About this site
As “About the Author” says, I have three print books to my credit—Violence in the Arts, America and the Patterns of Chivalry, and The Name of Action; Selected Essays, all published by Cambridge University Press.
What you have now on my side of this double site, as I have come to realize, are five more books, in addition to the one about Carol Hoorn Fraser on the other side.
When I began “my” side, it was simply as an appendage to the other one. Having tasted the euphoria of the Web, I thought that I would toss out a few texts almost anonymously, like writing graffiti on the side of a subway train.
But one thing led to another, and I guess I had better provide a bit of background before saying what this side contains.
Violence in the Arts (1973) came easily, was gratifyingly well received (seventy reviews, almost all friendly), and earned me a modest promotional tour from New York down to Washington.
It was an expansion of a long article I wrote in the summer of 1966 in which I was trying to make sense of some of the conflicting values of that explosive decade.
Among its eight chapter titles are “Revolt,” “Victims,” “Violators,” and “Thought.” The “K” section of the index (to give some idea of its range) begins with Kafka, Kazan, Keaton, Kennedy, Kienholz, Kierkegaard, Kipling, Kitchin, Kobayashi, and Koestler.
Here is a sample of the kind of cross-category analyzing that I engaged in:….
A similar implacability is discernible in Bosch’s The Crowning with Thorns in the London National Gallery. The two tormentors of Christ in the lower half of the painting are merely repulsive; they put one in mind of some of Sade’s garrulous and cowardly voluptuaries, hidden away inside the black-fairy-tale security of walls and money from the threats of other males and even from the kinds of social risks run by Valmont in Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liasions dangereuses. But the other two tormentors in the picture—the clean-shaven, powerfully accoutred, sinister military figures—are not only genuinely frightening; they are frightening in part because they are martially respectable and to some degree deserve respect. And obviously one could have found their equivalents in the Waffen S.S. or Massu’s paratroopers or in other organized bodies of professionally violent men whose activities one particularly abominates or dreads.
In effect, I was attempting an informal poetics of the subject—trying to figure out how things “worked,” both formally and morally, and how fictive presentations of violence connected up with actual ones.
America and the Patterns of Chivalry (1982), the follow-up to it, was seven years’ hard labour, like an interminable would-be escape tunnel that I was digging without even knowing if it would come up outside the wire. Or, as Joseph Conrad said about writing Nostromo, like pushing a loaded barrow along a plank over an abyss towards a fog bank.
When I began, I thought of it as another short book, a mopping-up operation after the violence one, with particular reference to how ostensibly pacific attitudes could in fact contribute to violence, and agonistic ones serve to restrain it.
But new problems kept appearing (I was shockingly ignorant at the outset), and by the end I had traced a complex evolution of values and attitudes, embodied in a large variety of texts. Among the things that I discuss are the Arthurian mythos, medieval chivalry, the cowboy West, the Civil War, Ivy League sports, the Robber Barons, the Wobblies, and scholarly ethics.
Reviewing it, the eminent Americanist Edward Wagenknecht remarked that “There are not many learned books which have the unputdownable quality of a thriller; this is one of them.”
I had in fact, during the several rewritings, tried to stay faithful to the processes of discovery. And perhaps it was evident that this was not a conventional and more or less “safe” academic undertaking.
Blessings on Michael Black of the C.U.P, in thriller terms my “control” across the Atlantic, who had allowed me to go about things in my own way, though no doubt wondering from time to time whether I was ever going to get back from my mission.
Reviewers who wanted things spelled out at the start in a few simple formulae (was I “for” or “against” this or that?) were understandably puzzled.
Though I wouldn’t have put it that way at the time, it seems to me now a sort of unified field theory of the values of “peace” and “war.”
Here is something from chapter 1, “Introduction: Twain and the Chivalry Business”:
In the science-fiction movie Westworld (1973), two of the three locales in which well-heeled romantics were enabled to act out their fantasy lives were a simulated Western township and a simulated medieval castle, with all the customary trimmings. The promoters could as profitably have added the private eye world of trench coats, enigmatic blondes, and bourbon in the desk drawer, the plantation world of juleps and sexy octaroons, the cloak-and-rapier Three Musketeers world, the sweaty, stubble-chinned explorer world of sun helmets, long-barreled revolvers, and ominous native drumming, and the pirate world of creaking rigging, duels on the poop deck, and the rescuing of governors’ daughters from fates much much worse than death.
