04 August, 2007


At ten this morning I was feeling quite weak. Last night's not-very-good bitter and rancidly disgusting tequila (in other words, tequila) were taking their toll—and I had just schlepped a second-hand filing-cabinet a few streets in the new morning heat, with little sleep and several waves of dehydrated nausea. Still, at ten a package arrived at my front door—Mrs. Roth collected it in her dressing-gown—and therein (the package, not the dressing-gown) was contained a copy of John Emerson's new book, Substantific Marrow. My first thought was—Good title. As a literary allusion it depicts Emerson in an instant: whimsical, slightly but not very obscure, lateral, cultish, and fond of big words, especially ones that sound translated.

My second thought was—Oh dear, he's kept it in Arial. You see, Substantific Marrow contains seventy essays from John's Arialist blog, Idiocentrism, of which I have been a longstanding reader, though it has not been updated in months. Idiocentrism is possibly the most Varieties-like thing on the internet, which means that I was cosmically obliged to like it. It consists of short, usually whimsical musings on extremely diverse subjects—jazz, Chinese philosophy, Jacques Lacan, mediaeval literature, arcane Eastern history, eccentric Americana, Symbolist poetry, Mussorgsky (that was a big one), Max Weber, Aristotle, and so on and so on. This sort of diversity, I've always thought, paints a good picture of the mind—of interests that do not follow pre-determined tracks. 'I took neither road,' Emerson might say—'and that has made all the difference'. Which is why he responds to a thread mocking him for his unconventional use of the sans-serif font Arial with the comment:
All of the serif fonts available in my software look fussy to me. I just don't like serifs, I guess. I considered Fraktur, but that didn't seem practical.
That's John Emerson in a nutshell, and he's worth the combined intellect of the various dull group blogs (Unfogged, Crooked Timber, The Valve) where he insists on playing the commenter. The use of Arial seems at first insignificant—but the marrow is that it conveys his unpolished ramshackle better than justified serifs would. And at least he has conceded to the serifisti by putting the title of his book in Times.


The obvious way to review Substantific Marrow would be to give a taste of its variegation—to give an epitome—but such an approach would reduce the critical process to a sort of parasitism upon the original object—and that's not the Varieties way, is it? Marrow is actually the best form for this material, which I suspect John knows all too well. The blog format lends itself best to the brief, the up-to-date, and the dialogic: because neither John nor I participate in this sort of writing, it was a curious novelty for me to see his texts in print form. I hope it will not sound too idiocentric if I say that part of my interest in the book is programmatic. I would, needless to say, love to see some of the Varieties in book form some day.

But this post is about John, not me. The pieces in Marrow are short, casual, and fun. More than perhaps any other blogger, John has kept central to his writing a sense of fun. He even likes the word, fun. Hence the opening to his bit on Aucassin and Nicolette: 'Medieval literature is a lot more fun to read if you realize that a lot of it is trash'. He adds:
From my point of view this has been a very mixed blessing, because the trashiness of medieval fiction is part of why I like it. Petrarch is no fun, like an opera singer singing Howlin’ Wolf with symphonic backing.
This is terrific, and true. Petrarch is no fun. (Maybe his Africa has something to offer, but I haven't read it yet.) As an aside, I will point out that this is exactly why we need analytical criticism. Much, much better than anything Petrarch ever wrote is this article (pdf) by Sergio Rinaldi, which uses differential equations to model the dynamics of Petrarch's love affair with Laura. This is, in my opinion, the single greatest academic essay ever written, and I've linked to it since this blog began, but sadly it has never generated any comment. Curiously, another of my very favourite academic essays, 'Petrarch's Laura: The Portraiture of an Imaginary Beloved' (JSTOR), by the late great Warburgian J. B. Trapp, also concerns this most mediocre of poets, albeit tangentially.

