kottke.org posts about Susan Stewart

Toy storiesMay 03 2011

One thing I will be doing from time to time this week is pulling down random books from my shelves and writing about them, under the belief that the internet is better when not all of it comes from the internet. Here's the second installment (you can read the first here).

One of my favorite writers, poets, and teachers is Susan Stewart. She's just one of those people who radiates intelligence and fun.

She also helped show me that you could put both of these things into critical writing -- that plain, everyday language and willfully studied, obscure language were both traps.

Here is an audio recording of her reading one of my favorite of her poems, "Apple," which begins:

If I could come back from the dead, I would come back

for an apple, and just for the first bite, the first

break, and the cold sweet grain

against the roof of the mouth, as plain

and clear as water.

This poem also includes a Twitter-worthy quip: "If an apple's called 'delicious,' it's not."

And here is an excerpt from one of my favorite of her books (which I'm pretty sure was originally actually her doctoral thesis), On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection:

Problems of the inanimate and the animate here bring us to a consideration of the toy. The toy is the physical embodiment of the fiction: it is a device for fantasy, a point of beginning for narrative. The toy opens an interior world, lending itself to fantasy and privacy in a way that the abstract space, the playground, of social play does not. To toy with something is to manipulate it, to try it out within sets of contexts, none of which is determinative... The desire to animate the toy is the desire not simply to know everything but also to experience everything simultaneously...

Here is the dream of the impeccable robot that has haunted the West at least since the advent of the industrial revolution. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mark the heyday of the automaton, just as they mark the mechanization of labor: jigging Irishmen, whistling birds, clocks with bleating sheep, and growling dogs guarding baskets of fruit. The theme of death and irreversibility reappears in the ambivalent status of toys like the little guillotines that were sold in France during the time of the Revolution. In 1793 Goethe wrote to his mother in Frankfurt requesting that she buy a toy guillotine for his son, August. This was a request she refused, saying that the toy's maker should be put in stocks.

Such automated toys find their strongest modern successors in "models" of ships, trains, airplanes, and automobiles, models of the products of mechanized labor. These toys are nostalgic in a fundamental sense, for they completely transform the mode of production of the original as they miniaturize it: they produce a representation of a product of alienated labor, a representation which itself is constructed by artisanal labor. The triumph of the model-maker is that he or she has produced the object completely by hand, from the beginning assembly to the "finishing touches."

It's a kind of writing that's totally within the boundaries of the historical and theoretical conventions of the academy, but is also always rhetorically and imaginatively precise and correct, from the individual syllable to the grouped processions of images.

I can't tell you how rare that is. Probably you know already.

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