Here is a bit of analysis from chapter 9, “Violence and Peace (1)”:
Implicit in the contempt for underdogs was the belief that they were unworthy of liberty, either because they lacked energy or because their energies, being formless, were ineffectual or indiscriminately destructive. The underdog energy that wins respect demonstrates not only that a group believes strongly in the justice of its cause, but that it does not deserve to be an underdog, because its energies are both powerful and ordered and it can be trusted to manage its own affairs. It also demonstrates that the risk-taking underdog combatants are the spokesmen for, and best embodiment of, their groups, and that the cultural nexus out of which they speak and act is admirable. The unskilled workers of the Lawrence and Paterson strikes, many of them immigrants, showed in their collective self-discipline what working men and women were capable of.
The Name of Action (1984) is a selection from my articles in the Sixties, mostly on literature, but two or three on the rhetoric of sociological presentation, and one on photography.
These too are concerned in various ways with power and order, and with energizing ideals—what I call in America and the Patterns of Chivalry the heroic and the pastoral. Among the authors whose works I discuss are Emily Bronte, Shakespeare, Swift, B.Traven, and Pauline Réage.
Here I am, in the Preface, on the prevalence of irony in American criticism and teaching during the Fifties and Sixties (and not just then, either):
The neophyte looked at a seemingly obvious text and ventured one or two obvious comments (“Well, I guess she’s just trying to be polite to him”). The initiate (“But what does the cup of tea symbolize, Janey?”) then demolished the account and replaced it with a very different one, thereby getting one-up on the student. And the ironical revelation of error and misperception became part of the substance of literature itself. Characters in fiction were mistaken about their own motives and radically misperceived the situations in which they found themselves. Readers continually fell into pits dug for them by authors. The ostensibly earnest comment was intended humorously; the seeming awkwardness was actually very skilful; and behind every authorial mask there was a very different face that only the critic had discerned.
I go on believing that what I say about Huckleberry Finn, The Turn of the Screw (in a very long footnote), and the concept of the organic community settles some questions—intellectually, that is. I mean, I’m right, dammit!
Apparently readers who didn’t care for his imperial structuralism liked what I had to say about Northrop Frye.
In Atget (2000), the eminent former Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, mentions me as one of the three writers on the great photographer to whom he was “especially indebted.” I did only the one article.
The Name of Action was included in the Cambridge Paperback Library, designed by the Press to make available at affordable prices “the Press’s most outstanding original monographs.”
As to the present texts:
The Carol Hoorn Fraser side of the site, as I said above, is itself virtually a book, with over two hundred pages of print text (figuring four hundred words to the page) about and by this marvelous artist, and lots of images.
On my own side you have, first, a collection of professional pieces adding up to about two hundred print pages, and then a book that I have simply called Thrillers, which runs to about three hundred pages.
I wish I could come up with a unifying title for the professional pieces. Depths and Surfaces; the Pursuit of Clarity doesn’t quite do it. A Horse Walking Softly; Professional Essays would be interestingly arrogant (the Yahoos scatter), but who wants to be thought of as a Houhynmnm?
In any event, they were all written after I had reached the far end of the plank with my barrow and was trying to make sense of the newer theorizings, as problematic now as some of those in the Sixties had been, of which they were partly a continuation.
The three lectures in Nihilism, Modernism, and Value resulted from an out-of-the-blue invitation to give the Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto in 1990. They weren’t ready for publication at the time, and the following year I lost interest in publication. This is their first public appearance since then. I have done a fair amount of tweaking in the interests of clarity.
With the bibliography, which also serves as source notes, they run to about eighty pages.
The four pieces titled Language, Truth, and Consequences were written independently of each other, but were all related to what I was up to in the Nihilism lectures. They are:
“In Defence of Language; If It Needs It” (1989), 21 pp.
