Withering Bites

“‘Lucky Jim’ Goes to the Internet”

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives July 29, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,David Eagleman,Sum,Text — noisyhope @ 5:56 pm

Hey everyone, I know we’ve been away.  We’re still sorting out how the site can exist while we have lives and juggle grad school, the real world, and the surprises both carry.  But today I discovered Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman.  I have an interest in eschatology so it seemed like a good way to kill time, and I’ve had some difficulty putting it down.

The “tales” are short little vigniettes, no longer than four pages a piece, and very engrossing.  I love this book, I have a blog about books, I figured I should share some of that here.  Like this story, called “Adhesion.”

We are the product of large beings that camp out on asteroids and call themselves Collectors.  The Collectors run billions of experiments on the time scales of universes, subtly tuning the galaxy parameters this way and that, making bangs bigger and lesser, dialing fundamental physical constants a hair’s breadth at a time.  They are continually sharpening pencils and squinting into telescopes.  When the Collectors have solved a problem that was formerly mysterious to them, they destroy that universe and recycle the materials into their next experiment.

Our life on earth represents an experiment in which they are trying to figure out what makes people stick together.  Why do some relationships work well while others fail?  This is completely mysterious to them.  When their theoreticians could not see a patter, they proposed this problem as an interesting question to explore.  And so our universe was born.

The Collectors construct lives of parametric experiments: men and women who adhere well but are shot past one another too briefly–brushing by in a library, passing on the step of a city bus, wondering just for a moment.

And the Collectors need to understand what men and women do about the momentum of their individual life plans, when in the rush and glare of the masses they are put together as they move in opposite directions.  Can they turn the momentum of choices and plans?  The Collectors sharpen their pencils against their asteroids and make careful study.

They research men and women who are not naturally adherent but are held together by circumstance.  Those pressed together by obligation.  Those who learn to be happy by forcing adhesion.  Those who cannot live without adhesion and those who fight it; those who don’t need it and those who sabotage it; those who find adhesion when they least expect it.

When you die, you are brought before a panel of Collectors.  They debrief you and struggle to understand your motivations.  Why did you decide to break off this relationship?  What did you appreciate about that relationship?  What was wrong with so-and-so, who seemed to have everything you wanted?  After trying and failing to understand, they send you back to see if another round of experimentation makes it any clearer to them.

It is for this reason only that our universe still exists.  The Collectors are past deadline and over budget, but they are having a hard time bringing this study to a conclusion.  They are mesmerized; the brightest among them cannot quantify it.

I’m enjoying this book immensely, and can’t wait to finish it.  Once I have, I hope to have something more coherent up here.  Thanks for checking back, and I hope Michelle and/or myself will be able to give you guys a regular schedule.


Reanimation! Ish. May 4, 2009

Filed under: About This,Courtney,Pride & Prejudice — noisyhope @ 10:05 pm


So for those of you following us on twitter, you are perhaps confused.  I promised that there would be an entry on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by this week.

And hoo boy, can I not wait to write it.

However, it was brought to my attention by my esteemed cohort, that she has yet to read it.  So.  Mark your calendars kids, because the first Withering Bites post in months will be hitting your screen by midnight, Monday, May 25 (yes, Memorial Day), I will have my post on P&P&Z.  The following week, unless I edit this post, will be dedicated to Tom Jones, probably for the month of June.

I’m very excited, and I hope you are too.

Also, I’ve been reading Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount Jr.  It makes me feel like these two sketches:


Hiatus! February 23, 2009

Filed under: About This,Courtney — noisyhope @ 4:54 pm

We’re not going away for ever.  We’re taking a break.

If you want to get painfully Zach Braff about it, we’re putting on an ellipsis.

For serious now, Michelle and I are suddenly finding ourselves swamped by the other elements of our lives; the things we do when we’re not snarking about literature.

So we’ll be on a break for a week or two.  Not completely gone, Michelle  has promised a superpost on theory and The Real Thing, while I will make good on that second Sabatini post.

