Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hilary Duff: Not as Bad as She Could Be?

So sayeth the New York Times.

I had my own opinions about Duff in an issue of the DFP last spring, but I'll keep any further Duff-bashing to myself.

Pursuing a different line of thought, I'm thinking about changing the name of this blog. I like Inner Resources alright, but I'm always worried it sounds like a Christian Science or Dianetics blog or something like that. Who knows. Speaking of Dianetics, the New Yorker has a richly entertaining article this week on fasting spas. I couldn't find it when I just looked online, but I would encourage you to track it down in print if you have to.

I was thinking of Blographia Literaria, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famously uneven and scattershot work of autobiography, criticism, speculative aesthetics, and philosophy (among other things). Now that I see the name in print, I kind of like it. I was also thinking of Keats's phrase "Diligent Indolence," as that describes what I'm doing pretty well, but I'd sort of be comparing myself to Keats then, something I don't feel qualified or self-loving enough to do. Of course, I don't think I'm self-hating enough to liken myself to Coleridge, but the name remains pretty fantastic.

As this is a largely informal post already, I may as well give some life updates. I have secured employment; I'll be working in Connecticut for an educational company. I'm very excited about the job and very much looking forward to the move.

Also, I am typing this post from my new Apple laptop, a graduation gift from my father. I've only ever had PCs for personal use, so save for my time laying the DFP out on the Publications Room Macs, I'm new to it all. I am delighted with it, although I am still getting used to not having a right-click button (I know, control+click, but it's not the same). Hope you're all doing well; hopefully I'll have another real post up soon.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

What Else I've Been Reading

Cultural Amnesia, Clive James
One wouldn't think this kind of a book—a sort of compendium of profiles of forgotten cultural figures and whimsically tangential feuilletons supposedly related to those misplaced persons—would induce anger. It is actually just the sort of project I really appreciate—a recovery of the brilliance that has been unaccountably covered over by the caprices of intellectual and artistic history. I'm often afraid that, as an academic, I will turn into the kind of person who seeks to do only this kind of work—I'm already somewhere down this path after a thesis on Saul Bellow, who is quite academically dead at the moment.

But James's book infuriated me, for, despite its ostensibly inclusivist ethos and purpose, it is disgustingly polemical and partisan. Reaching across centuries, but oppressively focused on the mid-twentieth century, James's unswerving support for anyone who ever turned from the hard left to the soft right (Aron, Vargas Llosa, et al.), or who ever said anything bad about Communism, is unmannered and vindictive.

I am not in the least interested in excusing figures like Sartre from their idiotic support of Stalin, but I am interested, a great deal more than James, in the large amount of salvageable material that can be taken from the Marxist left, and from Marx himself, whom James never even pretends to think about despite his obsession with shaming anyone who ever saw something in Marxism without eventually recanting demonstratively.

James also cries acid tears over the losses Europe suffered under Hitler's reich, but when looking at what James is actually wailing for, one might be a little shocked. It's not so much the lives lost as the wit that was concentrated in pre-war Vienna. James is fixated on witty conversationalists (Altenberg, Polgar) especially if they wrote little down. Being most piqued by the loss of the Viennese cafe banter is rather like pointing dolefully at a split lip on a man with his throat slashed.

I know a great many people respect Clive James, and many would find my criticism of his opus terrifyingly off-base. For proof, however, I offer one profile and its attendant essay—Walter Benjamin's. James writes spitefully and maliciously about Benjamin, essentially blaming him for a deterioration of academic intellectualism and a concomitant depreciation of art and artists.

Compared to James's glowing portrait of Wittgenstein, whose ideas have done more than their share of supporting academic excuses for writing obscurely (it's all "language games," they say), Benjamin's profile makes it clear what James is really writing for: to spread his animus for one target over a number of its representative heroes and crown the thorns that target has unsuccessfully attempted to pick from its side. The target, Cultural Amnesiac Enemy #1, is the academic left as it sits entrenched in formal education.

James's project explicitly elevates autodidacticism at every turn while surreptitiously denigrating formal education whenever it can. He pretends to have kind words to say about Edward Said, but it is really a token gesture at trying to damn with faint praise.

