point so they could stop cleaning up after her and working overtime to spin her bullshit into something vaguely positive.

So why doesn’t she? Why does she keep coming back in, doing interviews, attacking the left, embarrassing her supporters and relitigating a primary election she’d do well to let the world forget? I think I know why.

Johnstone thinks that, having demonized Trump beyond all bounds of civilized imagination during the campaign, Clinton has to keep up the drumbeat now:

In opting for this risky gamble of telling Democrats that something uniquely horrible would happen if Trump won, and then losing, Hillary Clinton was forced into a position where she had to either (A) tell America that everything was going to be okay, thereby admitting that much of what her people had been saying about Trump was a lie, or (B) let the fear persist and try to avoid getting blamed for it. She opted for B.

That seems a bit baroque but this part of Johnstone's rant has the ring of truth:

America was spoonfed a boatload of lies in order to force the election of what the US oligarchs perceived as a more reliable pro-establishment candidate to protect their assets... [Yet] after all the fearmongering and freakouts, we’ve seen conclusively that Trump is essentially a Republican Obama, who was himself essentially a Democratic George W. Bush...

It's too early to say what Trump might have in store for us but he certainly seems to have been brought to heel by the military. The few anti-interventionist noises he made in the campaign will soon be a distant memory.

- tom moody

September 19th, 2017 at 6:46 pm

Posted in around the web, books

anti-natalism (Ligotti vs HBO)

HBO's True Detective, Season 1, famously featured some dour anti-natalist philosophy spoken by detective Rustin Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey:

I'd consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I'm what's called a pessimist... I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself - we are creatures that should not exist by natural law... We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody's nobody... I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction - one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

McConaughey's portrayal of Cohle as a humorless, self-pitying character makes the above lines sound even more bleak than they read.

Several commentators picked up on the connections of this spiel to horror author Thomas Ligotti's book The Conspiracy against the Human Race (in fact, it could be said that HBO put Ligotti "on the map").

What's missing is the sly humor of Ligotti's writing, a kind of eye-twinkle as he dishes out an escalating series of unsayable propositions. For example, this excerpt from Conspiracy:

Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees -- a blunder of blind nature, according to [Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel] Zapffe, that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not what we are -- contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox.* To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating. What could be more judicious or more urgent, existentially speaking, than our self-administered oblivion? At the very least, we might give some regard to this theory of the blunder as a "thought-experiment." All civilizations become defunct. All species die out. There is even an expiration date on the universe itself. Human beings would certainly not be the first phenomenon to go belly up. But we could be the first to precipitate our own passing, abbreviating it before the bodies really started to stack up. Could we know to their most fine-grained details the lives of all who came before us, would we bless them for the care they took to keep the race blundering along? Could we exhume them alive, would we shake their bony, undead hands and promise to pass on the favor of living to future generations? Surely that is what they would want to hear, or at least that is what we want to think they would want to hear. And just as surely that is what we would want to hear from our descendents living in far posterity, strangers though they would be as they shook our bony, undead hands.

The darkly comic image of the bony undead handshake (twice repeated) makes the unsayable more hearable. True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto softens the message by giving laugh lines to Cohle's cop partner, Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson. As Cohle expounds his grim philosophy in the front seat of their police car, Hart answers with "Hmm, that sounds God-fucking-awful, Rust" (IMDb) and "Let's make the car a place of silent reflection from now on." (IMDb)

Another example: here's Cohle talking about his own experience of fatherhood. The daughter he speaks of was killed by a hit and run driver while she was still a toddler:

Think of the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this... meat, to force a life into this... thresher. That's...
So my daughter, she spared me the sin of being a father.

Bu-u-u-mmer. Again, this does no service to Ligotti, who has wit. Discussing the same undiscussable notion Cohle throws down, Ligotti notes, in Conspiracy:

Almost nobody declares that an ancestral curse contaminates us in utero and pollutes our existence. Doctors do not weep in the delivery room, or not often. They do not lower their heads and say, "The stopwatch has started."