In the mean time, relax, pick up Beowulf if you want, tell me why it’s good.  Check back for those updates, and we’ll be back to venting our spleens over the written word in no time.


Writing the Cricket Bat and Scene Five February 17, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,Text,The Real Thing,Tom Stoppard — noisyhope @ 10:40 pm

Scene Five is to Art in The Real Thing, as Scene Seven is to Love.

Got it?  w00t, analogies.

It is home to two of my favorite speeches, the first of which I quote in my “About Me” page on this site, and a mantra whenever I find myself with a blank page or screen before me.

I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are.  They deserve respect.  If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a ittle or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.

Sometimes, I find nothing more beautiful than these three sentences.  But they carry even greater weight when taken in the context of Henry and Annie’s argument.

Scene Five is mostly an argument between Henry and his new wife as he tries to “clean up” Brodie’s autobiographical teleplay/manifesto.  Yep, you read that right.  Henry argues that there’s no way to save the script; it’s loaded with cliches, filled with stale and idiotic ideas, and poorly constructed at that.  Annie defends Brodie, and does this by calling her playwright husband a snob, arguing that his concept of “good writing” is warped:

You judge everything as yout everyone starts off fromt he same place, aiming at the same prize.  Eng. Lit.  Shakespeare out in front by a mile, and the rest of the field strung out behind trying to close the gap.  You all write for people would like to write like you if only they could write.

And for half a second, you could listen to Annie and believe it, until you remember that she speaks mostly nonsense, as Henry indicates in the cricket-bat speech, which is so wonderful, and since this isn’t a paper, I’m including the whole damn thing.

This [cricket bat] here, which looks like a wooden club, i s actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor.  It’s for hitting cricket balls with.  If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock it might... travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up [Brodie’s] script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits.  (indicating the cricket bat) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords.  It’s better because it’s better.  You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on.  [he reads] ‘You’re a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?’ ‘Twenty, but I’ve lived more than you’ll ever live.’ Ooh, ouch!

He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going ‘Ouch!’

Did you fall in love with Henry just then?  I know I did.

In this scene, Stoppard does a phenomenal job illustrating the authenticity of art, and what makes good art, well, good, that it is a matter of craft and not opinion.  But, you can admit, Annie does her best to make a good argument.  She’s just no Henry.

Surrounding these speeches, in the scene, and even in the duration of the play, Stoppard invites the audience to question the authenticity of motivation behind these works of art.  At the end of the play, Henry has doctored Brodie’s script and humiliated himself for Annie.  He writes screenplays (quelle horreur!) in order to support keep them living in the style to which they have become accustomed, and never completes his play for her; because that’s one cricket bat he can’t quite master.

And the more I read this play, and the more I think on it, I do believe that Henry believes words are sacred, much moreso than their craftsmen, but I have to wonder if he ever wrote a cricket bat, or feels that he had.


Captain Blood: Then, Then, and Soon. February 13, 2009

Filed under: Adaptation,Captain Blood,Courtney,Michael Curtiz,Raphael Sabatini — noisyhope @ 11:05 am

I apologize for the lateness of the post and its apparent spottiness.  I have neither the book nor the film in front of me as I type.  I do, however, have much of the film memorized; it’s one of my favorites and I can be assured that it will improve my mood after viewing.

The 1936 film starring Erroll Flynn was based off a novel by Raphael Sabatini, who penned the adaptation I will discuss next week, Scaramouche.

The differences between the original text and the film are remarkable.  Characters are missing, stories are dropped, and Curtiz delivers only a fraction of the story.  Lavasseur’s arrival in the plot feels about as haphazard as the arrival of the evil vampires in Twilight, the novel.  Something just doesn’t qutie ring true about “Hey, we’re both pirates in Singapore, let’s work together, this can’t end badly!”  It does, however, give us another opportunity to watch Basil Rathbone lose a duel; and root for Olivia de Haviland as she spurns Flynn in a way that Miss Melanie Wilkes would most certainly not approve.

I also feel far too biased to really talk about whether or not the film is a successful adaptation.  I feel like it should say “inspired by,” perhaps, as it can be seen as a very loose translation.  I read the book two years ago, but after the movie had been in my life for twenty.