The irony of this all is that Benjamin, a focal point for James's ire, was quite depressingly kept out of the university system by no one less than Adorno, who rejected his Habilitationsschrift on grounds of incomprehensibility, pretty much killing any academic hopes he had. One would think that James might capitalize on such an anecdote, feasting on such low-hanging fruit, but he completely leaves out this explanation of Benjamin's frustrated career, breezily accrediting his dashed aspirations to the quota system of the day (which likely did play a role). Could it be that James is simply unfamiliar with The Origins of German Tragic Drama? Could it be that James is guilty of the same ignorant use of Benjamin for quasi-political purposes of which he accuses the academic left? If pursued, I would imagine James saying something along the lines of "I've read enough to know there's nothing in it," an excuse which is one thing for a hedgehog-type of writer, burrowing only ever deeper into a single idea (like, say, Ayn Rand), but even James cannot pretend that Benjamin is such a limited thinker.

James nearly admits in the coda to being, at times, minorly fraudulent in his claims to and almighty, omnivorous capaciousness, allowing that sometimes he will wonder if, when accosted by an annoying cocktailer brandishing the name of an unknown work or author, he shouldn't pretend to have read it to curtail the man's lusty exposition of said book/author. The digressive style of the book and its busy breadth are ways to curtail any critical analysis of the vast deficiencies of the book—deficiencies which, appropriate to the book's purpose, are not about forgetting of any involuntary (amnesiac/aphasiac) nature, but of a very intentional nature—repression. Repression of the full spectrum of horrors in the past century, generated not merely by totalitarian regimes; repression of the knowledge of great leftists who stayed leftists and have been forgotten or reduced in memory (Ralph Fox, who I will hopefully be reading soon, being one); repression of the necessity of something more than wit with which to face the evil of the world. James's beloved pre-Anschlüss Wien was full of men whose ephemeral heritage rested only in the memories of those who remembered their quips and barbs. While I understand James's desire to revive those memories, his overweening preference for the journalistic over the discursive, the aphorism over the argument, the self-instructed over the formally learned—all this seems unnecessarily Manichean. James forces a partisanship upon a cornucopia of learning and knowledge, of literature and letters, and it is a pity. James recalls in his profile of Tacitus the famous sentence "They make a desert and call it peace." James makes a battlefield and calls it memory.

Much later edit [12/29]: Cf. this post on The Millions.

The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, James Wood
This volume of essays contains the rightly famous denunciation of what Wood dubbed "hysterical realism." I would like to say a great deal about it, but my thoughts on Wood's peculiarities and passions need a bit of time to form more concretely. I often agree with Wood, which makes it more difficult for me to articulate to myself why I don't on the occasions I find his opinions unfair or over-zealous, and which makes it difficult for me to critique his overall vision. I'm going to read his other volume of essays, that one on belief, and hope I'll be able to say one or two interesting things.

The Complete Works of Isaac Babel
Clearly, I didn't read the complete complete works, but what I did read was incredible, so much so that I returned the book to the library to save some for later. Also, I'd like to look for a less unwieldy edition; I don't need his never-filmed screenplays.

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Grace Paley
I had been meaning to read Paley for awhile, but her recent death finally brought me to pick her book up from the library. There are writers of whom I cannot really do much more than point and say, this is an astonishing writer. I will not do either her or myself the discredit of saying that her writing is beyond words; it is quite within them, and lives above all through them. Her narrators exist in varying degrees of literacy or fluency, but always in the upper register of expressiveness. Nabokov, in a lecture on Austen, described a certain feeling of such full expressive power that it bent at the end to a right angle, like a knight's move in chess, moving with such force that it ends up in a different place from a simple linear trajectory. Paley has that power; her sentences take you always to a place beside where you might think yourself to be.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

I did not exactly intend to read these novels in dialogue with one another, but they do function surprisingly well as such. (Also, this allows me to get two books out of the way and nearly up-to-date in terms of posting on what I've been reading. The reason for my hiatus is simply that I'm finding it very difficult to articulate my thoughts about Ian McEwan's Atonement, which I read before these two. Hopefully, I will be able to get that post finished soon.)

The terms of this comparison, I'm afraid, will suffer from a few rather flat factors—Hamsun is a relatively obscure novelist; Twain's name is iconic. Hamsun's novel is extraordinarily difficult to like, even if it has other distinctions; Twain's is chockablock with rowdy and ready pleasure. And more consequentially, there are, one might well say, no two narrators whose temperaments diverge more greatly than Hunger's nameless(?) raver and Huck Finn.

