Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

The Oulipo poet Jacques Roubaud says that the poet is a rat who builds his own maze and then must find his way out. I'm afraid too often poets don't build mazes at all; they build corridors with well-marked entrances and exits; they proceed through the doors as quickly as possible and assume they've accomplished something.

D.A. Powell, (Mis)Adventures in Poetry 
I read that quote and suddenly I had the key to this review. It's not that On Beauty is not a good or clever book. It's that it is a book of painfully well-marked entrances and exits, a book that is not willing to trust its readers with a single idea without having about ten neon signs pointing at it. This way to The Idea. The first few times it happened it was fun. "Ooh, I see what you did there!" is one of the nicest feelings you can get as a reader. "Yes, yes, we all see what you did there," though? Not so much.

One may as well take Howard Belsey for an example. On Beauty is fashioned after E.M. Forster's Howards End, so it's built around the opposition between two families: one liberal, biracial, American - the Belseys; the other conservative, black, British/Trinidadian - the Kippses. Howard, a white Englishman married to an African-American woman and living in Boston, is the head of the liberal family. He teaches at the (fictional) Wellington College and He Rejects Beauty. The latter point is impressed upon us less and less subtly, as the book progresses.

The first stage of imparting this message is when we learn that Howard's academic work is in the "deconstructing beauty and showing that Rembrandt painted for money" vein, and also that the original 19th century windows of the Belsey house are too precious to be used as windows, so they are kept in a safe in the basement. This is not too bad as far as standard novel characterizations go. The second stage is when we learn that Howard accepts nothing but abstract art in the house, because of his "representational art ban," that he falls asleep at Mozart concerts, and that he denies his children even nominal Christmas traditions (most of the family being atheist). This is already veering into caricature, but then the novel does have a comic undertone to it. The third stage is when basically ALL of the main characters comment or otherwise reflect on Howard's inability to like things. This is too much.

Review: Factotum by Charles Bukowski

So, after Claudia, it is my turn to return to blogging. And I would have really liked to have something nice to offer to you people (I know I couldn't have topped crocodiles, but a  book recommendation would have been nice). It wasn't meant to be: the thing that set me in motion was rage. So I will give you not a recommendation of something I loved, but a warning against something I had a hard time finishing. 

I rarely skim books, but skimming was the only thing that allowed me to finish Factotum, and I have no regrets. The book exceeded my expectations in boringness and awfulness. The secondary characters are indistinguishable (from each other or from cardboard props). The diverse and varied world of working class America that the cover promised is really just a collection of class and race stereotypes, serving as a background for the same actions again and again and again, never shaping the story, never being seen as deserving of some in-depth investigation by the narrator. In fact, the only thing the narrator has any interest in describing is his own navel. Which gets old pretty quickly, even as he tries to spice it up with describing his cock.

On Beauty and Being Fair

If the first part of this essay had its redeeming features, the second managed to enrage me.

So why is it that we no longer talk about beauty? It is, Scarry tells us, because we wrongly believe beauty to contribute to social injustice in two main ways:

1. Our focus on beauty distracts us from other things, namely from the fight against social injustice.

2. Our focus on beauty harms the beautiful things we're focused on by objectifying them.

On Beauty and Being Wrong

A thing I hate with some degree of passion: when beautiful individual sentences or paragraphs are ruined by their context, that is to say, when the whole of a text prevents me from admiringly quoting its parts. This is the case with Elaine Scarry’s essay, On Beauty and Being Just, which I've been reading in an attempt to sort out my feelings about a Zadie Smith book that borrows half of this essay's title and, I'm afraid, some of its ideas. For what is more quotable than:
What is the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird? It seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication. Wittgenstein says that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it. Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.
This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet suddenly cuts through a certain patch of sky.

The Original Animal Face-Off: Dolphins vs. Crocodiles in Seneca's Natural Questions

What does one say after a long absence from one's blog? Presumably something exciting or witty, something that would make people go "Oh yeah, I remember that girl!" and trick them into thinking that they actually missed you, so that they stick around for the rest of your serially boring prose. But unless this cunning piece of marketing advice for book bloggers counts as such, I have nothing witty or exciting to share, and so I thought... perhaps talking about crocodiles a lot would do the trick?

You see, I am in the unusual (but surely enviable!) position of having not one, but two crocodile-related stories to share with the world. The first comes from Seneca's Natural Questions - which, by the way, is not a book I can recommend, unless you are:
    1. the kind of person that reads everything - in which case, yes, this contains words, go ahead and read them.

    2. really interested in (or amused by) the various ways in which people got things wrong in the past - in which case, this is an ancient natural history, so there is a lot of getting things wrong in potentially very interesting and occasionally very funny ways - enjoy!
      The fragment that tickled my own sense of humor, and provided a title for this post, was this:
      Balbillus, an excellent man, exceptionally refined in every branch of literature, tells of the following occurrence when he himself was prefect in charge of Egypt. In the Heracleotic mouth of the Nile, the largest of [the seven], he saw the spectacle of, as it were, a set-piece battle between dolphins coming in from the sea and crocodiles from the river moving against them in a column. The crocodiles were defeated by the gentle creatures with the harmless bites. The upper part of their body is hard and impenetrable even to the teeth of larger animals, but the underneath part is soft and tender. The dolphins dived and, with the spines they have sticking out from their backs, wounded this part, splitting it open as they pushed against it. When a number of them were torn apart in this way, the rest, as it were, about-turned and fled—a cowardly creature when faced with a bold one, though very bold when faced with a timid one!
      So in case you ever wondered who'd win in the battle between a crocodile and a dolphin - and the Discovery Channel did not come to your rescue - you now have Seneca to turn to. Of course, I suspect there is a bit of an anthropomorphizing, moralizing current running through this story - the "gentle creatures with the harmless bites" using their superior brain power to defeat the cowardly bullies etc. - but don't let it ruin a perfectly good battle scene for you.

      As for my second crocodile story, it actually consists of a pretty striking picture that I stumbled across in yet another not very interesting book. (See a trend in my reading life?) It's a picture of a stuffed crocodile on a church wall. Fun fact: during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, churches would often feature suspended natural wonders (e.g. ostrich eggs, whale ribs and, yes, stuffed or wooden crocodiles) because these things could 1. attract more people to church and 2. inspire wonder at the diversity of the created world and put you in the mood to worship its Creator. 

      Stuffed crocodile in the sixteenth-century chapel of the Chateau of Oiron
      And this, people, has been your share of crocodile stories for the day and my coming-back-to-blogging offering.