As previously noted, The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a weirdly inspirational book. It is liberating to consider the idea that suffering, guilt, and egomaniac striving -- the "tragedy of human existence" -- began because at some stage in our evolution we acquired “a damning surplus of consciousness" and "life....overshot its target, blowing itself apart" (the latter phrases are Zapffe's). Unlike Cohle (and Pizzolatto), Ligotti readily acknowledges that his own theories may be a perverse symptom of this evolutionary mistake. By writing a book on anti-natalism, he is engaging in artistic sublimation, which is one of the means by which humans "smother consciousness" and its attendant paradoxes,* according to Zapffe. This sublimation may be useful to readers or it may just be another story we tell ourselves. From endnote 3 of Conspiracy:

Under the collective designation of “constructivists,” philosophers, sociologists, and other authorities working in a range of fields have variously deliberated on the fabricated nature of our lives. Examples: P. L. Berger and T. Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality, 1966; Paul Watzlawick, ed., Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know?, 1984; Ernst von Glasefeld, Radical Contructivism: A Way of Learning, 1996. For book-reading intellectuals, this idea is just one of many that fill their days. Its import, however, is not often shared with the masses. But sometimes it is. An instance in cinema where fabrication is hypothesized to be the cornerstone of our lives occurs at the end of Hero (1992), when the character referred to in the title, Bernard LePlant [played by Dustin Hoffman -TM], passes on some words of wisdom to his previously estranged son. “You remember where I said I was going to explain about life, buddy?” he says. “Well, the thing about life is, it gets weird. People are always talking to you about truth, everybody always knows what the truth is, like it was toilet paper or something and they got a supply in the closet. But what you learn as you get older is, there ain’t no truth. All there is, is bullshit. Pardon my vulgarity here. Layers of it. One layer of bullshit on top of another. And what you do in life, like when you get older, is -- you pick the layer of bullshit you prefer, and that’s your bullshit, so to speak. You got that?” Despite the cynicism of LePlant’s words, the object of his fatherly lesson is to create a bond between him and his son. (Hollywood is heavily invested in plotlines in which a broken family is “healed.”) This bond is reliant on the exposure of life as bullshit and is itself bullshit -- since one can have no basis for preferring one layer of bullshit over another without already being full of bullshit -- which makes LePlant’s case that “All there is, is bullshit” without his being aware of it, which is how bullshit works. This is not the message the moviegoer is meant to take away from the mass-audience philosophizing of Hero, but there it is anyway.

*The "paradox" (one of many) Ligotti refers to: "We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering -- slowly or quickly -- as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are -- hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones."

- tom moody

September 4th, 2017 at 1:47 pm

Posted in books, films

Notes for a Daniel Albright bio

Notes for a biographical sketch on the late Daniel Albright, literary critic, musicologist, and theorist of historical Modernism. Albright's Wikipedia entry has a short bio and publication list. Below is a capsule discussion of his career highlights, from web and printed sources. Some additional documentation is still needed.

Yeats Scholar

Albright's advisor at Yale [needs source] was Richard Ellmann, author of Yeats, The Man and the Masks (1948), a pivotal Yeats biography [New York Times], and The Identity of Yeats (1953), a book-length analysis of the poet's style and themes. Albright wrote of Ellman: "A conversation about a poem of Yeats' with Richard Ellmann was like a stroll through a forest with an agreeable companion who not only knows the names of every bird, bush, lichen, and bug, but also hears sounds usually audible only to bats." [W. B. Yeats, The Poems (J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd, 1990), page lxx] Albright's scholarship continues Ellmann's biographical reading of Yeats, a complex endeavor since Yeats reflected on his life very indirectly in his poems, through symbols and personae.

