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Nuggets DeWitt

from Monday, May12th of the year2008.

I love Helen DeWitt. I have spoken of this before. She is one of those people about whom I entertain simultaneous fantasies that she and I would be fast friends in flesh-space, or, we would meet and it would be too awkward for words and I would be crestfallen. I have the same sense about Cintra Wilson, whose Critical Shopper articles in the Times are the highlights of my life. Anyway, Helen DeWitt has an excellent post up about languages. She writes,

The last thing a child wants to learn is a language that shows some prospect of being useful. Sheer impracticality is one of the strongest points in a language’s favour for the young learner. The main reason my French is so much better than my Spanish or Portuguese is, naturally, that I grew up in countries where there was no use for it.

Holla, students of Faroese worldwide! A few months ago, I wrote the following about Helen DeWitt’s book The Last Samurai (which I swear to god if you don’t buy it right now for the low-low price of $11 on we are so no longer friends, and (!) you can get both ytt and John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure for $22, there really is no excuse):

This is also one of these books where to read it is to have the totality of the author’s vision only hinted at: despite its epic scale, it still feels like a tiny but perfect puppet fable played at the outskirts of a big, bustling city inside her head. I don’t say this by means of a judgement, but rather, it is interesting and important to think about the scale of the work that you’re doing and how it relates, in a sense, to the greater Projects that you have going on. I know that one of my major problems as a composer is that I used to feel, instinctively, that each piece had to fully represent (even in fleeting miniatures) all the aspects of my Whole Thing.

It’s interesting to revisit this little nugget from August; when I wrote that, I only obliquely knew what I was talking about as it related to music, but very much knew what I was talking about when it related to the written word. Some scattered examples. Does anybody else receive an erotic charge by knowing that the American Museum of Natural History in New York has over 32 million specimens, “of which only a small fraction can be displayed at any given time.” Or, as a counter-example, is it not a total buzzkill when a shopkeeper tells you, “the only sizes we have are the sizes that are on the floor?” Other things about which I get a physical tingle thinking about that same thing:

    Awesome, Deep Shuddery Things
    The phrase “tip of an iceberg”
    The idea that an Island is just a giant mountain
    Library Stacks
    Museums with 1% of the shit visible and the rest…somewhere…ELSE
    Opera Houses with Giant Backstages
    Those crazy tunnels under Columbia

There is a very subtle and important way, in the making of Art, to hint at the enormousness of the underlying island, archive, or stack; one way to do it is to just throw it all in there “” this is sort of the Tony Kushner model, who once said (or wrote?), “A good play, like good lasagna, should be overstuffed. It has a pomposity, and an overreach. Its ambitions extend in the direction of not-missing-a-trick, it has a bursting omnipotence up its sleeve.” This is also the model that my old teacher, John Corigliano expertly employs; I saw a band piece of his once, and Nadia and I turned to each other and both agreed that that piece had the most “stuff” going on ““ both physically and musically ““ of basically anything we had ever seen before.

There are really great moments in Rushdie where I would get the same physical sensation ““ one such is in The Ground Beneath Her Feet:

And as he passes that unseen frontier he sees the tear in the sky, and for a terror-stricken instant glimpses miracles through the gash, visions for which he can find no words, the mysteries at the heart of things, Elusinian, unspeakable, bright. He intuits that every bone in his body is being irradiated by something pouring through the sky-rip, a mutation is occurring at the level of the cell, of the gene, of the particle. The person who arrives won’t be the one who left, or not quite. p.252-253

What about Bach? How much are we being shown compared to how much there actually is? How off-limits is the rest of the archive? Bach, for me, always works because you don’t actually know when you are in Forbidden, Ecclesiastical Backstage Space.

J.S. Bach Mache Dich, mein Herze, rein from the St. Matthew Passion
I don’t know whose recording this is but I will figure it out

I am going to be posting more Iceberg Tipp music in the next couple of days.


  • I’m pretty sure that’s EBS w/ Gardiner. I couldn’t agree more with the temptation to want to represent one’s (compositional) whole self in each piece….it’s frustrating when you realize something you love doesn’t really belong, but that’s what the next work is for 🙂

  • The Last Samurai is available on Alibris in hardcover for $1.99.

  • This is a breathtaking post; thank you. My own shudders come from realizing that for a tropical fish, the tank is all there is – it is the world and the cosmos. And for many humans, the world and the cosmos is all there is. And for some Buddhists (and others), the world and the cosmos and all eternity are but a fleeting second in the lifespan of the Buddha. And on it goes.

    Sibelius’s 4th and 7th are tip of the iceberg music for me. And the second movement of the Schubert cello quintet. And almost any Schubert song where the strophic requirements act like a padlock on the vastness underneath. And the end of Wozzeck. And. . .

  • That’s Cornelius Hauptmann singing.

  • The first sinkhole moments that come to mind are in Mahler 10 first movement, and in the thought of Earth, which seems so very solid, being a tiny crumb hurtling through endless space…. Thanks for a lovely post on a Monday morning.

  • If you’re interested in Faroese you might want to check out George Johnston’s “Rocky Shores”. Johnston never developed the reputation he deserved. His collected poems are called “Endeared by Dark”.

  • I’ve been thinking about your remarks about Bach. I once was taught by a philosopher who claimed that Bach was a kind of musical Leibniz, and your post today brought his comment to mind. Just as in Bach what is before us suggests and seems to have a relation to the “rest of the archive” so too it was a primary interest of Leibniz to show the whole implicit in every part. To put it another way the primary insight in your post appears to be exactly what Leibniz was getting at in his claim that the divine freedom was present in every Monad, that “each created Monad represents the whole universe”. It’s very much like your feeling that each piece somehow needs to represents all the aspects of your Whole Thing.