Yet there was something that spoke through Huck (I read the Twain second) that repeated the resonances of Hamsun's tremulous bellow. I knew of only one critic who has written on Hamsun at any length, James Wood, so I turned to him for guidance. Principally, he says two things about Hamsun's narrator (who gives, at one point, with apparent deceit the name Andreas to a police officer—that's how I'll call him). The first is that Andreas's peculiar habits, which consist mostly of proclaiming an imaginary bestiary of various sins and moral shrinkages to unfortunate bystanders—policemen, shopboys, strolling women, blind beggars—these habits mark Andreas as one who desires most deeply to be known. Andreas thrusts himself at all and sundry falsely—that is, imaginatively—in order that his lies will be discovered, and that he in his actuality will be known.

This self-presentation has both a practical (which Wood doesn't mention) and a spiritual purpose. The practical purpose is quite clear from the content of a number of Andreas's lies—Andreas is, in reality, starving, often homeless, and perpetually desperate, but he lies any number of times by telling persons often disadvantaged to judge (blind, also destitute, or gullible) that he is actually well-off, or at least not in any need of money. Andreas, I believe, terribly desires that they will contradict him and force him into accepting charity. This does happen a couple of times, with dramatically salubrious effects for both body and soul.

The effect is so dramatic because it links up to the spiritual purpose of Andreas's strange and insistent prevarications. (Here I'll just quote Wood's argument)
The young man, one feels, would like the old man [the victim of one of Andreas's accostingly deceitful stories] to rebuke him for lying, to expose him for what he is. Then, guiltily, he attacks the old man for what he [the old man] should be feeling—he should be disbelieving. In other words, the narrator wants to be punished. But remember that the narrator lied for no good reason; he just felt like it. In other words, he sins so that he can be punished, and is angry when he isn't punished. He sins for punishment, and instead of punishing himself, he punishes the old man for not punishing him.
Andreas is begging for the redemption that comes from being recognized by another as a sinful creature. For, to combine Luther and Lacan for a brief, frightening moment, we can only enter into subjectivity (self-knowledge, limited) by being held in the eyes of another as a sinner. Ideally, this other seeing you in your sin would be God, who could instantly redeem you, but for Hamsun, who is trying to resist belief in God, the redemption is displaced downward onto other human beings. Physical redemption (food, or the means to pay for it) is given by being recognized as a starving, destitute wretch. Spiritual redemption (self-knowledge, or the means to glimpse it) is given by being recognized as a base, mendacious, twisted sinner. The terms are the same, the desire the same.

How does this fit into Huck Finn? one should well be asking. Well, here goes. First and most obviously, Huck, like Andreas, lies constantly. Motivated for the most part by different reasons, Huck still seems to share with Andreas a desire to be found out. Although the traditional reading of Huck Finn is that he honestly wants to escape the "sivilizing" influences of all that lies on the banks of the Mississippi, there is also, I sincerely believe, a touch of a kid who wants someone to scoop him up lovingly and take him home. Huck wishes for redemption just as surely as Andreas, and his lies are, unlike the Duke and Dauphin's, not an attempt to cover up, but a plea for exposure, the necessary precursor to acceptance.

But the real comparison between the two books and their narrator-heroes lies deeper still. One of the most poignant and most cruelly comical passages in all of Huck Finn, I believe, is where Huck is wrestling the question of whether he can bear to wreck his soul by steering the little raft onto the Ohio River, drifting Jim into freedom. Twain, writing nearly twenty years after the close of the Civil War, is mocking the moral sense which would say that helping a slave escape is sinful—dreadfully so, in fact. Huck, like Andreas, wracks himself (though not as hard or as consistently) for his sins, and he also looks for punishment—often in the form of superstitious retribution (the rattlesnake skin, etc.). Contrasted with Tom Sawyer, who seems blissfully indifferent to the morality of his actions (though Tom follows a code—the comic one of misinterpreted cavalier honor—even more ascetically), Huck is practically pietistic in his interior debates and insistence upon the likelihood of damnation as a result of his wicked ways.

Huck, of course, decides that "it warn't no use for me to try to learn to do right [i.e. turn Jim in]; a body that don't get started right when he's little ain't got no show—when the pinch comes there ain't nothing to back him up and keep him to his work and so he gets beat." In the pinch, when slave hunters approach the raft, Huck finds he "warn't man enough—hadn't the spunk of a rabbit" and justifies his 'cowardice' by saying "what's the use you learning to do right when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn't answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time." We cheer at Huck's inner moral sense overcoming his received ethical code, and we smile at Twain's mordant moral inversion. Not quite as poetic as Milton's "Evil, be thou my good," but immensely pleasant.