Albright's first book The Myth against Myth: A Study of Yeats's Imagination in Old Age (Oxford University Press, 1972), for example, discusses how Yeats' later "realist" poems such as "News for the Delphic Oracle" and "The Circus Animals' Desertion" re-interpret themes and images of earlier, more self-consciously mythic works such as "The Wanderings of Oisin." Quibbling with some of the book's readings, Frank Kinahan's review in Modern Philology concludes with strong praise: "Albright is a close and sensitive reader of poetry, and there are exegeses here leaving you nodding Yes till your neck aches." Kinahan concludes: "The years to come will show us that Yeats in his twenties and thirties was always on the verge of becoming the realist that an older Yeats became. And it is work like Albright's that is helping to bring that realization about." [Modern Philology, November 1975, p. 214 -- JSTOR.]

In 1985, Albright published a review in The New York Review of Books (subscription-only) of the Richard Finneran-edited Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, a comprehensive 1983 volume based on the Macmillan edition. Echoing criticisms of Yeats scholar A. Norman Jeffares, Albright took Finneran to task for preserving Macmillan's ordering of the poems, in particular placing that long but seminal early poem "The Wanderings of Oisin" at the end of the book. This was originally done by Macmillan in the 1930s for commercial reasons: the publisher felt that prospective buyers, browsing in bookstores, might be put off by a long poem at the beginning. Albright made the case for a pure chronological ordering of the poems, especially since Oisin's themes reverberate throughout the later work.

Albright also criticized Finneran's reluctance to use biographical interpretations in his scholarly glosses:

[T]he chief curiosity of the commentary of the new edition is its omission of biography. I doubt that any annotator on earth besides Professor Finneran would consider it irrelevant that “Upon a Dying Lady” (1912–1914), a poem rich in circumstantial detail, is about a real woman, Mabel Beardsley, the sister of the artist Aubrey; but her name is omitted from the gloss, which instead talks about Petronius Arbiter and a warrior mentioned in the Rubáiyát. World history, literature, orthography are real to Professor Finneran; individual lives are not.

From this background eventually emerged Albright's own definitive Yeats edition, The Poems, published in 1990 in the Everyman's Library series (J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.). The book restores the chronological ordering of the verse, and contains several hundred pages of critical analysis, including biographical references lacking in the Finneran edition. As noted on Albright's website, The Poems was "edited with a view to presenting a close approximation to the 'sacred book' Yeats hoped to bequeath to the world" [Panaesthetics] -- that is, more like the essential volume under discussion during Yeats' lifetime, before those marketing considerations intervened during the Depression and became codified in subsequent editions. Harvard professor Philip Fisher described The Poems as "[one] part Yeats, [one] part line-by-line commentary with wonderful mini-essays by Dan Albright on every topic in Yeats." [YouTube of Albright memorial]. Fisher laments that the book disappeared from the shelves but that's only true for the American paperback edition: Dent still offers it in hardback in the UK.


Albright was a literature professor at the University of Virginia when he published his third book, Representation and the Imagination: Beckett, Kafka, Nabokov and Schoenberg (1980). The Schoenberg chapter prompted an unsolicited offer [needs source] to teach at the University of Rochester, with Albright acting as a kind of liaison between the department of English and the Eastman School of Music. [Wikipedia] At Rochester, Albright published Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts (University of Chicago, 2000), recently described by Adam Parkes as "an astoundingly original rewriting of Lessing's Laocoön (1766) in Modernist terms":

Lessing famously divided spatial from temporal arts. Albright, however, conjectured that the division of the arts might be restated "not as a tension between the temporal arts and the spatial, but as a tension between arts that try to retain the propriety, the apartness, of their private media, and arts that try to lose themselves in some panaesthetic whole." To illustrate the latter, Albright examined the "aesthetic hybrids and chimeras" that resulted from artistic collaborations involving significant musical experiments in different media. While he recognized the value of attempts by various artists and critics to separate the arts, Albright's preference for the panaesthetic was clear...

Untwisting relied on analysis of specific historical collaborations among artists (Cocteau, Picasso, and Satie in Parade; Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson in Four Saints in Three Acts; Antheil, Léger, and Murphy in Ballet Mécanique, and many others) to show how the respective media in those pieces clicked or clashed. Discussing these components required stepping outside the usual province of the literary critic; that is, Albright had to be just as adept and informed in making judgments about music and art as he was in evaluating writing. As it turned out, his talent for close reading of poems extended to scores and timbres sufficiently to dazzle musical solons, despite a few complaints about his assumptions and definitions.