    I don’t suppose that these comments about Leibniz shed much light on what you’re saying (though perhaps they might be of use to those trying to get a handle on what Leibniz is about), but I thought I’d mention it because 18th century German culture is shot full of the “Iceberg Tipp” view of things (it’s what makes German idealism possible, really) and I do think you’re entirely right to find it in Bach, especially perhaps in the many cantatas in which the primary focus is the soul yearning for death and union with God, as if to say “I’m just the tip, there’s more”.

  • The world is an iceberg, so much is invisible!

    Frank O’Hara
    “Sleeping on the Wing”

  • How do you feel about those fungi in Oregon that turned out to be the largest living thing on Earth. You LOVE them. It.

  • One more thought about your observation that Bach works for you because you don’t actually know when you are in Forbidden, Ecclesiastical Backstage Space.

    For me the ultimate “don’t actually know” composer is Beethoven. With Bach to be sure I feel that the finite part directs and draws the soul to the infinite whole, but with Beethoven it’s as though one can no longer tell finite and infinite apart, which is why this music is such a rush. When I listen to someone like Michelangeli play the first piano concerto I have no idea whether I’m in the midst of a musical statement of, on the one hand, the spirit of revolutionary humanity (the side of Beethoven that admired Napoleon) or, on the other, a divinity that comprehends history in its totality: and if anything the ambiguity is only increased in works such as the later piano sonatas and string quartets; is the subjectivity in them divine or human? the more one listens to this music the clearer it becomes that neither one nor the other will work as an answer, and that therefore it must be “both”, which is indeed a heady mix. But then it’s exactly the same condition of not knowing when you’re in the divine realm or the human, of finding the the divine and the human somehow identified, that one finds in Goethe’s Faust or for that matter the Logic of Hegel, who aimed to explicate in a single philosophical argument both the structure of finite or human thinking as it is prior to experience and the thoughts of God before the creation of the world and finite spirit. For Hegel, these two are the same.

    It was a wild historical moment. Not I think entirely unlike the one we’re in now. Is the suffering of the match girl in David Lang’s magnificent Little Match Girl Passion human or divine? What exactly does it mean for her suffering to be elevated “to a higher plane” (as the composer puts it)?

    Which leads me to one last question. Does anyone know an easy way to get hold of a score of Lang’s Passion?

  • This community of comments seems to be striving towards a sense of the sublime, and I can’t think of a better approximation of that notion than Nico’s “awesome deep, shuddery things.” It is exciting to think that the idea of the sublime might be restored to aesthetic respectability. While I am sure that we can all multiply musical examples of the sense of hidden immensity, I must say that I hear it strongly in Nico’s “night” music (“It Remains to be Seen” and “Seeing is Believing”) and I suspect it is what so many find moving in “A Hudson Cycle” – so huge a piece in so short a space.

  • Yes, the sublime is back for sure.

    “Seeing is Believing” is now one of my favorite works for violin.

  • Thanks for a moving post.

    Some of my shuddery things:

    Standing in the deep stacks of a vast library, realizing I am surrounded by infinite words in infinite books that I will never read, both those already written and those that will be written in the billions of years that follow my death, in human languages as well as the languages of all other beings that have existed and will someday exist. At that moment the library becomes a pocket universe, connected to this other universe of words; it is as though I can feel the stacks around me shuddering under their weight.

  • yeah helen de witt is great. she had something in the believer recently which i think might have had something to do w/ her new book? cant really remember tho. it had to do w/ actors contracts and how screwed they are.

  • Jim – is Rocky Shore bilingual? Thanks.

  • The Tony Kushner passage you quote is from an essay titled “On Ambition” (or something close to that), which can be found in the collection ” Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue: Essays, A Play, Two Poems and a Prayer”.

  • To Stephen: unfortunately standing in library stacks makes me feel like my life has momentarily morphed with an essay by Lacan.

    To Nico: that’s probably why you like Murakami so much; he’s all shudders, what with that cheeky little wind up bird that you never see

    Favorite shudder moment: conclusion of “Endless Parade” by the shudderific Harrison Birtwistle: the way the piece keeps going after its finished……:)

  • P.S the shudder thing is just metonymy, no need to worry

  • Other epidermal rushes:
    *Slime molds ( are they plant? animal?both?)
    *the alchemy of sea green patina on copper
    * the phoenix like revival of ( and thrival)
    of most Gaelic tongues

    kdnk radio streamng worldwide
    I am playing parts of Mothertongue today

  • Great post! I spend so much time as writer grappling with this problem, more from insecurity than anything else. I worry that I get only one chance with a reader and if I lose that moment, if I don’t communicate My Whole Thing to them in that moment, I will never get the opportunity again. This is a lot like trying to put the entirety of a romance into the first kiss, all the fumbling sloppy wet passion to come, all the hand-holding and the fights and the lingering mornings someone contained in that first contact of lips. It’s not possible. A good kiss, like a great sentence or work of any art, implies that there are many more where that came from, in vastly infinite forms. You want to stick around for them. Then again, watch old people who’ve been in love forever when their hands touch, and all that history is evident, just as it is in so much of Rushdie’s writing. I’m neither an old lover, or Salman Rushdie, so I guess I still have a lot to learn.

  • Alex- Rocky Shores includes Johnston’s English translations only, not the original texts in Faroese.

    If you’re looking for Faroese texts I would contact the University of the Faroe Islands:

    Also, here’s a review of Rocky Shores: