Thursday, March 03, 2011

A non-crime post — or is it?


I'm taking a break from crime fiction with an essay by Joseph Brodsky.
***
I interrupt the post to bring you, verbatim, this sentence from a story by Joe Biddle of the (Nashville) Tennessean just transmitted on the Associated Press sports wire:

"For every positive Newton presents, there are questions about his ability to transcend his game to the highest NFL level."

Who needs Biff Burns when we have Joe Biddle?
***
Back to Brodsky. His essay "Ninety Years Later" has this to say about Rilke's poem "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes": "For all the obvious attractions of a round-trip story, the origins of this conceit are not literary at all. They have to do, I believe, with the fear of being buried alive."

Brodsky writes of Orpheus "literally dogged by fear," of underground dwelling places, and I think of all the cellars in David Goodis, dark places of violence, fear and death, but also, in "Black Pudding," of shelter. And what is a good, chilling noir story if not the narration of the protagonist's trip to and return from the world of death, fear and darkness?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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46 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I liked Brodsky a lot, but how is one "literally dogged by fear"?

March 03, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

LOL! Picture a slavering mastiff!

Re underground places: archetypal image of death! It represents burial. Besides it usually involves darkness, another symbol of death. Of course, it can be rather neatly combined with rebirth: Christ (religious) and the seeds in the ground when spring arrives (seasonal).

Have used it myself. Very good way to give your protagonist some grief.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, it's true, I suppose, that one cannot literally be dogged by anything other than a dog. Here the dog is Cerberus, guardian of Hades, from which Orpheus and his gang are returning. Now. if Cerberus is Orpheus' fear animated and given form, one is left to ask whether one can be literally dogged by a symbolic dog.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

LOL! Picture a slavering mastiff!

Or a yipping Chihuahua.

I remember being haunted by Robert Wilson's production of Alcestis, that other story of a trip to the underworld and back, especially by Alcestis' silence when she returns from the dead.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

My general observation is that when people use the word literally, they generally don't mean it literally.

Great v-word: noresish

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or, NORESISH, the top-secret Northeastern Security, Intelligence and Spycraft Headquarters.

What you mean is that people don't know what literally means, and you're right. I'm tempted to absolve Brodsky of that failing because of the tricky metaphysical position of his dog, though. Still, he'd have been better off had he dropped the literally -- I don't mean literally dropped it, but rather that he removed it.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

The literally was unnecessary. I can't remember, though, if this book was in Brodsky's own words or if he used a translator, so there may be another door to lay the fault at.

"Noresish" is what the drunk said when asked why he had fallen off the wagon yet again. He meant, "no resistance," but couldn't finish the sentence.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Noresish: The practical expression of a philosophy that combines passive resistance and alcohol.

I also don't know if Brodsky wrote that essay in Russian or in English. He refers throughout to an English translation of Rilke's poem, so who knows?

March 03, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Noresish could be the next big protest movement. Or perhaps just the next big bar game.

Brodsky did apparently write it in English, though even his publisher gives him mixed results.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for that link. He did write some of the book's pieces in English, though.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

My better half used Brodsky's opening line of his Nobel Prize speech as the epigraph for her book on Yiddish Travel Writers. He said, "Of course this is a hell of a way to get from St Petersburg to Stockholm."

Are you in Dogfishland?

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I read that speech last night, and I remember that line.

I'm still in Philadelphia and hence still in full possession of all my faculties. I head for Dogfishville on Saturday. The owner of my local recommended Dogfish Head's restaurant. Any thoughts on that subject?

March 03, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Dogfish Head is a disconcerting image.

I'm not panning Brodsky, by the way. I like his essays. I question 'literally', but I almost always question it. I mean, it literally makes me pause and question the sentence I am reading.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Didnt know they had a restaurant. Just after Christmas I was at a pub in Newburyport with an old friend of mine who heads the creative writing programme at an Ivy League University in New England. Anyway we had three pints of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. I was seeing stars - literally hallucinating. XXXXX however who is clearly made of sterner stuff than me not only drove me back to Plum Island but then the three hour journey back home. Should I have asked him for his keys? Probably. Could I have made my tongue do the asking? No.

This is Leah's Yiddish Travel writing book:

http://www.amazon.com/Journeys-beyond-Pale-Yiddish-Writing/dp/0299184447/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1299217853&sr=8-1

March 04, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I think Brodsky a native Russian speaker was calling attention to the fact that he was making a joke in English - a rather good joke if ask me.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

If he had said that Orpheus was dogged by fear, I wouldnt have noticed the Cerberus reference at all but by adding the word "literally" he calls attention to dogged and then you see what he's talking about. I thought that was pretty good.

yes I agree its annoying when starlets and wannabe starlets say "I literally died with happiness" but Brodsky's use here is appropriate.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Adrian,I see what you're saying, but I think 'literally', as here, often replaces a word we wish we had but don't.

I trust that you were literally hallucinating,though most people don't have quite that reaction to beer. Peter, if you happen to replicate the experience, by all means let us know.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I've wondered about the name Dogfish Head. Does it have something to do with that part of a dogfish's anatomy? Did someone think that the words' odd rhythms would make the name stand out? Is the bewery's owner a Captain Beefheart fan who liked Dogfish Head's rhythmic similarity to Trout Mask Replica?