However, a moment's reflection leads us well past the point where Twain simply revalues "good" and "evil" in the context of helping runaway slaves; Twain is really, I believe, saying a great deal more. Here is another quote from Wood's essay on Hamsun, which I hope will clarify what I mean.
the young man is continually berating himself for sinning, continually attempting to bring himself into line. Hamsun shows us not only that a structure of sin and punishment [in Hamsun's case, of a particularly Lutheran bent] impels and determines his actions, not only that the narrator in turn tries to use this structure of sin and punishment to seize a control which he can never possess, but also that such a structure is a wholly inadequate means of explaining a human being's motives, or our judgment of those motives.
Wood's title of the Hamsun essay is "Knut Hamsun's Christian Perversions," but I would argue that in this passage, Wood is arguing away from a simple perversion of Christianity, and asserting instead that Hamsun has shown Protestantism's ethical accounting armature to be basically inhuman in the sense that it in no way measures up to the depth of even one human consciousness. This is not a new argument for either Hamsun or Wood to make, but it is something quite different from a simple inversion or even a clever perversion. I would argue that it is not even a Nietzschean revaluation of all values hitherto as I believe it is commonly understood—a migration of a loose constellation of values onto another plane—but rather the flooding of all values into a single affirmation—of the human, of the individual, of the great and solitary value of the novel—realism. For realism (at in Wood's formulation) is, I believe, a form of Huck's "do[ing] whichever come handiest at the time"—a formulation no one in their right mind reads as grubby pragmatism or pale relativism, but rather as a statement of consummate morality, the morality of belief in the self and in the human. Realism, Wood propounds, is constituted by the fact that "fiction is proved by what it discloses, and is thus always a running test case of itself." This is Huck's "simple" morality, an always unfinished, constantly tested and self-testing morality, one that, as Wood says of fiction "moves in the shadows of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case." Morality is always, only, ever a true lie, and it, like fiction, may at any moment fail to make its case—to ourselves, or to others. This admission of the possibility of failure and the lying nature of morality's truth are precisely what religion has always sought to forestall, its certainties calcifying the joints of Huck's inarticulate but stunningly open profession of doubt.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Charles Simic, The Voice at 3:00 A.M.

Charles Simic The Voice at 3:00 A.M.Charles Simic was recently appointed the new Poet Laureate, taking over from Donald Hall. I figured now was a good time to get to know a bit of Mr. Simic's work. I checked his volume of selected poems out from the library and, contrary to what most people have been saying, I found Mr. Simic's poetry a bit thin.

Simic's best poems seem to come from Billy Collins-type subject matter or metier—sly intertextuality, the off-hand insertion of intellectual subjects into situations we find humorously mundane, or at least simple and concrete. These insertions gain Simic a small measure of profundity because, while mundane, simple, or concrete, these situations are nevertheless apposite, though in a largely tangential fashion. Take, for instance, a line from "Talking to the Ceiling," a poem which is filled with examples of this phenomenon—"Long hours of the night: St. John of the Cross / And Blaise Pascal the cops in a patrol car." The humor is facile in its playful incongruity, and yet it does mean something more than its humor, perhaps because of the clarity with which we see the human need for spiritual reassurance behind its playful image. It is in this sense that Simic achieves more with his poetry than his forebear in the office of Poet Laureate, Mr. Collins—Simic evidently has a greater and deeper spiritual life than Billy Collins, and a greater need for one.

While Collins's "Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" is, in some superficial way a delightful poem, there is no sense in it that it is anything more than artifice—there is almost no poetic feeling whatsoever, merely a poetic thought—a great idea bloodlessly arrested in verse. Mr. Collins has great ideas frequently—"Marginalia" is another grand example—but has maybe one or two examples of poems that open onto a life of poetic feeling ("Vade Mecum" comes to mind). Mr. Simic has a few more, but these poems—"Mummy's Curse," a fine example—nevertheless seem to require the delivery vehicle of cleverness and device. There are, perhaps, also some less clever, more direct ones as well, but Simic's really emotionally powerful poems—"A Letter," "What the Gypsies Told My Grandmother"—come in devices that force these emotions into discrete messages that are neatly distanced from the poem itself—a feature evident in the titles of those two poems—letters and gypsy prophecies are not the poem, but what the poem is about—a consequential and apparently necessary remove. Of course, Mr. Simic is not alone in this—all poets to some extent need the recalcitrance of an alien element (typically form) to absorb the excesses of feeling that cannot be poetically expressed. (A letter from Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop posted on the Critical Mass blog today makes this point: "This book [Day by Day] is almost entirely free verse; but the next, God willing, may be metrical. One needs to hold a shield before one's feelings and the reader. Meter might, but really it's a matter of character and imagination. Right now I'd like to borrow your villanelle armor.")

Ultimately, Simic's devices become a matter of course while reading him and their profusion becomes a gradually pleasant property—one comes to expect their presence and wonder at what Simic might say next. I certainly enjoyed a large number of his poems, and I imagine a great many new people will as well, now he has been appointed to a position of such prominence; he is likely to be a solid laureate.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Adrienne Rich, "Delivered Clean"

Adrienne Rich The School Among the RuinsI checked out Adrienne Rich's new collection, "The School Among the Ruins," from the library and am quite pleased by what I found. I've always been engaged and provoked by Rich's poetry, but this time on a more directly political level. Rich's politics are quite clear with regards to some things (Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but certain other poems (the wonderful "Wait," for instance) are a great deal more ambivalent, or at least seem to be at first pass, which is all I've had time for. One poem that particularly has me transfixed is a meditation on the legacy of 60's era radicalism/bohemianism. There are no shortage of writers now taking stock of such things at the moment, and they have been for some years. But Rich's poem is haunting, partly for its central metaphor—as a note at the end of the book relays, "delivered vacant" is a "developer's phrase for a building for sale whose tenants have already been evicted."

Delivered Clean
You've got to separate what they signify from what
they are distinguish
their claimed intentions from the stuff coming
out from their hands and heads The professor of cultural dynamics
taught us this They're disasters in absentia
really when supposedly working
Look at the record:
lost their minds wrote bad checks and smoked in bed
and if they were men were bad with women and if they were women
picked men like that or would go with women
and talked too much and burnt the toast and abused all
known substances Anyone who says
they were generous to a fault putting change
in whoever's cup if they had it on them always room for the friend
with no place to sleep refused to make what they made
in the image of the going thing
cooked up stews that could keep you alive with
gizzards and onions and splashes of raw
red wine were
loyal where they loved and wouldn't name names
should remember said the professor of cultural
dynamics what
messes they made

The building will be delivered vacant
of street actors so-called artists in residence
fast-order cooks on minimum wage
who dreamed up a life where space was cheap
muralists doubling as rabble-rousers
cross-dressing pavement poets
delivered clean
of those who harbor feral cats illegals illicit ideas
selling their blood to buy old vinyls
living at night and sleeping by day
with huge green plants in their windows
and huge eyes painted on their doors.

[for Jack Foley]

I assume Jack Foley is not the sound effects in film pioneer, but other than that, I find this poem rather difficult to pin down. Rich's tone is marvelously complex, perhaps because when it comes to bohemianism, like war, the very act of description automatically glorifies the subject, even if the author intends something different.* Even anti-war novels or poems (with the exception, quite definitely, of Wilfred Owen) cannot avoid a measure of valorization, mostly because to write a tract against war virtually requires that you participated in and survived one (thus explaining the Owen exception). The effect, then, is rather like that of a recently revived sub-genre: the private school narrative, in which the narrator looks back on the little evils of posh preparatory education (e.g. Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, Taylor Antrim's The Headmaster Ritual—which is, by the way, a Smiths reference—yay Moz!). While ostensibly castigating the system for its elitism, etc., the appeal of this genre derives from its own elitism—the fact that, at least fictionally, the author/narrator has undergone an experience (positive or negative) which excludes the vast majority of his readers, which is by its nature unavailable to them. Tales of bohemian lives lived are no different; even if they are told in repentance or rue (and I'm not saying Rich is—I think there is a lot in the poem which suggests otherwise as well), there is still the fact to be dealt with that you'll likely never get to live such a decadent existence.

At any rate, great poem, good volume of poetry—especially, I think, in its first half.

*My friend Meredith wrote a paper last year along the following lines concerning war, or at least we had discussions about this phenomenon; I can't remember if I'm paraphrasing her arguments or not—Meredith, if you're reading, any plagiarism is unintentional.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee & How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Álvarez

Waiting for the Barbarians J.M. CoetzeeWell, these would have been very good books to write about, but I now forget virtually all of what I was thinking while reading them, as an intervening week of a Vicodin and strawberry milkshakes diet obliterated what few scattered ideas I had. I do recall thinking what an interesting pair these two novels make, standing in a very odd relationship to one another which becomes stranger the more one tries to compare and contrast them.

To begin with, I feel there is a problem with the typology I selected for this post's label—postcolonial fiction. Certainly Coetzee's novel is a stalwart exemplar of the idea that most scholars have in mind when they talk or write about postcolonial literature. The novel quite directly confronts the horrible heritage of imperial brutality, the complex dance of and with otherness that occurs at the border of "barbarity," and the auto-estranging nature of "civilization." But Álvarez's novel, while by no means ignorant of or indifferent to these ideas, nevertheless seems to be standing at an oblique angle to the keel of the postcolonial ship, slipping into and under more pressing concerns of burgeoning adolescent identity to such an extent that I find it rather constricting to bag the García Girls into such an academic category.

However, the secondary or tertiary importance of immigrant/postcolonial identity next to adolescent and female identity is not a mark of innocence, or rather of a very particular type of innocence. For when it does intersect with postcolonial issues, Álvarez's novel deals with them summarily, a fact manifested quite graphically by the sketch of a family tree at the beginning of the book which trumpets without comment the Garcías' descent from the conquistadors. I say that with no intent to frame an objection but rather to indicate a point of curiosity. While there is nothing like a blindness to issues of class and race between the García family and their poorer and blacker servants, there is also nothing resembling a serious confrontation or point of genuine unease while staring at the crudity of these differences. Coetzee's novel is nothing but a string of such points, an entire narrative locked on or in the same horrified gaze.

My intent is not to say that Coetzee's novel is better in its exploration of postcolonial themes or problems; that's a rather stupid thing to say if one considers that Álvarez was not and need not be cornered into writing novels which participate in such a project. Nor is my intent to compare the ethical positions of the novels, to weigh the unabashed snobbery of the García girls against the self-lacerations of Coetzee's magistrate narrator. I would say that reading these two novels together makes me a great deal warier of glib judgments like those when reading postcolonial fiction and its attendant theorists. I have, unfortunately, only minimal exposure to postcolonialism in its literary and critical forms but judging by what I have experienced, I find evidence of terminal glibness both in its defenders and critics. (E.g. Two reviews/essays from last year about a book attacking Edward Said for lackluster scholarship while making his arguments about orientalism—1, 2) I would do well to take note, I imagine, and avoid such posturing.

Disregarding politics for a moment, both books—Álvarez and Coetzee—are absolutely thrilling to read.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Gaining Wisdom

I'm having my wisdom teeth pulled in a couple of hours. Don't expect a post for a few days, although I should have a few coming. I have to finish the Mansfield Park post, and since then I have read Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Both were excellent, and I'm quite eager to talk about them, although I have no idea what to say yet. Maybe the Vicodin I'll be taking will allow me to channel some brilliance or some... <cringe>wisdom</cringe>.

I'll also be watching some movies, although I'm not sure any of them will be worth talking about. I watched The Bourne Ultimatum this weekend; God knows that's not worth talking about.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park Jane AustenThis is my first Shameful Omission Admission for the blog, and I must admit that I chose it first (rather than some of the shockers which will be coming later) because it is not so very shameful not to have read it; not as shameful, at any rate, as not having read Pride and Prejudice (which I have read). But there is an element of shame in admitting not to have read the whole of Austen, for an English major at least.

Also, I wanted to categorize MP as such because it would allow me to talk about a book that just came out in England by Frenchman Pierre Bayard, titled Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? or How to discuss books one has not read. I hardly need to say that I haven't read M. Bayard's book, but I do feel somewhat qualified to talk about the phenomenon, and I may as well take this time to get some confessing done. I am a cardinal sinner when it comes to discussing books I haven't read, and I feel terrible about it. I fully intend to read everything about which I opine, but the simple fact is that I get distracted quite often by things which consume vast amounts of time and which are completely worthless when it comes to rounding out my reading of the Jamesian canon (I've read only Daisy Miller, "Turn of the Screw," and The Aspern Papers)—things like fantasy baseball and sleeping.

M. Bayard argues (it seems) that this feeling of guilt is unnecessary and detrimental to the possibility that one might very well have fruitful conversations about books which no one has read. I completely agree with him—I have had a number of those—but I can't shake the feeling of guilt, or feel that my lack of authenticity isn't somehow deleterious to my integrity. And it is just in reading a work like Mansfield Park that I find some validation for this feeling.

M. Bayard speaks (or at least the reviewer speaks) of the existence of "virtual libraries"—"works we cannot help but be familiar with." I completely affirm the existence of such libraries and I do think they have a certain use—without them, pedagogy in the humanities would grind to a halt—professors forcing their students to read the entirety of Freud's General Introduction before discussing the ego, id, and superego, or Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit before explaining the dialectic would grind classes to a halt. Of course we know that we should read what Hegel actually wrote, and work to put it in the context of his much larger arguments, but we don't, and if we suffer for it, we're pretty much all suffering together.

However, while this may be perfectly fine for someone like Hegel, to whom is attached minimal cultural assumptions or iconological baggage, this "virtual library" works much to the detriment of a writer like Jane Austen, who will shortly be the subject of a (very fanciful) "biopic," and whose novels have been ossified in the cultural eye as a certain type, from which can be reproduced various Darcy spinoff novels or that insufferable Bridget Jones or (much more pleasantly and rather ingeniously) Clueless. When a writer is over-determined by her (and it's usually a her—other examples are Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson) cultural/iconic image to the extent that most "readers" approach her through tertiary cultural products (i.e. products that have very little to do with the books themselves—that aren't criticism—but are rather in reference to the popular notion of the writer's personality and, more generously, authorial preoccupations—love, marriage, English country houses), then I believe the effect of "virtual libraries" becomes positively harmful. Shakespeare is still allowed enough internal differentiation that few people believe a modern-dress "adaptation" of one of his plays—the Twelfth Night-lite She's the Man, for instance—to be paradigmatic of all of his works—one still knows that, in addition to comedies about gender-switching and fortunate misidentifications, there are also tragedies. No one, I think, assumes Shakespeare's plays all say the same thing. That unfortunately cannot be said of the popular perception of Jane Austen, and that is most unfortunate because Mansfield Park, for instance, says and does some very wonderful things which almost completely turn over much of what is said and done in Pride and Prejudice.

Or so says the critic Lionel Trilling, whose essay on MP is referred to in one of my favorite films, Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (which is itself a sort of adaptation of MP). In a wonderful exchange, Tom, a young man of rather humble background, is speaking to Audrey, a member of a set of the old moneyed youth of New York. Audrey is an Austen fan.
Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?
Tom Townsend: None. I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it's all just made up by the author.
Tom goes on to defend himself in a very Bayardian way, saying "You don't have to read a book to have an opinion."

The idea of reading good literary criticism not merely to supplement or to refresh one's reading of an author but to replace it is, I must say, occasionally enticing. I have the Trilling essay in question in a book that also includes essays on James's The Bostonians and Dickens's Little Dorrit. I have read neither of those and would rather read many other books before them. Would it not do to read instead Trilling's essays and, if I'm feeling very generous, seek out a second opinion on the books to give myself a rounder knowledge and appreciation?

Or there is the new-ish justification for using criticism instead of reading: Franco Moretti's "distant reading," an idea which I must again confess does in some ways appeal to me and make some sense. Moretti's process of distant reading is premised on the idea that literature works as a system, and that we should study it as such and give up our narrow (and rather theological) approach which is focused (as much as we may deny it or try to expand it) on the principle of canonicity, the principle that certain books are worthy of intense study, and nearly all others are not worth any study whatsoever. Moretti instead looks at other scholars' work in recreating bibliographies of genres or national literatures—counting how many detective stories were produced in England in the period 1890-1910 or how many novels total were published per year in Japan under the Meiji Restoration, and trying to explain certain trends sociologically and/or historically. Moretti doesn't—or professes not to—read the books in these bibliographies, but merely to count them, to graph them, and this he calls "distant reading."

I am to some extent thrilled by this—I have my own doubts about the heavy reliance on hermeneutics in literary study, and I am convinced that more sociology would shift our perspective to cover some of our blind spots of today. I am also completely thrilled by the renewed emphasis on form Moretti's project demands, although projects like Caroline Levine's strategic formalism or D.A. Miller's renewed emphasis on style are equally exciting to me.
I find I haven't said anything about the novel Mansfield Park itself; I wanted to write about some of these issues, and I do think they tie in with certain themes and questions in MP, but that connection will have to wait for another post. Part II coming soon.

In the meantime, watch Danny Boyle's SUNSHINE if you can. It's astonishing.