I think what people would first remark upon would be Flynn as Blood.  While he does carry out many of Blood’s personal traits; his cunning, his acerbic wit, his dedication to his fellow man and initial reluctance to condemn himself and his men to a life of piracy; he bears no physical resemblance to the character’s description.  I am going from memory here, but I recall Sabatini describing him as short, with dark feature and barrel chested.  Hardly what you see here.

I know I’m not giving the best analysis, but hey.  It’s Friday the Thirteenth, and I’m sure we all have a helluva weekend planned.  My inspiration behind posting this is that there are now rumours (and a blocked off iMDB page) of “Captain Blood” to be released in 2011.  I’m still  pondering if I want to see the book adapted, or watch someone try to top Flynn and deHaviland’s performances.


Background and Foreground February 11, 2009

Filed under: Jane Austen,Michelle,Pride & Prejudice,Theory — m. @ 8:05 am

Erich Auerbach made my tiny heart flutter when I read him for the first time last semester — here was this man, a real, respected literary critic and in my syllabus, trapped between such towers of unreadable jackassery like Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault, who was readable. Not only that, but he was one of the very few theorists I read that semester to do what David Richter, the editor of my critical theory anthology, calls “pure literary interpretation” (704) — not out of choice, but because he emigrated to Istanbul during World War II and was deprived of the resources he would have access to normally.

“Odysseus’ Scar” is one chapter from the book he wrote during his time in Istanbul, Mimesis. The title refers to the moment in Book XIX of Homer’s Odyssey when Eurycleia, Odysseus’ old nurse, washes a stranger’s feet and because of the scar on the stranger’s thigh, realizes it’s her master. Auerbach compares this scene to the sacrifice of Isaac from the Old Testament in order to illuminate the passage of time and disclosure of events by narrators.

With regards to these, Auerbach refers to the moment when Eurycleia actually touches Odysseus’ scar — at that moment, the narrative goes off on a tangent to Odysseus’ childhood and how he received the scar for more than 70 lines (19.393-466). On the 74th line after the beginning of the digression, the narration returns back to the present moment. Auerbach points out that Homer “knows no background. What he narrates is for the time being the only present, and fills both the stage and the reader’s mind completely” (705). Compare this to the beginning of the sacrifice of Isaac, which begins simply: “And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham and said to him, Abraham! and he said, Behold, here I am” (707; Genesis 22:1). Auerbach notes this scene and how “it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed…. Everything remains unexpressed” (709).

And how does Pride and Prejudice fit into this? For one thing, few works between the epics of the ancient world and Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness novels in the early 20th century fit into the Homeric category which “knows no background” (where the events being narrated are the foreground) as the narrative progresses; nor are narratives as thoroughly opaque as the Old Testament. However, Austen’s novel straddles (gosh, that seems wrong somehow) the line and leans towards one or the other with more totality than other works I can think of off the top of my head. To be sure, there is background — if Lydia’s elopement were written by Homer, it somehow would have been worked into the foreground narrative. There simply isn’t a division of space in a Homeric narrative — a reader probably knows Clytemnestra is back in Mycenae throughout the events of the Iliad, plotting revenge on Agamemnon, but that background is entirely reader-created and never, ever mentioned by Homer until its relevance in the Odyssey. With Lydia’s elopement, however, Austen first withholds the events of that narrative completely and shows only the effects on her family; later, she weaves it back in and discloses it (as graphically as an 18th century woman can describe a regimental officer running off with and boning a 15-year-old girl).

There is also the matter of Darcy and Austen inserting his mental processes into the narrative in Chapter 6 (15) during a visit to Netherfield. Austen notes that as Elizabeth watches Bingley and Jane, Darcy watches Elizabeth — in that one paragraph, Austen shares with her reader that Darcy has evaluated her eyes, her figure, and her manner, and found them to be overall imperfect but “he was caught by their easy playfulness”. He then reinserts himself into the scene. Time didn’t stop while Darcy watched — Bingley didn’t stop flirting with Jane and Elizabeth didn’t stop watching them or talking to Charlotte. No, the whole scope of the narrative was shifted from one small conversation after another to focus on the mind of one man and the view from his eyes for the only moment in the narrative (corrections welcome!)

It’s a simple thing I’ve brought up here, this creation of background and foreground, but something that struck me as noteworthy once Auerbach had pointed out that literature had to progress to something that simple. And yes, rest assured, this is the last Pride and Prejudice post for quite a while. I’ll try and cover The Real Thing sometime this weekend (Stoppard!!!!)


Auerbach, Erich. “Odysseus’ Scar”. The Critical Traditon: Claassic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd Ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.


Happy, Like a Warm Puppy: Love and Scene Seven February 9, 2009

Filed under: Courtney,Text,The Real Thing,Tom Stoppard — noisyhope @ 12:03 am

First, I adore this play.  I devoured it one day the first time I read it two years ago, and whenever I’m in some sort of quandry regarding art or love (politics and I cross paths less often than the other two), I find myself picking it up again and finding something I hadn’t noticed last time.  When I discussed it with a professor for a paper, he and I argued about what could be my favorite scene, Scene Seven; when Debbie is leaving to go on the road with her boyfriend and she and Henry try to reconcile themselves to each other, explain how they feel about love, and Charlotte drops her great revelation.

Henry delivers a monologue that (I’ve been assured) looks awkward as hell staged, but, experiencing the words alone, I find it to be one of the most beautiful and articulate descriptions of sexual intimacy:

We share our vivacity, grief, sulks, anger, joy… we hand it out to anybody who happens to be standing around, to friends and family with a momentary sense of indecency perhaps, to strangers without hesitation.  Our lovers share us with the passing trade.  But in pairs we insist that we give ourselves to each other.  What selves?  What’s left?  What else is there that hasn’t been dealt out like a deck of cards?  A sense of knowledge.  Personal, final, uncompromised.  Knowing, being known.  I revere that.

And so he continues on for several more lines after he’s been going awhile, for his darling daughter Debbie to ask him flatly, “Has Annie got someone else then?”

This perfect moment follows several other beats of Henry and Debbie matching wits, she delivers the syllogism “That’s what free love is free of – propaganda,” and he offers that it should be “of love.”  They argue the definition of fidelity and its relation to his last successful play.  However, none of this compares to the conversation that is to follow with his first wife and Debbie’s mother, Charlotte.

Just to step away from the scene for a moment, I want to sing the praises of Stoppard’s description of Charlotte when she is formally introduced in Scene Two: “Henry is amiable but can take care of himself.  Charlotte is less amiable and can take even better care of herself.  . . . Annie is very much like the woman Charlotte has ceased to be.” Just between the x of us, I want to be Charlotte if I ever grow up.

Back to our (totally awesome!) heroine.  Charlotte picks up where her daughter left off, asking her ex-husband about his current marriage with the mistress who ended theirs.  (Did you follow that?  Great, thanks.)  She wonders why he isn’t curious about Annie’s fidelity while she’s away, and confesses to infidelities during their marriage, because Henry didn’t seem to care and surely he must be doing the same thing, only to realize his loyalty too late; it didn’t matter.  She gloats after his inquiry, “look what your one did compared to my nine.”

And she follows this up with a speech, much shorter than Henry’s that I believe is The Big Point (possibly, the Real Thing?) behind the play – what The Real Thing is, with regards to love.  According to Stoppard.

There are no commitments [in love], only bargains.  And they have to be made again every day.  You think making a commitment is it.  Finish.  You think it sets like a concrete platform and it’ll take any strain you want to put on it.  You’re committed.

Charlotte and Debbie make more sense to me, at least with regards to love, than any other characters in the play.  Henry is still learning the game, Annie cheats (I can’t tell if that was intended), Max is a sore loser.  Debbie stands along the sidelines with her mother, but their commentary brings the audience closer to the real thing than any moment spent between Henry and Annie.  And so ends my catechism.

Have a great Valentine’s Day, everyone.