A comic strip I like once had the title character complaining that misuse of literally "literally burns me up," to which his friend replies, "Oh., Eyebeam, you literally crack me up." The strip's panels are illustrated accordingly.

I'll explain in a subsequent comment what I think Brodsky was up to and why I'm tempted to give him a pass on this one.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, were you literally seeing stars, or were they scintillating flashes of light that resembled stars?

Thanks, too, for the link to Leah's book. Let her drive when you travel.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Well, do, and I can easily suppose that Brodsky was mocking or at least imitating an American misuse rather than falling into error himself.

But I do think 'literally' has become part of the American vernacular as an emphasizer of some sort. It's wrong, but usage makes it right to some degree. At least in the sense that we all understand what's meant.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, while I recognize that any number of former mistakes are now accepted usage, sometimes a mistake repeated often enough is still a mistake. That's the case with literally.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Peter, if you happen to replicate the experience, by all means let us know.

Seana, I shall be sure to keep you current on my visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile hallucinations. If I get drunk and then happen to meet George Clooney and Natalie Portman in the restaurant, I'll also let you know.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I don't know if Brodsky was calling especial attention to any joke he was making, but I do think he was doing more or less what you suggest in your other comment. "Dogged" has become through frequent usage a dead metaphor. That is, speakers and writers use it fluently and comfortably without any sense of its having anything to do with dogs. Brodsky's literally unmetaphorizes the word and brings it back from the land of dead metaphors, reminding readers of its origin (though elsewhere in the essay, I think he explicitly denies the power of metaphors).

Seana: That's my explanation of what I think Brodsky was up to.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

And it was funny. Without the "literally" it wouldn't, I contend, have been funny.

It was night time so yes I was literally seeing stars - the Big Dipper, a constellation we can't get in the Southern Hemisphere.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's the point: The metaphor is so dead that without the "literally," no one would have made any connection between "dogged" and "dogs," or one particular dog.

I'd have been more impressed if you were so drunk you saw stars from the wrong hemishpere.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Its still VERY strange to look up into the Southern sky and see Orion upside down.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

It's funny and clever, but still wrong.

Adrian, you were literally seeing stars, you were not literally hallucinating.

Unless you just imagined you were in the northern hemisphere. Could happen.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I've spent too much time with my body in the gutter and too little with my eyes on the stars. Except for the Big Dipper, I probably couldn't find any of the constellations even if they jabbed me in the ass with their arrows or dumped a bucket of water over my head.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or you were so plastered that the constellations looked upside down.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

A lesser man would have missed that Wildean allusion but not I.

March 05, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Well, I got the allusion, but then I'm not a man. Of course, I probably wouldn't have remembered it was Wilde, but I don't think he thought being in the gutter was any excuse for not knowing your constellations.

Good place for it, actually.

March 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Neither of you is anything like a lesser mortal.

I'd have recognized the allusion even had I had more than one IPA 90-minute with dinner last night.

March 07, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, re your query: "I've wondered about the name Dogfish Head. Does it have something to do with that part of a dogfish's anatomy?"

The "head" in this instance refers to a "projecting point of the coast, esp. when of considerable height; a cape, headland, promontory." Dogfish Head, DE, is a cape. There's also a Dogfish Head (cape) in Maine. And a dogfish is a kind of shark, family Squalidae (I love that word), hence the sharky logo for Dogfish Head Brewery.

March 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wasn't that a movie with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Squalidae?

March 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But many thanks. Head ... headland ... I should have used my noodle to figure out the meaning of head.

March 15, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Still doesn't explain how people could confuse a dog with a shark, though.

March 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sharks have had lots of time to diversify in 420 million years, I guess. You and I probably don't look much like some of our similarly ancient relatives.

March 15, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Right. But we still don't look like dogs.

March 15, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

dogfish
a name for various types of small shark, late 15c., dokefyche , from dog (n.) + fish. Said to be so called because they hunt in packs.

Consider the catfish...

mule deer, whale shark, fox squirrel, turtle dove, sparrow hawk, spider monkey, etc. etc.

Ain't dictionaries grand?

My area of particular interest, the pinnipeds, includes such animals as the "elephant seal" not because people confused it with an elephant but because of the male's long proboscis and the "sea lion" not because people confused it with a swimming lion but because of A) the male's thick neck and B) because they are the most efficient haired mammal predator in the sea.

another good v-word = lindog

March 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, some of us do -- the actor Robert Morley, for instance.

March 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"the most efficient haired mammal predator in the sea."

Able to cow the other haired mammal predators by merely looking down its whiskered proboscis, I bet!

March 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Do tiger sharks make it into your etymological mixed menagerie?

March 15, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

As to R. Morley--it's a very distinctive face, but not particularly doglike.

March 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Really? I thought he got as jowly as an old St. Bernard late in his career.

March 15, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Able to cow the other haired mammal predators by merely looking down its whiskered proboscis, I bet!"

If that doesn't work, then they just open their mouths and breathe. A diet of raw fish produces breath that will stop most oncomers.

"Do tiger sharks make it into your etymological mixed menagerie?"

Certo. As well as the raccoon dog, the bat ray, the zebra finch, etc. etc.

March 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What about the fishwife? Or the Man Ray?

March 15, 2011  

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