Emerson has a whole essay on fun. It's a short piece, and really about jouissance, which Emerson thinks is the same as fun. And in the spirit of Lacan, Emerson has fun with this 'charlatan' and his silly wordplay. 'Fun', in fact, is integral to the Emersonian outlook, as this essay, not included in Marrow—presumably too serious for the tone of the book—makes clear:
Because the academic humanities have become socially authoritative to a degree, and because college teaching has become a desirable middle class job (with the requisite need to supervise workers and justify hiring and promotion), and also because the cultural context of our time is defined by science and engineering, it has become necessary to define history, literary study, and philosophy as responsible sorts of productive work with reliable methodologies of producing truth. In this context even the dissident and eclectic tendencies have had to methodologize, and paradigms are imposed everywhere. My thesis is that this not only takes all the fun out of the humanities, but also reduces their critical force and closes off their essential openendedness.
The problem of the specialisation and professionalisation of the humanities is of particular interest to me at the moment, and I am collecting materials for a lengthy post on the subject; but we can see that Emerson puts himself squarely in the camp of the Renaissance humanists, like Rabelais and Bacon, who derided scholasticism (and he uses the same word, equating it with modern analytic philosophy) for its narrowminded pedantry—and in Rabelais's case, for its lack of fun. John wants the humanities to be kept at the generalist level—he wants it still to be fun. And so he contributes, with both his blog and his new book, to our enjoyment of the humanities at the generalist level. Therefore, for those who are acquainted with this blog and not with John's—and there cannot be many who fit into that category—the best description I can give is that Idiocentrism, and consequently Substantific Marrow, are like the Varieties, only less academic, more fun.


For someone of my persuasion, it's especially nice to see John's basic humanistic and generalist outlook manifesting itself in small ways throughout the text. One piece, 'You Are What You Eat', is about how modern germophobia has weakened our immune systems. John concludes with the suggestion, 'So what should we do? The short answer is, eat dirt. . .
Or you could just use my method, and live like a slob. Leave food out, let dishes mold in the sink, and if you drop food on the floor, pick it up and eat it. It works for me: I haven't had the flu or a serious cold for more than twenty years.
In the book Emerson cuts out the last two sentences, leaving the simple and pointed 'live like a slob'. This is small, but telling; for 'slob' describes Emerson's intellectual style as well as his lifestyle. Slobbism is authentic humanism—disorganised; fun.

I especially like a double essay called 'Two Misreadings'. All he needs to do, and all he does, is make a simple point about a poem written by everyone's favourite mediaeval proto-Nazi, Frederick II Hohenstaufen—and then admit of his own analysis that 'This is all wrong, albeit fun'. There's that word again! I like it because it strikes me as genuine stream-of-consciousness, but not in a banal undergraduate way. He's making it up as he goes along.

Occasionally this fails him, as when he reads Freud a little humourlessly—though this piece is probably redeemed by the amusing image of 'a band of cave men gathered around a fire like the one I saw, incontinently and ecstatically squirting their tiny streams of urine at the raging fire, while at the same time their resentful, feminist wives tried furiously to weave themselves little fake penises even more useless than the men's real penises'.

I haven't finished the book. I look forward, myself, to reading about Parmenides in Chinese, about Wittgenstein, and about 'Van Gogh as Chump'. So should you. After all, it sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Update: John Holbo is the bigger man. That said, most men are bigger than me, so I'm used to it.


Steven Augustine said...

You are/would have been the ideal blurbist for this book: reading this post makes me want it; a suggestion for the second edition...?

Conrad H. Roth said...

I'm glad! Maybe John will consider letting me write some bibliobole for the next back cover.

Ben Wolfson said...

This is, in my opinion, the single greatest academic essay ever written, and I've linked to it since this blog began, but sadly it has never generated any comment.

Maybe you could link to it in a more accessible form? Even after registering with the site where it's hosted, I still can't log in to it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for bringing this issue to my attention--I have no idea why the link changed since posting this piece. Anyway, the link is updated above, and should work now. Here it is again:


bill benzon said...

Still seems to be problematic. But I've got the PDF and will email to anyone who wants it.

Bill Benzon

Ben Wolfson said...

Now I'm imagining what René Girard would do if he only had the power of differential equations at his disposal. A formal model of triangular desire!

John Emerson said...

Google tells me that Rinaldi has also co-authored a seminal study on pond scum. A Renaissance man.