"What the author refers to variously as fixed figures, fixed elements, ostinati, and pattern units -- all musical motives that repeat -- leap to the foreground of almost every analysis in this book," Ruth Longobardi wrote in Current Musicology, no. 74 (Fall 2002), pages 212-213, "and yet Albright never explicitly explains how to tell the difference between repeating motives that are dissonant and those that are consonant, or between those that are mimetic and those that are abstract." Nevertheless, she writes, "his inquiry into different types of artistic collaboration is extremely valuable to musicology, since what it offers that field, frequently insulated from other disciplines, is a new path by which to enter an interdisciplinary consideration of Modernist music dramas."

In Kurt Weill Newsletter (Vol 19, No. 1, p. 18 - PDF), David Drew wrote: "Albright well understands that 'paying attention to the text' is a discipline whose exactions are multiplied in proportion to the complexity of the interdisciplinary context. And yet: 'this book tries to please by holding up to the light the fugitive but powerful creatures born from particular unions of music and the other arts.' It does please; or when it doesn't, it stirs things up, which is just as good."

Several reviewers were intrigued by Albright's discussion of surrealism in music, and his identification of Francis Poulenc as a key figure. "Before the recent publication of ... Untwisting the Serpent," writes Jonathan D. Kramer in his book Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening (Bloomsbury, 2016), "there was little serious discussion of surrealism in music (although informally calling certain music surreal is certainly common enough). Music has been assumed not to have gone through much of a surrealist stage." Kramer admires Albright's cross-disciplinary consideration of surrealism in musical theater, but believes Untwisting is "most in [its] discussions of Poulenc’s specifically musical surrealism." He quotes these words of Albright's from Untwisting (page 287):

I understand Poulenc’s manner of quotation -- and he was a music thief of amazing flagrancy -- not as a technique for making pointed semantic allusions, but as a technique for disabling the normal semantic procedures of music. … Poulenc is a composer of surrealizing misquotations.

Oliver Charles Edward Smith's treatise on Poulenc in Cogent quotes liberally from Untwisting as a "comprehensive study of surrealism in music" (while noting that Adorno was the first to apply the "ism" musically). Both Smith and Kramer favorably cite Albright's explanation of the apparent conservatism of musical surrealism in comparison to surrealism in the other arts, noting these passages from Untwisting (pages 289-90) [Kramer's ellipses]:

Surrealism is a phenomenon of semantic dislocation and fissure. It is impossible to disorient unless some principle of orientation has been established in the first place. … In other words, you can’t provide music that means wrong unless you provide music that means something. … The surrealism of Poulenc and his fellows didn’t try to create a new language of music -- it simply tilted the semantic planes of the old language of music. Just as surrealist paintings often have a horizon line and a highly developed sense of perspective, in order that the falseness of the space and the errors of scale among the painted entities can register their various outrages to normal decorum, so surrealist music provides an intelligible context of familiar sounds in order to develop a system of meanings that can assault or discredit other systems of meanings.


Untwisting the Serpent limited its cross-disciplinary analysis to specific examples where musicians, artists, and writers collaborated. In Albright's 2014 book Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts, he  "developed a more expansive and philosophical version of his arguments by ranging across the entire history of the arts." [Adam Parkes] In his last book, Putting Modernism Together (2016), Albright renewed his pursuit of specifically Modernist forms of aesthetic hybridity. [Ibid.] But whereas Untwisting deliberately cut across what Albright called the "various isms that both organize and perplex the history of twentieth-century art," the final book "confront[ed] those isms head-on, and recalibrate[d] the earlier account accordingly." [Ibid.]

Additional Reading

Panaesthetics website -- site for Albright's next-to-last published book, Panaesthetics, serves as his personal site, posthumously maintained

Harvard Crimson obituary -- "whimsical English and music teacher" seems like faint praise for an influential thinker.

Remembrance of Albright by Andrew Goldstone, author of the book Fictions of Autonomy, in particular, how Albright inspired Goldstone's research.