“Playing for Real: Discourse and Authority” (1987), 22 pp.
“Communication, Communion, Communality” (1990),17 pp.
“Mind-Forged Manacles; Reply to Questionnaire” (1990), 6 pp.
The first two and the fourth were published in the University of Toronto Quarterly, thanks to Tom Adamowski. I have no recollection of having tried to do anything with the third, but it was all finished up and ready to go.
The short pieces about stylistic matters that I have called Saying Simply were written in the early 1990s, all but one for a graduate seminar of my devising called “Traditionalism and Experimentation in Poetry, 1880-1920” that I had given a number of times since the early Seventies.
Acquiring my first computer in 1991—a Mac, what else?—enabled me to talk my way through some issues with a freedom impossible on my old IBM Selectric.
I was doing my best here, too, to be clear, and to show that you could be clear about complex matters without being simplistic.
One operative principle in the seminar was that you shouldn’t say things or use terms that you didn’t understand yourself. And if you referred to works other than those on the table, you mustn’t take for granted that your readers knew what was in them.
And you should try and point precisely to parts of the text in front of you, the words themselves, when talking about what was going on.
Here too I was concerned with questions of energy and order—of energies made all the more effective because ordered; of expression made all the more expressive and subtle because of the interplay of syntax and metre. And also with questions of poetic clarity—of the differences between, to borrow E.M. Forster’s distinction, mysteries and muddles.
Among the topics of my commentaries are “Hölderlin, Shelley, and Romanticism,” Stanley Fish and referentiality, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
It was an enjoyable seminar. One way and another, we looked or glanced at over four hundred texts, good, bad, great, and indifferent, and the students did most of the talking. Lots of tape-recordings of poems were made. Some of them were superb.
I talk about the evolution of Thrillers in the Preface to it. Some of it comes from the last couple of years, which pleases me, since for several years I thought that I was finished with writing.
Three of the chapters are substantial critical studies, another consists of short pieces about works by about fifty other writers, and there is a brief venture into theoretical matters.
[February 2004] I have now added Voices in the Cave of Being, a book-length exploration of a variety of aspects of poetry and poetic theory by a variety of means, including recordings, commentaries on individual poems, and the table of contents of an unpublished anthology. Most of this was written during the past fourteen months.
[January 2008] Jottings now contains four new sections.
Found Pages is a book-length retrieval from near-oblivion of the British writer Harold Ernest Kelly (1899–1969), chiefly associated now with the tough pseudo-American gangster novels that he wrote between 1940 and 1953 as Darcy Glinto, but also, under other pseudonyms, the author of a number of Westerns (some of them excellent), and various other works.
Scribblings NEW begins with imaginary excerpts from Alice in Web Land, in which Lewis Carroll’s Alice has a variety of encounters with denizens of computer land. Other offbeat items follow.
Cogitations NEW is for think-pieces that wouldn’t fit comfortably elsewhere in the site.
America and Honor NEW consists of the penultimate chapter of America and the Patterns of Chivalry, together with its Notes and a new Preface. I have retitled the chapter “America, Truth, and Honor,” divided a lot of the paragraphs into smaller and more screen-readable units, and enriched the Notes with some passages from other parts of the book.
I am publishing in this way because it is quicker and the Web is wide and I no longer have to prove myself to anyone academically.
The normal copyright conventions apply, but if anyone wanted to reproduce anything, I would be delighted.
Communications addressed c/o the Site Secretary will be forwarded to me.
From time to time I may be adding other items to this side of the site.
Whatever you do, don’t fail to visit the Carol Hoorn Fraser side. There are marvelous things there.
On both sides of this site, the panels on the left indicate the main units. Clicking on them will get you to the first item in that unit, indicated in red type in the line of titles at the top of the page.
To get back to the home page and thence to the Carol Hoorn Fraser side, simply click on the little house (one of Carol’s images) in the top left corner.
Things may move a bit slowly at times, but have patience.
For technical information, if you want it, click the Technical Help button in the navigation panel.
Halifax, Nova Scotia, June 2002