Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Power of Print Compels You


The shooting of Manny Weinburg, and the miraculous deus ex machina that, hopefully, saved his life, has got me to thinking. About the power of print, or, in this case, the print technology that swallowed those bullets. The Underwood typewriter, the Marvellous machine that produced all those black riders on the page. I'm of that vampiric vintage (neither old nor young) that overlaps the phases of print practice. (Gotta get a vampire reference in there for the kids). Like many snot-nosed undergraduates, most of my papers were hammered out on an electric Corona. For no small fee, you could add the magic strip that, astonishingly yet acoustically agitatedly "erased" your one-fingered typos (or rather, pasted a drop of white shit "on to it", as my priceless pa would say). The resultant noise doubtlessly kept people up all night -- including car salesmen cousins who moved into your Grub Street hovel between commissions. Only as a graduate student did I "graduate" to the wonderful world of Word.

No, I never actually used an Underwood. But there was one in my household when I was a young boy. Don't know where it came from, don't know where it went. But it was there, and it looked just like Barton Fink's in his squalid room at the Hotel Earle. Doubtlessly it suffered a fiery martyrdom, along with my Joe Montana rookie card, during one of my father's fits of pyromania. Holy fuck, that man (god bless him) liked to watch things burn. One of my favourite old professors may still use one of those remarkable relics, and he resembles Barton in more ways than one. Why shouldn't the common man be on the stage, as long as he doesn't make a mess of things. Maybe he is Old Fink (c'mon Turturro, get old).

I have another cinematic memory of the Underwood. William S. Burroughs wrote a novel in 1959 called Naked Lunch. It was supposed to be unfilmic, defiant of any possible adaptation. And after seeing David Cronenberg's 1991 celluloid stew of Naked Lunch and a few other Burrough's novels, I don't know that I could muster much of an argument to the contrary. But for me, the success is in the attempt. And for my aesthetic appreciation, aside from a semblance of story, I really only need one or two incredible images. After all, music is (primarily) about the sound, not the word. Print culture is about the word, and all the esemplastic energies that follow. And film is about the image. I will never forget the Kafkaesque (or Schulzian) transformation of the Underwood into the sphincturous bug. "Hello Bill. Could you rub some of that powder on my lips, please"? During some of those all-nighters, my own Corona seemed to morph into different shapes and species, particularly around the 17th cup of coffee.

Post-Interruptnum, I have a different relationship with print culture. There was never a danger that my dissertation would become a Book. (Although I do see that its published on the web as an etext). Perhaps its head could have been shrunk, and the cannibalized version could have found its way to a legitimate academic journal. But when I left that world, there was no going back. No, the annotative scaffolding around John Millar of Glasgow will be my print culture legacy. The projected satirical novel which was to occupy my academic afterlife will not be written; after Lucky Jim who could do so? (but what I could have done with some of those characters, especially in the Ivy League Museum!) And I cannot write like Amis the Younger. The Anxiety of Influence overwhelms me. It always has. Not so much the Burden of the Past, though. I find that civilizing.

The blog will suffice, and my new project. I will transform just like the Underwood. I will become the Biblophagist. After the Interruptnum, the reading list will be my coy mistress. Had I but world enough, and time.

There may be no road map, but look upon me, I will show you the life of the mind.


  1. FEL, interesting post. We forget about the spirit in the technology that helps us "make the word flesh." I wonder if that scene in The Shining would have been as effective if Jack Nicholson was texting on a IPhone.


  2. "make the word flesh" - yes, the mystery of the Incarnation or, as the Cronenbergian heresy reformulates, "long live the new flesh"!

  3. Honoured you were inspired by Manny Weinberg and his Underwood. Tragic story over at the Square Corner. Stay tuned over the next few days. Breaking news about the dwarf insurgency.

    Very good post, by the way. Really well written. Wouldn't give up on that novel of yours. Serious

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Through a word-made-flesh-eye-lens and some tub-thumped specs, I'm beginning to see signs of light!

  6. you got knocked down, but you got up again, and Signs of Light hits the bookstore shelves soon!