- tom moody

August 24th, 2017 at 9:01 am

Posted in books, theory

egregious e-book errors: Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The e-book version of Philip K. Dick's 1964 novel The Penultimate Truth contains this passage from Chapter 2:


"This is how it must feel, he thought, to contract the Bag Plague, where those virtues get in and cause your head to expand until it pops like a blown-up paper bag." Virtues? What does this mean? Virtues make your head explode? Is Dick even a good writer?

The perplexed could track down the Belmont original paperback from 1964. Dick may have been a starving hack then but at least he had editors:


This bleakly funny, proto-Cronenberg-esque image of body mayhem in the opening pages of the book sets a tone for the desperate lives of Dick's underground dwellers, crowded into shelters after a nuclear world war. Theirs is not merely a dungeon of claustrophobia and rationing but one with scary new diseases. The word "viruses" is critical and important not to flub so of course the publishers type it as "virtues." This error actually appeared in a paperback edition from 1984 and has been dutifully transcribed in every copy since. Was hoping it would be caught and fixed in the e-book but it appears that Dick's estate, the current publisher, and everyone else involved is on Dick Autopilot, slinging out his books for new generations of non-readers as some kind of empty capitalist ritual.

Here's the Belmont cover:


- tom moody

August 17th, 2017 at 5:27 pm

Yeats' "The Four Ages"

An earlier draft of the W.B. Yeats poem, "The Four Ages of Man":


He with Body waged a fight;
Body won and walks upright.

Then he struggled with the Heart;
Innocence and peace depart.

Then he struggled with the mind,
His proud Heart he left behind.

Now his wars with God begin;
At stroke of midnight God shall win.

This version appeared in a 1934 letter from Yeats to Olivia Shakespear, quoted in Richard Ellman's The Identity of Yeats. I prefer the gender-neutral title. The other differences with the finished poem are (i) the words "body" and "heart" aren't in initial caps and (ii) the second line is "But body won; it walks upright" (too many semicolons!).

In any case, this poem offers a capsule version of Yeats' book A Vision -- the cycles apply to the individual as well as historical, collective "ages." I like the poem's elegance, brevity, and certainty.

- tom moody

August 12th, 2017 at 3:21 pm

Posted in books

egregious e-book errors: Bloomsbury

The screenshot below is from page 289 of Daniel Albright's book Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and the Other Arts (U. of Chicago, 2000).
In the underlined passage he is discussing how music (which is not generally thought of as having a "surrealist" period) could be considered surreal. One of the questions he poses (on page 288) is "Why does surrealist music sound fairly normal, when surrealist painting seems to outrage the eye so flagrantly?" Albright suggests that the music could be normal to the ear but not normal in meaning, because the composer has "tilted its semantic planes," for example, in musical theatre, by having the music emanate from a place or context it's not normally associated with, or in the case of Poulenc, through "surrealizing misquotations" of other people's music:


Jonathan D. Kramer's Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening (Bloomsbury, 2016), is generally sympathetic to Albright's ideas on musical surrealism, although Kramer would prefer the term "postmodernist" to describe the same works. Nevertheless, in explaining Albright, the book flubs that key phrase (screenshot from "Chapter 9.2. -- Music in the Time of Surrealism"):


This same error may well be in the print version of Kramer's book -- I haven't checked. It may also be a problem of working with a posthumous text (editor Robert Carl rescued the project from Kramer's computer after he died). Regardless, it's a shame to have a book that is sympathetic to Albright's intriguing theories on music miss such a pivotal, well-turned phrase. Here's hoping it can still be corrected.

- tom moody

August 5th, 2017 at 5:53 pm

review by daniel albright (in and out of pull quotes)

I've been working on an informal bio of the late Daniel Albright, a college prof of mine and writer I subsequently became addicted to. I've found quite a bit of material online, including some feisty reviews he wrote for the New York Review of Books. The following post is a detour from the bio but it's a funny example of how publishers massage pull quotes.

In 1983, Prof. Robert M. Adams, one of the founding editors of the Norton Anthology of Literature, produced a volume of English history meant to accompany and contextualize the anthology's writings, titled The Land and Literature of England. Albright, at that time teaching literature at the University of Virginia, wrote a rather scathing NYRB review disguised as a good review, or at least, good enough for the publisher to cobble together some prominently-placed quotations (still in use -- this screenshot is from the current volume):


What's missing from the clips is an overwhelming tone of bemused contempt. Albright's main beefs are that Adams gives too much space to politicians at the expense of artists in his history, that he has a taste for conventional and orthodox thinking, and he is more interested by artists who deal with historical subjects than airy-fairy or abstract ones. The sly humor in this review of an admittedly pedantic text borders on cruel, and the mocking tone continues in an exchange of letters between Adams and Albright after the former wrote to correct some misimpressions in the review.

So you can get an idea of what's going on here, below are those pull quotes with chunks from the original review excerpted immediately afterward. The review itself is paywalled -- $4.99 -- excerpted under fair use.

"Professor Adams seems to have read the whole library and yet...retained his pith, vigor, suppleness, and good cheer."

Not many people would be capable of writing a book like this one. Professor Adams seems to have read the whole library and yet, instead of turning to dust along with the crumbling books, retained his pith, vigor, suppleness, and good cheer.

"In addition, he knows how to tell a story..."

In addition, he knows how to tell a story:

And their foot soldiers used bows and arrows to rain death from a distance on the Saxons, who had no way to reply. As long as the shield wall stood unbroken, neither cavalry nor arrows could do much execution; but sometimes, after an unsuccessful cavalry charge, the Saxon foot could not resist the temptation to pursue, and then the archers did deadly damage. After a full day of heavy fighting, Harold lay dead with an arrow in his eye…. His mistress, Edith Swanneck, was summoned to make identification, and though the face was mutilated beyond recognition, she knew, by certain marks on the body, that indeed it was Harold.

It is not until some thirty pages later that we hear that the principal source of historical knowledge for any account of the Battle of Hastings is the Bayeux tapestry; and Professor Adams does not mention the historiographical difficulty posed by this fact. One might hesitate to reconstruct the Trojan War if Homer’s Iliad had been lost and only Penelope’s weaving survived; and it is not clear that the weavers of the Bayeux tapestry knew as much about the Battle of Hastings as D. W. Griffith knew about the founding of the Ku Klux Klan; but probably Professor Adams did well to respect the urgencies of storytelling in a book that treats history in relation to literature.

Adams wrote the magazine to gripe that he knew of the extensive writing on the Battle of Hastings and blamed a picture caption for creating the impression that the source was the Bayeux Tapestry. Albright didn't relent, getting in a last crack that the text quoted above was a "cartoon."

"One of the real delights of this book, Professor Adams’s eye for the flinty detail..."

I have not yet spoken of one of the real delights of this book, Professor Adams’s eye for the flinty detail. Students, and readers well past their student years, will be grateful to learn that a fifteenth-century humanist, John Tiptoft, requested on the scaffold that his head be severed, in honor of the Trinity, in three separate strokes; and that the last entry in Napoleon’s schoolboy notebook for his geography class was “Saint Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic”; and that a French wit said of the conservative Lord Liverpool that, if he had been present at the creation, he would have cried, “Mon Dieu, conservons le chaos!” Such examples could be multiplied.

Coming immediately on the heels of a complaint that Swift has been reduced to mediocrity in Adams's account, and immediately preceding a criticism that the book has some "astonishing omissions," the above passage seems ironic -- "flinty" reads as lurid, batty, or irrelevant. Perhaps Albright actually liked these details but it's not all that clear.

"Much of the pleasure....lies in [the book's] rich texture of cross-references between history and literature..."

Much of the pleasure of Professor Adams’s book lies in its rich texture of cross-references between history and literature. Perhaps it would be ungracious to ask for even more. In his reference to the Old English “The Battle of Brunanburh” he might note that Tennyson translated it into modern English, with the help of a crib written by his son. Professor Adams quotes with gusto the climactic lines of “The Battle of Maldon”; Auden translates these same lines in an ode (“Though aware of our rank and alert to obey orders”). When Professor Adams tells the complicated story of Henry II and his two sons, Prince Henry and Richard the Lion-Hearted, he might mention that this history is the basis of Pound’s ambitious attempt to write a long Imagist poem, “Near Perigord.” Professor Adams would like to see something of a circular form to English literary history: he proposes that the rest of the twentieth century may be a recapitulation of the fifteenth (that is, empty of talent), and on his last page he speaks of Seamus Heaney’s poems about bog people as a renewal of prehistoric vitality. The references I have suggested might help to improve the feeling of the convergence of beginnings and endings.


After reading Professor Adams’s exhilarating book, I was chiefly impressed with the disparity between the achievements of the English political life and the achievements of the English literary life. No culture known to me has produced a body of literature superior to that of England; while the political narrative seems, with a few exceptions, a mean tale of temporizing, squalor, sordor, hollow glory. Professor Adams says in his foreword that history is “a matter of fascinating interest in itself,” and so it is, the shimmer of the snake’s rippling scales. In Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra a frightened eunuch runs up to Caesar to tell him that the library of Alexandria, the greatest repository of knowledge in the world, is on fire. Caesar tells him that it is a shameful history—let it burn. Were I tempted to give the same order, I would not want to see Professor Adams’s history perish.

- tom moody

July 19th, 2017 at 7:30 am

Posted in books

egregious e-book errors: Routledge

From David Walley, Teenage Nervous Breakdown, 2d edition, Published in 2006 by Routledge, © 2006 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
The e-book retails for $24.69.


(page 78 of the e-book)

For a few seconds you could be forgiven for thinking there was a form of art-rock you missed called "rocfe." The word was supposed to be "rock."
It appears again later in the book: "Along with the new paradigms for sexual behavior came an inordinate amount of discussion about sexism in rocfe music among the females who’d formerly been the objects of lust and/or veneration, love or repulsion, but really (as always) approach and avoidance among the men." (e-book, page 373)

Walley's book is practically unreadable for a different reason: intermittently throughout the book the letter "k" is scanned as "b" -- this error occurs dozens of times. Thus you have "boob" for "book," "the bids" for "the kids" -- it's nerve-wracking to beep encountering these mistakes. Yes, "keep" appears as "beep" eight times in the text. Possibly these are mistakes that an algorithm doesn't catch because they aren't misspellings, just the wrong words. Thank you, Routledge.

- tom moody

July 15th, 2017 at 2:00 pm

egregious e-book errors: Pickle Partners Publishing

Have been spending quite a bit of time reading e-books lately, and the quality is pretty horrendous overall.

Main errors:
Typographical errors
Layout/formatting glitches
Lack of font uniformity
Poor handling of illustrations and "special characters" such as math symbols.

Main reasons for errors:
Widespread use of OCR (supposed "smart" character recognition within a scanned text) without subsequent human proofreaders
Conversion mistakes (changing one electronic format to another)
Lack of uniformity in fonts and word-processing applications
Change of corporate culture from giving-a-shit to laying-off-and-praying

I'm trying mostly to read .epub books and avoid Amazon/Kindle but occasionally I still have to resort to Kindle/mobi/azw and the situation is no better. Surprisingly, I've found public domain works from to be of better quality than many offerings from "respectable" mainstream publishers, although there are no guarantees.
This will be a series of blog posts (I hope) that document egregious e-book errors.
Let's start with a doozy, from Richard Ellman's Yeats, The Man and the Masks, 1948, e-book (c) 2016 by Pickle Partners Publishing. Ellmann is discussing an early draft of the poem that became "To his Heart, bidding that it have no Fear" (1896):


Astonishing, indeed. The word is supposed to be "part" -- only a demon would introduce such an error into such a lovely poem.
Also, note the weirdly italicized third line -- the text is supposed to be in italics from that line to the end. Pickle Partners, get thee hence to the typesetters.

- tom moody

July 15th, 2017 at 1:26 pm